By Alex Scott
Jubilant cheers were echoing round Valley Parade as the whistle sounded last May, rising above the relieved hum of conversation and applause. All of those associated with Swindon Town were able to savour the moment and begin to dream of what lay ahead. They were joined by each of their striped foes, finally able to bury their haunted nightmares of what lay ahead. Almost.
Will Atkinson trudged off the field, away from the rising walls and chastising calls for potentially the last time. His opponents delighted, his teammates relieved, the isolation which had defined his short time in this place, couldn’t have been more apparent. Out of contract, out of confidence, out of time. A year ago he was helping his team complete an impressive away win against Bournemouth, enabling them to an even more impressive 9th place finish in League One. Now he was here, at the bottom of the leagues, staring into the abyss.
“Will Atkinson was the one that raised eyebrows but he was picked on merit. What he gives you is a youthful enthusiasm and he seems to arrive where the ball is, which is a great habit to have.”
Raising eyebrows seems to be a running theme with Will Atkinson. More than most, he seems a player defined in our minds by the deafening noise which encircles him. His performances are secondary. As our own Jason McKeown noted earlier this year, last season fans dehumanised him to a concept, an idea, “Atkinson”. He is noise. When he plays well, his praise is often faint, laden with disqualifiers, portraying astonishment that a man with a track record of playing football well who is employed to play football well is playing football well.
As Atkinson walked off the pitch last May after putting a cap on his conveniently-ignored best run of performances, most fans were glad to see the back of him, assuming he’d head back across to M62 to pastures old. We were moving on to better things and better dreams.
But then something interesting happened, Will Atkinson was re-signed permanently by Phil Parkinson. This presented a dilemma for a large section of fans. Parkinson was/is relatively popular, most like to argue he was a good manager last year who was undermined by circumstance. But he chose to re-sign this guy no one respected or thought was any good. So where was the disconnect – were we wrong about Atkinson or Parkinson?
Unlike most new signings, his fanfare wasn’t one of unbridled optimism, he was still ‘Atkinson’. Even the introductory Telegraph and Argus interview was titled “I will not disappoint next season vows new Bradford City recruit” ‘Disappoint’ is the fourth word! Each other mention of the midfielder is framed by the idea that he is somehow in our debt, betraying a lack of confidence from the player, and a lack of respect from everyone else. This is all ignoring the fact Bradford City were the sixth worst side in football last year, and Will Atkinson is two years removed from scoring in the Premier League. That quote near the top of this article wasn’t from Phil Parkinson, he has been much less effusive in his praise, rather from Iain Dowie, his manager at Hull City after a scoring debut at Wigan.
It would be fair to say that last year saw Will Atkinson become one of the least popular players in recent club history, a recent history which hasn’t exactly been noted for its popularity. He was the fall guy in a team littered with solid players who couldn’t put it all together. An initially pensive, anxious figure in midfield, Atkinson seemed to be playing well within himself, desperate not to make a mistake. Each mistake he did make was seized upon by a desperate crowd, exacerbating the issue. By the time relegation had been avoided, the excruciating pressure had alleviated, he settled and began finding his feet. Still he was derided en masse.
Even this year, which has seen Atkinson put in a string of solid-to-good performances in an alien position, when singled out it is only faint praise which falls upon his damned soul. A brief search through this site’s recent match reports leads to conflicted phrasing such as “quietly impressive” and “supporting where he needed to without being too outstanding” With every compliment accompanied by a disclaimer, it isn’t a surprise the player’s confidence isn’t the highest. Although it must be noted here that being damned with faint praise is still a marked improvement from the damning with emphatic, profane damns he received last year.
What exactly is it about Will Atkinson which elicits these negative, emphatic responses? It isn’t that he’s particularly lazy, for equivalent players at his position he compares just fine. He obviously has talent. But there is something about him which draws the ire of so many. It’s probably that same thing which hinders his ‘style’ of midfielder in the lower levels. There is an interesting story to be told of their collective travails, the thoughtful and intricate nature of their game is often miscast with a large proportion of teams failing to utilise them properly, resulting in a large number of talented players falling through the cracks. (You’d think this would eventually lead to a Moneyball-style exploitation of undervalued assets by a progressive manager somewhere.)
The first time I saw him this year was at Gillingham where he played in central midfield alongside Gary Jones. Jones did the slides, the drives, the claps, he received the cheers from the support. Atkinson conversely busied himself with recycling possession and providing options for the wide players, full backs, and the similarly technical Alan Connell dropping off the frontline. Nothing he did sparked applause. In the second half, a tired leg gave away a penalty on the touchline (after he was left isolated by Garry Thompson) and the familiar sound and fury filled the void.
Two years ago, Will Atkinson’s career seemed to be on the upswing. After helping Rochdale to promotion from League Two the previous year, subsequently making his Hull City bow in the Premier League, he began the season in Tigers manager Nigel Pearson’s Championship first team, rotating with Craig Fagan on the right flank. Along with Tom Cairney and Mark Cullen, Beverley-born Atkinson was painted as part of the rebuild of a team which the season before had grown into locally resented, overpaid disaster. As the pressure quickly rose on Pearson, unsurprisingly the youthful exuberance of Atkinson was sacrificed for the experienced mediocrity of Richard Garcia and Fagan. A brief spell at League Two Rotherham (played three, won three) was the precursor to his Rochdale return, where he was a fixture in a side which missed the League One Play-Offs by three points (arguably Rochdale’s greatest ever team). Then things took a turn.
Keith Hill left Spotland for Oakwell, and while Pearson didn’t necessarily want to sell Atkinson, another loan destination was required. The recently relegated omnishambolic Plymouth became the target under manager Peter Reid. Quickly it became apparent Argyle were in another relegation battle, leaving Atkinson a luxury the side may not have been able to afford, often playing as an auxiliary striker. His season long loan was curtailed in January to free up the budget for the all-together-more-useful-in-this-context Darren Purse and Paul Wotton.
Within six months Atkinson had fallen from a starter in a League One play off race to the fall guy in the worst side in England. It wasn’t that his skills had regressed, he hadn’t suffered any injuries, but his stock had plummeted and taken his confidence with it.
Enter Phil Parkinson who went back to his KC Well, picking up the shaken Will Atkinson on loan to help improve his increasingly anxious charges. They were on paper a good side, struggling to put it all together. Maybe Will Atkinson was the perfect fit?
A run of inconsistent performances on the right flank followed, and Will Atkinson for the second time in three months became the scapegoat for a struggling fourth division side. Not that he was the problem of course, but he was a kid, a loan player no less and looked like an easy target. Tall, thin, and stationed out on the right flank, away from the direction of most of the side’s attacks, isolated. He became a lightning rod.
Loan players are often derided by fans. Not only do they not care, they militantly refuse to put in anything resembling a ‘shift’. Sure they are cheap, but they aren’t ours, we are merely developing someone else’s asset whilst one of ours lies idle, their talents atrophying on the sidelines. (Sorry, Dominic.) Will Atkinson arrived under this guise, and was treated as such, and doesn’t seem to have ever shaken that stigma.
Andrew Davies arrived on loan, then re-signed permanently in exactly the same manner as Atkinson, but fans were willing to overlook Davies’ loan status because he was our best player. Atkinson, not so much.
Ricky Ravenhill’s loanee status didn’t follow him after he signed permanently, neither did Zesh Rehman’s. (To the extent they ever held such reputations.) The vast majority of fans will immediately rail against the short-termism promoted by relying on loanees, but the uncomfortable truth may be that if the loanees are good, the loan stigma will be ignored, if not it will be the stick used to beat them with.
After the conclusive sample of three home starts (two draws and a win), the jury was back in on Atkinson, and the verdict was unanimous.
Like Michael Carrick in Manchester, I feel a factor in his widespread derision is superficial. Part of the joy of watching football is the reclamation of our childhood adulation. It’s fun to raise these guys up to being more than just guys running about on a field. But it’s difficult to do that with Will Atkinson, or Michael Carrick. It’s easy to view Robin van Persie, Ronaldo or Nani as ‘superhuman’, they look the part and can achieve technical and athletic feats of which we can only dream. But Carrick? He just looks like a normal guy. And nothing he does with a ball would occur in even his dreams. It’s hard to deify someone like that, and that’s half the fun. Despite being a fixture in the country’s most successful team for the past six years (Four Premier Leagues, One Champions League), he’s universally nothinged. Maybe he’ll get scapegoated after a defeat, but that’s it.
The same is true for Will Atkinson, in an admittedly miniature village sort of way. The guy looks like me, and I ain’t no footballer. Standing just under six foot, Atkinson is tall but not that tall. Slight of build, normal hair. He’s not that fast, strong or imposingly athletic. He just looks like a normal guy. What’s more is that he doesn’t play like a superhuman either; he’s nice, tidy, Carrickian if you will. He doesn’t beat men for fun, score long range screamers, dominate in the air. He plays nice little passes around. (Even when I’m genuinely trying to be complimentary, it sounds backhanded.) He looks like an easy target. Almost everyone could do what he does.
He isn’t respected in the same way as his peers. Zavon Hines for example, whilst relatively new on the scene, his bedding in has been met with a grace period from the fans, something never extended to Will Atkinson. Hines hasn’t ‘starred’ yet, he looks promising, but that’s the extent of it at this point. But Hines looks like a tricky winger is supposed to look, and is incomprehensibly fast for the layman. Nothing Atkinson does is incomprehensible. (Not a slight.)
What got lost in the wash last year was Atkinson the player. A technical, efficient midfielder, he was in an almost impossible situation. Stationed out on the right in a counter attacking side, away from the primary route of attack, he rarely saw the ball. The defence was briefed to dispatch the ball to Hanson as quickly as possible, whilst he was looking to spring Wells or Reid. The full backs weren’t capable of feeding him, and the midfield pair inside tended to be preoccupied in defence, or in quickly springing Wells over the top. Rather than ‘not looking for the ball’ (a common criticism from last year), the team never looked for him. He was left isolated, his confidence growing ever more shaken. As a young loanee, fearful of his future, inhibited by abuse from the stands, it is little surprise he became paralysed in inaction, merely attempting not to do anything wrong. It wasn’t that his work rate was poor, he just looked to play the simple ball. But that isn’t what the side needed because a) no one near him could receive, then use, a simple ball, and b) with the side so desperate for goals, more was required from one of only four attack-minded players in the team.
This year has seen a different role in the centre of the park, usually alongside a dynamic box-to-box type. Whilst I’m unsure whether this almost, dare I say, Carrickian role (Copyright, 2012) is his footballing destiny, he seems far more comfortable in this spot, and in this team. Whilst maintaining last year’s rigidity (the full backs are seemingly still under instructions to seldom leave their own half in the 4-4-2) there has been a greater willingness (and ability) to keep the ball, something which has greatly helped Atkinson, and the overall fluency of the team.
There may be some validity to the argument that I have the causality reversed here. Playing an Atkinson ‘type’ in a deeper role encourages a shift in outlook, and it will be interesting to see how this is developed over time, or maybe how it isn’t. The premature double recovery of Ricky Ravenhill and Ritchie Jones should provide obstacles to game time for Will Atkinson and his Bradford career may fade away before it ever reaches the spotlight.
If he could reach the potential he has shown early in his career, he could become a very attractive asset indeed for Bradford City. But as with everything about Will Atkinson, it isn’t just about him. His career is at the mercy of others, his future lies in their hands. He is isolated in the squad; one of a kind. Yet almost everyone could do his job.
The sharp, pointed criticisms which follow him around throughout the crowd have evolved into a numbing leitmotif. You can’t extricate the opinion from the play. It is the same issue which leads to the tentative unveilings, the qualifier-laden compliments. And none of this has anything to do with how he is playing, it’s about us, our prejudices, whatever they may be. There are many players I have talked myself into liking; we’ve talked ourselves out of liking Will Atkinson.