By Jason McKeown
Teams doing well invariably attract media attention. And so it was for Bradford City at the peak of early season form, when on the day of the Port Vale game The Sun newspaper ran a feature on top scorer James Hanson.
“James Hanson used to stack shelves in his local Co-op,” began the piece. “But now the striker has swapped stocking up tins of beans for racking up goals at Bradford.”
A feel-good story that we City supporters know so well. Signed from Guiseley by Stuart McCall in 2009, having been on the Bantams’ radar for the previous 12 months, Hanson’s rise into professional football is a great tale that earned him the affectionate chant “he used to work at the Co-op.” Here was a guy as ordinary as you and me, plucked from relative obscurity to be scoring goals in front of 10,000+ crowds every other week. Living our dream, you might say. The working class hero.
“He used to work at the Co-op.”
In time – and in truth with some predictability – that feel-good story has been diluted by a section of City supporters turning on Hanson and decrying that he is not good enough. Not good enough for a club with promotion ambitions some say, not good enough to be in professional football add others. “Get back to Guiseley” has been often heard on the Kop this season. Two seasons ago under Peter Taylor’s dismal reign, the cries in the Midland Road were to “go back to stacking shelves”. Width of a Post writer Luke Lockwood tells a story from this season’s Morecambe game, where a guy in front of him – who had barracked Hanson non-stop – reacted to James’ superb long range goal and subsequent announcement of the goalscorer’s name over the PA system by booing. This is what Hanson has to deal with.
It strikes me that what endeared Hanson so quickly to the Valley Parade faithful has in time being used as a stick to beat him with. Maybe there is a slight embarrassment that City’s number 9 came from a lowly background (whether that’s because he played for non-league Guiseley, worked in a Co-op, or a bit of both), but some people will tell you that Hanson, in his 4th season as a professional footballer, is not, in fact, a professional footballer.
Which goes beyond simply disliking or not rating a certain player. I did not particular care for Gareth Evans’ displays during the final few months of his time at Valley Parade, but with his Manchester United pedigree you didn’t see anyone claim Evans was not a professional footballer. Over the last few weeks a number of City supporters having been falling over themselves to praise Port Vale’s Tom Pope and stating they wish we could swap number 9s. This overlooks the fact Hanson has a better goalscoring record, or that Rotherham made Pope their joint record signing (£150k) in 2009 and were rewarded with him scoring just four goals from 53 appearances. In other words, he has been rubbish in the past. Yet the fact Pope has a better pedigree and happens to be in good form somehow makes him a better player than Hanson.
“He used to work at the Co-op.”
James Hanson’s time at City should feel more of a success than it is perceived. At Guiseley he banged them in for fun – 46 goals from 67 appearances according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia. Yet at City his record of 35 goals from 124 games shows the step up the divisions has been successfully taken. On paper, Hanson is a one goal in three-and-a-half-games striker at this level (the in-form Pope is one in four) – that is pretty good. Get a striker chipping in a similar amount too (Nahki Wells’ City record is so far also one in three) and you probably have around 30-40 goals contributed by the front two alone.
Hanson’s first season, 2009/10, was great – but then again, the expectation levels for what he could accomplish were low. For a number of years now, we City fans have looked at under-achieving, barely trying players with frustration and declared that we should sign “hungry” players from a level or two below (in the Premiership the mantra was we should sign lower league strikers, now we are a lower league side it becomes non-league). The reasons for this suggested action are not because such players are better ability-wise, but instead that they would work harder because they would be so grateful just to be here. Hanson came in, worked hard and scored a few goals – thereby fitting the mould.
“He used to work at the Co-op.”
Inevitably a high level of effort alone is not considered enough, in time. We, of course, want quality from our players, and for them to deliver the goods on the field. It may not matter that Hanson gives 100% and Omar Daley was perceived as a shirker. When in Hanson’s second season Peter Jackson was desperately trying to keep City in the Football League, he turned to Daley to save us.
At that period – his difficult second season – you began to wonder where Hanson’s future ultimately lay. Jackson got the full time job, started next season off badly and found that hauling Hanson off increased his popularity stakes with some. Infamously in his last game in charge, with City a goal down to a physical Dagenham side, Jackson took off Hanson to cheers and replaced him with the under-developed Nialle Rodney. The team continued to knock long balls up the pitch to a player who could not cope. City lost the game.
Under Phil Parkinson, Hanson has enjoyed a renewed lease of life. Just like Taylor and Jackson, the current City boss had looked to find a replacement for Hanson (Paul Benson) with the aim of a short-term fix boosting immediate results. Hanson was stung into some of his best form since joining the club after attempts to sign Benson last November failed. Parkinson had Hanson firing on all cylinders, revealing last December that one of the reasons for a surge in confidence was that the City boss was urging him not to be afraid of making mistakes.
Yet still, during this summer, Parkinson talked of bringing in another number 9 who Hanson could “learn from”. Perhaps that Hanson complex stretches to people within the club as well as some fans. After three seasons playing week in week out in League Two, did Hanson really now require a spell on the bench ‘learning’ from Andy Gray?
“He used to work at the Co-op.”
The number 9 position is one of the most difficult in football. It’s about having strength to hold up the ball, tackle from the front and win flick ons (like the one for Wells’ goal on Tuesday night). It is about being an outlet for a team under pressure and needing to get out of their own half. Relying on the big man to not only win their wayward long ball but to keep hold of possession long enough for others to get forward. More often than not, it’s about making your strike partner look good.
Go back to Dean Windass’ second spell at City, and you’ll find his best goal bursts came when he was playing alongside an effective number 9: Dele Adebola, Aaron Wilbraham. These people did the ugly stuff very effectively, so Windass could concentrate on doing what he does best. One of the reasons it went wrong for Stuart McCall’s 2008/09 City promotion push was a realisation Barry Conlon was not good enough to maintain consistent form – and his replacement Paul Mullin was to prove the wrong replacement. How Peter Thorne could have done with a James Hanson during the latter part of that season.
The number 9 position is one of the most difficult in football. Think of how much we hated Ashley Ward. Recall how, the season after Lee Mills scored 25 goals, he was racing up to the Midland Road stand with the finger-on-lip-shut-up-gesture, because he was so upset by the stick he was getting. Remember when Hanson was injured two years ago and Taylor – rather than play a different way – stuck Luke Oliver up front. Number 9s are vital to the team, but so often they are hated.
On Saturday, half way through writing this article, I made a point of listening more closely than usual to what critics were saying of Hanson. He was being slated by one bloke when his flick ons didn’t find Wells; he was being slated by the same person when a Wells pass did not go near Hanson. Surely Hanson can’t be in the wrong in both such instances and Wells right? When James forced two good saves from Cheltenham’s keeper – one in each half – there was complete silence from this fan. When Hanson missed that great chance at 0-0 the same guy was on his feet screaming.
The peak of this bile towards Hanson came midway through the first half when he rolled on the floor clutching his thigh for a brief second. “Yesss!!” this fan yelled, “he’s injured!” I mean what can you say about a supporter who dislikes a player so much he wants them to be injured? I cannot begin to understand this type of support.
Hanson has had a good 12 months for City, at least in home games. In his last 21 Valley Parade appearances, he has netted 13 goals. Yet during a spell earlier this season where you could argue he has been at the peak of his form, the critics in the stand have largely ignored how effective he has performed and waited for his next mistake. What more can he do? I guess it boils down to how much the rest of us – supporters, management, and Hanson especially – should pay attention to the abuse. I’ve no issue with anyone criticising any player if they are prepared to balance it out with praise where it is due. But with the Hanson critics in particular, any such balance is completely lacking.
But let’s ourselves balance out simply defending him with some constructive criticism. Going back to that Port Vale afternoon where Hanson was making a splash in The Sun pre-match, he missed what could only be described as a sitter two minutes in. A corner was swung to the backpost, and there was an unmarked Hanson ready to head home in a similar manner to his goal against Fleetwood in August. He somehow missed, with some fans in the Main Stand cruelly teased with the distorted impression that the ball had hit the back of the net, and who for a moment began to cheer. There was all round shock that he had missed, and something changed.
Hanson has not quite looked the same player ever since. An even worse miss in some respects followed at Rochdale a few days later, when he had the chance to head into the goal from six yards out but timidly attempted to flick it onto a teammate who was in a worse position. No goals since the Port Vale miss, and a few chances spurned that we would have expected him to take.
His body language suggests a slight dip in confidence. You suspect that he needs a goal. Nahki Wells has scored eight times since the last time Hanson scored to take a pole position in the battle to be top scorer. Frankly we would have all expected Wells to lead the charts this season, but having looked on course to get 20 goals this season Hanson has fallen behind schedule.
We need him to get back to how he was last December, and how he was earlier this season. That is bullying defenders, demanding and keeping hold of the ball, playing with eyes in the back of his head as he knows what run Wells will be making. And scoring a variety of goals.
Above all else, we need Hanson to go back to not being afraid to make mistakes – and we supporters need to stop hammering him when he does. He used to work in the Co-op. But now, like it or not, he is pivotal to our promotion challenge.