By Jason McKeown
It was the soundtrack to many a half time, during Peter Taylor’s reign as manager. And Peter Jackson’s. And the early part of Phil Parkinson’s. Bradford City would inevitably be struggling to impress, and the inquest on the concourse would see his name frequently aired as the problem. James Hanson isn’t good enough. James Hanson is holding back the club. James Hanson should bloody well go back to working in the Co-op.
Such dark days and such monotonous mutterings seem a world away now as the Bradford City feel good factor remains high and our adaption to the higher surroundings of League One looks promising. We have come a long way, player-wise, since the infamous “Love the club, hate the team” chant aired during a 4-0 thrashing at Southend in April 2011. It has been some time since anyone wearing claret and amber was booed whenever they touched the ball. Proud of this team, proud of this club.
And throughout the progress made from the difficult era of Taylor/Jackson/Parkinson’s early days, there have been few on-the-field constants. James Hanson, Jon McLaughlin, Luke Oliver and Nahki Wells: the only players still with us who were already in the building before Phil Parkinson. James Hanson, Jon McLaughlin and Luke Oliver: the only players still with us from the Peter Taylor era. James Hanson and Jon McLaughlin: the only players still with us from the Stuart McCall days.
James Hanson. The guy who was supposed to be the weak link when Taylor was struggling to impress. The guy who Jackson made a song and dance of telling the press how he’d called the striker’s parents in to discuss his focus. The guy who only scored two goals in his first 16 appearances under Parkinson. The guy who is still leading our line, rather impressively too.
It has been a remarkable display of character, determination and endurance. Unloved and unwanted by a section of supporters, ups and downs with his two previous managers, Hanson has blossomed with the club to become a key player. No longer can anyone reasonably argue that he is the problem. If, indeed, he ever was.
The rise and rise of James Hanson the footballer, from being released by Huddersfield at 14, playing part-time for Guiesley and still making it as a professional footballer at Bradford City, is well documented – but the rise and rise of James Hanson the Bradford City player is no less a wonderful story. Here is a player who has suffered some very difficult periods with the club, both on a personal level and from what was happening around him. He was a member of some of the worst Bradford City sides we supporters have endured, and on the pitch for some of the most dismal results in our history. In some respects, Hanson looked set to be a figurehead of desperate times. “Remember when we were so bad we had a striker who’d previously been working in Idle Co-op?”
Yet here he still is, impressively leading the line. His list of personal achievements has grown considerably. In the happy times that were last season, Hanson was every bit as prominent as anyone else. Still, he may not net as regularly as we’d like – but in terms of significance, many of his goals last season were priceless. His place in Bradford City folklore is assured.
Watching Hanson continue to impress in the higher division of League One, the memories of the criticism and abuse he received from many supporters when the team was in a mess two years ago offer perspective for how far he has come. Nahki Wells might be getting all the headlines and attention, but the Bermudian would surely be the first to admit just how vital his strike partner is to his success. And though Wells is destined to move up to the Championship at least, with or without City, there’s a growing feeling that Hanson too is becoming an asset that the club will do well to keep hold of.
Maintain his current form – and that is an ‘if’, still, with Hanson – and he too could play at a higher level. Put him up for sale now and he clearly wouldn’t command the size of transfer fee that Wells could ultimately go for, but he would nevertheless find a long list of suitors. Hanson is not just a hard-worker who has scrapped his way from the bottom of the pile, he is a talented footballer who even now doesn’t get as much as credit as he deserves.
It would be wrong, however, to look back on the past with smugness and criticise those who were so unfairly critical. The James Hanson who struggled for fitness and form under Taylor – worryingly looking directionless during his second season at Valley Parade – is not the same player as the one today. There have been lessons taken from the bruises picked up along the way. Hanson has developed immensely since those days. He had to. Otherwise, like Michael Flynn, Luke O’Brien and Steve Williams – other players from the McCall era still around for Parkinson’s early days – he would no longer be here. The team has improved considerably over the last two years, and Hanson has had to improve to keep pace with that.
For someone who, in the past, was accused of being weak mentally, to display such resolve and strength of mind to prove people wrong is hugely commendable. Let us not forget that Parkinson went to great lengths trying to sign players to replace or at least compete with Hanson. Craig Fagan was initially brought in to ease the burden. Paul Benson was sought after, before a failed medical put pay to his move from Charlton. Even last January, James Vardy was at Valley Parade for talks. Leicester pushed up the asking price at the last minute, so Parkinson looked elsewhere: Andy Gray.
There can be little disputing that the signing of Gray has not worked out, but it has indirectly been a good thing. Hanson was struggling for form at the time of Gray’s arrival, with just two goals in 27 games. A New Year’s Day miss at Morecambe resulted in heavy criticism. A tight game, with City well below their best – teams challenging for promotion have to make the most of the limited opportunities occurring in such contests, if they want to be celebrating come May. Hanson’s pitiful attempt on goal that day could have finally proven the end of the line. The words “we need a striker” coming not just from the lips of supporters filing out of the Globe Arena, but possibly also from the manager.
The post-Gray arrival form of Hanson would attest to raised standards – eight Hanson goals in the 23 games which followed Gray’s arrival (one in three). A semi final aggregate winner over Villa. The goal that sealed City’s place in the play offs. A strike at Burton that helped the Bantams get back to Wembley. The opening goal in the play off final.
Hanson’s ongoing relevance to City is the result of his own highly impressive attitude, and also the coaching and belief of his manager. Whereas his progress seemed to stutter under Taylor and few favours were provided by Jackson – who infamously pandered to the crowd by substituting him during his final match in charge – Parkinson has helped him to build on his positives and improve his weaknesses.
The biggest thing Parkinson has seemingly given to Hanson is mental strength. It’s easy for a targetman to look bad and they will often be incorrectly criticised for doing the right thing, causing them to regress in fear. Under Parkinson, Hanson has learned not to be afraid to make mistakes and to be brave in his play. For sure, there are still times now where he will flick the ball on to no one or fail to control a long ball, thereby looking poor. But he seems unperturbed by any groans such moments attract, and is single-mindedly focused on doing what’s best for the team.
His strength in the air is obvious but has shown improvement. He will win just about everything, but now displays a much better second touch. Once considered a bit too nice on the field, Hanson has developed a knack of bullying defenders that is unrelenting. Often unfairly pulled up for fouls, in recent months there has been a greater subtly to his hold up play that has given the referee less reason to blow up. Hanson has always been better with his feet than his reputation suggested, but the wonderful goals at Burton in the play off semi final and against Carlisle last week have underlined this even further.
One shrewd move by Taylor was to award Hanson a four-year contract at the end of his successful debut season. That contract comes to an end next May, making this a significant year for Hanson. It is surely a given that City will want to keep him and, just like with Wells, it is probably something that needs to be addressed well before the end of the season. Tying him down on another deal protects the years of investment made in developing Hanson from a raw non-league striker to the player he is today. If and when he does leave the club, you’d like to think a significant profit would be made on the original £7,500 transfer fee.
For Hanson, this season is about confirming just how good he really is. A goal return of between 10-15 would be good, considering this is a higher level. There has often been a feeling he could net more in a season than he has to date (15 in 59 appearances last season was his career best), and certainly this would be as good a year as any to demonstrate that. Anything above 15 goals would be a huge achievement.
I firmly believe that Hanson has the potential to be a good Championship striker, providing he continues the path he has been on during these past two years in particular. Previous form suggests he will continue to be prone to spells below his absolute best where the goals will dry up, and there’s no doubt that he still needs to score more often in away games. But given how far he has come over such a relatively short period of time – and his still young age of 25 – I’d back him to overcome these issues and continue to add even more to his game.
Hanson was once upon a time very lucky to be given an opportunity at this football club after it seemed a professional career was beyond him. But over the past four years, he has consistently and increasingly demonstrated that Bradford City are very lucky to have him.