By Luke Lockwood
The season is coming into the final stages and fortunately – if not quite surprisingly – there is still much to be decided.
In previous years this award has often been a foregone conclusion – certainly for the last four – Luke Oliver, David Syers, James Hanson and Luke O’Brien have been the standout contenders. For a long time, it appeared this year would follow suit in how obvious it would be who would win; but following the recent resurgence in form, a number of other candidates have forced their way into contention.
He’s magic, you know! Gary Jones has been the inspirational leader this year and, having finished third as League Two Player of the Season at the recent Football League Awards, he is the overwhelming favourite to take the club honour too. Not much more needs to be said about City’s driving force, but will any of the other contenders manage to get past Gary Jones?
Since starting the season as a decent but not outstanding right back, Rory McArdle has proven himself to be a top class centre half. For me McArdle epitomises the incredible league cup journey. His performances against Arsenal and Aston Villa including, of course, his goal in the semi final are all defining memories. McArdle’s form for City has been so good he was been rewarded with an international call-up, although as he didn’t feature it proved be one one of the few times he’s managed to have a rest this season.
Despite the return of the Andrew Davies and the recruitment of Michael Nelson, the busiest man in football has continued to warrant his place. If consistency is the key to the award then the man who has played more games than anyone must be considered.
Striking fear into the opposition
As Gary Jones had a podium finish in League Two player of the season, less was said about our other two top 10 finishers.
James Hanson has had his critics – not just this year, but throughout his career at City. However, since walking away with player of the season in his first year as a pro, Hanson has been a victim of that success. So much has been expected of him since, it appears that people forget to judge him in context of what he is – a League Two target man.
The fact Hanson has been recognised by opposition managers shows how well he has played in comparison to all other players in League Two. When Tom Pope’s goals dry up, then maybe City fans will appreciate what they have got.
However, Hanson did have a dip mid season and was missing chances that any professional striker should be burying. Simple chances that could have very negative consequences if City do fall short of reaching the play offs.
Hanson’s partner in crime Nakhi Wells has had all the media attention and taken a lot of the plaudits from City’s wonderful season. He has also now passed the 20-goal mark that most fans looked to him to provide, and his return to form of late has been a key reason for the late surge into the play off positions.
Unfortunately, while Hanson lost his form in front of goal, Wells appeared to lose his form and confidence all together, albeit it for a shorter period. In fairness to Wells he was the main goal scoring threat in a side who had seemed to lose their way and become void of all ideas. When City as a team found their way again, Wells duly found his and has certainly been making up for it ever since.
Discovering a gem
Sometimes you don’t realise how much you miss someone until they’re gone. After being struck down by glandular fever, there were doubts whether we would see James Meredith in action again this season. During the period he was out, City’s form fell off a cliff and our promotion hopes looked over. Meredith got himself fit quicker than expected, and his importance to the team was proved by how quickly Parkinson rushed him back into the side.
Having never played regular league football until this year, Meredith has been the find of the season and hopefully a player we can keep hold for the foreseeable future.
Early evidence suggested that Stephen Darby would find first team opportunities difficult to come by this year as McArdle began at right back to accommodate Andrew Davies and Luke Oliver. But after their injuries and the need to move McArdle back into the centre, Darby has taken his opportunity with both hands and proved himself almost undroppable.
Despite having an abundance of talent available to play at centre half, Parkinson has not felt the need to move McArdle to full back again because he now has so much faith in Darby. Rarely will he be a candidate for man of the match, but I can’t remember one occasion where someone has left a game and described Darby as poor. He goes about his business very quietly, but you can have complete confidence in the level of performance you’ll get whenever Darby plays.
This season has had so many good points it is possible to make a case for the majority of the squad. Those above are probably the short list of contenders who are in with a chance, but many of the other squad members deserve to be recognised.
Had you asked me at Christmas time for my Player of the Season I could have answered without hesitation, Nathan Doyle. At this point he was everything that was good about Bradford City – even more so than Gary Jones – but during the final stages of the League Cup run he began to lose his way a little. Perhaps this is down to him not having a full pre season – we can all remember how out of shape he looked at first – and the sheer amount of games City have played might have become too much for him.
I still think Doyle is the best footballer we have at the club and, should we let him go at the end of this season, we are losing a bright, young footballer entering the prime of his career. We must do whatever we can to keep hold of these types of players – players who can takes us forward over the coming years. But I fear – as I did with Dave Syers last year – that we will lose him.
Ricky Ravenhill replaced Doyle after his loss of form and has played like he had a point to prove. He was Parkinson’s man, Parkinson’s captain that would lead us to glory. Sadly, injury ruled him out of the early stages of the season and Jones and Doyle were proving themselves to be the best pairing in League Two.
Unlike Ritchie Jones, Ravenhill patiently waited for his opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. His energy has been a catalyst for the tired bodies to lift themselves and go again for one final push – that’s the sort of player you want in your squad.
Last year when Luke Oliver deservedly swept up all the awards I said that – as good as he had been – it was easy to play next to Andrew Davies. The former Stoke defender is heads and shoulders above anyone at this level, when fit. He wins balls that he just has no right to get, and dominates the most imposing and toughest of centre forwards – I don’t think I have witnessed one battle this year where Davies has come off second best.
Had this man not been injured early on I think all the accolades would be going his way this year.
Zavon Hines/Kyle Reid are both unplayable on their day but – like all wingers at this level – frustratingly fail to produce a level of consistency for a prolonged period of time. Hines tore Premier League full backs apart one week in the League Cup, but would then be anonymous the next. Reid has come to the fore late on, but has failed to live up to the heights of the closing stages from last season.
Gary Thompson/Will Atkinson have both proved their doubters wrong this year. When Parkinson completed the permanent capture of Atkinson, it was not exactly greeted with enthusiasm by City fans. We are a difficult bunch to win over, and the fact that Will has gone from club scapegoat to having chants affectionately sung at him comparing him to Messi show how well he has done. He has been less frequently involved in the latter stages of the season but was key earlier on.
Thompson has been on a similar journey. Following some truly woeful performances earlier in the season and the inability for him to prove himself either as a striker or a winger, it seemed that his spell at Valley Parade would be short lived. But in recent months he has shown himself more than capable in either role and has chipped in with some vital goals.
Probably the young player of the year, Carl McHugh has astounded everyone by his progress after being catapulted into the first team quicker than initially expected. He coped extremely well and appeared comfortable against the Premier League’s finest. Certainly one for the future and hopefully a future with Bradford City.
Matt Duke/Jon McLaughlin – the keepers have shared their shirt over the course of the season and this is because neither keeper has been that outstanding to cement their place, but both have still been consistently good.
It proved what a wonderful season City has had that so many players can be talked about so enthusiastically by us fans. With a maximum of five games to go, most City will have already made up their mind about who they think deserves the player of the award; but unlike recent years we can’t say with 100% confidence until their name is announced.
That is of course until super-sub Alan Connell (I think I’ve mentioned everyone now) comes off the bench at Wembley to score a hat trick, before converting the winning penalty!