By Joe Cockburn
Bradford City’s defence have had to deal with a heck of a lot this season. Our two first choice centre backs taking serious injuries in one game left just one experienced pro in the squad. It seemed the solution was found in the form of Sunderland youngster John Egan, but he too was struck with an horrific injury. After all that, I think City’s defenders of this season so far deserve particular credit.
James Meredith has been as close to ever-present as you can get, and has to be commended for his Duracell-esque energy. Constantly bombing up and down that left wing would take it out of most players, but Meredith somehow finds it in him to go all game, every game.
His performances, too, have been excellent. The most rounded left-back there has been at Valley Parade in years. An accomplished defender, but also very good when he is bombing forward, having linked up effectively with both Will Atkinson and Kyel Reid, as well as being easily adjustable in that department – supporters may remember him and Zavon Hines combining well for Hines’ first goal in claret and amber, against York.
Meredith is also renowned for liking a tackle, and that is what makes him so effective at dealing with little nippy wingers. He isn’t afraid to cheekily leave his foot in, or follow through a bit, which always makes me laugh when I see him do it, but it works.
He looks like a real find, and having spent his career in the non-league, failing on League attempts, he looks to have really adjusted well. Especially after taking a sideways step from York in the summer…
Rory McArdle is another near-ever-present. Crowned “the busiest footballer in England” by Simon Parker recently, he really has had a marathon to run and some, playing over 48 hours of football.
He started the season playing right back, and looked relatively assured there; but it was always obvious that he was a centre back playing out of position. However, he has really come into his own in his favoured position, proving to the fans he is a strong, confident, commanding centre back, his performances earning him a last-minute call up to the Northern Ireland international squad.
It hasn’t been an easy ride in terms of forming partnerships either, and that is possibly where McArdle deserves the most credit. He has played alongside Andrew Davies, Luke Oliver, Carl McHugh, John Egan, Tom Naylor and Curtis Good; two of those making their English professional debuts – with Egan only having played twice and Naylor eight times previously.
One fault that could be attributed to McArdle is his distribution; too often pumping aimless long balls forward. But then his short passing often goes astray as well. Still, he hasn’t made any fatal mistakes yet, so let’s not grumble.
The stand in sure-footed centre back and, undoubtedly the biggest find this season, has been Carl McHugh. The former Reading centre back has been outstanding, defending admirably against both Wigan and Arsenal, as well as managing to hold off some of the most powerful strikers in the division, including famed big-man Adebayo Akinfenwa, despite his own less-than intimidating size.
McHugh is also extremely comfortable on the ball, something you don’t often find in a youngster. Not afraid to take it into feet, he is sensible and often useful in possession. Not only does he receive the ball well, he is also fantastic at bringing the ball down and getting it on the floor, even when a striker is in close proximity.
Stephen Darby has been truly excellent – even managing a relatively decent performance against Rochdale the other day! He has become Mr. Consistent, not making any mistakes and looking to have truly settled in at effectively his first permanent club.
Having struggled to get in the side at the start of the season with Parkinson preferring the height of Rory McArdle, he has come in and done admirably. You can tell he has played all his football at a higher level.
Darby is primarily a defender, but isn’t afraid to get forward, and when he does, his crossing is good and link up play is effective. Darby is also no slouch, keeping up with all the numerous quick left wingers there are in this division. He is a player for all occasions. Comfortable when the team is playing good passing football, but also surprisingly effective when a team is playing a lot of aerial balls.
That brings us to the loanees. I will say a quick word about John Egan. The Irishman looked the part after signing from Sunderland, paying well in all his three and a half games before his awful injury ended his loan and his season. I hope he would come back to us next season – if we need him that is.
Tom Naylor hasn’t played many games, so few that I have only seen him play twice – our last two games against Accrington and Rochdale. He looks a very confident, assured defender, his composure on the ball and confidence to often go past players is fantastic. Against Accrington he performed very well and handled James Beattie with seeming ease. However one good game is too little to judge from, I think.
Curtis Good has also only made two appearances, both coming in the cup. The only goal conceded in those two appearances came from an unfortunate slip by Good, but apart from that he looked a decent defender in the Brentford game, but again, it is only one game and I can’t judge.
When it comes to goalkeepers, I don’t think we could ask for any better than Matt Duke and Jon McLaughlin at this level. The two are easily interchangeable, and I would be happy for either of them to play. I thought also that the ironic cheers aimed at Duke on Saturday were absolutely out of order. He was barely even at fault for their fourth goal – it was a fantastic header. For a player who may have had his problems last season, Duke has come in this season and looked a different man, and I think the coaching aspect has helped him. All keepers at this level make mistakes, and there are numerous clubs who could only dream of having two keepers of McLaughlin and Duke’s ability.
It could be argued that the defence has improved since the start of the season, despite the loss of our two star performers of last season, Andrew Davies and Luke Oliver. You cannot tell that there is a lack of experience in there, and it must be said that we would be extremely happy with these performances were Davies and Oliver the ones at centre back.
One thing I must mention is the age of the defence. What you have to realise is that none of the six defenders available now are over the age of 25. McArdle is the oldest at 25, with James Meredith 24, Stephen Darby 24, Tom Naylor 21, Carl McHugh 19, and Curtis Good 19 (Jon McLaughlin is also just 25). The confidence and ability that this young defence shows is exceptional, and obviously excluding the loanees, I think it has to be said that in three or four years time, we could have a fantastic defence at Championship level.
It must be said that the ability and performances of this young defence has surpassed expectations, after many fans panicked when Davies and Oliver were put out of action just a few days before Wigan, but it is almost as if they were never here. The Davies-Oliver partnership seems a distant memory now.
I think especially after Rochdale, which was just a bad day at the office all round, the quality of the defending has to be pointed out and highlighted, because we need to remember just how brilliant they have been.