Bradford City 0 Fleetwood Town 1: Verdict

Harry Souttar keeps Jack Payne and David Ball at bay
Harry Souttar keeps Jack Payne and David Ball at bay

He’s only played two Football League games but on the strength of Fleetwood’s last two matches Stoke City youngster Harry Souttar is destined for a future in the Championship or beyond.

He made a sparkling debut in Town’s 1-0 win over Charlton, slotting in seamlessly and looking as if he’d partnered Ash Eastham for 100 games, not only met him a few days earlier.

After that impressive baptism of fire and a clean sheet to boot, the question was whether he could play to the same level week in, week out at League One level.

He answered that with aplomb at Valley Parade. At one of the biggest grounds in the third tier, with a crowd rightly seething at their current position in the bottom four, he could have wilted – but not Town’s new centre-half.

Souttar has been key to Town’s last two clean sheets. His inclusion has allowed Eastham to move over to the right, and the fact that Town have faced just three shots on target in those two 1-0 victories is testament to the strength of this partnership.

At six foot six, the giant defender has given Town renewed strength in the box.

He has more physicality than Cian Bolger, with a focus and drive to push himself to the next level.

He did not have to leave Stoke on loan but wanted to, and he will surely be fighting it out for a place in the Championship next summer.

Eastham has revelled in the captaincy, while the team’s spine was stronger in Town’s 4-3-3 formation.

Only once in the second half did Fleetwood look like they might concede.

Eoin Doyle had come off the bench to give the Bantams more bite and he ghosted past full-back James Husband before teeing up David Ball.

The stage was set for the ex-Town hero as he pounced in the box. Playing in a deeper midfield role, this was his big chance and the travelling Cod Army had their hearts in their mouths.

But he fluffed his lines, Eastham straight out to block and ensure Ball would make it three games without scoring against his old club. Nat Knight Percival’s header barely stung the gloves of Cairns, with Butterfield and Miller failing to hit the target as the keeper’s 100th league game for the club passed without trouble.

Barton wants him to be the most bored man in the side and he certainly could have been forgiven for drifting off.

Why Doyle did not start was questionable. He gave a toothless Bantams side a serious edge as Fleetwood sat back and allowed the hosts possession in the dying embers.

But Souttar summed up the defensive display. He gobbled up anything that came his way as the clock ticked down – no- nonsense, simple defending.

Back-to-back league wins have been earned by whole team displays.

It has to be said that Charlton’s attack has been blunted by the January window, while the relegation-battling Bantams are not the force that dumped Town out of the play-offs in 2016-17.

The real test of this new Fleetwood formation and back four will come when league leaders Luton visit on Saturday.

Barton made three changes from the Charlton game. Lewie Coyle was back from suspension to replace the injured Wes Burns at right-back.

He was solid but you feel Burns’ move to right-back added something different to that flank. While Coyle was steady, Town missed the blockbuster excitement of Burns.

If Burns is fit and there is to be a battle for the number two shirt next week, then it is a choice between two differing styles.

Tough-tackling and sturdy or intricate and pacy. We have an interesting time ahead.

The other two changes saw Hunter and Sowerby replace Nadesan and Jason Holt.

Both impressed and Sowerby, like Nadesan, has returned from Carlisle with a new edge.

He has returned with confidence and belief, with more defensive steel added to his game.

While the focus of the transfer window was on the door out of Highbury, two pieces of business are setting Town up to sparkle in the latter stages of the season – that signing of Souttar and keeping hold of Ched Evans.

Many eyebrows were raised when Kyle Dempsey and Conor McAleny were shipped out on loan, with Bolger, Bobby Grant and Blackpool’s new hero Chris Long among others heading out.

What a prospect Souttar looks but the key to Town’s fortunes going forward was keeping hold of Evans.

Evans and Madden now have a 30-goal partnership after Madden made it 17 by firing home James Wallace’s centre at the back post.

Wallace showed ingenuity and brought the end product we have been looking for as he grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, muscled his way down the right flank and put in a cross that left the Bantams’ defence at sea and left a goal on a plate for Madden.

It was a shame when Wallace’s day was cut short by yet another injury. Frustrating too as it was a game that looked destined to be his best in a Fleetwood Town shirt.

But once again it looked as though his hamstring had flared up just when the Cod Army were finally starting to see the best of the ex-Tranmere man.

He has upped his levels since the shift to a 4-3-3. Not quite Fernandiniho but not bad at all.

A shame that when he is finally answering his critics, myself included, injury has derailed him again.