Tag Archives: James Hanson

The Midweek Player Focus #58: Aaron Mclean

23 Apr

Image by Alex Dodd

By Alex Scott

There are good reasons why we have waited until the penultimate Midweek Player Focus article of the season to talk about Aaron Mclean, and moving into this important summer, the forward from East London may be the most pivotal.

Mclean arrived in early January, the chosen one to replace the departing Nahki Wells, attempting to fill his shirt number and his boots. Before an extended spell on the sidelines in the East Riding, Mclean had been a relatively prolific lower league forward over much of his career but was unable to make the leap to the Championship with the Tigers.

Mclean has struggled for consistent time on the field over recent years, with only loan spells at Birmingham City breaking his time in Hull reserves. In spite of this relative inactivity, a career record of almost a goal every other game in League One (27 in 58) was good enough to convince Phil Parkinson that he was the man to replace Wells and drive City to the next level.

At this point, things cannot have been said to have gone to plan. Two goals in 16 appearances for City’s new man; a revamped team no improvement over its predecessor. Mclean himself appears to have slipped down the pecking order behind loan recruit Jon Stead.

Mclean isn’t helped by how prolific his predecessor was, nor how completely the team was built around the strengths of Wells – strengths that he does not possess. However, his level of performance over the past few weeks will not be how he will be judged. Aaron Mclean will be crucial for next season and will play a pivotal role in how high the ceiling of this team can be. Whether he can live up to that responsibility will define his tenure here.

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Nahki Wells was the tip of the spear. I’m pretty sure that is doing him a disservice, but for the sake of the metaphor, he was the tip of the spear. For a spell of almost eighteen months, City were an impressively well-oiled machine, efficient and at times devastating. Wells was a key component that made the whole thing work. Even at this higher level. More so, if anything.

The replacement of Wells with Mclean quickly hastened the shelving of the spear altogether. City, after initially attempting to prod opposing teams with a blunted stick, have had to evolve into a form of combat with a bit more guile. A change that may have been on the cards at the end of the season anyway, but that would have been the optimal time to make it. A time that wouldn’t leave the squad bloated with now-redundant javelin throwers, not suited to the new reality.

Tottenham are suffering comparable woes at the moment, trading away a pound coin for four twenty pence pieces and some shrapnel. They may be worth the same on the surface, but you win leagues with pounds, not pennies. City gave away their pound coin to pay for the host of silver coins they hoarded over the summer, and only replacing him with Mclean. A man who has the potential to be a valuable contributor, but in truth has never been a pound.

It isn’t really fair to judge Mclean against Wells. Wells went for over a million pounds four months ago, a number which probably understated his market value given the club’s unwillingness to actually open up the sale to the market. The club didn’t disclose the fee they paid for Mclean, but we can be sure it wasn’t in the same tax bracket as the sale of Wells.

It also probably isn’t fair to judge Mclean until next season. But not being able to judge on his recent past – he hasn’t had a consistent run of league games in three years, not a successful one in four since leaving Peterborough – we haven’t really got anything else to go on.

My experience watching him has been primarily at away games, where the fans have been encouraging, if not effusive. I can’t speak of the entirety of the home fans, but during the couple of home games I’ve seen him, the feeling is mutual. Fans are giving him time. The jury is remaining out only because they want to be. The true test of Mclean will come next season, but anything in the stratosphere of his predecessor will be a surprise at this point.

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To be fair to Mclean, coming into a new team mid-season often proves tough, especially coming into a team that had earned 11 points in their previous 15 games, only scoring 15 goals in the process.

Due to the injuries and disillusionment of James Hanson and Nahki Wells respectively in the build up to Christmas, the rot had absolutely set in before Mclean’s arrival. Kyel Reid was by far City’s most dangerous attacking player at the turn of the year, and he has been missed just as much as Wells. He and Mclean only crossed paths for 32 minutes at Bramall Lane.

Without Reid’s pace to stretch the field, City have struggled painfully. If the winger had been injured the week before Mclean’s capture, rather than the week after, it begs to question whether Phil Parkinson may have just held fire and placed a higher priority on replacing the raw pace of Reid and Wells that his side have so sorely missed?

Adam Reach and Kyle Bennett have been brought in on the flanks and, whilst the latter does have a quick burst, neither has the intimidating pace of Reid, and City have duly struggled to gain a footing in games as a result.

If Kyel Reid had been stationed on the left flank for this second half of the season, preventing opposition defences pressing up on Mclean and Hanson, it does stand to reason Mclean would have had more room to operate, and rather than a cause of the side’s ills, his lack of form may rather be a symptom.

City’s run in the games following Mclean’s arrival has been essentially the same as the fifteen games which led up to his signing. The team has gone through a lot of reform since January, but none if it has moved the needle. With Reach, Matty Dolan, Bennett et al arriving, the overall quality may have risen, some 10ps turned into 20s, but none have come close to bridging the gap to the loss of Wells and Reid.

The only reason City are staying up this year is the run at the outset which had them in the play off spots in October. In the games started by Hanson and Wells this season, City earned six wins and nine draws, suffering only one defeat. Without the striking combination on the field together, that record falls to won six drawn eight, lost thirteen. The value of a pound.

But as noted earlier, the squad at the beginning of the year was unsustainably expensive. There are too many silver coins around the club, and without a cup run to rely on for funding, it was Wells who had to be sacrificed.

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I have found Aaron Mclean as a player is frustratingly difficult to pin down. I don’t really know what to make of him. I’ve seen him border on the excellent away at Orient, show a real poacher’s instinct at home to Gillingham, and work hard and graft throughout. He can hold the ball up well at times; and even on his off-days looks like a hassling presence to opposition defenders. But those off-days are alarmingly frequent.

Only recently has the side been able to move away from the framework designed for Nahki Wells, with which Mclean has improved. Before that point, Mclean often looked lost. He may be effective in a team built around him, but let us be clear, this is not that team.

And let us also be clear about something else, Nahki Wells earned the right to have a team built around his strengths. Toward the end of the 2011/12 season, as an inexperienced 21-year old, Wells played a huge part in keeping City in the Football League, scoring fourteen goals including a crucial hat trick away at Northampton late in the year. He showed a promise that gave Parkinson a reason to build a side around him. Mclean has so far shown little in City colours.

Mclean will get his opportunity to have a side tailored to his strengths – but not because of his talents or his play on the field, but because of his contract.

Now in late April that safety has been assured and City’s ever more disgruntled fan base can draw breath for a moment, thoughts can move toward next season. Looking at players of consequence in the squad, only Andrew Davies, Hanson and Mclean are sure-fire certainties for next year’s assault on League One. Mark Yeates appears likely to be “managed out” unless the new dawn suits his more passive style of play.

The City board have already admitted that the budget for next season will not be at the level of this campaign’s, and the last six months of this season have seen the club as almost the worst side in the division. Parkinson’s task will be aided by the fact 75% of his squad are out of contract, affording him the freedom to rebuild in the manner he wants.

However, this is counteracted by the fact such a large chunk of the budget is to be eaten by his two forwards. Two forwards which as a pairing have shown precious little ability to move this team to where he and the club wants them to go.

Given the form of Mclean, and the scarcity of goals of the team as a whole, Phil Parkinson cannot in good conscience go into next year with only Hanson and the former Peterborough man as his options up front. There will have to be a legitimate third option in case Mclean isn’t who he thought he was, or who we hope he might be.

It is to be expected that Mclean’s early misfires will lead to a major overhauling of the side’s midfield. They will need to contribute more goals. The ‘deep-lying, get the ball out wide’ approach so well suited to this team’s personnel and last year’s front line will no longer get it done. They cannot go into another season prodding teams with a blunt stick.

Parkinson will need to spend money bringing back the defence, with it to be expected that at least Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle are due relatively substantial pay rises. The entire midfield is out of contract, and it’s probably a stretch to expect any managing out of unwanted holdovers to happen for free. Without an extension of the mooted budget, it is hard to envision a scenario where Parkinson will be able to devote much salary to a third striker.

Maybe Oli McBurnie can grow into a reserve option over the coming months, although that evolution may be one more year away. Maybe some other youth players can be brought through into squad roles, but I’m clutching at straws. With all the areas of the squad needing work, it would be hard to justify more money going to the front line. But taking no action has to be seen as a gamble.

How successfully Parkinson squares this circle will likely define how long his stay at the club will be extended. Last year’s promotion, if anything, seems to have shortened the patience of large sections of the Valley Parade crowd, and if the side are still struggling for goals at Christmas, it wouldn’t be that much of a surprise to see the club move on. This club harbour ambitions of returning to the Championship, but that seemed a lot more attainable with that pound coin in their back pocket.

If City are to make a step forward toward the top half or maybe even a play off push next season, it will have to be on the back on Mclean and Hanson.

The table below shows the extrapolated 46-game profile of this City team, and the average 6th place League One team since 2003.

Team

Goals for Goals Against Goal Difference Points

Bradford City 2013/14 (projected)

57

56

1

56

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

74

As you can see, City’s defence is just about there. Given Andrew Davies and James Meredith have each been out for half the season, this defence is absolutely good enough for the play offs. Criticism of Jon McLaughlin may just justifiable on anecdotal evidence, but his aggregate output has been exceptional this year, especially given the chopping and changing in front of him. To argue otherwise is denial.

The numbers would argue that if Parkinson can bring back the starting back five and keep them fit next season, the City team as a whole could probably get away with being a bit more adventurous in their approach given the concession rates of standard 6th place defences.

What’s more, they may have to. City are a way away from scoring enough goals to challenge for the play off spots. Only five teams in my 66-team sample have scored fewer than 60 goals and finished in the top six, and only one team in the past seven years: Sheffield United, who came fifth in last year’s especially mediocre division.

Furthermore, if we ignore the Wells and Hanson sample, City have really only scored a goal a game since October 4. As a team, they are probably going to have to be 30 goals better over a season than they are at the moment, without giving much up on the back end. And that is a hell of a lot of goals.

League One is different to the other divisions. “Good” teams often get relegated from the tier above, and often mediocre sides make their way out of the division below. The dividing line in English football between ‘bad’ good teams, and ’good’ bad teams occurs somewhere in the middle of this tier, and at the moment, Bradford City are definitively on the latter side of that line.

Relative to other divisions, teams that get promoted out of this division tend to accrue a lot of points. This year is no exception. With only six teams making the play offs, you need to be good, consistently, to keep pace. Whilst City have had their moments, less frequently of late, good teams have a consistency about them City have not matched.

They need to score more goals. They need to score many more goals if they are to compete for promotion honours, and in truth, looking at where they are now, it’s probably a two-year job.

Either way, Aaron Mclean is going to be a huge part of that. If Parkinson and his men are genuinely going to be aiming at the top six next season, they need a revolutionary summer beyond the one they had in 2012. They are going to have to build a framework in which both Mclean and Hanson can flourish, and for that fundamental reform is needed, with some really tough decisions to be made.

Phil Parkinson’s gamble on Aaron Mclean is yet to pay dividends. The manager has a lot riding on the bustling striker, and if his team are to reach the heights required by the end of his time here, he needs his investment in Mclean to work. Aaron Mclean must become a twenty goal a season player. James Hanson, for all the will in the world, will not be that guy.

There isn’t going to be the budget for it to be anyone else. It must be Mclean.

Looking for a good, Good Friday as Bradford City welcome the Posh

18 Apr
Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Bradford City vs Peterborough United preview

@Valley Parade on Friday 18 April, 2014

By Ian Sheard

“I expected them to do better and, for one reason or another, they haven’t.” Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson’s assessment of Bradford City’s season perhaps echoes what a lot of fans have been saying about their own. Particularly after the decent start that was made to the campaign.

The Bantams are looking to get back to winning ways and replicate the home form of last season, against one of the early favourites. Peterborough, who are currently residing in sixth and who look a decent outfit, are a couple of victories away from securing the last play off place alongside Leyton Orient, Preston and that lot down the road. I think everyone expected the top two (Wolves and Brentford) to be there at the start of the season, and they have kept true to form. The play offs will be interesting to watch this year, as I can’t see much difference between the teams. My gut tells me it will be Rotherham – but I hope it isn’t!

So what is it that has prevented City from being part of this end-of-season shootout for promotion? I can say, but not prove, that the only thing I wanted this year was to stay up. It looks as though we will achieve that feat and won’t get sucked into the relegation battle at the wrong of the table over the final few matches. Most City fans would probably agree this season was about achieving stability and taking careful steps forwards. Would we have been in a position to compete in the Championship, had we performed better and got promoted? No, is the honest answer.

That said, it would have been nice to have been up there with Peterborough right now, and Phil Parkinson has a lot of thinking to do going into the summer – as fans expect more next season.

I could be rousing an argument here, but we were told at the start of the season that one thing we weren’t going to do was to dip into the loan market. It was interesting to note, in the last home game against Oldham, that half of the team were borrowed from different clubs. I know we have had a few injuries this season, but is there a lack of faith/confidence in the likes of Garry Thompson, Mark Yeates and Carl McHugh, or are they not good enough?

Whilst I am happy for loan players to come into the squad and show their parent club what they are worth, I don’t think there should be five in your starting line up when there are people on higher wages and with more experience sat on the bench. It’s a tough, tough call for Parkinson, and I’m sure everyone has their own views on this issue. However, the ‘make do’ feel of the team right now does leave him with some big decisions to make over summer, as a lot of players are coming to the end of their contracts.

Another reason for failing to mount a sustained promotion push is the lack of creativity we seem to have within the team. It seems as though we have lost the ability to pass the ball around sharply, particularly in the opponents half, and have suffered as a result. I think James Hanson is a wonderful player but, whilst he does win every ball in the air, we need to find another tactic beyond launching it to him. I don’t know whether it is panic mode or not, but we need to keep hold of possession more – like we did during the first 30 minutes against Gillingham.

Friday’s encounter with Rotherham was a good game. I thought City played well, and that having five in the midfield seemed to help us out a little bit. I am a fan of Jon Stead and think that, if he is available at the end of the season, then he should be signed up. Some may say that playing five in midfield is a bit negative at home; but with Aaron Mclean and Hanson potentially still injured, Parkinson would probably be best playing the same way with Stead up front.

Peterborough will no doubt look to win the match rather than play for time and try to wear us down to a 0-0 draw. Hopefully this will help us, as we always seem to play better when opponents bring the game to us and we catch them on the break. Having read Ferguson Senior’s autobiography, it worked for Man United and I believe Darren has the makings of a good manager too.

I hope it’s a good game tonight, as it seems as though the season is petering out somewhat. I would be more than happy with a draw that would all but nudge us over the line of mathematical safety. But recent home failings are still raw, and so a good start is vital in making sure that this proves to be a very Good Friday for Bradford City.

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.

Who should stay and who should go?

14 Apr

SAM_2615

Written by Gareth Walker (all images: Mike Holdsworth)

It’s that time of year again where thoughts are turning to which names will be on the retained list and, conversely, which players Bradford City fans will be waving goodbye to during the summer. Whilst City aren’t yet mathematically safe in League One, Phil Parkinson will privately be considering the make up of his squad for next year, depending on which division we are in.

Here I get to play manager: discussing each current member of Parkinson’s squad and what decision I would make over their future if I was the in the hot seat.

The players who will be out of contract:

SAM_2754

Jon McLaughlin: KEEP

He probably splits opinion more than any other player currently on City’s books. My own opinion is that he is a very good shot stopper, but the other areas of his game – in particular his distribution and the communication with his defence – are below average.

This means that on the occasions when the standard of his shot stopping drops, such as the games against Huddersfield (away), Wolves (home) and Walsall (home) this season, he looks to be a poor goalkeeper. Personally, I think he is a decent League Two keeper, but that if we have aspirations of getting promoted to the Championship then we need a better number one.

I’d offer him a contract as our back up. Whether he would accept that role is another question.

Stephen Darby: KEEP

He should comfortably win the player of the year award this season, and I doubt that any City fan would want him to leave the club. When considering all the players whose contracts are up, Darby is the only one who I would be really desperate to keep. Let’s hope that he feels the same way about staying at City.

James Meredith: KEEP

For the second year in a row, Meredith has been missing through injury for a large part of the season. Prior to this his form was average to say the least, when compared to his performances last season.

Personally I feel that he has suffered from not having any out and out competition for his place at left back. This has been highlighted by how much we’ve struggled to fill the role in his absence. When he is fit, he knows that he is a guaranteed starter and this cannot be good for any player. I think that it’s imperative that we sign some competition next season, to push him all the way.

Rory McArdle: KEEP

This is a really tough call for me. I think that last year’s ‘Marathon Man’ has struggled with the step up to League One. I’d keep him, but he would no longer be my first choice partner for Andrew Davies. I’d bring in a new right-sided centre back to succeed where Matt Taylor failed, and at the very least by competing with McArdle for a starting role. However, if the under-contract-Taylor can’t be moved on, the out-of-contract-McArdle might have to make way for an upgrade.

Carl McHugh: KEEP

‘Carlo’ is arguably my favourite player at City at the moment. Parkinson has gone on record as saying that the Donegal-born centre back would run through brick walls for the manager and the team. He is a vastly talented defender, who never lets us down.

He suffers because his main position is as a left hand sided centre back, and as such he is in direct competition with Davies for a place in the team. He is not a left back, although has often had to fill in there due to the lack of options to cover Meredith’s absence.

Considering Davies’ injury record and up and down form since returning to the side, I’d keep McHugh; possibly even fazing him into the side as Davies’ long-term replacement. The problem we may have is that if McHugh knows that he is only being kept as an understudy, he might think it better for his own career that he moves on.

Matthew Bates: RELEASE

Brought in as a utility player who can be used in a variety of positions, Bates has suffered by mainly being employed as the stand-in for Davies during the latter’s prolonged injury absence. As a former Middlesbrough captain and England U21 international, Bates certainly has the pedigree. Unfortunately, he hasn’t really impressed anyone.

Bates’ tendency to back off from attackers and bark orders at others, whilst seeming to do very little himself, has seen him targeted by supporters. I think it’d best for everyone if he moved on, and that his wages are freed up to use elsewhere.

Gary Jones: KEEP

‘Magic Man’ has bounced back from an indifferent start to the season – when many people were questioning his performances and writing him off – to re-establish himself as one of our most important players. Jason Kennedy’s failure to hit the ground running has meant Jones has played far more games than he or Parkinson would have expected. Being another year older, we really cannot afford to put off finding a suitable heir to his throne. However, he would still be a fantastic player to have in the squad and play half of the games, or to come off the bench to see matches out when needed.

Will the budget allow us to keep him in a diminished role? Maybe a player-coach type position would facilitate this move.

SAM_2626

Nathan Doyle: KEEP (just)

I really can’t make my mind up about Doyle. He is still one of my favourite players. He should be our best player. He is arguably the most talented player at the club. So why doesn’t he show it on a consistent basis?

Doyle came back from the summer rest in great shape and put in some of his best performances since he rejoined the club. However, similar to last year, his form dipped considerably and his influence on games diminished. I don’t know whether this was down to fatigue or the injury that he was said to be carrying. Whatever the case, he needs to be more consistent.

We certainly miss Doyle when he isn’t in the side, but he splits opinion amongst fans, with some seeing him as a favourite and others thinking that he doesn’t contribute enough. Parkinson is known to like his versatility, but he is rumoured to be one of the highest paid players at the club and, as such, it will be interesting to see if he is considered a luxury that we can no longer afford.

Kyel Reid: KEEP

I like Reid. Although he infuriates supporters sometimes with his erratic-ness and sometimes poor decision making, it is undeniable that he is a major threat to opposing teams, who are often so fearful of him that they double or triple mark him.

I feel Reid is an upgrade on our previous enigmatic wingers. When he is out of the team injured – as he has been for a long time this season – we carry much less of an attacking threat. He is still our main outlet, and I would like to keep him in our squad; albeit with players brought into provide him with better competition for his place.

The problem we may have is that Reid has a young family down in the London area and he may decide to move on for personal reasons.

Garry Thompson: RELEASE

Thompson’s City career has seen more highs and lows than most. His form has varied vastly, but who could ever forget his goal against Arsenal? His commitment to the cause has been questioned in the past, but this season we have seen him show commendable fight when he has come on as a substitute – desire that has put newer signings and younger players to shame.

He is a favourite of Parkinson’s because he facilitates the high diagonal ball to his wing. It will be a shame to lose him and it is a big call, because we need characters such as him with experience if we were to avoid another season of struggle. However, I feel that if we want to move forwards and progress as a club, we just need slightly younger legs and that little bit of extra quality.

Thanks for the memories Thommo!

Rafa De Vita: RELEASE

Barring a brilliant assist for James Hanson’s finish against Preston in October, and a goal at home to Wolves a few days later, De Vita has been totally anonymous in the few games that he has played. He has spent large parts of the season on the treatment table, but his limited contributions when he has been in the side have meant that we haven’t missed him.

De Vita has been a disappointment, because I was impressed with him in pre-season and Swindon supporters speak relatively highly of him.

Andy Gray: RELEASE

It’s difficult to argue that Parkinson has made a successful signing in the last three transfer windows, but Gray really does take the biscuit as the worst of the lot. A high wage earner, who simply hasn’t provided the competition to Hanson that he was supposed to – and the veteran has spent most of his time injured.

Gray’s second coming at Valley Parade has been a major failure.

Louis Swain: RELEASE

Has anyone seen Swain since last summer, when he was given his one year contract? Being farmed out on loan to non-league wasn’t really a surprise, but the lack of updates on his progress makes it look like he is surplus to requirements. 

The players who will still be under contract:

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Andrew Davies: KEEP

Signed a two year deal last summer and, despite his injury problems and up and down form since his return, Davies is still our best centre back by some distance. If he wasn’t under contract there may be a discussion to be had as to whether we are getting value for money – and whether someone who is, say, 75% as good as Davies but always fit would be a better signing. For next season, we have to hope that Davies’ injury problems are behind him, so we can build a team with him in it.

Matt Taylor: MOVE ON

We know so little about this player, partly because he has been injured for such a long time. However, when Taylor has been fit, Parkinson clearly hasn’t liked what he has seen.

A fleeting appearance in one league game, along with starts in cup competitions at Huddersfield and Hartlepool, are his own appearances, which made the decision to recall him early from a loan spell at Colchester – where he was getting game time – a strange one.

His signing was initially well received, because of his reputation and promotion history when he was captain at Charlton; but these all now point to the fact that his wages are likely to be high and unaffordable for someone who rarely plays. With one year left on his contract, hopefully we can find a club willing to take him off our hands.

Jason Kennedy: MOVE ON

A dazzling performance at Valley Parade whilst playing against for Rochdale last season convinced Parkinson that Kennedy was the long-term successor to Gary Jones. Unfortunately, it simply hasn’t worked out and Kennedy finds himself warming the bench back on loan at his old club.

This is one disappointing signing where the blame cannot be solely laid at Parkinson’s door. Some fans at Spotland regarded Kennedy to be a better player than Jones, and most of the Valley Parade faithful were delighted when he decided to finally make the journey down the M62 to West Yorkshire.

However, in claret and amber, Kennedy looks half the player that he did in black and blue. Hesitant on the ball and avoiding responsibility are just two of the criticisms levelled at him. Again, with one year left on his contract, I hope that we can find someone who wants to take him.

Mark Yeates: MOVE ON

The biggest disappointment of all of last summer’s signings. 12 months ago, Yeates was a regular player for Watford as they marched towards the Championship play off final. He started this season well, scoring a great goal at home to Carlisle, but that was as good as it got. Yeates soon lost his place to Reid, and found himself reduced to being a bit-part player.

Along with Doyle, he should be our best player. However, many supporters have questioned his attitude and commitment – and as one of our highest earners, with another season to run on his deal, I expect him to be moved on. That is unless he can show us some real form over the last few weeks of the season.

James Hanson: KEEP 

The fulcrum of our side, and arguably our most important player due to Parkinson’s Plan A. Hanson is getting better and better, and I am delighted that he has committed his long term future to the club. We do, however, need to find a way or a style of playing without Hanson, for the times when he is injured or ineffective.

Oli McBurnie: KEEP

The cream of the crop of our talented youth team, McBurnie is being handled with care and I expect to see him being continually drip fed into senior action next year. He has shown enough potential so far for me to think that he should have a bright future, and I’d like to see him as our fourth striking option next year.

Lewis Clarkson: KEEP

Another player who has suffered with injury since signing, we have so far seen very little of Clarkson. Brought in as one for the future by the current coaching staff, I see him as striker number five next year; possibly being loaned out for experience if the right opportunity arrives.

Aaron Mclean: KEEP

Having arrived to much fanfare as Nahki Wells’ replacement, Mclean has so far failed to live up to expectations. However, with another two years to run on his contract I refuse to write him off after just six months. The effort is clearly there in his play, I just feel that he looks a poor signing because he doesn’t fit in with Parkinson’s tactics. Mclean is the player who I feel would benefit the most if we manage to develop a Plan B.

The players who are on loan

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Arron Jameson: SEND BACK

A token signing if ever there was one. With hardly any senior games to his name, Jameson was not the player that supporters wanted to see brought in to challenge Jon McLaughlin for the number one jersey. We might as well have put the youth team goalkeeper on the bench, and that is in fact what Parkinson has done when faced with the task of balancing the allocated number of loanees in his match day squads.

Adam Drury: SEND BACK

We were crying out for a proper left back after James Meredith’s injury, and it was puzzling that it took so long to bring one in. Drury has been steady if not spectacular in the role, and there is a chance he could be offered a deal for next year. Personally, however, I would question whether he has done enough to earn it.

Adam Reach: SEND BACK

When Reach signed for us in January, I spoke to a Shrewsbury-supporting friend of mine who revealed that Reach had been brilliant for his first month on loan at New Meadow, earlier this season, but that his form then dropped off spectacularly.

Unfortunately that seems to have been the case during his stay in Yorkshire, too. Reach was so good at the start that we were worried about Middlesbrough recalling him. However, his inconsistency probably explains why they haven’t done. Another player who clearly has talent, but doesn’t show it enough and recently has appeared to be playing for himself rather than the team. I don’t think that we can afford another squad member of that ilk.

Kyle Bennett: KEEP

In contrast Reach, Bennett’s City career started slowly but has improved considerably. He had a poor performance against Oldham recently, but I think that was more to do with the bizarre tactical shifts from Parkinson during the game. Bennett put a good performance in at Rotherham on Friday.

At times he frustrates by playing very narrow, but I feel that is partly on the manager’s instruction. If he can continue to improve, I would like to see Bennett as one of four wide players in next season’s squad.

Matty Dolan: KEEP

One week, Dolan looks like the best player on the pitch. The next he has an absolute stinker. Contrast his performances against Gillingham (home) and Leyton Orient (away) with those against Shrewsbury (away) and Oldham (home). However, even in the Oldham game, Dolan managed to produce the only bit of quality in a Bradford shirt, when he set up Adam Reach’s goal.

As a relatively young player I think that Dolan will continue to improve and become more consistent. I believe it’s pretty much agreed that he will join us permanently in the summer, and I am quite comfortable with that.

Chris Atkinson: KEEP

This is one where Parkinson and I would no doubt disagree. Along with Jameson, Atkinson has been one of the unlucky ones who have missed out when we have been limited to just five loanees in a match day squad. It’s a shame because I feel that he could provide the attacking impetus that we sometimes lack from central midfield.

Atkinson did well in brief cameo appearances against Wolves (away) and MK Dons (home), and would likely be a relatively cheap signing as a fourth central midfield option. I hope that Parkinson leaving him out doesn’t indicate that he isn’t intending on keeping him.

Jon Stead: SEND BACK.

I was impressed with Stead at Leyton Orient (away) and even more so at Rotherham (away); but he definitely isn’t the man to be Hanson’s understudy, because he doesn’t win enough in the air. I’d rather see Parkinson sign a different type of striker, especially considering the wages that Stead is likely to be earning at Huddersfield.

However, much will depend on whether Parkinson intends to try new tactics next year. Stead is ideally suited to playing the lone striker role, as he proved at Rotherham, because he has experience of doing this in the Premier League with Sunderland and Blackburn. I wouldn’t totally rule out him signing permanently.

The players in the youth team

I’d expect youth team captain and dynamic midfielder Jack Stockdill to be offered a contract. Deals may also be awarded to central defender Niall Heaton, wide forward Nathan Curtis and winger Callum Chippendale.

New signings

If the above decisions were to come to fruition, there would be spaces in the squad to fill and a need for several new signings. As a priority, I’d be looking to sign a first choice goalkeeper, some competition for Meredith at left back, a right-sided centre back to replace Bates and Taylor, and a third senior striker to compete with Hanson and Mclean

There would also be a need to sign a couple of wingers or wide midfielders, to compete with Reid and Bennett.

Unacceptable Bradford City performance underlines need for major change

5 Apr

IMG-20140405-00067

Bradford City 2

Reach 35, Jones 90

Oldham Athletic 3

Wesolowski 22, Clarke-Harris 45+58

Saturday 5 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

The relegation issue just won’t be put to bed, and the real concern for Bradford City is that they are running out of opportunities. How they could be left to rue this costly home defeat; one that narrows the margin for error considerably with just five games left to play. That the next three are against teams with promotion aspirations means no-one should be sitting comfortably on that six-point cushion.

Survival is within touching distances and yet – after another wretched performance from the players – any sense of achievement looks increasingly likely to carry a hollow feel. No one was planning to order an open top bus to celebrate successfully avoiding relegation, but this feeble crawl over the line lacks dignity and deserves to have serious repercussions. Because as City allowed themselves to be easily beaten by an Oldham side who sit below them, there’s a growing stench that is becoming difficult to avoid.

This team is past its sell-by-date. It needs a radical, radical shake-up.

That Phil Parkinson will be the man tasked with that considerable close season challenge is entirely right, but he did much to harm his standing with City supporters today. After speaking in the build-up about knowing exactly what to expect from Oldham, there can be no excuse for the disorganised and ill-thought out approach that his team took. Opposing teams that play a three-man midfield has long been the manager’s Achilles Heel and it beggars belief that he still cannot find a solution. Oldham hunted in packs for the ball and then worked in groups to keep hold of it. City were chasing shadows.

Yet equally, Parkinson has every right to feel let down by his players. From front to back they were awful today and it’s time that they came under the firing line rather than aiming all criticism at the manager. Parkinson needed his senior players to step up and perform, and he needed those who want to be at Valley Parade next season to demonstrate their desire to earn a contract. It didn’t happen. Today’s City XI contained just two players – Andrew Davies and Aaron Mclean – who don’t go into the summer facing an uncertain future. After this showing, Parkinson’s released list may have grown in length.

Oldham looked more confident, more determined and more comfortable in their game plan. In James Wesolowski they possessed the best player on the park (it was the same story in the reverse fixture). The Oldham number four was up and down the pitch with boundless energy. When no one picked up his late run onto Jonson Clare-Harris’ knock down, the 26-year-old was able to smash his team into a deserved lead midway through the first half.

Jon Stead, making his home debut up front, had glanced an early header wide of the post, but that had been it for City. The initiative was passed up in a way that has been depressingly familiar of late. Parkinson sought to combat Oldham’s dominance of possession by switching to a 4-5-1 formation that had Mclean on the right wing and Kyle Bennet tucked inside, but the results were decidedly mixed.

For the game was retrieved – but then ultimately lost – during the 10 minute run-up to half time. Firstly, City equalised after some excellent work from an otherwise disappointing Matty Dolan. He won the ball high up the park, before spinning and producing a defence-splitting pass that enabled Adam Reach to race past a defender and slot the ball home. But then just as the board was to go up for injury time, Gary Harkins played an offside-looking Clarke-Harris through on goal. Rory McArdle, Jon McLaughlin hesitated and the ball was in the back of the net. As the cliché goes, you play to the whistle and City did not.

Yet the passage of play at 1-1 was equally crucial on the game. Having been pegged back, Oldham retreated and City began to dominate the ball. Their 4-5-1 meant plenty of players available for a short pass but no one to support Stead. A wall of blue shirts stood firm, and the home crowd grew frustrated. It was in some ways proof that – for all the complaints from some about City’s style of football – deep down most people cannot tolerate a passing game and want to see direct football. Parkinson decided to abandon the approach almost as quickly as he’d switched to it. Such indecision is out of character. He was streets behind Lee Johnson in the tactical battle.

And it meant a second half depressingly familiar. Oldham bossing the middle of the park, as City went 4-4-2 and Dolan and Gary Jones were found wanting. Mclean and Stead were starved of possession yet completely failed to make anything that did reach them stick in the final third. Reach stood out more than most as lacking commitment for the cause – he was a loanee playing for himself, which is unacceptable – whilst Bennett regressed back to old ways, following promising displays of late.

The Doncaster loanee stood ball-watching as a pass was played up to Clarke-Harris, who ran clear of the back four and slotted home impressively despite Davies’ late attempt to block him. A really bad goal from a City perspective. Whatever the huge failings in midfield and up front today, everything was undermined by some incredibly woeful defending. I have never seen Davies have such a poor game for City, and he and McArdle made numerous mistakes.

With 32 minutes left on the clock, you hoped to see a determined fightback from the home side. Worryingly they looked defeated and – substitute Oli McBurnie aside – fearful of receiving the ball. McBurnie’s introduction for an underwhelming Stead saw boos directed at the manager that were repeated when he later brought off Mclean for Yeates. Whilst the frustration was easy to understand, as Parkinson simply didn’t have adequate options on the bench to take off his two senior strikers, performance-wise both players merited their withdrawals.

I’ve tried to retain judgement on Mclean and it is still too early to make a call on him, but to date he has been a long way short of expectations and – if rumours of his wage packet are to believed – we are entitled to demand a lot more from him. James Hanson was hugely missed and City need to get to the root of his fitness problems as a matter of urgency. In the circumstances Stead is a good signing, but City need their Plan A back, fit and firing.

As Valley Parade emptied long before the end, a late flicker of hope was ignited by a second City goal, deep in stoppage time. Yeates raced clear of the back four and struck a shot from an angle that smacked back off the post. The rebound fell to Jones, who picked his spot to beat the defenders rushing back. It was too little, too late. Within seconds, Oldham’s terrific away support were able to celebrate the final whistle and a deserved three points.

For the Bantams, the last four home games have yielded just one point and it is their away form – one loss in four – which is keeping them above water. But while this terrible performance probably doesn’t change the fact that one more victory should be enough to seal survival, this defeat should be viewed as a watershed moment.

Because this team simply isn’t good enough for where we are and where we want to be. It needs wholesale changes, if a more credible promotion push is to be realised – heck, just to make sure that relegation is avoided next season also. Parkinson has to make some tough decisions over the next few weeks over who to keep and who to let go, and he needs to be ruthless about it.

Sentiment clearly clouded too much of the planning for this season, and for that Parkinson has been rightly criticised. We will never forget the contributions of those 2012/13 History Makers and they will always have a place in our hearts, but the time has come to move on.

The bar has been lowered of late. Every single person in that Valley Parade dressing room shares some responsibility for allowing that drop in standards to happen. In the short-term, what matters is to get those final few points needed to confirm a place in the 2014/15 League One. But the inquest into what has gone wrong has already started and, whatever division City are in next season, sweeping changes need to be made.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett (Thompson 64), Dolan, Jones, Reach, Stead (McBurnie 64), Mclean (Yeates 83)

Not used: Barker, McHugh, Bates, Stockdill

Jon Stead signs on loan for Bradford City

27 Mar

By Jason McKeown

Phil Parkinson has reacted to successive toothless Bradford City displays by recruiting Huddersfield striker Jon Stead on loan until the end of the season.

Stead, 30, becomes the seventh loan signing on the books – presenting some difficult team selections for the manager who can only use five in his matchday 16 – and will ease the burden on James Hanson, who has been struggling for fitness.

Having made a flying start to his professional career with his hometown club of Huddersfield over a decade ago, Stead has found the going more tough since a £1 million move to Premier League Blackburn Rovers. He subsequently played for Sunderland and Sheffield United in the top flight, before dropping down a division to Ipswich and then Bristol City. He rejoined Town last summer but has rarely figured for the Terriers.

Although not a prolific scorer by any means, Stead has made a decent impact at most clubs he has played for. Indeed, our friends at the Exiled Robin site wrote of Stead when he left Ashton Gate last summer, “He leaves us three years later as one of the most popular players to have pulled on a red shirt in recent memory. If you want a 25-goal a season striker, then Stead isn’t your man.

“The most telling moment of Stead’s stay came at the end of the 2011/12 season, when he was carried shoulder-high from the pitch having spent much of the previous two months metaphorically doing the same for many of his team-mates, driving us clear of a desperate relegation scrap with an immense effort, dedication and no little skill.”

It will be very interesting to see how much Stead figures over the final few weeks, particularly when Hanson is fully fit. It seems as though Stead is here for a short spell with no obvious prospect of joining permanently during the summer, and he should look to fellow non-scoring forwards Mike Newell and Aaron Wilbraham as examples of the positive difference a short spell at Valley Parade can have on his career.

A state of flux

22 Mar

shrewsbury away march 2014

Shrewsbury Town 2

Taylor 80, Miller 90

Bradford City 1

Davies 79

Saturday 22 March, 2014

Written by Jason McKeown (image by Kieran Wilkinson)

The real sadness about this season is that you already wish it was over. This woeful defeat to second-bottom Shrewsbury Town prolongs the relegation anxiety, but it still appears to be a matter of when, not if, survival is assured. More pressing is how afternoons such as these are clouding the future, deflating goodwill and damaging morale.

A shadow has been cast over Bradford City, who are stumbling through the final stages of the campaign with a confusing lack of purpose. Not close enough to the bottom four places to be causing sleepless nights, but those lingering concerns should have been put to bed by now. We want to start planning for next season, but the expected rebuilding job looks even more considerable after this result. If only we could get on with the big shake-up, rather than enduring this period of uncertainty and tredding water.

Whilst losing to a side who had not previously won at home since November is never going to look clever, it was the nature of this non-performance from the Bantams that prompts the real frustration. Only Carlisle, at Valley Parade in August, have put in a more tentative and feeble showing than the one which Shrewsbury produced. The home side were awful – but City completely failed to take the initiative and play to their capabilities. The home side were awful – yet they would walk off the pitch as victors.

Only Stephen Darby and Gary Jones – the latter was thrust into action from the bench just before half time, due to a Nathan Doyle injury – can emerge from this game with any credit. Kyle Bennett also showed glimpses of what he can do, but from the rest this was a completely unacceptable showing. No urgency, no drive and a troubling lack of commitment. This from a group of players who last season made their supporters so proud because they would never give up.

That seems to have been lost over the last few months, and it is manager Phil Parkinson’s biggest challenge to restore. He has long since preached the value of constructing teams that are full of character, and this ethos was something that captured the imagination of his public. He understands that meeting the high expectations surrounding this football club requires full commitment and effort from every player he selects. No one will be hurting more than Parkinson from feeble performances like this. It is far, far removed from what he preaches.

For the most part of the game, absolutely nothing happened. It was devoid of incident, save for a decent Aaron Mclean first half effort for City and Shrewsbury’s Tom Eaves impressing visiting supporters if not his own (he would later be subbed to cheers from the home stands, which was curious given he looked their best player). Both sides were too direct in their approach play, with possession tossed back and forth like a game of tennis. When the ball was played on the ground, some of the mistakes made by both sides were incredibly woeful.

James Hanson missed a glorious chance just after half time, when he got on the end of an excellent Bennett cross but could only steer his half-volley straight at Shrewsbury keeper Joe Anyon. Asa Hall’s shot from distance was easily saved by Jon McLaughlin, and that was about it really. Shrewsbury looked scared of their own shadow; City looked ready for the beach.

But when the drama finally came it would prove plentiful. First Andrew Davies struck, after City finally managed to put Shrewsbury under sustained pressure. The last of four successive corners had been cleared back to the taker, Matty Dolan, who launched the ball into the box once more and Davies stabbed it past Anyon. An underserved, but welcome, away victory was on the cards.

Yet less than 60 seconds later, Shrewsbury were level. The powerful Jermaine Grandison crossed low and Jon Taylor was to fire home past McLaughlin. With a flicker of renewed hope, the strugglers pressed on in the final stages and, in 94th minute, punished City’s lifelessness. Substitute Shaun Miller – so often a thorn in the Bantams’ side during his Crewe days – struck a low acrobatic volley into the corner of the net to mark his debut in memorable style. The home supporters wildly celebrated whilst Bantams’ shoulders slumped.

Shrewsbury hardly merited their victory, yet City deserved to be defeated. They were disjointed throughout, with Davies and Rory McArdle sloppy in possession at the back, and Adam Reach failing to show his quality in good positions. Hanson and Mclean were starved of service but also unable to hold up the ball when it was played up to them.

Dolan perhaps best exemplified the claret and amber implosion in Shropshire. He failed to build upon his hugely promising performances against Colchester and Gillingham, as he constantly lost possession and struggled to break up Shrewsbury attacks. On this evidence, he is not ready to replace the ageing Jones – whose composure and drive when he came on was highly commendable, even though it left you feeling anxious that our reliance on his waning battery life remains too high.

Despite this set back, the Bantams remain in mid-table and it would take an almighty collapse over the final nine games to be kicking off next season in League Two. Yet at the same time, any sense of achievement at finally exceeding the 50-point mark is likely to feel hollow and subdued. Avoiding relegation was always the number one objective – but after running out of the starting blocks this season, City are crawling over the line. That doesn’t inspire optimism for the future, and it is difficult to conclude what should be done.

Whilst Shrewsbury go into their final eight games with much to fret about, their highly likely relegation offers a timely warning to Bradford City. Last season, the Shrews were in a similar position to where we are now – establishing themselves in League One, following promotion the year after – but staying up didn’t automatically lead to a continued curve of improvement. They went backwards instead.

There is major, major work to be done at Valley Parade this summer to ensure City don’t follow the same path. Staying in League One is one thing, but much, much more is expected in the long-term. The suspicions that the club has regressed over the last few months need to be extinguished. The stagnation of the playing squad must be addressed. The mistakes made this season can be tolerated and forgiven, provided they are not repeated.

Once these nine games are done and dusted, Parkinson will go into his third close season as manager of Bradford City, where his playing squad can be refreshed. His first close season (2012) proved a spectacular success, his second (2013) was anything but. How he performs during number three will go a long way towards determining his longevity in the Valley Parade hotseat.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury, Bennett, Dolan, Doyle (Jones 43), Reach, Hanson, Mclean (Thompson 90)

Not used: Jameson, McHugh, Bates, De Vita, Gray

Fragmentation and imperfection

17 Mar

Mike (6)

By Jason McKeown

Some people say…that Bradford City Football Club is in its best position for at least a decade.

Some people say…the recent nosedive in form is proof that we are in decline.

Some people say…the club is in robust health now it has paid off Mark Lawn’s loan.

Some people say…the League Cup windfall has been wasted away.

Some people say…this group of players have done well to acclimatise to the higher division and are meeting overall expectations.

Some people say…the style of football is terrible, the players are not good enough and their weaknesses too obvious to our League One rivals.

Some people say…the struggles of Nahki Wells to adapt to life at a higher level suggest City did well to agree the deal it did with Huddersfield.

Some people say…Aaron Mclean is a poor replacement for Wells.

Some people say…Phil Parkinson has done a magnificent job as manager, when you reflect on his three seasons in charge.

Some people say…Phil Parkinson has blown it as manager, and must be sacked.

Valley Parade has become increasingly fragmented over recent months. There are major splits in opinions about the current situation and the future – and with it passions are running high. As editor of a Bradford City website, this overriding mood makes it particularly challenging to write about the club. Whatever personal views I and my fellow writers express, someone will disagree. Too positive, too negative, too much on the fence – we are either bang on right, or embarrassingly wrong. It’s all about your own view of the Bradford City world, and your interpretation of events.

Over 10 years of writing about Bradford City has long ago taught me that you can’t please everyone – nor should you try to. And over recent weeks, I have received bits of feedback here and there that this site needs to be more negative and to be criticising the club. That we should be leading the calls for Parkinson’s resignation, for example, or questioning the directors. It all goes with the territory of producing such a website, and in its own strange way is a sign of our success: that people care enough about what we write to be unhappy when we differ from them in our judgement.

This is not a platform to attempt to defend myself, as criticism comes with the territory. Some of the best feedback I’ve had for my writing efforts has occurred at times when others would be slating me on message boards. Criticism comes with the territory, and it is valued as much as the kind words other people bestow every now and then. Width of a Post has no editorial policy with the exception of one golden rule: analysis of players, management and chairmen must always be backed up with sound reasoning. Somewhere along the evolution of Width of a Post, it has become more club-friendly for sure, but that is largely because – in the main for the two and a bit years this site has existed – the club has got more right than it has wrong.

When it comes to writing about City, I have always tried to be 100% honest in how I feel: good or bad. Over recent months, I have written some deeply critical match reports, such as those against Rotherham, Notts County, Sheffield United and Wolves. I doubt any players read the site but, if they did, some would no doubt be unhappy at the stuff we have had to say about them. At other times, Width of a Post has been gushing with praise for performances, players and the manager, and encouraged by the overall progress of the club. Against a backdrop of an increasingly negative #bcafc Twitter hashtag, Facebook pages and message boards, this more positive outlook can go against the grain. But perhaps we offer a level of balance in such circumstances.

Whatever your view, this season is set to go down as one of fragmentation. Beyond the fact Stephen Darby is bloody amazing, there probably isn’t a single element of Bradford City’s 2013/14 performance that would find universal agreement. We have done well to be mid-table, or underachieved not to be in play off contention. This group of players has successfully adapted to a higher level, or needs wholesale changes. The manager has taken us forwards, or has run out of ideas. Football is such a reactive sport, full of passion and subjectivity – and Bradford City is certainly no different to the rest of the football world.

So what has Parkinson got wrong this season? Well, as mentioned so many times, his summer recruitment business has proven to be dismally unsuccessful. It was quickly apparent that even he has lacked faith in those he brought in during the summer, and when things have not gone so well it is these players who are invariably the first to fall on their sword.

I think that he got the balance wrong in his defensive planning. At one stage, Parkinson had six centre backs on the books, plus Nathan Doyle (who can cover successfully) and the promising Niall Heaton. Meanwhile, the squad featured just one recognised left back. The unreliability of Andrew Davies’ fitness, the uncertainty of Luke Oliver’s recovery from serious injury and the international commitments of Rory McArdle necessitated plenty of centre back cover, but the lack of game time for Matt Taylor suggests something has gone wrong.

I think that Parkinson has continued to struggle getting results on the road. Just 14 away victories in almost three seasons in charge is not a great record. I think that he has yet to bring in the personnel that can formulate a change of approach from the tried – some say tired – 4-4-2 formation. He has largely built a team around the strengths of James Hanson and Nahki Wells, but failed to quickly adapt to the breaking up of this prolific partnership. Wells’ replacement has a very different style, but at times the way City have played seems to assume Nahki is still wearing that number 21 shirt.

Yet I think that Parkinson has also got plenty right this season. Gary Jones has continued to defy his age by producing a number of inspirational displays. He is a true leader, who lifts the performances of those around him. Parkinson was right to put so much faith in James Hanson by awarding him a new contract mid-season, rather than risking it running down. Hanson is said to have been given a sizeable pay rise and has revelled in the added responsibility thrust upon him since Nahki left, playing that bit further up the park and scoring more regularly. A proven League One striker now, and you suspect James can still go higher.

Next in the contract line needs to be Stephen Darby please, Phil.

I think that Parkinson has ensured his team are tough to beat and can compete in this higher division. For all the poor form since October, only six teams have lost fewer matches than the Bantams all season (including Crawley, who have played four games less). It is too many draws that has hindered City’s progress. Only Scunthorpe United – out of the five national divisions in English football – have tied more matches than the Bantams. It really isn’t a major improvement needed to change those one-point returns into three. Just turning four of those 15 draws into victories would currently see the Bantams fighting for the play offs.

Adam Reach shows Parkinson can hunt out a good loan signing; Aaron Mclean is proof of the manager’s pulling power. For all the criticism Mclean’s distinctly average performances have received, there is a proven lower league striker in there who is capable of filling Nahki’s rather large shoes. If he can build on his excellent first goal for the Bantams and contribute more often to the goalscoring column, it will look a great piece of business by the manager. The future also looks bright, with Matty Dolan – expected to sign permanently during the summer – looking a capable heir to Jones’ throne. Oli McBurnie has enjoyed some game time and shows huge promise; Jack Stockdill looks a real gem with a bright, bright future.

Certain mitigating circumstances cannot be overlooked. Losing top scorer Nahki Wells was always going to be testing, particularly with his head seemingly turned during the run-up to the transfer window. Had Andrew Davies been fit all season, we would not have endured such a sustained slump in results over mid-season. Kyel Reid has been sorely missed also, albeit the form of Reach softening the blow to a point. Nevertheless, the loss of the club’s two quickest players – Wells and Reid – has been keenly felt at times. Pace must top the summer shopping requirement list.

The story of this season is one of fragmentation and imperfection. Some things have gone well, some things could have gone better. Certain obstacles have been successfully overcome, but other, greater challenges have either sprung up or heightened in their size. We’ve not looked so close to the holy grail of Championship football since 2006, but at times is has depressingly hit home just how far we still have to go.

The most important element, in the short-term, is that League One survival is comfortably within reach. Then the planning for next season, and the longer-term, can truly begin. The steps taken this season may not be vast, but they are at least forwards. The bruises picked up, the lessons taught, and the set-backs overcome will hopefully lead to a stronger and wiser football club.

In the summer we need to apply that experience. And in the meantime, fragmentation will continue to dominate.

Back to form with a deserved three points

12 Mar

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Colchester United 0

Bradford City 2

Hanson 16, Bennett 56

Tuesday 11 March, 2014

Words and images by Mark Danylczuk

‘Colchester on a Tuesday night?’ asked my work colleagues.  To be honest, even as a Southern-based Bantam getting a new ground in, I was sceptical about making the journey out to Essex on a week night. The cold, a host of empty seats and a pre-season friendly type-atmosphere didn’t encourage me further before kick-off.

But was it worth it? YES.  Bradford City deservedly recorded their first away win since November with a mixture of composed passing, positive running, intelligent link-up play and dogged defending.  It was a far-cry from Brentford on Saturday and numerous other matches where the Plan A direct, long-ball style has dominated our game.  In came a refreshing passing style and certain individual performances, notably Nathan Doyle, Andrew Davies, James Hanson and Kyle Bennett, contributed to arguably one of the best City displays (particularly in the first half) since the halcyon days of last September.

City came into the game looking back over their shoulders towards the relegation places after successive defeats to Stevenage and Brentford.  Phil Parkinson made three changes from the team, with Adam Drury in for Carl McHugh at left back, Matty Dolan coming in for Gary Jones in midfield and James Hanson as a late inclusion for Chris Atkinson, meaning City were back to their more comfortable 4-4-2 formation.

Both teams came out of the blocks strongly and had opening chances in the first few minutes.  Firstly it was City with Aaron Mclean latching onto a through ball with an early flick-on and shot saved by the keeper, followed by a neat passing interplay from Colchester which resulted in defender Ryan Dickson looping a header just wide of the post.

Colchester continued this early bright spell, with Freddy Sears striking successive shots over just the bar after the 10 minute mark.  The front four of Sears and Clinton Morrison in the middle, Sanchez Watt on the left and Gavin Massey on the right caused a handful of issues for the City backline throughout the match, with Morrison holding the ball up well and bringing others into play.

The next passage of play however, would result in City’s first goal.  It was Adam Reach’s deflected low cross which came to Doyle, who struck a wonderful 25 yard volley which was turned away at the far post for a corner.  From the resulting Matty Dolan set piece, Hanson bulleted a header home at the far post to the jubilation for the 200 or so City fans in the away end.

City looked fresh and with a point to prove.  Doyle and Dolan excelled in their roles to either begin attacking moves or press and defend when needed, and Jones will do well to regain his place on Saturday.  The addition of Hanson and Davies to the team added quality and stability, and on the wing, Bennett looked much livelier and full of running.  Bennett had City’s next real opening on the half hour mark with a mazy run inside but his shot drifting over the bar.

City continued with their impressive, composed passing style and this was suiting Mclean, getting more balls into feet to capitalise on.  Yes, it can be said Colchester’s pressing game was not strong but still credit to City. Mclean had City’s next chance, running onto a downward Hanson header to volley into the keeper’s hands. His reading of Hanson’s headers improved; but although the work ethic is still superb, the lack of goals is worrying for your centre-forward.  Mclean had a great opportunity to break his duck just before half time, latching onto a through ball after Bennett dispossessed the Colchester defence, but his left foot shot was scuffed wide of the post.  So that was half time and for me, arguably the best half of football I have seen from City in months.

Colchester were still in the game at only 1-0 down though and, with Freddy Sears pulling the strings and Gavin Massey continuing to give left back Adam Drury a tough time on the wing, it was well timed for City to get their second goal early into the second half.  It was Hanson who won a header from a touch line throw in just inside the City half and sloppy defending caused Bennett to nip in with a nifty run and fire home low from a tight angle just inside the box, right in front of the jubilant City fans.

The second City goal seemed to give the U’s a wake-up call into mounting a comeback and, as City continued to sit deeper happy to defend their lead, the pressure mounted but resulted in very few clear cut opportunities. Jon McLaughlin barely had a save to make for the rest of the game.  City’s first substitution came in the 78th minute with Bennett receiving a deserved standing ovation making way for Garry Thompson.  This was easily Bennett’s best game in a City shirt and thankfully is showing us what he can do.  Full of energy and nifty running, his attacking play was excellent.

Adam Drury was next to follow, again with a fine, solid display making way for Carl McHugh in the 85th minute.  The mood was jubilant as City comfortably saw the game out with some scrappy, dogged defending but the win didn’t feel in doubt, particularly after the second goal knocked the stuffing out of Colchester.

All in all, much improved and an impressive display from the Bantams provided a much needed confidence boost.  It’s now onto Gillingham at home on Saturday in search of more points to take us closer to safety.

City: McLaughlin, Darby, McArdle, Davies, Drury (McHugh), Bennett (Thompson 80), Dolan, Doyle, Reach, Hanson, Mclean

Not used: Bentley, Bates, Atkinson, Yeates, Gray

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The Colchester learning curve as Bradford City go to Essex

11 Mar

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Colchester United vs Bradford City preview

@Weston Homes Community Stadium on Tuesday 11 March, 2014

Written by Jason McKeown (images by Mike Holdsworth)

The subplot to this week is one of former managers returning their old stomping grounds. On Saturday Peter Taylor makes a first visit to Valley Parade since his departure three years ago; but first of all tonight, Phil Parkinson goes back to the club where he first made his name as a manager.

It is just over 11 years ago since Parkinson took charge of Colchester United. Two seasons later, the U’s were promoted to the second tier of English football for the first time in their history. Parkinson’s squad – which included notable players such as former City keeper Aidan Davison, Greg Halford, Neil Danns, Chris Iwelumo and on-loan Mark Yeates – would finish League One runners up, prospering on the lowest gates in the division.

Some achievement, yet rather than proving to be the Launchpad of a glittering managerial career, it became a false start for Parkinson. Don’t expect him to receive a warm welcome from his former supporters this evening, due to the the bitterness surrounding his shock resignation that quickly followed securing promotion.

Parkinson was persuaded to jump ship to the relative bright lights of Hull City, a development revealed a few days after he handed in his notice. He still had a year to run on his Colchester deal, and his former employees sought a high court injunction to prevent the-then 38-year-old taking charge at Hull, after rejecting their “modest” compensation offer. The Tigers admitted to making an approach for Parkinson whilst he was still employed at Layer Road. A Colchester statement at the time revealed they still hoped to keep Parkinson, “The decision to seek an injunction to prevent him tearing up his contract is in part a vain hope that he will change his mind.”

Eventually a £400,000 compensation package was agreed for Parkinson to move to the KC Stadium (Colchester wanted half a million). But less than six months later, a wretched start to life at Hull came to an end for Parkinson, who was sacked. His penultimate game in charge must have proven particularly painful – a 5-1 thrashing at Colchester.

People close to Parkinson have told me that he looks back his decision to leave Colchester as a major mistake, and the only time in his career where money had played a significant part in his decision-making. It was an episode that ran through his mind again in January 2013, when Bradford City chairman Mark Lawn informed him that Blackpool chairman Karl Oyston had made an official approach for his services. He declined even to talk to the Seasiders about the possibility of leaving Valley Parade. During all the protracted new contract talks this time a year ago, it was said that, rather than wage demands, progress were so slow because Parkinson wanted to ensure that his coaching staff were looked after at the same time.

So a lesson learned that has proven beneficial from Bradford City’s point of view. Yet you do wonder if the Bantams have still felt some of the negative effects of his Colchester defection, over the course of this season, given the challenge he missed out on trying to solve: acclimatising a club in a higher division.

The 2012/13 ‘We Made History’ success was the second promotion of Parkinson’s managerial career, and it means that this season has been the first where he has being in charge of a newly promoted club. 11 years as manager, but this was a step into the unknown. Perhaps the lack of experience of this situation is something that Parkinson will have keenly felt over recent months; and perhaps there are things that he would look to do differently if he could begin this season all over again.

Chiefly, was the dilemma he faced on whether to stay loyal to a group of high-achieving players, or begin the process of replacing them. It has been a common talking point – well documented on this website – that up until January at least Parkinson kept faith in what he had. For a time it looked a brilliant decision, as City began the season in flying form, but poor form since October has carried more than whiff of squad stagnation. The urgency to update and refresh his charges must have come around quicker than the manager originally anticipated, yet mid-season offered limited opportunities to evolve the squad.

Parkinson will also undoubtedly reflect on the new arrivals of last summer: were they designed to complement what he had, or enhance it? Perhaps he will look at how Manchester City – another club traditionally starved of success – failed to progress from their 2011/12 Premier League title victory to weakly hand the title back to their neighbours a year after. A familiar story of a manager sticking with what he had: making filler signings instead of Stella.

Parkinson has built two excellent football teams – Colchester 2006 and Bradford City 2013 – but this is the first time he’s been tasked with improving on his achievements. This season hasn’t been a roaring success – at least when judging form since October – but the glass-half-full viewpoint is to hope and believe that Parkinson will be a better manager from making these mistakes and learning the lessons. And there is no doubt that he has previously shown that he knows how to rebuild a broken team.

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Before he can apply that experience to this squad, however, there is still work to be done. 12 games of the season to play, and realistically City need to pick up another 10-12 points to guarantee their League One status. There is an obvious urgency to reach this tally as soon as possible, and on the immediate horizon are four winnable-looking games: Colchester and Gillingham this week, followed by a trip to struggles Shrewsbury and visit of Walsall.

With a busy month of March ending with another visit to the Capital – this time facing top two contenders Leyton Orient – a reasonable aim must be to pick up at least two victories from these four games.

Tonight would certainly be a good start. Prior to Colchester’s Saturday 2-1 victory over another free-falling League One side, Coventry, they stood just one place above the bottom four. That a home victory tonight would place them above the Bantams is an illustration of how tight the situation remains at the bottom – and would no doubt prompt more angst and panic in this corner of West Yorkshire. Parkinson badly needs a happy return to his first managerial outpost.

And his chances of doing so would be helped considerably if Andrew Davies and James Hanson were to prove their fitness, after the pair sat out the 2-0 defeat to Brentford. With Aaron Mclean’s ongoing struggles (something Width of a Post plans to cover in more detail later this week), greater responsibility weighs upon Hanson’s shoulders, but he has relished it rather than wilted.

Davies is equally influential, and the rest of the back four seem to find an extra 5-10% in themselves when he is marshalling them. Matthew Bates came in for Davies at Brentford, but his stock amongst supporters continues to decline. If recent loan signing Adam Drury (apparently heavily criticised by some City fans for his Leeds connections. Really? Are we that petty?) is fit enough and Davies doesn’t make it, there is the option to move Carl McHugh to centre half. Either way, thank goodness for the ongoing reliability of Stephen Darby and, to a lesser extent, Rory McArdle – both write their own names on the team sheet right now.

In midfield, Parkinson’s decision to line up with five at Griffin Park failed to yield the point he must have been hoping for as a minimum; but if Hanson is back we can probably expect a return to 4-4-2. For the first time in the league this season, Gary Jones could miss out (virus). Chris Atkinson, Nathan Doyle and Matty Dolan – who was not on the bench on Saturday – fight for the central midfield positions. Dolan’s lack of game time to date is a surprise given the original plan had been to sign him on a permanent basis in January. Perhaps he was held back for tonight.

On the flanks will be Adam Reach and one of Kyle Bennett and Garry Thompson. Bennett has hardly set the world alight since rocking up from Doncaster, but has shown glimpses of promise. Thompson has of late looked a better impact sub than starter.

For Colchester, their 2-1 Coventry success was their first victory in seven matches, and they find themselves in a similar situation to the Bantams of being too far from the play offs to take any keen interest, and so instead focused upon avoiding going into the final few games with serious relegation concerns. Parkinson has spoken of this season’s League One being the toughest he has seen and I would agree with that judgement, but there a number of teams in the middle who are a much of muchness, striving for a nice boring end to the campaign.

The victors tonight can certainly feel more confident of planning for another season in this division, but for the losers there is a worry about the queue of clubs behind who are slowly but surely catching up. Therefore tonight is something of a pressure game, in order to avoid facing real pressure come May.

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