By Alex Scott
Jon Stead is beginning to establish himself in the Bradford City starting eleven after his loan arrival in October. This loan spell, like his previous at the end of last season, is presently justified as providing a legitimate fall back option for the club’s most important player, James Hanson.
The 6’3 Stead, whilst not a facsimile for Hanson in his style of play, is able to have a similar effect on the rest of the team, facilitating the success of others. And facilitating does feel like the operative word when discussing the strengths of Stead. That woulda, shoulda been assist for Billy Knott at the weekend was peak-Stead, and does illustrate what he can offer above and beyond Hanson. The run, the touch, the turn and then the vision, let alone the vision to pick the perfect pass are exactly the moments of skill that Stead has been recruited to bring to the team.
He is the player Andy Gray was supposed to be a couple of years ago. A potential foil for Hanson, and at least, a more than capable replacement for the 10-15 games a year that Hanson is destined to miss.
That said, Saturday’s game itself was something of a watershed, in that it was the first time in a very long time that James Hanson was left out of the team on a coach’s decision when fit to play. After a brief perusal on Soccerbase, I reckon that’s the first time that has happened since an away game at Cheltenham at the end of 2012/13. But even then, that was a game with nothing riding on it. Before that there was a game at Wycombe that Andy Gray started, for which Hanson was rested, and two games in the build up to the Wembley final for which Hanson and Wells were both rested. But Saturday may have been the first time that Hanson hasn’t started on a coach’s decision since a defeat at Plymouth in March 2012. Before that, there was a 3-2 home defeat to Rotherham in November 2011.
Regardless of the specifics, that’s a hell of a long time. When Hanson is fit, he plays. He’s been one of the few constants for the club over the last couple of eras. Saturday was actually Hanson’s two hundredth league appearance. He’s made 34 or more league appearances in each of the past five seasons, scoring over 10 goals in four of them.
In spite of this, Stead and Billy Clarke are showing signs of something, even if the rest of the squad around them isn’t going to tear up any trees at this level. Clarke’s inclusion changed the game at Halifax, and the two linked up well in the win at Preston. Whilst the Clarke and Hanson partnership is yet to really be given a chance, it is notable that the better Clarke performances thus far have come in the absence of Hanson. And whilst clearly Hanson is too valuable and effective to leave out for any prolonged period of time, it is notable that there isn’t really a clear partner for him on the books at present.
All which makes the performances of Stead that much more interesting.
As mentioned above, Jon Stead isn’t going to trouble the goalscoring charts at this stage of his career. After a prolific six months in League Two with Huddersfield as a 21-year-old, he has fallen into the mould of a “one goal every four” forward throughout his career, which has mainly come in struggling-to-middling teams.
After that flying six months at hometown club Huddersfield, Stead got his big break as he made the jump to then-Premier League Blackburn for over a million pounds. It was at this point the goals dried up, and in hindsight, given the extent of the jump that is explainable. After an underwhelming couple of years (from a goal perspective at least) at Ewood Park, he made the move to Sunderland, starring for their infamous 15-point relegation outfit before settling in as a fixture in a number of middling Championship teams over the subsequent years.
Looking through his career now, ten years after his initial exploits as a Huddersfield player, Stead has very seldom been involved in successful teams. I’m not intelligent enough to elicit any chicken or egg discussion, but looking at the performance of teams in which Stead has prominently featured (over 20 league appearances), he hasn’t finished in the top half since 2008 with Ipswich, where they finished ninth. Since then, three lower mid-table finishes in the Championship followed by Bristol City’s relegation a couple of years ago.
This isn’t really a criticism of course, if he was in League One all that time, he would have been in a lot of excelling teams, but it does seem his ‘type’ of player are always sought after in middling teams. Players with his skill set will always find a home in spite of any goal return. In fact, if you’re his type of player and you can score twenty goals a year, you end up on Liverpool’s bench somehow.
From Stead’s perspective, you would think, given that the likes of Grant Holt (or indeed Grant Holt himself) are/will be falling into the lower end of the Championship over the coming year, that for Stead to reassert himself as a Championship striker next season, he would need either a rich vein of goalscoring form at this level (not likely, but not necessarily out of the question) or for him to get promoted with his current League One team (not likely and definitely out of the question).
It is more likely that his future next season is destined to be in the middle of League One somewhere. His contract is up at the Huddersfield, and even if it wasn’t you wonder whether the new manager there is interested. Despite starting the year in James Vaughan’s stead alongside Nahki Wells, and by all accounts succeeding, if not excelling, Chris Powell came in and immediately shipped Stead out the door, deciding a better route to score goals was to play Holt up front on his own and leave Wells on the bench. And from someone emotionally invested in the failure of Huddersfield Town, I endorse this strategy.
Prospective suitors for Stead in the summer are difficult to identify at this stage, but looking at geographical and logistical convenience, a permanent move to Valley Parade may not be likely, but probably the most likely of the possible outcomes at this stage.
Phil Parkinson clearly rates Stead, given that he has re-signed him on loan for this year. Especially when factoring in the volume of loan players that have come through the door in recent years, that should mean something. (That said, you may counter “umm… Matty Dolan?” and I don’t really have a counter to that.) Anyway powering through, I think we can pretty confidently state that Parkinson is a fan of the player. The only question may be whether the team can afford to devote two starting striker salaries to both Hanson and Stead, given the club’s financial constraints, and the looming Aaron Mclean situation.
David Baldwin, in a couple of interviews with this parish noted that the club’s business model is somewhat predicated on the nuclear option of selling a first team member in January to fund the salary overspend at the beginning of the year. Last year, this was pretty simple, Nahki Wells being an eminently saleable asset.
This year? Without wanting to sound mean, who in this squad is worth any money whatsoever on the open market? Mark Yeates is playing well, but his contract is winding down, and whether any side would want to hand over cash for him at this point in his career is a question. Billy Knott is talented and young and under contract, but has been struggling for consistency thus far in a City shirt. Other than him? It’s James Hanson and that’s basically your lot.
If the nuclear option is necessary again this January, then it will have to be Hanson who the team cash in on. With Stead already on the books, with a contract winding down himself at his parent club, Parkinson couldn’t be accused of not preparing this time around.
Jon Stead and Aaron Mclean were not exactly Hanson and Wells, but it is right that Stead has been the one that has gotten the “best” out of Mclean, as qualified as that “compliment” clearly is. The same has gone for Clarke, given the previous caveat. If Parkinson could find a goalscorer alongside Stead, it might work. That said, the same would be true of a goalscorer alongside Hanson, and again, Hanson is a better player, and a much more dangerous goal threat.
The question with Stead, whilst he clearly adds value to the team, and is, also clearly, a good guy to have around the dressing room, does he move the needle? Stead definitely prevents City being a worse team, but does he make them a better team? This really is a critique of the team, rather than Stead himself, but I think it’s valid.
Stead isn’t an improvement over Hanson. There may not be all that much in it at the moment with Hanson lacking fitness and appearing out of form, but over a season Stead is not a noticeable improvement. He can stop the team falling through the floor in Hanson’s absence, but he can’t take them to the next level, and he doesn’t solve any of the underlying problems with the team.
I think we’ve all seen enough of Stead so far to be confident in that he can play as a centre forward in a good team at this level, but you would need to build a successful structure around him for it all to come together. Given the state of the City squad at the moment, and the salary structure of the team, it’s hard to see how they are going to be able to pull that off without falling accidentally onto a criminally underpaid goalscorer.
And in truth, the wage bill of the side that got promoted a couple of years ago was one of the highest in that division, and that was with the two most crucial players, the centre forwards, being underpaid at an unsustainable level.
In this league, City will never be able to compete with the highest budgets in the division, and given the committed salary structure as is, it’s difficult to see how they will be able to build a promotion, or even play off calibre squad to cover up the lack of goals in the forward line.
Jon Stead has committed to the club until January on loan, but given the nature of both Bradford and Huddersfield, the odds have to be in favour of that being extended until the end of the year at least. Stead has shown more than enough so far to illustrate his potential value to the side, but given the landscape of the club at the moment, it has to be a question what the expectations should be.
Stead raises the team’s floor, but does he raise the ceiling? And the necessary follow-on question: if the side do commit longer term to Stead, given the rest of the money already committed to players for next year, how else are they supposed to raise the ceiling?
This may all be redundant if Chris Powell has a change of heart, but it is clear that Stead is in the middle of a mid-season audition for Phil Parkinson. But whilst it wouldn’t be a bad signing, does committing to Jon Stead facilitate City into becoming a tangibly better team? Or will it just preserve their current status? Is that enough?
Categories: Midweek Player Focus