FOOTBALL played a cruel joke on United at Bradford City on Saturday, as the home side snatched a late victory against ten brave Yellow soldiers at Valley Parade.
The Gulls were competing nicely when captain Brian Saah was shown a straight red card on 35 minutes after what appeared to be an innocuous collision with James Meredith.
United subsequently defended like heroes for more than an hour but a valuable point was taken away by substitute Alan Connell spearing a fine volley past the outstanding Michael Poke with just six minutes remaining.
As promised, United manager Martin Ling just one change to the side that defeated Dagenham at Plainmoor last weekend, with Daniel Leadbitter replacing the suspended Joe Oastler at right-back.
Bradford boss Phil Parkinson was at the other end of the spectrum in his selection, making eight changes from the side that progressed in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in midweek with a 2-0 victory at Port Vale. Among the many restored Bantams was striking duo James Hanson and Nahki Wells.
Poke was quickly involved in the action for the Gulls, saving superbly to deny Hanson within two minutes and then comfortably thwarting Gary Jones from the follow-up.
United then settled into a decent rhythm, passing the ball with confidence in midfield areas, and Leadbitter was performing manfully in repelling the regular attacks down his flank.
When Bradford did breach the Yellow defence, Poke was again in the right place to block from Hanson, but his combination with Wells was clearly the main reason Parkinson’s side is flying high in the League and still involved in three Cup competitions.
Garry Thompson then created a decent chance for Hanson on 22 minutes when his whipped free-kick was glanced narrowly over Poke’s crossbar by the recalled striker, and there was no doubt pressure was cranking up on the Yellow goal.
Moments later, Billy Bodin lost the ball in midfield and Wells was able to use his pace in trying to exploit Saah, who did enough to push the Bermudan striker wide for a shot over the target.
It was the final involvement for Bodin, as he was forced to limp off with an injured ankle and Ling turned to the explosive pace of Niall Thompson for the final hour of the game.
United then had their best chance of the afternoon, as a sweeping corner from Nathan Craig picked out the determined run of Aaron Downes, and the Australian was left marginally disappointed with his mis-directed header.
Attention turned to the officials on 35 minutes and the Gulls were left in complete shock at the decision to dismiss Saah for a strong challenge on James Meredith. Initially, referee Darren Bond appeared happy with the tackle but a quick chat with his assistant turned the situation into a red card.
Ling had no choice but to sacrifice Danny Stevens and introduce Angus MacDonald to the centre of United’s defence, and what a massive challenge for the youngster in his second spell on loan from Reading.
The sense of injustice quickly spread to Rene Howe, who fed Niall Thompson for a quick break in the channel and the substitute winger smashed a terrific shot on the turn against the Bradford post.
The Bantams soon settled, however, and the dancing feet of Wells created space for a cross to Hanson, and the big forward was denied the opening goal when his header bounced away off the crossbar. Garry Thompson then had a stinging shot well saved by Poke.
Amid the flurry of action, Kevin Nicholson had taken the captain’s armband for United and his first message to the troops was to surely hold on for the interval, and the chance to plan for a testing second period.
A breathless first-half ended with Downes and Hanson competing manfully under a high ball, and referee Bond waved away the frantic Bradford protests for a penalty. Seconds later, the whistle blew for half-time and the big question surrounded the dismissal of Saah.
Bradford understandably came out full of attacking intent for the second period and Wells was quickly to the fore, attempting a dangerous low cross that Nicholson did very well to turn wide for the relative relief of a corner. The next attempt was an easy save for Poke from Jones’ long-ranger.
The Yellow formation with ten men was a version of 4-3-2, with Ryan Jarvis playing as an outright midfielder and Howe up front alongside the floating Niall Thompson in a system that allowed the Gulls to maintain a threat at the Bradford end.
The Gulls were working extremely hard in difficult circumstances, as the Bantams sought to lay siege on the visiting goal, introducing Blair Turgott, on loan from West Ham, as the speedy replacement for Garry Thompson.
To their huge credit, United were limiting Bradford to long-range shots and the occasional set-piece, as Poke comfortably held an ambitious drive from Nathan Doyle at the halfway point of the second half.
Wells then managed to get in behind the Yellow defence with a darting run in the left channel and a slick body swerve manufactured space for a snap-shot saved well by the excellent Poke. The Yellow custodian’s next intervention was a marvellous block to deny the impressive Wells, turning a neat shot on to the post and away to safety.
The incisive pace of Turgott was also a growing problem for United, as a weaving run past Craig Easton ended with a shot arrowed inches beyond Poke’s far post, and the Gulls survived, just.
United’s final change was the removal of the hardworking Jarvis for defensive midfielder Damon Lathrope and he was soon involved in the action, hacking clear yet another probing attack from the home side. Bradford, meanwhile, removed defender Carl McHugh for former United and Swindon forward Connell.
After all the brilliant defensive work, Downes was mighty relieved to see his clearance from a Stephen Darby cross flick inches wide with Poke stranded. It would have been incredibly cruel on the Gulls, and the Australian stalwart especially.
However, heartbreak arrived from the subsequent corner, as Connell pounced on a cross from Wells to smash a powerful volley into the roof of the net from just outside the area. Gutted, was the only way to describe United’s crestfallen players.
United were forced to commit men forward but Wells produced yet another save from Poke after a quick counter. In a sign of the changing nature of proceedings, Wells was withdrawn for centre-back Tom Naylor to close out the match, and that they did.
Bradford (4-4-2): 12 Matt Duke; 2 Stephen Darby, 23 Rory McArdle, 16 Carl McHugh (17 Alan Connell 80), 3 James Meredith; 11 Garry Thompson (26 Blair Turgott 62), 18 Gary Jones (capt), 24 Nathan Doyle, 14 Will Atkinson; 9 James Hanson, 21 Nahki Wells (25 Tom Naylor 88). Substitutes (not used): 1 Jon McLaughlin (GK), 4 Ricky Ravenhill, 8 Ritchie Jones, 15 Craig Forsyth.
United (4-4-1-1): 1 Michael Poke; 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 5 Brian Saah (capt), 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 15 Billy Bodin (29 Niall Thompson 27), 18 Craig Easton, 20 Nathan Craig, 19 Danny Stevens (16 Angus MacDonald 37); 8 Ryan Jarvis (6 Damon Lathrope 75); 9 Rene Howe. Substitutes (not used): 13 Martin Rice (GK), 17 Saul Halpin, 21 Thomas Cruise, 23 Ashley Yeoman.
Booked: Thompson 55, MacDonald 87
Sent-off: Saah 35
Referee: Darren Bond
Attendance: 9,347 (122 away).