By Alex Scott
Jon McLaughlin’s story isn’t playing out how it is supposed to. In a way, it never has. Despite his own steady growth curve, his on-field career has run in fits and starts. Now with him finally reaching his potential as a good-to-maybe-a-bit-better-than-good starter in this league, in the final year of his contract, right on schedule, he is being marginalised.
This isn’t going to be a long, vaunted argument for Jon McLaughlin as the unquestioned starter. I think he’s better than Matt Duke, I don’t think there is much in it, but I think he is either a better or comparable goalkeeper in just about every aspect. However, as a unashamed slave to the narrative, I like Jon McLaughlin’s story a hell of a lot more than Duke’s, so am aware of my predisposition in leaning toward the Scotsman. Despite this, I still (in all attempts at objectivity) don’t think there is much in it, so I’m not going to call out anyone who would rather have the former Hull man in there. Especially with Duke’s two goals conceded in his past 631 minutes of football (plus a penalty shootout win).
But in a team, at a club which is so defined by its constant evolution, annual revolution, someone like Jon McLaughlin should be lauded, he should be a beacon.
Starting his career in the non-leagues, combining coaching studies at Leeds Metropolitan and Harrogate Railway, McLaughlin’s trajectory has been one we could all have dreamt of. (After the departure of Kevin Pressman, Phil Parkinson ironically decided to promote the goalkeeper without the badges.) After a year, he got picked up by Conference North Harrogate Town. He also caught the eye of then-City manager Stuart McCall, who on the recommendation of fellow unconventional starter Nigel Martyn, offered him the opportunity to train with the Valley Parade outfit alongside his studies and non-league commitments. After helping Town to 4th in the Conference North, and the second round of the FA Cup, McLaughlin signed his first professional contract at Valley Parade as a second stringer behind Rhys Evans. He remained a backup for two seasons, before signing a long-term deal as the future starter. This season, as his three-year pact comes to its conclusion, he finally appears to have reached his potential as a consistent, solid starter in the Football League.
Except that he hasn’t. And for some reason, nobody cares. We don’t want Jon McLaughlin to be our goalkeeper.
Jon McLaughlin’s story should make him something of a cult hero. Here is a normal guy, who through hard graft, and a consistent long-term investment in him by our club, has risen from trialist to star man. At 25, after five years at the club, he is ready to become our goalkeeper for the medium-to-long term. He’s been with us through the dark times, the darkest of times, and now has led us through toward the bright future we are all so excited about.
He and James Hanson stand for what we should all desire from our club, and vocally have done for the last decade. Young, self-made, locally produced players with whom we have built up a long-term relationship. Yet Hanson is widely reviled, and McLaughlin has had his starting position taken away from him (in the final year of his contract), without him doing anything wrong, and none of us care. Neither have vocal supports, neither have replica shirt sales, neither are shown any love whatsoever. (Apart from the desperate pleas for tolerance emanating from this site with regards to Hanson.)
Whilst sharing their origins and present, Hanson and McLaughlin’s stories haven’t followed the same path. Hanson entered the first team immediately as a teenager, floating inside from his left flank. Since then he has fluctuated up and around a general upward trend in performance level. But his playing career has been steady, solid. Each manager has been entranced by his potential, and in many ways built their teams around him and the simple out ball he provides, in spite of his tender fragility, physically and mentally. They have also been desperate to buy time and deflect attention away from their own failings, and a young, inexperienced, odd-looking striker is a logical method in doing so.
McLaughlin however, who has been a far steadier character than Hanson, has found himself a victim of circumstance (and freak ailments), peripheral to the decision making process. He’s vacillated between starter to back-up, almost randomly in hindsight, with his career illustrating numerous false dawns, the most recent of which being a few weeks ago.
His playing time has been entirely dependent on the agendas of managers, and form (or shambolic lack thereof) of his competitors. Desperate managers do not take chances on young goalkeepers. The primacy of ‘experience’ for goalkeepers seems to outweigh every other position on the field. The adage of goalkeepers peaking after thirty has outlasted time itself, and is always right, except when it’s wrong. (Joe Hart is four months older than Jon McLaughlin and has been the best English keeper for at least three years)
As I mentioned, McLaughlin’s talent levels have risen steadily over the years, lifting him from student to starter in five years. And even though he started sporadically during his first three seasons at the club, he wasn’t ready, the opportunities only arose because of his various managers’ incompetence in recruitment and selection. Now, a year after his breakthrough, he’s being held out of the team, despite being in the form of his life. This is what we’ve been waiting for all this time. A still-young goalkeeper with experience, an affinity for the club, and an ability level one can rely on. He should be our guy for years.
Bradford City AFC have been investing in Jon McLaughlin for over five years. As the walls made of sand have disintegrated around his lanky frame, McLaughlin has stood tall, away from the noise. And miraculously none of his, frankly, terrible managers have messed it up. Goalkeepers who are happy to be a reserve, happy to develop, don’t come around every day. Look at the genuine reserve goalkeepers in the Premier League (Ross Turnbull, Brad Jones, Costel Pantimilon, etc…), it’s difficult to find an adequate quality player to assume that role. And McLaughlin hasn’t been one his entire Valley Parade tenure. But you carry a young keeper to groom them, he’s ready to fly.
Steve Harpers don’t grow on trees, but if you find one, you grab hold of them. They can remain pillars of clubs for years, growing into cult heroes, whose reputations far outweigh the on-field prowess. We actually have a Harper, but I’m not sure anyone even likes him. His familiarity has bred contempt, despite the fact we’ve spent the last decade complaining about short term faceless loanees taking priority over our homegrown prospects.
Every appearance is met with either grumbles, or a silent uncertainty I myself must admit to, and I like him. There’s an element of mistrust with McLaughlin, the same which lies with Hanson, an element which doesn’t belong. We shouldn’t feel this way. If anything, we should be cutting them slack, not slanting the opposite direction. For Hanson the feeling has been more pointed as he has played more, and (for some reason) it is more acceptable to boo a forward than it is a goalkeeper. Joe Colbeck suffered the same fate. “He’s crap, he’ll never make it…”
Obviously these reactions are reflections on ourselves, rather than informed opinions on the players. Joe Colbeck is no worse than the majority of wingers we’ve had down here in recent time. (Show of hands, who is definitively taking Craig Forsyth over Joe Colbeck right now? A Joe Colbeck whom we kept hold of and kept developing these past three years.) James Hanson isn’t Peter Thorne, but we are comparing him against the Thorne in our minds, the multi-million pound Championship player. Not the Thorne who we only got at the tail end of his career because of his age and injury risk. (James Hanson in ‘Not Championship Player’ Shocker!) The irony here being that we haven’t seen a relatively ‘great’ goalkeeper down here since who? Matt Clarke? Who do we want McLaughlin to be? What do we want him to be?
McLaughlin suffers from the same deflected self-loathing, the same resentment, the same mistrust as Colbeck, Hanson, Penford, Emanuel, all of them. Victims of our own transference. Whether that be from our collective psyches as Bantams, or Bradfordians in a more sociological, philosophical sense. Duke is preferred because he’s more experienced, because he’s played in the Premier League, because he isn’t one of us. And this is entirely the wrong way round.
Again, I’m not clamouring for a change. I’m essentially indifferent between McLaughlin and Duke. I think Jonny Mac is better, but I’m willing to admit it’s close enough that my bias is impeding my objectivity. What I’m saying is that at any other club McLaughlin would be starting because we would demand it. In the same way we would tie ourselves and our happiness to James Hanson. They are ‘ours’. We should root for them above all. But not only is that not the case, it’s the opposite. These players seem to have to go further than the rest.
No matter how many times we see the side flail around helplessly without Hanson, we need to replace him. Regardless of the fact none of us can remember the last time McLaughlin made a mistake, and that he’s only conceded 10 goals in 11 starts this year, none of us really care that he isn’t starting. (That’s including four goals amidst a backline implosion at Dagenham. He’s also won three cup ties, two penalty shootouts, and none of this is even mentioning his performances last year, without which the club wouldn’t even exist.)
Right now, at the culmination of his five year arc, entering the final year of his deal, Jon McLaughlin should be an above average starter in the Football League. This is exactly how it was drawn up. In a club so defined by ridiculous, self inflicted chaos, he alone has hit every developmental marker set out for him. So of course he gets benched. And no one is in his corner. I haven’t heard one passionate argument defending him, despite the fact his story reads like a perfect zero-to-hero template. From normal guy, to abnormal pro-footballer. He did it. Himself. Not through bias, not through paternalistic managers desperate to promote ‘their guys’. He did it in spite of that, through his own work.
Perhaps we are OK with the decision because we want success, and we just don’t care about anything else anymore. Perhaps we’ve earned that right. We have a manager we can all get behind, the first in a long time, and we’ll accept his judgment. Perhaps that’s it, and perhaps that’s defensible on its face. I don’t know.
As the reinvigoration of the Matt Duke era continues, (the same Matt Duke we chased out of town to our relegation rivals without hesitation last year), our boy who has conceded three goals in his last five games (including one extra time and penalty win) has been left to sit on the bench and wait for a chance which perhaps will never come. And he has no one in his corner. Why don’t you want Jon McLaughlin to be your goalkeeper?