The Midweek Player Focus #52: Luke Oliver

The Width of a Post 2011/12 player of the season, Luke Oliver

By Jason McKeown

Some players are cruelly sentenced to never be remembered as fondly as they deserve to be. Not due to any personal failings or mistakes, but because the period during which they excelled was a more generally unhappy one. Luke Oliver is unquestionably a Valley Parade hero, yet his accomplishments occurred during a 15-month period where things were generally dismal at Valley Parade – an era we’d all rather forget.

In both 2010/11 and 2011/12, City finished 18th in League Two and along the way triggered very, very real concerns about the likelihood of retaining their Football League status. No one stepped up to the plate more than central defender Oliver, who put in some masterful performances that ensured City didn’t fall down the non-league trapdoor. During what represented a modern-day low ebb for the football club, Oliver led the rescue mission. He will always be thought of affectionately by City supporters for it.

Oliver departed Valley Parade last week on an ill-fitting low key note. That horrendous ruptured achilles injury, picked up at Burton Albion’s Perelli Stadium in October 2012, put Oliver out of action for nine months and saw him cruelly get left behind. On the evening that the extent of Oliver’s injury was made public, City knocked Premier League Wigan out of the League Cup.

Go through the many, many wonderful moments of the 2012/13 season, and Oliver’s name was absent from the story. It’s not easy for a six foot seven inch person to blend into the background, but that’s unfortunately what happened to Oliver. We Made History – largely without him.

But if it wasn’t for Oliver’s heroics before the 2012/13 season, City probably wouldn’t have even been a Football League club and gone through them. None of it would have happened, without him and others ensuring that the foundations remained in their place during some stormy times.

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If – the day after Peter Taylor left Valley Parade following that nerve-jangling victory over nine-men Stockport County in February 2011 – you were asked to select members of the-then squad to step up and save the club from relegation, Oliver’s name would have appeared near the bottom of most people’s lists.

Oliver was signed 12 months earlier by Taylor, initially on loan from Wycombe, with warnings from supporters of his old clubs that he was a calamitous defender prone to making gaffes. Taylor had worked with Oliver at Stevenage and Wycombe, and you assumed that he would know how to get the best out of him. So when a permanent deal was agreed for Oliver to join the Bantams that summer, no one was too worried.

Yet Taylor’s first – and only – proper season in the Valley Parade hot seat was a huge disappointment. All but David Syers, of his summer signings, under-performed, and the manager’s attempts to patch up the many leaky holes with questionable loan signings clearly damaged squad morale. Oliver started slowly; and then when James Hanson was injured, was thrust up front as an emergency targetman for almost a month. It coincided with some of the most wretched football I have ever seen from a Bradford City side.

Oliver up front, City playing long ball football and with three strikers sat on the bench – it was a set of circumstances that understandably drew dismay from supporters. Especially as it all left City second bottom of the Football League by early October.

With Hanson back and Jason Price brought in on loan, Oliver was thankfully kept away from the forward line but still struggled on return to his centre back role. There was at least one mistake in him per match. He bumbled his way along in a team that just couldn’t get going. And when Taylor and club decided it was best to change manager, we all assumed that Luke would quickly follow him out the door. A modern day Jason Gavin.

Yet something happened immediately post-Taylor: Oliver started playing well. At first not many supporters – understandably fed up of a season’s worth of poor displays from him – noticed. But in crucial games during that relegation run-in, Oliver was a rock. A Tuesday night home game against relegation rivals Burton springs to mind. City weren’t great and should really have lost, but Oliver’s man of the match display helped ensure a valuable point was gained. He also performed exceptionally during a vital Easter Monday victory over Aldershot that all-but-ensured survival. The gentle giant had grown tall.

Nevertheless, his future seemed destined elsewhere. Interim manager Peter Jackson fed upon the mood of supporter discontent towards the squad by putting everyone up for sale. Oliver found himself relegated to playing in a Development Squad pre-season friendly at Silsden, alongside fellow outcasts Michael Flynn and Robbie Threlfall. Guy Branston had been brought in, Steve Williams’ career hadn’t yet stalled; so Oliver began the season as fourth choice centre back – even central midfielder Lee Bullock was favoured ahead of him on the opening day of the season.

But as injuries arose, Oliver was given a chance and carried on in the manner he ended the previous season: hugely impressive. While Branston struggled to live up to his and Peter Jackson’s hype, Phil Parkinson came in and quickly rebuilt the back four around Luke. Andrew Davies was signed on loan to partner him with Guy shipped out on loan, and the club’s struggles that season would be the result of other, weaker areas of the team.

For Oliver was simply outstanding – even being nominated for the December League Two Player of the Month. His new-found confidence best illustrated by his gradual comfortableness on the ball and in bringing it out of defence. Strong in the air but also agile on the deck, Oliver was tasked with attacking the ball when it came into City’s box, with Davies on hand to clear up anything he didn’t repel.

As the club made hard work of avoiding relegation, Oliver and Davies were more and more vital. The bad night against Crawley robbed Parkinson of his centre back pairing, but Oliver returned from suspension in the nick of time to be the lynchpin of back-to-back April victories over Northampton and Macclesfield which confirmed survival. He was the runaway winner of the Player of the Season awards, and could look forward to playing a key role in future, happier times.

Alas, soon after injury struck. Oliver began 2012/13 in the side and, though perhaps not hitting the heights of the previous year, he was letting no one down. Ever-present in the league, until that fateful day in the East Midlands. One can only imagine how bittersweet it must have been for Oliver to see the club enjoy such spectacular success without him.

The worst thing was that Oliver was not missed. Rory McArdle looked superb in taking his place in the centre. Carl McHugh emerged from nowhere to impress in Davies’ absence. Nevertheless, there was hope that he would still have a future at Valley Parade, this season.

Starting off on the sidelines as he battled to prove his fitness, Parkinson talked of letting him go out on loan and then, a matter of days later, brought him in to start against Brentford due to McArdle being on international duty. City won 4-0 and Oliver was terrific. He filled in twice more for Rory, but the long-term absence of Davies in October did not open the door for him. In came Matthew Bates to partner Rory, instead. The fact both Oliver and McArdle are so right-sided ruled out any realistic prospect of forming a partnership.

Perhaps saddest aspect of all was that Oliver’s final appearance in claret and amber came in that old Taylor positon – up front. A Boxing Day home loss to Rotherham, with City badly missing Hanson through injury, saw him introduced from the bench to play targetman with three minutes to go. He barely touched the ball as City were deservedly beaten. It was no way for our hero to bow out.

Oliver does not reach his 30th birthday until this May, and I really hope that he has another five or six good years left in him to make up for the lost time of the past 18 months. It was the cruellest of twists of fate that a player who truly stood up when the chips were down didn’t subsequently get to enjoy the good times, but the mention of his name will always spark great affection.

He set the standards that others have followed. He raised the bar when it seemed no one else could or would stop it from falling further. He played a key role in applying the brakes and in turning around this club – and for that we will always be thankful.

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6 replies

  1. Great write up of the big guy

    It has to be the biggest disappointment for me this season, seeing big Luke not getting a fair crack of the whip, especially in the face of some calamitous defending from McArdle/Bates. Really not sure what he did wrong, especially given his few performances once coming back from injury

    Such a shame my last memory will be his comical attempted dragback by the midland road touchline in the dying seconds against Rotherham. No chance of a fitting send off, either.

    Cannot reiterate your point enough, Jason, that without big Luke’s colossal presence we’d be in a bad place right now

  2. One of the nicest player’s in the squad Luke Oliver.
    A real warrior for the club, absolutely gutted he missed out on our promotion, Wembley appearances.
    If one player deserved those Wembley appearances you could argue his name based on his form over the last few year’s would have been top of the list!.
    I wish Luke the best of luck at Forest Green, I’m sure it won’t be long before he’s bk involved with lge football.

  3. I recall Luke and some supporters had some choice words away at Southend shortly after Taylor had left, when he was, in my opinion, unfairly scapegoated for an utterly shocking team performance. When his commitment to the club was questioned that evening in front of the away end, his response was something along the lines of “it doesn’t matter, I won’t be here next year anyway.”

    At this point I felt cheated that he was representing the claret and amber shirt and had effectively admitted that he didn’t care.

    From that moment on, his performances and commitment on the field were nothing short of spectacular and I will always remember Luke best for his winning goal at Roots Hall in front of the away end, which was celebrated pretty much in the exact spot of the choice words one year earlier.

    A true City Gent, all the best Luke.

  4. I remember one of many particularly disastrous trips to Accrington after which Oliver was on the receiving end of some harsh treatment from a section of the away end (along with, I seem to recall, was Mark Lawn’s wing mirror). A point Jason makes, but which is easy to forget, is that Oliver arrived at a time when the atmosphere at VP was particularly poisonous. It was not a great time for new players to come in and make the odd mistake. How would McBurnie be getting on in that set-up? It was not an enjoyable time to be a fan, and probably not very enjoyable being a player, either. For Oliver, it must’ve been especially un-enjoyable, being played out of position and being asked to score goals when the service was relatively non-existent.

    For me, Oliver has travelled every mile of that journey from the truly woeful performances at Accrington, when league and possibly club survival was at stake, to the position we are currently at which, whilst not ideal at the present moment in time, represents in general an amazing turnaround.

    For sure, the arrival of Davies played a big role in Oliver’s development, but for me Oliver is a legend because he showed that the rot does not have to set in and that you can turn a club from a downward trajectory.

    It is such a shame that he did not share in the glory last season, and such a shame that his last action for City was to be thrown on up front. But what a journey he made with the club, and whilst we continue to enjoy the journey, I wish him the best of luck in his new one at Forest Green.

  5. All the best to Luke Oliver and I hope he returns to league football soon.

    More evidence for me of what a fantastic job Parkinson has done for this club that our standout player of a couple of years ago is now deemed surplus to requirements. Unfortunately for Luke we have grown past him and need players of a superior ability to what he offers.

    Bradford fans should be forever grateful for his form and performances from that season – as Jason point out he raised the bar when it seemed nobody else could.

  6. As alluded to in the piece above Luke got some almighty hammer from some BCFC ‘fans’ for doing a job for the club at centre forward, about as unfair as it gets. So glad that his time at Bradford City was a success, he showed great courage in proving all the doubters wrong and playing a crucial part in Bradford City surviving in League Two 18 months ago. He also played an important part at the start of BCFC’s ‘we made history’ season forming a very solid partnership with Andrew Davies before his terrible injury at Burton.

    Good luck Luke, one of the good guys and a true warrior on the pitch!!!!!!!

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