By Jason McKeown
For a time it seemed as though the only thing saving Jason Kennedy’s Bradford City career was a piece of paper.
The two-year deal signed when agreeing to join the club in 2013 provided the player with a level of protection, and his employer with something of a headache – when austerity and efficiency began to dominate, 12 months on. The decks were cleared during the summer of 2014, with far more influential players than Kennedy discarded. Had the 28-year-old’s contract expiration date featured the year ‘2014’ instead of ‘2015’, it appears a dead cert that he too would have been released.
Yet Kennedy’s Valley Parade career has instead experienced a stunning U-turn. From not even considered worthy a place on the fringes, he has become an ever-present in the team this season, and an important figure behind the implementation of the diamond. From appearing distinctly uncomfortable with life at Valley Parade, he now seems perfectly at home. At this early stage of the campaign, he is the clear frontrunner for the prize of most improved player.
He is not the first Phil Parkinson player to turn around very poor beginnings. Will Atkinson’s legacy is one of how far self-belief and courage can take you in winning the doubters over. Garry Thompson eventually disproved early theories that he was lazy and uncommitted to the cause. Matt Duke – who like Kennedy, was farmed out on loan for a period – bounced back from a torrid start at Valley Parade. These three players ultimately proved to be influential members of the History Makers team, despite initially appearing to be terrible signings.
Yet there had been other, more recent arrivals who departed carrying the tag of failure: Andy Gray, Michael Nelson, Matt Taylor. Mitigating circumstances behind their respective struggles were quickly forgotten, as questions over Parkinson’s recruitment record grew. Kennedy was going to be another to add to this list. His first season at City was nothing short of calamitous. Having looked on paper to be an astute piece of business, Kennedy flopped badly.
I remember his first start, at Huddersfield in the cup, where his timid approach saw attacking moves break down due to his lack of responsibility on the ball. Rather than take any risks, he kept playing the easy pass to a team-mate and, with it, passed on the accountability for providing the team with creativity. Instead of earning praise for never losing possession, he became the man who never attempted to make things happen. There was a complete lack of penetration.
That might seem harsh, but the high-tempo, direct approach that was proving so rewarding for City, a year ago, simply did not require its pace to be slowed down in the way that Kennedy would so often do. And whatever Kennedy was good at, Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle could do it much better.
Waiting until October to make a first league start – a home defeat to Tranmere – Kennedy looked utterly lost and redundant playing alongside Jones. Back in their Rochdale days, Kennedy and Jones had formed an effective midfield partnership – indeed, some Dale fans claim that Kennedy was the better player of the two – but the pair didn’t gel at all during 2013/14.
In a way you had to feel sorry for Kennedy, who was completely overshadowed by his elder statesman. For all the criticism he received in some quarters, Jones was too good to be dropped. It was Nathan Doyle or Kennedy alongside the veteran, with Doyle comfortably ahead.
Kennedy did get a rare start in November, as City went to MK Dons with Parkinson electing to drop Doyle. He even got the winner that day, but in truth his performance hadn’t been anything to write home about. When he started the following Tuesday’s home game with Notts County it might have seemed as though the corner had been turned, but a poor first half team performance against the then-bottom club prompted Parkinson to make a half time change – Kennedy off, Doyle on. Kennedy wouldn’t figure again for six weeks.
In total, Kennedy featured just 11 times for City last season, his last start occurring in an eventful January draw at Sheffield United. City were completely overrun, yet through the inspirational Jones – and it really was down to him – they somehow walked away with a point. Kennedy was utterly woeful, and a week later had been shipped out on loan back to Rochdale for the rest of the season.
The expectation was that he would settle back into Spotland and re-sign permanently during the summer, but his nightmare season continued. Kennedy swapped one substitutes bench for another, looking on as a peripheral figure as Dale clinched promotion. He only started on four occasions, and unsurprisingly Keith Hill showed no inclination to keep him around.
Back to Valley Parade, back to the sidelines.
Even now, it’s difficult to pinpoint when and how Kennedy turned it around. He routinely figured during Bradford City’s pre-season, but evidently still carried a reserve player status. When extra games were arranged at Ossett Town and Bradford Park Avenue, for the sake of trialists and youth players, Kennedy was brought along too. When Parkinson was getting close to the big kick off and using his best XI for the final friendlies, Kennedy was one of the substitutes.
A week before the season was due to commence, Sky Sports journalist Peter O’Rourke tweeted that Hartlepool were on the verge of signing Kennedy. That seemed to be that.
Coventry City, the opening day of the season. The Bradford City team is announced and there is one major surprise: Jason Kennedy starts, Matty Dolan – signed during the summer and expected to play a key role – is relegated to the bench. And even more amazingly, Kennedy is one of the best players in an action-packed 3-2 home victory. Over a year after signing for the club, he was finally demonstrating his true ability.
Most notably was the winning goal and how it came about. With just three minutes to go, Reda Johnson had struck an underserved Coventry equaliser and Valley Parade was crestfallen. Yet straight from kick off, the ball was worked to Kennedy, who charged down the wing and crossed for James Hanson to head home. Three days later, Kennedy started again, at Morecambe, and received the ultimate accolade from City fans: they chanted his name. Unthinkable, prior to the Coventry match.
There are two key factors in the redemption of Jason Kennedy – the evolution of playing style, and the departure of Gary Jones.
On Jones, it is clear that the midfield responsibility has become more democratically shared out this season, rather than led by one man. We loved Jones for his all-action style, and the responsibility he assumed in appearing all over the middle of the park. It worked well with Doyle, who sat in front of the back four like an American Football Quarter Back, spraying the ball all over the park. But it didn’t work with Kennedy.
That doesn’t mean Parkinson was wrong to stick with Jones as long as he did – indeed, the opposite is true – but it meant Kennedy was the wrong man to compliment it. He couldn’t be his own man.
Ultimately, Kennedy has emerged from that shadow to take on some of the Jones mantle – although the new style of play would have been less suited to Jones’ talents anyway. City are now developing – and it’s not the finished article even now – into a passing side who keeps the ball. The diamond opening up possibilities and options to get around the opposition. Kennedy is suited to quick and short-range passes, in working the ball not simply forwards but also side-to-side and backwards – and with Jones’ all-action style gone, Kennedy is also able to impress with his work rate.
It also helps that the pace within the team has gone. This Bradford City team has completely slowed down compared to last season. The more patient build up approach requires more considered passing and more rounded footballers. Billy Knott, Billy Clarke, Mark Yeates and – of course – Kennedy too.
Kennedy is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most creative and talented member of City’s diamond. But just like the trailblazing Will Atkinson, the boundless energy and team ethic of being willing to play the support role has seen Kennedy flourish on the right of the diamond. City need willing workers of this ilk to succeed with this new style of play, especially when they don’t have possession.
Kennedy is not in the team by default, but merit. And though he won’t command the headlines or attention – certainly nowhere near the level that Jones did – he is a useful cog. His dip in performance at the weekend would perhaps suggest so much football of late is catching up on him, but it would be a surprise to see him left out on Saturday.
Yet as impressively as Kennedy is performing, there is still more needed. An unfortunate side effect of the diamond has been the impact on the full backs and, especially, Stephen Darby. City’s player of the year just hasn’t got going when judged against the standards he has set the previous two seasons. In home games, we have seen Darby doubled up on by opposition teams, who are too easily getting through.
As encouragingly as Kennedy is linking up with his fellow midfielders and strikers, a greater relationship is needed between City’s two right-sided players. At the moment, Kennedy and Darby are not fully on the same page. It will take time, as good partnerships often need, but Kennedy cannot allow his skipper to be left out to dry when City don’t have the ball. It’s not that he lacks the effort to sprint back, it is more a case of developing a greater awareness of spotting the danger. Equally when Darby comes forward, Kennedy needs to work with him better.
Nevertheless, the fact that we are talking about Kennedy’s future demonstrates just how far he has come. It is a stunning turnaround. It is a commendable turnaround. From the outer fringes, to the hub of the team. I – and many others – have been proven wrong by Jason Kennedy.
And if he continues his impressive start to the season, next summer, Kennedy’s contract situation will be debated for all the right reasons.
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Categories: Midweek Player Focus