By Alex Scott
Welcome back to the third and final instalment of the 2014/15 Width of a Post Player of the Year Extravaganza, where we will unveil the winner of this year’s award, as voted for by your intrepid Width of a Post writing staff.
Now, if you missed the previous two instalments of this year’s edition and have particularly strong feelings about reading things in chronological order, you can find these instalments here, and subsequently here.
Finally, before we unveil this year’s winner, we have the matter of the runner-up to get to first, and whilst I do enjoy channelling my inner Dermot O’Leary, there is a time and a place.
So let’s get on with it…
Gary Liddle was in an unenviable position when he arrived at Valley Parade last summer. Irrespective of his Middlesbrough pedigree, or his years of impressive service in the lower leagues which preceded him, he was always to be “The Man Who Replaced The Man”.
Even down to his name, it was, and sometimes still is difficult to not think of him as the natural successor of Gary Jones. There are many paths down which this season could have gone down, and if we were handicapping at the start of the year, a relegation struggle was absolutely one of more likely. And again, if we were handicapping, the lightning rod of the anger generated by the degradation of the team would likely have been The Man Who Replaced The Man.
In the way Jones’ energy and persona came to embody how we viewed Bradford City; this year’s edition, their perseverance, their calmness under pressure, and their resolve, have similarly been embodied by Liddle. He hasn’t been Gary Jones to this team; he hasn’t tried to be. He’s been a leader by example, eschewing gut-bursting charges through the middle in favour of dictating the style and tempo from deep. He’s been Gary Liddle.
This is key lesson from Liddle this year. He hasn’t attempted to replace Jones in respect of the on-pitch persona; that has been left to others. Liddle has instead opted to lead in a different way. The frenetic urgency that characterised Gary Jones, and in many ways the Gary Jones era, have been put aside for a calmer, more calculated approach to life with Liddle. And this team, and this manager are reaping the rewards of this approach.
Of all the off-season signings, Liddle was absolutely playing with the hardest degree of difficulty. I’d have backed his inclusion in this Top Five for just making it through the season. As it has turned out, He has done much more than that; he’s led the re-invention of Bradford City.
The word that comes to my mind when thinking about Gary Liddle is composure. He always seems to remain calm at the back of that midfield. He just never looks flustered, never out of control.
Now, clearly, there is a gritty streak to his play. He was booked ten times this year, and almost wrestled the “James Hanson Memorial Award for Most Fouls Committed” away from its namesake. In the end, the big centre forward came through as expected to retain his trophy, but still, Liddle committed twelve more fouls than any other player not named ‘Hanson’.
Anyway, this doesn’t define him. He’s replaced the steel in the City midfield, but at the same time opened the horizons to so much more beyond that.
That calmness, that coolness in possession at the base of midfield; he’s metronomic. Rather than the iconic Jones, his true antecedent is Nathan Doyle. City have finished the season toying with a 4-2-3-1, with two deep lying midfielders at the base. One tiny regret is that we never got the chance to see Liddle and Doyle run that system together.
Not in terms of goal scoring – this finish aside, he does also seem to have inherited Doyle’s shooting boots from distance – but in his role as facilitator, his inclusion allows the side to play so much more expansively than was possible beforehand.
The word from Notts County has been that his true position is as a centre half, and he has filled in adeptly on occasion when required this season. I’m not a football scout by any means, but it feels like such a waste of his talents. He’s got the height, the strength, the burst to play in the back line, but he has so much more.
It’s almost the prototype for what you would want from your defensive midfielder. All the physical attributes you could desire are there, but on top of that, that bit of skill, of consideration and deliberation. At this level, I’m not sure you could ask for much more.
Watching him carry a cast of thousands alongside him in midfield this season has been a joy to see, and given how impressive so many of his partners have been, his impact is surely no coincidence.
I was a vocal sceptic coming into this season over the decision to let Doyle and Jones walk. I thought it showed a lack of ambition, and almost dishonour, disloyalty. Even as the season was progressing, I’m not sure I really came round. Now I’m ready to hold up my hands and admit my failings. In Parky I trust. In Liddle I trust. The torch has been passed.
Gary Liddle has the skill set to take the club to the next level, he has shown this again and again throughout the year. In many other years he could have won the award. He has shown this year that he is absolutely capable of being a good starter in a promotion team in League One, and at 29 years old in June, he is at the perfect time of his career to be just that.
Now, before we unveil this year’s award winner, let’s just take a second to take a look at the other names etched onto the base of the trophy to see the company this year’s recipient will be keeping.
2011/12: Luke Oliver
2012/13: Gary Jones
2013/14: Stephen Darby
That’s a pretty strong group. Oliver was one of the initial rocks upon which recent success has been built, whilst Jones and Darby, both club captains, are City icons in their own right.
And this brings us – finally! – to our winner. We present to you the 2014/15 Width of a Post Player of the Year…
In fifth place… Jon Stead
In fourth place… James Hanson
In third place… James Meredith
In second place… Gary Liddle
And the winner is…
There are many places across the internet that take pride in being controversial or contrarian, screaming hot takes into the void. This is not one of those places. After almost clean-sweeping the “official” awards ceremony last week, Rory McArdle adds another figurative trophy to his figurative mantelpiece. And whilst hot takes sell, this was clearly a one-man race for most of the year.
The former Rochdale man has been a relatively unsung member of the City defence for a long time, but this season saw him step forward into one of the senior leadership roles vacated over the summer, and also into the spotlight of the first choice defender. And it really makes me so happy to be able to say that. I love Rory McArdle. I haven’t bought a replica shirt since 2009, but if I had, it would almost certainly be a “McArdle 23” shirt.
He has been exceptional throughout this season, almost without equivocation. Only Stephen Darby played more than McArdle’s fifty-three appearances from this season, and few players at any point reached the level he hit so consistently. Week in and week out he was a rock, and when the quality of the opposition rose, his performance level rose even more so.
In many ways, Rory McArdle embodies all of our perceptions of the “Parkinson era” out there on the field. Heart on his sleeve, mud on his shorts, never knowing when he’s beaten. The performance against Sunderland, leading the charge with his bandaged head was a joy to watch. He almost won the game for good after five minutes when he clattered through Danny Graham, setting the tone for everything that would follow.
One of my favourite recurring moments watching football belongs to Rory McArdle. The moment when the ball arrives at the feet of James Meredith, he turns inside to lay the ball off to Davies and you know what’s coming. Davies draws the forward onto him before turning and finding McArdle, and you know what’s coming. Everyone knows what’s coming. The ball comes out of the feet, James Hanson pulls left forty yards downfield and ‘bang’.
You can keep your Swanseas and your MK Donseseses, that ball is my favourite thing in football. It makes me giddy. It’s like City’s catchphrase – this side of that long free kick from half way to Davies on the short side (aka “the move”) anyway. Without that ball from McArdle to Hanson, it doesn’t really feel like a City game.
McArdle hasn’t carried the goal threat he has in previous years; however this may be down to him trading in all of his goal scoring chips he was saving for the second half of the season for that one strike against Scunthorpe just before Christmas.
I presented some statistics around Andrew Davies here a few weeks ago and how important he has become tangibly to the success of Bradford City. I can’t do the same for McArdle simply because he is always playing. There is no real sample to test for the absence of McArdle.
He’s made over 140 appearances for City in all competitions over his three year stint at Valley Parade, starting all but four of these. He’s only missed eight league games in the past two years. Like Parkinson on the edge of his technical area, and James Hanson leaping with a defender, Rory McArdle stood marshalling his back four is one of the iconic images of this recent run.
The loss of Davies does have a tangible effect on the team, and I’m sure the loss of McArdle for any period would as well. But what’s more is the intangible impact. The tone of the team, the way they plays just is McArdle. The leadership, strength and dependability of McArdle and Davies are the foundation upon which the side is built.
In addition to this, there are few members of the squad who have grown as much as McArdle as a player over the past couple of years. He has developed from a strong League Two defender into pretty much the first name on the team sheet in a good League One team.
His ability in the air, along with that controlled desperation plays into the side’s deep defensive style, and this is absolutely one of the keys behind the team’s success against more talented opposition.
Within the set-up at Valley Parade under Phil Parkinson, you wonder how far he can go. For instance, in that aforementioned Sunderland game if you were told one of the defensive partnerships was a Premier League pairing, I’m not sure anyone would have selected John O’Shea and Wes Brown.
Whether or not the side has been built around his strengths, or the power and gravity McArdle’s play has bent the style of play to his will, doesn’t really matter, but at this stage, it is hard to imagine a City team without him.
McArdle has spent a lot of his time at Valley Parade in the shadow of Andrew Davies, but this year has seen him step out into the spotlight. He has been the most consistent player for City this year and what’s more he has also clearly been City’s best player. Rory McArdle has gone from strength to strength in his time at Valley Parade, and at 28 years old with two years to run on his contract, he is all set to realise his peak in a City shirt.
I, for one, can’t wait to watch it.