2014/15 previewed: The players (part three)

By Alex Scott

Concluding our in-depth player preview (read defence and midfield), today we look at the forward line.

Forwards

Ins: Billy Clarke (Crawley); Outs: Andy Gray, Jon Stead

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James Hanson

Last season: 34 games (1 sub), 12 goals

Contract expiry date: June 2017

Last season answered a lot of the questions over James Hanson. His output on paper was almost identical to his career average. A run of 6 goals in 9 games late in the season helped solidify his team’s position in the league, and his reputation as something more than Nahki Wells’ sidekick.

Whilst his output matched his career average, there were moments that hinted at a future far beyond this. His performance as a lone forward away at Walsall – probably the best performance of last season – without Wells, showed how crucial Hanson could be on form, and Phil Parkinson will be hoping for much more next season.

Hanson seems a pretty safe bet for 35-40 games and 12-15 goals this coming season; however, this may not be enough if the team are to grace the heights of which they espouse. Most new signings this summer have spoken of the vision sold to them by the manager, but it is hard to imagine this team getting near the play offs without a drastic uptick in goal scoring by one of the forwards.

Billy Clarke, if he’s healthy, could be that guy in a team built around his strengths, but it’s a leap into the unknown: he’s never done it before. Aaron Mclean is being paid to be that guy, but… well, yeah. Oli McBurnie and Lewis Clarkson have promise, if little else at this point, and there is of course the possibility of further signings yet to come.

Objectively, it may have to be that Hanson is that guy. Toward the end of last season I noted that the average profile of a 6th place team in League One scored 74 goals. It’s a tough division to get out of. As currently constructed, without a big jump from Hanson, it’s difficult to envision much beyond 50 goals for this team.

A lot of responsibility is to be placed on Hanson, and how far he can jump may define how far this team can go, and not in the sense he’s used to. Much has been made by the manager in his desire to change the approach of the club and he has recruited aggressively to this end, but actions speak louder than words.

We have seen James Hanson’s entire career in the Football League, and not once has a manager had a weapon of Hanson’s physical gifts at his disposal and not used him as the focal point. This may be the year that the tall forward can fade into the background for a while, and let everyone else do the work behind him.

It may be that not being asked to expend energy chasing 25 lost cause balls over the top, and contesting 40 poorly aimed long balls with tall, bruising centre halves will do wonders for the rest of Hanson’s game. If nothing else, it should reduce the niggling injuries he often picks up over a season. However this is reliant on the manager, and the team, holding their nerve.

Even with four talented midfielders in front of them, will Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies be able to resist the urge to find Hanson as soon as? What will happen when the team are chasing a game?

Actions speak louder than words. How revolutionary this new dawn will be will depend on everything around James Hanson. Given the lack of other proven goalscorers around the team, how effective this new dawn is may rest squarely on his broad shoulders.

Billy Clarke

Last season (Crawley): 28 games, 7 goals

Contract expiry date: June 2016

Sometimes the world is cruel. After spending 18 months in a bit-part role on the fringes in the shadow of Wells and Hanson, Alan Connell was sent to Northampton where he again failed to mesh with the desperate, agricultural style of play, and now the blond forward is out of the leagues. His best bet at this point for a new team is former club Grimsby Town. Ironically, no sooner does he leave Valley Parade, do they switch to a diamond, to which he would have been ideally suited.

Billy Clarke is advertised as something of a rich man’s Alan Connell, and will likely play a featured role in the new era of diamonds and passing and such. His primary function when recruited was to provide depth in behind Mclean and Hanson, but, in a not-that-surprising turn of events, Clarke will start the season in the first eleven alongside Hanson.

A former youth star in the vaunted Ipswich Town academy in the mid-2000s, Clarke has struggled to find a home, often stuck out on short-term loans. His most successful loan spell, in 2008 at Brentford, where he scored 6 goals in 8 appearances led to a move to Blackpool, where under Ian Holloway, injuries restricted him to only 18 appearances as the Seasiders were promoted to the Premier League.

Entering his age 22 season in the nominal starting eleven for Ian Holloway’s top-flight Blackpool team, Clarke blew out his knee in pre-season, causing him to miss the entire campaign. While the club exercised their option on him after their relegation from the Premier League, game time was limited in the early parts of the season before Clarke joined Sheffield United on loan, and subsequently tying up a permanent move to Crawley in January 2012.

A relatively impressive two and a half years saw Clarke notch over 20 League One goals in spite of the turmoil and cloth cutting above him at Crawley. New manager John Gregory opted to release Clarke this summer, curiously three months after issuing a hands off warning to Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough after a reported enquiry over the striker’s availability in January.

This decision is likely down to a change in the style of play under Gregory as Clarke himself has been replaced by a combination of Izale McLeod, Matt Harrold and Gavin Tomlin, and Valley Parade should prove a much more comfortable fit for the 26-year old Clarke.

Aaron Mclean’s absence over the preseason has opened the door for Clarke, and he will be hoping that a quick start could see him secure himself in the first eleven moving forward. His impressive goal against Hartlepool last weekend will do him no harm at all, and if he can forge a productive relationship with Hanson early in the season, in the way Mclean never has, Clarke could flourish in the new dawn.

Picture by Claire Epton

Picture by Claire Epton

Oli McBurnie

Last season: 2 games (6 sub), 0 goals

Contract expiry date: June 2016

Entering his second season as a first team player, McBurnie will be looking to establish himself as a rotational asset in the squad, without pretensions of much more. He has not had the luxury of a loan opportunity in the non-leagues to attune himself to first team football, rather thrust into League One without much preparation beyond youth team football, and the expectation that things would work out.

A young man with potential, absolutely, Parkinson has vacillated between a reticence to unleash the forward, and an over-exuberant urge to force McBurnie into positions to fail. Starting him at home to Rotherham on Boxing Day no less, a bizarrely feisty derby at the best of times, a notable lapse in judgement for a usually considered manager that seemed to opt for McBurnie on little more than a hunch that day.

Which is not to criticise the player at all. In the brief glimpses I’ve seen so far I’ve seen nothing to dispel the reports of an exceptional talent which envelop the forward. That said, he was still born in 1996, and was only able to legally buy a drink 8 weeks ago. He shouldn’t be placed under any pressure at all, and encouraged to progress at his own pace.

If McBurnie can prove himself as a rotation piece slash impact sub by the end of the year, I’m sure he would take that, but in this case I don’t think he should be necessarily be held within the same easy boxes as others. Even if he doesn’t feature in the first team, he could have a successful season. It’s all about personal development for McBurnie.

Lewis Clarkson

Last season: 0 games (1 sub), 0 goals

Contract expiry date: June 2015

Lewis Clarkson has proven one of the happier surprises of the pre-season, improving his reputation with a few goals in friendlies; however the 20-year old forwards does only bring a solitary substitute appearance of league experience.

Clarkson himself is in a bit of a halfway house. Given he managed only one substitute appearance last season, and the club have recruited in Billy Clarke in ahead of him – with more likely to come – he can have little claim to expect a featured role in the attacking rotation this season.

Though at the same time, he is out of contract in the summer, and after falling out of the Football League once after being released by Hull before being picked up by Scarborough, he has to wonder whether he can afford another.

Clarkson needs to have his eyes fixed on that next contract, be it at Valley Parade, or somewhere else. His encouraging start to the pre-season bodes well in this sense, although a niggling hamstring injury a week before the season leaves things a little more uncertain than Clarkson would like.

If the highly regarded 20-year old can show enough in training and in spot appearances off the bench to earn a contract for next season, this season will absolutely be seen as a success. How impressive his stat line is, is almost secondary.

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Aaron Mclean

Last season: (Hull and Bradford) 18 games (3 sub), 4 goals

Contract expiry date: June 2016

Where to start? The performances of Aaron Mclean will go a long way to defining how far this team go, and how far the management of Bradford City will go. A number of people in the club, no more than the manager, have staked their reputation on the recruitment of Mclean, and it has been little short of a disaster to date.

Mclean never really got going after his mid-season arrival, although his two goals in two games to finish the year do offer hope. He can also never be criticised for his lack of application and work rate, even on his off days. This does bode well. His fitness-related absence from the entire of this pre-season does not.

City have a fundamental issue in that they essentially scored a goal a game for the final 30 games last season after Wells got hurt, and then left, which is patently relegation form. And they’ve managed to get worse over the summer!

Until the young loan players are recruited, (always a crapshoot), I genuinely don’t know who the fastest person in this front six is. It might be James Hanson. Mclean was recruited to mitigate against the loss of Wells’ burst of pace, and if anything he accentuated it.

The main issue with Mclean hasn’t actually been his inability in meshing with the rest of the first team, although a pretty substantial issue in itself. The primary issue is his cost. Rumours vary wildly on how much he is actually earning, but it is safe to say that he is comfortably the highest paid player at the club.

It’s not the money itself that’s the issue: that’s Mclean’s prerogative, and if Mark Lawn and co. were willing to pay him, it’s their money, they can do what they want. The issue is the opportunity cost. Every pound spent can be spent somewhere else, and that has to be factored in to the decision, especially when the reduced budget we have been told so much about cannot have been unknown in January.

Phil Parkinson laboured the point that the club desperately needed a proven goal scorer in the building after Wells left, (four goals in twenty games…*crickets*), but to commit such a slice of the budget over such a long period to a 31-year old forward years away from his peak was an incredible gamble, which hasn’t paid off thus far.

Certainly Jon McLaughlin, Kyel Reid and Nathan Doyle’s City careers have perished at the hands of the Mclean contract as well as the Yeates contract (Gary Jones may have left anyway, although the finances did not help). This is the point all the people criticising the disillusioned fan base need to understand. The team of History Makers, the heart and soul of what the club were supposed to be about have been sacrificed, for what? For Aaron Mclean and Mark Yeates, and, this? It’s hard to stomach as a fan.

The investment in Aaron Mclean has to pay off this season, straight away. It has to. The alternative isn’t a thought worth thinking for those currently in power at the club. That Mclean has missed the entire pre-season with a muscle injury, with no timetable to return at this stage is unnerving for everyone concerned.

There isn’t really much sense in further labouring the point: this team and this manager will live and die by how well they can get Aaron Mclean playing. If he cannot begin to pay back on the investment, everyone involved will be out of a job, and City left once again looking into the abyss.

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Categories: Season Preview

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8 replies

  1. I remember reading a business book once which said that you could always tell a struggling business as one which made “huge bets” on single projects. It smacks of desperation and a lack of forward planning.

    For me the Wells/McLean situation seemed exactly like that. As Alex says we have essentially bet the house on McLean – if he scores 20 goals then we will be just fine and pushing the top half of the league, if he scores 10 then we will be deep in the relegation battle.

    For all the chairmen’s protestations about running the club the “right way” this kind of all or nothing gamble fills me with fear.

    I hope I’m wrong (I have been before!) but I’m really not hopeful about this season. I’d take mid-table in a hearbeat…

  2. Disagree with regards to Mclean. It was January and very few ‘freebies’ out there & club didn’t want to pay a substantial transfer fee on a proven forward. He came with a lack of fitness and improved near the end of the season.

    He’s been injured during pre-season which is very unfortunate but I don’t think all the pressure is on him to perform. A few goals from Hanson & Clarke plus more from midfield (surely Knott & Liddle will bang a few in) and we could do alright whether Mclean is playing or not.

    • Would a substantial transfer fee be any better than a substantial wage packet? At least a transfer fee can be recouped as part of a future sale if spent on a player with the right age and potential. I can’t see McLean being sold on for a fee ever. Three things annoy me most about his signing:
      1. Was he even the right player? He was on high wages, not match fit, not anywhere near the team where he was and not a good fit with the existing team and tactics.
      2. The club left itself in an incredibly weak negotiating position by selling Wells before a replacement was arranged. This means every club and every agent know you have money and need to make the signing.
      3. The club weakened its position further by only having one target. If we had been negotiating with other players’ agents at the same time, McLean and his representatives would have been under considerable pressure to make a competitive offer.

      • Worth noting that City did look at other players in addition to Aaron Mclean – Dicko and Lee Gregory. Dicko apparently didn’t want to follow in Wells’ shows, and Gregory’s wage demands priced him out of consideration.

  3. Whilst I remain confident in our defensive qualities and am hopeful that with the addition of a couple of ‘wide men’, our midfield will provide more options than in recent seasons, I remain concerned about the overall quality of our current strike force. And for me, this concern would remain even when McLean and Clarkson have both recovered from their injuries. If we are to be serious contenders for a play-off spot (which personally I doubt very much), we’ll need to score 70+ goals to stake our claim, based on recent seasons. Another mid-table finish will still require us to score 55-60 goals. In either case and at this stage, I have little confidence in our collective strikeforce providing us with the 60%+ of those goals which would suggest that unless the midfielders, defenders and other teams’ efforts on our behalf provide us with more than their fair share, we could be in for a goal shortage unless PP is successful in bringing in any proven striker.

    • All good points made and it doesn’t seem like there were many affordable options out there in January. If we had have spent half a million on a player, he would have probably wanted similar wages anyway so would have been even more expensive over all.

      I personally feel the club messed up on the sale of Wells. If we had kept him til the summer, chances are he would have kept scoring goals for us. We would have had a stronger finish and more clubs may have been keen on him. I accept the club’s argument that he would only have had 12 months left on his deal but the extra goals and interest would have seen his value similar or even higher. Then we would potentially have had more time to find a new striker.

  4. Surely the whole of McLean’s salary is not included in this season’s budget? It seemed to me at the time of his transfer that the club were pushing the boat out with him as they were able to use Nahki’s transfer money to subsidise the cost of hiring McLean over the length of his contract. If this is the case then there should still be funds available within the budget to bring in the players PP is after without causing too many heart attacks within the boardroom.

    • I’m not so sure about that. (I’m not a club insider for a start!) We were meant to be about a million over budget last season so the majority of the transfer fee will have covered that. I suppose Wells’s wage will have contributed to McLean’s too.

      Bear in mind, also, that we’re not allowed to spend more than a certain percentage (60%?) of turnover on wages so we couldn’t keep half a million and spread it over 3 seasons, for example.

      Ironically, this encourages short-term splashing out on wages (i.e. a couple of high wage earners on a one-year deal) which I’m not sure the FL had in mind originally!

      Some fans keep banging on about the £500k budget cut but forget that we’re still over-budget by the same amount! If 13,000 fans were happy to pay an extra £50-100 a season ticket, the club could almost double its wage budget. Money’s tight so fair enough but the club’s no different.

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