By Jason McKeown
It was an unusually baking hot September morning, and at Appleby Bridge a shot from distance was carelessly spilled by the goalkeeper, who was now on the floor helpless to preventing the rebound being smashed home. Ross Hannah did what all good strikers should do by anticipating his opportunity, but could only lift the ball over the crossbar.
“Now that really does surprise me” said a watching Phil Parkinson. “He never misses.”
It is September 2011 and I am stood next to the recently-installed City manager as part of a day shadowing then-Head of Football Development, Archie Christie. As Steve Parkin takes the first team through their paces on another pitch, we are granted 15 minutes in the company of Parkinson as a mixture of reserve, Development Squad and youth players keenly contest a training game. Those 15 minutes hearing Parkinson’s views were hugely illuminating, as he would talk openly and frankly about a number of players.
Back in the present day and, as Hannah departs Valley Parade this week, there are many claiming Parkinson never rated the striker. From personal experience I don’t believe this is the case. Instead, Parkinson talked that day about what an impressive finisher Hannah was. He very much saw Ross – who scored a dramatic stoppage time equaliser against Morecambe in Parkinson’s first game in charge – as a big part of his plans. Unfortunately, Hannah’s move to Valley Parade did not pan out how anyone expected.
Remember what a coup his signing was billed as by Peter Jackson? The number of clubs chasing Matlock hotshot Ross was reckoned to be approaching 19, but somehow City won the fight – Ross signing a few days after watching his new club lose 1-5 to Crewe from a Valley Parade executive box. For a club that had been enjoying some success recruiting non-league players, but for whom that season’s Number 10, Jake Speight, had failed to live up to expectations, Hannah’s goal record and Youtube clips of wonder strikes left us all feeling very excited.
But it never really happened for Ross. A couple of goals against Oxford and Morecambe in the early part of 2011/12 aside, the realisation that he was lacking certain aspects in his game was evident as early as the pre-season friendlies. And when Nahki Wells burst onto the scene to such clinical effect, it was always going to be a tall order for Hannah to get the run of games in the side that he clearly needed.
Perhaps if Hannah had not suffered an injury just before a vital home game with Plymouth in December 2011 things might have been different – up to then he was enjoying a run in the side and playing quite well, filling a hole Parkinson had expected to be taken by Paul Benson – but that injury kept him out over Christmas, and Nahki didn’t look back.
It might have been unfair to compare the two, but with so much of Parkinson’s gameplan hindering on the deployment of a targetman like James Hanson, Hannah was effectively competing with Wells for that starting berth. But while Wells would make darting runs all over the final third of the pitch, tirelessly running onto every Hanson flick, Hannah’s lack of involvement in the team’s build up play has, to me, always stood out as his major failing.
Because as Parkinson said, Hannah doesn’t miss. Give him a chance in the right area of the pitch, and he will more than likely take it. But the trouble is City’s set-up and style of play required much more than sniffing out chances in the box. Hannah could not appear to do what Wells seems to find so natural. Therefore, the door was always going to stay closed unless lots of injuries occurred.
At the same time, I don’t subscribe to the belief that Hannah is not good enough for League Two. I believe that he could do a job for a club in the lower half of this division and score a lot of goals for them. But only if his manager was willing to build the team around Ross – playing to his strengths.
The best comparison would be Michael Boulding at Mansfield in the 2007/08 season. That team was built around Michael, who like Hannah did not get majorly involved with matters outside the penalty area and needed the ball to be played to him in the right way. Boulding scored a hatful for Mansfield, but despite him being their best player it was a set-up that failed. Mansfield were relegated that season.
Boulding moved to Valley Parade in what seemed like a coup, but couldn’t produce the form and goal return when playing with better footballers. And the reason for that was because City did not base their approach around Boulding. He had to adapt, but at times was utterly anonymous in a claret and amber shirt. It’s not that he wasn’t good enough – Mansfield and a whole host of clubs he played for proved that he was – but he was the wrong player for City at that time. Hannah is the same for me, and hopefully he is taking a step back in moving permanently to the Blue Square Premier in order to one day move forward.
There have been plenty of mutterings that Hannah didn’t get a chance at Valley Parade – every winless game this season, it seemed, was greeted by texts and tweets to local radio questioning why Hannah was not playing – but I don’t think you can question Parkinson’s approach on him. Would you seriously rate Hannah above Wells? Or Alan Connell and Garry Thompson for that matter? On Boxing Day Zavon Hines had a superb game up front against Accrington. Even before Andy Gray’s arrival, Hannah was effectively sixth-choice striker.
Hannah is not the first to fail at City and he won’t be the last. There is no shame that it hasn’t worked out for him, and I hope there is no bitterness on his part. Hopefully he will continue at Grimsby where he left off before his successful loan period at Blundell Park came to an end. And hopefully he will ultimately forge a successful career in league football.
And should he do that, expect Parkinson to be amongst the least surprised.