THE match ball tucked under his arm was covered in signatures and cheeky messages; each scrawl demonstrating the unity of the group.

Their main man was back doing what he does best - and suddenly City look a decent team again.

Crisis? What crisis?

Mark Hughes had called on everyone to take a breath and relax a bit after the stumbling start to the season.

The Bantams boss appeared surprised by the venom of the reaction in some quarters after those back-to-back home draws.

He had talked about a “narrative” and people “being more ready to criticise” leading into the Harrogate game.

“That’s the nature of the beast,” he told the local Welsh media.

“If results don’t quite go as people think they should, or demand that they should, then criticism comes along the way.”

He was answering a query about under-pressure Wales boss Rob Page. But the manager’s point still applied a lot closer to home.

The only response to change all that, he knew, had to come from on the pitch. Actions, not words, to show that his Bantams still meant business.

But even Hughes could not have anticipated such an emphatic response at a ground where they had never won before.

“Highly doubtful” was the smokescreen line for public consumption when asked about Cook’s state of fitness in the build-up.

Trying to throw Newport off the scent, Hughes had totally played down the chances of the number nine being thrown back into the fray after four games smouldering on the sidelines.

In truth, Cook had trained all week although his manager had kept his selection plans under wraps until late in the day.

But City needed their line leader to get them out of the current hole. The paucity of their attack without him had been clear to see for all those who had fidgeted through the Grimsby and Harrogate games.

Before the injury break, Cook had looked a pale imitation of the warrior who had dismantled pretty much every defender in his way during last season’s personal goal rush.

The snatched chances - particularly the one-on-one and penalty miss at Stockport - indicated a striker trying almost too hard to get going again.

He knew it would come, we all knew it would come, but he was probably forcing the issue.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Mark Hughes had called on City fans to relax after the home drawsMark Hughes had called on City fans to relax after the home draws (Image: Thomas Gadd)

Twitter, that nastiest of sounding boards at times, carried biting messages after that Edgeley Park misery.

A two-faced few who had showered praise just months before as goal after goal flew in now couldn’t wait to stick the online knife between the big man’s shoulder blades.

It was grossly unfair and frankly ridiculous but that’s the way of the world right now.

And it just added to the bubbling frustration as Cook sat helpless in the stands waiting for his next opportunity.

The relief, therefore, when that first goal hit the net was obvious.

Rayhaan Tulloch, doing his best Tyreik Wright impression on City’s left wing, delivered the type of cross that Cook feeds on.

It was paint-by-numbers time for the target man, rising above his hapless marker Declan Drysdale to bury the header past Newport keeper Nick Townsend.

The Cook swagger was back as he bowled away with a gaggle of delighted team-mates in tow.

Scoring first away to Newport is nothing new for City. It has become the established pattern - and never lasts.

But there was a very different feel about this one. The visitors had the bit between their teeth from the start and there was to be no let-up.

The away following for one of the League Two calendar’s more awkward trips looked down on previous visits; perfectly understandable given the lack of something to really get behind in recent weeks.

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But the 411 who slogged their way from West Yorkshire to south Wales got their money’s worth and more. The shackles were torn off as City got at Newport from the start.

Hughes had made four changes after Harrogate. Cook’s return was the obvious headline but, equally significantly, captain Richie Smallwood found himself on the bench once again.

Kevin McDonald took his place in the City engine room and provided a sergeant major presence.

McDonald commanded, cajoled and smoothed things over. He was the link between the back four and midfield and hardly wasted a pass.

There was also an assist in his locker with the perfectly-weighted ball to set up Tulloch to slide home City’s second.

Tulloch relished his first start from the moment he deposited Shane McLoughlin in a different postcode with a switch and pivot in the opening minutes.

How good it was to see the Bantams playing with that directness out wide again with someone prepared to test and take on his defender.

Tulloch weaved and twisted, stretching the amber ranks to breaking point at times, and delivered the ammunition that Cook thrives on.

Pity poor Drysdale, the man tasked with keeping Cook in check.

The surname gets little sympathy in City quarters after his refereeing namesake but the Newport centre half, only recently back from injury himself, was beaten and battered in a one-sided contest.

He was bullied for the third goal as the Bantams struck again before the game had even reached the half-hour mark.

McDonald launched a long clearance which Drysdale, fatally, allowed to bounce. There was only one winner from that point as he challenged with Cook, who muscled him aside before advancing with intent to slot past Townsend.

It was classic Cook; power, determination and never any doubt where the ball would end up.

Newport, stunned at seeing their unbeaten home record blown away, rallied enough to pull one back before the break.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Kevin McDonald replaced Richie Smallwood in midfieldKevin McDonald replaced Richie Smallwood in midfield (Image: Thomas Gadd)

Jamie Waite threaded a pass for Omar Bogle to needly side-step Harry Lewis and roll home a hint of a fightback.

But it was no more than a consolation. Like Harrogate the week before, Newport’s goal would come from their only shot on target.

City braced themselves for a second-half salvo but it did not come. The defence, solidly marshalled by the armband-wearing Sam Stubbs, dealt with anything that came their way with a minimum of fuss.

Cook had surprisingly gone the distance - and his comeback was not done.

Added time provided one more opportunity as Liam Ridehalgh, one of the changes, sat up an inviting cross. Cook gobbled it up before strutting, arms outstretched, towards the jubilant City following.

It feels like the season is ready to begin.