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One shot on target enough for uninspiring Bantams to scrape victory
It wasn’t the flashiest gift for Mark Lawn on his 50th birthday but at least City’s joint-chairman’s “delicate” state wasn’t disturbed unduly on the afternoon after the heavy night before.
Valley Parade’s first league game of the campaign will not live in anyone’s memory.
Yet looking back with a clearer head, Lawn will appreciate the value of the three points that got the campaign up and running.
It may have been a stumbling start but in a season which has been marked down as one for promotion at any cost, the first win means just as much as those that will hopefully be delivered in a more appealing manner.
As birthday presents go, this came straight out of the carrier bag. No fancy bows or ribbons on Saturday.
Peter Taylor made no attempt to dress it up afterwards. The manager’s discontent throughout the dour proceedings had been clear for all to see.
He had abandoned his elevated vantage point in the press box after just 17 minutes of misdirected passes and general edginess.
The rest of the game saw him in frequent discussion with Wayne Jacobs on the touchline. The animated conversations portrayed the mood about a City performance that never got out of the blocks.
It was not the opening fixture Taylor had wanted. Stevenage played with all the hunger and spirit of a newly-promoted team who are used to getting their own way.
And it was certainly not the way that Taylor expected his own side to play.
He did have a point about the tired legs from the two hours it took to topple Nottingham Forest in the Carling Cup. There were casualties as a result, while some who played clearly looked fatigued.
But the real concern was City’s failure to keep the ball and exert any proper pressure. It’s hard to remember a time in the game when the hosts were genuinely on top.
The goal itself came from a Stevenage mistake – and was the only shot directly towards keeper Chris Day.
Lewis Hunt’s cross was nodded away as far as the edge of the Stevenage box, where Joel Byrom stretched to reach it, unwittingly sending Lee Bullock tumbling in the process.
He hadn’t seen him coming but there was no doubt about the penalty verdict, nor the precise side-foot from Gareth Evans that sent Day the wrong way.
A glancing Bullock header apart, City had created nothing in the half hour up to that point. But even a goal to the good, they failed to inspire.
There was too much hesitancy and nervousness about their play; something transmitted to the stands, which were silent except for the raucous 300 up from Hertfordshire.
The Stevenage fans had reason to be confident as their players bossed possession without really getting behind a back four leaning heavily on the aerial control of Luke Oliver.
“We can defend better,” said Taylor later. “But I thought Luke won just about every header. Stevenage were very aggressive and strong and I thought he won the majority.
“I would prefer not to play newly-promoted teams (early on) because they are used to winning. They are usually very confident and hard to play against and I thought Stevenage were all of that.
“Maybe they looked a team who had been together a long time and we looked a new one.”
It was one of the new faces who nearly let Stevenage back in it with the sort of blunder to set the chairman’s head pounding.
Shane Duff had done the hard bit when he forced striker Chris Beardsley out of harm’s way and wide to the left touchline.
But then he inexplicably passed blind to his goalkeeper, putting his hands to his head in horror when he realised the back-pass had become the perfect cross for Yemi Odubade.
On his own 15 yards from goal, an equaliser looked certain, but Odubade switched the ball from one foot to the other, giving Jon McLaughlin the split-second he needed to lunge feet first and block the shot.
Minutes later, as Stevenage again looked to isolate the City centre halves with the diminutive Odubade, McLaughlin raced from his box to clear out the through ball and the forward in one clattering shoulder barge.
He had saved City’s bacon – and prematurely ended his dazed opponent’s afternoon – though Duff was not off the hook with the manager.
His league debut for the club and first day with the captain’s armband in Simon Ramsden’s absence came to an unceremonious end when his number appeared on the hour.
As with the Forest game when he made all three changes at half-time, Taylor showed there is no room for sentiment in his thinking.
Steve Williams had been left out completely after midweek. Now Duff, his summer capture, was trudging off.
“Shane had been booked and I think he was looking a bit tired after he made the wrong decision of the pass back,” said Taylor.
“I could maybe see another wrong decision coming. So I put Zesh (Rehman) on and he did all right.”
Rehman steadied things with a smothering tackle as Beardsley pulled the trigger but Valley Parade still lived on its nerves.
Robbie Sinclair drove too high, Peter Winn looped a header over and left back Scott Laird rattled an advertising board from 25 yards. It would have been more comfortable if Omar Daley had put away a great chance to double the lead at the start of the half but he took a touch too far and made it too tight an angle to rap his left foot around.
So City were left to dog it out for three points that the phrase “winning ugly” was made for.
A few disgruntled punters vented their feelings with the odd boo after the whistle. The entertainment had been very poor but it was still a strange response to a game that their team had actually won.
But it takes all sorts. And I’m sure a certain member of the City hierarchy was relieved his celebration weekend passed off without a nasty sting in the tail.
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