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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.

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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

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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.

~~~~~~~

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.

The Midweek Player Focus #52: Luke Oliver

5 Feb

The Width of a Post 2011/12 player of the season, Luke Oliver

By Jason McKeown

Some players are cruelly sentenced to never be remembered as fondly as they deserve to be. Not due to any personal failings or mistakes, but because the period during which they excelled was a more generally unhappy one. Luke Oliver is unquestionably a Valley Parade hero, yet his accomplishments occurred during a 15-month period where things were generally dismal at Valley Parade – an era we’d all rather forget.

In both 2010/11 and 2011/12, City finished 18th in League Two and along the way triggered very, very real concerns about the likelihood of retaining their Football League status. No one stepped up to the plate more than central defender Oliver, who put in some masterful performances that ensured City didn’t fall down the non-league trapdoor. During what represented a modern-day low ebb for the football club, Oliver led the rescue mission. He will always be thought of affectionately by City supporters for it.

Oliver departed Valley Parade last week on an ill-fitting low key note. That horrendous ruptured achilles injury, picked up at Burton Albion’s Perelli Stadium in October 2012, put Oliver out of action for nine months and saw him cruelly get left behind. On the evening that the extent of Oliver’s injury was made public, City knocked Premier League Wigan out of the League Cup.

Go through the many, many wonderful moments of the 2012/13 season, and Oliver’s name was absent from the story. It’s not easy for a six foot seven inch person to blend into the background, but that’s unfortunately what happened to Oliver. We Made History – largely without him.

But if it wasn’t for Oliver’s heroics before the 2012/13 season, City probably wouldn’t have even been a Football League club and gone through them. None of it would have happened, without him and others ensuring that the foundations remained in their place during some stormy times.

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If – the day after Peter Taylor left Valley Parade following that nerve-jangling victory over nine-men Stockport County in February 2011 – you were asked to select members of the-then squad to step up and save the club from relegation, Oliver’s name would have appeared near the bottom of most people’s lists.

Oliver was signed 12 months earlier by Taylor, initially on loan from Wycombe, with warnings from supporters of his old clubs that he was a calamitous defender prone to making gaffes. Taylor had worked with Oliver at Stevenage and Wycombe, and you assumed that he would know how to get the best out of him. So when a permanent deal was agreed for Oliver to join the Bantams that summer, no one was too worried.

Yet Taylor’s first – and only – proper season in the Valley Parade hot seat was a huge disappointment. All but David Syers, of his summer signings, under-performed, and the manager’s attempts to patch up the many leaky holes with questionable loan signings clearly damaged squad morale. Oliver started slowly; and then when James Hanson was injured, was thrust up front as an emergency targetman for almost a month. It coincided with some of the most wretched football I have ever seen from a Bradford City side.

Oliver up front, City playing long ball football and with three strikers sat on the bench – it was a set of circumstances that understandably drew dismay from supporters. Especially as it all left City second bottom of the Football League by early October.

With Hanson back and Jason Price brought in on loan, Oliver was thankfully kept away from the forward line but still struggled on return to his centre back role. There was at least one mistake in him per match. He bumbled his way along in a team that just couldn’t get going. And when Taylor and club decided it was best to change manager, we all assumed that Luke would quickly follow him out the door. A modern day Jason Gavin.

Yet something happened immediately post-Taylor: Oliver started playing well. At first not many supporters – understandably fed up of a season’s worth of poor displays from him – noticed. But in crucial games during that relegation run-in, Oliver was a rock. A Tuesday night home game against relegation rivals Burton springs to mind. City weren’t great and should really have lost, but Oliver’s man of the match display helped ensure a valuable point was gained. He also performed exceptionally during a vital Easter Monday victory over Aldershot that all-but-ensured survival. The gentle giant had grown tall.

Nevertheless, his future seemed destined elsewhere. Interim manager Peter Jackson fed upon the mood of supporter discontent towards the squad by putting everyone up for sale. Oliver found himself relegated to playing in a Development Squad pre-season friendly at Silsden, alongside fellow outcasts Michael Flynn and Robbie Threlfall. Guy Branston had been brought in, Steve Williams’ career hadn’t yet stalled; so Oliver began the season as fourth choice centre back – even central midfielder Lee Bullock was favoured ahead of him on the opening day of the season.

But as injuries arose, Oliver was given a chance and carried on in the manner he ended the previous season: hugely impressive. While Branston struggled to live up to his and Peter Jackson’s hype, Phil Parkinson came in and quickly rebuilt the back four around Luke. Andrew Davies was signed on loan to partner him with Guy shipped out on loan, and the club’s struggles that season would be the result of other, weaker areas of the team.

For Oliver was simply outstanding – even being nominated for the December League Two Player of the Month. His new-found confidence best illustrated by his gradual comfortableness on the ball and in bringing it out of defence. Strong in the air but also agile on the deck, Oliver was tasked with attacking the ball when it came into City’s box, with Davies on hand to clear up anything he didn’t repel.

As the club made hard work of avoiding relegation, Oliver and Davies were more and more vital. The bad night against Crawley robbed Parkinson of his centre back pairing, but Oliver returned from suspension in the nick of time to be the lynchpin of back-to-back April victories over Northampton and Macclesfield which confirmed survival. He was the runaway winner of the Player of the Season awards, and could look forward to playing a key role in future, happier times.

Alas, soon after injury struck. Oliver began 2012/13 in the side and, though perhaps not hitting the heights of the previous year, he was letting no one down. Ever-present in the league, until that fateful day in the East Midlands. One can only imagine how bittersweet it must have been for Oliver to see the club enjoy such spectacular success without him.

The worst thing was that Oliver was not missed. Rory McArdle looked superb in taking his place in the centre. Carl McHugh emerged from nowhere to impress in Davies’ absence. Nevertheless, there was hope that he would still have a future at Valley Parade, this season.

Starting off on the sidelines as he battled to prove his fitness, Parkinson talked of letting him go out on loan and then, a matter of days later, brought him in to start against Brentford due to McArdle being on international duty. City won 4-0 and Oliver was terrific. He filled in twice more for Rory, but the long-term absence of Davies in October did not open the door for him. In came Matthew Bates to partner Rory, instead. The fact both Oliver and McArdle are so right-sided ruled out any realistic prospect of forming a partnership.

Perhaps saddest aspect of all was that Oliver’s final appearance in claret and amber came in that old Taylor positon – up front. A Boxing Day home loss to Rotherham, with City badly missing Hanson through injury, saw him introduced from the bench to play targetman with three minutes to go. He barely touched the ball as City were deservedly beaten. It was no way for our hero to bow out.

Oliver does not reach his 30th birthday until this May, and I really hope that he has another five or six good years left in him to make up for the lost time of the past 18 months. It was the cruellest of twists of fate that a player who truly stood up when the chips were down didn’t subsequently get to enjoy the good times, but the mention of his name will always spark great affection.

He set the standards that others have followed. He raised the bar when it seemed no one else could or would stop it from falling further. He played a key role in applying the brakes and in turning around this club – and for that we will always be thankful.

The Midweek Player Focus #51: Gary Jones

24 Jan

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By Alex Scott

I’m not even sure it was the celebration that I’m remembering. I think it may have been winning a corner actually. After the ball spun away behind the dead ball line not long after half time, City’s captain bellowed a rallying call to his crowd behind the Bramall Lane goal. In that one moment completely changing the atmosphere, the momentum of the game, like a light switch.

He was a man in control. A man who would not be denied.

My favourite line from the manager over the past 18 months has been how he noted that he needed to build a team which the fans could believe in. Build it and they will come. That is Gary Jones.

That entire game was a vintage Jones moment. Everything from start to finish was just text book. The award of a “Man of the Match” felt like it was created for performances just like that.

Amidst the nadir of this demoralising run, Gary Jones dragged his City team kicking and screaming toward a point they had absolutely no business in earning. They didn’t come easily, some of the defending on show was beyond the last ditch, but Jones flatly refused to let them lose. Not on his watch.

It was almost Gerrardian in its single-mindedness. One man holding back the tide, Gary Jones harked back to the performances last year which endeared him so greatly to this City fan base, the likes of which have been less frequent this term.

A little over 18 months into his City career, Jones has achieved as much as anyone before him. Saturday’s performance illustrated that he isn’t finished just yet.

~~~~~~~~~~

As the story goes, he was noticed by Parkinson whilst scouting Stephen Darby, and on the recommendation of his assistant Steve Parkin, Jones was recruited. Not to be a spearhead as such, more like the spear itself. Jones was the man they needed for the short term, despite just turning 35. To clear space for him, Parkinson let go of budding young midfielder David Syers, who went up a league to recently-relegated Doncaster, for no fee. The irony that Syers is now plying away (successfully) in the division below City offers an apt vindication for the manager on that one. Especially because most of that fact is down to the work of Gary Jones.

Without Jones last season couldn’t have happened. After a long career as a cult hero at Rochdale, most looked at his signature at Valley Parade as something of a pension. Rochdale likely wouldn’t have offered a two year extension on those terms, and Jones could now secure his future a little longer. It should be noted that I was definitively of that mind at the time.

But, as with most things, and people really should never lose sight of this: I am a moron. I am not in the room; I cannot witness the intangibles he brings. Not that anyone can, being intangible and all, but you know what I mean. At that time when I would read words like “leadership” and “responsibility”, I would think immediately of Guy Branston’s inglorious tenure. And that’s on me, and I’ve learned that lesson. Branston didn’t fail because he was painted as a leader; he failed because he wasn’t up to it. Everything else was a sideshow.

However, when it comes to Jones, he has succeeded because he is a leader. His personality is woven in this team, and has carried them through some tough times and some great ones over the past 18 months. Which why anyone questioning his role in a time like this is just infuriating. Ritchie Jones being our starting central midfielder is really not that long ago.

Alongside Nathan Doyle in the middle of the park, Gary Jones made up the beating heart of a City side which was defined by its spine. A rock solid central defensive partnership led by Andrew Davies and the best strike partnership in the division book ended the midfield pairing which had the remit of setting the tone.

The rest of the team were relative stars at that level, but even in spite of that it looked often like they needed a spark, a thrust. And that definitively came from the tone set by Gary Jones. Involved in every set piece, he took responsibility from day one, single-handedly at times making them perform. From the first day of the season to the last he was pivotal.

Without him, the identity of the team would be… I don’t even know what it would be. The personality of Bradford City is as much Gary Jones as it is Phil Parkinson. The composed determination of the squad is actually often at odds with their manager’s frenetic demeanour.

Moving into this season, Jones and his charges managed to keep the engine ticking over until the loss of Andrew Davies, when the increased quality of the league proved a little too much to muddle through. But they still aren’t getting beaten. Despite a talent deficit, they are grinding out results, keeping their head above water unlike any City team in the modern era, which would already be at the bottom of the sea by now.

After one win in fifteen, and facing a two-nil deficit at half time, that second half performance at Bramall Lane could have been a turning point, for the first time in a long time, they looked like they were drowning. Enter Gary Jones.

~~~~~~~~

It’s curious that the rising tides of discontent which submerged our struggling central midfield last week have yet to reach Gary Jones. Not that I’m an advocate of it as such. It’s just weird, from the outside. You read the odd catcall of fans on the internet complaining about Jones, normally following a defeat, but it’s rare in comparison to what Jason Kennedy has had to deal with.

The likely explanation is that any argument over Jones’ worth can be debunked by pointing to games like the one last Saturday. Performances like that render any discussion asinine. And anyone who could have watched that performance and concluded that Jones was the key problem wasn’t paying attention. I’m not here to talk about his worth really. There isn’t really an argument to frame, and in all likelihood, the anti-Jones argument is a bit of a straw man anyway.

For where the team is, they need someone like Gary Jones far more than a nebulous quote creative midfielder end quote, whatever one of those is. And for fans who’ve sat through the last ten years not to appreciate that is insane. Paul McLaren was a quote creative midfielder end quote.

The team need people willing to take responsibility, at a time like this more than any other. They need people who won’t accept anything less than what is required. Gary Jones flatly refused to let City lose that game. After a disappointing performance first half where Jones spent the majority of his time screaming at his back four – not one ever pointing in the same direction as another – he came out for the second half and led.

That was it. He didn’t perform particularly well, but even with that caveat was still our most impressive performer. He dragged a team in the midst of a truly terrible performance (really don’t let anyone undersell how bad they were first half) kicking and screaming into a point. They didn’t even play well second half! They just willed their way to a point in a game where they should have lost by two or three.

He scored a deflected goal, willing to take a chance, and then set up the equaliser with the only bit of skill from an amber shirt all day long. He ran around the pitch screaming, lifting, dragging everyone. And he did it in a manner which openly took responsibility. The opposite of hiding. The anti-Yeates.

He played like the man Guy Branston wanted to think of himself as. But Jones actually had the wherewithal to back up the bravado. Gary Jones would not let them lose on Saturday. Anyone else in there, even a more gifted player, and City would have been comfortably beaten.

Jones’ running, and credit where it’s due, Aaron McLean’s running, gave everyone else a lift, raising the standard of what was acceptable. And those standards have been one of the running themes of this team. Jones is a big part of that. This side very seldom crumble and get beaten. They’ve been beaten by more than one goal only once all season: Notts County away, where the hosts scored two goals in injury time. For all the fatalistic talk swirling, that’s not a bad record. When James Hanson has started alongside either Nahki Wells or Aaron McLean, City have only lost one game also: Port Vale away at the start of the year.

Despite an apparent talent deficit and a team descending further and further out of form, they are rarely being beaten. They are hanging in. They are determined beyond anyone’s expectations. They will not be denied.

~~~~~~~~

It is curious that the talk around Jones hasn’t started in earnest though. Looking from the outside, one could rightly assume that a contingency plan for the 36-year-old captain out of contract in the summer should now be in place. In fact they look more reliant on Jones than ever. The future without him less imaginable.

And this is the conversation people should be having. Not that City should replace Jones now. This would be obviously insane. But shouldn’t there be some semblance of a plan? What if Jones wants to retire in the summer?

The mischievous soul in me would posit that perhaps Phil Parkinson is doing that with Jason Kennedy. Jones’ former teammate, nine years his junior, was signed on a two-year deal last summer, without a clear role in the team. Unless it would be as a back-up to Jones this year, with an assumption that by the beginning of next season Kennedy would be able to take up the mantle of his mentor.

Now I don’t know if that was the plan, but if it was, I’d argue that so far that such a plan may require revision. For all the will in the world Kennedy has seldom looked up to the task. This, of course, isn’t to say that he won’t ever be. It also isn’t like Jones has torn up trees in his play this year. The argument that Kennedy for a lot of the time looks like Gary Jones, but without the inspiration and leadership, is strong.

Beyond Kennedy, the reason there hasn’t been any new players blooded this year to spell Jones is that there aren’t any. Scott Brown was let go so that he could join Scottish Premiership outfit St Johnstone, and last week signed a new two-year deal, after making his league debut in October. Looking at the way the season has panned out, he’d probably have got some playing time actually. But with the acquisition of Kennedy in the summer, Scott had no choice but to leave.

The cupboard is bare behind Jones. He has played every minute this season, something that at 36 cannot have been part of the design from the off-season. But needs must. The manager obviously didn’t foresee such a dearth of performers in midfield, otherwise he wouldn’t have signed who he did.

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Gary Jones was the man the side needed coming from the bottom of League Two, and they undoubtedly overachieved. As we have seen over the past few weeks, with Saturday’s game as the exclamation point, he is still needed here. With his initial contract at the club winding down, and the aims over the next few years to establish and push on at this level, the question becomes inevitable: will he be the man they need?

Gun to my head, I’d say he will be. But it’s by no means a sure thing. Jones, along with Doyle, Ricky Ravenhill, Garry Thompson, and Kyel Reid are hitting the free agent market in the summer, and that moment marks a clear opportunity, and maybe a necessity, for Parkinson to recast his midfield.

The acquisition of Aaron McLean to partner James Hanson inevitably means that the tried and tested 4-4-2 will be retained, but the actual four in the middle of that are still up in the air. From that list, I’d think only Jones and Doyle were on the positive side of a 50-50 chance of returning. But if Parkinson was that way inclined, he could blow it up this summer. Kennedy and Mark Yeates are the only hold-overs from the midfield, so the manager does hold the freedom to re-draw the position group in any combination he likes.

The underlying theory of the midfield – two deep lying protectors and two attacking outlets wide – will not change next year. Hanson casts a shadow over the rest of the team in this regard, pun intended, and it has served us well enough thus far. You don’t have a team with James Hanson and not build around crosses into the box.

As this season has worn on, the questioning has been on the effectiveness of the team at this level, and whether one can win playing in the manner which we set out so often. A line of questioning which is really a moot point, as every time the side try anything else they look hopelessly out of their comfort zone. Again bringing me back to my last point, why have someone with such a powerful competitive advantage in Hanson’s height and not use it?

It shouldn’t be forgotten that at the start of the year it did actually work, very well. Now Hanson and McLean have been locked up for the foreseeable future, the method won’t change. They just need to get better at it.

The question for the manager with regard to Jones is whether that in the limited scope of a predominantly defensive midfielder the improvement over Jones he could gain from a free agent would outweigh the loss of his leadership?

Now I don’t know the market enough to come close to answering that, but from watching this team so often over the past couple of years, they’ve been defined by Jones. I’d, quite vehemently, argue that the impact of a central midfielder in this system is limited, and any improvement over Jones won’t cover the loss of his presence in the team.

This is obviously with the caveat over his level of play. Right now he is doing just about enough in his actual play to keep his place regardless, but if there was a regression over the next 12 months, not an unfair supposition, then the balance of that equation may shift. But for right now, that’s not yet a problem.

A conclusion that leads me to think that Jones probably will be back captaining us next season. He’s played every minute this season, and does as much running as anyone. The marginal cost of the next six months for him may not be as big as you’d expect for someone his age. He’s been playing this way 20 years. What’s another 60 games if you’ve already played 600?

And in the end, all of this is missing the point of Gary Jones. Do you want to watch him or not? Would you rather watch a City team with him in it or without? Isn’t thinking about Gary Jones and this Bradford City team a tautology at this point? He has to stay, because of course he does. He has to. They need him. We need him.

~~~~~~~

Objectively, I’m not sure Jones’ performances have necessarily improved or regressed from last year. The level of competition has obviously risen, and with that he has become less notable in his performances. Something which had to have been expected. But the question of his growth isn’t really the issue; he’s 36-years-old. The question is really about how much the side have grown around him?

The rest of the team are still reliant on Jones to carry them through the tough times. The vision of the team as currently constituted without him is a worrying thought. He isn’t as much a water carrier, as the water itself.

At this point the team, the club still need him. They haven’t proven themselves strong enough outgrow his shadow yet. Jones doesn’t need their protection; they need it from him, if anything. At this point they still need him, and even in the medium term, any team without him would be a fundamentally different outfit. They would be a fundamentally less inspiring outfit. For us and them.

The Midweek Player Focus #50: Raffaele De Vita

16 Jan

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By Ian Hemmens

After the Glorious 2012/13 season that we had as a club and fans alike, how do you follow and improve on it as you take steps to meet the challenge of a higher division?

What was Phil Parkinson’s thinking last summer? Did he intend to stick to the players who got us promoted and just add to the squad, or did he want new players who would come in and take more of a lead as the season progressed? We will probably not find out his exact strategical thinking but, I think it’s fair to say that his summer signings haven’t made the impact I’m sure that he hoped they would.

Others will be dealt with in future Midweek Player Focus articles, but I’m concentrating on one of the last of the summer arrivals: Italian midfielder/forward, Raffaele De Vita.

With thanks to Italian Bantam Giuseppe Fazio, I’ll just outline his past quickly in Italian football. He has never actually played in senior football in his homeland, having played for several junior and local clubs in his home city of Rome. De Vita was spotted playing for Rome side Atletico 2000 by a scout of the Blackburn Rovers Academy, and brought over to the slightly different surroundings of East Lancashire.

After two years in the Rovers academy without progressing, De Vita moved to Scotland to join Livingston, where his record was a very creditable 21 goals in 67 games. This caught the eye of newly appointed Swindon manager, Paolo Di Canio, in 2011, and at the County Ground he was used in both a wide role and as a central striker. After two years at Swindon, the Italian found himself one of several players released by Di Canio after the penalty shoot out defeat in the League One play off semi final against Brentford.

He was offered a trial by Phil Parkinson last summer, and impressed in a pre season game against Guiseley – getting a goal in the 4-0 victory. This led to him being invited on the pre-season trip to Ireland. He made enough of an impression to be offered a one-year contract at the end of July.

De Vita made his first team debut from the bench in the season’s opener at Bristol City, and scored his only goal so far in the home game against Wolves in October, before limping off with a muscle injury.

So far, Rafa has mainly been used as a substitute and is quick, if a little lightweight. He earned himself a run as a starter for several games, but in reality failed to impress to any degree. He is currently on the injured list and, with the situation at the club now and with the transfer window open, there is a dilemma over what to do with him.

Does the manager persist with De Vita, hoping that he will show some of his undoubted flair, or does he try to offload him and refresh the squad? De Vita certainly needs to show more in the second half of the season to impress the majority of fans and indeed the management. If he remains a fringe player, there is little doubt he will move on at the season’s end when his contract is up.

This is the enigma that is Raffaele De Vita. Can we carry a flair player who seems to blow hot and cold, or will he just fade out of the scene as Parkinson attempts to reignite the season? At the moment , I would say the odds are on the latter scenario – but the Boy from Rome could yet surprise us all.

The Midweek Player Focus #49: Mark Yeates

7 Jan
Picture by Mike Holdsworth

Picture by Mike Holdsworth

By Jason McKeown

Mark Yeates must have thought he was certain to start at Notts County on New Year’s Day. As Phil Parkinson planned a team without the services of Nahki Wells up front, Yeates, who replaced the injured Bermudian in the previous game, was favourite to get the nod. And even though Garry Thompson was instead preferred to partner James Hanson, the right midfield slot that he vacated would surely be handed to Yeates.

Yet the wide-man/striker Yeates was overlooked here too, left once again on the bench. Two problem areas in the team, and Parkinson preferred to pick a right winger to start up front and a central midfielder – Jason Kennedy – on the right wing. You could argue that Yeates’ best position is on the left anyway, but all roads to a starting place are currently blocked for him. Yeates heads up a cast of summer signings that have seemingly failed to win over the manager who signed them. Now past the half way stage of the season, doubts are growing over whether Yeates is ever going to.

Yeates has started only nine of City’s 27 matches to date – and only once since mid-October. He has become the 12th man of the team, almost always the first substitute introduced into the game (invariably for Thompson somewhere between 60-65 minutes), his contribution during these latter stages seems to have no bearing on whether he is promoted to the first XI for the next game. In November, Yeates made a number of appearances from the bench, where his efforts visibly improved the team and made a big difference – he even netted an important equaliser during a home game against Notts County – but these performances didn’t result in a starting berth for the next game.

Perhaps discouraged by this, Yeates’ more recent cameos from the bench have proved much less effective. Although his stuttering form does put him in good company with the majority of his team-mates, at this moment.

Although Yeates’ potential has only been seen sporadically since signing for the Bantams, there is no doubt it is within him to do much, much better. At his best, Yeates can stake credible claim of being the best footballer at the club. He has a fantastic touch, vision and awareness of others. His spectacular home debut goal against Carlisle United in August was a moment of pure brilliance that, if not replicated every week, should at least be followed up by more regular match-winning performances. In League One terms, Yeates is a quality player; but for a number of reasons his time at City isn’t working out.

Perhaps the blame for this lies mainly with Yeates. It is 10 years since the Tottenham youth graduate made his professional debut on loan at Brighton – Bradford City is his 10th different club. A full first debut for Spurs at the end of the 2003/04 season – he played the full 90 of a 2-0 victory over Wolves – suggested he might have a promising future at the club. But just three subsequent appearances the following year, followed by two seasons on loan elsewhere, brought an end to such hopes.

At least his career got going in the lower leagues, thanks largely to Parkinson. Yeates was captured on a season-long loan by Colchester for the 2005/06 campaign, where Parkinson would memorably steer the Essex club to promotion to the Championship for the first time in their history. Yeates was a key man, playing 52 times and scoring six goals. And as Parkinson hastily jumped ship to Hull City that summer, Yeates’ next loan move from Spurs was to join him at the KC Stadium – they both failed to impress and quickly departed, as Hull became embroiled in a relegation battle.

Finally, Tottenham cut Yeates loose and he re-joined Colchester for an undisclosed fee. He flourished once more, despite United being relegated from the Championship during his first season and muddling in League One mid-table the year after. Middlesbrough’s Gareth Southgate spent half a million taking Yeates to the Riverside in 2009, but he was cast aside when Gordon Strachan took charge midway through the campaign. Two and a half seasons at Sheffield United went well, and a 2011 transfer to Watford began promisingly enough. Sadly for Yeates, the Italian takeover of the club, last season, saw a change of direction and he was left on the fringes. Back to League One, and to Valley Parade.

Yeates has proven himself to be a Championship-standard player, and right now should look as though he is playing below his natural level. Yet it’s not happened so far, and for the player there is a danger of an up-and-down career drifting further in the wrong direction. In his recent autobiography, Sir Alex Ferguson talks about players’ peak years being aged 26-29. This should be one of the best seasons in 28-year-old Yeates’ career, but it is turning into one of his worst. 10 years, 10 clubs. Unless something drastically changes, number 11 probably isn’t far away.

So why is it not happening for Yeates at Valley Parade? Well, looking at his weaknesses offers plenty of clues: chiefly his lack of pace. Yeates cannot charge down the line past a full back and quickly get a ball into the box, and he cannot track back and defend in an effective manner. Too often attacking momentum breaks down when Yeates is in possession, as he doesn’t release the ball quickly enough. He can beat a man for skill, but frustratingly will often look to unnecessarily beat that same man for a second time. Invariably he is then tackled, as the space he created is quickly closed down.

Yeates began the campaign in the first XI on the back of an impressive pre-season. He was the only change to the starting line up from last season, and that must have really hurt the promotion hero he dislodged: Kyel Reid. Yeates began well, that aforementioned goal against Carlisle the highlight. Yet Reid showed great character to come storming back and win his place, earning a start at Stevenage (where he scored) and keeping hold of the left wing slot ever since. Some terrific early season performances from Reid have tailed off, but the threat that he offers is a potentially potent weapon that City cannot risk going without.

An alternative route to the team for Yeates came up when Nahki Wells was injured against Shrewsbury, in September, and he was preferred to play up front over strikers Alan Connell and Andy Gray. There was promise about the fact that the first two games of a James Hanson-Yeates partnership yielded two wins and two goals for Hanson, but it never looked quite as effective. Whereas Wells would stretch the line and run in behind defenders, Yeates preferred to operate in the hole between midfield and Hanson. A couple of defeats later, the partnership was abandoned.

Since then it has been right wing substitute or nothing. His only start, at Peterborough, came as part of a three-man midfield in a 5-3-2 experiment quickly abandoned. When Wells went off injured against Swindon in the last home game, Yeates again got the nod to partner Hanson but failed to make much of an impact. Still, we all expected him to get a start at Meadow Lane. Yeates must have been devastated when the team was read out.

But therein lies his problem at City, and why he and other summer recruits have remained behind the 2012 close season arrivals in Parkinson’s thinking. For the past 18 months, the manager has built his side around the strength of the Hanson-Wells combination. Midfielders who sit deep but can ping a top quality pass forwards, one wideman who can run at defenders to stretch the game and get the ball into the box – with the other wideman offering greater defensive cover – and centre backs who can launch the ball long towards the towering presence of Hanson.

Yeates hasn’t been able to fit into this approach. He can’t fly past people like Reid, and he doesn’t offer the solidity of Thompson. He isn’t a Wells-type who will run onto Hanson flick ons, and he isn’t a holding midfielder who will win back the ball.

City’s high tempo style of attack doesn’t benefit from going through Yeates, because he slows the game down too much. A fantastic footballer for this level, no question; but he will only prosper if Parkinson drastically changes the team’s approach.

The imminent departure of Wells could benefit Yeates more than any other player. Does Parkinson replace the pacey front man with another who will play on the shoulder of the last defender, in order to carry on playing the same way, or will he will go for something different? If City were to become more of a passing side – keeping possession and showing more patience in their build up play – Yeates would suddenly be elevated from fringe player to one of the first names on the team sheet. His lack of urgency less of a concern.

Parkinson knows Yeates better than anyone else at the club. His two previous spells working with the player will mean he understands what he can and can’t do – and there will be very good reasons why he choose to sign him a third time. Yet there is a perception, rightly or wrongly, that Yeates’ Championship background means he is on an above average wage. And City can’t afford to have high-earning players sat on the bench.

It’s a big, big second half of the season for so many City players, such as those out of contract. But even though Yeates has 18 months on his deal to run, this will surely be a defining few months for him too. He looks an attractive option in what is beginning to look like a necessary evolution of City’s playing style, but it’s down to Yeates to demonstrate that he can take the club forwards. And it is down to Yeates to prove that, after 10 different clubs in 10 years, he is ready to settle down and make Valley Parade his long-term home.

The Midweek Player Focus #48: Matthew Bates

19 Dec

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By Jason McKeown

January is going to prove a busy for Bradford City. There is seemingly a long list of players surplus to requirements, and a certain star striker destined to regularly appear in tabloid newspaper transfer gossip columns. Lower down the priority list – and in keeping with a quiet but steady start to life at Valley Parade – is the decision to be made on whether Matthew Bates stays beyond the initial three-month deal he signed for in October.

The visit of Bristol City – Bates’ old club – on January 11 is to be his final appearance, as it stands. As the centre back attempts to rescue a hugely promising career, the much-needed game time he has achieved with the Bantams over the last few weeks means the short-term contract arrangement has suited the player. But does he view his time in West Yorkshire as a springboard to something greater, or is he playing for a longer-term deal here?

Either way, the fact Bates has struggled to significantly impress could result in a small queue of suitors from elsewhere. It’s not that Bates looks a bad player at this level, just less of a standout performer. He has not yet even won over the Valley Parade crowd, and for his career to bounce back to anything close to those heady days of Premier League and Europa League football with Middlesbrough, any exit next month would need to be on his own terms rather than because he is not wanted by Phil Parkinson.

The big problem for Bates is that – for however well he has played in certain games –the 27-year-old Stockton-born former Middlesbrough defender is not a certain 29-year-old Stockton-born former Middlesbrough defender. Bates arrived at City on the same day that the club went without Andrew Davies for the first time since he picked up a bad injury a week earlier. The direct comparisons between the pair have been unavoidable.

With Davies in the side prior to Bates’ arrival, City had climbed to fourth in the division, winning six of their opening 10 league games, conceding just eight goals and keeping five clean sheets. Since Bates signed as cover for his former Boro team-mate, the Bantams have won just one of their subsequent 10 matches, conceding 14 goals and keeping one clean sheet. Bates sat on the bench for the first of that run of games – a 1-0 loss to Tranmere – but has started every match since.

With each dropped point, the absence of Davies in the centre of defence has been loudly mentioned. City’s number five is expected to be back at the end of January, and it can’t come soon enough really. Although Davies missed a similarly large chunk of last season without too much disruption on results, it has been a different story this time around.

The only change to the back four and keeper, from those first 10 games and the next 10, has been Bates coming in for Davies. The blame for recent defensive frailties should not be pointed solely at this switch, but you can understand why many people have attempted to do so.

Bates actually started life at Valley Parade reasonably well. My first viewing of him – away at Preston – left me impressed. He had a good game against Wolves too, but struggled at Crewe and in the televised game at Coventry that followed. Bates played well against Oldham and Leyton Orient, but ultimately he is viewed as keeping the seat warm for Davies’ return.

Were it not for the five (five!) serious injuries that Bates has suffered from over his still relatively short career, he would not have been here in the first place. Once on the books of Manchester United, Bates graduated from the Middlesbrough youth academy to take his place, under Steve McLaren, as a regular in the Boro line up during their Premier League days; often playing alongside Gareth Southgate (with Davies, also still at the Riverside, making do with loan stints).

As Middlesbrough bowed out of the Premier League, Bates was said to be interesting top flight clubs. He’d already recovered from three serious knee operations at this point and stayed loyal to the club, signing a three-year deal at the Riverside. But before Middlesbrough could kick a ball back in the Championship, a pre-season friendly victory over Carlisle saw Bates endure bad injury number four. He missed the entire season.

Even then, Bates came back strong and impressed greatly under Tony Mowbray. For two seasons he was a regular in the side, before – alas – serious injury number five kept him out for another six months. He was not awarded a new contract, and spent the second half of last season at soon-to-be-relegated Championship side Bristol City; where he played just 13 games before being released in the summer.

With no takers for his services during the summer, Bates had to bide his time before getting the opportunity at Valley Parade. And when he is in possession of the ball, he looks a classy centre half who belongs at a higher level. He is an intelligent player and times his tackles well. He is not someone who can be easily bullied by an opposing centre forward.

His weakness, however, has been standing off players running at him with the ball. He was shown up badly by the fantastic Callum Wilson of Coventry, and then a few weeks later a 1-1 draw with Notts County saw City fall behind to a goal that a less hesitant Bates could have prevented. But herein lies the problem that Bates has faced in winning over a crowd increasingly frustrated by early season wins being replaced by draws – he is no back four leader.

Neither, it seems, is Rory McArdle. And what City have missed most from Davies is having someone who dominates the back line, charging into the tackles and winning possession back for his team. Such defenders work well with a partner who is on hand to cover any missed tackles and to be more confident in possession (think of Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand). Davies and McArdle worked wonderfully well as a partnership in this way. Many previous City centre back partnerships (good and bad) have adopted the same approach.

Without Davies, City have lacked that defender to go on the front foot and win the ball back. McArdle has looked reluctant to take on this role, Bates even less so. It isn’t his game, it isn’t his strength. But as people look at him to do what Davies did, criticism has resulted from not recognising he is a different type of defender. Bates would be doing a much better job of impressing if he was playing alongside Davies rather than McArdle. That’s not a criticism of the latter – he also impresses more when playing alongside Davies.

Which does leave you wondering why Parkinson has so far displayed no willingness to bring his other three centre halves into the side. Luke Oliver – who like Bates has suffered a serious injury – appears to be heading for the exit door sooner rather than later. Carl McHugh – who forged a fantastic partnership with McArdle last season – must be hugely frustrated that he has so far failed to build upon a promising first season at the club. Matt Taylor replaced Michael Nelson during the summer in more ways than one, and you get the feeling he will be one of the first in the queue to leave in January.

When Davies was ruled out through injury, Parkinson did not view Oliver, McHugh or Taylor as the answer and looked elsewhere in Bates. That says a lot about their respective futures, as does the fact that – despite Bates and McArdle struggling to gel as a partnership at times – Parkinson has shown no inclination to change it.

He has arguably being wise to stick with the same back four, as it has improved of late. McArdle and James Meredith are both playing well again after dips in form; whilst Stephen Darby simply doesn’t do bad games, it seems. Yet still, you get the feeling that the club is currently tredding water as it counts down to Davies’ New Year return.

For Bates, he clearly still has a lot to offer either here or elsewhere. If he can stay fit, he will continue to get better with the run of games he is getting at City. Long-term, he needs to be at a club where he will be playing week in week out, and perhaps should take a view that, to ultimately get to where he wants to be (back in the Championship at least), he needs to be playing lower down than his natural level to first rediscover his best form and fitness.

It remains to be seen whether City are the right long-term fit for Bates in achieving those aims; but in a career of so many unfortunate set backs, the next decision the centre half has to make about his future, due in a few weeks time, is one that he cannot afford to get wrong.

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