By Jason McKeown
Just shy of two years after first joining a struggling Bradford City on loan from a League One side, Ricky Ravenhill’s latest career move has mirrored his previous one in heading to the bottom of League Two, this time Northampton Town, on a month’s loan. At Valley Parade he has been written off before and come storming back, so for the time being Width of a Post will hold off declaring the last rites on Ravenhill’s time at City.
Nevertheless, Ravenhill’s temporary move to the side that the Bantams defeated at Wembley, to earn promotion, is another positive sign that the old curse has been broken. During the club’s post-millennium slump from the Premier League to the basement division, it was a common occurrence to see under-performing players be replaced by inferior footballers, who in time would be replaced with even worse ones. Financial struggles and dismal results contributing to an ever-falling of standards that saw the club go from Ashley Ward to Barry Conlon to Scott Dobbie. A pattern mirrored across the first XI. Even if a manager was able to bring in better, these players would either fade away or go onto better things, offering only a short-term boost.
Yet Ravenhill – along with Nahki Wells and Andrew Davies – represented the start of a reversal of that decline: players who were not only better than what else was in the building, but able to have a meaningful impact on the club’s long-term fortunes (and in Wells and Davies’ case, bringing out the best of their partners, James Hanson and Luke Oliver). When Ravenhill rocked up from Notts County in November 2011, Phil Parkinson had Michael Flynn, Ritchie Jones, Lee Bullock and Chris Mitchell at his disposal. The first three proven players at League Two level, but unable to provide the ball-winning element that, without, made City’s central midfield relatively easy to bypass.
In what had become a relegation scrap, Ravenhill was a vital signing. A poor debut against Rotherham quickly forgotten, the next five league games resulted in a season-changing three wins and two draws. The plaudits went to others – a feature of Ravenhill’s time at the club – but his influence was huge. It was a no-brainer to make the deal a permanent one that January.
It would be fair to say that Ravenhill’s City career has not gone in the way he would have wanted. An understated hero in the club’s successful 2011/12 relegation battle and appointed club captain during the summer, it all looked promising for 2012/13, as Ravenhill quickly formed a useful-looking pre-season partnership with summer arrival Gary Jones. But a bad injury at Guiseley saw him ruled out of the season’s start, and he eventually returned with two words on everyone’s lips: Nathan Doyle.
Would Doyle have been recruited had Ravenhill not been badly injured pre-season? Perhaps, but even if so, the two-way battle to partner Jones would have been a fairer fight had Ravenhill been fit, instead of Doyle getting such a big head start. When fit, the club captain was consigned to the sidelines most of the time. For Ravenhill, the joy of nights like Arsenal and Aston Villa will have been slightly dampened by the splinters in his backside from sitting on the bench.
Yet however he felt privately, in public his attitude appeared superb. A week after Swansea City tore through a static-looking Doyle and Jones at Wembley, Ravenhill got his chance against York City as an out-of-sorts Doyle lost his place. He took it with both hands.
The grit and determination needed to reverse a season drifting to mid-table mediocrity was found within many players, none more so than Ravenhill. He is no Doyle for sure, and cannot spray the ball around as majestically; but for grit and determination, Ravenhill became vital in winning the midfield battles that a fatigued Doyle had been losing for weeks. Sitting in front of the back four, Ravenhill’s positioning enabling the age-defying Jones to push forward even more. The result was a successful late surge to the play offs. Ravenhill was desperately unlucky to be dropped for the second leg against Burton (far from our worst performer in that wretched first leg). Given how well Doyle played at the Pirelli Stadium, it was certain that he would keep his place for the final at the expense of Ricky.
Two appearances at Wembley in one season for Bradford City, two bench-warming duties for Ravenhill.
Once the will-he-won’t-be saga of Doyle’s future was resolved during the summer, the writing on the wall was ultimately there for Ravenhill. There would be a place for Ravenhill in City’s squad for a good couple of years if he wanted it, but the role would not feature a great deal of first team action. You’re a long time retired from football, and so Ravenhill understandably wants to find first team action elsewhere before he permanently moves to the sidelines.
And the Valley Parade landscape around him, from joining, is so much changed from two years ago. Michael Flynn was an improvement on the technically proficient but underachieving Paul McLaren, but Ravenhill was a further improvement on the Welshman. As Ravenhill prospered, Flynn, Bullock, Mitchell and – last season – Ritchie Jones departed. City had improved on what they had – something repeated around the rest of the squad – and the club’s player turnover cycle of bad, woeful and then even more woeful was finally ended.
By continuing to make progress as a club, it means players who were once pivotal on the upwards journey eventually have to be left behind as better players come in. Ritchie – a big player in 2011/12 – was probably the first, and it appears as though Ravenhill is to be the second (you can already guess who number three and four will be, even if it’s not for a while yet). In the long-term, Ravenhill is a player who will probably be less fondly remembered than he deserves to be, but the fact he played a vital part in turning around the club’s fortunes guarantees him a place in Bantams’ folklore.