By Jason McKeown (all images by the wonderfully talented Thomas Gadd of thomasgadd.co.uk)
Every single Leeds United player had come back to defend the corner. 1-0 in front with six-and-a-half minutes to play, they were desperate to see it out and earn a fortuitous but dogged victory. Matt Smith, who moments earlier had netted their priceless goal, rose the highest to head Alan Sheehan’s corner away.
Every single Leeds United player had come back to defend the corner, but their organisation was suddenly lacking. The white shirts had congregated too closely together in the six yard box. No one had bothered to mark Billy Knott, as he lurked menacingly on the edge of the penalty area. Smith’s header fell straight into the Bradford City midfielder’s path, with time and space to control the ball. As one 15,000 home fans shared the same thought, and relayed it to Knott via a collective bellow.
So he did.
There were mitigating circumstances that allowed Billy Knott to shine so brightly on that August 27 2014 evening. Leeds’ Luke Murphy had left his brain in the dressing room. He failed to heed the warning of a yellow card issued early doors for an overzealous tackle, committing another needless foul that left the referee with no option but to order him off for an early bath. The game was not 30 minutes old, and Leeds United’s beleaguered and out-of-his-depth manager, David Hockaday, elected not to sacrifice a striker and instead keep his side a man light in midfield.
A mistake that a day later would earn him the sack.
For Billy Knott was given the freedom of the park by Leeds, and how he revelled in it. No visiting player had the inclination or permission to negate Knott’s influence, as he began to boss the match. Everything good about the League One side’s endeavours came through Knott. Every attacking move was influenced by his authority and creativity. Knott was having the game of his life.
And a brilliant evening became the perfect one for the player, with six-and-a-half minutes to play. That half-cleared corner fell into his path; he teed himself up for a volley, and struck a perfect shot that arrowed into the roof of the net. It flew past every one of Leeds’ 10 players and into the top corner. Three sides of Valley Parade erupted. 1-1. James Hanson would get the winner two minutes later, and City would achieve a first victory over their fiercest rivals in 28 years.
Welcome aboard, Billy Knott.
Five months on from that night of personal glory, so much of Billy Knott’s fledgling Bantams’ career has been about living up to that high watermark. At times it has appeared as though the fortunes of the new-look City team have mirrored his own attempts to establish himself. It has not all been plain sailing for Knott, and lessons have been learned along the way. But perhaps some of those initial difficulties are now behind him, and the prize is within his grasp.
This is Valley Parade, and he can become its Guv’nor.
The struggles to fit Knott into the diamond arguably caused the formation’s demise. What was so impressive about Knott in the free role he was afforded against Leeds was the way in which he sniffed out space all over the middle of the pitch. On that night, it seemed like Knott was everywhere. But yet Knott is not a player blessed with soaring pace, or defensive know-how, and he couldn’t make the free role work as effectively when he was up against 11 opposition players and a more congested central midfield.
Knott was tried at the tip of the diamond, but wasn’t involved in the build-up play enough. He was placed at the base of the diamond so he could be on the ball more, with the more natural holding midfielder, Gary Liddle, shunted wide. Knott was okay here, but he still wasn’t in a place where he could produce killer passes. Worse still, the balance of midfield suffered.
In the end, the best role for Knott in the diamond was in one of its wide midfield positions; but playing here fitted in with the greater interests of the team rather than forwarding his own. Knott had to sacrifice part of his game, and struggled to make an impression. Mark Yeates was showing how effective the tip-of-the-diamond free-runner could be – mainly because of his greater ability to dribble the ball and to take players on.
Knott started to drift in and out. No longer the key man in the team, but instead reduced to its fringes. That vast potential was beginning to go unfulfilled.
How do you follow the best Bradford City central midfield in years? Whatever criticisms some supporters held against Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle during the final months of their time at Valley Parade, to compare what they gave City with almost every predecessor to their position, over the previous decade, is to compare night with day. Dean Furman, David Syers and Nicky Law Jnr the honourable exceptions.
What Jones and Doyle gave Bradford City in 2012/13 was priceless. They both still made huge contributions in 2013/14. As the History Makers were broken up, no players looked more difficult to replace than Jones and Doyle. Mightily big boots to fill.
Yet at the half way stage of the 2014/15 season, the pining for Jones and Doyle has all but evaporated. The likes of Billy Knott, Gary Liddle and Andy Halliday may still have some way to go before they emulate Jones and Doyle’s efforts, but they are proving themselves to be effective players. And what’s more, they have helped to take City onto the next level, and can continue to play their part for a long time.
Knott only turned 22 last November. He celebrated that birthday with another accomplished display, in the thrilling 3-1 home victory over Leyton Orient where he opened the scoring. The goal was in effect a tap in for Knott, but the quality of the build up play was something to behold. The diamond’s sparkle long since dimmed, Knott was able to flourish in the revised 4-4-1-1 that was devised during the cup victory over Halifax, and which paved the way for the beginnings of City’s sensational November and December form, including that Leyton Orient victory.
Knott still wasn’t a guaranteed starter, as Parkinson opted to rotate him and Halliday depending on whether City were at home or away (the greater defensive ability of Halliday favoured on the road), but his performances were improved from the struggles of September and October. He could be a match winner on his day, and simply needed to ensure it was his day more consistently.
There was a greater sense of balance about sitting Knott next to Liddle in the centre of the park, with wide players either side of the pair, and Billy Clarke just in front. Knott could get on the ball more regularly. He could be the architect behind home attacks. He could be the driving force behind the neat, progressive football that was beginning to bear fruit.
But he could also give the ball away too often. And here we saw the rawness of Knott’s game but also the true potential. For it didn’t matter how many times he misplaced a pass or found an opposition shirt instead of one of his own, Billy never went hiding.
At no stage did Knott look fearful of the ball. At no stage did he stop making runs into space. At no stage did he shy away from making himself an option. There is so much to be said about this level of courage. Better technical use of possession can be gleaned from good coaching and experience, but teaching players to be fearless is an altogether more difficult challenge.
How do you follow the best Bradford City central midfield in years? You can’t or shouldn’t attempt to replicate how they played. If you can instead adhere to some of their best values, whilst imprinting your own style onto the team, you can become a success in your own right.
Billy Knott is not Gary Jones, but in terms of work-rate and attitude there are striking similarities that reflect well on the young heir to the throne. It is almost as if Knott took over Jones’ peg in the dressing room, with some of the old magic rubbing onto his shoulders.
Knott can be a much better footballer than Jones, and enjoy a more successful career; but to do so he needs to continue marrying his raw ability with the level of work-rate that made Jones so inspiring. You get the feeling Knott doesn’t know how to give anything less than his maximum. Long may that continue.
Billy Knott never looks afraid when he is on that Valley Parade pitch.
So much of the Bradford City 2014/15 season has been about the strikers. The diamond was supposed to bring out the best in Aaron Mclean. The 4-4-1-1 enabled Billy Clarke to become Bradford City’s Lionel Messi. And then, following the injury Clarke picked up against Scunthorpe United the week before Christmas, it has once again become all about James Hanson and Jon Stead.
There were doubts that Hanson and Stead could work well as a partnership, but they have been disproven. And with Clarke likely to have to settle for a place on the bench now that he has returned to fitness, the hole that he occupied in the 4-4-1-1 – and which Mark Yeates took in the diamond – has become vacant for another player.
Step forward Billy Knott, who has helped to make the Hanson/Stead partnership work by operating just behind them. 4-4-1-1 is now 4-3-1-2. Without Knott bridging midfield and attack, City would likely have turned back into a direct team that knocked the ball long to its physical front pairing. Old limitations would return.
Since Hanson was restored to the line up, more of the game is being played through Knott – and he is revelling in that added responsibility. It has edged him as close as he has been all season to living up to that masterclass against Leeds. It won’t work every game, as the recent 1-0 loss to Yeovil – where he was criticised – proves, but Knott is turning into the key player that he spent much of the first half of the season threatening to be.
And then there is his sudden increase in goal threat. Since the 4-3-1-2 Christmas tweak, it is four goals in seven for Knott. He has doubled his season’s tally over this period, and become the club’s joint top scorer with Hanson and Stead on seven. At his current rate, he could be pushing 15 goals by the end of the campaign. 12 has to be a minimum target now.
Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle certainly weren’t noted for their goalscoring exploits. It is four years since a City midfielder reached double figures for the campaign (David Syers’ 10 during his debut season). Garry Thompson and Kyle Nix were decent at finding the net, but prior to that you have to go back to Eion Jess’ 14 goals in 2001/02 for the last time we had a relatively prolific goalscoring midfielder.
Knott has the technical ability to be chipping in with the goals regularly. His Leeds wonder strike a fantastic example of his ability to strike the ball cleanly. Playing in the hole means he is further up the pitch, and therefore has more opportunities to get shots in on goal.
No opposition team should be replicating Leeds United’s mistake of leaving him unmarked.
Knott has already played more times this season than any other year in his career. He has produced great displays, indifferent performances and the occasional shocker. He is a youngster still learning his trade, but blossoming within this environment. Thriving on being considered one of the stars of the show.
There are going to be ups and downs with Knott – he remains too inexperienced to be a polished performer week in, week out. But he is someone we should be patient with; and stick by when things are not going as well. He might yet face further spells on the bench as part of the learning curve, but his star is glowing.
Sometimes I’ve peered at Knott from my seat in the Kop and – aided by the fact he is wearing a claret and amber shirt similar to the 1998/99 version – I swear he looks like Robbie Blake. They are not the same type of players position-wise of course, but for first touch, close control and ability on the ball there are striking similarities.
Knott can become a very special player for Bradford City. He can thrive in a team that is growing, and flourish in the places that it aspires to reach. Whereas Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle played to their maximum and there was little upwards improvement likely from them, with Knott we are only at the beginnings of glimpsing the player that he can be for us.
Where that takes him, and the club, is going to be very exciting to watch.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus