By Jason McKeown
With 11 goals netted from 24 starts, 2014 should go down as the most prolific period of James Hanson’s Bradford City career. Yet rather than this calendar year being judged a personal triumph, these are uncertain times for the club’s longest-serving player. For the first time since joining from Guiseley in 2009, James Hanson is no longer a sure-fire starter.
The Bantams have so far played 49 league and cup matches during 2014, which means less than half of the team sheets have featured Hanson’s name in the starting XI. It has been a year punctured by injury problems for the player, and in time it has come at a price. It once took the Bantams two years to win a game without Hanson. Yet over the last six matches – during which City’s number nine has been rooted to the bench – they have won five and drawn one. In other words, City have found a way to win, and win often, without him.
And until last week, there was a perception amongst some City supporters that the reason for no longer starting Hanson was to begin life without him early. That there was a need to get on with learning how to prosper through other forward players, so they could cash in on their most saleable asset. With the budget deficit still some way off being solved, and variants for addressing it running out, it appeared as though Hanson was going to be sacrificed during the January transfer window. The rumours of his exit had grown in frequency during recent weeks.
Hanson was supposed to be a wanted man, and the club were seemingly ready to strike a deal.
Julian Rhodes and Phil Parkinson have both subsequently quashed these rumours. The joint-chairmen believes the deficit problem can be solved without a first team player being sold, and that there have been no bids for Hanson from other clubs. The manager has stated his desire to keep hold of a player who has served him so well over the past few years.
Whether this stance was the case all along is debatable, as WOAP understands that those rumours of interest from Bolton and Huddersfield had more substance than the club are publically stating. No matter, Hanson staying at Valley Parade is the outcome that most Bradford City supporters want to see. It would have been difficult to stomach watching another of the club’s best players being sold off to balance the books, especially if it resulted in Hanson rocking up at the same destination as his former strike partner.
If City do sell Hanson next month, they will look rather silly now in view of the strong comments made by Rhodes last week. The club has always said a player sale would be a last resort, and Hanson’s exit now appears to be off the table.
But where does this leave the striker, given he suddenly can’t get in the team? Parkinson has hinted that he wants to extend Jon Stead’s loan spell beyond its expiration on 3 January – and the Huddersfield Town forward is out of contract this summer, suggesting he could become a permanent fixture in this corner of West Yorkshire.
Stead is widely viewed as blocking Hanson’s first team path, although the two played together in October and showed some promise as a partnership. In fact, it would be more accurate to state that Billy Clarke is keeping Hanson out of the team. Clarke’s superb strike at Chesterfield on Saturday was the third consecutive game of finding the back of the net. Just like the last five games, Hanson was forced to settle for a few minutes from the bench, to help his team see the game out. In the last five City games (450 minutes), Hanson has spent less than an hour on the field.
A curious, and frustrating, state of affairs for the player.
It’s just shy of three years ago since Phil Parkinson, struggling midway through his first season in the Valley Parade hotseat, unearthed a striker partnership that would not only keep the Bantams in the Football League that year, but guide the club to a double Wembley appearance and a place in League One.
Pairing James Hanson – at the time struggling to win over a growing band of critics in the crowd – with the raw potential of Bermudian Nahki Wells was a masterstroke. They impressed up front together in back-to-back home wins over Crewe and Shrewsbury Town, providing with it a way forwards. Parkinson would go on to build his History Makers team around the pair.
And as strike partnerships go, it proved to be up there amongst the most impressive in the club’s history. A reincarnation of Robbie Blake and Lee Mills. The pace and unpredictability of Wells had echoes of Blake; the power and strength of Hanson was a reminder of Mills in his pomp. Like all the very best forward pairings Hanson and Wells developed an intuitive understanding, and each would instinctively know where and how to link up with the other. That their understanding seemed so natural was testament to a lot of hard work on the training ground. At times they made it look easy.
Unlike Mills and Blake, in this partnership the little man – Wells – was the more prolific player and it was always going to be a big test of the club, and Hanson, in coping without those goals. It took 55 seconds into life without Wells for Hanson to find the back of the net, in a 1-1 draw with Bristol City. Hanson has continued to thrive when he has been fit to play, adopting a more advanced position up the field than before. Since Wells has left Bradford City, Hanson has taken his mantle of being the team’s one in two goalscorer. His City career overall is one goal every three-and-a-half games.
But, of course, life without Wells has not gone smoothly. His replacement, Aaron Mclean, has proven a terrible signing and is now someone Parkinson is desperate to shift off the books. Mclean looked on paper to be the perfect replacement for Wells in linking up with Hanson, but there was no chemistry in evidence on the pitch – despite both evidently working hard to make it work. Mclean either could not or would not play off the shoulder of the last man in the manner of Wells. The flick ons from Hanson went unrewarded. It was painful to watch two players struggle to read the mind of each other, when in Hanson and Wells such high expectations were routinely fulfilled.
And though the blame was rightly placed upon Mclean, it has nevertheless caused a question mark to be raised against Hanson. Apart from Wells, just who has he being able to forge a good striker partnership with during his five-and-a-half seasons at Valley Parade? Gareth Evans, during his first season, perhaps – albeit it was a limited success. Aside from Wells, Hanson – and the club – have been hamstrung by a lack of good strikers to play with the big man. We expected more of the likes of Jake Speight and Mark Stewart. There has been some poor recruitment in this area, with Parkinson as guilty as his predecessors.
Nevertheless, Hanson’s ongoing demotion from the first team is partially a result of his struggles to forge a strike partnership with anyone else. If you put to one side their greater career pedigree and judge them on their contributions this season, could you really argue that Jon Stead and Billy Clarke are better strikers than Hanson? They do some things better than Hanson for sure, but in other areas they are inferior.
Stead and Clarke are in the team ahead of Hanson because they are the best strike partnership at the club, even if they are not necessarily the club’s best two strikers. Hanson has played alongside both players and these partnerships went okay, but he didn’t click with either player to the same level as Stead and Clarke have with each other.
Herein lies the problem for Hanson. With Stead and Clarke leading the line City are winning football matches: so where does it leave a player who the manager wants to keep rather than sell?
James Hanson has rarely being a substitute for Bradford City. Whenever fit, Hanson has started games. He has fought off competition from players like Jason Price and Andy Gray to remain the number one target man. Stuart McCall, Peter Taylor, Peter Jackson and Phil Parkinson all felt the same way about the striker’s value to the team and ensured he was a key part of their approach.
And yet now, Hanson is a regular substitute, and it is unclear what value he brings to such a role. Which is not to question his ability, but simply to wonder if he is the type of player who can make a big impact from the bench during tight games or when a goal is needed? Alan Connell was very often a Bradford City super sub who could come off from the bench, instantly picking up the speed and tempo of a game and then effecting its outcome, but we don’t know if Hanson can be similarly influential.
Over recent weeks, Hanson’s run-outs have been restricted to helping the team see out winning positions, rather than needing him to spearhead efforts in chasing a goal. To aid in running the clock down. From such short cameos, Hanson has rarely being presented with opportunities to score a goal, nor has he been needed to.
Such a status seems unfitting. He is now within the club’s top 10 all-time goalscorers. He netted that most famous of goals at Villa Park nearly two years ago, as Bradford City defeated Aston Villa to reach the League Cup Final. He contributed vital goals in that season’s promotion run-in, including opening the scoring at Wembley’s League Two play off final. He scored the winner against Leeds United, earlier this season, to earn the Bantams a first victory over their biggest rivals in almost three decades.
And he is paid well to play for Bradford City, after agreeing a three-and-a-half year contract, 13 months ago, that made him one of the club’s biggest earners. And there is surely something troubling about the fact that Hanson and Mclean will be amongst the top five, if not top three, highest-paid players at Valley Parade, yet neither are contributing in a way that was hoped or expected just months ago.
If Stead is kept on for the rest of this season, where does that leave Hanson? Waiting for Stead to get injured? Hoping that Clarke’s form takes a dip? Can he be an effective substitute? Is he happy to accept this reduced status? And if the club’s efforts to solve the budget deficit doesn’t go to plan and they have to deploy the last resort variant, do they risk Hanson’s resale value falling due to his lack of first team football?
We suddenly aren’t talking about an indispensable player.
I am pro-James Hanson. Unashamedly so. I get stick from some readers for my continued stance, but I’m proud to have stuck up for him during his more difficult days, and have continued to trumpet his worth after his popularity and standing amongst supporters improved.
I am pro-Hanson, but I understand the management thinking behind his recent demotion. He looked short of fitness following his October return to the team; and after resting him at Halifax, Parkinson has found a successful way of playing with a flat midfield four and with Clarke dropping in just behind Stead.
Nevertheless, the qualities and abilities which Hanson offers to the club cannot be overlooked forever. I’m unsure that Clarke and Stead are a long-term solution. Both are playing out of their skin right now, but whether they can sustain such amazing form over a long period remains to be seen. A look at both players’ career goal records does not suggest they will ever be a prolific pairing.
You also suspect that the team can continue to play this way with Hanson in for Stead or Clarke, should either become unavailable. It is not the same scenario of two years ago, where Hanson and Wells were so far ahead of every other forward on the books that rotation was a rarely used option.
At 27-years-old, Hanson is approaching what should be his peak years as a footballer. And he goes into those peak years with the character and confidence of enduring difficult times at Bradford City and blossoming as a player.
For their part, City have invested a lot of time and commitment in making Hanson the player that he is today. Time and commitment that has delivered an exceptional return, but which can still pay off further by maintain his long-term development. His impressive goal return this year suggests a player who has not yet reached his full potential, and it would be a waste by the club to fail to capitalise on just how good James Hanson can still become.
With special thanks to Alex Scott and Katie Whyatt for their input on this piece.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus