By Jason McKeown
As if yet another indication were needed of the feel-good factor that abounds around Valley Parade, it can be found in the news that Zavon Hines has left Bradford City after Phil Parkinson opted against offering him a new contract.
It’s not unusual for players to be released from the club during the close season, but typically they do so under varying levels of supporter criticism for their performances in claret and amber. There may be a debate to be had on Hines’ short-comings – he would not be leaving, of course, had he been considered good enough for the heightened challenges of next season – but you’d need to have a heart of stone to wish him anything but the best for the future and he departs under a flood of good luck sentiments from supporters.
One of our own through being part of one of the club’s greatest-ever seasons, for his contribution Hines will be fondly remembered.
It was at Park Avenue’s Horsfall Stadium that City supporters got their first glimpse of former West Ham winger Hines. Part of a Bradford City XI in the club’s final pre-season friendly, last August, the keenness to keep his potential signing under wraps necessitated his name appearing on the team sheet as ‘A Trialist’. WOAP’s own Joe Cockburn reported of Hines that, “The class of playing at a higher level was evident, and he stood out amongst many average performances. He played with the pace and flair of Omar Daley, but with an end product and very little waste. He would be a coup if we managed to sign him.”
Hines was the final piece in a wideman jigsaw that Phil Parkinson had built to evolve from the previous season’s over-reliance on Kyel Reid. For the first time since the days of an on-song Omar Daley and Joe Colbeck causing havoc under Stuart McCall, we had two genuine out-and-out wingers. In the first few games Hines and Reid occupied each side of the pitch and some brave attacking football resulted in some impressive early season victories. Parkinson’s reputation for being Peter Taylor Mk II was being erased.
A 4-0 thrashing at Rotherham – City far too open in still deploying Reid and Hines in a tough away fixture – offered the first doubts over whether it could work. But it was only a part of that wideman jigsaw anyway, and it led to the increased involvement of Garry Thompson and Will Atkinson. It was soon clear that in these four players Parkinson basically had two sets of pairings. Thompson and Atkinson lacked the pace and directness of Reid and Hines, but offered greater defensive ability that meant City could effectively play with three in the middle when not in possession.
The right-sided Thompson and left-sided Reid, or the right-sided Hines and left-sided Atkinson (though Atkinson could also play on the right just as effectively), these were the partnerships. Although Reid and Hines could play on each side of each other and the same was true of Thompson and Atkinson, the balance was never quite the same. So it was Thompson with Reid or Atkinson with Hines. By and large, the game-time of one wideman was dependent not just on their own form, but their partner’s.
When Reid got a bad injury in early October at Rochdale, Hines had the chance to press home his advantage. He came on as sub for Reid that night and struggled badly, but he was playing on his less comfortable side, the left wing. Parkinson moved Atkinson to the left from then on and Hines enjoyed a run of games on the right. Quickly, he began to produce his best form.
In fact Hines at times looked a better player than Reid. He spent less time dribbling down blind alleys or shooting wildly wide – that is Reid on a bad day – and more time tracking back and helping team mates. One of his most memorable traits was his slide tackling, which often succeeded in not just winning back possession but leaving the tackled opponent on the floor dumbfounded. They clearly weren’t expecting such work-rate and desire.
Reid returned in mid-December but was not able to stamp down a place in the side. He seemed slow rediscovering his mojo, and though Thompson – the autumn victim of Reid’s injury in the sense Atkinson was given much more game time – was improving, Hines returned at Christmas, after a month out injured, to enjoy another strong run in the side. This period included the two semi final legs against Aston Villa. In both games, Hines absolutely terrorised his full back. The first City goal in both ties coming from set pieces that his brilliant work had earned.
For Hines, alas, this high watermark was the beginning of the decline. As City struggled for league form before and after the Wembley match with Swansea, Hines’ performances were equally up and down. The penny finally dropped with Reid after a woeful performance at Plymouth, and he came roaring back to earn his place as the team’s out-and-out winger – a decision made easier for Parkinson by the outstanding performances of Thompson on the other side. Hines and Atkinson got used to the bench.
There was at least one more big contribution from Hines. A dismal first half team performance against Southend on Good Friday saw much of the anger fall upon Hines. Parkinson later admitted he merited being substituted, but Hines to his credit kept going and scored a goal that put the Bantams back into the match. James Hanson netting a late equaliser. Amazingly Hines only started one more game for City – Cheltenham on the final day of the regular season. Yet that 2-2 draw against Southend was the spark that saw City hit top form and reach the play offs. Without Hines’ goal that day, promotion might never have happened.
But Reid and Thompson were two of the best performers of the run-in, and Hines was left waiting for chances from the bench. He was there for the celebrations in the play offs at Burton and then at Wembley when promotion was sealed, but his role had been marginalised to that of a supporting cast member rather than one of the stars. The club was already leaving him behind.
I really enjoyed watching Hines in a City shirt. There was always such a stark honesty to his performances, and whatever his failings they were not a lack of effort. When on form he tormented opponents and had us on the edge of our seat. His departure is sad, but there should be no feeling of him letting anyone down.
Ultimately, Hines helped to take the club forwards and for that he will always be appreciated. It’s just unfortunate, for him, that the club moving forwards means that we have to leave him behind.