By Alex Scott
Watching Ricky Ravenhill’s sending off, all momentum built up over the past week dissipated, like air from a punctured forehead. It was frustrating, but such things have become commonplace in football: the Bradford City captain showed a momentary lapse in brain function, and was punished for it. Nothing else really matters. Despite this, with Gary Jones returning soon, and the dominating presence of Nathan Doyle growing with every game (not literally), losing Ravenhill (in spite of his recent uptick in form) probably isn’t the end of the world. Even the Burton game itself, whilst it’s obviously not ideal to play with ten men, this side is as well built as any with its resolutely organised defence, set piece prowess and ever-grafting target man running around up top. Disappointing? Sure. But by no means a disaster. Seeing Gary Jones prepare himself in the dugout, confidence was beginning to rebound, even if Alan Connell had to be sacrificed. But Jones wasn’t the first man off the bench.
“Olly doesn’t look good at all, with his achilles…”
It’s easy to forget now, but at the beginning of last season Luke Oliver stood a lowly fourth in the central defensive pecking order, despite the club only having three recognised central defenders. Oliver was behind such luminaries as ‘current 2nd worst side in the country’s reserve defender’ Guy Branston (3 starts, 9 conceded, 0 points), a Gateshead central midfielder, and prospect Steve Williams. The fact Oliver is not only still playing for us, but is also now seen as a vital cog is a staggering leap for the former Wycombe man, and speaks testament to his mental strength, and ability.
A starter in that now famous inverse shop window friendly against Silsden in 2011, the most notable fact was how little I, or most, noted his inclusion. With Flynn and Threlfall, there was a sense of injustice in their attempted phasing out, but with Oliver, the lack of outrage spoke volumes. He was a Taylor boy, and not a particular outstanding one at that, standing impatiently alongside Lewis Hunt queuing at the revolving door of lower league staples.
Injuries to Lee Bullock and Williams opened the door, and Oliver appeared a changed man. A quick managerial change saw an equally quick alteration in the depth chart, Andrew Davies arriving on loan, but not to replace Oliver. He (correctly) was favoured over his more expensive, more experienced, club captain counterpart. Whilst at the time this decision seemed logical and fair (whilst having all the leadership intangibles – for whatever that’s worth – Guy Branston was consistently undermining the rest of the team), but in hindsight, dropping your club captain, and highest paid player in favour of an unassuming, slightly unpopular holdover was a big call from Phil Parkinson. Not that it was wrong, and it did help establish the meritocratic culture Parkinson was trying to establish, but it remained a ‘big’ decision.
From that moment on, with the faith of a manager who showed him respect, rather than one who utilised him as a gimmick striker, or one who undermined him based on everything other than ability, the central defender has grown from strength to strength, finally standing to his full height. (Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery.)
Until Saturday afternoon.
With Luke Oliver’s short-to-medium-to-long term future up in the air, what was the strength of this year’s outfit has instantly become a frailty, a soft core within a still-impressive machine. This has obviously been exacerbated by the simultaneous (albeit milder) injury to his partner in crime Andrew Davies. The former Middlesbrough man is clearly a better all-around player and on the face of it, his absence will be felt hardest.
Looking deeper however, losing Luke Oliver for the rest of the season completely alters how this team functions defensively, and without reinforcements, it’s difficult to see how the loss won’t have a hugely damaging effect on the team as a defensive unit, which is their bread and butter.
Before going into the impact of this injury, I’d first like to extend our best wishes to Luke Oliver, from all the writers here. The severity and nature of this injury cannot be understated. A ruptured achilles (besides maybe a Lisfranc fracture) is probably the most devastating injury possible for a sportsman. The rehab can take anything up to a year, and even then the level of play achieved can be drastically altered. Studies have shown in the NFL, about a third of the players to rupture their achilles never take the field again. On a more positive note, recently in the Premier League, Steven Taylor, Yossi Benayoun and Sam Ricketts have recovered from similar injuries in around 7-8 months. But even that hopeful timeframe would still end the defender’s season. He (thankfully) penned a two-year deal in the summer which at least affords him some security in his rehab, but what landscape he will return into is a worrying unknown.
How this affects the team on the field is a comparatively meaningless, insensitive question to ask, but in this forum, I suppose I’d be remiss not to ask it. Watching the team defend, their strategy is delightfully, and effectively simple. With two hard workers in the front line hassling defenders, and a midfield four drilled to sit deep occupying passing lanes into the forwards, opposing teams are forced to pump diagonals to gain field position, however these balls are more often than not met by the towering Oliver or Davies. Once the header is won, it is normally cleared, or if not, the defensive numbers will so drastically outnumber the forwards in the vicinity that the second ball can be claimed.
Luke Oliver isn’t a great defender, in my opinion. He is a solid defender who is sensational in a couple of key areas, but rather than being a stud, he is the beneficiary of a defensive system designed around him. He cannot be isolated one-on-one against opposition forwards, and never really looks comfortable defending on the ground. Parkinson has built his defence around Oliver’s strengths, and the 6’7 defender has (for the most part) has excelled.
Two defensively-minded midfielders in front of him, two tall, strong ‘tweener full backs outside; Luke Oliver is in his safe place. With someone like Rory McArdle to his right, seldom leaving his post, the chances of Oliver’s weaknesses being exposed are dramatically reduced. For an opposing striker to get to him with the ball at his feet would require him to beat at least two men. And what’s more with two relatively tall fullbacks, there is little scope for exploitation with a long diagonal. All the balls are funnelled inside, all the balls are funnelled to Oliver.
When that plan alters though, Oliver’s output tails off. Which we have witnessed whenever Stephen Darby has played. Having a more forward thinking, less sturdy full back outside him has seen Oliver isolated more often against opposing attackers, and also required him to cover more space, which has left him often looking uncomfortable. (Oliver routinely, and effectively, covers for Davies inside, but when having to think about his outside flank as well, his comfort level drops off.) The games against Gillingham and York stand out especially in this regard. This impact seems to be the primary reason for Darby’s extended spell on the sidelines to start the season. Whilst a fine player, he negatively affects the most important player in the defence.
Losing Oliver means that Rory McArdle immediately becomes a starter inside, with Darby outside him. As we saw in the League Cup win over Burton, where the Northern Irishman was targeted throughout, the team’s defensive system does not play to his strengths. This is compounded by Stephen Darby’s presence outside him. Now playing a high pressing game to encourage the long ball doesn’t seem such a beneficial strategy.
Unless a comparable Oliver figure can be recruited as a replacement via the loan market (gasp!), there may have to be a fundamental alteration in strategy. Maybe the team will defend higher as they have now have superior recovery speed? Maybe they will have to be more attacking to compensate their new-found instability? I don’t know. But simply playing McArdle as the ‘Oliver’ won’t do.
McArdle’s glorious performance against Wigan on Tuesday does bode well though, as does Stephen Darby’s efforts on the right, however that game probably isn’t indicative of the usual workload in the fourth tier, Wigan’s to-a-fault possession style unlikely to be replicated in the league. The real test of McArdle and Darby (as weird as this feels to type) will come back at Northampton, with their aerial prowess just about second to none at this level.
Beyond this, there is now no depth in the defensive ranks beyond young Carl McHugh, who whilst enjoying a highly impressive start to his Bradford career, is still inexperienced at this level, and there remain questions whether he can hold up as an every-week starter. Behind him, the cupboard is bare. Doyle and Forrayah Bass would provide depth, but not in the required positions, unless James Meredith has more versatility than he has previously let on. Regardless of whether or not McArdle can make the step up to being a core starter inside, Phil Parkinson will likely have to invest in some depth in central defence.
Over the past year, Luke Oliver has personified manager Phil Parkinson’s dominant pragmatism. His obvious shortcomings have been deliberately massaged and managed, and he’s gone on to star. After Saturday, the uncertainty which all of a sudden clouds his future, has descended down upon his manager, and the route though doesn’t appear clear. Especially if the playing budget is becoming constrained.
Luke Oliver has walked a long road in his career, from career novelty figure, to an unwanted outcast. Only now, after his 28th birthday, has he established himself as a core starter at this level. Now, just as soon as he is beginning to tap into his potential, his world has been turned upside down. He has shown remarkable mental strength and resilience to reach this point, he will have to show just as much, and even more to make it back. His route to success which had finally seemed to clear up, now looks as difficult as ever.
So does his manager’s.