By Alex Scott
And then there were four. Monday’s decision to let Andrew Davies leave Valley Parade meant that after three years of qualified dominance, the History Making Back Four has played its last game as a unit, leaving only Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and James Hanson left from that 2012 team.
Davies’s decision – to leave City’s offer on the table in favour of more security with Ross County – is on its face, quite shocking (in football terms anyway). Firstly, I mean, with respect, it’s Ross County. Have you ever looked up Dingwall on a map? That’s even beyond White Walker territory. That’s almost a seven hour drive north – without traffic – from BD1. I mean, it’s a three and half hour drive north from bloody Edinburgh. Maybe the lure of hanging out with Rafa De Vita again was too much to give up?
Davies will be joining the ninth best team in Scotland on a two-year contract, immediately being installed as captain. In terms of comparisons in playing level, it should be noted that after arriving in at the January deadline, De Vita won SPFL Player of the Month only two months later. With that fact as background, Ross County are getting a hell of a signing in Davies, and Davies is getting more security, with City reportedly only willing to offer a one-year, incentive laden deal. So everyone is a winner, I suppose.
It is curious that no other team in the upper echelons of League One or the lower echelons of the Championship were willing to take a flyer on Davies. Given the relatively low stakes – being able to outbid, again, with respect, Ross County, over a two year commitment – I sure find it difficult to believe that it wouldn’t have been a risk worth taking for the Wigans, Huddersfields, or Leeds Uniteds of this world, but hey, what the hell do I know?
Regardless of his new abodes, this move caps off one of the more impressive modern day Bradford City careers. Davies has been excellent, almost exclusively throughout. He’s just great, and I’m really going to miss watching him play. Jason McKeown asserted that Davies is the most influential player of the Parkinson era, and without playing the contrarian Nahki Wells card, that’s hard to dispute.
Whilst he didn’t necessarily grace the level of a contemporary City icon, with the McCalls and Windasses, Joneses and Rickettses – just me? – Davies was right on the level below. In terms of pound-for-pound footballer on his day in a City shirt, I’d take Dean Windass and Wells over Davies in the past fifteen years, and that might be it.
He was like a security blanket for me for four seasons. Every time the ball was pumped forward by the opposition, I was able to take a sip of tea, or check the scores on my phone, given the extent of the foregone conclusion that he was going to win that header. But of course, he also had something else going for him: the power of comparison. Given his frequent absences from the team, it was clear to see again and again how important Davies was to City.
For comparative purposes, Davies has always been seen to be a stronger player than Rory McArdle, but I’m not sure off the top of my head we’ve seen Davies even five times without McArdle next to him over the past few years. Conversely, we’ve seen McArdle scramble to cover a substandard partner on too many occasions to count.
Centre back pairings are often heralded around football, but it’s rare that a four-man combination can be so effective for such a prolonged period, and can be so almost independent of what’s happening around them. The Arsenal “Offside!” unit of the mid-to-late nineties stands out as an iconic four-piece, but there aren’t many more that spring to mind. Not that City’s version was on that level – clearly – but they were in their own right a sensational group.
In each of the three years they’ve been together they’ve ranked in the top ten over the season, and in the games they all started, the effect was tangible. They were just about the best four in League Two, and were just about the best four in League One when they were all on the field.
And there lies the rub, I suppose. When they are all on the field – when they were all on the field – they have been pretty much the difference between mediocrity and success, excusing Nahki Wells for the sake of my argument. This is tangible, and proven over time. The statistics do somewhat illustrate that in reality, Davies alone may be the difference, he’s that good. Though the stats with all four starting vs one or more of them missing are equally startling, if with a smaller sample size. Irrespective, they have proven an incredibly strong unit when they were all together.
However, when they all weren’t on the field, that’s when the trouble hit. Unfortunately, the key protagonist here is Andrew Davies – was Andrew Davies. His career has been defined thus far by unfulfilled potential and physio rooms. In his four seasons as a Bantam, this has been managed, as much as it is possible to, but that cloud never left from over his head.
In these absences, Phil Parkinson never once managed to unearth a passable, let alone competent, replacement. Its easy to say that Davies injury troubles result in him being inconsistent from the perspective of the team, unpredictable, in that any part of his body could go at any point in any game. But neither isn’t really the word. In the big picture he is actually highly predictable, highly consistent, more so than most.
You could set your watch by him. You know you’ll get 28 games out of him. He’s going to miss 18 or so, but you just don’t know when. And again, that fact is the only reason we could ever afford him in the first place.
Davies is a Championship-calibre player, and will surely, with respe… actually forget it politeness be damned, much disrespect, maximum shade to Ross County, Davies will be streets ahead of anyone else they have or have had for a while. Again, in maximum shade mode, Ross County’s best ever player might be Don Cowie. Andrew Davies is better at football than him, and he hasn’t gone “across the bridge” to Inverness Caley Thistle either, like that traitor Cowie.
For those that haven’t undertaken the same levels of Googling as me, the Inverness CT -v- Ross County games are known as “The Cold Firm Derby” (!) which is so great this obviously installs it as one of the Top Five Worldwide Rivalries, and I take back everything I said a minute ago, all shade withdrawn, I am now invested in this – GO STAGGIES! – and if anyone fancies a depressingly long road trip on October 3rd hit me up below the line #staggiesmafia
Getting back on track, to discuss Davies, you sadly always come back to the injury record. One of the counter-intuitively enjoyable parts of being a football fan is having pretty much the same exact argument, with pretty much the same exact people, over pretty much the same exact things, over and over and over. I must have the “Would you rather have Andrew Davies, or 80% of the player, who would be able to play 42 games rather than 28?” argument 100 times over the past three years.
For the record, I’ve always ridden on the side of ”backing talent”; however, it seems that Phil Parkinson, after almost four years, has definitively come down on the other side.
The thing about bad transfer signings, is that in the land of Opportunity Cost, they always come back to get you, one way or another. Aaron Mclean was a poor player in a City shirt for eight months or so, but Parkinson is still paying for that today, with a huge chunk of his potential transfer budget set aside for buying Mclean out of the catastrophic two-and-half-year, £5,000 a week contract Parkinson handed him in January 2014. Not that he would necessarily have given that money to Davies, but the flexibility would have been there to make a call.
In addition to this is the signing of Alan Sheehan last summer on a two-year contact. This wasn’t on the nosebleed-inducing level of Mclean’s, but still “Starter Money”. Sheehan was signed as a nominal replacement for James Meredith, and also as a back-up plan for when Davies was destined to be hurt. As it turned out, Sheehan lost his job to Meredith pretty quickly, and then underperformed when called upon to be Davies’ primary back-up to such an extent that he eventually lost that job too, and wound up cast away to Peterborough on loan.
Parkinson dealt with the Sheehan situation in characteristically admirable fashion last season, leaving reputations aside, his included, and always selected the players that gave his team the best chance to win. But those signings, they always come back to haunt you eventually.
With Sheehan on the books next season, nominally as a reserve defender, though one you probably couldn’t call upon to start at centre half for a prolonged period, Parkinson was left with the prospect of having McArdle, Davies, Sheehan, and still a pressing need for another capable centre half to help this side reach the next level. Let alone the Routises and Liddles of this world, already under contract, also able to fill in in a pinch. Given the financial constraints the club are under, raising the opportunity cost ever higher, Parkinson could not possibly justify the resources needed to re-sign Davies.
Maybe if Parkinson could have a mulligan on the Sheehan contract, he would back himself to bring Davies back at a small reduction, and then hit a home run on his back-up, even a line drive double would do. But without that, the decision was essentially made for him. Those eighteen games loom large. You can set your watch by them. No one else on the books is able to perform in those games, and keep the club in the play offs. The only move left is to try spend the Davies money elsewhere, on 80% of the player for 42 games, and leave you with only four to spot fill.
It’s inarguable that City’s inconsistency and variance was what ended up torpedoing their season last time out. On their day, they proved they could hang with anyone at our level, and beyond – any excuse – but given how the squad was built, and who was in that squad, they couldn’t replicate it week in and week out.
This has been something of a running theme of Parkinson’s tenure – and Davies’ tenure – that throughout 46 game seasons they could spend months at a time out of form depending on who was fit. In truth, they only got promoted from 7th place, despite clearly being the most talented team in that division on their day, and needed an implosion of the ages from Exeter to even achieve that.
Given the loss of Bristol City and Preston at the top of the division – the MK Dons were good value for an easy six points – League One will likely be weaker next time round. If City can be consistently be performing as a top ten team – avoiding the spells of relegation candidates that have plagued them – there is little for them to be afraid of in this division. Other sides will falter, because they always do, and opportunities will present themselves. I mean, bloody Chesterfield were the “best of the rest” last year and I’m not sure anyone is convinced they were even good.
This season, there likely won’t be that many “tough” games. So even if City lose the ability to go away and win those hard games, if they can sort out the easy home games, and keep the points ticking over in those eighteen games, that might be enough. The floor may be more important than the ceiling this time around.
Another inarguable point is that whilst no one in the world knows Davies better as a player than Parkinson, no one knows his fitness better than Nick Allamby. Allamby has been with Davies since his Middlesbrough days and is probably a key factor in City getting the performance out of Davies that they have. If the combination of Allamby and Parkinson are refusing to sign off on anything beyond an incentive-laden one year contract for the 30-year old Davies, there is probably more to that than we know.
If this reads like me talking myself into this decision, that’s because I am. This is the best defence for the move I can put up. The truth is, I’m of the view that sides who are aiming to get promoted should not be in the business of intentionally lowering their ceiling. And also, more pointedly, upon what are we basing the idea that Davies’ replacement will a) work well with McArdle, b) be any good whatsoever, or c) won’t pull a hamstring in the first game of the season?
Past performance is the best predictor of future performance, but error always exists. Especially with such a limited sample size. After three seasons together Davies, McArdle, Meredith and Stephen Darby had created an almost subliminal understanding, and had proven themselves just about the best defence in the division again and again, independent of who they happened to be playing with or against.
Whichever way you view this move from a City perspective, it’s a gamble by the manager. Given what he is forsaking for a perceived hypothetical benefit, I would argue it borders on the reckless. But he’s been definitively right before. I’ve been catastrophically wrong before. No one knows this team better than him, and the wheel keeps turning. And then there were four. IPWT