By Alex Scott
Since the recruitment drive of summer 2012, a frequent criticism of Bradford City’s manager has been the quality of his signings. Even round these parts, where the support for Phil Parkinson has been almost uniformly effusive throughout the last few years, his judgement of player is the one critique that doesn’t go away.
To say the signing of Filipe Morais has been successful would be an understatement. After a string of impressive performances during a spell where City have graced the heights of top of the form league (!), Morais has grown into an important member of not just the first team squad, but of the starting eleven. On Monday, the Portuguese midfielder signed a two-and-a-half-year contract extension at Valley Parade tying the player to the club until the end of the 2016/17 season.
This has been presented as a coup for the club, reportedly warding off interest from a “host” of clubs from this division and beyond to secure the signature of Morais, and clearly Parkinson views the player as a key component in the medium-to-long-term future of the club. And for the 29-year old midfielder, in the past four months he has progressed from a recently-relegated street free agent on the first day of the season to long-term security beyond his thirty-second birthday at the fifth best side in League One.
Given the rumoured interest from other parties, especially those such as Bolton and Sheffield Wednesday from a higher division, opting for City’s offer – likely of a lesser value – must have been something of a big decision for Morais. This is a player who has never before played above League One level, if you class League One at least on a par with the SPL, that is. (Sorry, Scotland). The chance to showcase himself at that level, for six months at least, must have been a tempting opportunity.
But then again, this isn’t the first career-defining decision in the career of Filipe Morais; he has already proven he is willing to make the big call.
The Portuguese midfielder’s first big decision came before his twentieth birthday, as he turned down a contract extension from compatriot Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, to search for first team football in the lower leagues at Millwall, and eventually north of the border. As an aside, the pressure of having to make a decision like that at nineteen, with your entire career potentially riding on it is fundamentally alarming to me, I struggled to pick out my own clothes before I turned 23. Hell, as anyone who has ever stood next to me facing a Tesco’s sandwich aisle knows, I’m little better now.
However, Morais clearly was and is a much more competent adult than I am, from a much younger age, having the nerve to make the tough decision to leave the sheltered environs of the Stamford Bridge academy for the wintry outposts of St Johnstone and Inverness. The freezing streets of Perth clearly far away from the sunny climbs of Portugal and, erm, West London.
Moving back down to England with Oldham and subsequently Stevenage, Morais established himself in League One, making over 130 appearances over the past four seasons. Mutually terminating his three year contract with Stevenage over the summer with a year to run, Morais was left as a 28-year-old wide man bordering on journeymanic status. Nine years after opting out of his deal with Chelsea he was back in limbo, and on its face, you have to think whether he was wondering whether he had made the right decision back then.
But Morais appears made of sterner stuff, and that much is clear from the way he plays and the way he carries himself on the field. His shares the common bloodline of the key City stars over recent seasons with his unwavering determination, and adding that extra bit of guile to make him a valuable asset in the squad.
After being hauled off at half time in the eventual 2-0 victory at Rochdale in August, Morais lost his place in the starting eleven to a resurgent Mark Yeates, and only started two games before the FA Cup First Round tie at Halifax in November. During a challenging first half at the Shay, Morais was the only player to emerge with any credit, and was one of the few players in the team who did not appear terrified as the half came to an end. Linking up excellently with half time substitute Billy Clarke, Morais scored the winning goal, leading his team to a vital victory.
Since this performance, the midfielder has started every game in the club’s charge into the top five, and has proven a crucial component in the shelving of the diamond, and its potential rebirth over recent weeks. Over the season as a whole, City have achieved 2.06 points per game in the games started by Morais, and only 1.14 in the games he hasn’t. I’d struggle to objectively argue a causation in that statistic – especially given how he has been substituted in two of those wins, let alone the small sample size – but still, it’s interesting.
When it comes to the formation that has been often cited the crucial decision for the manager this season in achieving this recent success, I’m reminded of an oft-cited aphorism from college football in the states that it’s not the X’s and the O’s it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes.
Faux-Midwestern folsky charm aside, we’ve seen over recent weeks with Billy Knott emerging at the point of the diamond, with Morais shuttling on the flank, that the diamond four can be a successful approach. But rather than showcasing Aaron Mclean and Jason Kennedy as at the start of the season, Parkinson has been able to call upon the vastly superior Jon Stead and Morais.
Add into this a much more stable back line and an ever-improving goalkeeper, and City have begun falling on the right side of those fine margins. The formation was probably fine all along; it was the Jimmys and the Joes causing the problems.
Players like Morais, as well as Andy Halliday and Mark Yeates, offer Parkinson a flexibility to try different things and tailor his approach to the opponent, whatever that may be. And there is real value in that. Whilst the two-and-a-half year commitment may be a daunting prospect,Morais’ versatility does offer some comfort. As does the aforementioned consistency of fitness.
Morais seems equally at ease – and potentially better suited in the admittedly small sample size of games I’ve watched him play – in the shuttling inside midfield role offering a bit of extra guile, rather than as an out-and-out wide man who grafts. A sort of destitute man’s Jordan Henderson if you will. Either way he’s proven adept at both roles so far in his still-nascent City career, and is clearly a favourite of Parkinson both on and off the field.
With no inside information whatsoever, it appears Morais was able to leverage the external interest in him into a longer-term contract than was probably desired by the club. That said, being able to agree to a longer deal has probably allowed the club to either stretch or backload the money to afford greater flexibility during this season, where the headroom in the budget is clearly at a premium, especially as negotiations with Jon Stead are ongoing.
Whilst a two-and-a-half-year contract is by no means a guarantee that a player will be tethered to the club for the duration …ahem… you get the feeling this acquisition has more legs. The deal will likely not represent a substantial burden on the club’s coffers, and given what we have seen so far there is little to suggest Morais cannot play a valuable squad role for the duration.
If Morais can offer an experienced veteran presence in the dressing room as well as prove a hard working versatile midfielder over the rest of this season and into the future, Parkinson may soon see the player as a bargain. Whilst you never want players to get old on your books …ahem… there is a value in locking players up in their prime, especially those who can help instil the values the manager believes in.
A 30 month commitment to a player approaching their thirties can be daunting… but this signing feels a lot less risky. In fact, given how well Morais, and City, are playing at the moment, this feels like much less of a risk than letting the midfielder walk and bank on replacing him at short notice.
This has been a startling successful half-season of transition for City, and with Filipe Morais now being locked down for the next two years alongside Rory McArdle, Stephen Darby, Billy Knott and James Hanson, the long-term future of the club is beginning to take shape. And with Parkinson at the helm, things are looking promising.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus