Whenever some fans have tried to make the argument that Archie Christie should not have been entrusted with finding players when he was Head of Football Development at Bradford City, the sight of Ritchie Jones racing from box-to-box underlines how commendable the vision and strategy he was trying to implement actually was.
The story of how Jones made it to Valley Parade during the summer was an indictment of the struggles Peter Jackson was having in the role, and the value Christie was providing until he departed the club last November. Jackson needed to recruit a strong midfielder after determining Jon Worthington wasn’t worth a new contract and that Michael Flynn was, at the time, not in his plans. The hunt was not going well.
Not going well because the targets that Jackson had identified were looking for high wages and offered poor long-term value in terms of their age. Gary Jones (34-years-old) at Rochdale and Tommy Miller (then 32, who ended up at Huddersfield Town) topped the list. They were both offered and rejected a salary which was three times more than what Jones eventually signed for.
Christie told us the story that Jackson knew little of Ritchie Jones; a quiet and unassuming midfielder for several seasons with Hartlepool and then last season Oldham. But after the moves for Gary Jones and Miller failed, Jackson acted upon Christie’s recommendation and agreed to sign the 24-year-old, who was out of contract. Like Gary Jones and Miller, Ritchie had offers from League One clubs to rival an approach from City. But Christie was able to sell the potential of the Bantams in moving up the leagues, and he signed a four year contract.
He is tied to City until 2015 – meaning he can either become a key player for many years, or be a saleable asset which can help the club. And while Gary Jones or Miller would have been great players at Valley Parade for this season, their age suggested they did not offer much beyond that and would have come at a much higher cost. Jones had already played over 150 senior games so had experience, but his career still has a long, long way to go.
And what a signing he is proving to be. Luke Oliver might be runaway choice for player of the season and his defensive partner Andrew Davies will no doubt take the silver gong, but after them no one has been as effective and consistent as Jones. In recent weeks especially, he has time and time again proved to be City’s best player. He was arguably man of the match in the previous two home games, and was by some distance our strongest performer at Dagenham on Saturday.
It perhaps didn’t look so encouraging initially, with Jones’ first few games offering only limited glimpses of the ability he possesses. He suffered a bad injury in pre-season which put him behind his team mates fitness and sharpness-wise, but once he got a run in the team his potential became apparent. Christie told us that Jones was signed to help get the club into the Championship over the duration of his four-year deal, rather than someone who would become surplus to requirements if and when City move up a division. Certainly his performances this season have been that of a player capable of playing at a higher level.
Jones has great energy levels and work rate. He is adept at protecting the back four alongside Ricky Ravenhill and – earlier in the season – Flynn. It is a superb sight to watch Jones picking up the ball from deep and driving forwards. He is very effective at tackling and clever at picking out the right pass.
Weaknesses? Well it would be good to see more from Jones in the final third. Whether it is due to the discipline of playing a deeper role instructed by Parkinson, or a slight lack of confidence, he looks reluctant to enter the opposition penalty area or make late runs into the box. The fact he has scored just 11 goals from 167 career appearances suggests attacking has never been his strength. But memories of the superb manner he struck his one and only City goal, at Port Vale earlier in the season, suggests he has the capability to become a bigger goal threat than he has shown so far.
Yet even without this development, there is no doubting his worth to the team. When everyone is fit, you wonder if Parkinson would necessarily start with Jones – a suspicion added to by the baffling decision to substitute him at Dagenham on Saturday, which back-fired on the manager – but the form of the former Manchester United trainee over the past few weeks should ensure he is one of the first names on the team sheet for the moment.
Over time, I’d like to think that David Syers and Jones can be the two players Parkinson builds his team around. They are both at such a great age of having a decent level of experience, but with their peak years still to come. If Jones can continue to develop his defensive awareness, his solidness can give Syers licence to roam – with both players covering every blade of grass between them.
Jones was a superb piece of business by Christie, and such a transfer approach provides a blueprint that we should be looking to copy over this summer.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus