By James Storrie
With the speculation surrounding Phil Parkinson’s future casting a cloud of media headlines, it has almost slipped under the radar that we may not just be facing the unwelcome prospect of losing a manager, but also a number of players that have produced a season of monumental memories. Memories that I’m sure none of us will forget in a hurry.
Not that this is in any way a negative. For the record, I will be glad when Parkinson’s future is sorted and we can look to build for next season, which will be an unwanted stat of the club’s seventh season in the bottom tier of English football. The season that promised so much but delivered in different ways is coming to an end.
The few brilliant months back in August and September that saw opposing teams brushed aside with ease particularly at Valley Parade seems like an eternity ago. The likes of Barnet and A.F.C Wimbledon were examples of just how ruthless the team could be at times, with both dispatched with consummate ease. Those were some of the highlights of the season and, alongside it, swept a wave of optimism that this was finally the season that the club would break the constraints of mid-table mediocrity and power their way out of League Two.
The next few months brought some tremendous highs and lows; the defeat to local neighbours Rotherham was particularly disappointing and, for the first time, raised a few small questions over the validity of the promotion push. These questions and niggling doubts only grew again when we failed to see off Rochdale at Spotland, despite having a numerical advantage and the majority of the play.
This is something that has repeated itself over the course of the season; in particular the visit of high flying Port Vale stands out; as the Valiants were comprehensively outplayed and outclassed by a rampant City side that day, yet remarkably came away with all three points. The failure to kill these teams off was critical, despite the style of play encouraging those fans who attended such games.
It is hard to find fault with the players that Parkinson brought in last summer; and many of those signings have gone on to be the best we’ve had in their respective positions since our fall to the fourth tier. The likes of Thompson, Connell and Atkinson have all played their part producing some fantastic moments, individually and collectively. From Connell’s glorious lob away at Accrington to Thompson and Atkinson’s running down of the clock in those nerve jangling last few minutes at Villa Park.
The likes of Meredith and Darby have been outstanding in their consistency. Both are the closest thing to the complete full back at this level. For example, when was the last time you heard anybody mention former favourite Simon Ramsden around these parts?
Gary Jones has continued to defy all possible logic in his athleticism and his desire, drawing acclaim from not only the fans but opposing managers as well. The Aldershot manager labelled him the best midfielder in League Two “by a stretch” after their recent visit. The sight of Jones and mascot Jake Turton was one of the great feel good moments of the whole football season and the youtube video that captures Jones’s reaction on the referee’s whistle at Villa Park is well worth a watch for how much it meant to not only him but an entire city.
Jones’ midfield partner Nathan Doyle has impressed again on his second stint at the club. Despite becoming less influential over recent weeks, maybe due to tiredness, it is rare to see a midfielder of his calmness and passing ability plying their trade at League Two level. The cross field pass to Kyel Reid who went on to rifle the ball home against Morecambe was an insight into the ability he possesses. He and Jones looked unstoppable together in those first few weeks and months.
Another player who seems to have suffered with the unprecedented number of games played is Nahki Wells, whose form has dropped off also. Like the situation Parkinson is in now, Wells started the season under the cloud of having a contract offer that was very much in the public eye. The club were very bold in their desire and almost desperation to keep Wells; and rightly so, as throughout the season he has demonstrated that he can do things that no other striker at the club can. Wells possesses all the traits that defenders hate whilst also having unpredictability and rawness that can excite and frustrate in equal measures. Who else could have scored the bullet against Burton Albion or the breakaway run at Aldershot?
James Hanson, whilst not returning quite the amount of goals as he has in other seasons, has improved considerably in his all round play. He will surely be attracting attention from higher division suitors.
The list goes on due to the sheer quality of the squad. For example I haven’t even mentioned the class of Andrew Davies or the amazingly consistent Rory McArdle. Or the staggering progress of a player like Carl McHugh, who came from nowhere to become one of the stories of the season. On a side note I am becoming convinced that my Sky box now groans “what again?” as I replay the moment he powers home Gary Jones’s corner at home to Villa.
However this is the problem. The majority of the players mentioned, bar Hanson and Wells, are out of contract in a few short months. And with Parkinson’s future the priority, how many of these players will be lured away from the club? The amount of attention and interest that the club’s efforts in the League Cup was worldwide, and will surely mean that a lot of managers will have their eyes set on snatching some of the club’s leading lights away, regardless of their contract situation.
Every player has a fee. Even the contracted Hanson and Wells both demonstrated that they could mix it with the big boys, and Dean Saunders’ comments on Sky about how he rates Wells as the best forward in League Two showed that his exploits this season have not gone unnoticed. It will be hard to stop the players that have served us so well leaving and a few most certainly will. There is little the club can do to stop players from wanting to test their ability in higher divisions.
This is why the club have to act quickly to keep Parkinson, and the rumours of him signing on the dotted line this week are a welcome relief. Parkinson can then look to start negotiations with the players he wants to keep and also the ones that are up for another promotion challenge in League Two. Because the majority of our out of contract players definitely won’t be short of options after the season finishes, following the trip to Cheltenham on 27 April.