By Katie Whyatt
He doesn’t know if it feels good yet.
He loved it at City – it’s impossible to not love going to a club with such a great sense of camaraderie – but seeing his name scrawled under the ‘substitutes’ section of the team sheet every week brought more pain than it did pleasure, naturally. He never let it show, though. Next week, he conceded, as he slipped on his bib and jogged to the sidelines, brings another chance.
But it’s nice to be out there again. Nice to break that cycle. To be free. To be at a club that desperately need his services, where he’s guaranteed game time, where he’ll get to be with Matt Duke again. His heart used to sink when he heard he wouldn’t be starting every week. At least he knows he’s escaped that for a while.
You can’t say you didn’t see it coming. An exit for Alan Connell is a rare flash of predictability for a game – and a club – that often play by the most far-fetched film scripts and regularly abandon any ideas of convention and expectation. The sporadic appearances from the bench – running on for the final five minutes in a desperate throw of the dice – merely postponed his agonising walk to the guillotine: his path had been plotted the moment he’d signed on the dotted line two years ago. Caleb Folan and Mark Yeates set the date of the execution, while Oli McBurnie and Lewis Clarkson caused the axe to swing. When a winger posing as a centre forward starts ahead of you, you know it’s time to move on.
Connell’s time at the club is odd. You can’t fault his application and effort, and he feels as much a member of this team as anyone. There’s no doubting he’s a part of this squad, and I bet most City fans would vehemently rebuke any suggestion to the contrary: those last-minute equalisers and winners swung the promotion chase massively in the Bantams’ favour, and he’s a strong, positive character to have in the camp.
Yet, at the same time, his Bantams career has felt like it’s stuck between stations. In a grander scheme of things, it feels like Connell has sought to recapture something he never conspicuously had: the chance to start. Those last minute equalisers and winners should have been the prologue to something even greater, something innovated and different, but they were ultimately never destined to become anything more.
Alan Connell presents the ultimate football paradox. This year, I thought he would relish the improved speed and standard of football across the division, and that League One would suit the game of a player who is all smart movements, slick link-up play and clever balls forward. But this is where the problem lies – the striker is too intelligent for the lower divisions, but not technically gifted enough for the higher levels. What he needs a team that keeps it on the deck: a fast-flowing, coherent outfit that could make use of an adjoining piece just behind their front two.
While he was here, Connell wasn’t so much a victim of his own idiosyncrasy and incongruity as he was of City’s rigidity. Plan A, the first choice, the most effective and desirable option, is James Hanson. What Parkinson ever viewed Connell as, or for, became harder to work out as time went on: if not as a back-up striker, and nor a centrepiece from which to sculpt the team around, where did he belong? Working him behind the forward line, in his most favoured position, would, arguably, have presented a more fluid feed to Hanson and partner, but would that have compromised a mightily effective partnership?
As Alex Scott touched upon in his Gary Jones piece, you wouldn’t have James Hanson and not exploit the natural height advantage. It’s difficult to suggest that differing from that formation would yield more goals. If Connell was factored in and used as that linking section, there would have been a risk of dissolving that strike partnership. For all it pointed towards more astute play, you can see why it never was entirely feasible.
At a club willing to take a chance on him, and use him as, possibly, as their catalyst, Connell could play that role aptly and bag himself a few, too. For the team that requires someone in his vein, he’s the complete package. If you had a mould for that type of player, it would be Alan Connell shaped.
The problem is that no one wants that mould.
Sheffield United would do. The way they surged forward but lacked that clinicality and killer decision in the final third (I think they’ve improved since the start of the season, but it struck me as odd in August) would merit a move for someone like Alan. Wolves, yes, but would Connell be tossed aside when they inevitably win promotion to the Championship? Tenuously, Swindon, maybe, but they’ve already got loanee Alex Pritchard in the playmaker role until the end of the season and it’s not really Alan Connell-style, so that just leaves a similar dilemma.
That’s about it. See how hard it is? Some clubs get forward so quickly that Connell would just be bypassed every time, and, if you’re making use of two attacking wingers and full backs, there’s just no point. Even Wolves looks to be stretching it, now that I think about it. Either way, it’s hardly a copious list.
That’s not to be disparaging of Alan Connell as a player. Though I understood why he never figured, a large part of me wished he did, for his ability and what it could have turned City into. He possesses what most would view as an enviable and impressive career history – during his spell at Grimsby Town, he scooped up multiple trophies during the club’s awards night, and he’s won promotion four times.
For all he might have been a supersub for us, and at a few places, it’s not a perennial existence that never falters, a dark cloud he can never banish, a brand he can never remove no matter how hard he toils. What he was for the Mariners is tantamount to what he could have been for us if things had been shaped different, but, more significantly, what he still can be for somebody else: his departure should therefore not be viewed as the end of his career, but as the beginning of another exciting chapter for a promising and engaging striker.
While he’s here, he is the poster boy for the supersub role.
I love Connell. I love them all, and it really, really upsets me that, one day, this team will be broken up. They’re not living on borrowed time as such, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the next band of players are already waiting in the wings; the coda lurks ominously in the shadows, the curtain poised to fall on the History Makers and this chapter of the story. I can’t leave them yet. It’s doesn’t matter if it’s this season or in another five – I can’t see them all go, no matter how dire things get. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to close this book and move onto the sequel. It’s bad enough that I was doing this on Tuesday night.
What these players gave me, gave us – football fans wearied by years of relegation battles and mediocrity, tempered by season upon season of underachievement, saddened by watching a club ail towards the bottom half – was the chance to believe, to be children again, to give the younger fans something they’d never had before. By its very conceit, the notion of a fourth tier team reaching a cup final is inconceivable, but what made it special was that it happened to us.
The fact Connell was a part of that makes his departure sad. It might have all been last year now, but it’s still hard to be pragmatic and objective about this squad because there’s so much emotion attached to them for who and what they are.
But what stops me from being upset is the future.
In any walk of life, there’s something disconcerting about breaking habit and passing the reins over to someone else – we want constants and consistency, and for everything to stay the same.
But it can’t. And that’s a good thing in football.
At the risk of getting carried away by Tuesday’s performance, Kyle Bennett, Chris Atkinson and Adam Reach can be the figureheads for the mid-season resurgence that sees City come into their own and stop the season from trickling out – at the very least, they prove that, with the right additions, City are still more than capable of making the progress we all forecast last season. They make the bigger picture look even brighter than it already is. Sentimentally, losing Connell is a shame, but it’s okay.
Because look at who’s coming in.