By Gareth Walker
Nahki Wells has dispelled any fears that he might struggle with the step up to League One as he has continued to terrorise defences in a higher division. As such, this has served to intensify speculation over his future to an almost unbearable level, and it now looks inevitable that he will leave City in the current transfer window.
In an interview with Sky Sports Radio on Thursday, Mark Lawn went as far as to confirm that the club have received one official bid for Wells. But as Width of a Post reported last month, there is also confirmed interest from at least two other Premier League Clubs. As such, attention has turned to the question of how much money we might receive for our prize asset, and how we might cope without him.
Just past half way through the season, City currently sit 12th the League One table; seven points off the play off places but also just seven points off the relegation spots. Considering the contribution that Wells has made to the team, it doesn’t take a genius to conclude that the gap to the relegation battle could have been considerably less if it weren’t for the points that he has earned us so far. The hat-trick that he scored against Coventry and the last minute free kick against Leyton Orient spring to mind as examples of Wells almost single-handedly picking up points for us.
It is obvious, therefore, that if and when Nahki does leave, Phil Parkinson must bring in an adequate replacement. The manager’s anxiety over this issue was clear in his post match interview after the Notts County defeat, when he spoke about wanting to implement a deadline or a cut-off point regarding the transfer saga, so that he doesn’t miss out on any potential replacements. But just how much of any transfer fee can we expect Parkinson to be given in order to not only replace Wells, but strengthen the rest of a squad? A squad that is starting to look jaded and in need of a boost.
WOAP recently discovered that the club are currently £1 million over the break-even playing budget for the season. This would indicate that the first £2 million from any fee received for Wells will be gobbled up by not only wiping out this overspend, but also ensuring that we can keep the current wage budget at the same level for next season. Those out there who think that the club will be lavishing money on a ‘named’ replacement for Nahki may wish to think again.
My own personal opinion is that we might be looking at a long-term loan, a free transfer or even a part exchange to bring a striker in as a replacement. The possibility of Wells being loaned back to us for the rest of the season by the buying club could also be an option.
Many supporters are still confused as to where the money has gone from last season’s promotion and cup run. In reality, it isn’t difficult to see that the paying back of Mark Lawn’s loan (including interest), the collapse of the catering contract, the impending Mark Stewart case, the clearing of last year’s £600k budget overspend, and the rewards of bonuses and improved contract terms to the 2012/13 heroes will all have made a significant indentation into that pot of cash.
So, where else in the squad, other than replacing our Bermudian talisman, should we be looking to strengthen? WOAP published an article in Novermber where Jason McKeown divided the squad up into groups on how much they had played. During the ensuing couple of months, the group of dependable players, who have been heavily relied upon so far this season, could be further divided up into those who have made the transition between fourth and third tier football appear relatively seamless, and those who have found the step up that little bit more difficult.
Contrast the performances so far this season of Stephen Darby to those of James Meredith, for example. Darby has been a consistent performer every week, never putting in a display that you would rate as lower that a seven out of ten; whereas Meredith appears to be drastically short of confidence and at times looks as shadow of the player from last season. Maybe he has moved up through the leagues a little too quickly, having been playing non-league football just two seasons ago. Whatever the reason – and I am certainly not writing him off – I do feel that he would benefit from a spell out of the side, and possibly some specific competition for the left back berth.
There has also been widespread criticism of the City midfield this season, as many supporters have come to question its effectiveness as an attacking threat. Some have gone as far as to say that the Magic Man Gary Jones is living on borrowed time, and that the step up to League One has proved beyond him. Although I don’t go as far as to concur with this extreme view, as I still believe that Jones has a big role to play at the club, I do think that it has been evident of late that our midfield at times lacks mobility.
We could benefit from having someone in the engine room who, although perhaps not an out and out source of attack, would add some fluidity to our play. However, this might not be an altogether straight forward problem to solve, due to the way that Parkinson sets up his team.
It has been a feature of City’s shape under Parkinson – particularly home games – that two wingers are deployed either side of a pair of holding central midfielders. Replacing one of the holding players with a more attacking type incumbent, such as former City favourite David Syers, would require the manager to rethink his strategy of starting two wingers. He needs to maintain balance in the side.
After witnessing the display of Alex Pritchard in the draw with Swindon Town, Parkinson spoke about wanting to bring in players who could offer the side more quality in attacking areas. Whether he targets a new central midfielder, or prefers to seek competition on the wings for Garry Thompson and Kyel Reid, will indicate what intentions, if any, he has over changing the team’s strategy and shape.
Some sections of the City support have been calling for a new approach, after the recent run that has seen just one win in our last 15 games. Parkinson’s 4-4-2 and his reliance on outballs to James Hanson and the erratic Reid has increasingly looked too predictable and easy to defend against. The accusation that the coaching team lack a Plan B is one that I agree with – and this is an issue that I would like to see improved upon during the second half of the season.
The lack of options within the squad to make changes to the team may be another reason why we seem to have been over-dependant on Plan A so far. We appear to have become more and more reliant on a small number of players, most of which were members of last season’s squad. The long-term absence of Andrew Davies, plus enforced spells out of the side for Wells and James Hanson, has proven particularly problematic.
Unfortunately, this is a sad indictment of the club’s transfer activity over the past 12 months. When going through the list of players that the club has signed since January 2013, it is difficult to argue that any of them have been a success. Mark Yeates and Jason Kennedy are the two who at the moment appear to be the closest to the first XI, yet Parkinson has so far failed to find the best position in the side for either. We find ourselves heading into the current transfer window – and the one in the summer – with a squad overhaul looking more and more inevitable.
Recent games have seen youngsters Jack Stockdill, Oliver McBurnie and Lewis Clarkson all make appearances on the bench at least – their elevations coming at the expense of senior pros such as Luke Oliver, Matt Taylor, Alan Connell, Andy Gray and Rafa De Vita. This gives us an insight into Parkinson’s thinking of how the squad might develop and take shape over the next few weeks. It is evident that a clearing of the decks is needed and likely to occur. It will be sad to see Connell and Oliver go, but the removal of these players from the wage bill is essential in order to free up funds to bring in new signings and continue our progression.
If Parkinson has been guilty of anything of late, it could be that he has been too loyal to the players from last season who served him so well. This, although entirely understandable, appears to have been at the cost of our momentum stalling, as new signings appear to have been made back ups to the current crop, rather than as successors or competitors. Contrast this with what has happened down the M1 at Rotherham. Judging by their excellent performance on Boxing Day, Steve Evans’ squad appears to have adapted to life in League One much more smoothly, aided by fresh faces.
For some fans, the current run of form has come as a major shock and disappointment. The blistering early season performances led to sections of our support optimistically predicting back to back promotions, and the stark realisation of life at the tough end of League One is not sitting too comfortably with them now. For the more reasoned among us, however, stabilisation, consolidation and ultimately survival has always been the main objective this season.
Bradford City currently find themselves at somewhat of a crossroads. Form isn’t great, and our main goalscoring threat looks like he is about to depart for his own bright new world. How we handle his departure, and how we come through this difficult period, could prove crucial for the club’s long-term future.
City need Championship football in order to be entirely self-sufficient – and the three year plan to get us there, which appeared to be implemented with the coaching team’s new contracts during the summer, is barely a sixth of the way through. It needs to be allowed to run its course, and the club and manager deserve some slack because of last season’s exploits. That said, to suggest that they should be entirely immune from all criticism is wide of the mark and totally unrealistic.
This team are affectionately referred to as History Makers. The incumbent guardians of the good ship Bradford City must use the sale of Wells and the current transfer window to learn from their own history of 2006/07. Let’s use this January window as an opportunity to get this second coming of Bantam Progressivism firmly back on track.