By Alex Scott
Narrative loves conflict, and frustratingly for someone attempting to rattle on about this James Meredith for ten minutes or so, there isn’t really any. (Google the James Meredith for a tad more conflict.) Our James Meredith is really good. He’s a guaranteed starter, and there isn’t really any debate. You couldn’t present an argument that the team is better without him on the field at left back.
Stephen Darby across from him is also good, but you could see a scenario at some point this year when some fans begin calling for Rory McArdle to slide across allowing Luke Oliver or Matt Taylor to slot into the line-up. I wouldn’t agree with it, and I doubt it would be consensus, but you can sort of see it. Save Nahki Wells and Andrew Davies, Meredith is the first name on the team sheet. But unlike those two, no one mentions James Meredith as a player who is “too good” for us. Doyle falls into that category, but even he isn’t a guaranteed starter.
No one in their right mind would suggest, even for a second, replacing Meredith in the starting eleven. This may be a reflection on his replacements as much as Meredith himself, but it’s true. I cannot envision any possible scenario in which the team would be improved by removing him. He’s a fantastic player at this level.
But he isn’t fawned over in the same way as the others, or really in any way whatsoever. People just think he’s good, then move on. He’s not magic. He’s name doesn’t require ALL CAPS and multi-million pound price tags. He’s just good. Really good. And is always really good.
He doesn’t have a song. Why does he not have a song? How can someone as consistently good as Meredith not have a song? It’s not like his name is hard, Me-re-dith is a happy three-syllable second name. He’s really good guys, we know this. Everyone else has a song. Get it together!
Whilst attempting to write this I scribbled (well, electro-scribbled…what’s the informal ‘scribble-esque’ version of ‘type’? Tapped? I’m going with tap.), I tapped some words on the tube home that came to mind about James Meredith, and the first one was “prototype”. He’s got basically everything you would want in a modern full back, and a full back in this team, in this league. He’s tall enough and strong enough to handle himself in the air. He’s fast enough to get up with, and beyond the left winger. He’s a good enough at football to get involved with the midfield. He’s energetic, reliable, durable. He’s the prototype.
If you were creating a player on FIFA to play full back for you, he would look just like James Meredith.
Sometimes things just fall your way. I didn’t attend the game last weekend, but knew I had a Meredith write-up coming this week, and had already decided that I would highlight his attacking play. Then Saturday happens. That ball in for Thompson was a wonder to behold (on Sky Sports News. I imagine the effect was similar in real life.) His run for the first was excellent and typified his impact on the team offensively.
It is easy to think of Meredith as a defender, playing in defence and all, but it’s clear that his real value comes in attack. He is the polar opposite of his predecessor, Rob Kozluk (*shudders*). This isn’t a slight on the Australian’s defending; he’s very good. But he is an excellent attacking option from full back, and this has barely been diminished at all with a step up to League One. If anything, he looks better than he did last year.
The real question we should be asking, which I don’t know the answer to, is how high is his ceiling?
His value in attack is clear to the eye; the team look a lot more coherent and fluid with him at full back. Nathan Doyle spinning the ball out in front of Meredith from the base of the midfield is a staple of how the team functions. His relationship with Kyel Reid, something we will come back to, is up there with the most important aspects of the team.
But is this backed up by the numbers? As with most things, we don’t know what we have until we don’t have it any more. One of the more useful aspects when discussing Meredith is that we have a clear, defined data set with him missing, after his spell on the sidelines last season with glandular fever.
As my wonderfully crafted graph above shows, the impact of Meredith’s removal on the defence is negligible. It is slightly worse without him, but barely noticeable. He isn’t really above replacement level. As you can see, the real impact is in the attacking phase. And for a “defender”, that is a staggering impact.
Now, my initial reaction to this would be that this outcome is a result of sample size. But those red columns represent 29% of the total minutes played. Since Meredith’s arrival, City average a goal per game more with him than without (1.72 vs 0.75 goals per game).
City have played over 22 hours of league football without James Meredith since his arrival, and have scored 12 goals. Twelve. With him on the field, they are averaging a goal every 51 minutes.
They got that freak 3-0 win at Wycombe, and a 2-0 win at Meredith’s former team York, and failed to win any of the other ten games he didn’t feature. City are over twice as prolific with an attacking left back when compared to a defensive one, and no worse in goal concession.
(From my quick analysis…not conclusive… only Andrew Davies has a comparable impact on points per game (2.00 vs 1.09), and unlike Meredith, he holds a real effect on goal concession (0.79 vs 1.26). Of course, not many other important players have had the spell out of the team like these guys to build up the sample, but still.)
So yeah, Meredith is important. More important than Nahki Wells? Probably not. But up there. More “up there” than he gets credit for. If you extrapolate his appearances last season so that he played every minute, that’s an 82-point team. If you extrapolate the time spent with the backups playing, you see a 37-point team.
A left back isn’t going the difference between the best side in the division and the worst; I’m carefully ignoring the impact of outside factors to aid my own argument. The games Meredith missed coincided with the run after Christmas, when the conditions were at their poorest, the team were at their most fatigued, when Andrew Davies was also hobbled, and also entering the back end of the cup run when nothing else mattered.
But did the absence of Meredith contribute? Absolutely. His replacements may be able to replicate his output defensively, but cannot even approach his offensive impact.
Now, the problem with this analysis, the fundamental flaw should be glaring. When I talk about “the team without Meredith”, what I really am saying is “the team with one of the back-up full backs starting.” Be it Carl McHugh, Ryan Dickson or Curtis Good, what we are really saying in this analysis is that James Meredith is substantially better than a replacement-level League Two left back. Does that really tell us anything?
McHugh and Good are both moderately-to-highly rated central defenders, forced outside as a function of necessity. Dickson is a solid player who is currently starting in League One. So these guys weren’t scrubs, or Kozluks. They are just of a different style. The question worth asking is why, if the team are so much better with an attacking full back, why isn’t there a like-for-like replacement in the squad?
I don’t know the answer to that. Perhaps one would be too expensive, a luxury. With a salary cap in play, it’s all about opportunity cost, and to add one, you have to take one away. As we are currently finding out. The numbers above show that although it may be a luxury, one injury to Meredith could be more important than a number of others elsewhere.
James Meredith came across to England nine years ago, as a sixteen-year-old when he signed youth contract terms Derby County, and since that moment, little has gone to plan. He had a couple of loans, and a short spell in Ireland before bombing out with Shrewsbury. He only played a handful of times for the Shrews before falling into the non-leagues with AFC Telford. This was just over four years ago.
Looking at him now through our present eyes, that is baffling. That a player this composed, this talented was plying away in the Conference North at 21 years old. After impressing in a FA Trophy semi-final defeat against York, the Minstermen decided to pick him up the next summer as they began a charge toward the Football League. (Sidebar: Is there a better nickname in the Football League? That was really fun to type. “Minstermen”. I’m a fan of “Spireites”, and “The Daggers”, obviously, but York City are really bringing it with “Minstermen”. Hat tip.)
In three seasons for York, Meredith missed five league games, notching up 131 appearances in the Conference and an appearance in the Team of the Season in his final year which was highlighted by two Wembley appearances. A call-forward of sorts, before he joined Bradford City that summer.
Meredith is sort of unique in his background in the squad, not arriving as a youngster, or with an impressive league pedigree. Perhaps this is why his praise is a little quieter than others.
Another factor may be his lack of a development arc. One of the best things about players like James Hanson and Nahki Wells is that we’ve seen a clear, defined arc in their performance. We’ve grown with them. James Meredith arrived with a lot of experience, albeit at a lower level, and already knew who, and what he was. He arrived and he was great. He remains great. One of the few downsides of being consistently outstanding is that in the end, you only stand out in under-performance.
Weirdly, throughout our demise, the left back position has been sort of okay. Probably the most consistent position throughout. You look back at the most appearances at left back in the past and they are for the most part, pretty good. Going backwards, you have Rob Kozluk… forget that one. Marcel Seip filled it adequately as a centre back slotted in at full back, but there was no real future there. Before them we have Luke O’Brien and Robbie Threlfall. They were okay. Between them they had basically everything Meredith does. Alas the three-legged football innovation I once spearheaded never caught on. Then you have Paul Heckingbottom, mark two. He was alright then. Ben Parker, meh. There were bigger problems than him in that team. Andrew Taylor was great. Lewis Emanuel… swiftly moving on. Heckingbottom the first time, when he was great. Emanuel again. =s. And then we’re at Jakes.
That is a decent run. Two players of the year in that list, and Taylor absolutely would have been another if he had stuck around. But would you take any of them over Meredith right now? Maybe Wayne Jacobs circa 1998. But beyond that? It would be a conversation at least.
Look down the list of our tortured list of recent right backs and search for one who may be better than Stephen Darby, and you get to Gunnar Halle all-too-quickly. But the left backs have been pretty good. And James Meredith could be the best of the lot.
One of the other massive plus points of James Meredith is his relationship with winger Kyel Reid, our best attacking midfield outlet. These two do “bring the best out of each other” and as we have all seen, along with the rise and rise of Nahki Wells, this is as important a development in the past year as anything.
I’m a longstanding proponent of Kyel Reid, and remain convinced that he has been and remains the X-Factor which can lift the side from good to great. With him firing on the left, City become very, very difficult to stop.
Obviously, being a winger, and a League One winger at that, inconsistency will abound. But creating circumstances for him to succeed should be, and appears to have been, a clear focus. Be it by accident or design, they have unearthed a marvel with James Meredith.
He and Reid have a clear understanding and have routinely linked up again and again on the left flank. With the ability to go around his winger and be productive, Meredith makes it very hard to double up on Reid. And if a defence slants that way, you have Garry Thompson isolated on a full back at the far post. Northampton and Brentford can attest to the danger that presents.
The graph below represents the Goals per Minute from last season, with the proportion of the season noted in percentages.
The top bar in yellow represents how long it took City to score a goal without Reid or Meredith on the field last season, coming in at one goal every 194 minutes. Over two full games per goal. Now, this only represents 13% of the season, so it is a small sample size, albeit not negligible. Interestingly or otherwise, City were also at their leakiest defensively without Reid and Meredith.
Now there is little in the form of proven causality here, there is too much noise in an eleven a side game against varied opponents in different arenas to do prove much, but the correlation is notable, and backs up what see with our eyes: Last season, Bradford City were far more threatening with both Meredith and Reid in the line-up, averaging over two goals a game with both on the field.
That has carried forward through to this season, despite the recruitment of Mark Yeates. City just look a stronger team with Reid and Meredith together on the left hand side. Yeates offers a different effect, with his ability to cut inside to play off Meredith’s overlaps, but up to this point it has not been as effective as the alternative.
Kyel Reid and James Meredith are one of the things, perhaps the thing, which can lead this side up yet another level. Wells and Hanson rightly get the plaudits, Jones and Doyle receive the adoration, but the relationship on the left hand side could end up being the most important.
James Meredith is just about my favourite player. Watching him expertly turn a 70/30 challenge in his favour into a 50/50… just so he can win it, is an act of majesty, and if I knew how to make a GIF, or pronounce it without looking stupid so I could ask someone else to, it would be all I ever watched.
He’ll never be the most important James Meredith, and probably will never be the subject of the best sports documentary this side of Hoop Dreams, but after a slow start to his career, the Australian left back is making up for lost time, and could be on the path to something very special indeed.
Just think of how good he will be when he gets his own song.