By Jason McKeown
He’s suffered from a few false dawns, and continues to have his share of critics in the stands, but it appears as though Jon McLaughlin has finally claimed the title that he has spent over five years striving to achieve: the undisputed first choice Bradford City goalkeeper.
Right now, he stands almost unchallenged. On loan Connor Ripley waits patiently in the wings, but the 20-year-old Middlesbrough keeper is no more of a threat to McLaughlin’s place than a 20-year-old McLaughlin was to Rhys Evans, when he originally joined the club back in 2008.
The Scot has played every single minute of City’s league action this season, to go with his wrestling of the first choice status from Matt Duke last March, after the now-Northampton keeper chucked a City corner into his own net at Exeter. Since that day, McLaughlin has played 18 of the Bantams’ last 19 regular league matches (the odd one out was when Duke got a final hurrah in a dead rubber at Cheltenham). City have picked up 38 points from those 18 games, losing only twice, with McLaughlin conceding just 14 times. A superb run of form for club and keeper.
Yet still, you don’t have to go far to come across a City supporter who will pull a face and utter the words “I’m still not sure about him” when asked about McLaughlin. For well over a year now, it has been repeatedly suggested that City need to improve on McLaughlin and Duke. Now, with only McLaughlin left in the building, that lack of confidence still remains in some quarters. Wait until he makes his next mistake (and, like all goalkeepers, he will continue to make mistakes) and listen to the inevitable outcry.
For now though, there is quiet. McLaughlin is playing well. Reflect on the 10 league matches to date, and within each there were one or two excellent McLaughlin saves that helped the Bantams’ cause. Yet he receives little credit for the defensive solidity that is providing the foundations for a promotion push. No one really talks about McLaughlin. He does his job, and only attracts attention on the occasions where he falls short of that.
Take the Huddersfield Town cup defeat, back in August. James Vaughan’s opener for the Terriers was undoubtedly a bad moment for McLaughlin, as the striker’s low shot squirmed under his palm and into the back of the net. He should have kept it out, and the groans from the packed away end that night were continued over the following days, in a similar manner to that which Joe Hart is currently experiencing.
Yet that isn’t to suggest there is any particular dislike towards McLaughlin from those who believe he needs replacing. Now in his sixth year at the club, he is part of the furniture and a safe pair of hands. It just seems as though some people are more comfortable with the idea of McLaughlin as number two. An able deputy, who will loyally stick around and be prepared to come into the side a few times per season when needed.
After Duke departed this summer, the prospect of McLaughlin stepping up to be number one was ignored in favour of talking up the possibility of Lee Camp or (snigger) Mark Schwarzer coming in. Perhaps Parkinson too courted with the idea of a new number one, but the turnover of uninspiring goalkeeping trialists pre-season suggested he was only ever in the market for a back-up to McLaughlin.
McLaughlin’s biggest issue winning over his public is the difficulty quantifying the improvement in his game over time. It’s not immediately visible in the same way it has been of James Hanson. Having spent almost all of his first two years at Valley Parade kicking his heels on the bench, the sudden impact McLaughlin made when Peter Taylor called upon him at the back end of the 2009/10 campaign meant expectations of what he could do immediately rose quickly but, in hindsight, too sharply.
He’d played just twice under Stuart McCall – the man who signed him on the recommendation of then-goalkeeper coach Nigel Martyn. So appearance number three, at Burton, was McLaughlin’s true Year Zero moment. That day he saved a penalty and played out of his skin in a 1-1 draw. Taylor kept faith with him in the final five games that followed, all of which saw City stay unbeaten. And then, after a summer reshaping the squad in the expectation of a promotion push, the manager placed McLaughlin as his first choice for the season ahead – despite the stopper having only played eight professional football matches in his career.
The season (2010/11) didn’t work out brilliantly for manager or player, as City flopped badly. McLaughlin’s October return to Burton saw a 3-0 defeat and the axe, with Taylor recruiting free agent Lenny Pidgley in his place.
From there on, until this season, McLaughlin has been in and out of favour with various managers. When recalled to the side he would display excellent form, but then struggle to retain high standards over a sustained period of time. Just when it seemed he’d got past that inconsistency problem and become a reliable week in week out starter (the 2011/12 season), McLaughlin landed a right hook on a Crawley player and the three-match ban he received gave Duke the chance to rescue his Bantams career.
Although McLaughlin has seemingly kept stalling, there has been a personal improvement over the years that can be measured by cold, hard statistics. Going from the 2010/11 season (McLaughlin’s contribution in the 2008/09 and 2009/10 campaigns are too small to be analysed) here is how he has performed season-upon-season in league matches.
This shows a year-on-year improvement from Jon in terms of the number of goals conceded and the number of points the team has picked up. But does that merely match the club’s fortunes in general? Not quite. Here is City’s full league record for each of those campaigns (which includes both when Jon played and when others were picked ahead of him).
The pattern of improvement does not correlate in quite the same manner. During 2010/11 (Taylor, Peter Jackson and a rubbish 18th place finish), the stats show that, on average, City conceded more goals and picked up fewer points when McLaughlin was in the sticks compared to when he was left out (McLaughlin conceded an average of 1.64 goals per game vs 1.48 for the season’s average, and when he played the team picked up 0.88 points per game compared to an overall 1.13 average).
So during that disappointing season, playing McLaughlin made City a weaker team. Pidgley was his goalkeeping rival. Although the former Chelsea stopper didn’t exactly pull up many trees himself, he was a more reliable pair of hands.
The trend changed in 2011/12 (Jackson, Phil Parkinson and a rubbish 18th place finish) and continued in 2012/13 (you know, that season). In both of these campaigns, City conceded notably fewer goals and picked up considerably more points when McLaughlin got the nod, compared to the team’s overall stats. So City were a stronger side when McLaughlin played, compared to Duke.
What makes McLaughlin’s 2012/13 figures all the more remarkable was the fact that there was an almost four-month mid-season gap when he did not play a single league match. After a mistake away at Burton in October (that team and that ground again for Jon!), McLaughlin didn’t figure in League Two again until Duke was suspended for getting sent off in the League Cup Final in February. In the end McLaughlin and Duke each played 50% of City’s regular league matches, with McLaughlin getting the nod in the play offs.
Here then, is how McLaughlin has improved year-on-year (still league matches only).
Fitness permitting, at some point this November Jon McLaughlin will make his 100th league appearance for Bradford City. To date, the Bantams have played 240 league matches since he first joined, showing just how little he has played overall. Whilst no one expected him to break into the first team much sooner than he actually did (2010), that step-up to undisputed first choice stopper has, up until last March, alluded him.
Now 26 and approaching the peak years for most goalkeepers, he will never have a better chance to cement that status than he does right now. Even if he makes a couple of mistakes, it is difficult to envisage Parkinson bringing Ripley in ahead of him. The summer arrival of Lee Butler (by my estimation the fourth different goalkeeping coach McLaughlin has worked under) can help him to continue to progress.
There are no notable weaknesses in his game, No obvious patterns to mistakes when they have occurred. McLaughlin claims crosses with few problems, he is a reliable shot-stopper and his distribution is decent enough. In the past I’ve wanted to see him be more vocal to his back four, but that has become less of an issue as he grows in stature. He is solid, and attracts minimal fuss. As much as I still look back fondly on more charismatic keepers like Donovan Ricketts, the stable and steadiness that McLaughlin offers are more desirable characteristics.
The number one shirt is his status to lose. He can only throw it away from here. He’s no longer living underneath anyone’s shadow. No longer looking over his shoulder at serious rivals. His manager clearly backs him, his team mates rate him, and the majority of supporters are right behind him.
This is Jon McLaughlin’s time, and he is grasping it with both goalkeeping gloves.
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