Images by Thomas Gadd, see note below
As City gear up to host Sheffield United live on Sky Sports this Sunday, WOAP’s Alex Scott, Tim Penfold and Katie Whyatt look at the five things we’ve learned from the opening eight games.
1) James Meredith is still underrated
Alex: Now this may be a difficult sell as he placed third in last season’s Player of the Year race on this very site; however, his electric form to begin his fourth year in a City shirt is continuing to hammer the point home: James Meredith is still underrated.
This season marks his fourth in a City shirt, and his excellent performance at Highbury on Saturday was his 100th league game for the Bantams. He has improved year on year and has shown enough in his first three seasons for Sky Sports’ Lower League Pundit-in-Chief Peter Beagrie to anoint him as one of the two best full backs in the division, alongside long-term full back partner Stephen Darby. And he’s gone from strength-to-strength to begin this term, with a string of impressive outings culminating in his Man of the Match effort last weekend.
The Australian has been one of the first names on the teamsheet for the past nine months, and now with former pretender to the throne Alan Sheehan is about to exit stage right, Meredith may be elevated to first. His partnership with new signing Josh Morris is showing an awful lot of promise, and Meredith is flourishing in a system designed around his strengths.
His improvement defensively has been the most impressive aspect with a couple of goal saving tackles already in the books. But it is his attacking threat where he really adds value, and he has continually impressed up and down the left flank. Given this freedom to attack, part of you does want more in terms of goals and assists; however, with the opportunity open to him this season, these will likely come in time. Right now, he might be the early favourite to follow in the footsteps of defensive counterparts Darby and Rory McArdle to win Player of the Year.
Despite all this, he remains literally City’s unsung hero, still after all this time playing without a song. I wrote at length about this miscarriage of justice a little over two years ago, and still my call to arms goes unheeded. Devante Cole was here three minutes and got a song. Meredith has been here three years! How can someone as consistently excellent as James Meredith not have a song?!
After a non-conventional start to his career, the Australian didn’t nail down a starting role in the Football League until he turned 24. Today, a little over three years later, James Meredith is continuing to make up for lost time, and has been just about City’s best player over the first six weeks of the season. Even if no one will sing about it.
2) Parkinson has reverted to his tried and tested
Tim: With the injury to Billy Clarke and the signing of Devante Cole, City’s midfield has reverted to a very similar shape to the History Makers’ team.
There’s one winger in Mark Marshall whose job it is to run at the defence and provide width, similar to Kyel Reid or Zavon Hines, and one wide midfielder in Josh Morris who’s happy to tuck inside and stop the midfield duo from being overrun, in a similar role to Will Atkinson or Garry Thompson. Gary Liddle takes Nathan Doyle’s role as the holding player, but the one main difference comes in the other position.
The main weakness of the team from 2012 to 2014 was a lack of creativity in central areas. Neither striker in that team naturally dropped deep to create, like Billy Clarke did last season, and Gary Jones’ lack of mobility, particularly when combined with the similarly immobile Doyle, meant that he often sat quite deep to stop the midfield from being swamped. As a result, the team mostly created chances from the flanks, from Hanson’s flick-ons and from set pieces.
In the current team, the situation with the strikers is very similar, but Billy Knott’s extra mobility and technique means that City now have a creative option centrally. With Cole’s pace pushing opposing defences deeper, this leaves a large amount of space in front of them for Knott to exploit, either with the sort of through ball that has created a goal for Cole at Oldham and nearly another at Fleetwood, or with his dribbling ability and powerful shot.
This gives the team another dimension, and makes it difficult to shut down, but this is at the cost of the extra defensive cover that Gary Jones provided.
Tactically, Parkinson has reverted to the shape that has brought him the most success, but has done this with players of greater quality and mobility, which should allow them to flourish at a higher level.
3) So Josh Morris can be key this season…
Katie: As outlined above, using Morris as a tucked-in winger has preserved the perennial awesomeness of James Meredith. With Morris cutting inside and leaving the space for Meredith to bomb forwards from deep, the intent of the left side, when both have been playing, has been one of the highlights of the campaign thus far, typified in the Port Vale victory to earn the first win of the season.
But it’s not even so much Morris’ whole performance that I’m remembering. Sat on the front row with my uncle, the indelible image of that day (besides punching the ball back to Morris when it went out for a throw in what was one of the single greatest moments of my life) was thus: Josh Morris had the ball at his feet. He looked up, surveyed his options. Devante Cole on the edge of the 18 yard box. Mark Marshall lingering on the right wing. And Gary Liddle, anchoring the midfield, absolutely screaming for the ball.
In the greatest statement of intent all season, Josh Morris backed himself to do better than every single player calling for the ball in that moment. He cut inside, played for space and glanced the resulting shot just over.
Even now, I wouldn’t class it as a rash decision. Yeah, he missed, and he ballooned another shot over the bar in the ensuing five minutes – but Josh Morris backed himself to do better than every single player calling for the ball in that moment.
In the context of the run of form at the time – a team that looked short of confidence going forwards, lacked a leader and were devoid of the impetus to take the game to teams – Morris, from the moment he came on, took responsibility, took the lead and single-handedly changed that game by doing so. It was Devante Cole who grabbed the headlines, but Josh Morris was the spearhead for the second-half revival.
With James Meredith evidently one of City’s standout performers so far, the left side is going to be a key outlet this year. And if Morris can maintain this confidence in his own play, there is every reason to invest our confidence in him.
4)… And Reece Burke already has been
He is 95% of what Andrew Davies was to Bradford City, only likely to be available 100% of the time.
Katie: That was your one caveat with Andrew Davies. Fitness. Injuries. Appearances. And, truthfully, without that fallibility, he would have had the career that he had, in the secret recesses of his heart, probably always longed for. For City, the logic was that squads were so markedly better – statistically and anecdotally – with the talismanic Davies that those absences were justified. But therein lies the rub.
Devastatingly, it was Davies’ wholeheartedness that probably spelled the end. Careering into the fifty-fifty challenge on the edge of the 18 yard box with the intensity that characterised his Valley Parade spell, the game was up, a hamstring torn within just weeks of his return. Slamming his hand to the floor, his face contorted in heartbreak, the familiar scent of frustration that has underlined Davies’ tenure dissipated for all to breathe.
Looking back, you wonder if that was the moment in which Davies’ lot was cast. Sliding tackles and sliding doors.
Of his release, I was initially sceptical. The track record shows that City have never, bar Carl McHugh, found an adequate replacement, plugging the gaps instead with players that rendered the Bantams defence unbalanced and lopsided. It’s hard to say now whether the loss of Davies was causal or incidental when considering his absences coincided with City’s two worst runs under Parkinson – the one win in 21 and the plummet in form amidst the first cup run – and in truth, it was probably one of a host of factors; but that’s missing the point. Andrew Davies was one of the largest cogs in the Bantams machine.
Ultimately, Davies and McArdle just had ‘it’. That fluidity, that understanding – you can’t foster it easily. You can game plan for the ages, have all the diamonds, all the million pound players in the world – but sometimes, it just clicks. I hate it when footballers reduce their interview answers to “it’s just clicked”, but sometimes, that’s all you can say. All that needs to be said. In the Davies-McArdle partnership, the balance was perfect in almost every capacity.
I’m a nostalgic sentimentalist, I know. But in August, we were offered a nauseating glimpse of our future. With Nathan Clarke below the bar, Liddle covered at centre half, and McMahon was shoehorned into the holding role. The midfield looked lost, devoid of vision and unable to set the tempo as they displayed clear defensive vulnerabilities. Everything you’ve ever wanted to say to Andrew Davies could be reduced to three words: please come home.
95% of what Andrew Davies was to Bradford City, only likely to be available 100% of the time. And it probably offers a telling indication of his approximate career ceiling that Burke – just 337 days older than yours truly – has stepped into such big boots with aplomb.
After Burke’s debut, Alex Scott likened him to man of the moment John Stones, and I’d completely agree. With Burke’s composure going forwards and in his decision-making, and his willingness to bring the ball out from the back, he has so much to offer Parkinson’s side.
There’s a maturity about his play that’s simply remarkable for someone so young, typified in the composure for the opener against Oldham. Controlling Marshall’s pacy pass back in, it was a striker’s finish to take the ball on his back foot, open up and coolly slot home into the bottom corner.
Unlike Davies, he is unencumbered with a metronomic injury history, but to reduce his role simply to “injury-free Davies replacement” does him such a disservice. In many ways, the introduction to this section seems awkward, because it’s never really felt like we were judging Burke against the spectre of who came before.
For Nathan Clarke, you could feel the ghost of Davies looming large; for Burke, it’s a surefire sign of success that he’s halted comparisons before they even began. Burke proved within minutes that he was his own player, an incredibly talented teenager with a big future.
And while playing in the workmanlike third tier will prove invaluable experience for under 20s international Burke, being surrounded by consummate professionals like McArdle and Stephen Darby could also be the making of him.
Our entire existence as supporters hinges on we can glean from 90 minutes every week; we don’t always see the impact players have behind the scenes. When WOAP met Rory McArdle in August, he highlighted the importance of the off-field closeness of the back four and said Davies routinely gave him tips that sculpted him as a player. When handing the captain’s armband to Darby, Phil Parkinson commented on how vital the Liverpudlian has been in cementing the ethos the City chief sought to implement, remarking Darby worked tirelessly in the gym to improve his fitness – the results showed in Allamby’s regular strength tests.
In the period of transition between last summer and this, the experienced heads were vital in ensuring that spirit remained at the forefront of everything the club did – and they could play a similar role in the development of the young Burke here. There are few players that could be better role models for the West Ham loanee.
And while a side reliant on loanees is often assumed to be an inherently bad thing, there is no doubt that, where Parkinson has utilised the loan market well, the arrivals have redefined City’s seasons and saved stalling campaigns – take a bow, Jon Stead, Andy Halliday and Adam Reach. But with FIFA bizarrely changing the rules on loans next season – all business must be done in the transfer window, meaning no emergency loans between September and December, or after January – Burke could be the last time we see this kind of scenario pan out.
As well as stunting the development of the thousands of young players hoarded by Premier League sides, the rule change means the transfer window becomes more season-defining than ever before for managers – get it wrong, and it’s four months before you’ll be able to put it right.
Getting the right business done early doors next season will be a huge factor in the success of this team; but for now, Reece Burke has been one of the catalysts behind the revival of this side.
5) City have finally broken through their glass ceiling
Alex: Since the controversial exit of Nahki Wells eighteen months ago, Phil Parkinson’s team have looked like they are missing something. It’s not that Parkinson hasn’t been able to scheme and plan his way around his side limitations – City did finish seventh last season – but despite the best efforts of the manager, they were a long way off competing at the top of the division.
You had to wonder whether that team had reached its peak.
It is clear Parkinson was of this opinion, as despite a strong finish, he oversaw a complete overhaul of his squad over the summer. Last time out, they had to work so hard to create chances and score goals. Whilst they had a number of nice players, they were seldom threatening, with only three players in the entire squad scoring more than three league goals. Whilst they held a top six defence, the attack was languishing deep in the bottom half of the table.
Without a more reliable route to goals, it’s difficult to imagine how City could have made it into the top six, let alone genuinely challenge for promotion. Not since Roberto Martinez-era Wigan in 2001 had a team finished in the top six when scoring fewer than City’s 55 goals last season. Something had to change, and it did with a host of new signings over the summer. But as City stuttered through their first few games, the new dawn looked a lot like the old dawn, and City showed that there is more than one way to skin a cat and not look like scoring any goals doing it.
Enter Goal Prince Cole. Over the past two games, for the first time in two years, City have looked like a genuine team. Everything appears joined up. They can score goals through more than sleight of hand. We haven’t seen the likes of the Devante Cole goal at Boundary Park in a long time.
Beyond that finish though, it’s all the other chances he’s creating for himself, and the rest of his team that really encourages. He made the crucial run in the build up to the Hanson goal – just look at the panic in the opposition defence! – and he was *this* close to replicating his Oldham goal to grab another away victory. Not to mention the gilt-edged headers he has spurned since his arrival.
City have earned seven points from the possible nine with Cole on the books, and that was *this* close to being a 100% record. They have obliterated the glass ceiling of seasons past. Once everything settles down over the next few weeks, and Cole and James Hanson build up their understanding, City have a real team.
Devante Cole is everything Aaron McLean was supposed to be, and now after 18 long, goal-shy months, City can move forwards. The ceiling is smashed. If Parkinson can keep Burke and Cole around, and fit, respectively, the sky is now the limit.
With special thanks to the very kind Thomas Gadd for allowing us to use his excellent photos. Please visit Thomas Gadd’s website for more details.