By Alex Scott
I wonder if you ever get used to it. That feeling. The powerlessness of everything. Knowing that with every return to the field you are only restarting the clock.
Watching Andrew Davies trudge off the pitch on Saturday afternoon following the most recent injury of a perpetually stuttering career was a numbing sight. I was resigned to his necessary absence over the upcoming weeks, already moving onto the gap until his return in my head as he took his leave down the touchline. I wonder if he was.
Phil Parkinson and his team were left to watch on as their house of cards tumbled once more. This team has proven with and without Nahki Wells to be a competent, top-half team with Davies available, yet they tumble to a relegation candidate in his absence. The injuries to Davies are a known commodity, they aren’t the issue. The issue is how City are managing their response.
Coming back from an injury is hard; I wonder if it gets harder or easier the more often you do it?
Football statistics are often best deployed illustrating something you already know. Which does say a lot about the value of statistics, but that’s for another day. In the 16 games with Davies in the team, City have averaged 0.81 goals conceded per game, which with an admittedly small sample size, would be comfortably the 2nd best defence in the league.
Without him, in the other 17, that number increases to over 1.5 goals per 90 minutes, good for 16th in League One. These numbers are obviously out of context, the quality of opponents and loss of James Meredith haven’t been controlled for, but we can safely say this defence is far better with Davies in it than without.
For those interested, the results last year were basically the same: City ranging from the 3rd best defence with Davies in it, to the 19th best with him on the sidelines, with the same sample size, and James Meredith caveats applicable.
Saturday’s injury brought to an end the 203rd league appearance of Davies’ career, a number put into perspective when noting that his first appearance came in November 2002. But this, sadly, is going to be the story of his career.
Maybe not for us as City fans. Despite the injuries, he will still feature prominently on my “Top 5 City players relative to their opposition” list along with Nahki Wells and Jermaine Johnson of the recent past. I’ve seen Andrew Davies seven times this season, and every time I’ve come away again stunned how we managed to get him to play for us in League Two, let alone League One. It’s still baffling. He’s our best player today. Although probably not most valuable player given the time on the sidelines – Gary Jones and James Hanson battling for that one – but Andrew Davies is definitely the “best”.
It isn’t just that Davies is really good – which he is – it’s that he is the perfect type of good for us. He fits the system so well, or more aptly, the system fits him so well. Looking back to the summer of 2012, and with Kyel Reid, James Hanson and Wells, Andrew Davies was amongst the main holdovers. The squad which did so well to get promoted last year was designed the summer previous to bring the best out these players, and it did.
And it still does. Despite the key losses the team have suffered, they still highlight Andrew Davies every week he plays. He is the perfect type of good for this manager, for his defensive partner, and for the style the team attempt to play. A sentiment once universal, is becoming less and less applicable to the squad as a whole.
As Davies, Rory McArdle and the rest watch on, the reinforcements have failed to gel as the alchemy of squad building is getting shown to be exactly that, the more time passes at Valley Parade. Last year may have been lightning in a bottle. Or perhaps this year is a black hole in a bottle? It’s too soon to tell.
Whilst a number of the signings since last summer are obviously talented in certain ways, they aren’t right type of good for us. The more we see of Aaron Mclean, the more that becomes true. And it is curious that a manager who knew, and knows, his style’s strengths and weaknesses as intimately as Parkinson has misjudged this many players. Mark Yeates, Matt Taylor and Jason Kennedy have proven nothing short of catastrophic signings. Which isn’t to say they are bad players – Yeates and Taylor especially have played well at this level and beyond – but they are the wrong type of good.
Andrew Davies is the perfect type of good for us. When he’s there, it’s hard to imagine the team playing without him setting the tone. When he’s not there, they often can’t.
I wrote about Andrew Davies’s backstory a year ago, detailing the impact his injuries have had on his career. The situation is sadly unchanged now. How unremarkable his injury was on the field on Saturday, stretching for an errant pass at his neck, is fitting given the saddening unremarkableness of him being out of the team with injury.
Do you think if Parkinson had his time again, he would have re-signed Andrew Davies last year? An outsider’s totally uneducated guess would estimate he’s amongst the club’s highest paid players. Would you rather have a star for 40% of the time, and a horde of fungible replacement-level players for the other 60%, or a lesser, but still above-average starter available for 80% of the time?
As we’ve shown this year, draws and unbeaten runs are generally overvalued, and often do nothing more than consign a team to treading water. Perhaps greater access to an above-average player would have led to more wins in the barren autumn of 2013. Likely fewer wins at other times, but would that have been worth it? This team have performed so poorly in one-score games. A little difference in goal concession over the season would have gone a long way.
Would you rather have a high ceiling or a high floor? Would we have got more points this year if we had the eighth best defence for the whole season rather than the ranging highs and lows we have felt in terms of defensive output?
It’s not like the availability of Davies for this season has been a shock. Parkinson can’t have realistically planned for 46 games of Davies; he wouldn’t have spent the moderate bucks on Matt Taylor if he did. And perhaps that’s the point. The 60% is where we are falling down. That Matt Taylor has been the wrong type of good for us is the real problem here.
Taylor was signed to be the back-up centre half, ahead of Carl McHugh and a recovering Luke Oliver. Davies’ clean bill of health at the start of the year rendered the lanky centre half expendable in the short-term, seeing him loaned out to Colchester. Davies subsequently went down in that Walsall game, but instead of slotting in Matt Taylor, or either of the other available options, Parkinson went out to the market and recruited Matthew Bates to jump the queue.
Those questioning the value of having back-ups in the squad when you’re just going to sign someone else instead of playing them anyway have a point, and such illogical planning implies that something went wrong. None of the available options were deemed up to the task. Matthew Bates was persisted with during the absence of Davies despite middling returns – middling in the “one clean sheet in fifteen” variety – with barely any others having a look-in.
At this point of his career, after his own injury woes, Bates is a useful replacement-level squad player who can fill-in a number of positions. However if elevated into the starting eleven, he is probably always someone you’d want to improve on. Taylor, and similarly Luke Oliver, only filled in one position, and didn’t even do that. Matt Taylor has appeared in 46 minutes of league football all year long for City. And the 45 at Peterborough were an unmitigated disaster. The wrong type of good may be the kind analysis.
Despite the contingencies, Parkinson has not been able to mitigate the sadly inevitable losses of Davies. And as this season moves away into the rear view mirror that will probably be the primary takeaway.
I wonder if Davies still gets down about everything. From the outside, the what-might-have-beenness would just kill me. I suppose you have to be at peace with this sort of thing in Davies’ position. But he’s a Championship player, and would have had a very successful Championship career if he could stay on the field. He should have double the career appearances he does today. It’s not an unprecedented sports story, it has torn better players than him apart. But on an individual level, for a guy we are all invested in, it is a bit sad.
On the flip side of the coin, if it wasn’t for that aspect of him, he wouldn’t be here.
Other, better, richer clubs than us have obviously decided that they’d rather have the slightly less good, or equivalent player who is fit 80% of the time. Thus his market value decreases to a level at which he is attainable for us. The same goes for the inconsistent crossing of Kyel Reid and reputed one-dimensionality of Nathan Doyle.
So we aren’t in a position to complain about Davies’ time off the field, it is what it is. The manager has prepared for it. It’s just transpired that he may not have prepared for it all that well. Although it absolutely must be said, there is a balancing act between a player’s willingness to be a back-up and him holding the necessary skills to be a starter. You’re not going to get a player close to the production of Andrew Davies willing to be the back-up to Andrew Davies without paying over the odds. They’d rather be starting somewhere else, preserving their re-sale value.
This year Parkinson has decided to spend that money elsewhere, recruiting Yeates, De Vita and Associates to add another dimension to the team’s attacking play. The fact that other dimension consists of a wayward, stuttering ponderousness, lacking in both urgency and end-product was probably not the design.
In hindsight, and perhaps as a learning point, regardless of how many different attackers were in the side, in whatever combination, the loss of Davies fundamentally compromised the team’s ability to earn wins. They’ve still only won once without him all year long – a smash and grab in Milton Keynes, where they still conceded twice – against not coincidentally the only side in the division who never play a long ball.
It’s a bit of a silly observation as there is no real answer, but after having a known commodity on the books in Andrew Davies, taking the gamble that he could stay fit for 35 games was still probably worth it. Over the opportunity to hire a lesser replacement who may underwhelm, could also get injured at some point, and forever be judged against his predecessor. It’s not the decision itself which is questionable, it’s just the mitigation strategy hasn’t been up to the required level to cover Davies’ absence.
This season is to die at the hands of the 60%.
Moving onto the revolution – not evolution – in the summer, and that will not be forgotten. City cannot afford to have a drop off this stark from a player who is only going to appear in 25 games.
Perhaps the solution involves recruiting another starter in the centre of defence alongside Davies and demoting Rory McArdle to something of a (what’s a slightly better version of Jack?) – Jacques (?) of all trades, pairing up with Carl McHugh and/or Matthew Bates to back up each of the starting four defenders. I’m not arguing that would be the most efficient way to spend the squad’s budget – which is about to be slashed – but it would definitely solve one glaring problem.
The summer is going to be about Phil Parkinson attempting to recapture the right kind of good. Or more likely, with a struggling Aaron Mclean and a missing Mark Yeates both standing as expensive holdovers from this year, attempting to change what the right kind of good is.
But with James Hanson set in stone to lead the line, it’s a conundrum. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, and as was illustrated again on Saturday, James Hanson is this team’s greatest competitive advantage. They just need to find a better way to expose it now Wells is out the door. Moving forward, dealing with the 60% is the second biggest issue. Deciding what to do about your long-term, highly paid strike partnership which appears utterly incompatible from the start takes immediate priority.
Whatever happens in the summer, whatever the new right kind of good is, Andrew Davies will be at the forefront. He remains one of the side’s best, and most important players, and they club could bring in ten new starters and that would still be true. He’s under contract, and he will be back starting in a few months, if only for a few months.
This, unfortunately, is the game. City just need to play it better.