By Jason McKeown
January is going to prove a busy for Bradford City. There is seemingly a long list of players surplus to requirements, and a certain star striker destined to regularly appear in tabloid newspaper transfer gossip columns. Lower down the priority list – and in keeping with a quiet but steady start to life at Valley Parade – is the decision to be made on whether Matthew Bates stays beyond the initial three-month deal he signed for in October.
The visit of Bristol City – Bates’ old club – on January 11 is to be his final appearance, as it stands. As the centre back attempts to rescue a hugely promising career, the much-needed game time he has achieved with the Bantams over the last few weeks means the short-term contract arrangement has suited the player. But does he view his time in West Yorkshire as a springboard to something greater, or is he playing for a longer-term deal here?
Either way, the fact Bates has struggled to significantly impress could result in a small queue of suitors from elsewhere. It’s not that Bates looks a bad player at this level, just less of a standout performer. He has not yet even won over the Valley Parade crowd, and for his career to bounce back to anything close to those heady days of Premier League and Europa League football with Middlesbrough, any exit next month would need to be on his own terms rather than because he is not wanted by Phil Parkinson.
The big problem for Bates is that – for however well he has played in certain games –the 27-year-old Stockton-born former Middlesbrough defender is not a certain 29-year-old Stockton-born former Middlesbrough defender. Bates arrived at City on the same day that the club went without Andrew Davies for the first time since he picked up a bad injury a week earlier. The direct comparisons between the pair have been unavoidable.
With Davies in the side prior to Bates’ arrival, City had climbed to fourth in the division, winning six of their opening 10 league games, conceding just eight goals and keeping five clean sheets. Since Bates signed as cover for his former Boro team-mate, the Bantams have won just one of their subsequent 10 matches, conceding 14 goals and keeping one clean sheet. Bates sat on the bench for the first of that run of games – a 1-0 loss to Tranmere – but has started every match since.
With each dropped point, the absence of Davies in the centre of defence has been loudly mentioned. City’s number five is expected to be back at the end of January, and it can’t come soon enough really. Although Davies missed a similarly large chunk of last season without too much disruption on results, it has been a different story this time around.
The only change to the back four and keeper, from those first 10 games and the next 10, has been Bates coming in for Davies. The blame for recent defensive frailties should not be pointed solely at this switch, but you can understand why many people have attempted to do so.
Bates actually started life at Valley Parade reasonably well. My first viewing of him – away at Preston – left me impressed. He had a good game against Wolves too, but struggled at Crewe and in the televised game at Coventry that followed. Bates played well against Oldham and Leyton Orient, but ultimately he is viewed as keeping the seat warm for Davies’ return.
Were it not for the five (five!) serious injuries that Bates has suffered from over his still relatively short career, he would not have been here in the first place. Once on the books of Manchester United, Bates graduated from the Middlesbrough youth academy to take his place, under Steve McLaren, as a regular in the Boro line up during their Premier League days; often playing alongside Gareth Southgate (with Davies, also still at the Riverside, making do with loan stints).
As Middlesbrough bowed out of the Premier League, Bates was said to be interesting top flight clubs. He’d already recovered from three serious knee operations at this point and stayed loyal to the club, signing a three-year deal at the Riverside. But before Middlesbrough could kick a ball back in the Championship, a pre-season friendly victory over Carlisle saw Bates endure bad injury number four. He missed the entire season.
Even then, Bates came back strong and impressed greatly under Tony Mowbray. For two seasons he was a regular in the side, before – alas – serious injury number five kept him out for another six months. He was not awarded a new contract, and spent the second half of last season at soon-to-be-relegated Championship side Bristol City; where he played just 13 games before being released in the summer.
With no takers for his services during the summer, Bates had to bide his time before getting the opportunity at Valley Parade. And when he is in possession of the ball, he looks a classy centre half who belongs at a higher level. He is an intelligent player and times his tackles well. He is not someone who can be easily bullied by an opposing centre forward.
His weakness, however, has been standing off players running at him with the ball. He was shown up badly by the fantastic Callum Wilson of Coventry, and then a few weeks later a 1-1 draw with Notts County saw City fall behind to a goal that a less hesitant Bates could have prevented. But herein lies the problem that Bates has faced in winning over a crowd increasingly frustrated by early season wins being replaced by draws – he is no back four leader.
Neither, it seems, is Rory McArdle. And what City have missed most from Davies is having someone who dominates the back line, charging into the tackles and winning possession back for his team. Such defenders work well with a partner who is on hand to cover any missed tackles and to be more confident in possession (think of Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand). Davies and McArdle worked wonderfully well as a partnership in this way. Many previous City centre back partnerships (good and bad) have adopted the same approach.
Without Davies, City have lacked that defender to go on the front foot and win the ball back. McArdle has looked reluctant to take on this role, Bates even less so. It isn’t his game, it isn’t his strength. But as people look at him to do what Davies did, criticism has resulted from not recognising he is a different type of defender. Bates would be doing a much better job of impressing if he was playing alongside Davies rather than McArdle. That’s not a criticism of the latter – he also impresses more when playing alongside Davies.
Which does leave you wondering why Parkinson has so far displayed no willingness to bring his other three centre halves into the side. Luke Oliver – who like Bates has suffered a serious injury – appears to be heading for the exit door sooner rather than later. Carl McHugh – who forged a fantastic partnership with McArdle last season – must be hugely frustrated that he has so far failed to build upon a promising first season at the club. Matt Taylor replaced Michael Nelson during the summer in more ways than one, and you get the feeling he will be one of the first in the queue to leave in January.
When Davies was ruled out through injury, Parkinson did not view Oliver, McHugh or Taylor as the answer and looked elsewhere in Bates. That says a lot about their respective futures, as does the fact that – despite Bates and McArdle struggling to gel as a partnership at times – Parkinson has shown no inclination to change it.
He has arguably being wise to stick with the same back four, as it has improved of late. McArdle and James Meredith are both playing well again after dips in form; whilst Stephen Darby simply doesn’t do bad games, it seems. Yet still, you get the feeling that the club is currently tredding water as it counts down to Davies’ New Year return.
For Bates, he clearly still has a lot to offer either here or elsewhere. If he can stay fit, he will continue to get better with the run of games he is getting at City. Long-term, he needs to be at a club where he will be playing week in week out, and perhaps should take a view that, to ultimately get to where he wants to be (back in the Championship at least), he needs to be playing lower down than his natural level to first rediscover his best form and fitness.
It remains to be seen whether City are the right long-term fit for Bates in achieving those aims; but in a career of so many unfortunate set backs, the next decision the centre half has to make about his future, due in a few weeks time, is one that he cannot afford to get wrong.