By Jason McKeown
Accepted wisdom at the top end of football is that whilst squad rotation is fine for attacking positions, defensive solidity is built upon routine and familiarity. And so it is that Phil Parkinson has opted to stick with his tried and trusted when it comes to his centre backs for next season, after agreeing a deal to keep Rory McArdle at the heart of Bradford City’s defence alongside Andrew Davies.
Eyebrows have been raised at the length of the new contract offered to and signed by McArdle: the three-year deal will keep him at Valley Parade until 2017. Over that same time period, the Bantams will expect to be playing in the Championship, and therefore the contract says much about Parkinson’s faith in McArdle that he can be a part of that. After a season where the number 23’s performances have not always convinced, there are some doubts about whether the Northern Ireland international is capable of thriving at a higher level – but personally I really like what this contract appears to represent.
For if Bradford City are going to progress up the divisions in a sustainable manner, they need concrete foundations to get them there. Year after year of rip things up and start again has not served Parkinson’s predecessors well, and it is right that when looking for improvements it should be sought within the building rather than solely looking elsewhere for the answers.
Rory McArdle has only recently turned 27. By the time his three-year deal expires, he will have only just become 30-years-old. Again, accepted wisdom with footballers is that the age of 26-30 are the peak years of their ability. For McArdle, this is not just an extended run of employment, this is his career contract. He is willing and ready to give his best years to the Bantams, and given he has probably not yet reached his own peak there is no reason for the player and club to stall in League One mid-table.
More importantly his partnership with Davies gives the club a level of defensive stability not seen since the days of David Weatherall and Mark Bower. We know where we are with the pair. We know what they can do and where they can improve – and, importantly, they know each other’s way of playing inside out. This is a partnership that has developed into something very special. They are extremely dependable together and ended the season in fantastic form – McArdle especially was outstanding, post-Oldham.
Of course, there is a but in all of this – the fitness of Davies. Unquestionably one of the finest centre backs in League One and playing below his true level, one of the main reasons why Davies is here and not in the Championship is because of his unfortunate habit of regularly picking up injuries. And when Davies is on the sidelines, McArdle has struggled. It is not unfair to assume that a period of dealing without Davies will reoccur at some point in future, and fixing the defensive leaks that sprang up without him last season will be the main centre back concern for Parkinson.
For when they are both on the field, there are no issues. The pair played together 26 times last season, during which City lost only six times and kept 12 clean sheets. Without Davies, City won just one match and kept only one clean sheet. That said, in 2012/13 the Bantams coped much better when Davies missed four months of the campaign, demonstrating it is possible to cope without him.
Davies is clearly a vital player to City, but McArdle is his perfect partner. Whilst Davies’ strengths lie in attacking balls into the area and being the first line of defence, McArdle is perfect playing behind him and stopping anything that gets through. Where McArdle has struggled is when asked to take the leader role in Davies’ absence, and if Parkinson can recruit another centre back or persuade Carl McHugh to settle for a third straight year of being Davies’ understudy, there would be no real problems. Matthew Bates was not as poor as some made out, but was no back four leader either. Matt Taylor remains a mystery up to this point.
Nevertheless, the summer maintenance needed at the back is low if Parkinson can persuade those out of contract, who he wants to keep, to follow McArdle’s lead. People might question whether individuals are good enough, but the seventh-best defensive record in the division – whilst missing Davies and James Meredith for large chunks of the campaign – is impressive.
This is a defence where the sum is proving greater than the individual parts. Parkinson would be foolish to dismantle it when the relative failings of the second half of last season clearly lay at the other end. McArdle and co are good enough to provide the platform for a promotion push, and Rory at least is going to be a key man in the club’s efforts to make that happen over the next three years.