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The Midweek Player Focus #59: Nathan Doyle

23 May

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The final Midweek Player Focus of 2013/14 sees Katie Whyatt look at the future of Nathan Doyle.

ROTHERHAM: 11th March, 2014: Amidst the green-veined foliage, backing upon to the snaking river, the sun set behind the grey hulk of the self-proclaimed ‘Mini Emirates’, and the shadows of recent history cut an imposing silhouette against the darkening amber sky.

Among the travelling hordes rested the burden of staunchly guarded optimism, shouldered alongside nervous anticipation, edged by an agenda of damage limitation, all forced out by blind and naked hope. Do we have a chance? Are we playing for a point? Look at our track record here – what can we expect? Over 1,000 of them had shed the bruises of previous visits to meander into the orange evening. City on the brink of their half-century, their hosts pursuing second spot. With every tension-fraught step to the ground, the rumble of anticipation grew louder. The stakes, quite simply, couldn’t have been higher.

That night, Nathan Doyle delivered one of the most compelling individual performances of City’s entire season. From the first minute until the last, he was unrelentingly archetypal: the very embodiment of composure, guile and vision as he navigated an often congested centre circle. His distribution was textbook, his defending dogged, his movements intelligent as he utilised insightfully all the space available – he complemented Jones and Dolan perfectly.

Every pass was perceptive, pinpointed and precise, setting up the play for others while he anchored the shape of the midfield five. On a night where Bantams boys became men, where a Bradford side quashed allegations of a lack of spirit and Parkinson a lack of tactical nous, Nathan Doyle banished his individual performance demons and gave his brooding band of critics some serious food for thought.

As Evans festered in his pit of bitterness and spat lore about total domination and penalty shouts, Nathan Doyle toasted his best display of the campaign.

STEVENAGE: 1st March, 2014: The chance to put relegation fears to bed, potentially permanently. Confidence should have been high, expectation higher, but we’ve been here before. And what followed, hurt.

It was 40 minutes before Nathan Doyle touched the ball. 40 minutes. I’ve genuinely no idea what he spent those 40 minutes doing, if anything, and can only imagine that the more direct approach meant he was systematically bypassed every time, but why, against a side that wanted to keep the ball on the deck, did Doyle not make the interceptions the game obviously demanded?

Perhaps this is an unfair criticism to make – players simply perform what their manager asks of them, so it’s not necessarily Doyle’s fault – but his composure sedated City’s franticness in the second half, so why did he – hang on… 40 MINUTES! 40 WHOLE MINUTES! For a central midfielder! GUYS! I can’t be the only one alarmed by this, surely…

Stevenage’s status rendered them a stumbling block. Shaken by their track record, City were embarrassed by the embattled.

GILLINGHAM: 15th March, 2014: Peter Taylor’s return to Valley Parade, newly-promoted Gills in tow. In a game that was characterised by the contrast of the two managers’ styles as much as it was the contrast of the two halves, Nathan Doyle spent the first 45 as the centrepiece and the second as the invisible man. The pendulum was in full swing, and it was startling.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem facing City. On his day, Doyle is simply unplayable. But those days are not frequent enough.

There have been times this season where his influence has dulled. If the team play long ball, Doyle’s cutting vision isn’t needed, and he is simply reduced to the role of passenger. There have been times when quick opposition has meant City’s midfield has been bypassed every time. For sure, the blame doesn’t lie squarely at Doyle’s door, but, as the deeper-sitting one of the central midfield pairing, he has to shore his fair share of the blame.

This feels harsh, probably because it’s never really been my personal view. Footballers are, after all, human. Even the best players will have bad games. Inconsistency is a given at this level and Doyle isn’t alone in this squad with that problem – that’s your go-to excuse when someone asks why Reid isn’t in the Championship – and it’s something that’s hindered the majority of the teams in this division at some point, but, for a club harbouring medium-term Championship ambitions, it’s not ideal.

This obviously doesn’t count for everything – the step-up (which, incidentally, Doyle handled aptly and, on the whole, never really looked to massively struggle with), the aforementioned directness when scorelines have forced Parkinson’s hand and the ‘form follows function’ style to see City through the one win in 21 all will have had an impact – but it’s something to consider. With the budget about to be slashed, can we afford paying for a player who’s going to go missing for half a season?

In my opinion, we have to renew that contract. For me, it’s a no-brainer. To whip out that line again, for a club harbouring medium-term Championship ambitions, someone like Doyle is crucial to the development of the team, and talks of building the starting eleven around him next season are hardly ill-founded when one examines his influence over the last few months.

On his day, he’s one of the best holding midfielders in the division. His deft distribution is simply unmatched in League One. His composure provides the sedation that, going forwards, the Bantams need to take advantage of. The energy with which he screens the defence can make him unplayable. The potential is there for all to see. For individual ability, he’s already in the top echelon of players within this squad.

At League One level, it’s unfair to blast Doyle for being inconsistent. Every team has slumps and dips. The fact that the midfielder falls with the peaks and troughs isn’t necessarily a bad thing; you could, actually, read it as a marker of the influence he exerts on games. Looking at Doyle holistically, he’s the complete package for a holding midfielder at this stage. In many ways, we’d be foolish to let him go.

But it’s not even a question of Doyle’s form anymore. What became clear over the final few months of the season is that a major shake-up in style is looming. Once survival was secured, the experimenting began: the 4-5-1, 4-3-1-2, Dolan and Doyle, Jones and Doyle, Dolan and Jones.

It’s obvious Mclean doesn’t work how Nahki did, and we can’t expect him to win Hanson’s knockdowns: it would be cruel to force this style onto him when it’s evidently not his game, and he needs the support from the midfield to come into his own. Maybe positioning Doyle as a strictly defined anchorman is kind of a big deal (including an Anchorman pun – I immediately regret that decision), more than just holding out until Hanson is fit. Perhaps it’s a glimpse of the future, and it’s working – over the final few games, there was a larger output from the central midfielders, greater reliability and less predictability.

Placing three or five in the midfield, and therefore stamping Doyle exclusively in the holding role, might be worth looking at – the permanent signing of the mobile Dolan, plus the rumours about the hunt for box-to-box midfielder Knott, seem to suggest this could be a viable option entering into next year. There’s so much scope for Doyle to be worked into the centre of the park, and he’d slip seamlessly into either of those formations. Arguably the most striking difference between Leagues One and Two is that most teams insist on sticking five in midfield – why shouldn’t we try this ourselves?

For me, Doyle is the lynchpin of that Bantams midfield. McArdle’s deal proved Parkinson is trying to lay solid foundations; that he wants City to build from the base upwards. Secure his skeleton, then stick the flesh on. With his front two secure and his centre back pairing nailed, a strong midfield would complete the spine of the team.

*

Nathan Doyle’s contract expires a week exactly today. City have just seven days before he becomes a free agent. Seven days to pin him down, or seven days to let him go. Either way, the water is reaching the plug. Phil Parkinson has seven days to decide how he wants his midfield to work. He’s probably already decided, but the clock is definitely ticking.

Even with the ominous spectre of what he fortunately CAN be and what he unfortunately can be, City need that signature. Realistically, who else are you going to find to play that sweeper role? At this level, who can play it better than Doyle?

* Tumbleweed *

But I’m not the one making that decision – a decision that, in all likelihood, has probably already been made. Doyle is riding the fine line between the beginning and the end. Sign a new contract, either short or long, and he is here next season. He has a part to play, a part he can play well. Otherwise, we have already seen the last of Doyle in a Bradford City shirt.

I hope we haven’t. I really, really do.

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The Midweek Player Focus #58: Aaron Mclean

23 Apr

Image by Alex Dodd

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.

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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.

Team

Goals for Goals Against Goal Difference Points

Bradford City 2013/14 (projected)

57

56

1

56

 Average 6th Place (2003-2014)  74 54 20

74

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.

The Midweek Player Focus #57: Jason Kennedy / Matty Dolan

16 Apr

shrewsbury away march 2014

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.

The Midweek Player Focus #56: Kyle Bennett

9 Apr

SAM_2776

By Jason McKeown

After a dismal performance in which all 11 starters were culpable, it was curious to see Kyle Bennett singled out by many for the 3-2 loss to Oldham. The on-loan Doncaster winger was certainly culpable for the Latics’ winning goal, buckling out of a 50-50 challenge that allowed the visitors to score on the counter attack. But on a day in which no one could have been rated any higher than 5 out of 10, Bennett was hardly the root cause of a defeat in which the blame deserved to be evenly dished out.

Six minutes after his mistake, the board went up to signal his hook and cheering could be heard from the stands. Bennett’s recent performances had showed steady signs of improvement, and there was growing talk from some supporters that he would be worth offering a contract to during the summer – but he didn’t have enough goodwill in the bank to escape the derision. Perhaps we could do better than Kyle when it comes to rebuilding this squad, but I personally still see something there that, for now, means the jury is still out.

He couldn’t really have made a worse start to life at Valley Parade, getting sent off less than 30 minutes into his debut, against Preston. And the impression he made prior to raising his hands at Neil Kilkenny was a disappointing one. At the time there had been much talk of Phil Parkinson refreshing his approach by recruiting two out-and-out wingers, instead of the tried and tested formula of one direct wideman (Kyel Reid, who had just been ruled out for the season) and one inside-right midfielder (Garry Thompson) who was relied upon to tuck inside and support the central midfielders.

Yet while Adam Reach – who also made his debut against Preston that night – was a like-for-like replacement for Reid, albeit lacking pace, it quickly became evident that Bennett was no direct winger himself, and would take on the Thompson role from a player who for several months had struggled for confidence. Bennett picked up possession out wide: but rather than trail past defenders and charge to the byeline, he would cut inside and into the more congested centre of the park. Oh…right…we didn’t expect that.

(And as an aside, I guess at least our expecations weren’t as misplaced as former Doncaster chairman John Ryan, who on signing Kyle in 2012 offered him his Bentley if he scored 20 goals that season, he managed three!)

It was not hard to remain underwhelmed, as Bennett returned from his one-match ban and carried on in the same vein. You’d see people screaming at him to take defenders on and hog the touchline, but that was either not his game or not what his manager was instructing him to do. Our expectations had to change, because here was a player much more Will Atkinson than Kyel Reid.

Yet as City’s season settled down after the ‘one win in…’ run finally came to an end, Bennett slowly but surely began to impress. He has ability on the ball and can pick out a good pass; he possesses good energy levels that see him get up and down the pitch well; and his link up play with the front two enabled one of City’s central midfielders to get further up the park in support. Industrious, intelligent and, increasingly, influential. A superbly taken goal in a 2-0 victory at Colchester was Bennett’s high watermark.

The downside is that Bennett is rarely going to leave you hanging on the edge of your seat. He is not on out-and-out flair player who is going to win football matches on his own, and he is probably not going to be someone you immediately look to when the chips are down and inspiration is required – more likely, and it is proven, he is the first player to be subbed. Bennett is the support act, not the headliner.

Managers love this sort of player; fans sometimes shrug their shoulders and wonder why he is in the team. It is no surprise that there has been a recent pining for Thompson to come back into the fold, because the 33-year-old has proven in the past that he has more of an end product than Bennett has thus far shown. Yet Thompson himself spent the first half of the season as the scapegoat for the team’s failings, and with many fans urging Parkinson to quickly replace him. Bennett might not be enough of an improvement, but much of the frustration lies in a misunderstanding from some of the role these players are asked to perform. And three years of Parkinson at the helm suggests he will continue to recruit this type of player.

In his year one, Craig Fagan played the wide-midfielder-who-tucks-inside role, after Parkinson quickly ruled that Chris Mitchell wasn’t up it. When Kyel Reid, on the other side, suffered a bad injury in December 2012, a range of loanees were brought in to fill the direct winger void but struggled to impress. Andy Haworth, Charlie Taylor and then – in one of the worst debuts I have ever seen – Will Atkinson, who looked awful in a 2-1 defeat at Bristol Rovers.

Yet while Atkinson was no Reid and did nothing during his four-month loan spell to suggest he could be the player who – a year later – would be walking out for Bradford City at Wembley to face Swansea City in the League Cup Final, Parkinson saw enough in him to believe he could perform the wide-midfielder-who-tucks-inside position (in competition with Thompson). And so Atkinson was offered a permanent deal during the summer, and became a first team regular for the middle half of the season. Atkinson was simply outstanding in the League Cup successes over Arsenal and Aston Villa. I can still picture his box of tricks against Arsenal that had international defenders flummoxed. On that cold December night, where City found success playing two banks of four, Atkinson was a hugely important figure in the shock Bantams’ victory.

The lesson here, of course, is that, Bennett’s less-than-perfect loan spell audition for this role does not mean he isn’t the answer. There is every chance he could be 2014/15’s Will Atkinson. The two players are remarkably similar in style and technique, and there is little doubt that Parkinson is going to be in the market for one or even two of these players during the summer. For Bennett, who has another year’s contract at Doncaster but is out of favour, you would assume he would jump at the chance to be at Valley Parade next season.

But then, we come back to the non-tackle against Oldham. Watch it back (see above, two minutes in),  and you cringe at his feeble attempt to win a challenge that, positionally, he would have been favourite to emerge victorious from. He couldn’t have known that in less than 10 seconds the ball would be in the back of his team’s net, but the angry team mates he faced had every right to let their displeasure known. Bennett let down the team on a day when the whole team let down the club. And as that board went up for his withdrawal and the cheers began, there went his opportunity to make up for his error.

Some people blame his lack of courage on his loanee status. He didn’t care, we aren’t his club, he’s not going to put his body on the line. I don’t agree with that call, and I think that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Whether he sees his future in West Yorkshire or elsewhere, Bennett is playing for his future. He is, in effect, an out-of-contract player looking for his next deal. There will be hundreds more like him in the queue come the summer, and he knows that.

I think his indecision was more a case that he is not the type of player to get stuck in. He is not the sort to fly into challenges. And what’s more, there are other players at City who are the same. Would Kyel Reid have gone into that tackle, for example? What about Reach? The strengths of Bennett – and Reid and Reach – lie elsewhere. They are ball players, not ball winners. Alas for Bennett, not being that type of player could determine his fate at City.

For while Reid and Reach can get away with that, playing the out-and-out winger role, Bennett is auditioning for that wide-midfielder-who-tucks-inside position that demands defensive ability as well as attacking. Bennett’s positioning has been good and he can disrupt opposition attacks; he also provides his full back with good protection. But this role requires more than just that good positioning. If Bennett cannot tackle and, therefore, cannot be relied upon to stand tall in moments such as the one against Oldham, then he probably isn’t the man for the job.

So over these final five games, Bennett has the opportunity to disprove that. To show that his below-par performance against Oldham was part of a team failing, not a cruel exposure of his personal weaknesses. The next time Bennett faces up to a moment where he needs to put a foot in, he had better not duck out.

I like Bennett, and with his attacking skills I can see him prospering at Valley Parade; but it’s down to him to remove those lingering doubts over the next five games. It’s down to him to show that he can win a contract by winning the ball.

The Midweek Player Focus #55: Adam Reach

19 Mar

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By Jason McKeown

For Adam Reach read ‘Example A’. He is not only a hugely promising young player, in the midst of a crucial stage of his career development, but a perfect case study of the theory behind the football loan system. The positives of signing temporary players, and the drawbacks, have become increasingly evident over the 10 matches in which Reach has represented Bradford City. He exemplifies why lower league clubs cannot afford to ignore the loan market, but also illustrates the limitations of such an approach.

The advantages have been especially evident with Reach. The 21-year-old winger has lit up Valley Parade, becoming an instant favourite with a crowd that has long had a complicated love-hate relationship with its wide players. Watching Reach receive possession in a wide area, one-on-one with a full back, is to subconsciously re-position yourself to the edge of your seat. It is a thrilling sight observing his box of tricks. He twists and turns with deft unpredictability that ties defenders in knots. Wait for them to commit, and watch Reach fly past them. Wait for them to predict which way Reach will go, and watch Reach charge in the opposite direction. There is no sight in football quite like it, and Reach’s level of skill can genuinely prove breath-taking.

Reach can cross a ball superbly. He lacks lighting pace but seems to possess a quicker speed of thought than those around him. The way in which he set up Adam Drury, to set up Aaron Mclean to score, last Saturday, was mightily impressive. His terrific volley goal against Stevenage one of the best goals of the season. This is a winger with an end product.

And such an impact is the main selling point of the loan market. When Phil Parkinson surveyed his options in the wake of Kyel Reid’s season-ending injury against Sheffield United, he simply would have stood no chance of bringing in a player of Reach’s ability on a permanent basis. Had the manager made a transfer enquiry to his club Middlesbrough, they would have quoted him a  valuation beyond City’s means. And even if the cash could have been scraped together and a bid accepted, Reach probably wouldn’t have wanted to know. He has, after all, played in Middlesbrough’s first team and will rightfully believe he stands a chance of making it at the Championship club.

But a loan move is different. Having Reach play League One football for a month or more, rather than running out for the reserves at Boro’s Rockcliffe Park training facility (where home reserve games are played) is of greater benefit to his parent club. For Reach – who has completed loan moves with Darlington and Shrewsbury – a short spell at Valley Parade will further build up his first team experience and confidence. Especially as Bradford City – like Middlesbrough – play in front of decent-size, but demanding, crowds.

So Parkinson and City can persuade a player of Reach’s talent and potential to move to West Yorkshire for a few weeks, and in the short-term enjoy the benefits of having a left winger who – and it is no secret to anyone – is a bit too good to be here. There’s no transfer fee, there’s (probably) no wage costs to meet. It’s like borrowing a book or DVD from a friend with the only caveat that it must be returned in the same condition.

But there are, of course, those drawbacks to consider, and unfortunately with Adam Reach they are prevalent – even if through no direct fault of the player himself. Reach might have a future at Middlesbrough, but there are good reasons as to why his recently-installed manager, Aitor Karanka, doesn’t see him as the immediate answer to the Teeside club’s current difficulties.

Watching Reach over a full 90 minutes, it is clear that – even playing for a club one level below where he aspires to establish himself – he still has some way to go. There is a frustration towards Reach that, for all those periods in a game where he has opposition defenders on the floor and is creating attacking opportunities for team mates, there are other spells where he is too uninvolved. Where he makes too many bad decisions in possession, or takes up too many ineffective positions.

In many ways he summed up the team performance in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Gillingham. During the opening 45 where the Bantams were at their best, Reach was heavily involved with the build up play and impressing greatly with his vision and creativeness. Yet when Gillingham equalised in the second half and City lost all composure, Reach was much less on the ball and much less demanding of it from team mates. Peter Taylor’s half time switch to his beloved 4-3-3 spoiling tactics didn’t help Reach at all, but there was a frustration felt that he could still have produced more.

In many ways that’s a harsh criticism for someone still so young and who has not yet started more than 40 senior games in his career, but that is the standard that he must be aspiring to achieve – and it is certainly the standard he needs to get to if he is to make it at Middlesbrough. And yet therein lies issue number two with having a loan player like Reach at City – his priorities do not 100% match that of his temporary employers.

For when City are labouring to get going again and losing grip of a match they should have finished before half time, is it fair on Reach that we are looking to him to be the catalyst? He is good, a bit too good for us, but he is hardly going to be leading the tears if, come May, Bradford City have been relegated. He is – ultimately – trying to impress someone else. A watching Middlesbrough scout, perhaps, or even Karanka, who has been to see him play at Valley Parade and will presumably have access to video footage of his performances.

That’s not say Reach isn’t committed to City or has lacked the appropriate levels of effort – neither are true at all – but his priorities can’t fail to be clouded to an extent by his own future. He is tredding a different path to the Bantams. And, on occasions in games, that shows.

There is a chance that this Saturday’s trip to Reach’s old club Shrewsbury will be his last for the Bantams. It wasn’t clear whether his initial one-month loan would be extended by Karanka when it ran out after the MK Dons match in February. The fact he was allowed another month at Valley Parade – rather than permission, yet, to stay for the rest of the season – would suggest he figures in Karanka’s thoughts for the final few weeks of this season. With Boro sat in 12th and having little to play for, is it likely that upcoming games will be used to blood young players with an eye on next season. Reach will be amongst those who would be likely to get their opportunity to impress.

Where would that leave City? Certainly Parkinson would have to go back into the loan market to replace Reach, as without him he lacks a left wing option, save for the out-in-the-cold Mark Yeates. This is the problem of formulating a strategy around other people’s players. If Reach were too leave (and I suspect that his less impressive performances against MK Dons and second halves against Stevenage and Gillingham demonstrate there is a chance Boro will want him to stay), the short-term benefits of signing him will immediately be lost.

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It felt strange at times, observing the way City lined up against Gillingham. There were three loan players in the four-man midfield, and the impressive Adam Drury’s home debut at left back meant four of City’s 11 starters were borrowed from other clubs. Chris Atkinson (on loan from Huddersfield) spent the 90 minutes on the bench, whilst Aaron Jameson (Sheffield Wednesday) kicked his heels in the stands, not able to be part of the matchday 18 due to City reaching the maximum loanees allowed.

It feels strange, because City have in recent times moved so far away from having loan players. Last year, it was held up as one of the contributing reasons for City’s success. The Chairmen are both on record saying they are not fans of the loan system, and certainly we supporters grew tired of the club’s over reliance of them during the days of Colin Todd, Stuart McCall and Peter Taylor.

Peter Jackson wasn’t around long enough to start making notable use of the loan market, save for filling the goalkeeper position. Phil Parkinson, meanwhile, has up until this January almost always used loans to plug gaps rather than for serious first team intent. Ricky Ravenhill (signed permanently anyway) was the only notable exception to that during Parkinson’s first season in charge. Will Atkinson only earned proper game time when his dismal loan move was made permanent, at which point he proved himself to a sceptical Bantams faithful. Other players have come and gone without figuring much – Charlie Taylor, Andy Haworth, Craig Forsyth, Ryan Dickson, Tom Naylor, Blair Turgott, Connor Ripley, Jordan Graham etc etc. Filler content. Plan E. Barely significant in the grand scheme.

Yet now, the balance has tilted completely the opposite way. It was, in many ways, forced upon the manager, who in January simply had to find an improvement on the struggling players in his squad. Kyle Bennett has not exactly earned rave reviews, but has quietly become increasingly effective; whilst Matty Dolan can surely expect more game time between now and the of the season, as the phasing out of Gary Jones looks set to begin. Chris Atkinson is perhaps a filler loan signing like the ones mentioned above, but does offer something different to what is already in the building. Adam Drury will surely be a regular starter, until James Meredith returns.

And then there is Reach. He is the talisman of the loan movement. The flag bearer of the benefits in this shift of approach. He stands apart – perhaps also with Drury, but for different reasons – as not auditioning for a role at Valley Parade next season. Dolan, Bennett and Atkinson are seemingly unwanted by their parent clubs and looking for their next move, which could feasibly be here. But if Reach is playing for Bradford City next season – even on loan – something has probably gone wrong. For a club famed for bringing through youth talent and not exactly flush with cash, Reach should be aspiring to be playing in a red shirt next season.

Which is where the loan system positives and negatives come back into view. We can enjoy Reach for however long we get to keep him – and enjoy him I really do – but as Parkinson’s thoughts turn to next season, a huge question mark will remain about the left wing spot rather than a name already being pencilled in. Bradford City can continue to benefit from his talents as they seek to climb over the 50-point line, but he could be taken away at any time and potentially leave a large hole. Reach can continue to boost his experience and work on his consistency over 90 minutes, but the ultimate prize for the winger cannot be found within the four sides of Valley Parade.

We are lucky to have him in the short-term, but hindered to have him when it comes to our long-term preparations. It is an absolute pleasure to watch Adam Reach in a Bradford City shirt, but sometimes that joy is tempered by the pragmatic harshness that he isn’t ours to fall in love with – and we cannot allow ourselves to get attached.

The Midweek Player Focus #54: Andrew Davies

5 Mar

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By Alex Scott

I wonder if you ever get used to it. That feeling. The powerlessness of everything. Knowing that with every return to the field you are only restarting the clock.

Watching Andrew Davies trudge off the pitch on Saturday afternoon following the most recent injury of a perpetually stuttering career was a numbing sight. I was resigned to his necessary absence over the upcoming weeks, already moving onto the gap until his return in my head as he took his leave down the touchline. I wonder if he was.

Phil Parkinson and his team were left to watch on as their house of cards tumbled once more. This team has proven with and without Nahki Wells to be a competent, top-half team with Davies available, yet they tumble to a relegation candidate in his absence. The injuries to Davies are a known commodity, they aren’t the issue. The issue is how City are managing their response.

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Coming back from an injury is hard; I wonder if it gets harder or easier the more often you do it?

Football statistics are often best deployed illustrating something you already know. Which does say a lot about the value of statistics, but that’s for another day. In the 16 games with Davies in the team, City have averaged 0.81 goals conceded per game, which with an admittedly small sample size, would be comfortably the 2nd best defence in the league.

Without him, in the other 17, that number increases to over 1.5 goals per 90 minutes, good for 16th in League One. These numbers are obviously out of context, the quality of opponents and loss of James Meredith haven’t been controlled for, but we can safely say this defence is far better with Davies in it than without.

For those interested, the results last year were basically the same: City ranging from the 3rd best defence with Davies in it, to the 19th best with him on the sidelines, with the same sample size, and James Meredith caveats applicable.

Saturday’s injury brought to an end the 203rd league appearance of Davies’ career, a number put into perspective when noting that his first appearance came in November 2002. But this, sadly, is going to be the story of his career.

Maybe not for us as City fans. Despite the injuries, he will still feature prominently on my “Top 5 City players relative to their opposition” list along with Nahki Wells and Jermaine Johnson of the recent past. I’ve seen Andrew Davies seven times this season, and every time I’ve come away again stunned how we managed to get him to play for us in League Two, let alone League One. It’s still baffling. He’s our best player today. Although probably not most valuable player given the time on the sidelines – Gary Jones and James Hanson battling for that one – but Andrew Davies is definitely the “best”.

It isn’t just that Davies is really good – which he is – it’s that he is the perfect type of good for us. He fits the system so well, or more aptly, the system fits him so well. Looking back to the summer of 2012, and with Kyel Reid, James Hanson and Wells, Andrew Davies was amongst the main holdovers. The squad which did so well to get promoted last year was designed the summer previous to bring the best out these players, and it did.

And it still does. Despite the key losses the team have suffered, they still highlight Andrew Davies every week he plays. He is the perfect type of good for this manager, for his defensive partner, and for the style the team attempt to play. A sentiment once universal, is becoming less and less applicable to the squad as a whole.

As Davies, Rory McArdle and the rest watch on, the reinforcements have failed to gel as the alchemy of squad building is getting shown to be exactly that, the more time passes at Valley Parade. Last year may have been lightning in a bottle. Or perhaps this year is a black hole in a bottle? It’s too soon to tell.

Whilst a number of the signings since last summer are obviously talented in certain ways, they aren’t right type of good for us. The more we see of Aaron Mclean, the more that becomes true. And it is curious that a manager who knew, and knows, his style’s strengths and weaknesses as intimately as Parkinson has misjudged this many players. Mark Yeates, Matt Taylor and Jason Kennedy have proven nothing short of catastrophic signings. Which isn’t to say they are bad players – Yeates and Taylor especially have played well at this level and beyond – but they are the wrong type of good.

Andrew Davies is the perfect type of good for us. When he’s there, it’s hard to imagine the team playing without him setting the tone. When he’s not there, they often can’t.

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I wrote about Andrew Davies’s backstory a year ago, detailing the impact his injuries have had on his career. The situation is sadly unchanged now. How unremarkable his injury was on the field on Saturday, stretching for an errant pass at his neck, is fitting given the saddening unremarkableness of him being out of the team with injury.

Do you think if Parkinson had his time again, he would have re-signed Andrew Davies last year? An outsider’s totally uneducated guess would estimate he’s amongst the club’s highest paid players. Would you rather have a star for 40% of the time, and a horde of fungible replacement-level players for the other 60%, or a lesser, but still above-average starter available for 80% of the time?

As we’ve shown this year, draws and unbeaten runs are generally overvalued, and often do nothing more than consign a team to treading water. Perhaps greater access to an above-average player would have led to more wins in the barren autumn of 2013. Likely fewer wins at other times, but would that have been worth it? This team have performed so poorly in one-score games. A little difference in goal concession over the season would have gone a long way.

Would you rather have a high ceiling or a high floor? Would we have got more points this year if we had the eighth best defence for the whole season rather than the ranging highs and lows we have felt in terms of defensive output?

It’s not like the availability of Davies for this season has been a shock. Parkinson can’t have realistically planned for 46 games of Davies; he wouldn’t have spent the moderate bucks on Matt Taylor if he did. And perhaps that’s the point. The 60% is where we are falling down. That Matt Taylor has been the wrong type of good for us is the real problem here.

Taylor was signed to be the back-up centre half, ahead of Carl McHugh and a recovering Luke Oliver. Davies’ clean bill of health at the start of the year rendered the lanky centre half expendable in the short-term, seeing him loaned out to Colchester. Davies subsequently went down in that Walsall game, but instead of slotting in Matt Taylor, or either of the other available options, Parkinson went out to the market and recruited Matthew Bates to jump the queue.

Those questioning the value of having back-ups in the squad when you’re just going to sign someone else instead of playing them anyway have a point, and such illogical planning implies that something went wrong. None of the available options were deemed up to the task. Matthew Bates was persisted with during the absence of Davies despite middling returns – middling in the “one clean sheet in fifteen” variety – with barely any others having a look-in.

At this point of his career, after his own injury woes, Bates is a useful replacement-level squad player who can fill-in a number of positions. However if elevated into the starting eleven, he is probably always someone you’d want to improve on. Taylor, and similarly Luke Oliver, only filled in one position, and didn’t even do that. Matt Taylor has appeared in 46 minutes of league football all year long for City. And the 45 at Peterborough were an unmitigated disaster. The wrong type of good may be the kind analysis.

Despite the contingencies, Parkinson has not been able to mitigate the sadly inevitable losses of Davies. And as this season moves away into the rear view mirror that will probably be the primary takeaway.

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I wonder if Davies still gets down about everything. From the outside, the what-might-have-beenness would just kill me. I suppose you have to be at peace with this sort of thing in Davies’ position. But he’s a Championship player, and would have had a very successful Championship career if he could stay on the field. He should have double the career appearances he does today. It’s not an unprecedented sports story, it has torn better players than him apart. But on an individual level, for a guy we are all invested in, it is a bit sad.

On the flip side of the coin, if it wasn’t for that aspect of him, he wouldn’t be here.

Other, better, richer clubs than us have obviously decided that they’d rather have the slightly less good, or equivalent player who is fit 80% of the time. Thus his market value decreases to a level at which he is attainable for us. The same goes for the inconsistent crossing of Kyel Reid and reputed one-dimensionality of Nathan Doyle.

So we aren’t in a position to complain about Davies’ time off the field, it is what it is. The manager has prepared for it. It’s just transpired that he may not have prepared for it all that well. Although it absolutely must be said, there is a balancing act between a player’s willingness to be a back-up and him holding the necessary skills to be a starter. You’re not going to get a player close to the production of Andrew Davies willing to be the back-up to Andrew Davies without paying over the odds. They’d rather be starting somewhere else, preserving their re-sale value.

This year Parkinson has decided to spend that money elsewhere, recruiting Yeates, De Vita and Associates to add another dimension to the team’s attacking play. The fact that other dimension consists of a wayward, stuttering ponderousness, lacking in both urgency and end-product was probably not the design.

In hindsight, and perhaps as a learning point, regardless of how many different attackers were in the side, in whatever combination, the loss of Davies fundamentally compromised the team’s ability to earn wins. They’ve still only won once without him all year long – a smash and grab in Milton Keynes, where they still conceded twice – against not coincidentally the only side in the division who never play a long ball.

It’s a bit of a silly observation as there is no real answer, but after having a known commodity on the books in Andrew Davies, taking the gamble that he could stay fit for 35 games was still probably worth it. Over the opportunity to hire a lesser replacement who may underwhelm, could also get injured at some point, and forever be judged against his predecessor. It’s not the decision itself which is questionable, it’s just the mitigation strategy hasn’t been up to the required level to cover Davies’ absence.

This season is to die at the hands of the 60%.

Moving onto the revolution – not evolution – in the summer, and that will not be forgotten. City cannot afford to have a drop off this stark from a player who is only going to appear in 25 games.

Perhaps the solution involves recruiting another starter in the centre of defence alongside Davies and demoting Rory McArdle to something of a (what’s a slightly better version of Jack?) – Jacques (?) of all trades, pairing up with Carl McHugh and/or Matthew Bates to back up each of the starting four defenders. I’m not arguing that would be the most efficient way to spend the squad’s budget – which is about to be slashed – but it would definitely solve one glaring problem.

The summer is going to be about Phil Parkinson attempting to recapture the right kind of good. Or more likely, with a struggling Aaron Mclean and a missing Mark Yeates both standing as expensive holdovers from this year, attempting to change what the right kind of good is.

But with James Hanson set in stone to lead the line, it’s a conundrum. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, and as was illustrated again on Saturday, James Hanson is this team’s greatest competitive advantage. They just need to find a better way to expose it now Wells is out the door. Moving forward, dealing with the 60% is the second biggest issue. Deciding what to do about your long-term, highly paid strike partnership which appears utterly incompatible from the start takes immediate priority.

Whatever happens in the summer, whatever the new right kind of good is, Andrew Davies will be at the forefront. He remains one of the side’s best, and most important players, and they club could bring in ten new starters and that would still be true. He’s under contract, and he will be back starting in a few months, if only for a few months.

This, unfortunately, is the game. City just need to play it better.

The Midweek Player Focus #53: Carl McHugh

27 Feb

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By Andrew Baxter

Tuesday 8 January, 2013, on a cold night at Valley Parade. It’s nearing the end of the game, and Bradford City are two minutes away from pulling off one of the greatest cup wins in recent memory. Gary Jones whips in another inch-perfect cross, and a 19-year-old from County Donegal in Ireland meets it with a thumping header. It rockets past the Aston Villa keeper, Shay Given, and into the back of the net.

When Carl McHugh’s name is mentioned, it is this goal that stands out for me; the first thing that comes to mind, and is an example of the talent and potential that he possesses.

A left-footed centre back, who can play at left-back, McHugh’s versatility, and matureness for someone so (relatively) young has been impressive. His main attribute, however, is his willingness to do anything for the team. As has been previously mentioned, Parkinson says that McHugh will “do anything you ask of him for the good of the team”. Whether that be to play at left-back (a position he is comfortable, but not naturally suited to), or to constantly overlap and create space for the winger in front of him, McHugh will do it. There may be stronger defenders, quicker defenders, technically better defenders, but McHugh’s attitude and work ethic is unquestionable.

In comparison to Oliver McBurnie, who is being drip-fed into the first team, with a gradual increase in his workload, McHugh was thrusted straight into the limelight. His first two starts for the Bantams were both away from home, at Championship free-scorers Watford, and (then) Premiership outfit Wigan. Despite having no previous Football League experience, City conceded just once in 210 minutes during those games; an impressive statistic, considering the inexperience of McHugh.

McHugh went from being a free agent and pre-season trialist, to playing out of his skin against Arsenal, in just over four months. Keeping the likes of Jack Wilshere, Lukas Podolski and Santi Cazorla quiet is a feat to be applauded for any defender, never mind a 19-year-old with a handful of first-team appearances to his name.

Last season also saw McHugh play the full 90 minutes in a League Cup final; an achievement he never could possibly have dreamed of when he was released by Reading in June 2012. Despite McHugh having a (relatively) poor game, and City conceding five, the experience of playing in a major domestic cup final has matured the Irishman, and this experience is now evident in his play.

McHugh’s distribution is impressive, and has improved from when he first came to the club. Rather than going direct, and pumping the ball upfield, McHugh looks for the midfield, and tends to pass it into feet – allowing City to carve out chances. Even when playing at left back, McHugh looks for the winger, or for one of the two central midfielders, rather than hitting a hopeful ball down the pitch.

McHugh’s contributions from set-pieces are also very handy, especially in a team that has had periods of struggling to score. A return of four in 38 games may not sound spectacular, but his ability to chip in with crucial goals is very useful. For example, his goal in the last minute of the FA Cup tie at home to Northampton last season took the game to penalties, which City consequently won. Another example is from a week last Tuesday, when McHugh’s injury-time winner was the difference between the two sides.

It is important to note, however, that McHugh’s contract expires in June, along with several other first-team players. With McHugh being largely a peripheral figure in the squad until mid-December, he must do all he can whilst he has his run in the team to persuade Phil Parkinson that he is worth retaining.

The remaining 14 games, therefore, could essentially be an extended trial in a bid to retain his place in the squad for next season. With fellow defenders Rory McArdle and Matthew Bates also out of contract, as well as Andrew Davies and Matt Taylor having deals that will run to June 2015, is having five centre backs at the club simply too expensive, and unnecessary?

If I was Phil Parkinson, I would certainly keep hold of McHugh. Whilst he may not be the strongest or quickest defender to put on the claret and amber shirt, McHugh’s determination and maturity makes him a great player to have in the squad. The cliché “old head on young shoulders” is over-used, but appropriate for McHugh. He has only just turned 21, remember, and is eight years younger than Andrew Davies, and five and a half years younger than Rory McArdle.

There have been better defenders at Valley Parade, but in terms of courage and commitment to the team, there are very few who can match McHugh.

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