The Midweek Player Focus #2: Craig Fagan

Jack Compton was the talk of the half time Gents queue at Vicarage Road on Saturday. 2-1 down and with the rest of the Bradford City team struggling to provide sufficient service to the front two, the decision by Phil Parkinson not to offer the on-loan Falkirk winger the deal he wanted – though Compton has hinted via Twitter he may yet re-sign for the club – is argued by some to be a major mistake. The pre-match plan to test Watford’s rookie goalkeeper Jonathan Bond by launching testing crosses into the box was failing to come to fruition. Questions were being asked of City’s two wide players.

Craig Fagan – playing on the right – has in recent weeks become an increasing source of frustration to us supporters. I include myself in that group: the number of occasions that he’s received possession in a decent area and failed to make the most of it has become irritatingly frequent. Fagan is undoubtedly the club’s best-known player outside of Valley Parade and has a pedigree that commands above average expectations. His first few months have seen him struggle to live up to them.

When he was signed by Parkinson, barely a fortnight after taking over as manager, it looked like a major coup for the club (indeed, at the time the official website described it as a “sensational swoop”). Here was a player who only 18 months earlier was playing Premier League football for Hull City. He had first come to our attention back in 2005 when impressing for Parkinson’s Colchester United. Soon after he moved on and become a well-known Championship player, first with Hull and then Derby. A return to East Yorkshire in 2008 saw him play a sizeable role in Hull’s two-year Premier League adventure.

Only a bad injury curtailed his career in the top two divisions when he was released this summer. But still when he rocked up at Valley Parade the suspicion was that – as soon as he rediscovered his fitness and form – Fagan would shortly return to bigger and better things elsewhere.

The initial signs were certainly promising. Fagan’s full debut at Burton saw him lead the line superbly alongside James Hanson. A week later, the 29-year-old netted his first goal with the winner against Torquay; a match that saw the Bantams reduced to 10 men with 70 minutes to play and Fagan deployed on his own up front. When in the following home game Fagan netted an important penalty to defeat Northampton, the one-year deal seemed an extremely promising arrangement for club and player.

However, instead of further improving from the added sharpness of playing each week, form began to dip. The 1-0 defeat at Macclesfield that followed the Northampton victory was the first time Fagan genuinely disappointed. Rather than making his presence felt, Fagan the striker became increasingly quiet. Perhaps it was because he has never been a great goalscorer – just 48 in 294 career games to date – but it became increasingly apparent that Parkinson needed someone more prolific to spearhead his attack.

So Fagan was moved to the wide right position, and though he wasn’t brilliant against Watford – Championship opposition who we might have expected him to look at home competing against – he has previously performed effectively in this new role. In particular, the two home games over Christmas saw Fagan make a key contribution during the consecutive victories. His quality is evident in his first touch and composure on the ball.

It’s important to note that Fagan does not appear to have been asked to play as an out-and-out-winger. He does not possess the pace or the dribbling ability of Compton or Kyel Reid. Instead, he is performing as a wide central midfielder, with the aim of acting as an extra body in the centre of the park when City don’t have the ball – so that the two central midfielders are not out-gunned. When the Bantams are in possession, Fagan is required to take up good positions and to whip the ball into the box. The success of achieving this comes from finding sufficient space, and also from how effective his team mates prove at finding him.

Chris Mitchell was asked to play this role at the start of the season, while Ritchie Jones was also tried out during October. It is a big change from the traditional tactics of City playing two out-and-out wingers, which over recent years has proven limited in its success – particularly at home. Fagan would appear to be the ideal person to perform this role, but won’t always receive thanks for it.

For this wide midfield position is one which is rarely appreciated in the stands, well-versed in seeing wingers take on their full back and whip the ball into the box quickly. Dean Windass was the first player I personally witnessed in this wide midfield position – back in the early days of the Premier League. Paul Jewell seemed to be trying to ensure City weren’t hammered in the first few games by remaining compact in the middle, but as Windass struggled to impress as a wide right midfielder it appeared his days at the club were numbered.

A struggle to impress Fagan may be able to relate to. He is performing a successful role in the team that – by and large – will be valued by his manager and team-mates. But if his ambition is still to play higher up the divisions than League Two, it is dubious whether he will be able to make enough of an impact to get himself in the shop window when his deal runs out in the summer. If Fagan is happy performing at this club and willing to continue rebuilding his career here, it might not matter. But with Parkinson still searching for another forward to compete with Hanson, Nakhi Wells and Ross Hannah, it appears as though the days of Fagan the Bradford City striker are numbered.

Ultimately, the task for Parkinson in filling the hole vacated by Compton until Reid returns from injury has nothing to do with Fagan and the type of role he plays. But if the supply line from the left winger spot – currently occupied by Charlie Taylor, who is struggling to convince – continues to dry up, the spotlight will remain intense upon Fagan and his relative value to the team.

Wherever Fagan sees his long-term future, Parkinson’s objectives for him at City during the second half of the season should be clear. Fagan’s quality is not in doubt, and on his day there should be few League Two players who can match what he is capable of. So how can Parkinson ensure Fagan brings even more to the role he is performing on the right, for the greater good of the team? And in what way could Fagan be entrusted with greater responsibility to go with the captain’s armband that he’s been wearing recently?

Fagan is too good a player to go about his business quietly, attracting few headlines. As the team hopefully continues to progress over the coming weeks, more will be needed from him in order to take City onto the next stage.

Categories: Midweek Player Focus

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