By Jason McKeown
If ever there was confirmation that the ‘We Made History’ era has been consigned to history, it comes with the news that Nathan Doyle has left Valley Parade following the expiration of his contract, with midfielders Billy Knott and Gary Liddle joining the club from Sunderland and Notts County respectively.
Accepting that Kyel Reid may still have a future at Valley Parade (the long-term injury victim has been invited to pre-season training), it seems that the Bradford City that begins 2014/15 won’t feature a single midfielder from the double Wembley side of 2012/13. The engine room, and the heartbeat, of one of the most important teams in the club’s history is no more. The summer rebuilding job looks set to be all about the middle of the park.
Knott and Liddle both arrive with decent pedigree. Knott, a 21-year-old left-sided player, spent last season on loan at Wycombe and Port Vale, earning plenty of praise from the Valiants, who had wanted to keep him this summer. Knott has been on Phil Parkinson’s radar since impressing during an earlier loan spell at AFC Wimbledon, in 2011/12. He has an eye for a spectacular goal, which we will hope to see plenty of over the duration of his two-year contract.
Meanwhile Liddle has a vast amount of experience, having also started his career in the North East (with Middlesbrough) and establishing himself as a solid League One player with Hartlepool. Liddle spent six seasons at Victoria Park where he made almost 250 appearances, before turning down a move to Valley Parade in the summer of 2012 and joining Notts County. The 27-year-old is keen to move closer to his North East roots, and turned down a new contract offer at Meadow Lane. He has stated how pleased he was to find Parkinson instantly on the phone expressing his interest.
With Knott and Liddle joining Matty Dolan – who has made his loan move to Valley Parade permanent – next season’s central midfield will have a very different look. Parkinson will presumably expect to have a fourth central midfielder to call upon, and may give another opportunity to the forgotten Jason Kennedy. Mark Yeates can also play in the centre.
But there will be no Gary Jones, and now there will be no Nathan Doyle. The 27-year-old Doyle was heavily rumoured to be on large wages that the club were not prepared to continue, as the effects of the £500k wage budget reduction begin to be felt. Doyle had experienced a mixed second half to the season and the silence over whether he would be offered a new deal has proven deafening. It is unclear if Doyle himself wanted to stay, but certainly Parkinson appears happy to let him go.
Personally, I am very disappointed to see Doyle leave Valley Parade. Eight years ago, as a 19-year-old on loan from Derby, Doyle made a huge impression as right back that was fondly remembered. His 2012 return was warmly greeted, and he quickly re-established himself as a big favourite.
The midfield partnership with Gary Jones was curious in that, on paper, it didn’t look like it should work – yet it was the most effective pairing that City had fielded in over a decade. They suited Parkinson’s preference for deep-lying midfielders who began attacks but who were also suitably positioned to regain possession if it was lost further up the park.
Jones’ all action running style deservedly won him huge acclaim, but the calm and methodical passing of Doyle was just as crucial during the marathon 2012/13 campaign. No one could pass the ball like Doyle; he possessed superb vision and the capability to quickly switch the play. He wasn’t the player crossing the ball or finishing opportunities, but invariably had played a role in the build up to a goal. One of my favourite Doyle moments was a crossfield pass he played for Reid, that saw the winger net a crucial second goal in a September 2012 home win over Morecambe. Reid’s run and shot were impressive for sure, but the inch perfect ball from Doyle, that meant his team mate didn’t have to break stride, was a thing of beauty.
And I guess, as supporters, we are all different in what we like about football and the type of players we take to our hearts. Increasingly last season, you became aware that a negative viewpoint of Doyle was growing and that a section of support were ready to write him off. For sure, Doyle could drift out of games and on occasions his form could dip. In the latter case, he would be jolted back to his best by a relegation to the bench and then return in a future match as a sub.
After the incredible League Cup run ended against Swansea in February 2012, Doyle looked shot to pieces and was rightly dropped for Ricky Ravenhill, who played a key role in the promotion run-in. But when City went 3-1 down to Burton in the play off semi final first leg, it was the introduction of Doyle that changed the tie. His calm, assertive approach was exactly what was needed, and was undoubtedly a driving factor in City coming back to ultimately defeat Burton and then earn promotion at Wembley.
Doyle was my kind of player. I love central midfielders more than any other position, and I love my Stuart McCalls’ and Gary Jones’. But the environments where I have seen both thrive best is when their all action style was complemented by a disciplined, steady player alongside them, who can produce magical passes. Doyle was the straightman that Jones’ cover-every-blade-of-grass act needed. Stuart McCall needed Gareth Whalley.
I don’t think all supporters notice this type of player, and certainly don’t fully appreciate their qualities. Over recent days I have heard so many negative comments about what Doyle couldn’t do and why we therefore needed to get rid of him. But the way that City ended the season with the 4-5-1 or diamond formation brought out the best of Doyle. If that is the way we plan to play next season, I fear we will miss him badly.
Whilst Doyle’s inconsistency could frustrate me, I didn’t see the other criticisms directed his way. Some people say he was arrogant, for me he was confident. Some say he was lazy, for me he was playing intelligently. At City’s worst under Parkinson, they have played too direct and all but negated the need for a central midfield. At City’s best under Parkinson, Doyle has been instrumental.
Parkinson has made two huge calls in allowing Jones and Doyle to leave. If this is a sign that the playing style is going to evolve – from using deep-lying midfielders and into a more attacking-philosophy mentioned by Julian Rhodes – we will sit back and look forward to watching how it works. But if the plan is to play similarly to the last two seasons, then boy do Knott, Liddle and Dolan have some big, big shoes to fill.
In other news…
Stephen Darby has today signed a three-year contract to stay at Bradford City and has been confirmed as the new club captain. More reaction to follow on Width of a Post later this week.