By Katie Whyatt
It was only a matter of minutes before the knee-jerk reaction to the Wolves game spread like a virus through the Twitter-sphere.
“Needed Andrew Davies today.”
“Missing Davies at the moment – can’t come back soon enough.”
“Two words: Andrew Davies.”
A part of me agrees. Well, a lot of me agrees, actually. Like every City fan, I love Andrew Davies. I agree that League One isn’t his ceiling. I agree he’s probably too good for this level. I agree he’s a massive influence at the back, and a massive influence on this whole team. You can’t undersell his value, his role, what he brings to the starting eleven on a match day.
October was a hard month and, although we’ve come out relatively unscathed and not too battle-worn, it’s difficult to refrain from wondering whether we’d have beaten Wolves, taken all three points from Preston or drawn at Crawley if the blonde defender had been available for selection.
But this isn’t about Andrew Davies. Not really. Because, by wistfully dreaming of him on a Saturday afternoon (which is no crime, by any means, as my previous two paragraphs can attest), we almost lose sight of one member of City’s squad who’s been magnificent of late: Rory McArdle.
At the beginning of last season, McArdle seemed almost mundanely average. Solid and reliable and not shoved off the ball easily, but not exactly something to write home about; he was just a defender, and one who could cope well with the demands of the division.
This lack of initial hype can be attributed to the fact that he was, it turned out, a centre half merely masquerading as a full back, but he had us fooled until that game at the DW on the penultimate day of October. Before then, the bone crunching tackles were in abundance, but McArdle didn’t have as much to offer as far as distribution was concerned, an obvious problem for a team who were later to grow reliant on the influence of two attacking full backs (that said, his long balls always did pick out a man, which was more than what could be said for some League Two players).
He’s just consistent. Like so many others in City’s back four, McArdle simply swims along happily, winning headers, winning tackles, sending the ball forward, playing well week-in, week-out, and setting the tone for his – many – centre half cohorts to follow. That there’s nothing to complain about means his importance to the team is often overlooked, typified when Kyel Reid – arguably rightly – snatched all the post-Deepdale headlines last week. Rory got a goal, but it was the winger who soaked up the plaudits.
For me, McArdle comes into his own when he’s asked to become the senior head in that back four. With no Davies to order the defensive line, McArdle has stepped up to the plate, and the role he finds bestowed on him is not dissimilar to the part he played alongside Carl McHugh during the cup exploits of last season. He’s still got a lot to learn (at 26, he’s relatively young for a centre back), but he’s getting better and better with each game.
Bar the second goal against Wolves on Saturday, McArdle was vocal and always checking the back line, dictating the play and the position of City’s last man. It didn’t always work, but there were times when it did nullify the lively Wanderers forwards, and buying that time is exactly what’s needed against a team as quick as Kenny Jackett’s outfit. All the qualities of a good leader are there. It’s a joy to behold.
The whole of City’s team is resilient, but McArdle is particularly stoic, having had to adjust to a whole multitude of different defensive partners during his year at the club. But he’s battled on all that time, thankful to have retained his place where his counterparts lost theirs to injury. His time in the ranks, all the while becoming a constant as he was knighted ‘marathon man’ last year, has revealed an attacking instinct that sets him apart from our centre halves of old.
When a corner comes in, McArdle hops off and swerves through the gaps, cutting one, two, three players out of the game. He sees the run, reads the play and gets into position. By the time the ball meets his head, the goal is all but confirmed, and, oh, how crucial they’ve all been: Aston Villa, Wembley II, Bristol City, Preston. All McArdle’s goals have come at the most important times, and rarely when the result was beyond doubt.
It’s the only goal in his locker, but how fantastic it is to watch. And his catalogue of celebrations boasts similar variety: there’s just the one. Arms outstretched, tongue wagging furiously, beaming from ear to ear. Henry Ford springs to mind, but with a bit of a Bantams twist: “You can have any celebration you want, as long as it’s that one.”
At the moment, City’s impressive centre back pairing of McArdle and Matthew Bates are doing just fine. Oliver, who may still need to find that last bit of sharpness, is sidelined, his status lightened only by sporadic appearances when McArdle is summoned for international duty.
But, eventually, Bates will leave, Davies (who will be the first choice centre half, surely?) will re-enter the fray and Oliver will reach full fitness. And that may leave McArdle out in the cold. Maybe not – remember how strong he and Davies looked together at the start of this campaign? Oliver will have to really impress to break up the happy couple, but what would that divorce spell for McArdle? A spell on the bench, most probably – I can’t see Parkinson moving him over at the expense of Stephen Darby.
But even to contemplate such a scenario almost serves as an injustice to McArdle’s role in the team. He is the unsung hero. Okay, Stephen Darby is THE unsung hero, who shuns the spotlight in spite of man of the match performances every week, but McArdle is nonetheless hovering around that zone. Heck, poor Rory’s even overshadowed in the uncelebrated gem department – Stephen Darby’s more likely to get your vote for that crown.
Yes, McArdle is no Andrew Davies. He’s no Luke Oliver, either. But he is Rory McArdle. And that suits me just fine.