The Midweek Player Focus #1: Luke Oliver

Were TIME magazine to start producing a Bradford City Man of the Year, there is little disputing that Luke Oliver would appear on its 2011 front cover. At 6 foot 7 inch, Oliver has always been a giant amongst men – but over the calendar year he has proven to be the rock behind all that is good about the Bantams.

“Who is that guy, your new David Wetherall?” snorted my brother following yet another superb Oliver tackle against Shrewsbury on Saturday. A proud Leeds supporter and reluctant attendee at Valley Parade as part of a Christmas family day out, that Oliver caught my brother’s eye was all the more commendable given it was the only positive thing about the game he could bring himself to disclose. Oliver was in typically outstanding form repelling Shrewsbury’s attempts to come back in the game; a fitting way to end a year that began with ‘typical Oliver’ meaning something very different.

Signed by Peter Taylor in 2010, back at the start of 2011 the former Wycombe, Woking, Yeovil and Sailsbury defender was still widely viewed as a liability and a person who would often make mistakes during games. He did not particularly look like a defender comfortable in possession and, though he would display strong levels of confidence to not allow personal errors to effect his game, he was seen as part of the problem rather than the solution. When Taylor left last February with City’s form nosediving, it was widely assumed Oliver would follow.

Only then did Oliver truly prove himself to the Valley Parade faithful. As the Bantams’ relegation plight grew serious, he was in outstanding form under manager Peter Jackson to help the club remain above the dotted line come May. Superb performances in crucial home games against Burton and Aldershot particularly stood out. Oliver was a player to count on, much to our own surprise.

Yet still his City future looked bleak. His upturn in form was not yet transferring into consistent displays week in week out, and when the Bantams endured consecutive thumpings at Southend (4-0) and Accrington (3-0) Oliver was singled out by angry away supporters. It was alleged that he reacted badly to personal abuse at Southend by claiming he didn’t care as he wouldn’t be at the club next season. When Jackson put the whole squad up for sale during the summer, Oliver looked a likely leaver.

He was not, it appeared, going to be first choice this season as Guy Branston arrived. Oliver watched the first two games from the sidelines – Lee Bullock picked as centre half for the opening day loss to Aldershot – but was given a chance in game three at Oxford due to injuries. That day at the Kassam Stadium he was outstanding – and he has not missed a match since. Consistency has been found and, far from calling for him to leave the club, we fans now chant his name. At the half way stage of the campaign, Oliver is the runaway candidate to win player of the season and has been nominated for the league’s December player of the month award.

There is an argument to be made that Oliver now has the perfect defensive partner alongside to make him look good. Andrew Davies has undoubted higher level quality, and his return from suspension had coincided with the back four keeping more clean sheets. Just like a year ago under Taylor, Oliver seems to be under instructions to attack the ball when it comes into the penalty area. If he misses an interception or an opposition player gets past him, Davies is then available behind to mop things up. Perhaps it is this approach which underlines why Branston’s City career has not got to plan so far. He is very similar to Oliver in that his strengths are attacking the ball and making quick challenges. Oliver and Branston did not make the greatest combination when they played together earlier in the season, but Oliver and Davies are certainly proving to be a fantastic partnership.

Oliver is unsurprisingly strong in the air, but he’s equally showing that he is useful with the ball on the deck too. Against Shrewsbury he seemed to be a one-man attack repellent, challenging and clearing everything. Surprisingly compared to a year ago, he is also willing to bring the ball out of defence and embark on runs forward. Inevitably this could lead to mistakes if he is tackled in a bad area, but – knowing that Davies is behind him – Oliver seems confident taking slight risks to help launch attacks.

There is no doubting his commitment, or his work ethic.

So what about that Wetherall comparison? Well certainly the two players are slightly different in their style and Wetherall would probably have made for a good partner for Oliver. Of course Oliver is not in the same league ability wise as Wetherall in his prime. But in terms of the gaping hole Wetherall left at City when he retired in 2008, Oliver is a worthy successor in becoming the cornerstone of City’s defence.

For Oliver is only 29-years-old. There is no reason why he cannot continue to play for Bradford City for the next four or five years. He can be the heartbeat of this team, perhaps even the captain. He can follow Wetherall in going down in the club’s history as one of its more highly regarded players. He may not have played much football above League Two level, but there is no reason to believe he wouldn’t be good enough to play a crucial part in a successful promotion and then remain a key member in a League One City side.

2011 was a fantastic year for Oliver. But instead of proving its peak, it might just be remembered as the true beginnings of an outstanding Bradford City career.



Categories: Midweek Player Focus

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