This week’s Width of a Post ‘Midweek Player Focus - Close Season Special’, looking back on past player of the season winners, sees Jason McKeown revisit 2005/06 and the crowning of David Wetherall.
There’s a theory about the Premier League which goes that – during seasons where there are no outstanding teams – Manchester United will win the title by default, simply because they are always a good side. On the surface of it, you could suggest David Wetherall’s 2005/06 Player of the Season award was earned for similar reasons. Injuries permitting, the long-serving defender was always amongst Bradford City’s top season performers, and so during a campaign where the club performed decently if not outstandingly, the reliable consistency of Wetherall was judged to be the best player.
Was Wetherall any more outstanding in 2005/06 than he was in other campaigns? Personal memories do not immediately provide much evidence to support this argument. Wetherall was just, well, Wetherall…surely? Always reliable, always solid, always someone you were thankful was still at the club.
Yet when you look more closely at the 2005/06 season – one in which, under Colin Todd, City failed to live up to pre-season hopes of challenging for the play offs, to finish 11th in League One for the second consecutive year – the solidarity of the club is striking in comparison to now. Certainly we have not witnessed such a solid, hard-to-beat side as the defensively organised one we cheered on that year. It was a team that could be criticised for sure, in view of how it missed out on a top six finish by 10 points; but looking back they certainly seemed happier times.
City were defeated just 13 times that season. That is quite a remarkable statistic, especially in the wider context. In that year’s League One, only six other teams lost less matches – and they all finished in the top six. During City’s six years in League Two, five teams have been promoted while losing 13 or more games. It almost goes without saying that we have not gone through a campaign losing so few games since.
The cornerstone of that tough-to-beat side was undoubtedly an outstanding defence. City conceded just 49 goals that season, which was the 4th best record in the entire division. Wetherall was the leader of that defence, and so suddenly the crowning of him as player of the season looks a no-brainer, even accepting the fact Mark Bower, Donovan Ricketts and – during the second half of the campaign – Damion Stewart were also outstanding.
Just 13 games lost. Impressive stuff. Yet this was a season in which Todd was placed under heavy pressure from a vocal minority of supporters, and where at one stage it seemed as though Julian Rhodes was about to pull the trigger and replace him as manager. It underlines just how unhappy the mood around this football club has been for over a decade ago now, no matter the circumstances. Last season we finished seventh bottom of the entire Football League, for the second year in a row. Oh to be stuck in the mid-table of League One again, bitterly complaining that “we are going nowhere”.
When you look at the other stats of the 2005/06, reasons for Todd to have been under some pressure – and for there to have been a mood of dissatisfaction – become clearer. Just 13 games were lost, yet the club only won 14 (eight teams won less games that season, four of whom were relegated). The 19 draws City delivered was the joint highest in the division, along with Bournemouth. Despite the 4th best defensive record, City’s goal difference was just +2. Again, only eight teams scored fewer goals than City’s 51, four of whom were relegated.
Todd and Wetherall got it spot on defensively that season, but going forward it was a different matter. Dean Windass netted 20 goals (league and cup): an outstanding achievement, but one which placed a huge burden on him, because no one else was chipping in anywhere near as frequently. He had three strike partners that season (not including the under-rated loanee Aaron Wilbraham): Andy Cooke (2 goals), Steve Claridge (5) and Danny Cadamarteri (3). The value that Windass provided to the team at the time was obvious to everyone – and it is no wonder that his departure the following season proved to be a catalyst for relegation.
Todd was unable to live up to our expectations because he couldn’t find, or afford, a reliable strike partner for Windass, while his midfield also failed to provide the additional goals needed (aside from Marc Bridge-Wilkinson, who netted a reasonable 6 goals). And here’s where the value of Wetherall was further illustrated.
Because outside of Windass and his 20 goals – alongside Bridge-Wilkinson – Wetherall was the club’s leading goalscorer with 6. During his nine years at Valley Parade, that haul represented one third of his total goals for the club. He really was a valuable asset at both ends that season, with the failings of others in front of goal increasing our dependency on him.
Take February, where City’s form was beginning to slump and talk of entering a relegation battle grow. In consecutive games (Swansea away and Bristol City at home) Wetherall netted vital equalisers to earn draws. A month later – and with Windass suspended for five matches after managing to get sent off in the club car park – Wetherall scored an overhead kick at Walsall to complete a comeback from 2-0 down. City were hard to beat that season because of the sterling efforts of the City captain and his defensive colleagues, but also because Wetherall had a habit of netting important goals (his main central defensive partner, Bower, also scored three times, which is the same number as Cadamarteri managed and one more than Cooke).
It is obvious that City’s decline over the past decade enabled Wetherall to prolong his career at the Bantams, as deterioration in his ability was not evident until his final 18 months at the club (though even then, he probably retired too soon as he still had a lot to offer). Sometimes Wetherall is unfairly blamed for contributing to that decline – the argument being his lack of pace meant City had to defend deep rather than attempt a pressing game with an offside trap. But seasons like 2005/06, where at the time it felt as though we were stalling, proved what valuable players Wetherall and Windass were. Certainly City’s struggles in League Two reflect a failure to adequately replace them both.
If Wetherall’s finest moment in claret and amber was bittersweet in view of the financial mismanagement it triggered, and the subsequent fall from Premier League to League Two, at least he stuck around to perform the sort of heroics witnessed during 2005/06, which for a time helped City successfully swim against the tide.