By Jason McKeown
For Adam Reach read ‘Example A’. He is not only a hugely promising young player, in the midst of a crucial stage of his career development, but a perfect case study of the theory behind the football loan system. The positives of signing temporary players, and the drawbacks, have become increasingly evident over the 10 matches in which Reach has represented Bradford City. He exemplifies why lower league clubs cannot afford to ignore the loan market, but also illustrates the limitations of such an approach.
The advantages have been especially evident with Reach. The 21-year-old winger has lit up Valley Parade, becoming an instant favourite with a crowd that has long had a complicated love-hate relationship with its wide players. Watching Reach receive possession in a wide area, one-on-one with a full back, is to subconsciously re-position yourself to the edge of your seat. It is a thrilling sight observing his box of tricks. He twists and turns with deft unpredictability that ties defenders in knots. Wait for them to commit, and watch Reach fly past them. Wait for them to predict which way Reach will go, and watch Reach charge in the opposite direction. There is no sight in football quite like it, and Reach’s level of skill can genuinely prove breath-taking.
Reach can cross a ball superbly. He lacks lighting pace but seems to possess a quicker speed of thought than those around him. The way in which he set up Adam Drury, to set up Aaron Mclean to score, last Saturday, was mightily impressive. His terrific volley goal against Stevenage one of the best goals of the season. This is a winger with an end product.
And such an impact is the main selling point of the loan market. When Phil Parkinson surveyed his options in the wake of Kyel Reid’s season-ending injury against Sheffield United, he simply would have stood no chance of bringing in a player of Reach’s ability on a permanent basis. Had the manager made a transfer enquiry to his club Middlesbrough, they would have quoted him a valuation beyond City’s means. And even if the cash could have been scraped together and a bid accepted, Reach probably wouldn’t have wanted to know. He has, after all, played in Middlesbrough’s first team and will rightfully believe he stands a chance of making it at the Championship club.
But a loan move is different. Having Reach play League One football for a month or more, rather than running out for the reserves at Boro’s Rockcliffe Park training facility (where home reserve games are played) is of greater benefit to his parent club. For Reach – who has completed loan moves with Darlington and Shrewsbury – a short spell at Valley Parade will further build up his first team experience and confidence. Especially as Bradford City – like Middlesbrough – play in front of decent-size, but demanding, crowds.
So Parkinson and City can persuade a player of Reach’s talent and potential to move to West Yorkshire for a few weeks, and in the short-term enjoy the benefits of having a left winger who – and it is no secret to anyone – is a bit too good to be here. There’s no transfer fee, there’s (probably) no wage costs to meet. It’s like borrowing a book or DVD from a friend with the only caveat that it must be returned in the same condition.
But there are, of course, those drawbacks to consider, and unfortunately with Adam Reach they are prevalent – even if through no direct fault of the player himself. Reach might have a future at Middlesbrough, but there are good reasons as to why his recently-installed manager, Aitor Karanka, doesn’t see him as the immediate answer to the Teeside club’s current difficulties.
Watching Reach over a full 90 minutes, it is clear that – even playing for a club one level below where he aspires to establish himself – he still has some way to go. There is a frustration towards Reach that, for all those periods in a game where he has opposition defenders on the floor and is creating attacking opportunities for team mates, there are other spells where he is too uninvolved. Where he makes too many bad decisions in possession, or takes up too many ineffective positions.
In many ways he summed up the team performance in last Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Gillingham. During the opening 45 where the Bantams were at their best, Reach was heavily involved with the build up play and impressing greatly with his vision and creativeness. Yet when Gillingham equalised in the second half and City lost all composure, Reach was much less on the ball and much less demanding of it from team mates. Peter Taylor’s half time switch to his beloved 4-3-3 spoiling tactics didn’t help Reach at all, but there was a frustration felt that he could still have produced more.
In many ways that’s a harsh criticism for someone still so young and who has not yet started more than 40 senior games in his career, but that is the standard that he must be aspiring to achieve – and it is certainly the standard he needs to get to if he is to make it at Middlesbrough. And yet therein lies issue number two with having a loan player like Reach at City – his priorities do not 100% match that of his temporary employers.
For when City are labouring to get going again and losing grip of a match they should have finished before half time, is it fair on Reach that we are looking to him to be the catalyst? He is good, a bit too good for us, but he is hardly going to be leading the tears if, come May, Bradford City have been relegated. He is – ultimately – trying to impress someone else. A watching Middlesbrough scout, perhaps, or even Karanka, who has been to see him play at Valley Parade and will presumably have access to video footage of his performances.
That’s not say Reach isn’t committed to City or has lacked the appropriate levels of effort – neither are true at all – but his priorities can’t fail to be clouded to an extent by his own future. He is tredding a different path to the Bantams. And, on occasions in games, that shows.
There is a chance that this Saturday’s trip to Reach’s old club Shrewsbury will be his last for the Bantams. It wasn’t clear whether his initial one-month loan would be extended by Karanka when it ran out after the MK Dons match in February. The fact he was allowed another month at Valley Parade – rather than permission, yet, to stay for the rest of the season – would suggest he figures in Karanka’s thoughts for the final few weeks of this season. With Boro sat in 12th and having little to play for, is it likely that upcoming games will be used to blood young players with an eye on next season. Reach will be amongst those who would be likely to get their opportunity to impress.
Where would that leave City? Certainly Parkinson would have to go back into the loan market to replace Reach, as without him he lacks a left wing option, save for the out-in-the-cold Mark Yeates. This is the problem of formulating a strategy around other people’s players. If Reach were too leave (and I suspect that his less impressive performances against MK Dons and second halves against Stevenage and Gillingham demonstrate there is a chance Boro will want him to stay), the short-term benefits of signing him will immediately be lost.
It felt strange at times, observing the way City lined up against Gillingham. There were three loan players in the four-man midfield, and the impressive Adam Drury’s home debut at left back meant four of City’s 11 starters were borrowed from other clubs. Chris Atkinson (on loan from Huddersfield) spent the 90 minutes on the bench, whilst Aaron Jameson (Sheffield Wednesday) kicked his heels in the stands, not able to be part of the matchday 18 due to City reaching the maximum loanees allowed.
It feels strange, because City have in recent times moved so far away from having loan players. Last year, it was held up as one of the contributing reasons for City’s success. The Chairmen are both on record saying they are not fans of the loan system, and certainly we supporters grew tired of the club’s over reliance of them during the days of Colin Todd, Stuart McCall and Peter Taylor.
Peter Jackson wasn’t around long enough to start making notable use of the loan market, save for filling the goalkeeper position. Phil Parkinson, meanwhile, has up until this January almost always used loans to plug gaps rather than for serious first team intent. Ricky Ravenhill (signed permanently anyway) was the only notable exception to that during Parkinson’s first season in charge. Will Atkinson only earned proper game time when his dismal loan move was made permanent, at which point he proved himself to a sceptical Bantams faithful. Other players have come and gone without figuring much – Charlie Taylor, Andy Haworth, Craig Forsyth, Ryan Dickson, Tom Naylor, Blair Turgott, Connor Ripley, Jordan Graham etc etc. Filler content. Plan E. Barely significant in the grand scheme.
Yet now, the balance has tilted completely the opposite way. It was, in many ways, forced upon the manager, who in January simply had to find an improvement on the struggling players in his squad. Kyle Bennett has not exactly earned rave reviews, but has quietly become increasingly effective; whilst Matty Dolan can surely expect more game time between now and the of the season, as the phasing out of Gary Jones looks set to begin. Chris Atkinson is perhaps a filler loan signing like the ones mentioned above, but does offer something different to what is already in the building. Adam Drury will surely be a regular starter, until James Meredith returns.
And then there is Reach. He is the talisman of the loan movement. The flag bearer of the benefits in this shift of approach. He stands apart – perhaps also with Drury, but for different reasons – as not auditioning for a role at Valley Parade next season. Dolan, Bennett and Atkinson are seemingly unwanted by their parent clubs and looking for their next move, which could feasibly be here. But if Reach is playing for Bradford City next season – even on loan – something has probably gone wrong. For a club famed for bringing through youth talent and not exactly flush with cash, Reach should be aspiring to be playing in a red shirt next season.
Which is where the loan system positives and negatives come back into view. We can enjoy Reach for however long we get to keep him – and enjoy him I really do – but as Parkinson’s thoughts turn to next season, a huge question mark will remain about the left wing spot rather than a name already being pencilled in. Bradford City can continue to benefit from his talents as they seek to climb over the 50-point line, but he could be taken away at any time and potentially leave a large hole. Reach can continue to boost his experience and work on his consistency over 90 minutes, but the ultimate prize for the winger cannot be found within the four sides of Valley Parade.
We are lucky to have him in the short-term, but hindered to have him when it comes to our long-term preparations. It is an absolute pleasure to watch Adam Reach in a Bradford City shirt, but sometimes that joy is tempered by the pragmatic harshness that he isn’t ours to fall in love with – and we cannot allow ourselves to get attached.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus