By Jason McKeown
One of the key lessons taken from the 2013/14 season is that a football club’s continued progression is not simply dependent upon keeping hold of the best players, but on adequately replacing them when their time comes.
Bradford City’s future fortunes look set to be intrinsically linked with how well this is taken on board, especially when it comes to planning next season’s central midfield. It is the area of the team that carries by far the biggest question marks, and undoubtedly there are some difficult calls to make.
Chiefly there is the longevity of the man who has made the whole team tick for much of the past two seasons. The joy of watching Gary Jones still delivering influential performances is tempered by his increasingly limited shelf life. If only we had signed him when he was 25, not 35. His considerable impact in claret and amber has raised standards in the centre of the park; standards that have fallen and fallen ever since Stuart McCall was released far too early from Valley Parade, 10 years before Jones’ summer 2012 arrival.
Jones will be 37 in June, by which time we will know whether he has at least one more season in West Yorkshire or will be looking for another club. If I was Phil Parkinson, I’d be signing him up for another 12 months as a squad player. But the dilemma is muddied somewhat by the likelihood that Jones will be one of the club’s highest earners, and we cannot build next season’s team on the assumption he can play another 40+ games.
Despite some indifferent performances at times, Jones has continued to prove very reliable this season. It’s a good job too, because I doubt that the plan was for Jones to get to mid-March as a League One ever-present, with few credible options to take his place.
Perhaps, by this point, Parkinson would have envisaged Jason Kennedy would be driving the central midfield. The former Darlington man spent three years playing next to Jones in one of the most successful teams in Rochdale’s history. Kennedy’s ability was demonstrated to an impressed Valley Parade faithful 15 months ago, when Rochdale battered City’s 2012/13 vintage – Jones and all – in a shock 4-2 victory. A month later Parkinson had agreed a deal to bring Kennedy to City, only for the player to have a last-minute change of heart as he drove along the M62 to sign a transfer deadline day deal. Nevertheless he rocked up last summer on a two-year contract, either to play with Jones or to be his heir.
There has no question that it has proven to be a wretched, career-stalling move for Kennedy. He looked very poor on his debut at Huddersfield in the cup, continually going for an easy inside pass rather than taking responsibility in driving the team forward, Jones-style, or offering any genuine creativity like Nathan Doyle. Such an approach may have found Kennedy favour in a slow tempo passing side such as Rochdale, but did not suit the direct style of football that City play under Parkinson, centred around getting the ball up to James Hanson and Nahki Wells as quickly as possible.
And it never got any better from there. Kennedy had to wait until early October to appear in the league for the Bantams, at Walsall, and his full debut – a week later against Tranmere – saw him similarly ineffective. Start number two in November did at least see him score the winner at the MK Dons, but when in the next game, against Notts County, he was hauled off at half time, it already seemed that the writing was on the wall for him. Parkinson would talk him up off the field, but had very little faith using him on it. It just didn’t seem the right fit, for all concerned.
His loan move back to Rochdale, in January, was no surprise – his last game for City, at Sheffield United, had been a particularly dismal affair for the midfielder. But even back ‘home’ at Spotland, Kennedy has not got going again. Four starts (the last two of which saw him replaced after less than 70 minutes), but since then a permanent place on the bench that has only occasionally seen him introduced (and even then, very late on in games). 66 minutes into Rochdale’s game at Mansfield on Saturday, Kennedy was summoned from the bench with the score 0-0. They were ultimately beaten 3-0. Unlikely to be Kennedy’s fault, but he will hardly have made a great impact.
With Rochdale on the brink of promotion, there appears to be no chance of him being offered a permanent deal at Spotland during the summer. There is still one year left on his Valley Parade deal; meaning Kennedy will either give it another crack at City or probably have his contract cancelled.
At 27-years-old, Kennedy is at the age we wish Jones could be. And, perhaps, a 27-year-old Jones endured his own career dips. Kennedy has played almost 400 senior games (including four Premier League and three UEFA Cup appearances at Middlesbrough) and clearly hasn’t become a bad player overnight, but he looks a long, long way off being a regular for a club harbouring medium-term ambitions to be playing in the Championship.
As Kennedy exited stage left, in came another Middlesbrough midfield youth graduate in Matty Dolan. At 21-years-old and having failed to make a single first team appearance for the Teesiders, Dolan’s future already appears to lie in West Yorkshire. If Middlesbrough hadn’t dragged their heels in over a sell-on clause, Dolan’s January move to City would have been a permanent one. Instead, with no agreement sealed in time for the deadline, Dolan ultimately arrived on loan. We can reasonably speculate that something more concrete is already in place for the summer.
Dolan’s arrival coincided with a shift in City’s overall approach. Wells’ January departure saw him replaced with Aaron Mclean, and it very quickly became clear that he is a different type of striker. Mclean does not play on the shoulder of the last man; and some of his better work takes place outside of the box, linking up the play with others. As such, he needs more support.
With Hanson/Wells, the deeper positioning of Nathan Doyle and Jones worked terrifically well. They could set up attacks with their superb range of short, medium and long passing skills, and position themselves to win back possession from the opposition. But Mclean needs an attacking midfielder to provide him with an option as attacking moves develop. Hanson has become the most forward-positioned striker, but his flick ons to Mclean are too predictable if he is the only team-mate available to pass to.
So Dolan’s debut, against Crewe in February, saw him eventually take up a holding midfield position, with Jones given greater licence to get forward. The result was two goals from Jones – both set up by Mclean’s lay offs – that leave the veteran as City’s second top-scorer. From having two central midfielders who defend and attack together, greater distinctions are now needed between the two who patrol the centre of the park.
Clearly Jones can play the attacking midfield role. In 2010/11, then in League One with Rochdale, he netted 18 goals (including penalties). But we come back to that age problem, and increasingly you feel that City needed someone more youthful and sprightly to take on the attacking midfielder role that the evolution of the team seemingly requires. There’s a lad at Scunthorpe, goes by the name of Syers or something, who I’d re-sign in a heartbeat.
Dolan looks even less suited to the role. His strengths lie in winning back the ball and setting up attacks. He is full of energy and gets around the park well, but has particularly excelled when asked to play in front of the back four. Given his age, Jones would suit the defensive role well also, and two years of watching Doyle play in the centre of the park suggest that – when on form – he would be an even better option than Jones or Dolan, playing as a tough-tackling quarter back. A latter-years David Beckham.
But three into one role doesn’t go (or four into one, if you count Kennedy). If City are to evolve in the way that truly gets the best out of Mclean and Hanson as a pairing, Parkinson needs to find room for an attacking central midfielder in his plans, knowing he will be well-stocked in the defensive holding role. It is hard to imagine that all three of Jones, Doyle and Dolan will be here next season, and so here is where the dilemma grows: who to keep?
For Dolan in particular, he is competing against two of the club’s best central midfielders in a decade, as he tries to prove he deserves a role ahead of them next season. There is undoubtedly much promise about his performances, such as his first half showing against Gillingham before injury; but nagging doubts have been raised from other displays. He was truly wretched against Shrewsbury, for example. His poor display against Oldham a week last Saturday did feature a superb assist for Adam Reach. Inconsistent is the word. Is he ready to be a week-in, week-out starter next term? Not for me.
If Dolan is penned in to remain beyond his loan spell (and we don’t know for sure that something is lined up), then a big call will need to be made on Doyle or Jones’ futures. The mistake in stock-piling central defenders this season underlines the need to be ruthless on this one.
Just like McCall’s exit in 2002, the club faces a hugely challenging task in ultimately replacing an inspirational but ageing figure in Jones. Matty Dolan has a look of Tom Kearney – the man charged with replacing McCall 12 years ago, before unfortunately suffering a really bad injury after which he never looked the same player – and the young midfielder has between now and the end of this season to prove that he would be ready for greater responsibility.
More realistically, Dolan can expect to go into 2014/15 at City, with either Jones or Doyle as his mentor, and being gradually eased into the team. Bring Dolan on slowly, allowing him to make mistakes and giving him the guidance to improve, and we might just have ourselves a real gem who can dominate the City midfield for years and years to come.
A gem who is a long, long way from being 37-years-old.