By Jason McKeown
It was one of those wonderful summer evenings, and the sun could still be seen at is slowly set over the towering hills that flank the Aire Valley. And at Silsden’s ASDA Community Foundation stadium, a group of footballers sporting claret and amber were representing Bradford City in the inaugural Development Squad friendly.
Midway through the second half of a one-sided contest, 16-year-old Scott Brown looked up and picked a clinical, defence-splitting past that took out half of the AFC Silsden team. A young trialist ran onto the ball and emphatically lobbed it over the keeper and into the net that we were stood behind, for his second in a 7-1 romp. “What’s that guy’s name?” I asked following his first goal; a tap in. After a pause to check on his mobile phone internet, my friend replied. “Wells”.
That was my first sighting of the Bermudian striker, who two-and-a-half-years later has completed a protracted transfer move to Huddersfield Town. Part of that July 2011 Development Squad revolution that lasted all too briefly, Nahki flourished as its one and only success story, netting 53 goals in 76 (+ 36 sub) appearances for the Bantams. Along the way he helped the club to reach the League Cup Final and win a first promotion in 14 years.
Some ride, and some fairytale. The huge sadness over his departure from Valley Parade is compensated to an extent by the huge feeling of pride gained from watching him grow and prosper.
“We will keep his feet on the ground”
Wells’ journey has not been a conventional one, even getting to the point of a Development Squad trial in that game at Silsden was an up-and-down adventure. A youngster of immense promise, who was once on trial at Ajax, Wells moved to West Yorkshire in 2010, a student on the RIASA programme that is based at Leeds Metropolitan University.
He played RIASA Development Squad games at Eccleshill United – a club who played a key part in City’s other striking success story, James Hanson – and even in his early days, he and his family had a self-belief that has been evident these past two years. “I can still think back to having a coffee with Nahki’s dad when he first came into the country,” David Baldwin, who is heavily involved with RIASA in addition to his role at City, told me in November 2012. “We invited the parents over first year, and he said ‘he’s a good lad, my lad. I think he will do well, as he is a decent player’.
“Obviously all parents will say something similar, and there were 25 people within the RIASA programme at the time, so I went to him ‘we’ll see, we will keep his feet on the ground’.”
Mark Ellis, the former Bantams winger, was instrumental in recognising Nahki’s potential and developing him as a player. David added, “There were a lot of things that Mark had to deconstruct from his game, in order to teach Nahki to play the game the way it is played professionally.”
Ellis himself told me in January 2013, “Nahki was playing in West Yorkshire League games for us and had something about him, but unless you give him a chance you’ll never know. So I called Greg Abbott at Carlisle up and asked him about giving him a trial.”
The move to Brunton Park came after City turned down the opportunity to take him on, as present manager Peter Taylor opted against adding to his ranks of former non-league players, some of whom were struggling with the step up. Wells’ time at Carlisle did not go well, however. Just three substitute appearances, and shown the door that summer. A decision that Abbott will no doubt still be ruing.
Ellis added, “Surprisingly, Greg let Nahki go. So I went back to David and said ‘I think you should take him to Bradford City’. We then spoke to Mark Lawn about it, and that’s how we got him to Bradford. It was due to David’s position as Head of Operations.”
There has been plenty of debate over who was responsible for Wells’ signing for City that summer, with everyone, apart from Peter Jackson, agreeing it had little to do with the then-manager. The story goes that Jackson did not fancy Wells as a player and elected to sign Nialle Rodney instead. Archie Christie, who joined that summer, with the club asking him to set up the Development Squad, took Wells on instead.
Back in that November 2012 interview, David explained to me, “I suggested to the manager and I suggested to Archie that they take a look at him. And in fairness to Archie, you know a few months back there was this big discussion over who actually brought Nahki to the club, it was Archie who said ‘he can fit into my Development Squad’ and signed him.
“There were a lot of people who had a hand in Nahki’s progression. Mark Ellis from a coaching point of view, I watched him develop within the RIASA development programme and brokered a deal to Carlisle, and then I got him another trial here. And then from a point of view of turning him from a trailist into a signed player, the person who stuck his neck on the line and said ‘I think he’s worth signing’ was Archie.
“And we have all reaped the rewards of that.”
“Now we want to see him progress”
Nahki Wells had played less than 30 minutes senior football for Bradford City before he netted his first goal in claret and amber. 3-1 up to Barnet in August 2011 and cruising to a first win of the season, Wells came off the bench and beautifully fired home a low shot from just inside the box, after dribbling the ball past the defender. A minute later, another Wells effort smacked against the post. A hugely promising cameo, two days after Jackson had departed as manager.
With all of the quick changeover that subsequently occurred once Phil Parkinson took charge, two days later, Nahki’s initial burst onto the scene was quickly forgotten. He had international duty obligations with Bermuda to fulfil, and had made just two further substitute appearances by mid-November. So when he was introduced from the bench during an FA Cup 1st round tie against Rochdale, at a sparsely populated Valley Parade, no one expected too much.
But then, five minutes before an evenly-contested cup tie went to a replay, Wells picked up the ball inside his own half, charged past a static Rochdale midfield and unleashed the most astonishing of shots from 30 yards out – it arrowed into the roof of the net. One of the best goals Valley Parade has ever seen. Wow, wow, wow. Phil Parkinson beamed, “He is a really exciting prospect for us and now we want to see him progress from that.”
Nahki’s under-the-radar start to life as a Bantam was gone. For the player, things would never be the same again.
“This guy is going to play at a higher level”
“Hanson won everything, while Wells read his flick ons and made clever runs into space. A classic little and large partnership that – if they can maintain such high standards for the next couple of games – could yet persuade Parkinson that he doesn’t need to blow a six-figure sum buying another striker.” WOAP match report of City 3 Crewe 0, December 26, 2011
In the days that followed Wells’ Rochdale stunner, City courted but failed to capture Paul Benson. But as January approached and City remained mired in relegation trouble, an expectation grew that Parkinson was going to splash the cash on a forward.
Then Hanson and Wells linked up as a strike partnership, and the struggling Bantams started winning matches. Battering teams. Hanson and Wells. Wells and Hanson. A match made in heaven. A deadly combination. Parkinson kept his money in his pocket that January. He already had something potentially very special in the building.
Looking back at Wells’ progression from the fringes to a key player, there is no doubt that Parkinson managed him superbly. Still only 21 this season, there was every danger that the growing expectations in Wells could crush him. That starting him week in week out would see him placed under too much pressure. Parkinson held him back until he could do so no longer; but even then would either start him in games and bring him off, or introduce him from the bench. The short-sharp bursts of Nahki we saw were fantastic, but there was still room for him to make errors and a level of patience afforded towards him to improve his all round game.
As the season wore on, Wells kept scoring. His wonderful effort at home to Accrington always sticks in my mind, but the hat-trick at Northampton Town with three games left to play firmly cemented his hero status – the 3-1 victory was pivotal in the Bantams retaining their league status. I wrote of his performance that day, “This guy is going to play at a higher level, and increasingly it is a question of how long City can keep hold of him.” Wells himself said in typically confident fashion, “Once I scored the early goal I had that feeling that today would be the day to get the hat-trick.”
It would not be the last time that he made Northampton suffer.
“A future which we are only scratching the surface of”
Nahki Wells’ impact during that first season was a rare highlight of a forgettable campaign, and his value to both the team – and the future of the club – grew with each promising appearance. As WOAP writer Alex Scott stated at the end of the 2011/12 season, “Nahki Wells plays the game with a rare charisma, from his swivelling turns to his energetic bursts. He looks like he is having fun without sacrificing his resolute urgency. He has already shown the ability to lift a team and inspire a crowd. He is a beacon.
“The precocious talent and eternal enthusiasm of Nahki Wells hint at a future which we are only scratching the surface of, and his maturation alongside the rest of him teammates next season could be something to behold.”
Indeed it was, although before a ball was kicked for the memorable 2012/13 campaign, those Nahki transfer rumours surfaced for the first time. Higher league interest, in the shape of League One Sheffield United. He was still on that first contract, agreed the previous summer, which apparently paid just £200 a week. Something had to be done to tie up his future. To reward him for his progress. To reflect his increasing value.
A new, three-year contract was eventually agreed in September 2013. City and Wells had begun the campaign well, the club becoming mainstays in League Two’s top seven. The League Cup run heavily featured Wells also. That late two-goal burst at home to Burton, where it seemed as though City were going to bow out. A superb individual performance at Wigan, helping the team ultimately triumph on penalties.
And then, as the world and his wife watched the Bantams take on Arsenal in the quarter finals, a twisting Wells run was halted illegally by the Gunners, and the resultant free kick from Gary Jones was smashed home by Garry Thompson. Nahki and Hanson terrorised the illustrious visitors that night. The Bermudian’s fame was going national.
In early autumn the MK Dons had enquired about Wells and were firmly knocked back. It was strongly suggested that Leicester and Cardiff had eyes on him too. The January window opened and closed with Wells still a Bantam – a month where he also netted in the League Cup semi final against Aston Villa, with City incredibly triumphing over two legs to reach the final. Bradford City go to Wembley. Bradford City go to Wembley. Nahki stood to gain more than most from the international spotlight that would shine upon Valley Parade.
“You can be better than them”
It was an opportunity that we had seen him gobble up on more than one occasion recently. Burton defender Marcus Holness took a chance with a back header to his keeper, but Wells read it beautifully and nipped in to score. Pandemonium in the away end at Burton. A two-legged play off semi final tie, that at one stage City were trialling 3-1, was back to all square. The momentum was with City and Wells.
It was an opportunity that we had seen him gobble up on more than one occasion recently, and to see him once more take advantage of such an opening was confirmation that the first tricky period in Wells’ City career had been put to bed. A few days after his January semi final goal against Villa, Wells had latched onto a terrible back pass from Oxford’s Michael Duberry to put City 1-0 up. Aside from a superb free kick against Fleetwood, he wouldn’t score again for almost three months.
Wells’ swagger and confidence deserted him for the driest of spells. In the build up to Swansea it seemed as though he was saving himself for the big game at Wembley, but when that day ended up tortuously bad for Nahki and team mates – City barely touched the ball in the 5-0 thumping – Wells emerged a shadow of the player he had been. The Bantams too were struggling to get going and mount a late play off push. Finally, on April 10, another weak back header from a Northampton defender towards his keeper was seized upon by Nahki. He scored, and the player – and team – didn’t look back.
Indeed, since that day and up to his sad departure, Wells’ last 29 games in claret and amber have yielded 23 goals. I’ve never seen a City striker enjoy such a run of hot form over a sustained period like that. Wells netted crucial goals against Bristol Rovers and Chesterfield in the 2013/13 promotion run in, and then three of City’s five play off semi final goals against Burton, which took the club back to Wembley. Northampton Town. Wells likes Northampton Town.
Nahki bragged he would score at Wembley. Cobblers manager Aidy Boothroyd hit out at his ‘disrespectful’ comment. Come May 18, Nahki duly scored. It was the third of a comprehensive, one-sided 3-0 play off final victory for the Bantams. As Mahesh Johal reflected, “Wells’ goal and all round display was there for all to see, but if there is one defining moment of his game, for me, it was him losing the ball in the first half. Silly you may think, but seeing Wells then bust a gut to retrieve it highlighted how hard this team was willing to work for each other.”
City’s 2012/13 promotion was a team effort for sure, but top scorer Wells’ 26 goals were unquestionably vital. The difference between escaping League Two and yet another year in the basement division. Take a bow Ellis, Baldwin, Christie, Parkinson and Parkin for their role in the player’s progress. Take a bow Nahki. You did this. You, and your fantastic team mates, ensured that We Made History.
At the player of the year awards ceremony a few days after the Burton semi final victory, assistant manager Steve Parkin got on stage to say nice words about Wells. “Keep working hard, keep your focus. I’ve worked with some top strikers like Ricky Lambert and Grant Holt. You can be better than them.”
“He has belief in his own ability.”
Those rumours, those bloody rumours. Peterborough break some behind-closed-doors gentleman’s agreement, revealing there is a truth behind one of them. Owner Darragh MacAnthony Tweets that Posh have been knocked back in a bid for Wells – a bid that, if accepted, would have broken their transfer record. Wells is a wanted man, but although two divisions separated the clubs last season, this time they are equals in League One. Why would he want to go there?
Wells starts the season where he left the last. Goals, goals, goals. City’s first goal back in League One, down at Ashton Gate on the opening day. A consolation effort after coming off the bench in the League Cup at Huddersfield. And then, in the first home match of the season, a goal against Carlisle. Against Greg Abbott. The man who didn’t give him that proper chance two years ago. Who has been hammered by his own fans for allowing him to slip through the net for the past year.
City are 4-0 up and Wells is taken off to a hero’s reception. He walks past Abbott by the dugout, who pretends not to notice the striker that he once rejected.
Close the transfer window, shut it now. Wells nets a brace at home to Sheffield United, 18,000 are in attendance at Valley Parade. Most are singing his name. Peterborough are still keen. Other names are linked, such as Wolves. Close that transfer window, shut it now. Slam. It’s finally closed. Relax. Until January at least.
Wells keeps scoring. He doesn’t keep scoring every game, he is human after all. But still, he keeps netting often. But then he is injured, and soon after City’s bright start falls apart. He returns a few weeks later, but was he rushed into action too soon? City’ momentum is slowing down; Wells looks lethargic. Eight days off until the next game, against Coventry. Let’s get it right.
If there is a bad time for a player that you want to keep under the radar to score a hat trick, it is surely during a match broadcasted live on Sky TV, on a Sunday where there are no other games being shown. A magnificent display from Wells against Coventry, one that has Sky pundit and Bantams legend Peter Beagrie purring, “He runs the channels, he isolates defenders, he has belief in his own ability.”
A magnificent display, but now the wolves are circling. Wells began the season with doubts about whether he could cut it above League Two. 15 goals by Christmas make him the division’s top scorer. The wolves are circling. This time, every noise from within Valley Parade hints strongly that Wells is going to go. This time he makes that exit.
“He’s thinking about it more”
Absurdly, we are yet to talk about just what a good player Nahki Wells is. One of those wonderful footballers who retains the capacity to leave you on the edge of your seat, as you wait in expectation at what he might do next.
Wells is a deadly finisher. He scores goals that no one else at the club could; sniffing out half-chances and smashing the ball in the back of the net. His pace is a terrific asset, particularly his acceleration. In one moment, he is running along slowly; fooling his marker into believing that he’s got his man covered. The next second, he’s raced past that defender, who stands no chance of catching him.
When Wells burst onto the scene, his work-rate really caught the eye. He would chase every lost cause, not allowing the opposition a moment’s peace. Wells would inevitably get his rewards, but also run himself into the ground. In time, and with the coaching of Parkinson and Parkin, Wells has been more selective in his runs. Conserving his energy for the moments where he can be truly devastating.
Some people unfairly accuse him of being lazy. It’s not idleness, it’s intelligence. And his greater fitness levels mean that Wells is only a candidate to be substituted when he’s scored a goal, the game is won and he is going to receive a standing ovation for his performance.
Katie Whyatt recognised this development of Nahki’s game earlier this season. “There’s one fundamental, major difference in Nahki’s style since last term, and it’s been evident right from the Bristol game: he’s thinking about it more,” she wrote. “Here is a player who is beginning to pick out the perfect pass, whilst retaining that predatory, goal poaching instinct impossible to teach.
“By looking at some of his movements, the runs he makes and where he knocks the ball, it’s immediately evident that his game is so much deeper. He’s now a well-crafted bundle of neatly worked flick-ons and clever balls forward, on top of everything he’s always been. Wells was never a one-trick pony in terms of his assets, but he’s now excellent in nearly every aspect of his play.”
“We’re proud of you”
Football is all about goals, and so we all love a good striker. In my near two decades of supporting City, there have been some forwards that I have cared deeply about: Edinho, Lee Mills, Robbie Blake, Dean Windass, Peter Thorne and latterly James Hanson. I’ve accepted their weaknesses, but loved them for their abundant qualities. And when they’ve scored goals for City, those goals have felt that little bit more special.
Nahki Wells is part of that group of strikers I care deeply about. Ever since that warm July evening in Silsden, I have wanted to see him succeed. That wonder goal against Rochdale offered him the status of potential City superstar, and he has grasped that opportunity to wear the crown as well as any Bantams player I have known. He’s had his downs as well as his ups, but the back story, his confidence, his desire and the eye-catching nature of his performances makes him a bloke that you want to see succeed.
The transfer speculation that has followed him these last 18 months has only served to heighten my appreciation of him. He’s a wanted man. Wanted by clubs with greater resources and support than ourselves. Wanted by clubs in higher divisions. That guy we are watching week in week out, scoring so many important goals for us, is being watched, week in week out, by scouts judging him on his potential to succeed further up the football ladder. Other clubs’ supporters know all about him and talk to you about how they’d love to sign your player.
It doesn’t happen very often for us City supporters, to have a star like this. It has felt good.
I’m absolutely gutted that Nahki has gone. He will be really difficult to replace, and some of the modern day magic of Valley Parade has departed out the door with him. I’m going to miss that little guy. I’m going to miss having that confidence that, no matter what is happening on the field, we’ve got a player who can score out of nothing. A true game-changer.
I’m absolutely gutted that Nahki has gone, especially in view of his choice club. Not them. The club that we supporters truly despise, who until now we have been able to argue remain our equals despite their higher division status. Sell our best player to them? To them? Nahki, the world is your oyster. So why are you jumping off at the next junction down the M62?
It taints his time at City a little, but we can’t dismiss his contribution to the club. His conduct has been exemplary. Whatever his motivation these past 18 months, City have been handsomely rewarded by it. Not once has he asked for a transfer or made stupid comments in the press. He owed the club a lot for giving him that big chance, but he has more than repaid that opportunity.
He deserves his chance in the Championship, although anyone but them. Still, I can’t wait to see how he performs. I hope that he prospers. I hope that his reputation continues to grow. I hope that he one day moves onto even bigger and better things.
And if and when he does, I will take pride in the role that Bradford City played in his career. And enjoy reminiscing about the many, many fantastic memories he has left us with.
Nahki Wells, thank you for everything. But what a shame you have tainted it somewhat with your exit.