By Jason McKeown
Well that escalated quickly. Just a fortnight on from beginning the match against Sheffield United – a run of six straight league starts that yielded two goals – Aaron Mclean has been deemed surplus to requirements and made available to leave on loan. The January signing was left out of the squad for Saturday’s home defeat to Doncaster Rovers, and it appears he has played his last game for Bradford City. On local radio after the game, Phil Parkinson revealed there is interest from other clubs.
Mclean’s Twitter feed has strongly hinted that he is in talks with Peterborough over a return to London Road. Width of a Post understands that high-flying League Two side Luton Town are also interested. There are also rumours of a training ground fallout between Mclean and City assistant manager Steve Parkin, which has hastened the decision to allow him to leave.
Whatever the reason, it is an unexpectedly decisive move in addressing this troubling situation. Mclean’s failure to make an impact at Valley Parade is significant, when his sizeable wage packet is judged against a reduced playing budget and the team struggling on the field. The way in which City surrendered a 1-0 advantage to lose to Doncaster, after Jon Stead was forced off injured, highlighted the need for another striker who is better than the back-up options available. Someone who is better than what Mclean has shown over the past 10 months.
There isn’t a positive spin you can apply to Mclean’s time in West Yorkshire. Whichever way you measure his contribution, it is a long way short of expectations. The 20 months that remain on his contract suggested that there was nothing Parkinson could do about moving him on, at least without taking a financial hit that – in this climate of short-term deals for players and a budget deficit to make up – City could ill-afford.
It remains to be seen what sort of financial commitment will be provided by the club who takes him on loan; but the fact there is more than one team in for him strengthens City’s negotiating hand. Parkinson is expected to offer a deal to Sylvan Ebanks-Blake – who is training with the Bantams – and the former Wolves man has a pedigree to suggest that, if match fit, he can offer a lot.
He will need to, because Parkinson’s credibility has taken a hit over the Mclean situation. It has proved to be a very poor piece of business by the City manager, and the impact is there for all to see. There is not a single manager in the country – and, indeed, in history – who has not made poor signings, and any outrage over Mclean needs to be tempered by this. Nevertheless, Aaron Mclean was never going to be just another signing. The stakes were bigger, and it hasn’t paid off.
Rewind back nearly three years to December 2011. Parkinson has been in the hot seat for almost four months and is gradually turning around the difficult situation he inherited. There were a high number of players in the building when he arrived, but not necessarily a high amount of quality. Attempts to bring in a striker – Paul Benson – had not gone to plan.
For a daunting Friday night trip to then-leaders Southend United, Parkinson deployed James Hanson with Nahki Wells – and a new partnership was born. Like all the very best striker pairings, they clicked instantly and proved the perfect foil for each other. Not since Lee Mills and Robbie Blake had City possessed two strikers with such an intuitive understanding of each other. For Parkinson, it was a template for success that he has followed and followed very well.
City’s subsequent progress in avoiding relegation during that first season, and reaching Wembley twice the year after, was built upon the partnership of Hanson and Wells. The way in which the team was set up brought out the best of them, with balls quickly delivered into the box from all angles, and a high tempo approach that meant holes in the opposition defence could be exploited by Hanson’s strength and Wells’ pace.
Over the next two years, City lost just five times at home when Hanson and Wells led the line. The pair contributed 41 goals to the epic 2012/13 campaign, and continued their impressive goal return in the higher division of League One the year after.
And it was fantastic, and it was memorable, but it always carried a worry that it wasn’t going to last forever. Every transfer window, post-Boxing Day 2011, saw rumours that Wells would be sold to a higher league team; with the status of the clubs rumoured to be monitoring him – and his price tag – rising each time. By the middle of November last year, Mark Lawn was already preparing supporters for the reality that Wells would be sold in the next transfer window. He turned down a last-ditch contract offer with the club, and ended up at Huddersfield. Cue the replacement striker search and arrival of Mclean.
That was the scale of the task facing Parkinson – replacing such a key cog of his successful history makers team – but the challenge should have been made easier by the resources available and the time to prepare. It was not really a secret that Wells was going to be sold, and the weeks leading up to last January offered the manager sufficient time to look for suitable replacements.
Mclean was not – or at least should not – have been a rushed signing, brought in due to a late panic. He was one of a number of strikers spoken to over that period and perhaps wasn’t at the very top of the list, but was hardly a make-do or a stop-gap. The money committed to Mclean – over the duration of his contract – was significant. His performances and overall contribution have failed to justify this outlay. Parkinson made an error of judgement in signing Mclean.
And it’s just that Mclean hasn’t fitted into Wells’ mightily big boots, but the resultant compromises elsewhere. Very quickly it was evident that Mclean and Wells are very different players, and that the team’s approach would need to be altered to bring out the best of the new striker. Along the way, big players have been let go – partially to allow the new playing style, but also partially due to the budget cuts that would have been easier to manage without a large chunk of the reduced figure committed to Mclean.
If there was a watershed moment of the last 10 months, it was the Oldham home defeat last April. That wretched 3-2 loss cruelly exposed the limitations of a direct style of football featuring Mclean leading the line. It was the afternoon where Parkinson probably elected to call time on Gary Jones’ spell at the club, as he realised that a passing style of football would have to be the way forward. A week later City looked very different in drawing 0-0 at Rotherham, and a week after that trialled the 4-3-1-2 approach that by pre-season had evolved into the diamond. Mclean ended the 2013/14 season with a couple of goals, and the way forward was laid out.
But it hasn’t worked out so far. Perhaps if Mclean had have been fit to take part in pre-season, the diamond approach – that was designed to provide him with the ball at this feet in the areas he came looking for it – might have taken off. But again it’s those compromises of the playing budget that have hindered the way forward. I like Billy Knott, and I like Gary Liddle, but at this stage I can’t see how they are an improvement on Gary Jones and especially on Nathan Doyle.
Watching Saturday’s 2-1 home defeat to Doncaster, it struck me that much of the problems of the day lie in the fact that the team has no real identity or character. The diamond formation has proved a mixed success, but moves back to a more conventional 4-4-2 are hampered by the lack of pace in the side, especially on the flanks. Knott, Liddle, Jason Kennedy, Mark Yeates, Filipe Morais and Andy Halliday are almost too similar in what they bring to the table – there just isn’t the versatility that is needed to change games.
What sort of football are we playing? What sort of football are we trying to play? It has all become a little muddied and unclear.
It’s difficult for the current players because the previous team – the history makers – had so much character and identity. They were successful too of course, but it’s not just about that. Whatever the grumbles some people had about the direct approach used back then, the players themselves executed it very well. Hanson and Wells were central to its success, but in the hindsight it appears that a number of wrong turns have been made following the crossroads that cropped up from Nahki’s departure.
Chiefly is that the attempts to replace Wells’ goals still rest on one man, who hasn’t delivered them. If there were more goals in the rest of the team, Mclean might still have had a future at Valley Parade. This is why Parkinson’s poor judgement on Mclean has proved to be so significant.
Was the football that bad to watch when it was built for Hanson and Wells? Some people say yes, and there were loud demands for a more attractive style of football this time around. At City’s best this season, have you enjoyed it more than last season’s team at their best? I know which I preferred, and perhaps deep down most people would agree. Either way, there is a disconnect feeling, a downbeat mood and a curious disillusionment.
These problems cannot solely be blamed on Mclean, but there is no doubt that he is central to most of them. Parkinson has clearly lost patience and is taking steps to address his costly mistake, and he deserves credit for doing so. His superb track record in the dugout at Valley Parade demonstrates that he will eventually fix the current problems.
It has become an exercise in damage limitation – but if the second attempt to replace Wells goes better than the first, there might just be a chink of light at the end of what is becoming an increasingly dark tunnel.
If you like what Width of a Post do, please vote for us in the Football Blogging Awards.