In an unassuming and quiet manner which appears to befit the man, Jon McLaughlin marked a new personal best during Bradford City’s impressive weekend victory over Torquay United.
The 17th consecutive start McLaughlin made for the Bantams is the longest uninterrupted run in goal he has enjoyed during one season since joining three-and-a-half years ago. And with Matt Duke departing on loan to Northampton on Monday, it would appear Jon’s position at the club truly reflects the number which appears on the back of his shirt.
Not that being Bradford City Number One for this season looked likely for McLaughlin last summer. Along with Luke Oliver, Michael Flynn and Robbie Threlfall, it appeared as though the Edinburgh-born stopper’s days at the club were numbered. A nasty bout of food poisoning left McLaughlin recovering in hospital instead of being involved in pre-season friendlies, while then-manager Peter Jackson invited a clutch of goalkeeper trialists to attempt to win a contract at Valley Parade. In the end Martin Hansen and Oscar Jansson arrived on loan as the season began, with McLaughlin apparently firmly out of the picture.
Hansen struggled to impress, Jansson showed greater promise; but as Phil Parkinson replaced Jackson, a permanent goalkeeper was preferred and Duke arrived on a two-year contract. McLaughlin was by now back in training, but facing up once more to being Number Two at Valley Parade – a regular occurrence since he arrived from Harrogate Town in 2008.
Duke failed to command confidence almost from the word go and displayed a worrying tendency to be beaten easily from long range, which resulted in opposition teams clearly targeting this weakness. Duke wasn’t much better dealing with crosses and – although the defence in front of him struggled early season – as the back four improved, the spotlight glared brighter upon the former Hull keeper’s form. A mistake in gifting Cheltenham the winner at Valley Parade in November was one too many.
Enter McLaughlin at Sheffield United in the JPT, catching the eye in a similar way to when he made a first genuine stake for the Number One jersey under Peter Taylor at Burton Albion in April 2010 – by his penalty saving ability. McLaughlin was the hero of a nail-biting shoot out after making three saves. A run in the team was his reward.
McLaughlin has kept the Number One shirt ever since, and Duke’s search of first team football at Sixfields illustrates how well he has performed over these 17 games. Yet there is very little fuss made of McLaughlin and he rarely seems to get the plaudits other City keepers have enjoyed in the past. Rotherham in January apart, there have been no serious mistakes made. McLaughlin just quietly gets on with the job.
He is a solid if unspectacular goalkeeper. Beyond his heroics from penalties, there isn’t anything that especially jumps out as to what McLaughlin is fantastic at – but also little obvious weaknesses to his game. In that regard he reminds me of Gary Walsh, who like McLaughlin was a solid shot stopper and commanding of his area. Capable of the occasional costly misjudgement; but someone who will pretty much always give you a steady 7 out of 10, if not higher.
In recent weeks I can recall McLaughlin making two or three decent saves almost every match, and only getting beaten by strikes he had little chance of keeping out. No clean sheet since Boxing Day is a worry for the keeper and the defence, but he is letting no one down.
Having such a long run in the team is significant. After that man of the match performance under Taylor at Burton in 2010, McLaughlin was entrusted for the final few games of that season and made Number One for the 2010/11 campaign. But after a few average displays in which his confidence seemed to drop, Taylor brought in Lenny Pidgley to give McLaughlin a breather in October 2010. For the rest of the campaign neither keeper impressed sufficiently when playing to nail down an undisputable starting spot. McLaughlin ended the season with a nightmare performance in a 5-1 home defeat to Crewe.
There became a feeling that – at 24-years-old – McLaughlin wasn’t yet ready to have a sustained run in the team, because he didn’t quite possess the mental strength to recover from individual mistakes – therefore meaning he’d have to be taken out of the firing line from time-to-time. When McLaughlin had a poor game at Rotherham this season, you feared the same thing might happen again. But credit to Jon, he retained his confidence and composure at Watford the game after to perform very well, and has continued in this manner over the last few weeks.
Is McLaughlin the best goalkeeper in League Two? Not at this moment, but then that’s not really the point. City have a competent keeper to help them through the here and now of avoiding relegation – while at the same time being in a position to develop him for the future. Develop was supposed to be the buzz word of this season but, other than Nahki Wells at this moment, younger players are not getting their chance due to the difficult circumstances.
Almost four years at the club, McLaughlin represents something of an investment. A goalkeeper picked up on the cheap by Stuart McCall, with an eye on the future. He’s had to bide his time, and the path to a run in the first team hasn’t always run smoothly. But not only is McLaughlin now the undisputed Number One for this season, his continuing development could mean he holds this title at Bradford City for many years to come.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus