UCD AFC vs Bradford City preview
@UCD Bowl on Tuesday 15 July, 2014
By Jason McKeown
Bradford City’s annual trip to Ireland occurs with the squad for the 2014/15 season largely formed, and with only a few obvious gaps left to fill.
As Saturday’s 3-0 friendly romp over Guiseley evidenced, Phil Parkinson has plenty of strength in most areas of the team. There are several options and combinations for the centre of the park, up front and across the back four that will ensure keen competition for places. Although the appearance of defender and striker trialists at Nethermoor suggests Parkinson is considering adding to these areas, his main focus will surely be on the positions where he is severely lacking.
Principally that is someone to play in-between the sticks for the Bantams. As it stands, there is no contracted goalkeeper at the club. With less than a month before the big kick off, that reality prompts some apprehension – given it is such a key element of the team.
The folly of placing goalkeeper recruitment at the bottom of the priority list can be observed in Stuart McCall’s final season in charge, where he had infamously budgeted just £600 a week in wages to tempt a competent keeper. Cue problems. (And though the player eventually brought in that summer, Simon Eastwood, promoted huge derision over his performances at City, it’s worth noting that he might be back at Valley Parade next week as Blackburn Rovers’ keeper.)
Parkinson will evidently be weighing more importance on filling the position than as to leave barely any of his reduced budget left over to sign the two goalkeepers needed, but he’s probably not going to splash out the cash on the number two keeper at least. Last season, with the larger budget, Parkinson relied upon loan keepers to sit on the bench for half a season as insurance for a Jon McLaughlin injury. There may have been some financial commitment involved in borrowing Connor Ripley and Aaron Jameson, but it would barely have troubled the salary cap. With austerity the order of the summer, it’s hard to imagine Parkinson dramatically altering that stance.
Which makes the situation with McLaughlin all the more curious. City’s longest serving player was offered a contract to remain at the club, but for one reason or another it wasn’t signed. Clearly the club wanted him to stay when originally offering him that deal, but something stopped the Scot from agreeing to it. Without any public comment from the player, speculation reigns as to why he didn’t take the offer. Was he holding out for more money? Would he have preferred a longer deal? Had he been told that he might not be number one next season and was therefore unhappy? Was he aware of other clubs showing an interest in his services?
For the time being, McLaughlin trains with the club, presumably unpaid. If he was attracting interest from other clubs, what has stopped them from signing him, or why isn’t he at least appearing on trial for them? For these reasons, you can only speculate that offers from elsewhere have not being forthcoming, or at least any previous interest shown towards him has faded, should the keeper have been holding out for this. McLaughlin may have appeared on other clubs’ list of targets, but if other names were ahead of him on those lists, and if the club in question succeeded in signing them, there would be no need to follow up any initial interest shown towards Jon.
Such a scenario would appear to have occurred with James Meredith. In May the Aussie was quoted in Four-Four-Two as saying that although City would offer him a new contract, there was interest elsewhere that he would also look at. “I’m obviously assessing my options…Before I got injured there was a lot of interest from Championship clubs, that interest has died down a bit but there’s still a bit there.” It would appear that, as Meredith stalled over signing the deal on the table, City opted to sign Alan Sheehan instead (and on the day Sheehan signed, Sky Sports revealed Meredith had rejected his original contract offer). However, Meredith ultimately came back and agreed a revised one-year deal.
If there was interest in Meredith, it never materialised or wasn’t sufficiently tempting enough to better playing for Bradford City. Yet had Meredith originally signed the deal offered to him, would Parkinson have signed Alan Sheehan? The net result is that City now have two excellent left backs for League One level, and Sheehan – who was probably given certain assurances when he signed – is set to be first choice. By seemingly stalling, Meredith is now left with a lot of work to do earning a place in the team and winning over a doubting public. He must now have regrets.
A year ago I was speaking to the late former City Head of Development, Archie Christie, who was working for Harry Redknapp at QPR and quizzed me about Meredith. Unknowingly, I was providing him a reference about Meredith (I’m sure he also asked better qualified people than me) as he was on QPR’s lengthy list of targets for that summer. Again, nothing materialised and – to the best of my knowledge – City never received a transfer bid from Rangers. But it underlines the point that, as clubs draw up their wanted lists every close season, appearing halfway down one is no guarantee it will lead to something.
If there was still a firm contract offer on the table for McLaughlin to be Bradford City’s number one next season, he would surely sign it. He would not be training with the club, risking injury by playing in friendlies unpaid, and travelling over to Ireland, if he wanted to leave and if there was a realistic possibility of him doing so.
He has being accused of messing around the club and that’s probably true (though he has every right to secure the best situation for his career, as are you and I in our careers), but it appears that he is the loser of the situation. Simon Parker has stated the player “is still no nearer to finding out if he will be part of the club’s plans for the new season”, revealing that the balance of power has shifted. McLaughlin must now wait to see if the club still wants him, when at the beginning of June they had offered him a deal that he chose not to take.
The two games in Ireland begin with against the University College Dublin AFC (UCD AFC) Tuesday evening, at the wonderfully named UCD Bowl (can a 1,500 capacity stadium really be called a Bowl?) UCD play in the League of Ireland Premier Division (currently sitting second bottom, midway through their season) and will offer a useful workout.
Having initially being ruled out of the start of the season, central defender Matt Taylor is expected to experience some action over the two-game tour and may be fit enough to appear from the bench in the second half on Tuesday. On paper, Taylor still looks an excellent acquisition and, if he can sort his fitness issues, will add competition at the back.
Aaron Mclean, who picked up a minor knock in pre-season training, is also expected to figure at some stage of the tour and will want to hit the ground running. Last season his partnership with James Hanson saw very mixed success, and these games should be the perfect opportunity for the pair to build up a stronger understanding for when the serious stuff begins. In what is a big season for Oli McBurnie, he can’t afford to miss opportunities to impress in pre-season friendlies and will hope to be fit enough to figure on Tuesday.
Beyond Angelo Balanta and Nick Arnold, who have travelled to Ireland, it is unclear if any of the trialists from Saturday will be offered another opportunity to impress, and indeed there may be new trial players brought in for a go. Beyond that, Parkinson has stated his intention to give half of his squad 60 minutes on Tuesday and the other a full hour on Saturday, as fitness levels are pushed harder.
This is the third year in a row that Parkinson has taken the team to Ireland and it appears to work well in developing team spirit. Those supporters who have been on previous trips – after they stop talking about how brilliant the nightlife is – have always commented on an enjoyable atmosphere of openness around the matches, with players and management mixing freely with supporters.
And though some of the new signings still remain unfamiliar to us, there’s a good opportunity to meet and have your picture taken with people who might in future become City heroes. Two of my friends went to Ireland in 2012/13, and approached Ritchie Jones in the club house, desperate to have their photo taken together with the midfielder. Looking around for someone to take the picture they spotted an unassuming bloke nearby, asked if he would mind doing the honours and handed him their camera. Snap, photo completed. “Thanks very much” they said to the bloke, before walking back to the bar. “Who was that bloke?” one of them asked. “Erm (long pause) – oh he’s called Stephen Darby.”