By Jason McKeown
Gary MacKenzie was enjoying a fine full debut for Bradford City, helping his temporary employers keep Walsall at bay as they held a 1-0 lead. But then a deep cross was flung in from the far side, and the Scot pushed up in an attempt to catch the opposition offside. The rest of the defence did the opposite, and Jordy Hiwula-Mayifuila was left unmarked to head home the equaliser.
It would be tempting to have attributed this goal as a mistake by MacKenzie, but it wasn’t really a case of making the wrong decision – it was a lack of understanding about how one of the most well-drilled Bradford City back fours in the club’s history operates.
Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and James Meredith are about to complete their third season at Valley Parade. Andrew Davies – the man who MacKenzie stood in for against Walsall – is in his fourth campaign as a Bantam. The quartet have collectively started an amazing 483 games for Bradford City.
Together, they have provided the foundations behind the club’s rise from the lower echelons of League Two to pushing for a place in the Championship, via the cup drama of Arsenal, Villa, Chelsea and co. They have developed strong understandings. A rhythm and cohesion that the rest of the team can be built around. And they are showing no signs of fading, indeed the opposite.
It is a remarkable achievement to have constructed such a settled back four. It certainly hasn’t occurred at Valley Parade for decades. We have had many long-serving defenders, but the furniture around them has invariably shifted season-upon-season. It is as though Phil Parkinson has his own version of George Graham’s famous Arsenal back four.
It was obvious during his first season in charge that Parkinson prioritised reorganising the defence before looking at how City could attack effectively, and the season-upon-season stats highlight the improvement under the City manager.
The table below shows that, under the four seasons in League Two prior to Parkinson’s arrival (2007-2011), City’s defensive record was very average in comparison to the rest of the division. The best ranking was eleventh (twice) and their worst sixteenth. During his first, difficult season (2011/12), Parkinson kept City up with a top-10 defensive record. Since then and through the elevation to League One, City have been top seven.
* So far this season, after 36 games.
For three of the four back four members especially, the 2014/15 campaign is going to go down as a very good one. Darby, McArdle and Meredith have faced serious questions over their ability and worth at differing points during the past 12 months. They have each shown commendable resolve to prove the doubters wrong. They have produced some of their strongest performances in claret and amber, and encouraged greater confidence that they can take City on to the next level.
And part of their success has been their greater ability to cope without their fourth amigo, Andrew Davies. It has been another typical season from Davies. On the field he has been largely outstanding and a true leader. But just like other campaigns, his availability has been punctured by a series of niggling injuries. There hasn’t been a long-term injury for Davies this time, such as those that occurred in October 2012 and October 2013, but he has still endured regular set backs.
In 2013/14, the difference between the back four with Davies and without the City number five was stark. They simply struggled without him. Matthew Bates failed to prove himself an able deputy, Carl McHugh was not as trusted as he might have been entitled to have expected. The season before, Michael Nelson was signed to cover Davies and fared little better. Too much of City’s fortunes were tied to the problematic fitness of one player.
Rory McArdle certainly seemed to suffer without his central defensive sidekick. Asked to play the more senior role, the Northern Ireland international struggled last season and there were questions raised over his ability to keep pace with City’s rising standards. The three-year contract McArdle signed during the summer raised plenty of eyebrows, given the club’s ambition to be pushing for the Championship over the duration of his deal. Was McArdle good enough to part of a top six League One side? To play in the Championship?
McArdle has risen to the challenge exceptionally this season. His shoulders now seem that more broader, his chest is further puffed out. McArdle has become a senior man, a leader. His performances no longer seem to be affected by whether it is Davies or A.N. Other lining up beside him. Indeed, even when Davies has played, McArdle has looked the stronger performer at times.
He is the heavy favourite to win the player of the season. He has firmly won over his doubters.
If McArdle does take the player of the season crown, he will be a fitting successor to Stephen Darby. This time last year no one was doubting the former Liverpool right back’s worth; but after a rocky start to this campaign there were growing questions. Darby undoubtedly struggled up until the end of October, with a shocking performance at Oldham the low point.
There were theories banded around at the time as to why Darby was in such poor form, with the suggestion that the captain’s armband was weighing him down given credence. It says much about the extent in which Darby has improved that no one questions his leadership abilities. Darby is no Gary Jones in terms of fist-pumping passion, but he has greater steel than his quiet persona suggests. You can see the respect he commands.
Darby’s display at Preston in November was probably his true turning point. He has not looked back since. It wasn’t, in fact, a mental issue that was affecting his game, but the teething problems of the diamond formation that left him too exposed and which asked him to perform in a way that made him look uncomfortable.
Going forwards had never been Darby’s greatest strength; but now he does attack in a measured and effective way, benefiting from greater defensive cover in front of him. Early doors, Jason Kennedy was getting plenty of praise in the right midfield role in front of Darby; but the former Rochdale and Darlington man rarely tracked back to help out his skipper, who was increasingly doubled up upon.
Others – most notably Filipe Morais – have come in and performed effectively at both ends. Christopher Routis, who played on the right on Saturday, also got up and down the pitch impressively. Darby has the support he needs.
Whilst Darby has recovered from a slow start, James Meredith has bounced back from demotion. 2013/14 was a poor year for the Aussie, who struggled during the first half of the campaign and then at Christmas suffered a long-term injury that kept him out until just before the end.
Yet this didn’t stop a summer of speculation about an out of contract Meredith moving into the Championship, rumours pushed by his agent it seemed. The story is that Meredith attempted to gauge the market and left a contract offer from the Bantams unsigned, only to discover that there wasn’t serious interest in his services from higher up. Meanwhile City didn’t wait around – securing Alan Sheehan to replace him. Tail between legs, Meredith returned and signed a one-year deal at City, going into this campaign as back up.
He has risen to the challenge spectacularly. Meredith bided his time, impressed when given opportunities and eventually Sheehan’s indifferent form cost the former Notts County man his place. Meredith has wrestled control of the left back jersey and is now streets ahead of his rival. If the season had begun in November, Meredith would be right up there amongst player of the season candidates. His recent performances are the best since joining the club.
Out of contract again in the summer, the fear for City has to be that this time Meredith will find that he is subject to serious interest from elsewhere, and that his burning ambition will lead to him taking up alternative offers.
Certainly it is not a situation you would want to go into the summer unresolved. The games are coming thick and fast right now, but sooner or later Parkinson will need to give serious thought to his out of contract players and who he wants to keep. Meredith will be right at the top of that list.
But will his other long-serving back four member, Andrew Davies, be offered another deal when it runs out this summer? Davies has already made more appearances this season than in 2013/14, yet still only played in 29 of City’s 48 league and cup games so far. That’s 60% of all matches, which marginally betters the appearance returns of 2013/14 (57%) and 2012/13 (51%). But still, it is a rate of missing four out of every 10 games.
The problem is that Davies remains one of the club’s highest earners. He justifies that expenditure when on the field, but in the past it has had a limiting effect on the budget afforded for back ups. For however much supporters disliked Matthew Bates, there wasn’t the money to sign a better deputy for Davies. Gary MacKenzie is arguably the best Davies back-up we have had, but he is on loan and unlikely to be costing much.
It is unthinkable to suggest not renewing Davies’ contract, and it wouldn’t be a route that most supporters would encourage. And the positives of how well the rest of the History Makers back four have performed this season would strengthen the case for keeping their talismanic defender.
For McArdle, Darby and Meredith have made a much better fist of coping without Davies this season, and they are no longer so dependent on him. Re-sign Meredith, re-sign Davies, and with the increased budget make sure there is another left-sided central defender to push and deputise for Davies. (Alan Sheehan has not looked the man for this, although is contracted to remain at City for next season.)
This back four are so well established now, and such a well-oiled machine, that it would be sad to see it broken up prematurely. A year ago it looked possible, but the way they have progressed this season has made them more important than ever.
City have something very special here, and there is every reason to believe that this high-achieving back four are still yet to reach their peak.