By Alex Scott
After restoring some pride in a battling 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane on Saturday, whilst still being eliminated from play off contention, City’s long gaze into a summer of uncertainty can begin in earnest on Tuesday night with a trip to Scunthorpe.
Whilst having nothing really to play for is never really anyone’s ideal situation, given the fraught nature of recent years, kicking back in neutral for a few weeks isn’t all that bad. That said, the uncertainty over the club’s short and long future created by Gianni Palladini and associates does create a feeling of unease.
The dog days of the season are always valuable for some players though, many livelihoods hang in the balance. However calm the fan base may be, a group of players will certainly be feeling the urgency.
Here is your primer on the status of the squad entering the summer, and which five players really are on the hot seat ahead of the season run-in beginning with tonight’s trip to Scunthorpe.
Before we start, here’s a summary of the players you are likely to see next year regardless:
- Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith, James Hanson, Billy Knott* and Filipe Morais each have two more years to run on their deals, so regardless of any new investment, or how well they play now, they will almost certainly be around next year. (*City hold a one year club option on Knott’s contract, exercisable in June 2016.)
- Whilst Gary Liddle’s contract is set to expire in June, City hold a club option to extend it for another year, which they almost certainly will. Top scorer Billy Clarke, and young striker Oli McBurnie each another year to run.
- Similarly, current castoffs Alan Sheehan and Aaron McLean have another year to run on their respective contracts, though it is likely at least one of the pair will be bought out ahead of the new season.
- Almost everyone else in the squad is up in the air come June.
T5 – Ben Williams and Matty Dolan
Both these players have a year to run on their contract, so even at a worst case scenario they have a 2014/15 Jason Kennedy season in front of them, which wouldn’t be the end of the world for them. That said, neither has covered themselves in glory over recent weeks.
For Dolan, that in Gary Liddle’s stead on Saturday, Parkinson chose to play two defensive midfielders, neither of which were Dolan, cannot possibly bode well. Given his age, versatility and salary you assume he will be back as a bottom of the rotation midfielder, but a decent performance before May would be very handy to solidify himself.
Ben Williams signed on for another year in January as Jordan Pickford’s back up. Since this point both Pickford, and Pickford 2.0 (Jak Alnwick) have exited stage right and Williams has been forced into some extensive game time.
Neither figuratively nor literally could you say that Williams has grabbed the opportunity with both hands and you wonder if he is playing himself out of his role next year. At a minimum, a starter will be brought in above him. Again, a run of decent performance wouldn’t go amiss from here on out.
4 – Christopher Routis
Routis has had an up and down first season at Valley Parade, and in spite of some impressive performances across the pitch, his manager has yet to nail down his best position. Saturday saw him start at the base of the midfield alongside Tony McMahon and he was impressive, if caught out of position at times.
That said, he has proven a useful squad player to have around, his versatility counts in his favour and he does have a hell of a lot of as-yet untapped potential. If he’s content in his current role coming off the bench, you would expect a deal to be struck.
He has shown enough though that he may be able to earn a starting role somewhere else, even if it’s a Jon McLaughlin type contract at the top of League Two. A strong end to the season would do him no harm either way.
3 – Andy Halliday
Halliday is certainly on the hot seat entering the last few weeks of the season. After the January transfer window where his contract was taken over by City, I’d have had him as something of a lock to be around next year. Especially later that week after he scored the crucial goal in the win at Stamford Bridge. But his role in the squad has dwindled in recent times as the formation and Parkinson’s priorities slanted away from the industrious Halliday.
He is clearly a decent player to have around the squad, and his versatility has a real value, but you wonder whether his manager views him as consistently capable of changing a game, something you’d generally desire in a rotation substitute player.
The Waitrose Will Atkinson may have an anxious wait in front of him; Halliday was impressive at Bramall Lane, but still was the first man withdrawn. I imagine he will be back, though a couple of strong performances now wouldn’t hurt.
What about the loan players?
Jon Stead’s searing hot form of late January is becoming an ever more distant memory as the end of the season nears. On a related note, he hasn’t looked near 100% fitness in weeks. That said, given a full off-season at Valley Parade he can be a valuable squad piece, and as he has shown at Stamford Bridge, he has a higher ceiling than almost anyone else at the club.
The issue Stead faces, is that his easiest route into the squad for next year is as a back-up to James Hanson as the 3rd or 4th option. This season has shown definitively that you cannot get promoted with just a three man rotation of Stead, Hanson and Billy Clarke.
The relative profligacy of Hanson and Clarke may count against Stead’s hopes of a new deal. However given Parkinson’s clear liking for Stead around the dressing room, they will probably work something out as a rotation piece, with another forward also recruited.
Tony McMahon and Gary MacKenzie have both impressed in the limited time they’ve had on the field since arriving, and if they are happy to sign on as rotational squad pieces, you’d think that contract would be there waiting for them*. On the other side of the coin, it would be a stunner if the Francois Zoko experiment was continued. (*Blackpool have a club option over MacKenzie, though you wouldn’t assume they would exercise it.)
2 – Mark Yeates
Yeates was brought in two years ago upon City’s promotion to League One with a remit of adding a bit of extra quality to a squad that was lacking, and to help bring them to the next level. There have been flashes of the former, though these are occurring now in ever-decreasing regularity, but he has certainly failed in the latter.
At this point, the odds have to be stacked against him coming back. Yeates remains one of the squad’s more expensive players, and with the weaknesses of this team as they are, it’s hard to justify spending this much money on a player like Yeates, with such a limited impact in terms of goals. Especially after this season when the team has often been built around his strengths.
A good run-in may persuade his manager, but save a probably unpalatable reduction in salary from the player’s perspective, it’s hard to envisage him back next year. Either way, he needs to convince another League One manager that he is worth having a team built around him for next season.
1 – Andrew Davies
The player sitting on the hottest seat right now is counter-intuitively the universally accepted best player in the squad, when he’s healthy. Unfortunately, he will spend his life with that suffix following him around.
An argument gaining traction amongst certain sections of the fan base revolves around letting the defender walk, replacing him with a more reliable player able to play a full season. Now, for what it’s worth – nothing – I view this concept as painfully misguided, but it does exist.
Especially now with Player of the Year-elect Rory McArdle sidelined through suspension, a strong finish to the season for Davies could be precious. It’s true, in those core players under contract until 2017, Davies’ name is curiously absent.
Any conversation begins and ends with his performance when he is on the field. He has proven utterly irreplaceable over his four years at Valley Parade. And given how many attempts Parkinson has had in replacing him, there is probably more to it than just poor signings.
He is single-handedly the difference between City being a strong play off team, and being relegated. And this isn’t hyperbole, the numbers support it. He isn’t just the thing that moves City’s defence from good to great, he’s the main reason they are able to remain where they are.
|With Davies (28 games)||Without Davies (18 games)||With Davies (24 games)||Without Davies (17 games)|
|Equivalent points over 46-game season||77.2||30.6||78.5||37.8|
|% games with more than 1 goal conceded||25%||47%||29%||50%|
Now obviously, with Davies only available two-thirds of the time, his impact is curtailed. But the only reason City can afford a good Championship quality player like Davies is because of this fact.
Replacing him with a less talented, more consistent player of equal cost the team may end up somewhere in the middle. But it would be a significant gamble, with no guarantee in either the quality or resilience of a replacement. This is especially true given the manager’s track record of replacing Davies. Gambling that next year Parkinson can do a better job replacing Davies when he is absent, whilst improving the front six – and in turn the margin of error – makes much more sense.
Intentionally lowering the ceiling of your team in a season where you are hoping for a promotion push doesn’t add up. He’s not the problem; he’s never been the problem.
That said, Davies will want a strong end to the season to ensure his manager is fully aware of his value, and tonight’s game at Scunthorpe, without his partner in crime will be where it begins.
The play off race may be over, but there remains much at stake for many players in the squad. Given all the uncertainty surrounding the club at the moment, controlling what you can control will be the mantra. This continues tonight at Glanford Park.