By Alex Scott
There are good reasons why we have waited until the penultimate Midweek Player Focus article of the season to talk about Aaron Mclean, and moving into this important summer, the forward from East London may be the most pivotal.
Mclean arrived in early January, the chosen one to replace the departing Nahki Wells, attempting to fill his shirt number and his boots. Before an extended spell on the sidelines in the East Riding, Mclean had been a relatively prolific lower league forward over much of his career but was unable to make the leap to the Championship with the Tigers.
Mclean has struggled for consistent time on the field over recent years, with only loan spells at Birmingham City breaking his time in Hull reserves. In spite of this relative inactivity, a career record of almost a goal every other game in League One (27 in 58) was good enough to convince Phil Parkinson that he was the man to replace Wells and drive City to the next level.
At this point, things cannot have been said to have gone to plan. Two goals in 16 appearances for City’s new man; a revamped team no improvement over its predecessor. Mclean himself appears to have slipped down the pecking order behind loan recruit Jon Stead.
Mclean isn’t helped by how prolific his predecessor was, nor how completely the team was built around the strengths of Wells – strengths that he does not possess. However, his level of performance over the past few weeks will not be how he will be judged. Aaron Mclean will be crucial for next season and will play a pivotal role in how high the ceiling of this team can be. Whether he can live up to that responsibility will define his tenure here.
Nahki Wells was the tip of the spear. I’m pretty sure that is doing him a disservice, but for the sake of the metaphor, he was the tip of the spear. For a spell of almost eighteen months, City were an impressively well-oiled machine, efficient and at times devastating. Wells was a key component that made the whole thing work. Even at this higher level. More so, if anything.
The replacement of Wells with Mclean quickly hastened the shelving of the spear altogether. City, after initially attempting to prod opposing teams with a blunted stick, have had to evolve into a form of combat with a bit more guile. A change that may have been on the cards at the end of the season anyway, but that would have been the optimal time to make it. A time that wouldn’t leave the squad bloated with now-redundant javelin throwers, not suited to the new reality.
Tottenham are suffering comparable woes at the moment, trading away a pound coin for four twenty pence pieces and some shrapnel. They may be worth the same on the surface, but you win leagues with pounds, not pennies. City gave away their pound coin to pay for the host of silver coins they hoarded over the summer, and only replacing him with Mclean. A man who has the potential to be a valuable contributor, but in truth has never been a pound.
It isn’t really fair to judge Mclean against Wells. Wells went for over a million pounds four months ago, a number which probably understated his market value given the club’s unwillingness to actually open up the sale to the market. The club didn’t disclose the fee they paid for Mclean, but we can be sure it wasn’t in the same tax bracket as the sale of Wells.
It also probably isn’t fair to judge Mclean until next season. But not being able to judge on his recent past – he hasn’t had a consistent run of league games in three years, not a successful one in four since leaving Peterborough – we haven’t really got anything else to go on.
My experience watching him has been primarily at away games, where the fans have been encouraging, if not effusive. I can’t speak of the entirety of the home fans, but during the couple of home games I’ve seen him, the feeling is mutual. Fans are giving him time. The jury is remaining out only because they want to be. The true test of Mclean will come next season, but anything in the stratosphere of his predecessor will be a surprise at this point.
To be fair to Mclean, coming into a new team mid-season often proves tough, especially coming into a team that had earned 11 points in their previous 15 games, only scoring 15 goals in the process.
Due to the injuries and disillusionment of James Hanson and Nahki Wells respectively in the build up to Christmas, the rot had absolutely set in before Mclean’s arrival. Kyel Reid was by far City’s most dangerous attacking player at the turn of the year, and he has been missed just as much as Wells. He and Mclean only crossed paths for 32 minutes at Bramall Lane.
Without Reid’s pace to stretch the field, City have struggled painfully. If the winger had been injured the week before Mclean’s capture, rather than the week after, it begs to question whether Phil Parkinson may have just held fire and placed a higher priority on replacing the raw pace of Reid and Wells that his side have so sorely missed?
Adam Reach and Kyle Bennett have been brought in on the flanks and, whilst the latter does have a quick burst, neither has the intimidating pace of Reid, and City have duly struggled to gain a footing in games as a result.
If Kyel Reid had been stationed on the left flank for this second half of the season, preventing opposition defences pressing up on Mclean and Hanson, it does stand to reason Mclean would have had more room to operate, and rather than a cause of the side’s ills, his lack of form may rather be a symptom.
City’s run in the games following Mclean’s arrival has been essentially the same as the fifteen games which led up to his signing. The team has gone through a lot of reform since January, but none if it has moved the needle. With Reach, Matty Dolan, Bennett et al arriving, the overall quality may have risen, some 10ps turned into 20s, but none have come close to bridging the gap to the loss of Wells and Reid.
The only reason City are staying up this year is the run at the outset which had them in the play off spots in October. In the games started by Hanson and Wells this season, City earned six wins and nine draws, suffering only one defeat. Without the striking combination on the field together, that record falls to won six drawn eight, lost thirteen. The value of a pound.
But as noted earlier, the squad at the beginning of the year was unsustainably expensive. There are too many silver coins around the club, and without a cup run to rely on for funding, it was Wells who had to be sacrificed.
I have found Aaron Mclean as a player is frustratingly difficult to pin down. I don’t really know what to make of him. I’ve seen him border on the excellent away at Orient, show a real poacher’s instinct at home to Gillingham, and work hard and graft throughout. He can hold the ball up well at times; and even on his off-days looks like a hassling presence to opposition defenders. But those off-days are alarmingly frequent.
Only recently has the side been able to move away from the framework designed for Nahki Wells, with which Mclean has improved. Before that point, Mclean often looked lost. He may be effective in a team built around him, but let us be clear, this is not that team.
And let us also be clear about something else, Nahki Wells earned the right to have a team built around his strengths. Toward the end of the 2011/12 season, as an inexperienced 21-year old, Wells played a huge part in keeping City in the Football League, scoring fourteen goals including a crucial hat trick away at Northampton late in the year. He showed a promise that gave Parkinson a reason to build a side around him. Mclean has so far shown little in City colours.
Mclean will get his opportunity to have a side tailored to his strengths – but not because of his talents or his play on the field, but because of his contract.
Now in late April that safety has been assured and City’s ever more disgruntled fan base can draw breath for a moment, thoughts can move toward next season. Looking at players of consequence in the squad, only Andrew Davies, Hanson and Mclean are sure-fire certainties for next year’s assault on League One. Mark Yeates appears likely to be “managed out” unless the new dawn suits his more passive style of play.
The City board have already admitted that the budget for next season will not be at the level of this campaign’s, and the last six months of this season have seen the club as almost the worst side in the division. Parkinson’s task will be aided by the fact 75% of his squad are out of contract, affording him the freedom to rebuild in the manner he wants.
However, this is counteracted by the fact such a large chunk of the budget is to be eaten by his two forwards. Two forwards which as a pairing have shown precious little ability to move this team to where he and the club wants them to go.
Given the form of Mclean, and the scarcity of goals of the team as a whole, Phil Parkinson cannot in good conscience go into next year with only Hanson and the former Peterborough man as his options up front. There will have to be a legitimate third option in case Mclean isn’t who he thought he was, or who we hope he might be.
It is to be expected that Mclean’s early misfires will lead to a major overhauling of the side’s midfield. They will need to contribute more goals. The ‘deep-lying, get the ball out wide’ approach so well suited to this team’s personnel and last year’s front line will no longer get it done. They cannot go into another season prodding teams with a blunt stick.
Parkinson will need to spend money bringing back the defence, with it to be expected that at least Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle are due relatively substantial pay rises. The entire midfield is out of contract, and it’s probably a stretch to expect any managing out of unwanted holdovers to happen for free. Without an extension of the mooted budget, it is hard to envision a scenario where Parkinson will be able to devote much salary to a third striker.
Maybe Oli McBurnie can grow into a reserve option over the coming months, although that evolution may be one more year away. Maybe some other youth players can be brought through into squad roles, but I’m clutching at straws. With all the areas of the squad needing work, it would be hard to justify more money going to the front line. But taking no action has to be seen as a gamble.
How successfully Parkinson squares this circle will likely define how long his stay at the club will be extended. Last year’s promotion, if anything, seems to have shortened the patience of large sections of the Valley Parade crowd, and if the side are still struggling for goals at Christmas, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to see the club move on. This club harbour ambitions of returning to the Championship, but that seemed a lot more attainable with that pound coin in their back pocket.
If City are to make a step forward toward the top half or maybe even a play off push next season, it will have to be on the back on Mclean and Hanson.
The table below shows the extrapolated 46-game profile of this City team, and the average 6th place League One team since 2003.
|Goals for||Goals Against||Goal Difference||Points|
Bradford City 2013/14 (projected)
|Average 6th Place (2003-2014)||74||54||20||
As you can see, City’s defence is just about there. Given Andrew Davies and James Meredith have each been out for half the season, this defence is absolutely good enough for the play offs. Criticism of Jon McLaughlin may just justifiable on anecdotal evidence, but his aggregate output has been exceptional this year, especially given the chopping and changing in front of him. To argue otherwise is denial.
The numbers would argue that if Parkinson can bring back the starting back five and keep them fit next season, the City team as a whole could probably get away with being a bit more adventurous in their approach given the concession rates of standard 6th place defences.
What’s more, they may have to. City are a way away from scoring enough goals to challenge for the play off spots. Only five teams in my 66-team sample have scored fewer than 60 goals and finished in the top six, and only one team in the past seven years: Sheffield United, who came fifth in last year’s especially mediocre division.
Furthermore, if we ignore the Wells and Hanson sample, City have really only scored a goal a game since October 4. As a team, they are probably going to have to be 30 goals better over a season than they are at the moment, without giving much up on the back end. And that is a hell of a lot of goals.
League One is different to the other divisions. “Good” teams often get relegated from the tier above, and often mediocre sides make their way out of the division below. The dividing line in English football between ‘bad’ good teams, and ’good’ bad teams occurs somewhere in the middle of this tier, and at the moment, Bradford City are definitively on the latter side of that line.
Relative to other divisions, teams that get promoted out of this division tend to accrue a lot of points. This year is no exception. With only six teams making the play offs, you need to be good, consistently, to keep pace. Whilst City have had their moments, less frequently of late, good teams have a consistency about them City have not matched.
They need to score more goals. They need to score many more goals if they are to compete for promotion honours, and in truth, looking at where they are now, it’s probably a two-year job.
Either way, Aaron Mclean is going to be a huge part of that. If Parkinson and his men are genuinely going to be aiming at the top six next season, they need a revolutionary summer beyond the one they had in 2012. They are going to have to build a framework in which both Mclean and Hanson can flourish, and for that fundamental reform is needed, with some really tough decisions to be made.
Phil Parkinson’s gamble on Aaron Mclean is yet to pay dividends. The manager has a lot riding on the bustling striker, and if his team are to reach the heights required by the end of his time here, he needs his investment in Mclean to work. Aaron Mclean must become a twenty goal a season player. James Hanson, for all the will in the world, will not be that guy.
There isn’t going to be the budget for it to be anyone else. It must be Mclean.