The Midweek Player Focus #13: Nahki Wells

For this week’s Midweek Player Focus, Width of a Post is delighted to welcome the highly talented Alex Scott from Concentrate on the League, who looks at the fledgling career of the Boy from Bermuda. Enjoy.

Nahki Wells has always fascinated me. It began with his atypical arrival at Valley Parade; a twenty-one year old Bermudan named Nahki inherently carries greater intrigue than most. Recommended by Mark Ellis after a short spell at Carlisle, Wells typified the club’s new recruitment strategy focusing on young players with upside, and after nine months he alone has managed to bridge the gap to the first team.

A recent spell on the sidelines was broken on Good Friday as an imperious Wells led from the front in one of the team’s most convincing wins of the season, showcasing all the attributes which have transformed him into Bradford City’s hottest property.

I first saw Wells in a pre-season friendly at Silsden. Bagging a brace he stood out, linking well with now-forgotten penalty hero Nialle Rodney. Running in behind the non-league defence early and often, he exhibited an understanding of the position and intelligence which belied his age. This aspect of his game has only improved as the season has progressed. His movement to break in front of his man and flick the ball into the net against Gillingham was subtle but striking for someone widely labelled as ‘merely’ a track star.

As bizarre as it sounds, Wells has only completed three league games at this point of his nascent career. Commonly tagged as an impact sub, his exposure to the starting eleven has been limited. This shouldn’t be taken as a slight; nobody was expecting anything at the beginning of the season. Signed amongst a glut of young up-and-comers, he was earmarked for a squad role at best in this, his first full season in English football.

His first league goal came in the halcyon days of Colin Cooper in late August. Thrust on toward the end of a game relatively in hand, Wells only needed a couple of minutes before picking up the ball on the edge of the area, bewitching a Barnet defender before slotting home past the frozen Bees goalkeeper. A wonderful goal. Given this was his second appearance, striving to impress his new manager; his composure under that pressure should have indicated we had something special. That indication solidified a couple of months later with his preposterous thunderbolt against Rochdale. The confidence, the swagger of Wells has been evident ever since he exploded onto the scene, an invaluable attribute at a club sorely lacking in both.

As a player he is still raw, no doubt. But there is something about him. The way he plays exudes confidence, a charisma not apparent in most players. I’ve previously drawn parallels between Wells and players like Wigan’s Victor Moses and Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha. Whilst different types of forwards, each of them are exhilarating, explosive, but still searching for their identity. They are often wasteful, but they make you feel something. Whenever the ball is at their feet, stadiums are transfixed. It may often result in an overly ambitious snapshot over the bar, or an overly intricate jinking run down a blind alley, but you can’t look away.

The only City player who compares in the regard is Kyel Reid. But Reid, a far more rounded player at this point, is counter-intuitively hamstrung by his consistency. A conventional winger, and an elite one at this level, Kyel Reid stars within the confines of his role in the system, whereas Wells’ unpredictability affords him the freedom to flourish outside of it. The fact his end product and decision making are inconsistent only adds to his allure.

Whilst not as powerful as Reid or even Omar Daley, Wells’ pace stands apart over recent seasons at Valley Parade. Over ten yards I’m not sure I’ve seen a player as fast. That facet of his play is invaluable. On a basic level, his inclusion means his team always have an out ball. Pump it into the green, let Nahki chase it and we’ll buy a throw-in and some field position. Not exactly cultured, but it is what it is. But the deeper you look, the more apparent his effect becomes.

His pace requires the opposing defence to drop deeper. They have to. As a result, whenever he picks up the ball, he already has a yard of space to try something, or find support. At the same time, James Hanson can drop off into the newly-formed gap between defence and midfield, making it far easier for City to find their target man and for him to search out a second ball. Rather than some intangible kinship between the two, this is what I see as the reason behind their effective strike pairing. Affording Hanson that extra breathing room makes him a far more influential forward in this system. This effect was especially evident in Good Friday’s victory over Southend, with both Hanson and Wells putting in dominant displays.

The stretching of the field by his mere presence grants the rest of his team more space to work, it is no coincidence their best performances have come with him on the field. He’s magnetic. Be it opposing defenders, supporters, teammates, we are all drawn to him. Nahki Wells plays the game with a rare charisma, from his swivelling turns to his energetic bursts. He looks like he is having fun without sacrificing his resolute urgency. He has already shown the ability to lift a team and inspire a crowd. He is a beacon.

Over recent weeks Wells has adopted the ‘fan favourite’ tag after the loaning out of previous owner Ross Hannah. However a large part of this phenomenon is something of a passive aggressive acting out by the City fan base, demonstrating their discontent with the manager. Every Wells appearance from the substitute bench bebibbed prompts spirited applause throughout the stadium. Whilst partly down to his talent, the primary reason has been an inverse boo of the manager.

Parkinson’s opinion of Wells has exhibited mistrust throughout. Even during the spell over Christmas in which Hanson and Wells were partnered together (the most successful spell of the season); it felt like Parkinson was reticent to accommodate the Bermudan, a feeling vindicated by him attempting to replace Wells not once, but twice with experienced loanees as the season developed. Parkinson’s reasoning behind this is clear, but confounding. His assertion of Wells being an impact sub seems one based on rationalism rather than empiricism. The same is true of his belief in the primacy of experience, signalled by the recent exclusion of Wells, David Syers and Ritchie Jones.

The predominant frustration around Valley Parade has been around the manager’s perceived overly cautious approach. I feel rather than being defensive, Phil Parkinson is being damned by his own logic. Every decision he has made can be justified by a cold, detached reasoning, but that is inhibiting his team’s performance. This is no better personified than by the exclusion of Nahki Wells.

Every player in this team has a fatal flaw, otherwise they wouldn’t be here; they would be in the Championship. With everything Wells brings to the table, criticising his erratic decision making and inconsistency is a feat of nit pickery. More than that, as I have already fawned, these weaknesses somehow make him more intriguing, more fascinating. He stars in each of the three facets of a footballer; the technical, the physical, and the mental. Consistency and intelligence only develop with playing time, and Phil Parkinson’s restriction of that to incorporate loanees frustrates. If he can continue his development and stay injury free into next season, an Emile Sinclair-type future may beckon.

The argument that Nahki Wells is already one of the club’s most important players is surprisingly easy to make. (52.16 mins/goal with him on pitch, 100.46 mins/goal without; 11 games scoreless without him on the pitch; 1.36 points/game when he starts, 0.87 when he comes on as sub, 0.85 when he doesn’t feature.) But all these stats do is reinforce what we all see on the pitch, that the team is far more dangerous with him in it.

On his playing attributes alone, he has the chance to become something exceptional, but his true value lies outside of that. The enthusiasm. The swagger. The determination. The effect his confidence and willingness has on the rest of the club, from players to fans. His talent makes him great, his character makes him special. I don’t know what system I would incorporate him in, but I know he would be a focal point.

Phil Parkinson decided to start him on Good Friday based on the matchup (Southend’s high line), but going into next season #21 should be looking to establish himself in the starting line-up each and every week.

This year has been a trying one for Bradford City with the consensus being that the club has stagnated, if not regressed. However with Wells, Hanson, McLaughlin, Syers (contract permitting), Reid and Jones, there is an exciting young core being assembled. It may contradict the perception of most, but throughout his career Phil Parkinson has shown a willingness (and a talent) for developing young players, and maybe, whisper it, the arrow could finally be pointing up. The precocious talent and eternal enthusiasm of Nahki Wells hint at a future which we are only scratching the surface of, and his maturation alongside the rest of him teammates next season could be something to behold.

I can’t wait.

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