Aaron Mclean has become Phil Parkinson’s biggest mistake

Image by Alex Dodd

Image by Alex Dodd

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.

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Categories: Opinion

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21 replies

  1. Whilst agreeing that McLean has been a faiilure, anyone that says he had decent service or a plethora of goalscoring chances is just a fantasist or indeed a liar. We never adapted to his style. It could be said that he never adapted to us either so i hope history doesn’t just pillory him as a useless expensive failure. The fact is as Jason said, some signings just don’t work. This one didn’t.

    As regards Knott & Liddle, we missed Gary on Saturday, I think they will become very good players for the club. Too many fans are looking back to much and expecting too much. This is a new team and it needs time to evolve. I’m fed up of some of the puerile comments on Twitter calling for PP’s head every time we lose. These idiots either have short memories or a complete lack of understanding of the game and the clubs situation. As i said, football moves on and as the new players arrive, some will fail and some will work. For goodness sake lets have a bit of sense and patience and for the clowns calling for PP’s head, be careful what you wish for.

    I’m not saying PP is untouchable but i don’t think his time at City has run its course by a long way, lets all just calm down and get behind this new team. Yes, the History makers were great, superb, fantastic but thats exactly what they are. History.

    One guy by me on Saturday was saying how we should never have let Thommo go as he is doing well at County. This same guy last year would have had him carried away and publically flogged such was his bile against him. The total attitude of either black or white is ruining the game. The need for instant gratification fed by the likes of Twitter & Sky & there like is destroying the game. Lets have a bit of patience & see where it gets us.

  2. The big mistake was selling Wells in January instead of the end of the season. This put massive pressure on the club to buy a replacement and they made the wrong choice. I’m still not convinced that McLean was Parky’s choice but could have been pushed on him by the board.

    • I wasn’t over joyed when McLean was brought into replace Nahki Wells!.
      I’ve always been concerned when player comes down from leagues & his age made me more curious as to how he would cope with our high tempo, pressing game.
      I spoke to many Hull season tkt holder’s on Facebook & Twitter who were all of the same opinion, McLean had lost 25% of his pace & wasn’t the type of striker to hold ball up etc.
      He was sniffer in the box. McLean had had long lay off from injury & never captured the form & pace he had before.
      Steve Bruce used him out wide at times.
      Agree with Ian on the amount of service given hasn’t been anywhere near what could have been if we’d had Kyle Reid, Reach out wide. I think it’s been 50/50 in terms of this transfer not working. We’ve never changed system to allow McLean to be that goal sniffer in box. He’s had to hunt down & chase be more involved in our approach play. Whatever the reason’s are the Chairman & manager have to do whatever is required to bring in more depth in certain areas of our squad! !. The next striker has to be ready & fit to start games! .
      Billy mckee is available & knows where the net is?

  3. Clearly Mclean’s performances and his subsequent lack of goals has become an issue, however I’ve suspected for some time now that it may be Mclean the person which has made things more problematic. It is widely known that he is the highest earning player at the club and perhaps that in itself is enough to upset the rest of the squad? It doesn’t entirely surprise me to hear of fall outs between him and other members of staff. He came to the club already the wrong side of thirty and on the wane so perhaps the clues were already there? I would argue that it is these factors which may be shown to be Phil’s biggest mistake. He took a gamble and it hasn’t paid off….some you win, some you lose… I just hope that Ebanks-Blake isn’t an exact replica otherwise what is the point? His scoring record at Wolves suggests a 1 in 3 goal ratio but will we have to change the system again?

    • i hope so, but this was 5 years ago wasnt it?
      a long time in a fit and able strikers timeline, not an injury prone players such as blakes……………

  4. I don’t buy the argument that a change of style would have got the most out of him. His problem was he kept getting sucked into congested areas of the pitch where he lacked the technique to do anything. The rest of the team can’t play in a way that helps that. I don’t know whether it was a lack of discipline, fitness, intelligence or coaching that stopped him from finding space. If the coaching staff didn’t identify this and try to correct it, it’s unforgivable, but I very much doubt that’s the case.

    The club should never have allowed a 2½ year deal for a striker aged 30 who had a grand total of 14 goals in the last 3½ seasons. In that form, McLean’s 7 goals in under a season for us represent something of an indian summer in his career!

  5. Its a shame it never worked out as the potential was massive. I also think 85% of fans were genuinely excited by this signing but so far its not meant to be.
    Im not sure Ebanks Blake is the answer and surely his wages will be high, id say at least half of Macleans wages since he’s been a chamionship and Premier league player, but it is just an estimate.
    If Ebanks Blake did come he would deserve all the support for his past performaces but I just hope it isnt another Maclean situation with him coming off a bad injury, as well as Brentford turning him down

    • Signing of Ebanks Blake would not be a two and a half year gamble. Likely if he signs – it will be either short-term or at best until the end of season.

      • No it wouldnt be a two and a half year gamble but it would be a gamble in the sense of freeing up some Maclean money and paying a player who has just come back from a really bad injury potentially using all the remaining money

  6. My frustration with our striker situation is that this is Parky’s second expensive mistake. Andy Gray being the first. Neither player was getting game time at their respective clubs so how could a honest assessment of their current abilities be made. With McLean it is not just about a jack of goals but also his inability at times to even control a ball played to his feet. With the ball at his feet he becomes lightweight and gets knocked off so easily. When the opposition have the ball he goes flying in like a lunatic at times.
    With hindsight they do look like ‘panic buys’

  7. Summarise it well Jason, a nice piece of writing. I never really took to McLean due to his poor work rate, despite others arguing to the contrary (!?). That really should be the bare minimum and to be fair to PP he has tried to build a team around this ethic and 90% of signings put there shift in. On top of this McLean seemed often unable to perform the simplest task, such as trapping a ball, and of course cost us a fortune all the time. I suspect this didn’t go down to well with the rest of the squad, hence the rumours of some sort of fall out are not surprising.

    Those arguing he needed better service, or a full pre season are deluding themselves in my opinion, as you say we tried to engineer the team around his needs but in-game this was often so ineffective the most appropriate option was just to revert to a hoof ball. Also, good strikers and players adapt, or at least try to.

    It’s a real shame PP got this one so wrong, especially with the length of the deal. It’s really hit his credibility as it was the one signing he had to nail. I remain fully behind PP, but he has to get the McLeans replacement spot on, or the weight of supporters feelings may begin to shift.

  8. So, Jason, your second lengthy piece on McLean in 3 days – you really don’t like him, do you? How about a different perspective to include the player you rate so highly and are always singing his praises?

    As you have probably gathered I am not a fan of James Hanson and have felt sorry for McLean having to play with him as a strike partner so I have looked at the league matches where McLean has started without Hanson in the starting eleven. This happened 5 times last season during which McLean scored 2 goals, contributing to two wins, two draws and one defeat.

    This season McLean has scored 3 goals in 8 league starts, with three wins, one draw and four defeats. I grant you this is far from a fantastic record but 5 goals in 13 starts shows he is not as bad as some are trying to make out and perhaps indicates with a different partner in the other matches he played his tally could have been much improved.

    Of course we will never know now as it looks highly likely that he will never again wear the claret and amber. But, never mind, we still have good old Jim to keep us up this season.

    • Hi Mick

      I wrote the first Mclean piece a week ago, before any of the recent events came to light. I think given the weekend announcement – which is a major news – that Mclean is leaving, we were justified in writing a second article.

      It’s not really about like/dislike Mclean, I’m sure he’s a lovely person, it’s about commenting on a situation and the consequences of a transfer that has not worked out. Obviously we are on a different page with regards to James Hanson, but even you must surely agree that for a £7,500 transfer fee (which the club didn’t pay themselves) we have had incredible value money from him. Mclean’s worth to the team is judged on the outlay and that outlay is huge in relative terms.

      I personally think that a Hanson/Stead partnership is a good one to pursue. I think Stead is an excellent signing. Clearly we need a different type of option too and that is what Phil Parkinson is looking to recruit too.

  9. I dont recall McLean banging on the door asking to play for City and if Parkinson and the board threw a long contract and a load of money at him to come then you can hardly fault him for coming . What gets me is that Parkinson thought that he could ever play in the same team as Hanson..whether we changed from 4-4-2 or to a diamond I struggle to see how these 2 could ever play up top.Not only that but why did we chase a player the wrong side of 30 and having not played for so long ??? He did however do alright at the end of last season when he played with Stead.
    This debacle is not of McLeans doing and it is unfair of some people to accuse him of not trying and to accuse him of not giving us a proper return .This is entirely down to the management and it is not the first time that the phrase square peg and round hole comes to mind with regards player recruitment. Again as with Andy Gray it will continue to impact on the player budget well into the next season

  10. I really dont get the `not a fan of Hanson` thing. Its obvious that every team we play, try to negate the effect of Hanson on our forward play by fair means or foul, usually the latter.
    When Hanson has not played we look like a shadow of our usual self, and its not all about winning balls in the air as his hold up play and lay offs is superb.
    As far as McClean is concerned, its just not worked out.
    Its not a unique situation and there have been plenty of other instances where players, some at much higher profile clubs have not worked out. Think Torres at Chelsea.
    Sometimes that happens.
    You can be a critic of PP for signing him, you be a critic of the board for sanctioning the signing, and I guess you could point out that few fans thought he would be the bad signing he has turned out to be.
    Personally I would rather have McClean moving on than Hanson.

  11. A Well written article Jason. I feel the loss of Wells cannot be understated and it is becoming clear what a massive loss he has been to the club as he was the talisman, goalscorer and a joy to watch in the city colours. Although he played at a lower level to former city favourites he ranks alongside the likes of Windass, Mills, Blake and Beargrie in recent city history. When on form Wells was worth the entry money alone just for his ability to score sublime goals such as the goal against Rochdale in the FA cup and his awareness and positioning to hit the back of the net from different ranges and acute angles. Huddersfield Town have netted themselves a real bargain.

    To lose a goalscorer who netted 26 goals in what was his first full season in the 4th tier and then net a further 15 goals in 20 games at the higher level is testament to what excellent talent Wells was becoming. Since joining town Wells has netted a further 16 times in 34 games. In less than 3 full seasons he has a better then a goal every other game average and stepped up 3 levels in the process. I feel his progress has been both rapid and remarkable and I hope he goes on to play at the highest level.

    In comparison the man coming the other way Aaron McLean was signed as a direct replacement for Wells and in the same 3 year period McLean’s goal scoring record at that time of his signing is as follows; 49 (28) appearances for Hull City yielding 9 goals, 4(3) appearances 1 goal for Ipswich Town and a further 5(2) games for Birmingham City without getting on the score sheet. A total record of 91 appearances and 10 goals. Clearly since netting 70 goals for Peterborough in a little over 140 appearances in the same 3 year period from 2007 to 2010 he has struggled to play regular first team football hence his poor fitness levels and lack of goals all be it plying his trade at higher level.

    Since signing for city McLean has looked like a player out of sorts, unfit and unable to make much of an impression in front of goal just 6 goals in 33 games. For all the “huff and puff” he is a player who’s best days are behind him and it was an impossible task to fill the boots of our number 21. Goal scorers are ultimately judged on their goal scoring record at the end of the day and Parkinson releases that the gamble in signing McLean lied in the hope that he would rediscover his Peterborough United goal scoring form. This sadly has not materialised and if Parkinson is to build on last seasons top 10 finish then he realises McLean must be shown the exit door to free up funds and find that elusive 20 goal a season striker since Wells departure.

  12. When McLean signed for Bradford City we fans were told:

    PP: “He’s more aggressive than Nahki. He will upset defenders and harass them and force mistakes”
    PP: “he’s very good at attacking the ball in the opposition penalty area”

    I find this to have turned out to not be the case. Nahki Wells scored at least 2 or 3 goals in each season just running onto back passes and anticipating mistakes. He might not have been as aggressive as McLean but his anticipation and pace meant that he put a lot more pressure on the defence than McLean has.

    McLean himself said:

    AM “I’m best in and around the goal and getting shots away. The closer I am to the goal the better. The manager told me that he plays 4-4-2 and I’m going to play as a striker on the shoulder (of a defender) – exactly where you want to be. It made the decision so easy for me.”

    His approval of playing in a 442 on the shoulder kind of brings into question this accepted theory that he is better or prefers playing in a diamond or a 443. Unless he was lying in this interview then a lot of what people are saying on his behalf about a special style of play cannot be true. The reality is that he is not often very close to the goal – which he kind of warns is not his forte.

    Regarding not being able to play with Hanson, which is another things people say in his defence, McLean felt that it was a partnership that would work, saying

    AM: “Hanson is an absolute handful, especially at this level. He’s done so well and I’m looking forward to playing with him. I’m excited by the whole prospect of playing with him because of the type of player he is. His characteristics will suit mine because we are totally different and I think we can link up well.”

    So I think that people have gallantly defended him and should be praised for sticking by their man, but ultimately you can see that what we were looking for and what we thought we were getting; are just too far from what we have ended up getting.

    It would be really interesting to know today how Aaron feels about being played in a formation that isn’t 442 and what instructions have been given to him on where he should position himself. If he has been told that he needs to drop deep and find the ball and arrive late in the penalty box, then he would argue that this isn’t what he is best at.

    • Great comment Nick and very interesting quotes.

      I also remember him coming in with the build up he plays on the shoulder of the last man, but in his first games it became very evident that this wasn’t the case – either he didn’t want to play this way or was instructed not to (I find the latter harder to believe given Wells was never asked to do so). And we saw him always coming deep looking for the ball, and linking up with midfielders.

      This is why I think the diamond formation has been deployed this season. The 4-4-2 of last season didn’t cater for a striker dropping deep looking for the ball, and so Mclean would be isolated on the edge of the box when his team mates seemingly wanted him to take Wells-type positions on the shoulder of the last man. By getting players around him – in theory – he could be more effective.

    • To be fair I wouldn’t place too much emphasis on quotes Aaron made on his arrival. He’s hardly likely to say that he doesn’t fancy playing alongside Hanson and that he’s nothing like Wells. Unfortunately the modern player is (and should be) media savvy and interviews such as these should be taken with a pinch of salt.

      Its sad that it hasn’t worked out for him, but these things happen. I’m encouraged to note that Ebanks-Blake has been training with us so hopefully the management has had a chance to have a good look at him if they should choose to go down that route. Not sure whether Hanson / Stead is the answer. For me that partnership lacks pace. Any team in the country would have struggled to replace a player as important for them as Wells was for us. Look at Liverpool this year and Spurs last.

  13. Momentum is everything and the downward trajectory is a major concern. It appears that the building frustration within the team appears to have resulted in Parkinson’s losing patience with McLean. The number of responses posted highlights how fundamental an in form striker is to rebuilding the positive momentum. Whilst McLean has not been the success we were all hoping for his contribution to date is much better than Gray and Mcginley ever achieved ! He will now be the sacrificial scapegoat and a striker scoring goals will help but is not the panacea some are hoping for. We need a captain to emerge who can take control and show clear leadership and at this stage we do not appear to have a compelling candidate, Davies included.

    • I agree Peter we dont have that someone pushing the rest on like Jones did last year. That said since this thread is about Maclean it didnt do him any favours then anyway. I just dont think he has it anymore and his hunger and passion for playing has gone. Hopefully one of the clubs mentioned will take him very soon

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