By Alex Scott
Welcome back to Part Two of the Width of a Post Player of the Year Extravaganza! Now the season is over in League One, with only rooting against Sheffield United and Chesterfield left to pay attention to until August, we are back to celebrate some of the highlights of another great season, through the prism of the players who brought it to us.
Today we’ll be recapping the players who finished fourth and third in the Player of the Year ballots of your intrepid Width of a Post writing staff. If you missed Part One where we unveiled our fifth-place finisher Jon Stead, you can find that here.
With that out of the way, let’s plough on with the next two players on our list and recap the season of a couple of our history makers.
In 4th place: James Hanson
In fourth place, we have last year’s runner-up James Hanson. Longevity always tends to be overlooked in football, but it would be irresponsible of me not to note that we have been running this award for four years now, and Hanson has finished in the top five in each of these.
This begins with a relegation battle at the foot of League Two, through an improbable promotion run, a year of consolidation in League One into this year’s efforts: finishing seventh in the third tier. That Hanson has not only kept his starting place in each of these teams – joined by only Andrew Davies in that fact – but managed to finish as one of the best five players in each of these seasons really is a testament to his talents and resilience.
He started the season in the form of his life, scoring four goals in his first five league starts – my favourite probably being this one at Crawley – as well as heading the winner against Leeds, in front of the Kop. This was immediately etched onto the Mount Rushmore of ‘Massive James Hanson Goals’, joining Villa away, Burton away, and Northampton at Wembley. The more you think about it, the more likely it becomes like we are all going to refer to this as The Hanson Era as much as anything else. The DVD compilation of the last few years won’t look unlike a James Hanson Greatest Hits.
After this blistering start to the season, Hanson suffered an injury ahead of the side’s win at Milton Keynes and he didn’t really get his fitness back, or in truth, his place back until Christmas. That run at the beginning of December where Jon Stead and Billy Clarke linked so well was probably the first time since Hanson arrived at the club that he wasn’t the automatic starter. Though this didn’t last long, and since Boxing Day’s win over Fleetwood, Hanson has started all but four games in all competitions.
His absence in late February – due to an injury picked up during a two-goal first half at Orient – ended up costing City a real run at the play offs with two defeats and a draw, moving them back to the outside looking in, never to regain their foothold in the top six.
City tended to look their strongest with Hanson, Stead and Clarke in the team and whilst going forward Parkinson’s men were never ‘prolific’, with the line being led by these three they looked as effective as they have at that end of the pitch since the heady days of 2012.
Hanson’s energy and movement has improved and improved under Parkinson, and this continued this year where in the toughest games of the season, he added a new string to his bow, reprising his role as a quasi left forward. Way back in 2009, Hanson spent some time out on the left flank in an effort to get him in the team, but he never looked particularly comfortable.
This year, in the game at Stamford Bridge in particular he was a valuable outlet for the side pulling on to the inexperienced right back Andreas Christensen, whom he beat in the air repeatedly. He looked comfortable in this role, and this comfort in his own skin has been a noticeable development throughout the season.
Whereas in previous years the forward may have played within himself, he now looks, at 27, to have developed into a player and a role in the squad that is his own. His ‘40-some appearance, 10-15 goal a season’ output has remained consistent throughout his time at Valley Parade irrespective of the division or the team he is playing in. He is under contract for the next two seasons, and if he repeats the output that he has done so far in his career he will crash the top ten all time appearance makers for the club, and the top three all-time goal scorers.
Regardless of what happens this summer, it’s hard to think of a City side without him, and this season has seen him continue develop into a true talismanic figure. He has risen to every challenge thrown at him so far at Valley Parade, and how far he can step forward next year will go a long way to defining how far the club can go.
3rd place: James Meredith
After being overlooked by other respective award-giving academies last week, the Width of a Post writing team will continue to ride ’til we die with James Meredith, who placed a strong third in our voting.
Given the off-season he went through last summer, that he has even made it through the season is a bit of a turn up. In fact, the past nine months couldn’t really have gone much better for the Australian.
It’s hard to think back to July last year to the point where Meredith was slated as the team’s reserve left back. As the story goes, after pondering City’s offer of a two-year extension for too long last summer – in the context of swirling Championship interest – Parkinson and the powers-that-had been decided to grab the bird in the hand and offer that contract instead to Alan Sheehan.
Subsequently, for reasons unclear, though the prevailing assumptions can easily be inferred, Meredith opted to return to where he had enjoyed such success on a far less beneficial one-year ‘prove it’ deal.
It should probably be noted here that this narrative of ‘reserve player come good’ never really played out in reality. Due to injuries, suspensions and poor play, Meredith started at left back almost from the outset, and has gone on to make more league starts – 39 – than in either of his previous two seasons.
He immediately revelled in the new system Parkinson was trying to implement, surging forward with great intent into the vacant areas in front of him on the left, allowing the side’s lopsided approach – excellently detailed here – to work. Whilst the absence of a supporting midfielder seemed to thrust his compatriot Stephen Darby out of his comfort zone, Meredith flourished after Kyel Reid left for pastures new.
After rotating with his replacement over the first few weeks, and then through the club’s dicey run in mid-October, Parkinson – as he so often has – decided enough was enough and started the stronger option, money be damned. The away win against Preston seemed to be the moment when the torch was definitively thrust into the Australian’s hand, and not at all coincidentally did this decision lead to City’s strongest run of the year and Meredith never looked back.
The all-too-rare moments where Meredith has started alongside fellow history making back four of Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies, have tended to coincide with the team reaching their potential. The team have kept more clean sheets in the 17 games with these four starting than they have in the 29 with any other back four combination in place. The team have only conceded more than one goal once in a game where the four have started.
Meredith always seems to be overlooked when discussing the strengths of the back four but you could make quite a strong argument that no one else in the squad has as big an impact on both ends of the pitch as Meredith.
And perhaps unsurprisingly looking at Meredith’s career, all of this has been encapsulated in the club’s biggest games of the year. Starting in the Leeds home game in August, Meredith firstly earned Luke Murphy’s red card by beating him to the free ball, before wreaking havoc down the left hand side as the shorthanded away team hung on.
Subsequently in the Chelsea and Sunderland games, Meredith hit his apex. In the former of these, he held off world class midfielders on the right hand side of the Chelsea attack, with an incredible defensive display, and with only a peeling off James Hanson for company in front of him. I’ve always been a fan of Meredith, but even I didn’t think he had that defensive performance in him.
On the other side of the coin, he showed off his attacking skills excellently in the Sunderland tie, who never, ever got to grips with his surging runs forward.
I’m doing Meredith a disservice by only picking up on a couple of his highest profile performances as, for the first six months of the season, he was right there at the top of the Player of the Year race. Whilst tailing off slightly as the season has drawn to a close, it shouldn’t be overlooked how good Meredith was and for how long.
After arriving at City from the non-leagues in 2012, there has always been a lingering thought over Meredith’s ceiling as he doesn’t share the pedigree of the likes of Darby and Davies. Even after a relatively strong first season in League One, these thoughts weren’t totally dispelled. Now they are well and truly extinguished. Meredith has shown this year that not only can he be a strong League One player, but he has the physical and technical gifts to perhaps soar even higher.
On the loan transfer deadline day in March, Meredith earned that two-year contract he failed to grab nine months before, extending his stay at the club until the summer of 2017. If symbolism is important to you, it’s worth noting that his replacement Alan Sheehan was loaned out to Peterborough later the same day. This move had shades of the Wayne Jacobs “Don’t Even Bother Trying To Replace Me As We All Know I’ll Be Starting Again By October Anyway” resilience to it.
Whilst anointing his as “The New Jacobs” is a bit much at this stage, Sunday did see Meredith make his ninety-eighth league appearance for City, and given his level of performance, the arrows are all pointing upwards at the moment.
At 27-years-old, the left back is now entering his peak, and after signing a contract extension a few weeks ago, these years will be seen at Valley Parade. What’s more, for the player, given how well he fits into the ethos, and the systems of Phil Parkinson, he is in exactly the right place to reach his potential.
Tomorrow we will be back with the runner-up and winner of the 2014/15 Width of a Post Player of the Year.