By Alex Scott
Yesterday we began our players preview looking at the defence. Today we’re going to focus on the more volatile positions over the summer, the areas with the most change: the midfielders.
In: Matty Dolan (Middlesbrough), Billy Knott (Sunderland); Gary Liddle (Notts County); Out: Chris Atkinson (end of loan); Kyle Bennett (end of loan); Nathan Doyle; Gary Jones; Adam Reach (end of loan); Kyel Reid (Preston); Garry Thompson (Notts County)
Last season (Hartlepool and Bradford): 27 games (2 sub), 2 goals
Contract expiry date: June 2016
Consolidation has to be the name of the game this year for Matty Dolan. Converting his loan spell into a permanent deal earlier in the summer (one year plus one year team option), the left footed midfielder will be looking to tie down one of the central spots in City’s new look midfield.
Arriving on deadline day in January, Dolan had climbed on board a ship already running aground, so it isn’t particularly fair to judge his merits on that eleven game loan spell in which the team only mustered three wins and twelve points. He clearly has talent to spare, his 30-yard through ball to an on-rushing Adam Reach late in the year one of the only bright spots of a troubled few months on the field; however, he did sometimes struggle to impose himself on proceedings.
At 21, Dolan has a long way to defining what kind of player he will be. If he can build on the promise he showed late in the season, he will have the room to grow into the heartbeat of the team in the now vacant central positions. This optimism is duly tempered by the reality that Dolan is so young, and despite having a League One Play Off winners’ medal (Yeovil 2013) on his mantelpiece, he has yet to make his 40th league appearance: he is still very raw.
The diamond formation in midfield to be established this season is tailored to the strengths of Dolan, and the left-footer should be able to flourish beyond what he has shown to date in a City shirt. How well he and his new teammates mesh in the middle will go a long way to defining how far this team can go.
Last season (Wycombe and Notts County): 23 games (6 sub), 2 goals
Contract expiry date: June 2017
Also 21 years of age, the former Sunderland trainee Billy Knott is set for a featured role in this season’s squad. Manning the point of the diamond, Knott looks likely to be relied upon for the spark that was missing for the second half of last season.
After progressing through the academies of both Chelsea and Sunderland, Knott has the pedigree to thrive at this level, and after a season of first team football spread across Leagues One and Two last season, seems set to kick on and establish himself as a top player at this level.
Known as a more advanced midfielder, Knott is being relied upon to inject some dynamism into the middle of City’s midfield, a notable weakness over the last few years. Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle are being rightly deified amongst the City fan base, but they did have their faults, and their athleticism was chief among them. The signing of Knott should provide an injection of pace into the middle of the park, and also a goal threat from deep so sorely missed throughout the second half of last season.
This summer has seen the curtain drawn on the history making City era, however the demise began with the loss of Nahki Wells. After Wells’ reliable goal production disappeared from the top of the park, everything else began to crumble, the lack of goals from elsewhere highlighted. After that point, and the understandable lack of a comparable replacement for Wells, it was the beginning of the end, and only a matter of time before Phil Parkinson went back to the drawing board.
Whilst the newly-enforced and partially self-inflicted budget constraints on Parkinson may have hastened his plans for revolution by the necessary jettisoning of the expensive holdovers, the move was an inevitability, sooner or later. Players with the goal production of Wells, on the wage of Wells, just aren’t available at this level; it was never going to be possible to replace him. City had to change to move forward, and it will be 21-year old Billy Knott at the vanguard of the new movement.
Knott’s signed a two-year deal upon leaving Sunderland, and the club hold an option on a third year. Knott will be looking to position himself as a Championship midfielder at the end of 2016/17 as a 24 year old – be it at Valley Parade or somewhere else – and City will be looking to ride the crest of his wave to security and beyond. Other than James Hanson, Knott is likely City’s most valuable asset at this point.
Last season: 10 games (19 sub), 2 goals
Contract expiry date: June 2015
Mark Yeates has spent most of the pre-season plying away “in the hole”, due a lack of any other viable wide midfielders necessitating a switch to the diamond midfield. Something which shouldn’t be too much of a venture for the attacking midfielder who spent most of last season digging.
The former Watford midfielder will understandably want to file the last 12 months in the “to forget” folder. Yeates did, and I can’t emphasise how many times I checked this with incredulity last season but he did, play 30 times for Watford the season before last as they reached the Championship Play-Off Final.
Mark Yeates is not a bad football player, obviously. Look at his career. That said, he does have the capacity to play football badly, also obviously. Look at last year. He was not a featured player in last season’s City team, and it’s fair to say there might not have been many more miscast players in the league last season.
Yeates was recruited by Parkinson last summer to provide a touch of culture to his brazen League Two heathens. Unfortunately, Yeates’ efforts to improve the level of discourse on the field fell flat. He never seemed part of the team, often caught up in the current of the play, there for the ride. In fairness to Yeates, many of his problems last year fall at the door of his manager as much as him. Firstly, for bringing him into a situation to which he was totally unsuited, then for putting him in positions to fail, before benching him altogether.
Yeates was not blameless in this last season’s mess, far from it. A player of his quality should have been at least able to put in performances that didn’t hinder from the rest of the team last season; a test he repeatedly failed.
He wasn’t the focal point early in the year because he wasn’t performing well enough to warrant being so. Once Nahki Wells left and the side began to wobble, that Yeates didn’t step forward into the void of creativity says a lot for his season, and nothing good.
This time round he has no excuses. As currently constructed, not only does he have little in the form of competition for his place – there are only really four starting calibre midfielders on the team, and only two fit strikers – he also should play a featured role, as by far the most experienced member of the attacking midfielders. With one year left on his deal, and a once-promising career headed toward life support, he really needs to show something this time round to get potential suitors back on board.
City will be hoping that the terrifying urgency of an expiring contract will focus the mind in a way not seen in the disinterested security of last season. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Last season (Notts County): 32 games, 4 goals
Contract expiry date: June 2015
Well, how do you follow that? If Gary Liddle had arrived two years ago, he would have been entering into the wake of Paul McLaren, Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock, holding a much greater chance at capturing the imagination of the City fan base. Unfortunately for Liddle he is now entering a job swap with fan favourite Gary Jones, who will himself be manning the central midfield at Meadow Lane.
On an objective, football level it’s a defendable decision. Liddle will probably be on less money than what Jones was on, and brings a comparable skill set with added versatility and not to mention, many fewer miles on the clock. However, as a fan, it’s nothing short of a kick in the pants.
Liddle is in a tough position, and it is hard to envision many scenarios that he would live up to his predecessor. He is only on a one-year commitment, and at 28 years old, will be looking to set himself up for a long term deal next summer. He is a proven talent at this level, with over 300 appearances in League One, so should be more than capable of leading this midfield into its new era.
However, how quickly he is embraced by the City fan base is yet to be seen. The shoes he has to fill are daunting, and it’s hard to think how the view of Liddle will be separated from the performance of the team in general. Gary Jones is remembered for what he and his team did in 2012/13, not the relegation-threatened outfit of the second half of last season. Liddle will be judged in comparison to the early jones, and will be graded on a much steeper scale.
If things get off to a slow start on the field, the shadows of the past will begin to loom over City’s new midfield, and no one more than Liddle. How he marshals and leads this new four-piece will be crucial for City’s prospects this year.
Last season (Bradford and Rochdale): 9 games (6 sub), 1 goal
Contract expiry date: June 2015
Like Yeates, last season was a lost year for Jason Kennedy. Recruited on a two-year contract last summer from Rochdale, where he made over 175 appearances over four seasons across both of the bottom divisions, he only managed three league starts for City, falling further and further down the pecking order as the season progressed before returning to Spotland for a loan spell late in the year.
Even returning to the ground where he made his name little solace was to be found, with Kennedy struggling to break into a team headed for promotion. Turning 28 in September, the former Middlesbrough youth player should be entering his peak. Yet his short term future has become disconcertingly hazy.
Starting last season behind his mentor Gary Jones, and the irrepressible Nathan Doyle, Kennedy struggled for game time, being limited to cup ties amid experimental elevens, and as a result he never got into any rhythm whatsoever. This time round, things are a bit less settled in front of him, affording him the opportunity to push his way into the team. This is especially true if the diamond is persisted with into the season, opening up another spot he could potentially fill.
Opportunity is only half the equation though, to take advantage he needs to play better. And this really can’t be emphasised enough. Kennedy did not impress last year; he did not play well. He was relegated to a passenger all too often when he appeared, struggling to make himself seen above the noise of the rest of the team. I attended probably his best performance at the MK Dons, and he did not stand out. Which made a change.
In fairness, last season’s approach didn’t exactly spotlight the central midfielders; they were often caught watching balls fly over their head back and forth. So in that sense, there is hope for Kennedy in the new dawn. But again, opportunity is only half of the equation.
After a year in the doldrums, Jason Kennedy needs to get his career back on track this season with a looming expiring contract. He was initially recruited as Gary Jones’ heir apparent; his opportunity to live up to his billing is in front of him, if he can perform. If.
Rafa de Vita
Last season: 6 games (14 sub), 1 goal
Contract expiry date: Trialis
Rafa de Vita has been invited back to the club over the summer on a trial basis, looking to reprise his role providing depth to the flanks. The Italian had a stop-start year last time out, struggling to maintain his form, and his fitness across the year.
In de Vita’s favour is how well he performed late in the season as Parkinson toyed with his now-preferred diamond formation. He seemed more at ease in this position, than forced out wide in a flat four where he found himself earlier in the season. He brings useful athleticism and an ability to shuttle up and down the field from a wider role in the diamond, however there was little on show beyond that last year.
The Italian should be a relatively cheap renewal in the squad, and if he can remain fit, will be able to provide important depth behind the four central midfielders, who are currently supported only by last year’s forgotten man Jason Kennedy and left-back by trade James Meredith. Primarily in de Vita’s mind will be gaining a contract for this season, anything beyond that is secondary.
Categories: Season Preview