The Width of a Post’s close summer ‘Midweek Player Focus – Close Season Special’ series, looking back on past player of the season winners, continues with Alex Scott reflecting on the 2006/07 season – the year that a loan player, only at the club half a season, was victorious.
Nathan Doyle was going to be a star.
How do you value potential? A question which has haunted and beguiled football managers for years. People spend fortunes attempting to acquire it, but become burdened by the expectations it brings. It can be elusive, one day it could define you; the next it is the stick used to beat you. You can’t control potential, its value exists outside of you; it is defined by what others believe, rather than what you do.
Bradford City began 2006/07 in fine form, with Colin Todd harnessing the potential of a group of players, producing results far beyond the resources employed. They were bouncing back. By the middle of February, the three star players and manager had departed and the team began heading inexorably toward the trap door. Doyle was sat in Hull reserves, watching teammates celebrate avoiding relegation from the Championship, whilst Bradford City watched others celebrate, ruefully looking back at what might have been.
Bradford City and Nathan Doyle have been damned by the potential they showed early in that season, which set both parties on fateful trajectories which would leave them five years later, lost, searching desperately to regain the potential which has long since eluded them. But that’s the thing about potential, once it’s gone, it’s gone, and you are left wondering if you ever wanted it to begin with. To quote former Baltimore Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick talking to his young, underperforming quarterback Kyle Boller, “Son, your potential is going to get me fired.”
Nathan Doyle was going to be a star.
Becoming the youngest player to feature for his hometown club Derby County at the age of 16, Doyle went on to appear for the England at every youth level. He was lauded in the 2004 European Under-17 Championships as England lost in the semi-final to Spain after a Cesc Fabregas penalty knocked out the young Lions. (The star of that England team incidentally was current Bantam Kyel Reid.) A year later he featured in a 2-0 England under-19 victory over Switzerland which also starred Joe Hart, Micah Richards, Adam Johnson, and fellow 2006/07 Bantam alumni Ben Parker and Moses Ashikodi.
By the end of that season, the 19-year old Doyle had broken into the Derby first team squad, featuring in a handful of games under the interim first team manager (and at-the-time academy manager) Terry Westley. However a change in ownership at Derby heralded a new era in which Billy Davies was tasked with gaining promotion to the Premier League. Unsurprisingly, a 19-year old defensive midfielder-cum-right back didn’t feature highly in his priorities.
Colin Todd wasted no time in raiding his former club’s now under-utilised academy by bringing in Doyle on loan along with exciting prospect Lee Holmes.
Nathan Doyle dramatically outperformed expectations at Valley Parade. Combining with the exciting Jermaine Johnson on the right flank, Doyle starred in a team which looked to be going places. At the end of September, Colin Todd’s Bradford City team, the best attacking side in League One, stood fourth, one point off the automatic promotion places. Combining the experience of a handful of leaders, with the potential of a select few, Todd had shown what could be achieved with limited resources, something which would turn out to be a fatal achievement.
Doyle was a revelation. The enterprise and endeavour he brought seemed to inspire the performance of the team. His energy was matched by his comfort on the ball and his defensive solidity, which may have been the greatest surprise. He looked every bit the star he was touted as. So much so that his former manager Phil Brown (who initially brought him into Derby’s first team squad) recruited him mid-season for a nominal fee at his new club Hull City. This marked the turning point in Bradford City’s season, as Doyle was joined out the exit door by star striker Dean Windass (also to Hull), and Johnson who left for Sheffield Wednesday.
The three most impressive players from the first part of the season were gone and replaced only by pale imitations. At the end of the season with the Bantams facing the prospect of a depressing dip into Division Four, Nathan Doyle, 19-year old right back, was rewarded with the Player of the Year award, despite leaving the club four months previous, and never really being theirs in the first place.
Giving such an award to a 19-year old full back who not only didn’t belong to the club, but also who left in January can either be viewed as an attempt at gallows humour, a protest vote, or one shrouded in nostalgia, glorifying even the recently departed past. Regardless of motivation, the award represented a depressing and apposite coda for the five years which had seen the club dissolve from its Premier League heyday to the depths of League Two.
The club’s best player was a kid who wasn’t even theirs to begin with.
Beyond the frankly, depressing, interpretations we can gleam from this award, Doyle’s candidacy did carry statistical merit. The club only won three games without Doyle in the line-up, which as he only appeared in 28 of 46 league games, is not a heartening statistic. The points per game achieved with him in the team, 1.18, dwarfed the results achieved without him, a scarcely believable 0.78. Those numbers equate to a 20 point differential over a 46 game season.
Whilst that may appear enlightening, it’s worth noting similar ratios occur for Johnson (1.30PPG v 0.65PPG) and to a lesser extent, Windass (1.16PPG v 0.86PPG). It is difficult to extract individual causality in an 11-a-side game, but whilst the goals per game dropped by 0.15 with the removal of Johnson, and 0.26 with the removal of Windass, the goals conceded rose by a mammoth 0.55 per game without Nathan Doyle. Additionally, the Clean Sheet Ratio plummeted from 29% with Doyle to 5% without. (FIVE PER CENT! FIVE!)
Whilst a combination of the three (along with the ill-advised removal of Todd) contributed to the club’s spectacular implosion over the second half of the season, the collapse of the team’s defensive performance led to their downfall. If the games which Doyle featured were extrapolated over a full season (and he played in 28), the team would have conceded 53 goals. In the last 15 years, only once has a side been relegated from League One conceding 53 goals or fewer. (Coincidentally, that team was Chesterfield in 2006/07.)
For those wishing to know, if you extrapolate the non-Doyle games, the team would have conceded 79 goals. During the same span, only five sides have survived conceding that many goals (Bury 2012, Yeovil 2012, Hartlepool 2009, Northampton 2002, and Colchester 2000).
One could argue that the key factor in the defensive capitulation was the loss of Todd (the dates almost match with Doyle’s departure), and I’m not sure that argument is without merit, but it’s enlightening that four of the Bradford City back five that season played a minimum of 39 league games. (Ricketts 46, Bower 46, Wetherall 41, Parker 39) The same guys who were in the good defence, were in the terrible defence. Except at right back.
The loss of Nathan Doyle apparently transformed the Bradford City defence from borderline good, to avert-your-eyes terrible. (Remember this is a 19-year old right back we’re talking about.) Could that possibly be right? I mean how much impact can a right back really have? We as fans and as a team constantly devalue the position, filling it with cheap journeymen or cheaper loanee teenagers (hat tip to Rob Kozluk and Liam Moore) apparently under the assumption the role is peripheral.
Was Doyle that much better than his understudy? (Again, how much damage can a right back possibly do?) More so, Doyle didn’t even start the season. It took four games for Nathan Doyle to enter the starting XI, so the incumbent couldn’t have been that bad, right? Brace yourself.
Richard Edghill. (I know. I’d repressed that too.) In the 21 games featuring Edghill, the team conceded 1.5 goals per game and kept only one clean sheet, away at Brighton, once relegation was all but secured. That’s not great. Beyond the Edge, youth product Jon Swift started one game, a 4-1 defeat at Rotherham. City’s (not that) valiant attempt at staving off relegation eventually died a sorry death with the ill-fated implementation of a wing-back system to compensate for the woeful play at right back, as the defence went up in flames one final time.
This was not how the season was supposed to go. The side were one point off automatic promotion after 12 games. They had the best right flank in the division, a former Championship central defensive partnership and a legitimate goal scorer
Nathan Doyle was supposed to be a star, and City were supposed to be bouncing back.
Phil Brown’s first permanent signing at Hull City, Doyle was brought in as an understudy to Sam Ricketts and eventual successor to Ian Ashbee. After only making one appearance for Hull in the 2006/07 season (in a dead rubber at home to Plymouth) it took him another 12 months before his second league appearance, in a pivotal game late in the 2007/08 season against Crystal Palace (which I witnessed). Performing manfully at left back after an injury to Henrik Pedersen, Doyle helped his team to a 2-1 win which all but secured the Tigers’ playoff spot. He then came on during both Playoff games against Watford to shut the game down after both were in hand, and indeed scored his first professional goal to cap off the rout in the second leg. He was an unused substitute in the final as Hull secured an improbable promotion to the Premier League.
His first Premier League appearance came in the infamous Manchester City game, where he was brought on after 32 minutes for George Boateng who was in the process of being eviscerated by Stephen Ireland. After that he only made two more league appearances before he was loaned and eventually let go to Barnsley. For a man not yet 22, his career already seemed to be on the downswing, to the extent it ever got going in the first place.
He featured heavily in his first 18 months at Oakwell under manager Mark Robins, culminating in a 43 appearance league season in 2010/11, earning the club’s Players’ Player of the Year Award in the process. However, after a boardroom squabble, Robins was replaced, and new manager Keith Hill quickly snapped up his former Rochdale star David Perkins and Doyle was soon loaned out to Preston under former manager Phil Brown. Then Brown got the sack and Doyle’s spent the rest of his time in-and-out of the Barnsley XI before being released this month. Only 25, Doyle is now a free agent. For an England youth international, who won a Player of the Season award for a third tier side he left five-and-a-half years ago along with a second tier side’s Players’ Player of the Year gong to match, his career is rapidly on its way to the ‘What Might Have Been’ draw in the filing cabinet of broken dreams.
He happened to grow up in Derby, who happened to be in the midst of a regime change when he needed them most, meaning he had to go to Hull reserves just before his 20th birthday. (A move which only came about because Phil Parkinson underperformed so dramatically, resulting in Phil Brown’s premature ascension.) He breaks into the Hull team, and they instantly get promoted to the Premier League, taking his playing time with them. He leaves for Barnsley, is a first team staple, Mark Robins has a personal bust-up with the owner, loses his job and takes Doyle’s starting role with him. Now he’s out of work, without ever really doing anything wrong. He has played a significant role in three league campaigns during his career and won end of year awards in two of them.
He is undoubtedly best remembered by those who frequent Valley Parade, even so much as being repeatedly high on fans’ free agent wish lists this summer. Wherever he lands, Nathan Doyle needs some stability in his career, regular playing time, and a chance to live up to the potential which is now haunting him so.
Nathan Doyle was supposed to be a star. Whilst tagged by some as a warning tale of unfulfilled potential, his true legacy lies in the importance of timing. Unlike the majority of his late runs, or well-executed slide tackles, Doyle has perished at the hands of poor timing.
One must wonder if Bradford City and Nathan Doyle didn’t show such potential at the beginning of that ill-fated 2006/07 season, where would we all be? (It feels a very Bradford City thing doesn’t it? Hypothesising about good things we wish didn’t happen.) Colin Todd likely wouldn’t have been held to unreasonable expectations later in the year, whilst Doyle might have been able to play out the season in peace in League One, avoiding his ill-fated move to the East Riding.
Whilst Nathan Doyle remains Bradford City’s best post-Premiership right back (apologies to Simon Francis), and arguably best loan player period (will accept: Matthew Etherington, Andrew Taylor and Andrew Davies), he has struggled to find his way since leaving Valley Parade. In our eyes he will always be that 19-year old star, shrouded in the optimism and potential he brought and the team in which he featured. The first two months of that season may be the last truly hopeful moment in the club’s history, save a six month spell toward the top of League Two in 2009, however due to the investment in the team, that feeling was more of a burdensome expectancy. That spell, with Johnson, Windass and of course Nathan Doyle was true optimism, true potential. By leaving when he did, Nathan Doyle has been immortalised in that ethereal hue, untouchable in our memory. Unfortunately, the man himself can only look backwards, haunted by his potential, along with his Championship Playoff Winners Medal, his Player of the Year Awards, and the hollow injustice left behind.
We are all a slave to circumstance, and no one knows this better than Nathan Doyle.