By Jason McKeown
It would be easy to say that Nathan Doyle’s fortunes over this season have reflected that of his football club, and what that says about his influence. It would be easy to say that – just as Doyle began to look too pedestrian – so to did Bradford City’s progress stall. And it would be easy to say that a fully on-song Nathan Doyle would see a steadfast return to a fully on-song Bradford City.
But to assume that current issues with both the player and club relate simply to tiredness and a failure to reach top gear would be to ignore the bigger picture. And though it would be correct to say that Doyle’s recent stint on the bench is merited, it is far from the player’s own fault.
Midfield has evolved over the course of the season, moving away recently from being built around Doyle’s strengths. The return to fitness of two out-and-out-wingers – Zavon Hines and Kyel Reid – has seen a shift towards accommodating this dual threat; and, as such, a readdressing of the midfield balance. It means that a player widely written off mid-season has improbably re-emerged to become the team’s tempo setter. The same player who has taken Doyle’s place in the team.
Ricky Ravenhill’s form of late has been excellent, leading to an improvement in the performances of both Reid and Gary Jones, plus the continuation of high standards from Hines. Doyle sits on the bench as an outstanding back up option, relative to this division. Out of contract in the summer, Nathan’s future may be dependent on how much Parkinson views other players as forming part of his long-term plans.
During the first half of the campaign, Doyle stood up as a worthy rival to Gary Jones and Rory McArdle for the title of player of the season. Signed partly, it seemed, because of the RR-shaped hole caused by a bad pre-season injury to the club captain, it did not take long for Doyle to make a big impact on his return to a club which – during his loan spell from Derby in 2006/07 – did much to launch his career. All the more impressive, given he looked a long way short of full fitness.
And while first time around he had proven himself a tenacious right back with bags of potential, his emergence at Hull and Barnsley as a central midfielder meant we have seen a very different Nathan Doyle this time around. He and Gary Jones seemed to click instantly as a central pair. They were dominating matches, laying on the foundations for some excellent early season victories.
But there was a but. Evidenced somewhat graphically at the New York Stadium in early September. A spring in the step caused by three straight victories, the Bantams went to Rotherham continuing to start with Reid and Hines on either flank, with Doyle and Jones patrolling the centre. Effectively a 4-2-4 formation, it was, in footballing terms, a kamikaze approach. City’s midfield was easily bypassed by a rampant Rotherham. At the time I wrote, “A central midfield pairing of a 35-year-old and someone who looks half-fit – for the first time this season – looked like a central midfield pairing of a 35-year-old and someone who looks half-fit.” They were completely overrun.
Which led to the gradual emergence of a Plan B, one that enabled Doyle and Jones to continue as a central pair: Will Atkinson. A bad injury to Reid at Rochdale hastened the need to abandon two out-and-out wingers, and replacement Atkinson’s energetic approach of cutting inside and taking up a wide variety of positions provided the balance badly needed. When City had the ball, Atkinson and Jones could get forward, and Doyle’s stunning passing ability could pick any of the attacking players out. When needing to defend, Atkinson was able to tuck inside, next to Doyle and Jones, thereby increasing our ability to win back the ball.
With James Meredith emerging from Reid’s shadow to demonstrate what an effective attacking left back he was, Plan B was working a treat. Atkinson’s drift-inside-approach did not cost City its width, because there was Meredith charging forward into the space vacated. Doyle performed like an American Football Quarter Back: give him the ball, and watch him pick out the right pass. He was everything that Tommy Doherty was supposed to be. Intelligent, creative, visionary. A thinking supporter’s favourite player.
It all began to slowly unravel, like City’s form, with Meredith’s illness. “What’s wrong with Meredith today?” I remember asking on the Kop concourse at half time of the December humbling to Rochdale. A worryingly below-par 45 minutes at Morecambe on New Year’s Day – he was withdrawn at half time – and Meredith has not appeared again until last week’s victory over Wycombe, because of illness.
This absence began to have negative consequences for first Atkinson and then Doyle. Carl McHugh, Ryan Dickson, Stephen Darby and Curtis Good have all stepped in at left back. But no one proved to be as effective as Meredith when City had possession. Suddenly Atkinson was required to provide the width instead of Meredith – much less his game – and his form began to suffer. City became easy to stop.
With Reid back on the scene, the temptation to go back to dual out-and-out wingers, instead of asking Atkinson to play in a manner he is evidently less comfortable with, has grown. Subsequently bringing us back to the Jones/Doyle mobility problem.
If the pair provide a more than passable imitation of the best central midfield two I have ever seen at City – Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley – the fact that Jones cannot cover every blade of grass in the way that McCall could limits the effectiveness of Doyle compared to Whalley. Watch back the first goal of City’s cup final defeat to Swansea, and where possession was conceded to the Swans in the build up. It has been our first attack of the game, with the ball worked into their box. But after Swansea won the ball, one relatively short pass within their half completely took Doyle and Jones out of the game, and they went on to score.
Jones and Doyle roam in a pack, which is great at times. But when left as an isolated pack, they appear too slow and are outgunned by any opposition playing three in the centre. You can see why Parkinson was looking to bring Jason Kennedy to help them, in the January window.
So as Meredith’s absence ultimately led to Parkinson returning to Reid as a starter, Atkinson’s absence has diminished Doyle’s effectiveness. Without Atkinson to help, greater reliance fell on Doyle to become the ball winner. Something that, despite typically playing deep, he is much less able at doing compared to Ravenhill. It was time for a change in approach.
Fatigue cannot be dismissed when assessing Atkinson and Doyle’s form, of course. City’s top three appearance makers currently stand at James Hanson on 49, and then Atkinson and Doyle with 47 each. Atkinson and Doyle were not just playing practically every league game up until February, they were deployed in cup games too (they each played in 12 of City’s 14 cup ties). Doyle was used as centre half or right back in such games, to cover injuries or to enable others to rest. No wonder they have both experienced something a burn out.
The dynamic of the midfield is now different. Ravenhill sits in front of the back four, rarely roaming into the final third of the pitch, with the role of winning back possession and setting up attacks. The major difference between Ravenhill and Doyle is that the former’s greater defensive effectiveness allows Jones to get forward more, rather than have to help out his central midfield partner. In addition, Reid and Hines can be deployed together as out and out wingers absolved of any great defensive responsibility, even away from home.
The question now is where does the recent benching leave both Doyle and Atkinson? Parkinson has stuck with Reid in recent weeks and is finally starting to be rewarded with improved performances by the former West Ham trainee. Ravenhill, who is contracted to City for another year, is firmly back in the fold after spending so much of the season in the role of unused sub. Someone of Doyle’s ability (and, in all probability, wage) cannot simply become a League Two reserve. And with Gary Jones outlining his desire to sign a deal to stay at City next season, three into two may not go.
Perhaps Doyle’s future will be determined by the consistency of Reid. The season’s Plan A is back in vogue, and is likely to determine whether faint promotion hopes are realised. Should City fail to close in on the top seven and Reid continue to over-hit his crosses, it will not just be easy to say that Doyle’s fortunes this season have reflected that of his football club. It will be easier to determine that Plan B was the more effective this season – and that Doyle’s considerable talents are worth another contract.