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James Hanson relieved after tough trip as Bradford City dig in to pick up a point at bogey ground
Accrington 1, City 1
The Crown Ground can hardly be mentioned in the same breath as the Etihad, Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford.
But to City, Accrington’s cramped home has presented a challenge every bit as daunting as Premier League visitors find the more sumptuous surroundings of Manchester City, Chelsea or United.
Short hops along the M65 usually bring slim pickings – no goals and no points, in fact, since Peter Thorne completed that ultimate smash-and-grab for Stuart McCall’s side in October 2008.
The fact that there are usually more away fans than home – and there were again on Saturday – tends to count for zilch as City and their travelling army trudge back over the border with a bloodied nose.
So let’s be grateful for small mercies. This point could/should have been more but it did stop the rot, although it is now eight meetings since Yorkshire did last prevail in this unlikely war of the roses.
Substitute Alan Connell rightly got the plaudits for a measured finish six minutes from time but James Hanson earned his assist with the flick-on for his fellow striker.
If Hanson earned a tenner for every time he headed the ball, he would have left Stanley a millionaire. And as a veteran of the last three grim trips there, he knew how precious some reward – if only a draw – meant for all concerned.
“This is a tough place to come, as we’ve seen with Bradford over the years,” said Hanson. “I thought it wouldn’t be our day here again after we didn’t take our chances in the first half and then got punished. It was bringing back memories of losing 1-0 last year. Thankfully the lads dug in and got a well-deserved equaliser.
“I’m pleased for the fans because the following was magnificent. They deserved a good performance for turning out like that again after spending their money at Rotherham to see us get beaten 4-0.
“Three-quarters of the ground were Bradford fans and it felt like a home game at times. I’m just a bit gutted we couldn’t get a winner for them.”
Connell has even more knowledge of the Accrington experience. This was his fifth trip, all with different clubs, and he had won the last two with Bournemouth and Swindon.
He was impressed with the City team’s mindset after the drubbing at the New York Stadium the previous week.
Connell said: “For people like Zavon Hines, who’ve always played in the Premier League or Championship, it must be a bit of a culture shock. But I thought he was excellent and handled that really well.
“I’m used to coming to some grounds like this but it’s 11 v 11 on the pitch and we applied ourselves really well as a team. A point away is never a bad result.”
Connell must have felt a bit miffed not to get the starting nod when Nahki Wells was ruled out with hip trouble. Instead, Phil Parkinson opted to use Hanson as the lone targetman with the wingers playing off him in a 4-3-3 line-up.
The thinking behind the switch in formation was to deny Accrington the space in midfield to pass round City. He had noted how Cheltenham had fallen into that trap the previous game, with their two central men finding themselves outnumbered.
So Will Atkinson was added to the engine room and responded with his best performance for the club. Full of energy, he buzzed around to fill holes and helped stop the home midfield finding any flow.
Parkinson’s boldest selection was the change of goalkeeper. Although Matt Duke could only be fingered for the last of Rotherham’s four goals, the manager’s “gut instinct” told him to go with Jon McLaughlin after a solid performance in a reserve friendly at Sheffield Wednesday.
Other than an uncomfortable moment with a lively backpass from Luke Oliver , McLaughlin had nothing to do in a first half that City dominated without finding that killer touch.
Hines, who looked very good for an hour before running out of steam, went the closest when he hit the post on the break after being set up by Hanson and Gary Jones.
Stanley skipper Luke Joyce also cleared off the line from Hanson, although the striker’s header was aiming for Atkinson at the far post rather than going for goal.
The home side could not get into it and boss Paul Cook had almost lost his voice by the interval.
He changed tack at the break and Accrington went more direct, pumping long balls at Rommy Boco on the left wing. City, meanwhile, lost their way and began to concede ground without coming under serious attack.
In fact, the home side had only one shot on target all game – their goal after 73 minutes. Will Hatfield was played in behind James Meredith and his low cross was swept in by Padraig Amond.
Once again, City were contemplating the miserable prospect of leaving empty-handed despite a display that Parkinson felt was “light years” better than the previous week.
He summoned Connell from the bench and went with two up top – or four in effect, with Kyel Reid and Garry Thompson, the replacement for Hines, on either flank.
Connell, desperate to make his mark at the club, grabbed the chance with a calculated strike within seven minutes of joining the fray.
It was classic route one in the build-up as McLaughlin’s thump forward was inevitably helped on by the bonce of Hanson.
But there was nothing basic about the finish as the ball sat up perfectly for Connell to lob Ian Dunbavin with the outside of his boot.
The away end – and sides – were ecstatic as the scorer threw himself on the ground right in front of them. For many of those losing their heads on the terrace, this was an outpouring of four years of frustration.
There was still time for it to get even better. Sensing blood, City poured forward in search of a second and Connell nearly had it, landing the ball on top of the net from a Jones free-kick.
Another ten minutes and maybe that late flurry would have paid off. Instead, City had to settle for a share of the spoils – but at least they are off the mark on the road. And given the way matches at Accrington usually pan out, a point should not be sniffed at.
Parkinson said: “I’m delighted with the way we came back after conceding the goal. When you get beaten like we did last week, it can be a setback in confidence so early in the season.
“I thought the response was outstanding and I’m delighted for Alan. It’s so important for strikers that they get off and running and he took his goal really well. He’s got class, there’s no doubt about that.”