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Jon McLaughlin’s departure triggers mixed feelings

23 Jul
Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

By Jason McKeown

“We’ve come a long, long way together. Through the hard times and the good.” Praise You by Fatboy Slim

If there was one Bradford City player on the retained list who it would be assumed would re-sign with no problems, it was surely Jon McLaughlin, who has this week instead departed the club. As the longest-serving player, the Scottish keeper’s endurance was something to celebrate. He’d enjoyed a good season, where he’d finally proven himself the club’s number one. A new contract was offered to him in May, along with deals for Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and James Meredith. But whilst the others all eventually agreed terms to remain in West Yorkshire, McLaughlin has been stuck in limbo, unable to conclude a new deal.

Width of a Post understands that the player (or at least his agent) believed there would be a fair amount of interest from other clubs. So seemingly in a position of strength, he turned down City’s initial offer and apparently requested a substantial pay rise. If the rumours are true, McLaughlin was a relatively low paid player last season (and certainly a long, long way below the club’s highest earner, Aaron Mclean). However, his demands did not go down well with the club, who withdrew the original offer when it expired following the 30-day consultation period.

It meant that McLaughlin was left in a position of training with City in the hope of continuing negotiations; his hand further weakened by the signing of Jordan Pickford from Sunderland on a season’s loan. There was not the interest elsewhere that his agent perhaps originally suggested to him, although it is good to see him ultimately receive an acceptable offer from Burton Albion. As such, the player and club can shake hands on good terms, after going through so much together.

McLaughlin originally arrived at Valley Parade in 2008, awarded his big break by Stuart McCall. Over six seasons at Valley Parade, he has played his part in achievements big and small. But it didn’t translate into hero status, or even widespread appreciation. He was not unpopular with the crowd, but far from a favourite either. Whereas some of his predecessors in the Valley Parade goal have been big presences and demanding of the attention, McLaughlin always seemed something of a supporting character.

You didn’t always notice him, and sometimes it was hard to tell if that was a good or a bad thing.

You can certainly find plenty of detractors of McLaughlin. They will tell you he wasn’t good enough, that he has too many weaknesses and that his strengths are nothing special. Equally you will also find numerous supporters of the Scot. They will point to his overall ability, and his stats – which are undoubtedly commendable. But from the majority of City fans, there is a mixture of indifference and indecisiveness over his worth. The club’s longest-serving player, and yet many of us couldn’t make up our minds about him. Is he good enough? Could we do better? Could we do worse?

In 2013/14, McLaughlin was an ever-present in the league and can take pride in City ‘against’ column: they conceded the seventh-fewest goals in the division. McLaughlin kept 14 clean sheets – a record of almost one shut-out every three games – and only conceded more than two goals on five occasions.

That is impressive, but yet the credit for that solidity doesn’t seem to go to McLaughlin. Everyone agrees that Andrew Davies is the key figure in the back five, and the stats for a City side with Davies at the helm and a City side without him demonstrate his considerable value (just one clean sheet during his four-month absence). Stephen Darby won the 2013/14 player of the season award and is widely valued, Rory McArdle is generally rated. But what of McLaughlin? How influential was Jon McLaughlin in Jon McLaughlin keeping 14 clean sheets? And if the answer is ‘very’, why didn’t he get the credit?

The season before that, 2012/13, was a similar story. Parkinson interchanged between Matt Duke and McLaughlin, and the debate raged all season about who was the better player. I was a member of the #TeamDuke camp, yet the stats showed that Duke conceded twice as many goals as McLaughlin. Famously that season, a 4-1 thrashing to Exeter in March was a watershed moment that led to a late play off surge. Parkinson made two changes to the backline for the next game, against Wycombe, which began that run. Meredith was brought back in after injury and McLaughlin replaced Duke. Meredith received a great deal of credit for the subsequent upturn in the team’s form, whilst McLaughlin barely received a mention.

So what kept happening? Why does McLaughlin look such a good player on paper, but yet was unable to fully convince us when we were watching him live?

Like James Hanson, his background has both helped and counted against him. Signed from Harrogate Railway and a former University student. McLaughlin must have been initially grateful that a club like ours would give him an opportunity. He was fortunate to be here. And for that reason, there was always an element of looking down on Jon rather than looking up to him. He was around so long that he almost became first choice keeper by default.

It took Hanson, with his own non-league background, a long time to win over his critics and prove himself as a genuine star player of the team. McLaughlin failed to reach that same status. Part of my bias for Duke in 2012/13 derived from his greater pedigree that gave you the confidence to believe he was a ‘proper’ goalkeeper. If McLaughlin had similarly joined City from Hull, would we currently view and judge him differently? Certainly, Burton Albion’s fans will have a different perspective in how they welcome him, on account of his now-lengthy Football League experience.

What I’ve often felt is lacking in McLaughlin’s game were point-winning contributions. When you compare him to some of the best City keepers of the last two decades, there simply isn’t the same list of memorable McLaughlin performances and incredible saves. Yet on the other side of the coin, McLaughlin’s mistakes were not particularly frequent or dreadful enough to differentiate him from those who have kept the Bradford City goal before him. He is basically an ordinary goalkeeper. A good all round game, with nothing glaringly lacking from his range of abilities. Still, you sometimes wish that it was more evident just what a difference he makes.

In September, McLaughlin will turn 27 and, like his former goalkeeping coach Duke, could in theory be playing professional football into his late 30s. These next four or five years in particular should be amongst his best, and there must be some sadness that they won’t take place at Valley Parade.

For a lot of investment went into developing Jon. Four managers trusted in him, numerous goalkeeping coaches spent a great deal of time improving him. The lessons learned from the mistakes he made will now be to another club’s benefit. It will be very interesting to see how both he – and the keepers who follow him in the Valley Parade sticks – fare over the coming years.

Whatever the disagreements over recent weeks, no one can dispute that McLaughlin made a very positive contribution to Bradford City. We are all better off for what he did for the club.

What becomes of yesterday’s bright young things

21 Jul
Part of the scene: Morecambe away, April 2009

Part of the scene: Morecambe away, April 2009

By Jason McKeown

In consecutive years, each was voted player of the season by Bradford City supporters. A demonstration of their popularity, offering credibility to the argument of persisting with a youth set up even during times of austerity. Yet rather than fulfilling hopes and expectations of remaining on the Valley Parade scene for many years to come, this season the pair find themselves playing in the City of Bradford but not for Bradford City.

Joe Colbeck has this summer signed for Bradford (Park Avenue), whilst Luke O’Brien has joined Thackley. Joe is still only 27-years-old. Luke is two years younger. They should still have another 7-10 years playing professional football, even if it’s not for the club with whom they climbed up the youth ranks to make it as a professional. “I’m really looking forward to it,” Colbeck told the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, as he faced up to his release by the Mariners and the signing of a part-time contract to play at the Horsfall Stadium. As yet O’Brien has made no public comment about his move to Thackley. He was released in May, after a fruitless individual season playing for Conference Premier side Gateshead.

How did it come to this? How have such bright hopes faded so abruptly?

It would be wrong to romanticise the Bradford City careers of Joe Colbeck and Luke O’Brien. Their respective player of the season awards were terrific standout moments that reflected just how well they had performed in claret and amber, but you don’t need to speak to many Bradford City supporters to find someone who will dismiss at least one of the pair as “sh*t”.

The truth is that Joe, and to a lesser extent Luke, had an extremely difficult time trying to win over the Valley Parade crowd. They had their supporters for sure (I was certainly one of them, in Luke’s case); but when either made mistakes or the team was under-performing, the pair would come under a harsher spotlight than others. It is a familiar pattern that has affected previous City youth products, and it will no doubt happen in future with The Next Big Thing.

But sh*t or not, the longevity of both players at Valley Parade proved they had more substance than people give them credit for. Joe Colbeck played 116 times for City, making his debut in 2004 and leaving the club in 2009. He was awarded a debut by Colin Todd and – after initially bursting onto the scene in 2005/06, and in September 2006 impressing a watching Derby County scout enough for the Rams to make an enquiry – endured an up-and-down time under David Wetherall and initially Stuart McCall.

In 2007, McCall sent Colbeck to Darlington on loan and received back a completely different player. He was sensational during the second half of the 2007/08 campaign – on the road at least. So many match-winning performances that cemented his player of the year award. Tellingly, Colbeck was still less of a force at Valley Parade. If you only saw home games that season, you will still be wondering what the fuss was about.

Colbeck’s decline began at the home of his final professional club: Grimsby away in October 2008, and a bad injury to the winger in the closing stages rules him out for three months. He wasn’t the same player on his return, struggling to get into a team that had found a way to win games without him and then, by March, a team that had lost its way. Colbeck was asked to be saviour to City’s faltering play off bid, but couldn’t handle such responsibility. The crowd destroyed him. I still shudder thinking of the Easter Monday home draw with Lincoln, where Colbeck’s brittle confidence was ripped to shreds. McCall had no choice but to take him off.

By this time Luke O’Brien was the new darling of the crowd. He would ultimately make 149 appearances for the Bantams, becoming a regular in 2008/09 after Paul Heckingbottom picked up a bad injury. O’Brien was a revelation at left back, most memorably scoring the goal of the season in a 2-0 Don Valley victory over Rotherham. Steven Schumacher would later recall how much Luke stood out in the youth team even to the watching senior players. At the end of 2008/09, the rising star was crowned with the player of the season trophy that Colbeck had lifted 12 months earlier.

And he continued to be relevant even after McCall had fallen on his sword. Peter Taylor’s first signing as manager had been a left back to take O’Brien’s place, but he eventually won it back from Robbie Threlfall. Peter Jackson preferred Luke too, and going into the 2011/12 season declared that Threlfall could leave the club. It is rumoured that personal problems in O’Brien’s life caused a rethink on Threlfall’s future, and Phil Parkinson never looked like a fan of O’Brien. In January 2012 Luke was moved on; Parkinson preferring to use centre back Marcel Seip as his left back.

Yet the destinations of both Colbeck and O’Brien were not downwards initially: from Valley Parade, they moved up divisions. In the summer of 2009 Colbeck turned down a new contract under McCall, preferring to attempt to impress enough in pre-season to convince City to offer him better terms. In the end he was reunited with his Darlington saviour Dave Penny with League One Oldham (who described Colbeck as being in the “Stanley Matthews mould”). To put the £60k move into perspective, that summer Oldham was also the destination of City’s star loanee who we could never hope to keep: Dean Furman.

O’Brien also moved up a league, to St. James Park and Exeter. That neither player excelled in League One was no huge disgrace – we knew they had their limitations – but surely they could sustain careers in the basement league at least? Colbeck left Oldham soon after Penny was sacked, signing a two-year contract at Hereford United. He was, infamously, the subject of horrendous barracking on his first return to Valley Parade that 2010/11 season, but a year later came off the bench in the same fixture to some applause. At Edgar Street in 2011/12, Colbeck played more games in a season than he’d ever achieved before.

Yet the decline continued. O’Brien, released by Exeter after just three appearances, joined Oxford on a sh0rt-term basis in 2012 and played against the Bantams to warm appreciation from his former supporters. He played just 15 times for the Us, however, and spent last season at Gateshead. Meanwhile a relegated Hereford released Colbeck and he rocked up at non-league Grimsby. In two seasons at Blundell Park, Colbeck had a mixed time with some excellent performances (such as a hat trick of assists in a derby victory over Lincoln) offset by further injuries and an FA fine for improper comments on Twitter.

Which brings them back to the City of Bradford this summer and playing part time. There are former City youth team mates of the pair who barely got a chance at Valley Parade, yet who now feature higher up the league ladder. Their fall is staggering, and seems too much. Perhaps, just like another youth graduate Mark Bower, who moved to Guiseley in order to combine playing with setting up an estate agent business, it is their choice to sink so low. That there were better offers on the table, possibly to stay full time, that didn’t appeal. That the money on offer would be too low to live on, and that combining a part-time wage at BPA/Thackley with another job will prove more rewarding. Especially as they can continue to live in an area they grew up in. (O’Brien is still seen in and around the Valley Parade, and still attends the player of the season awards.)

But still, it is sad. No one was blind to either player’s faults, and the level City have now reached was clearly beyond their abilities, but four or five years of regularly playing at Valley Parade should have been cue to a long-term playing career in the Football League. Should have, but hasn’t been. An important lesson for every young player hoping to make it as a professional – it is unbelievably difficult to make a career of it.

Pre-season preview part one: the obscure world of trialists

9 Jul

Ireland 1

By Jason McKeown

It’s a good job that the Wi-Fi reception is good at Nethermoor, Guiseley – for Bradford City’s usual pre-season trip to their non-league neighbours, this Saturday, will no doubt provide reasons for us supporters to Google obscure football names who appear on trial.

Year after year, a number of trialists will take part in early pre-season friendlies in the hope of convincing the manager they are worth offering a permanent deal to. Although it seems most have no chance, a surprisingly high number are awarded a proper contract and some have gone on to make a huge impression. Witness the club’s most effective post-millennium strike partnership of James Hanson and Nahki Wells, or other ‘We Made History’ contributors, Zavon Hines and Carl McHugh.

Other notable trialist names over the years include Andy Gray, Mark Paston, Paul Henderson, Steven Schumacher, Steve Williams, Kyle Nix, David Syers, James O’Brien, Steve O’Leary and Scott Neilson. Last season’s 4-0 Guiseley romp featured four trialists – including Rafa De Vita, who ended up signing a one-year deal with the club. No wonder we all pay extra attention to these unknowns.

There are, however, many others who don’t impress enough to warrant a place in the upcoming season’s squad, and are cast off. Some names remain in the memory, others are long forgotten. Width of a Post recalls some of the failed trialists from the past seven seasons and what became of them.

Kyle Naughton

The pre-season: 2007/08

Background: Having emerged through the youth ranks at Sheffield United, a teenage Kyle Naughton was trialled by Stuart McCall but overlooked for a deal.

What happened next: A left winger at the time and with his Bramall Lane future in doubt, Naughton eventually established himself with the Blades thanks to manager Kevin Blackwell converting him to a full back. Naughton and team-mate Kyle Walker were eventually signed by Tottenham for a combined fee of £9 million. Although Naughton has struggled at White Hart Lane, he could certainly have done a job at Valley Parade!

Jevegeni Novikov

The pre-season: 2009/10

Background: As Stuart McCall managed the cost-cutting measures from a failed promotion bid the season before, several trialists were given an opportunity, including Hanson and Williams. Another interesting figure was Estonian international midfielder Jevegeni Novikov, who auditioned in a 2-0 friendly victory over York City and looked fairly impressive.

What happened next: With no deal offered, Novikov ultimately ended up at FC Okzhetpes who played in the Kazakhstan Premier League, before moves to FF Jaro (the top flight in Finland) and Estonian side FC Levadia Tallinn. His career ended in 2011 at just 31-years-old.

Alan Mannus

The pre-season: 2009/10

Background: Part of McCall’s 2009 trialist search that summer included finding a goalkeeper to replace the departed Rhys Evans. Long-established Linfield stopper Alan Mannus, born in Canada and raised in Northern Ireland, played a couple of friendlies but was unfortunate that the poor quality of opposition meant he didn’t have a save to make. He left, and McCall ended up bringing in Simon Eastwood to keep goal.

What happened next: Mannus returned to Northern Ireland and signed for Shamrock Rovers. In two years at the Tallaght Stadium, Mannus played in the Champions League and was runner up in the PFAI player of the year award. In 2011, Mannus joined St. Johnstone, and he has largely enjoyed an impressive three years in Scotland. More European football, a third-place finish in the SPL and, last season, a Scottish Cup winners’ medal.

Seb Carole

The pre-season: 2010/11

Background: French winger Seb Carole was trialled by Peter Taylor in the summer of 2010, but the former Monaco, West Ham, Brighton and Leeds man was not offered anything concrete.

What happened next: Carole made a return to Brighton on a week-to-week contract, but was only a bit-part player under Gus Poyet. After a brief spell back over the channel with OGC Nice, Carole played for Knaresborough Town, enjoyed a short cameo back in League One with Bury, and spent two months at Guiseley.

Jamie Green

The pre-season: 2011/12

Background: After foolishly allowing Omar Daley to leave Bradford City, Peter Jackson was left scrambling for wide players and trialled former Rotherham winger Jamie Green in several friendlies. Green was fairly impressive and it seemed likely he would be offered something, but in the end Jackson opted against it.

What happened next: Green signed for Grimsby Town on a non-contract basis, who had just been relegated from the Football League. He appeared at left back on six occasions but was eventually released, ending up in South Yorkshire’s non-league circles. Last season he was contracted to Buxton.

Jonny Brain

The pre-season: 2011/12

Background: Former Newcastle United youth product Jonny Brain was clearly highly rated during his four years at Macclesfield and linked with moves to bigger clubs – but to Bradford City fans, a succession of awful games against the Bantams meant he was a laughing stock. His most high-profile gaff was an air-shot that allowed pint-sized City striker David Brown to score on his debut, at Moss Rose in 2008. It was therefore a huge shock when Brain appeared as a City trialist under Jackson in a game at Silsden. He had little to do but conceded a late goal in a 7-1 win, and was promptly released.

What happened next: Brain was signed by non-league Nantwich Town and helped The Dabbers reach the FA Cup 1st Round for the first time in its history. He was voted player of the season and given a two-year contract in 2012, but was transfer-listed a year later as Nantwich needed to cut their costs. Brain played for Stafford Rangers last season but is currently without a club.

Michael Boateng

The pre-season: 2012/13

Background: Along with Anthony McNamee (ex-Wycombe), Michael Boateng was trialled by Phil Parkinson following a strong recommendation by Jamie Lawrence (the pair were part of his academy). The duo took part in City’s pre-season trip to Ireland but were not offered anything.

What happened next: Boateng – who had been on Bristol Rovers’ books – ended up moving into non-league with Bromley, Sutton United and Newport County (before they were promoted to the Football League), but hardly played for any club. After seemingly nailing down a first team spot at Whitehawk last season, Boateng was named in the match-fixing scandal and, last month, was sentenced to 16 months in prison.

Javan Vidal

The pre-season: 2012/13

Background: Despite his exotic-sounding name, Javan Vidal was a Mancunian who came through Manchester City’s academy and undertook several loan spells at the likes of Aberdeen, Derby and Chesterfield, before signing for Greek club Pantolikios. After failing to make a single appearance for the Superleague Club, Vidal appeared on trial in City’s 7-1 thumping of Tadcaster United but was not offered a deal by Phil Parkinson.

What happened next: Left without a club for six months, Vidal eventually signed for Stockport County but left Edgley Park after they were relegated from the Conference. Amazingly, Vidal was given another professional opportunity and signed for Rochdale last summer. However, after making only three appearances at Spotland, he was released last January.

Gary Woods

The pre-season: 2013/14

Background: After playing in all but four games of Doncaster Rovers’ 2012/13 League One title-winning season, Gary Woods was surprisingly released and ended up on trial at Valley Parade due to new goalkeeping coach Lee Butler’s South Yorkshire connections. Woods played in City’s tour of Ireland but no deal was agreed.

What happened next: Woods also went on trial to Championship club Watford and earned a one-year deal at Vicarage Road. Despite not figuring at all last season, Woods remains on the books at Watford.

Vincent Acapandie

The pre-season: 2013/14

Background: The wonderfully-named Vincent Acapandie rocked up on trial last summer and played in the annual Guiesley friendly. The 23-year-old Frenchman had graduated through Auxerre’s academy but played only five times for the Ligue 1 club.

What happened next: After failing to impress Phil Parkinson, Acapandie is no longer playing football.

Brian Jensen

The pre-season: 2013/14

Background: At 38-years-old and after 10 years at Turf Moor, Brian Jensen’s trial appearance for Bradford City last summer came as a huge surprise. ‘The beast’ looked solid enough in the 4-0 thumping over Guiseley, but surely City could do better?

What happened next: There was life in Jensen yet. He signed for Bury and enjoyed a strong season at Gigg Lane – sweeping up at the player of the season awards. Jensen wasn’t offered a new contract in the summer, and so has signed for City’s League One rivals Crawley Town.

Dimitrios Konstantopoulos

The pre-season: 2013/14

Background: Yet another keeper trialled last summer (in the end Jon McLaughlin was the only permanent keeper Parkinson had on the books), Greek stopper Dimitrios Konstantopoulos had quite a pedigree. He’d made his name at Hartlepool during the period where United were knocking on the door to the Championship, and after 139 appearances at Victoria Park went on to play for Coventry, Swansea and Cardiff. After two years at AEK Athens as back up keeper, Konstantopoulos was looked at by Parkinson but not signed.

What happened next: Konstantopoulos had no trouble finding a club and signed for Championship side Middlesbrough on a short-term deal that was extended last January. He made his full league debut in March and impressed greatly, ending the season attracting interest from other clubs such as Nottingham Forest. In May, Konstantopoulos signed another new one-year deal at the Riverside.

Peter Horne’s abrupt departure

7 Jul


By Jason McKeown

The football industry has long been filled with abrupt goodbyes that are lacking in appreciation – but to an outsider, there seems to be something especially cruel about the manner in which Peter Horne has departed Valley Parade after 16 years hard toil, largely behind the scenes.

Two lines of copy at the end of a Telegraph & Argus news story, and as yet no official announcement via the club website. There are rumours and counter-rumours as to what has happened to cause a parting of ways, ranging from he was sacked, resigned or is suffering from ill health. Whatever has taken place and whether his departure is viewed internally by the club as a good or a bad thing, nothing can change his list of achievements since he joined the club back in 1998.

Over a decade and a half, Horne rose up through the youth team coaching ranks to take full control of this area of the club in 2011. When Archie Christie joined the Bantams that summer, his first action was to offer Horne a four-year contract and hand him the additional responsibility of Head of Youth Development (“Peter Horne has done a stunning and magnificent job”). Whatever the front-of-house failings that had caused the club’s decade-long decline, the youth set-up was evidently doing its bit – and Horne was a key reason for that.

It hasn’t always been obvious to us supporters, simply because the club’s brightest youth prospects have been consistently sold on before they reached the age of challenging for first team football. The players discovered and developed by Horne and his team, only to be sold early, would have formed the bedrock for a mightily impressive Bradford City side.

Fabian Delph, Tom Cleverley, Andre Wisdom and George Green. The money raised by selling these players has at times proven vital in supplementing first team budgets and keeping season ticket prices so low – and they have continued to pay. Delph’s 2010 move from Leeds to Aston Villa provided a sell-on windfall, Tom Cleverley’s loan moves to Watford and Leicester produced a five-figure sum of money, and Andre Wisdom’s first team outings for Liverpool generate appearance fees.

As supporters, there will always be a sense of sadness and what might have been, and in an ideal world all of these starlets would have been kept on and appeared in City’s first team. But you can understand the logic behind selling players of potential for what could ultimately prove to be lucrative deals – especially as there are no guarantees they will make it.

Witness Niall Heaton’s return to Valley Parade last summer after Liverpool released him, or goalkeeper Sam Filler, sold to Middlesbrough in 2008 but who ultimately never made it as a professional. In 2011 I interviewed Horne, who told me, “I get a lot of comments along the lines of ‘why aren’t we seeing any young players coming through?’ But it isn’t just about that. Our youth department is working in a different way. Yes we produce some players for the first team, but we’re helping to sustain things for the club.”

Horne and his team have also overseen the development of youth players who have made Bradford City’s first team, and he must have harboured his own personal frustrations that pretty much all of them did not go onto enjoy the sort of career they threatened. The passing of their care into the hands of a first team manager has often seen development stutter or reverse. The likes of Danny Forrest, Joe Colbeck and Luke O’Brien carried so much promise, yet none managed to sustain a career in the Football League.

Perhaps, with all the managerial changes over the years, it is to be expected that youth team graduates have stagnated. Whereas some managers like Stuart McCall showed a clear passion for the youth set up – he made sure he knew the name of every player across all ages ranges – others like Peter Taylor were said to care little. In his programme notes over the years, Horne would often convey his frustrations that previous managers had overlooked the youth team (Colin Todd and Taylor, take a bow), but in their defence they faced very different pressures that understandably caused them to look elsewhere for answers. (And besides, in Todd’s case he handed a lot of first team debuts to youth players.)

In Horne’s last season, 2013/14, the youth set up had never looked so strong. The under 18s won their league at a canter, and went all the way to the Youth Alliance national final before losing to an impressive Colchester United side. Oli McBurnie has become the latest flag-bearer for hopes of a youth team player making it, and his prospects look strong. The class of 2013/14 aren’t all going to make it at City (in fact some have already been released); but if one or two can complete that giant leap, Horne will deserve a share of the credit.

A Bradford lad and a City fan himself, it must have taken something extraordinary to prompt Horne’s sudden exit. But he leaves behind the commendable legacy of a much improved youth set up – and we can only hope that his fantastic work is continued by Alan Nevison and co.

A mid-table budget should reflect the season’s objectives

26 Jun


By Jason McKeown

The Bradford City chairman, Mark Lawn, is rarely dull when he speaks out, and today’s comments urging supporters not to panic about next season, in the wake of concerns over the growing number of players leaving the club this summer, were certainly very revealing.

The budget reduction has become the talking point of the close season so far. When judged against a playing budget said to have been just over £2 million in 2012/13, the £500k cut represents a significant proportion of the resources manager Phil Parkinson was previously able to call upon. There has been talk that some of the players let go this summer were partially because of their high wages. It would be great to think that everyone who the club has chosen to release have departed entirely due to footballing reasons; but without clarification from the club, speculation has been allowed to grow.

Still, as Mark Lawn told the T&A, new signings will be made to strengthen the squad, “We’ve got a competitive budget so we’ll have a competitive squad – it’s as simple as that. I don’t understand why everyone is panicking over something which will be sorted out before the season gets underway. Obviously we are going to bring more players in because we’ve not got enough at present.”

Although no one likes the idea of the playing budget being slashed, the prudent approach of the club should be congratulated. It is almost 10 years to the day since the Bantams were hours away from going out of business forever; in the midst of a second spell in administration, less than 18 months since the first one. For the past decade, the club has undertaken and maintained a route of living with its means, taking what Chief Executive David Baldwin describes as “calculated risks”. Setting playing budgets higher than the business can afford, with variants in place to recoup these losses later, if needed.

Bradford City must continue to live within its means, and if that means a reduced budget for the upcoming season then so be it. There is a separate debate raging about whether the club should abandon its principled policy of cheap season tickets in order to give the manager more funds (for what it’s worth, I’m against pricing supporters out of buying season tickets), but in the immediate term that cannot be changed. This is what Bradford City can afford, so this is the budget Phil Parkinson must work with.

Which brings us to the most interesting aspect of Lawn’s T&A comments. “We have a competitive budget this year which is higher than at least ten other clubs in League One this coming season.” Accepting that the chairman is unlikely to have an accurate picture of every other League One club’s 2014/15 budget, by his reckoning City’s wage budget is going to be around the 14th highest in the division. In other words, Phil Parkinson has a mid-table budget to work from.

It can be easy to become overhung on budgets and assume they will dictate the divisional outcome – when in fact, year-on-year, there will be clubs with large budgets who don’t perform and others on low budgets who overachieve – but they are clearly important. And it must be a key point in the expectation levels set for next season. Can we, in the Boardroom and in the stands, justifiably expect Phil Parkinson to achieve promotion in 2014/15? Do we have a right to be disappointed if City are not in the top six? Is a mid-table finish considered acceptable?

Because the worry remains that, if City’s league position is judged against unreasonable expectations, it will prove to be a bumpy ride. Parkinson is tasked with making more from less, and improving a squad which, over the previous two years, had lifted the club 30 places up the ladder. It will not be easy and patience is going to be needed. As a club we cannot stand still and tread water, but slow progress shouldn’t be judged as failure against the true backdrop of the budget constraints.

Instead, it should be made loud and clear: Bradford City 2014/15, a mid-table budget, but a realistic objective to perform better. It might not set the pulses racing, but it is a sensible next step for a club that should have a sound, long-term plan to ultimately get back into the Championship.

Kyel Reid played an important role in the rise of Bradford City

24 Jun
Picture by Claire Epton

Picture by Claire Epton

By Jason McKeown

Joining Bradford City on the very same day that Phil Parkinson took over at Valley Parade, it seems hard to believe that Kyel Reid will no longer be a feature of the manager’s squad. The flying winger brings an end to three seasons in West Yorkshire by joining Lancashire divisional rivals Preston on a two-year deal – an offer that would have been impossible to turn down.

The alternative, of returning to the Bantams on a week-to-week contract, trying to prove his fitness, hardly offered the same security. At Deepdale, Reid will receive all the rehabilitation support he needs to recover from that dreadful injury picked up at Bramall Lane last January. He will then be part of a side that was unfortunate not to be promoted last season – 2013/14’s League One was a tough one, and a top five finish was no small achievement – and who go into this season with strong, credible ambitions of returning to the Championship. For a player whose career was in some doubt, this is a great move.

Yet Reid – or at least the Kyel Reid prior to taking the field at Bramall Lane that day – leaves behind a huge hole at Valley Parade. His bad injury occurring just a week after Nahki Wells’ departure to Huddersfield, the lack of pace in the team over the final five months of the season was an obvious problem. Adam Reach was a good replacement for Reid in the circumstances, but direct pace was not amongst his attributes. When City were under pressure defensively and attempting to counter attack, they lacked a player who could run with the ball and leave a trail of defenders behind. Goalscoring opportunities dried up. As Aaron Mclean struggled for goals, there was some regret that he only crossed paths with Reid for half an hour in South Yorkshire.

When on form, Reid was one of the club’s most exciting players. It was no surprise that Reid was Parkinson’s first signing, after the misguided move of his predecessor, Peter Jackson, in letting Omar Daley depart and not bothering to replace him. Perhaps, on his absolute best day, Daley was a better player than Reid – but for consistency and overall game, Kyel was an improvement. He would also be blighted by inconsistency and inevitably be singled out for abuse by supporters, but those occurrences were less frequent. Reid’s final ball wasn’t always the best, but he so often made things happen.

In season one (2011/12), and with a relegation battle to win, Parkinson leaned heavily upon Reid. The defence was set up not to come forwards, and in the centre of the park were two ball winners flanked on the right by the positionally-solid Craig Fagan. The attacking spark either came from direct balls to James Hanson and Wells, or through Reid. He embraced the responsibility to deliver numerous match-winning contributions. When the chips were down, he could be counted upon.

Being truthful, Reid was not amongst the stand-out performers of 2012/13. He endured another bad injury at Rochdale in October, and wasn’t seen again until January. With the League Cup run in full flow, Reid remained on the sidelines, almost making a sub appearance in the Wembley final against Swansea before another Swans goal caused Parkinson to change his mind over his choice of substitution. But he was back in the side and starting at Wembley three months later, enjoying arguably his best ever game for the club in the 3-0 demolition of Northampton that sealed promotion.

2013/14 started with Reid the only promotion winner displaced from the starting XI, which was where his determination really came to the fore. He won back his place from Mark Yeates (who, despite having a disappointing season, did actually start well) and produced some electrifying performances. None more so than at Deepdale in October, where he ran his future employers ragged with a dazzling display. On that evidence, it is no surprise that Simon Grayson is taking a chance on his fitness with the two-year contract.

As City’s form fell away, so too did Reid’s. Like so many other wingers in the past – even Peter Beagrie – Reid had more than his fair share of critics in the stand. We all know he couldn’t do certain things, that he should be better in his delivery, and that his form could be too erratic. But at the end of the day, that is why he was playing for Bradford City and not still at his first club, West Ham. He was a League One winger, and a bloody good one at that.

But with Reid, merely knowing what he was capable of would cause you to perch yourself on the edge of your seat in anticipation, when he ran with the ball. There is nothing like the sight of watching a winger charge past defenders, beating them through skill and raw pace. Reid may have been frustrating to watch at times, but more often he was simply great to watch.

Parkinson simply has to find a replacement of Reid’s style and ilk. We got by without him last season, but our attacking play suffered and we now have a first choice front two who badly need good service. Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish – a player who caused havoc against City when on loan at Notts County last season – has been mentioned as a loan option. As we reported last week, Reach is also said to be interested in a return should he not figure in Middlesbrough’s immediate plans – but he would be more effective if there was a pacy winger on the opposite side to him, as at times we were too reliant on Reach to play like Reid.

Whoever comes in, Reid will be fondly remembered. Parkinson’s first signing for City proved to be one of his best, and the 26-year-old leaves Bradford City as a much stronger club than the one he joined three years ago.

The high stakes of high player turnover

24 Jun


By Jason McKeown

Kyel Reid has joined Preston North End. James Meredith has removed “plays for Bradford City” from his Twitter profile. There is still no indication over whether Jon McLaughlin will sign the new contract he has been offered.

Should all three end up leaving Valley Parade this summer, the rate of player turnover will become eyebrow-raising.

Consider this. Of the 2012/13 squad that delivered the historic double Wembley season, just 12 months ago, only four players may remain at the club when the season begins in August: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and James Hanson. It is often said that there can be no room for sentiment in football and that must certainly ring true of those tasked with making tough decisions, but we supporters are allowed to be different. There have been a lot of sad farewells over the past few weeks, and you wonder if ultimately there will have proven to be too many.

For beyond the 2012/13 heroics, it should not be forgotten that the bulk of the players departing this summer helped the club achieve a top half finish in the higher division of League One in 2013/14. During the best period of the campaign (which admittedly was early doors) the entire XI was the same as the one that had won promotion in the League Two play off final the previous May. We are not talking about people who were out of their depth, or who simply had to be replaced. This turnaround is either ruthless or premature – and only history will be able to tell us which one. The upcoming season is going to be very, very interesting.

Because make no mistake – expectations are increasing. Alan Sheehan’s arrival came under the T&A headline ‘Alan Sheehan signing gives rise to hopes of promotion’. Aaron Mclean was quoted in the T&A today stating the aim next season was to be “pushing for promotion”. This for a club with the playing budget cut by £500k (a-not-inconsiderable sum of money – with the club said to have had a wage budget just over £2 million last season, £500k represents a large chunk of money).

If the new-look side struggles to live up to the hype, you can easily imagine the fall out. If the players who have been let go flourish in their new homes, the wisdom of failing to keep them will be questioned. For as well as City ended last season, it wasn’t a happy ship in March and early April. Similar negativity will quickly return if things don’t go well.

Which is not to talk down City’s chances, but simply to observe how high the stakes are. Keep those heroic players past their ‘best before’ date and Parkinson would have been criticised. Let them go when they could still do a job – and a better job than their replacements end up doing – and Parkinson will be criticised. The potential departures of Meredith and McLaughlin would not be his choosing, but it all adds to a lot of experience being lost.

Parkinson knows what he is doing, and the team he is letting go is one that he originally built two summers ago – demonstrating his capability to build another successful team. But he needs a summer like 2012, not 2013, otherwise the coming campaign could prove to be an uncomfortable one for the manager.

For me, a promotion challenge in 2014/15 would be welcomed but shouldn’t be assumed. If City are not in the top six, it shouldn’t be viewed as a failure. Parkinson has two years left on his contract and is signing players on a similar length of deal – that should be a timeframe for a promotion push. Move forwards next season, absolutely, but it needs to be part of a bigger plan.

The pace of change is rapid, but we need to give it plenty of time to work. I just worry that patience is not going to happen, and fear the consequences of failing to realise potentially unrealistic expectations.

Parkinson forced to change his high-performing back five

21 Jun


By Jason McKeown

The revolution of Bradford City’s playing squad continues, although the latest movement is one that Phil Parkinson seemingly didn’t want to see. Whilst there is no doubt that, on paper at least, the arrival of 27-year-old left back Alan Sheehan represents a shrewd piece of business, it heralds a change to an area of the team that the City manager seemingly wanted to keep together.

As Sheehan makes the move to West Yorkshire, James Meredith’s future almost certainly lies elsewhere. The out-of-contract Australian full back was offered improved terms to stay and – according to Sky Sports – has rejected this offer in favour of finding another club. Goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin’s future remains unresolved, but regardless of whether he signs or also leaves, the back five for next season will be at least partially different.

And you can understand Parkinson’s aim to stick rather than twist his defence. Just 54 goals conceded last season left the Bantams with the seventh-best defensive record in the division. Along the way, they picked up 14 clean sheets (the joint seventh-best record of League One). They only conceded more than one goal on 18 occasions, and more than two goals just five times.

Whatever our personal opinions on individual members of the defence, the perceived failings of Bradford City last season were not at the back. Replicate those defensive stats next season and score more goals at the other end, and City will improve their league position. That’s why Parkinson has attempted to keep hold of the four out-of-contract, first choice members of his back five, to continue playing alongside Andrew Davies next season. That’s why the retention of Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby is so important, and why – ideally – Parkinson would have preferred to keep Meredith.

That said, I’m not personally sure if Meredith’s imminent departure will be as keenly felt as losing McArdle or Darby might have proven. The 26-year-old missed half a season after picking up a bad injury in early January, one that he only recovered from as the campaign came to an end.

Prior to the injury, Meredith was experiencing an average season. He’d started very well, but struggled at times with the step up to League One. As good as he continued to be going forwards, he was at fault for a worrying large proportion of goals conceded during the early months of the campaign. His confidence seemed to ebb away, and you wondered if Parkinson might have gone into the January window considering bringing in another left back for competition.

Meredith’s subsequent absence through injury had a negative impact, but the absence of an alternative left back was the real problem. Matthew Bates and Carl McHugh did reasonably well filling the role, in view of the fact they are not specialists in this position and the wider circumstances of City struggling through their long winless run. Parkinson eventually found exactly the right replacement in Adam Drury, who arrived on loan from Leeds in March and instantly provided the balance and solidity that had been missing. Were it not for his age, Drury – who Width of a Post understands was on a list of summer targets – might have been brought in as Meredith’s replacement. He may yet still arrive as competition for Sheehan, if the budget allows.

The lesson taken from Meredith’s absence was that good left backs are uncommon. This is partly why Parkinson would have preferred to keep hold of the Aussie, although in Sheehan he has found a replacement with a decent pedigree. Importantly, in view of Meredith’s strength in the attacking third, it’s worth noting that Sheehan contributed six assists for a struggling Notts County side last season. He clearly enjoys getting forward.

As for Meredith, it would appear that he views now as the right time to move on. He is clearly an intelligent person who thinks carefully about his career. Perhaps he was scarred from the experience of moving to England as a teenager after Derby County spotted him, only to fail to make the grade at Pride Park and have to revive his career in non-league circles. He has slowly worked his way back up, making considered decisions.

And the way he is seemingly going to leave Valley Parade has echoes of how he joined two years ago. Back then, he rejected a new deal from York City and was left with a wide choice of clubs to join. This included offers from Championship sides Burnley and Watford, although tellingly they were both to initially play in their Development Squads. At that stage of his career, moving from first team football with York to reserve matches for a Championship club could have really set him back. So he turned them down and joined the Bantams, knowing he would continue to play week in, week out – it was a decision that he has benefited from considerably.

Certainly Meredith’s first season at City was a great success. During his home debut against Fleetwood, he put in a superb sliding tackle in the early stages that had the crowd roaring in approval. Parkinson would later reflect on how the whole team picked up on this moment, realising that work rate and honest endeavour would be warmly appreciated by supporters. It set the tone for the incredible 64-game campaign, during which Meredith was one of many star performers.

Indeed his absence through illness, between January and March, almost resulted in the promotion bid collapsing. Just two games were won in his absence, and his return to fitness coincided with the late surge into the play offs and promotion at Wembley. Meredith’s importance was there for all to see. The difference between his prolonged absence in 2012/13 and his injury in 2013/14 was that, this time around, City learned to win without him.

Despite his struggle for form last season, you can understand why other clubs are said to be very interested in his services. Indeed, Width of a Post understands he was on the radar of at least one Championship club last summer, even if his name was only halfway down a wanted list. And as we learned during January and February this year, waiting for the Adam Drury cavalry to arrive, good left backs are not easy to find.

If Meredith feels he is ready to take the next career ladder step, and has bigger clubs willing to offer him that chance, good luck to him. Two years at Valley Parade have shown he is a good player and someone yet to reach their career peak. Like so many members of the 2012/13 history makers side, he will be long remembered with affection and should always be welcomed back (if Meredith is still a League One player next season, it is impossible to imagine anyone booing him on his return to Valley Parade).

The blow of his seemingly imminent departure is cushioned by the arrival Sheehan, who began his career at Leicester and has made almost 200 career appearances. It took a while for him to get going (he joined Leeds after a loan spell, and while at Elland Road was loaned out a further three times) but he eventually found a home at Meadow Lane, where he has flourished for three seasons and made over 100 appearances. Sheehan has also been capped for the Republic of Ireland at under 19 and under 21 level.

Following in the footsteps of summer recruits Billy Knott and Gary Liddle – and perhaps suggesting a theme is emerging in Parkinson’s summer business – Sheehan is a proven player at this level and should have no problems making his mark. These are not necessarily headline-grabbing signings, but they clearly are very sensible captures. And at a time of budget-cutting and dealing with heightened expectations, Parkinson needs a squad of players who can hit the ground running next season.

Looking for strength in reserve

15 Jun


By Jason McKeown

When faced with the challenge of cutting back financially in any walk of life, the typical starting point is to eliminate all non-essential spends. Yet as Phil Parkinson grapples with the task of improving the Bradford City squad on a playing budget that has been reduced by £500k, he is hampered somewhat by the financial commitments to players that, last season, were barely part of his plans.

Matt Taylor, Jason Kennedy and Mark Yeates present a very difficult dilemma for the City manager. All three players, who were signed last summer, have failed to impress for differing reasons. And we can reasonably assume that – had they signed on one-year contracts – all three would have appeared on the club’s released list when it was announced last month. But instead, they are tied to the club until July 2015. The manager must either try to move them on to other clubs, or find a role for them in his new-look squad.

And given that, as an aggregate total, the trio started just 16 games last season, it seems highly debatable that they would be called upon more next year, in view of the target to raise the bar on what was achieved last season.

Taylor – who experienced significant injury problems that will cause him to even miss the start of next season, can argue mitigating circumstances for his poor season – although even when fit during the first half of the season, he was constantly overlooked in preference for Andrew Davies, Rory McArdle and Matthew Bates. During the infamous sequence of one win in 21 games, it was telling that Parkinson steered away from entrusting Kennedy and Yeates. Following a particularly poor performance by the pair at Sheffield United in January, Kennedy was loaned to Rochdale for the rest of the season and Yeates was banished from even appearing from the bench for over six weeks.

The issue is not so much whether Yeates, Kennedy and Taylor would be happy to continue to be back up players, but if the manager can believe and trust in them to even perform that role, when he didn’t appear able to last season. Perhaps in an ideal world of revamping the central midfield, Parkinson would have preferred to keep Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle as back up players for next season, behind the new arrivals. But the pair were rumoured to be paid well and had their contracts up for renewal, whereas Yeates (also rumoured to command a good wage) and Kennedy would cost a fortune to release.

If Parkinson feels he needed to improve on Jones and Doyle – he clearly does – and succeeds in doing so with Billy Knott, Gary Liddle and Matty Dolan, then there may be even bigger gap between the first teamers he trusts and the reserve players. A gap that would distort the competition for places.

Of course, with talk of changing the playing style, there may yet be a more prominent role for Yeates and Kennedy next season. Certainly the direct style of football favoured by Parkinson was less suited to Yeates’ qualities – he frequently slowed down the build up play unnecessarily. Kennedy too might find that he can emerge from the shadows of Jones and Doyle and take on more of a leadership role in the team. Both players seem suited to playing in a side that keeps the ball on the ground and builds up the play slower (which may or may not be an approach Parkinson tries to install next season). Either way, by the time friendlies are in full swing, expect to read the standard T&A story from one or both players about how they are much fitter and more prepared to do better this time.

They will either need to do that or find another club as soon as possible. The lessons of last season, about being over-reliant on the class of 2012/13 and then – after January – loan players, are damning on the pair. The opportunities to stake a claim for first team football at Valley Parade were evidently available over the course of the campaign, but neither could take it. For Taylor, with two excellent centre backs set to continue their partnership next season, the way forward is more difficult. But Davies’ susceptibility to injury and McArdle’s occasional international commitments will mean that back up centre halves will be needed along the way.

Elsewhere in reserve, you wonder if Parkinson will continue to gently push younger players forward. The youth team’s league and cup successes of last season would suggest that there are some excellent teenagers at the club, capable of making the considerable step up to senior football. Oli McBurnie is the trailblazer in this respect, earning first team opportunities mid-way through the season and being awarded a two-and-a-half-year professional contract. He has only just turned 18-years-old, and the fact he has already featured eight times in the first team underlines how highly he is thought of.

With Andy Gray having left and Jon Stead’s commendable loan spell over, McBurnie is currently the only back up striker to first choice pairing James Hanson and Aaron Mclean. We can reasonable assume that another, more experienced forward will be recruited before the season begins, but McBurnie may still be able to go into the campaign as fourth choice. If he can make somewhere between 15 and 20 appearances (mainly as sub) and get a goal or two, Oli would be able to look back on a season of progress. 2014/15 is not his make or break year, given he has two years of his contract to go, but he will still be targeting more game time than 2013/14.

Meanwhile Niall Heaton has signed his first professional contract and has been talked up by youth coach Steve Thornber as someone who could break into the first team next season. James Pollard was also awarded a spot on the bench during the away game at Wolves last February. Not everyone on this list will make it at the club, but the heroics of the youth team in 2013/14 has raised expectations that at least a couple will break through.

Wherever they come from, Parkinson needs to have stronger back up options than he could call upon in 2013/14. When things weren’t going well between October and January, there simply weren’t enough alternative options available to the first teamers who were struggling. The season was effectively rescued by dipping into the loan market in January. And whilst Parkinson has already indicated that he will again be prepared to make loan signings next season, the £500k budget reduction will restrict such movements.

Cutting back on the budget means maximising every penny that is spent and making the most of every available resource. That didn’t happen under a larger budget last season – but for greater success to occur in 2014/15, Parkinson needs to make sure there is no room for passengers.

The changing face of Bradford City’s midfield

9 Jun


By Jason McKeown

If ever there was confirmation that the ‘We Made History’ era has been consigned to history, it comes with the news that Nathan Doyle has left Valley Parade following the expiration of his contract, with midfielders Billy Knott and Gary Liddle joining the club from Sunderland and Notts County respectively.

Accepting that Kyel Reid may still have a future at Valley Parade (the long-term injury victim has been invited to pre-season training), it seems that the Bradford City that begins 2014/15 won’t feature a single midfielder from the double Wembley side of 2012/13. The engine room, and the heartbeat, of one of the most important teams in the club’s history is no more. The summer rebuilding job looks set to be all about the middle of the park.

Knott and Liddle both arrive with decent pedigree. Knott, a 21-year-old left-sided player, spent last season on loan at Wycombe and Port Vale, earning plenty of praise from the Valiants, who had wanted to keep him this summer. Knott has been on Phil Parkinson’s radar since impressing during an earlier loan spell at AFC Wimbledon, in 2011/12. He has an eye for a spectacular goal, which we will hope to see plenty of over the duration of his two-year contract.

Meanwhile Liddle has a vast amount of experience, having also started his career in the North East (with Middlesbrough) and establishing himself as a solid League One player with Hartlepool. Liddle spent six seasons at Victoria Park where he made almost 250 appearances, before turning down a move to Valley Parade in the summer of 2012 and joining Notts County. The 27-year-old is keen to move closer to his North East roots, and turned down a new contract offer at Meadow Lane. He has stated how pleased he was to find Parkinson instantly on the phone expressing his interest.

With Knott and Liddle joining Matty Dolan – who has made his loan move to Valley Parade permanent – next season’s central midfield will have a very different look. Parkinson will presumably expect to have a fourth central midfielder to call upon, and may give another opportunity to the forgotten Jason Kennedy. Mark Yeates can also play in the centre.

But there will be no Gary Jones, and now there will be no Nathan Doyle. The 27-year-old Doyle was heavily rumoured to be on large wages that the club were not prepared to continue, as the effects of the £500k wage budget reduction begin to be felt. Doyle had experienced a mixed second half to the season and the silence over whether he would be offered a new deal has proven deafening. It is unclear if Doyle himself wanted to stay, but certainly Parkinson appears happy to let him go.

Personally, I am very disappointed to see Doyle leave Valley Parade. Eight years ago, as a 19-year-old on loan from Derby, Doyle made a huge impression as right back that was fondly remembered. His 2012 return was warmly greeted, and he quickly re-established himself as a big favourite.

The midfield partnership with Gary Jones was curious in that, on paper, it didn’t look like it should work – yet it was the most effective pairing that City had fielded in over a decade. They suited Parkinson’s preference for deep-lying midfielders who began attacks but who were also suitably positioned to regain possession if it was lost further up the park.

Jones’ all action running style deservedly won him huge acclaim, but the calm and methodical passing of Doyle was just as crucial during the marathon 2012/13 campaign. No one could pass the ball like Doyle; he possessed superb vision and the capability to quickly switch the play. He wasn’t the player crossing the ball or finishing opportunities, but invariably had played a role in the build up to a goal. One of my favourite Doyle moments was a crossfield pass he played for Reid, that saw the winger net a crucial second goal in a September 2012 home win over Morecambe. Reid’s run and shot were impressive for sure, but the inch perfect ball from Doyle, that meant his team mate didn’t have to break stride, was a thing of beauty.

And I guess, as supporters, we are all different in what we like about football and the type of players we take to our hearts. Increasingly last season, you became aware that a negative viewpoint of Doyle was growing and that a section of support were ready to write him off. For sure, Doyle could drift out of games and on occasions his form could dip. In the latter case, he would be jolted back to his best by a relegation to the bench and then return in a future match as a sub.

After the incredible League Cup run ended against Swansea in February 2012, Doyle looked shot to pieces and was rightly dropped for Ricky Ravenhill, who played a key role in the promotion run-in. But when City went 3-1 down to Burton in the play off semi final first leg, it was the introduction of Doyle that changed the tie. His calm, assertive approach was exactly what was needed, and was undoubtedly a driving factor in City coming back to ultimately defeat Burton and then earn promotion at Wembley.

Doyle was my kind of player. I love central midfielders more than any other position, and I love my Stuart McCalls’ and Gary Jones’. But the environments where I have seen both thrive best is when their all action style was complemented by a disciplined, steady player alongside them, who can produce magical passes. Doyle was the straightman that Jones’ cover-every-blade-of-grass act needed. Stuart McCall needed Gareth Whalley.

I don’t think all supporters notice this type of player, and certainly don’t fully appreciate their qualities. Over recent days I have heard so many negative comments about what Doyle couldn’t do and why we therefore needed to get rid of him. But the way that City ended the season with the 4-5-1 or diamond formation brought out the best of Doyle. If that is the way we plan to play next season, I fear we will miss him badly.

Whilst Doyle’s inconsistency could frustrate me, I didn’t see the other criticisms directed his way. Some people say he was arrogant, for me he was confident. Some say he was lazy, for me he was playing intelligently. At City’s worst under Parkinson, they have played too direct and all but negated the need for a central midfield. At City’s best under Parkinson, Doyle has been instrumental.

Parkinson has made two huge calls in allowing Jones and Doyle to leave. If this is a sign that the playing style is going to evolve – from using deep-lying midfielders and into a more attacking-philosophy mentioned by Julian Rhodes – we will sit back and look forward to watching how it works. But if the plan is to play similarly to the last two seasons, then boy do Knott, Liddle and Dolan have some big, big shoes to fill.

In other news…

Stephen Darby has today signed a three-year contract to stay at Bradford City and has been confirmed as the new club captain. More reaction to follow on Width of a Post later this week.


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