By Jason McKeown
A superb pass sent him away down the right flank. Just inside the penalty area, he cut inside – taking the number three completely out of the game – and weighed up the options. A cross towards one of the three team mates looked the more selfless option, but instead he surprised everyone with a powerful shot at goal from a difficult angle, one which forced the keeper into an impressive save.
Nahki Wells had nearly won Bradford City the game against Southend on Good Friday. Having only being introduced from the bench in the 81st minute, the young striker’s superb cross that set up James Hanson’s equaliser was nearly added to with a late goal. So nearly the hero. A summation of where Wells’ City career stands.
This was supposed to be Nahki Wells’ year. The Boy from Bermuda, who announced his arrival with that Rocket against Rochdale in November 2011. For a club struggling to retain its place in the Football League, the emergence of Wells provided inspiration that was sorely lacking. Gradually Wells was given more and more game time by Phil Parkinson, and the 12 goals he netted in 2011/12 were pivotal in the Bantams’ escape from the drop.
This was supposed to be Nahki Wells’ year. A close season of transfer speculation and concern about agreeing a new deal confirmed the Bermudian’s rise and rise. It took a while to formalise a new contract with the player, one that would keep Wells beyond the end of this season. But when all was settled, he continued to impress. By Christmas Day, Nahki had netted 15 goals from 19 starts and nine sub appearances. City were a top five side, in the semi finals of the League Cup for the first time in its history. People were sitting up and noticing the club. People were noticing Wells.
It is from this point that things began to stall for the 23-year-old, who originally joined the Bantams through the RIASA scheme and spent time in the Development Squad. Just three goals since Christmas (the last one of those on 2 February, over two months ago) and no longer a guaranteed starter. Some say that the attention went to his head. Others argue he stopped doing the things that had made him successful. His manager puts it down to a dip in confidence.
There’s probably an element of truth to all three, but back in January there must have been so much going through his head. Those transfer rumours that emerged last summer did not go away, and it is said that a number of Championship clubs were keeping close tabs on Wells during the first half of the season. The club confirmed there had been one concrete enquiry from the MK Dons. Whispers that reached Width of a Post’s ear suggested Leicester were seriously considering a January bid, perhaps loaning Nahki straight back to us for the rest of the season. In the end they opted for Chris Wood – an altogether different type of striker – and City claim not to have received any firm bids.
Which may not have been such an issue for Wells as it might have two months earlier. One of the chief reasons for his reputation going national was now one of the biggest reasons for wanting to stay – the cup run. Nahki had been a star throughout the journey to Wembley, not least his two-goal burst against Burton Albion in round four that saw City come back from 2-0 to win 3-2. At Wigan in round five, Wells looked outstanding on the Premier League stage. Every inch a player on the way to bigger and better things than League Two.
And against Arsenal, with the world watching on TV, another terrific Wells display. Alongside Hanson, he gave an experienced, world class Gunners’ back four a torrid evening. Playing a key role in the opening goal (he won the free kick that Gary Jones swung over for Garry Thompson to score) and causing panic with his pace and trickery. Had we lost that night, the lack of a semi final with Aston Villa might have seen him depart the club in January with everyone’s best wishes. After all, the budget deficit was not made up at this stage, meaning the club might have welcomed the opportunity to cash in.
Instead, Wells spent the transfer window very much in the public eye – a goal and another all round terrific display against Aston Villa at Valley Parade. Less effective in the second leg at Villa Park, he nevertheless still played a key role in City completing the job. The Bantams were at Wembley, who would want to leave now?
This was supposed to be Nahki Wells’ year, but the bump was coming. As magnificent as the cup heroics had proved, the team’s neglectful league form was best personified by Wells’ performances. The cup final thrashing to Swansea demonstrating that the team – and Wells – could not simply turn it off and back on. Wells was a forlorn figure at Wembley, and the problems in his development were on display. Starved of any kind of service, his failure to go looking for the ball irked. The one guy in the team surely destined to play at a higher level was one of our most disappointing performers. Such a shame. Such a wasteful afternoon.
It was a crossroads in his career. The Nahki Wells that burst onto the scene last season would run and run. A pest to opposition defences as he closed down anyone and everyone. He’d stopped doing that. Perhaps it was by design rather than accident, the next stage of Wells’ development from raw potential to established Football League striker was surely coaching him to conserve his energy for the right places of the pitch and in making runs that would get him and his team goals (how many times last season did we have to sub him early because he was shattered?) But the change from sacrificing himself for the good of the team, to becoming the team’s main man, has been awkward.
“He thinks he is better than he is” was a supporter grumble I heard that has stuck in my mind, the grumble occurring after Wells had refused to chase an over hit pass and berated his team mate instead.
In a different dimension and on a different level, a similar type of stand off occurred with Gareth Bale earlier in the season. Rightly or wrongly, the Spurs wideman began to believe that – like the players he was being placed into the same bracket as, Ronaldo and Arjen Robben – he shouldn’t have to track back and help his full backs. The result was Spurs being left exposed on the counter attack, and the solution from Andres Villa-Boas was to move Bale inside so he wouldn’t need to go back. Use his energy in the right places, and just look at how well Bale is playing.
“He thinks he is better than he is”, that Nahki Wells. What does this mean? It sounds like the beginnings of a cheesy film where the hero goes on some sort of journey – such as leaving a small town to make it as a musician – and is at first ridiculed by a bitter father for dreaming too high. On the one hand we have a manager stating that Wells lacks confidence, on the other certain supporters berate him for possessing too much belief.
If Wells does indeed think he is better than he is, he needs a grounded manager to address that (which he no doubt does), but I don’t want Nahki to believe he is anything less than the best striker in League Two. Because that is what he should be aspiring to be as a minimum. He is a fantastic player: a bag of tricks, pacy and intelligent. We are fortunate to have him play for us, and just like that film narrative he can do more impressive things than lead the line of a League Two team.
Our role should not be to talk him down and complain about his failings, but to support him through a difficult time and to remain on the edge of our seats in anticipation whenever he receives the ball. Prior to January it was win-win with Wells. The better he played, the more City would be winning matches and achieving our aims. If that led to more interest from other clubs, well watch the transfer fee rise and console yourself with the compensation we would receive from losing his services.
The loss of form is lose-lose – the club is struggling to win matches, and the transfer fee is falling. The way things were going prior to this Easter weekend, no one would have been looking to buy him this summer. Which wouldn’t have been a bad thing – another year of Nahki Wells at Valley Parade would be more than welcomed – but only if we were to continue to develop and improve him, rather than allow his short-term dip to become a long-term decline.
It made sense to move Wells out of the firing line over the last few weeks, but for the rest of the season he has to become a regular starter and we have to get him back on form. City have had better strikers than Nahki Wells over the last decade – Dean Windass and Peter Thorne, for example – but we’ve not had a young forward with as much potential as the Bermudian, and we’ve not had such a saleable asset for some time.
He can either become our main man for years to come, or earn us a big transfer fee that can benefit the club. Anything less would be a huge, huge waste.
So we need to go back to win-win. Wells’ cameo against Southend was the Nahki Wells we know and love. We need to be supportive of his efforts to recapture his very best form, and hope he gets back to the level where other clubs think about coming knocking. Not because we want to see him leave, but because a flying Nahki Wells has been proven to lead to a flying Bradford City.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus