2013/14 season preview: The players’ expectations (1/2)

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By Alex Scott

What do we want from this season? What would we class as a successful year? Our expectations are all over the map. There are the pessimists who would take a death-defying charge to 20th. There are the optimists who think we can fly straight through. And everyone else in between.

What do you want from this season? What would you class as a successful year? Can you be realistic, or even optimistic, without coming across as entitled and spoilt after what we just had? If I say that I’d be underwhelmed by finishing 17th, does that make me a bad person? Personally I’d (greedily) take an uneventful, doomed run at the play offs and be quite content, but with the vast majority of the squad out of contract and a sought-after manager, I’m not sure if that is enough. Or what enough is.

One question we seldom ask is what do they want from the season, the players? Not necessarily for the club, (for some worse fortunes on the field would improve their situation), but personally. Looking at the upcoming year through their eyes, what would they class as a successful year? Where do they want to be in twelve months’ time?

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After the relentlessly fantastic exploits of last season, this summer has been serenely uneventful. No anxiety, no changes, not much of anything really. It’s been great. Most players in the squad we either under contract or were re-upped for another year, with only a handful leaving to a vocally sad but silently content reception. (We’ll always have Wycombe away, Will.)

The upcoming twelve months are set up to be a lot more volatile, with all but five men in the squad entering a contract year. This has been undervalued in the majority of last season’s post-mortems, the absence of insecurity. Not that I think that the relationship between multi-year contracts and players playing and behaving without pressure is causal, in the same way national stability isn’t always brought by authoritarianism. It does have its advantages though.

Last year, they were playing to prove something, to themselves as much as anyone. This year, what are they playing for? For the most part they are playing for their next contract. The majority of the squad are out of contract at the end of the year, and either in, or entering their prime. This is the contract. The contract that sets up their career, and what type, and level of player they will be.

And you know what that means. It is shop window time for the Bantams, with everything to be proven and future dollars to be earned. The rules: I’m rationally approaching this season from the position of each individual player, and their situation, not necessarily what’s best for the team.

Now, starting with the established players…

Stephen Darby and James Meredith are chiselled in stone in the full back slots, with exceptional performances last season allied concretely with essentially no competition. At left back Carl McHugh performed okay filling in, but doesn’t represent a threat to the Australian Meredith. Youth forward Louis Swain and Nathan Doyle have filled in there so far this pre-season in cover, but neither looks a tenable long term option as a reserve.

Pointless statistical interlude: in league games last season, City earned one full point per game more in games James Meredith started compared to when he didn’t. If you extrapolate out his starts over the 46 game season, the team end up 0.2 points behind Gillingham. So yeah, Meredith is fine. Fitness-permitting, he’ll either get a new deal here or a better one elsewhere.

The same is true for Darby and his competition comes in the form of the guy starting inside him. Both have shown the capability to compete at this level, and probably higher. If they can keep fit, and keep doing what they are doing, the future will take of itself be it here or elsewhere.

Rory McArdle is in a similar boat, he’ll be fine, and should be relatively guaranteed of a first team slot alongside Andrew Davies and a new deal come the end of the year. McArdle is new to this tier, although has played in its north-of-the-border proxy, the SPL. A solid run of games for the former Rochdale man, alongside a half decent defensive record, should be enough to earn a new deal.

Davies is in a personally unique position, benefitting from a seldom-seen permanence, with two years to run on his deal and a starting slot waiting. He’s talented enough to star at this level, and will be just about the first name down on the sheet. Staying fit should be enough for the player and the team. If he can play 40 games this season, everyone will be in great shape.

Kyel Reid for the most part is a known commodity. He’s going to play around 30-35 games with about ten or so assists, and maybe a couple of goals here and there. He’ll win a couple of games on his own, and be the side’s outlet on the left on the counter. If he can replicate his form last year, and there is no reason why he shouldn’t, he can continue his career rehabilitation. He seems to have found peace with Phil Parkinson, and the longer he can keep this marriage going, the better. He has the talent to be a Championship winger, but he could be star in League One with a manager that knows how to use him. The rest can wait.

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One would imagine the burden upon the shoulders of Gary Jones would be lessened this season with the arrival of his old partner in crime Jason Kennedy, as well as the returning Doyle and Ricky Ravenhill to take minutes off him. But we thought that last year. Turns out Gary Jones is a robot and cares not for your puny human concepts of rest and fatigue. If he can play 46 games, score a few goals, and make the World Cup squad then he might just meet expectations. I’m not betting against him.

Nathan Doyle is in a different, slightly weird spot. He’s widely acknowledged to be a bit too good for us, even now. After a spell on the sidelines toward the end of the season when his summer exit appeared certain, he triumphantly returned to the team with the side 3-1 down at home in the play offs and staring into the abyss. He wound up changing that game and leading the side to a 7-1 score over the next 200 minutes of football. His re-emergence was the difference in the end. But, to re-emerge you have to have disappeared. And now the side have spent the moderate bucks on Gary Jones’ old flame Jason Kennedy, where does that leave Doyle exactly?

For Doyle to re-sign this summer, you’d imagine some first team assurances were given, but Parkinson’s desire toward meritocracy is long-established. If Doyle can start 30-odd games at a good level, and reposition himself again for another crack at the Championship free agent market next summer, then I’d imagine he’d be content. But if not next year and he remains beneath the second level for the third straight year, the below-his-level midfielder may lose his prefix.

Doyle really should be in the Championship next year, but before he can get there, he needs to play. And he needs to play well.

Beyond the main men that I’ve already mentioned, Phil Parkinson’s summer recruitment has upped the ante again for last year’s starters, who are now left to re-establish themselves, this time as third tier players. When it comes to the summer when the majority are out of contract, negotiating their new deals, a season established in the third tier will make a huge difference. Without it the question will always linger.

Jon McLaughlin took over the number one reins late on last year, for about the fifth time in his career. He was essentially flawless down the stretch and through the playoff run, perhaps… finally… maybe… becoming something. From McLaughlin’s perspective, I imagine he’d have preferred Matt Duke to hang around for another year, as his time of representing a threat to the Harrogate alumnus was long gone. Alas, Duke has moved on and a new competitor is to be recruited. McLaughlin is going to have to prove himself all over again.

This will be the fourth year where McLaughlin has held the number one shirt in the same manner a coatless man holds a bar stool. With an expiring contract and a career yet to properly get going, this season is the next in a long line of make-or-break seasons for Jonny Mac, and if he starts 35 games, regardless of content, this year will probably class as a success.

Re-establishment is going to be a running theme. After a frustrating beginning, Garry Thompson developed into just about the most consistent player in the squad toward the back end last season, especially during Nahki Wells’ mid-season swoon where the former Scunthorpe forward became essentially the team’s most important man. But this year, with Wells still knocking about, and last year’s adversary Will Atkinson replaced with the substantially more intimidating Mark Yeates, Thompson may have again lost his direct route to the first eleven.

Thirty-three in November with a contract winding down, Thompson needs game time if he is to remain in League One come his thirty-fourth birthday. Replicating his numbers from last year with something like 25-30 starts along with 7-10 goals would set him up perfectly going into the summer.

For the purposes of this summary, I’ve grouped Mark Yeates and Jason Kennedy together. They are both new signings, both on two year deals, so their version of success will be more tied to the success of the team than others. Both will be looking to start, but face stiff competition from Reid, Thompson and Doyle for their slots. I’m sure a mid-table finish, an injury-free season, 25-30 starts and getting the fans to embrace them would do both just fine.

James Hanson proved a lot last season. The consensus opinion going into his third season was that he was a solid, if goal-shy League Two centre forward. Someone who you want to keep, but one you were always looking to improve upon.

Last year saw him grow up a level from where he resided previously into a great, if still a tad goal-shy, League Two centre forward. But he now has upside. His performance in the cups, those flashes of quality which began to occur more frequently as the season went on, the goals all pointed to an asset on the rise. Who would you prefer to have as your team’s centre forward heading into this season, Hanson or fellow 6’3 League Two promotion-winning forward Tom Pope? Who has the higher upside? Who can adapt better to this level?

Name

Age

League Appearances

Goals

Goals / Game

10-goal seasons

James Hanson

25

155

43

0.277

3 of 4

Tom Pope

27

245

72

0.293

2 of 6

Which is the better prospect? This is interesting because they are versions of the same player, and have been in the same division for the past four seasons. It’s a fair comparison. The table below is the numbers since Hanson entered the league.

 

Tom Pope

James Hanson

 

Appearances

Goals

Appearances

Goals

2009/10

35

3

34

12

2010/11

31

4

36

6

2011/12

41

5

39

13

2012/13

46

31

46

12

Total

153

43

155

43

James Hanson is entering the next “Biggest Year of His Life”. If he can stay fit, if he can get goals, if he can keep his reputation at the level it is now, he could be in for a (relatively) massive pay day at the end of the season. Even if he merely replicated his career standard 38 games, 12 goals again, he could be on to a winner.

If this doesn’t materialise, Hanson will be typecast as a great League Two player; no shame in that. But if he could just keep it going, if he could keep fuelling that nebulous upside, he could really be on to something.

In part two, Alex looks at some of the squad’s fringe players, plus the Boy from Bermuda.

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