By Jason McKeown
The revolution of Bradford City’s playing squad continues, although the latest movement is one that Phil Parkinson seemingly didn’t want to see. Whilst there is no doubt that, on paper at least, the arrival of 27-year-old left back Alan Sheehan represents a shrewd piece of business, it heralds a change to an area of the team that the City manager seemingly wanted to keep together.
As Sheehan makes the move to West Yorkshire, James Meredith’s future almost certainly lies elsewhere. The out-of-contract Australian full back was offered improved terms to stay and – according to Sky Sports – has rejected this offer in favour of finding another club. Goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin’s future remains unresolved, but regardless of whether he signs or also leaves, the back five for next season will be at least partially different.
And you can understand Parkinson’s aim to stick rather than twist his defence. Just 54 goals conceded last season left the Bantams with the seventh-best defensive record in the division. Along the way, they picked up 14 clean sheets (the joint seventh-best record of League One). They only conceded more than one goal on 18 occasions, and more than two goals just five times.
Whatever our personal opinions on individual members of the defence, the perceived failings of Bradford City last season were not at the back. Replicate those defensive stats next season and score more goals at the other end, and City will improve their league position. That’s why Parkinson has attempted to keep hold of the four out-of-contract, first choice members of his back five, to continue playing alongside Andrew Davies next season. That’s why the retention of Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby is so important, and why – ideally – Parkinson would have preferred to keep Meredith.
That said, I’m not personally sure if Meredith’s imminent departure will be as keenly felt as losing McArdle or Darby might have proven. The 26-year-old missed half a season after picking up a bad injury in early January, one that he only recovered from as the campaign came to an end.
Prior to the injury, Meredith was experiencing an average season. He’d started very well, but struggled at times with the step up to League One. As good as he continued to be going forwards, he was at fault for a worrying large proportion of goals conceded during the early months of the campaign. His confidence seemed to ebb away, and you wondered if Parkinson might have gone into the January window considering bringing in another left back for competition.
Meredith’s subsequent absence through injury had a negative impact, but the absence of an alternative left back was the real problem. Matthew Bates and Carl McHugh did reasonably well filling the role, in view of the fact they are not specialists in this position and the wider circumstances of City struggling through their long winless run. Parkinson eventually found exactly the right replacement in Adam Drury, who arrived on loan from Leeds in March and instantly provided the balance and solidity that had been missing. Were it not for his age, Drury – who Width of a Post understands was on a list of summer targets – might have been brought in as Meredith’s replacement. He may yet still arrive as competition for Sheehan, if the budget allows.
The lesson taken from Meredith’s absence was that good left backs are uncommon. This is partly why Parkinson would have preferred to keep hold of the Aussie, although in Sheehan he has found a replacement with a decent pedigree. Importantly, in view of Meredith’s strength in the attacking third, it’s worth noting that Sheehan contributed six assists for a struggling Notts County side last season. He clearly enjoys getting forward.
As for Meredith, it would appear that he views now as the right time to move on. He is clearly an intelligent person who thinks carefully about his career. Perhaps he was scarred from the experience of moving to England as a teenager after Derby County spotted him, only to fail to make the grade at Pride Park and have to revive his career in non-league circles. He has slowly worked his way back up, making considered decisions.
And the way he is seemingly going to leave Valley Parade has echoes of how he joined two years ago. Back then, he rejected a new deal from York City and was left with a wide choice of clubs to join. This included offers from Championship sides Burnley and Watford, although tellingly they were both to initially play in their Development Squads. At that stage of his career, moving from first team football with York to reserve matches for a Championship club could have really set him back. So he turned them down and joined the Bantams, knowing he would continue to play week in, week out – it was a decision that he has benefited from considerably.
Certainly Meredith’s first season at City was a great success. During his home debut against Fleetwood, he put in a superb sliding tackle in the early stages that had the crowd roaring in approval. Parkinson would later reflect on how the whole team picked up on this moment, realising that work rate and honest endeavour would be warmly appreciated by supporters. It set the tone for the incredible 64-game campaign, during which Meredith was one of many star performers.
Indeed his absence through illness, between January and March, almost resulted in the promotion bid collapsing. Just two games were won in his absence, and his return to fitness coincided with the late surge into the play offs and promotion at Wembley. Meredith’s importance was there for all to see. The difference between his prolonged absence in 2012/13 and his injury in 2013/14 was that, this time around, City learned to win without him.
Despite his struggle for form last season, you can understand why other clubs are said to be very interested in his services. Indeed, Width of a Post understands he was on the radar of at least one Championship club last summer, even if his name was only halfway down a wanted list. And as we learned during January and February this year, waiting for the Adam Drury cavalry to arrive, good left backs are not easy to find.
If Meredith feels he is ready to take the next career ladder step, and has bigger clubs willing to offer him that chance, good luck to him. Two years at Valley Parade have shown he is a good player and someone yet to reach their career peak. Like so many members of the 2012/13 history makers side, he will be long remembered with affection and should always be welcomed back (if Meredith is still a League One player next season, it is impossible to imagine anyone booing him on his return to Valley Parade).
The blow of his seemingly imminent departure is cushioned by the arrival Sheehan, who began his career at Leicester and has made almost 200 career appearances. It took a while for him to get going (he joined Leeds after a loan spell, and while at Elland Road was loaned out a further three times) but he eventually found a home at Meadow Lane, where he has flourished for three seasons and made over 100 appearances. Sheehan has also been capped for the Republic of Ireland at under 19 and under 21 level.
Following in the footsteps of summer recruits Billy Knott and Gary Liddle – and perhaps suggesting a theme is emerging in Parkinson’s summer business – Sheehan is a proven player at this level and should have no problems making his mark. These are not necessarily headline-grabbing signings, but they clearly are very sensible captures. And at a time of budget-cutting and dealing with heightened expectations, Parkinson needs a squad of players who can hit the ground running next season.