The final Midweek Player Focus of 2013/14 sees Katie Whyatt look at the future of Nathan Doyle.
ROTHERHAM: 11th March, 2014: Amidst the green-veined foliage, backing upon to the snaking river, the sun set behind the grey hulk of the self-proclaimed ‘Mini Emirates’, and the shadows of recent history cut an imposing silhouette against the darkening amber sky.
Among the travelling hordes rested the burden of staunchly guarded optimism, shouldered alongside nervous anticipation, edged by an agenda of damage limitation, all forced out by blind and naked hope. Do we have a chance? Are we playing for a point? Look at our track record here – what can we expect? Over 1,000 of them had shed the bruises of previous visits to meander into the orange evening. City on the brink of their half-century, their hosts pursuing second spot. With every tension-fraught step to the ground, the rumble of anticipation grew louder. The stakes, quite simply, couldn’t have been higher.
That night, Nathan Doyle delivered one of the most compelling individual performances of City’s entire season. From the first minute until the last, he was unrelentingly archetypal: the very embodiment of composure, guile and vision as he navigated an often congested centre circle. His distribution was textbook, his defending dogged, his movements intelligent as he utilised insightfully all the space available – he complemented Jones and Dolan perfectly.
Every pass was perceptive, pinpointed and precise, setting up the play for others while he anchored the shape of the midfield five. On a night where Bantams boys became men, where a Bradford side quashed allegations of a lack of spirit and Parkinson a lack of tactical nous, Nathan Doyle banished his individual performance demons and gave his brooding band of critics some serious food for thought.
As Evans festered in his pit of bitterness and spat lore about total domination and penalty shouts, Nathan Doyle toasted his best display of the campaign.
STEVENAGE: 1st March, 2014: The chance to put relegation fears to bed, potentially permanently. Confidence should have been high, expectation higher, but we’ve been here before. And what followed, hurt.
It was 40 minutes before Nathan Doyle touched the ball. 40 minutes. I’ve genuinely no idea what he spent those 40 minutes doing, if anything, and can only imagine that the more direct approach meant he was systematically bypassed every time, but why, against a side that wanted to keep the ball on the deck, did Doyle not make the interceptions the game obviously demanded?
Perhaps this is an unfair criticism to make – players simply perform what their manager asks of them, so it’s not necessarily Doyle’s fault – but his composure sedated City’s franticness in the second half, so why did he – hang on… 40 MINUTES! 40 WHOLE MINUTES! For a central midfielder! GUYS! I can’t be the only one alarmed by this, surely…
Stevenage’s status rendered them a stumbling block. Shaken by their track record, City were embarrassed by the embattled.
GILLINGHAM: 15th March, 2014: Peter Taylor’s return to Valley Parade, newly-promoted Gills in tow. In a game that was characterised by the contrast of the two managers’ styles as much as it was the contrast of the two halves, Nathan Doyle spent the first 45 as the centrepiece and the second as the invisible man. The pendulum was in full swing, and it was startling.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem facing City. On his day, Doyle is simply unplayable. But those days are not frequent enough.
There have been times this season where his influence has dulled. If the team play long ball, Doyle’s cutting vision isn’t needed, and he is simply reduced to the role of passenger. There have been times when quick opposition has meant City’s midfield has been bypassed every time. For sure, the blame doesn’t lie squarely at Doyle’s door, but, as the deeper-sitting one of the central midfield pairing, he has to shore his fair share of the blame.
This feels harsh, probably because it’s never really been my personal view. Footballers are, after all, human. Even the best players will have bad games. Inconsistency is a given at this level and Doyle isn’t alone in this squad with that problem – that’s your go-to excuse when someone asks why Reid isn’t in the Championship – and it’s something that’s hindered the majority of the teams in this division at some point, but, for a club harbouring medium-term Championship ambitions, it’s not ideal.
This obviously doesn’t count for everything – the step-up (which, incidentally, Doyle handled aptly and, on the whole, never really looked to massively struggle with), the aforementioned directness when scorelines have forced Parkinson’s hand and the ‘form follows function’ style to see City through the one win in 21 all will have had an impact – but it’s something to consider. With the budget about to be slashed, can we afford paying for a player who’s going to go missing for half a season?
In my opinion, we have to renew that contract. For me, it’s a no-brainer. To whip out that line again, for a club harbouring medium-term Championship ambitions, someone like Doyle is crucial to the development of the team, and talks of building the starting eleven around him next season are hardly ill-founded when one examines his influence over the last few months.
On his day, he’s one of the best holding midfielders in the division. His deft distribution is simply unmatched in League One. His composure provides the sedation that, going forwards, the Bantams need to take advantage of. The energy with which he screens the defence can make him unplayable. The potential is there for all to see. For individual ability, he’s already in the top echelon of players within this squad.
At League One level, it’s unfair to blast Doyle for being inconsistent. Every team has slumps and dips. The fact that the midfielder falls with the peaks and troughs isn’t necessarily a bad thing; you could, actually, read it as a marker of the influence he exerts on games. Looking at Doyle holistically, he’s the complete package for a holding midfielder at this stage. In many ways, we’d be foolish to let him go.
But it’s not even a question of Doyle’s form anymore. What became clear over the final few months of the season is that a major shake-up in style is looming. Once survival was secured, the experimenting began: the 4-5-1, 4-3-1-2, Dolan and Doyle, Jones and Doyle, Dolan and Jones.
It’s obvious Mclean doesn’t work how Nahki did, and we can’t expect him to win Hanson’s knockdowns: it would be cruel to force this style onto him when it’s evidently not his game, and he needs the support from the midfield to come into his own. Maybe positioning Doyle as a strictly defined anchorman is kind of a big deal (including an Anchorman pun – I immediately regret that decision), more than just holding out until Hanson is fit. Perhaps it’s a glimpse of the future, and it’s working – over the final few games, there was a larger output from the central midfielders, greater reliability and less predictability.
Placing three or five in the midfield, and therefore stamping Doyle exclusively in the holding role, might be worth looking at – the permanent signing of the mobile Dolan, plus the rumours about the hunt for box-to-box midfielder Knott, seem to suggest this could be a viable option entering into next year. There’s so much scope for Doyle to be worked into the centre of the park, and he’d slip seamlessly into either of those formations. Arguably the most striking difference between Leagues One and Two is that most teams insist on sticking five in midfield – why shouldn’t we try this ourselves?
For me, Doyle is the lynchpin of that Bantams midfield. McArdle’s deal proved Parkinson is trying to lay solid foundations; that he wants City to build from the base upwards. Secure his skeleton, then stick the flesh on. With his front two secure and his centre back pairing nailed, a strong midfield would complete the spine of the team.
Nathan Doyle’s contract expires a week exactly today. City have just seven days before he becomes a free agent. Seven days to pin him down, or seven days to let him go. Either way, the water is reaching the plug. Phil Parkinson has seven days to decide how he wants his midfield to work. He’s probably already decided, but the clock is definitely ticking.
Even with the ominous spectre of what he fortunately CAN be and what he unfortunately can be, City need that signature. Realistically, who else are you going to find to play that sweeper role? At this level, who can play it better than Doyle?
* Tumbleweed *
But I’m not the one making that decision – a decision that, in all likelihood, has probably already been made. Doyle is riding the fine line between the beginning and the end. Sign a new contract, either short or long, and he is here next season. He has a part to play, a part he can play well. Otherwise, we have already seen the last of Doyle in a Bradford City shirt.
I hope we haven’t. I really, really do.