By Gareth Walker
When Ricky Ravenhill signed for Bradford City he was seen as a key figure in what Phil Parkinson was trying to build at the club. This was evident after his semi-successful loan spell was turned into a two and a half year contract. The length of the contract itself was somewhat of a surprise given the age of the player – he was 31 at the time – and the fact that City are a fourth tier outfit.
The club felt the need to make a statement. Ravenhill arrived from the relatively cash-rich Notts County in the division above, and it was said that the difference in what City could offer in wages compared to what the player had been earning at The Magpies was being evened out by offering him a longer deal in order to give him more financial security. So, what did Parkinson see in Ricky that made him value his signature so highly?
Well first of all, he saw a similar type of player to what he himself was in his playing days – a tough tackling, no nonsense midfielder, and also a leader. Something which was something the Bantams were clearly in need of at the time.
Parkinson had taken over a squad from Peter Jackson which had been described as the worst squad in the league. It was a squad he was desperately trying to put his own stamp on in a short space of time, as we were facing up to a second consecutive relegation battle. He needed someone who could galvanise the rest of the squad and lead them in his own image.
Our current management team have a habit of signing players who have played for them before, or who they at least know a lot about. It may be argued that this is not a bad method, particularly if they are signing someone who has a proven track record of success. Kyel Reid was well known to Parkinson from their days at Charlton, and this season we have seen the arrival of Gary Jones – who Steve Parkin knew particularly well from their days at Rochdale.
Although not evident on first glance, Ravenhill also fits this pattern. It was infact Parkin who knew the player when they were at Barnsley together. And although he released him from his first professional club, Ricky had since gone on to establish a real name for himself as a lower league performer – first at Doncaster, then Darlington and finally Notts County.
I can recall one particular occasion last season when Ravenhill’s attitude, passion and application were in full view. The game against Morecambe at Valley Parade, when he scored his first goal for the club, was memorable not just because of the fact that the goal was an absolute screamer, but also because it showed what an excellent team player he was.
Games against The Shrimps are always bruising encounters, but this one was particularly so as City first lost Luke Oliver to injury and were then forced into taking right back Rob Kozluk off with just 13 minutes remaining. With no recognised defender on the bench, it was Ravenhill who, despite clearly carrying a knock himself, stepped forward and showed a willingness to drop into the back four.
We might have gone on to conceded two late goals and only draw that game, but the attitude displayed by Ricky epitomised what Parkinson believed was a vital ingredient required for any successful side.
Ravenhill displays something that all football fans should admire. Although not blessed with the greatest amount of skill in the world. He shows a level of desire and aptitude that have allowed him to make it as a professional and mix it as one of the best in League Two. This has been particularly noticeable since his return to the side in early March.
Having been appointed captain at the start of the campaign; an ankle injury then ruled him out of the first few games. When returned to full fitness, he found himself firmly in the shadow of the impressive midfield pairing of Gary Jones – who was standing in as captain – and Nathan Doyle, who himself was showing what a class act he is at this level. It seemed that Ravenhill was left in a tough battle with former fans’ favourite Ritchie Jones for the position of first reserve central midfielder.
It would have been easy for Ricky to go into his shell, to sulk and to be knocking on the manager’s door requesting answers – or even demanding a transfer. But that didn’t happen, and Parkinson often spoke about how professionally Ravenhill was handling himself around the club. He bided his time and waited patiently.
These chances were few and far between for long periods this season, usually arising in cup competitions such as the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy or in the FA Cup. He wasn’t getting a run in the side and was only being used when one of the first choice pairing of Gary Jones or Doyle needed a rest.
This stop start nature seemed to show in his performances as he was attracting more criticism rather than praise from the Bradford faithful. The away game against Crewe Alexandra in the JPT was a good example of this when his partnership with fellow reserve Ritchie Jones looked particularly lacklustre. However, when examined more closely, the two players’ performances were poor for different reasons.
Ritchie looked disinterested and lazy in that game. He had the look of a player who had given up on his City career, and it came as little surprise to many of us when he left the club by mutual consent a few days later. Ravenhill, however, was struggling not because he had lost interest or because he didn’t care, but because he was simply short of match fitness and was badly in need of playing time.
The characteristics of his game were still there. He was wanting to be involved in everything. So much so that he was even taking free kicks and corners. It led my friends and I jokingly quipping – “Who does he think he is? Xavi?” It is probably this all action type of show that endears players of Ravenhill’s ilk to us in the good times, but can also highlight their rustiness to us during their poorer displays.
And, Ricky has proven that rustiness is all that it was. Immediately following our Wembley Cup Final, when Parkinson was making a concerted effort to rest players for the run in, Ravenhill has grabbed his opportunity and made it impossible to drop him. It was the game against York at the beginning of March when he was first given his chance back in our regular League Two side – in place of a clearly tired Doyle – and the situation of a Yorkshire derby on a poor pitch was one that he excelled and revelled in. He hasn’t looked back since.
Maybe it is that he feels that he has a point to prove. Maybe it is that he is taking out his disappointment of being an unused substitute at Wembley. Or maybe it is that he is finally getting a run of games. Whatever, the reason, it can now be said that we are finally seeing the best of Ravenhill in a City shirt.
His partnership with Gary Jones recently has seen us playing some of our best football of the season. The two of them seem to complement each other particularly well, and the balance of the team as a whole looks right.
Both Ravenhill and Jones have that never say die attitude that us supporters love to see, but Ravenhill’s willingness to do the dirty work and sit in front of the back four, breaking up the play, has allowed Jones to exert himself on games even more so than he was previously.
I for one have been delighted to see Ricky playing so well in the team. His effect on results since Wembley can not go unnoticed. Plus everyone likes to see a workmanlike player doing well. When he scored his goal against Chesterfield last weekend and celebrated enthusiastically with those of us behind the goal, it really felt like he was one of us.
Rather than being displaced as captain by Gary Jones, The Bradford Xavi has forced his way back into the fold in typical fashion. And we now have two captains leading the team from the middle of the park. That can only be a good thing as this exciting campaign reaches a nervous and griping conclusion.