Our Midweek Player Focus series comes to a close for the 2012/13 season with Alex Scott writing about the only senior player we have yet to cover, Andrew Davies.
Stepping onto the pitch, looking around at the cavernous surroundings, it was the biggest crowd he had ever stepped in front of. March 15, 2006. Almost thirty five thousand people had ventured out in to the Roman evening to witness what would become the greatest night in his hometown club’s history. And he was right in the midst of it.
It wasn’t an alarming step up for the tall defender, just turned 21, he’d already appeared in every minute of the two legged defeat of Stuttgart, as well as the 1-0 home victory over the opponents, AS Roma, the week previous. This was what it was all about, days like this. He didn’t get to play in the League Cup Final win the season before; he wouldn’t get to play in the Final ahead either. But still, this was a moment very few men witness.
It was incredible they were here; it was even more incredible he was here. The Stadio Olimpico primed for an upset. The men with destiny on their side ready to dream. Anything was possible.
Just short of seven years later, he got to step out at Wembley, and play in the Final he missed out on first time round. It was the biggest crowd he’d ever stepped in front of. This time however, he could only be focussed on what might have been. Injuries earlier in the year prevented him starting the game. His introduction immediately coincided with the game-killing third goal and he was left to endure another tortuous 45 minutes, the likes of which he missed against Sevilla years ago. The optimism which characterised the early part of his career had long evaporated. The intonation had changed. Anything was possible.
Almost by accident, as time slipped by unnoticed, Andrew Davies stumbled into a sub-culture of itinerant footballers. He made his Premiership debut over a decade ago, just eighteen. A life filled by short term spells, plugging gaps, waiting for normality to begin. He’s been on loan nine separate times, playing for eleven clubs in total.
I have no idea whether nine loan moves in a career is a record. (What the hell, Google?) Anyway regardless of the potential notoriety, nine is a lot. When he made his debut at Valley Parade, Bradford City became the fourth different team he’d played for in twelve months, none of which were his ‘actual’ team. He didn’t belong anywhere; he was a man without a home.
He grew up living the dream of many men. He made his debut in the Premiership a few weeks after his eighteenth birthday, over a decade ago now. He was playing for his hometown team, during their greatest ever era. He was involved with England at youth levels. He and his peers were cited as an emblem of the future of English football.
Davies was involved in and around the first team squad from the beginning, but didn’t get a proper run in the team until his twenty first birthday, after a successful loan spell at QPR. Injuries to the right backs in front of him led to a recall, and he grasped his opportunity with both hands. He was involved in every squad in the knockout phase of that UEFA Cup run with Middlesbrough, except the final, where the Teessiders’ luck finally ran out as they were dismantled by Sevilla.
That Middlesbrough season, albeit tinged with anti-climax, and tainted by the future exploits of the manager, was probably the greatest season they’ve ever had. Especially when contextualised by what has followed.
The irony of that era was that in spite of all the success they witnessed, that was never who they really were. It was always unsustainable. That was who they were for a moment, but it wasn’t who they would be in the future. The Steve McClaren legacy at Middlesbrough is easy to overlook, given what followed for both parties. He will always be remembered for bringing the only trophy in the club’s history to pass, as well as that miracle UEFA Cup run. But you can look at that time now, and none of that was ever about legacy. It was about the then-present. McClaren’t true legacy moment came at the end of that season.
On May 7th, 2006, in a final game defeat to Fulham, he fielded a squad of sixteen, all but one of which born on Teesside (Peterborough-born Malcolm Christie ruined it). It was the first all-English XI in the Premiership since Bradford City managed it, against Middlesbrough, in 1999. The final goodbye for Steve McClaren destined for greater things, showing the Middlesbrough fans their future, defining his legacy as he wanted it. At 21, Davies was an elder statesman of the team, which also included James Morrison, Adam Johnson, Lee Cattermole, Andrew Taylor and Danny Graham.
The next season saw Gareth Southgate initially commit to the youth movement, with Davies a starter at right back, making 23 starts in the league as Middlesbrough improved to 12th position. Summer saw the youth movement and the Class of 2006 side-lined, with a murderers’ row of mediocre journeymen recruited on big money in their place. (Aliadiere! Tuncay! Afonso Alves! (!!!!!), Mido!) The writing was on the wall for Davies when Luke Young was brought in from Charlton, and it wasn’t long before he was initially loaned, then sold to Championship Southampton for over £1m, where he won their Player of the Year award in only six months.
It wasn’t long before he re-entered the top echelon with a second multi-million pound move in a year, this time to Stoke City.
With the explosion in top division squad sizes across the mid-2000s, where largesse and hoarding became the norm, players like Andrew Davies became the must-have accessory of the new crowd. Young, English, and full of promise, he was an easy prospect to fall in love with, and a tough one to give up on. But, as is the way with largesse, demand kept growing. His tantalising potential left him stranded. Stored away for the rainy days in a land where the sun never set.
It wasn’t all bad, players like he got reimbursed handsomely for the pain. It was a false economy, but an economy nonetheless. Tony Pulis’ extravagance in mundanity allied to a couple of poorly timed injuries left Davies with nowhere to go, nowhere to grow.
Nowhere but down. His initial wages priced out every team who would be interested in giving him a home. Anyone who could afford him didn’t have a need for him.
So he did the only thing he could, with his belongings in a bag over his shoulder: he travelled. Faceless strangers and new colours. Rented accommodation and hotel rooms. Filling in gaps, playing out the string, waiting for a chance the world knew would never come.
Davies, and all those like him were left to evolve into something akin to third culture children. Not where they belong. Not where they are. Living a life in between, a culture created by themselves in an attempt to relate to their world.
He only played twice for Stoke in four years. At the end of last season when his contract expired, he was 27 years old. He personified the fungible nature of footballers. Faceless strangers. The next cab off the rank.
Davies’ entire career has felt like it has been stuck in between stations. As his Middlesbrough career took off, he was viewed through the prism of where he may end up, who he may be. People didn’t want him, they wanted him. The subsequent five years were steps on a path toward a mirage. Now where was he? What just happened?
Andrew Davies has played more games for Bradford City than he has for any other team. This season will mark the highest number of league games he’s appeared in during a single season for one club, topping his previous best, reached last year. He’s scored twice as many goals in the claret and amber than the rest of his career combined. It’s weird. Last season his existence in the squad was characterised by the novelty of the whole thing, but in context of his career, this may end up being his defining spell, especially if he hangs around. It speaks to his nomadic route thus far that a season loan followed by a one-year deal is the closest he’s ever come to permanence.
During the 2011/12 season Andrew Davies was just about the best player in the League Two. A Premier League loanee, this wasn’t a surprise. His defined departure gave context to his spell; the incredulity of his existence at the club became the primary descriptor. Even in a land of compatriots he was a foreigner, not long for these parts. He was too good, irreproachable.
Then he signed on for another year. Not on loan, for real this time. He lost his elite, nomadic status, and for the first time became a League Two player. This distinction in terms has ended up fuelling a lot of the debate around him this year. His halo has slipped; he has become, for the first time in his career, a man amongst men.
He has fit in this current squad as well as any he’s ever set foot in since leaving that burgeoning Class of 2006 on Teesside. His story of unfulfilled promise is by no means unique in the squad, many of which can empathise with his common nightmares. Rather than an ‘island of misfit toys’ (these toys fit fine), they have all fallen through the cracks somehow, without a comfortable reason why. This is one of the many reasons why this year’s escapades have been so heart-warming. They all finally had a chance to re-live something, a do-over of sorts. Proving to themselves they belonged. Together.
Davies’ play hasn’t really changed that much since his arrival at the club. The team surrounding him has, reducing him from the far-and-away best player to one of the best players. A man amongst men. The narrative encircling him has fallen the same. People seem to be picking up on the individual mistakes more, critiquing his concentration, and even discussing his worth. It’s not like he didn’t make mistakes last year, I needn’t point you further than the ‘Quarrel at the Coral’ (Copyright, 2012) to exemplify that. But our expectations changed. He became one of us. One of them. He became fallible where before he was closer to an angel. He actually belonged, and in terms of his perception, it may have not been such a good thing.
Despite him still being amongst the highest echelon of players at the club (A judgement call on the specifics obviously, but I’d still have him #1, a tier above the Wellses, Joneses and Darbys), questions over the merit of his renewal and extension at the club abound.
Questions which, despite their counter-intuitive nature, are valid. The club is stuck in a quandary of indecision. Should they or shouldn’t they bring him back? A different dilemma than the one I’ve alluded to so far: whether we want him?
With a limited budget inevitably follows the spectre of the opportunity cost. What else could they spend that money on? Andrew Davies is good enough to be an indispensable asset at this level, but in this scenario, his silent dispensability has become the conversation.
Rory McArdle has proven himself a good-to-maybe-a-bit-better-than-good central defender, especially with the ever-changing situations circumstance left him in. Carl McHugh is coming on leaps and bounds, and lest we forget that Luke Oliver is still under contract for next year, as he recovers from his torn Achilles tendon. One could argue, with a situation like this, in a team that plays two deep midfielders, and two excellent full backs, whether they need to spend as much as it would take to keep him around, on another central defender.
Regardless of how good Andrew Davies is, he isn’t that much better than the alternatives, and the money spent on him could absolutely be spent more effectively elsewhere, especially when (ruthlessly) factoring in Davies’ injury history.
But this isn’t even the situation Davies finds himself in. Phil Parkinson has already replaced him. Much was made (by me) of Parkinson’s “advanced scouting” last year, utilising last season’s loan market to test out potential signings for this campaign (h/t Will Atkinson), and the signing of Michael Nelson followed in a similarly intelligent manner. He wasn’t signed to play this year, rather a portion of this year’s budget was earmarked to bring him in, let him acclimatise to the squad, before being elevated to the starting line-up next season, once Davies departs up the leagues.
Last week at Chesterfield, we got a vision of our future. Davies’ back acted up in the warm-up, and as is the way with back injuries, realised itself with a knock-on injury elsewhere, in this case, the calf. Nelson was elevated on short notice to play alongside Rory McArdle, and for the most part, did well. A few times he got a bit tight, he positioning was slightly awry, but factoring in the conditions (strong wind down the pitch), and the circumstances, he acquitted himself just fine. McArdle actually seemed to improve.
(This isn’t the forum, but the conversation that McArdle’s form has improved whenever he has been forced to assume the role of ‘senior’ partner, would be an interesting one. I know Nelson is technically older, but you know what I mean.)
The team played well at Chesterfield, they should have won. They defended very well for the most part, especially during the opening period, where the Spireites pressed on with the wind at their backs. But there was something missing. They weren’t as dominant as in recent weeks; the assurances were less solid in my mind. And let me clarify here, the thing missing was in me, not necessarily the team.
When Davies plays, I feel a level of comfort with the defence which no other combination compares with. Gentlemen prefer blondes of course, and I’m not saying this feeling isn’t completely psychosomatic due to my prior knowledge of how good he is, and how much he unwittingly stands out.
Regardless, I don’t feel as comfortable when he’s not there. A sensation from which I can elicit the conclusion that “I think he is good”. And speaking from my anxiety level’s point-of-view, I’d prefer it if he hung around for a while.
Another more general, less navel-gazing analysis would be that he is one of our best players, if you want to be a good team, letting your best players walk out of the door for nothing isn’t really a business you want to be in. If the club could afford to keep him, (and they should be able to) and he is amiable to making his career here, making his life here, they should do everything they practicably can to keep him around.
Now, before I delve into my Excel workbook, there are numerous caveats surrounding any statistical analysis of Andrew Davies. Primarily, eliciting defensive efficiency is a wildly inexact science: the oppositions vary in attacking ability and intent, it is a team game so determining individual causality is nigh on impossible, conditions, set pieces and referees play too large a role etc… I could go on, especially as the period Davies was injured this year coincided with an eighteen year old loan player at left back, and blurred priorities. So take all of the below with a lorryload of salt.
The team concede fewer goals with Davies in it than without. Extrapolating the samples out over a 46-game season, City would concede 49 goals with him, and 60 without. As points on the board go, they would be an 81 point team with him (promotion), and a 52 point team without (relegation).
Now again, the sample sizes are too small and there is far too much noise to conclude anything definitively, but it remains interesting. When we argue that “the team didn’t really miss him” when he was injured, are we so sure about that? Our eyes told us McArdle and McHugh acquitted themselves OK, but our eyes were also viewing the game through a lens of lowered expectations.
Perhaps the anxiety I feel without Andrew Davies in the backline isn’t so psychosomatic?
Even if the impact is half as strong as I’ve illustrated, that’s still a 15-point player. Even if it’s only 10% as strong, the team are a better side with him in than without. Maybe the other player(s) we could spend his resources on would make the team better overall to counteract the loss of Davies, but maybe they won’t. Davies is a known commodity. We know he is better than anyone else we have, so shouldn’t we do everything to keep him? Is letting our most talented players walk out of the door for free a business we want to be in?
As the season ramps up to its definitive conclusion this weekend, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty abound. This season will always be timeless for the players, and that could become accentuated in the following days and weeks, but they are still professionals making a living, making a life. Players like Andrew Davies are sliding toward limbo, toward their in between days. Neither here nor there. Not anywhere.
Davies, a few months past his 28th birthday, has a big, ultimately career-defining decision to make. It may have already been made for him. At this point, central defenders are supposed to be entering their peak. Sign a multi-year deal at Valley Parade and his lot is cast, and whilst he could finally become more than a passing ship in the night, he would be selling himself short in almost every other way. He’s divisions below where his talents dictate he should be. Sign a one-year extension at Valley Parade, and his stasis is only perpetuated. Move on, and who know what lies in waiting.
May 7th, 2013 comes a few days after the League Two Playoff Final Second Legs, and a few weeks before his hourglass runs out. Whereas six years ago he had his whole career ahead to find himself, time is no longer on his side. The question over which we are left to argue, and he to agonise, looms large: will he finally put an end to his tortuous peripatetic football life and finally be, or will he follow his ambition, and take one more unnerving step into the unknown?