By Jason McKeown
Mark Yeates must have thought he was certain to start at Notts County on New Year’s Day. As Phil Parkinson planned a team without the services of Nahki Wells up front, Yeates, who replaced the injured Bermudian in the previous game, was favourite to get the nod. And even though Garry Thompson was instead preferred to partner James Hanson, the right midfield slot that he vacated would surely be handed to Yeates.
Yet the wide-man/striker Yeates was overlooked here too, left once again on the bench. Two problem areas in the team, and Parkinson preferred to pick a right winger to start up front and a central midfielder – Jason Kennedy – on the right wing. You could argue that Yeates’ best position is on the left anyway, but all roads to a starting place are currently blocked for him. Yeates heads up a cast of summer signings that have seemingly failed to win over the manager who signed them. Now past the half way stage of the season, doubts are growing over whether Yeates is ever going to.
Yeates has started only nine of City’s 27 matches to date – and only once since mid-October. He has become the 12th man of the team, almost always the first substitute introduced into the game (invariably for Thompson somewhere between 60-65 minutes), his contribution during these latter stages seems to have no bearing on whether he is promoted to the first XI for the next game. In November, Yeates made a number of appearances from the bench, where his efforts visibly improved the team and made a big difference – he even netted an important equaliser during a home game against Notts County – but these performances didn’t result in a starting berth for the next game.
Perhaps discouraged by this, Yeates’ more recent cameos from the bench have proved much less effective. Although his stuttering form does put him in good company with the majority of his team-mates, at this moment.
Although Yeates’ potential has only been seen sporadically since signing for the Bantams, there is no doubt it is within him to do much, much better. At his best, Yeates can stake credible claim of being the best footballer at the club. He has a fantastic touch, vision and awareness of others. His spectacular home debut goal against Carlisle United in August was a moment of pure brilliance that, if not replicated every week, should at least be followed up by more regular match-winning performances. In League One terms, Yeates is a quality player; but for a number of reasons his time at City isn’t working out.
Perhaps the blame for this lies mainly with Yeates. It is 10 years since the Tottenham youth graduate made his professional debut on loan at Brighton – Bradford City is his 10th different club. A full first debut for Spurs at the end of the 2003/04 season – he played the full 90 of a 2-0 victory over Wolves – suggested he might have a promising future at the club. But just three subsequent appearances the following year, followed by two seasons on loan elsewhere, brought an end to such hopes.
At least his career got going in the lower leagues, thanks largely to Parkinson. Yeates was captured on a season-long loan by Colchester for the 2005/06 campaign, where Parkinson would memorably steer the Essex club to promotion to the Championship for the first time in their history. Yeates was a key man, playing 52 times and scoring six goals. And as Parkinson hastily jumped ship to Hull City that summer, Yeates’ next loan move from Spurs was to join him at the KC Stadium – they both failed to impress and quickly departed, as Hull became embroiled in a relegation battle.
Finally, Tottenham cut Yeates loose and he re-joined Colchester for an undisclosed fee. He flourished once more, despite United being relegated from the Championship during his first season and muddling in League One mid-table the year after. Middlesbrough’s Gareth Southgate spent half a million taking Yeates to the Riverside in 2009, but he was cast aside when Gordon Strachan took charge midway through the campaign. Two and a half seasons at Sheffield United went well, and a 2011 transfer to Watford began promisingly enough. Sadly for Yeates, the Italian takeover of the club, last season, saw a change of direction and he was left on the fringes. Back to League One, and to Valley Parade.
Yeates has proven himself to be a Championship-standard player, and right now should look as though he is playing below his natural level. Yet it’s not happened so far, and for the player there is a danger of an up-and-down career drifting further in the wrong direction. In his recent autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson talks about players’ peak years being aged 26-29. This should be one of the best seasons in 28-year-old Yeates’ career, but it is turning into one of his worst. 10 years, 10 clubs. Unless something drastically changes, number 11 probably isn’t far away.
So why is it not happening for Yeates at Valley Parade? Well, looking at his weaknesses offers plenty of clues: chiefly his lack of pace. Yeates cannot charge down the line past a full back and quickly get a ball into the box, and he cannot track back and defend in an effective manner. Too often attacking momentum breaks down when Yeates is in possession, as he doesn’t release the ball quickly enough. He can beat a man for skill, but frustratingly will often look to unnecessarily beat that same man for a second time. Invariably he is then tackled, as the space he created is quickly closed down.
Yeates began the campaign in the first XI on the back of an impressive pre-season. He was the only change to the starting line up from last season, and that must have really hurt the promotion hero he dislodged: Kyel Reid. Yeates began well, that aforementioned goal against Carlisle the highlight. Yet Reid showed great character to come storming back and win his place, earning a start at Stevenage (where he scored) and keeping hold of the left wing slot ever since. Some terrific early season performances from Reid have tailed off, but the threat that he offers is a potentially potent weapon that City cannot risk going without.
An alternative route to the team for Yeates came up when Nahki Wells was injured against Shrewsbury, in September, and he was preferred to play up front over strikers Alan Connell and Andy Gray. There was promise about the fact that the first two games of a James Hanson-Yeates partnership yielded two wins and two goals for Hanson, but it never looked quite as effective. Whereas Wells would stretch the line and run in behind defenders, Yeates preferred to operate in the hole between midfield and Hanson. A couple of defeats later, the partnership was abandoned.
Since then it has been right wing substitute or nothing. His only start, at Peterborough, came as part of a three-man midfield in a 5-3-2 experiment quickly abandoned. When Wells went off injured against Swindon in the last home game, Yeates again got the nod to partner Hanson but failed to make much of an impact. Still, we all expected him to get a start at Meadow Lane. Yeates must have been devastated when the team was read out.
But therein lies his problem at City, and why he and other summer recruits have remained behind the 2012 close season arrivals in Parkinson’s thinking. For the past 18 months, the manager has built his side around the strength of the Hanson-Wells combination. Midfielders who sit deep but can ping a top quality pass forwards, one wideman who can run at defenders to stretch the game and get the ball into the box – with the other wideman offering greater defensive cover – and centre backs who can launch the ball long towards the towering presence of Hanson.
Yeates hasn’t been able to fit into this approach. He can’t fly past people like Reid, and he doesn’t offer the solidity of Thompson. He isn’t a Wells-type who will run onto Hanson flick ons, and he isn’t a holding midfielder who will win back the ball.
City’s high tempo style of attack doesn’t benefit from going through Yeates, because he slows the game down too much. A fantastic footballer for this level, no question; but he will only prosper if Parkinson drastically changes the team’s approach.
The imminent departure of Wells could benefit Yeates more than any other player. Does Parkinson replace the pacey front man with another who will play on the shoulder of the last defender, in order to carry on playing the same way, or will he will go for something different? If City were to become more of a passing side – keeping possession and showing more patience in their build up play – Yeates would suddenly be elevated from fringe player to one of the first names on the team sheet. His lack of urgency less of a concern.
Parkinson knows Yeates better than anyone else at the club. His two previous spells working with the player will mean he understands what he can and can’t do – and there will be very good reasons why he choose to sign him a third time. Yet there is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that Yeates’ Championship background means he is on an above average wage. And City can’t afford to have high-earning players sat on the bench.
It’s a big, big second half of the season for so many City players, such as those out of contract. But even though Yeates has 18 months on his deal to run, this will surely be a defining few months for him too. He looks an attractive option in what is beginning to look like a necessary evolution of City’s playing style, but it’s down to Yeates to demonstrate that he can take the club forwards. And it is down to Yeates to prove that, after 10 different clubs in 10 years, he is ready to settle down and make Valley Parade his long-term home.