By Jason McKeown
The stats never lied, our eyes did not deceive us. For four seasons, Andrew Davies was hugely influential on Bradford City’s defensive fortunes, and so when he departed over the summer there were genuine reasons to be fearful.
Yet post-Davies, the Bantams’ performances at the back has amazingly gone up a level. After consecutive seasons of having the seventh-best defensive record, they currently possess the fourth-best. Until Saturday’s defeat to Walsall, they had gone a remarkable seven games without so much as conceding a goal. Five of those came in the league, equalling a club record.
A clean sheet at Walsall would have seen City, incredibly, match the feats of the legendary 1911, FA Cup winning side. Alas it wasn’t to be, as Tom Bradshaw’s 11th-minute opener at the Bescot Stadium saw the City run come to an end. 678 minutes took place in-between Wigan’s Michael Jacobs’ long-range effort at Valley Parade, on 24 October, and Bradshaw’s slightly fortuitous opener. A second Walsall goal followed, and so all good things come to an end.
Yet still, it has been an amazing run of form for the back four. In the long history of Bradford City, this current side have proved to be the amongst the very best at keeping out the opposition.
The run of seven straight clean sheets was, coincidentally, very much a case of the Magnificent Seven. Ben Williams, Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith, Nathan Clarke and Greg Leigh are the 2015 mini-History Makers. The players responsible for the recent defensive heroics.
The abilities of Darby, McArdle and Meredith are known well of course, but the three still deserve great credit for their recent form, and for doing it without their old insurance policy. Those Davies statistics illustrated that – for how good the trio have been since Phil Parkinson signed them all in the summer 2012 – they had struggled without the former Stoke man’s seniority, leadership and influence alongside them. Strong runs of form have come shuddering to halt when Davies moved from marshalling the back four to sitting in the treatment room. The painful FA Cup defeat to Reading last season occurred after Davies was ruled out just before kick off.
City were evidently a weaker team without their defensive lynchpin, at least that’s what we expected when he left for Ross County in July, our worst fears fulfilled by an opening day horror show against Swindon, as the first post-Davies game saw four goals conceded.
But McArdle has emerged from Davies’ right hand man to senior centre half. He had already showed greater signs of meeting this role in 2014/15, after he had clearly struggled without Davies, the season before. McArdle has built further on his performances this season. It is completely unheralded for a City player of the season to win it again the year after, but so far McArdle must be the front runner for the 2015/16 award. He has been exemplary.
McArdle’s strong post-award form is in contrast to the dip endured by Stephen Darby, in the immediate aftermath of his 2013/14 player of the season award. This time a year ago, Darby was just beginning to turn around that poor start to last season, having hit a particular low point during a dismal display at Oldham at the end of October. He was much better from that point on, and has continued to perform well this season, even though he seems to have acquired a minority of doubters in the stands.
Darby’s performance against Coventry, last week, was his best of the campaign, and highly commendable. He was up against some of Coventry’s most dangerous players, including, at different points in the game, on-loan Premier League trio Jacob Murphy, Adam Armstrong and Ryan Kent. Yet Darby did a terrific job thwarting their clear menace. His positioning was outstanding, and underlined why many people consider him to be the best right back in the league.
Darby is not the most vocal of captains. He will never be a fist-pumping Gary Jones. But his professionalism and dedication is a shining example to others. Apart from that dip a year ago, he has always been a seven-out-of-ten defender, setting the standards and keeping the bar high.
On the other side of the regular back four – and arguably the man to take second place in any player-of-the-season-so-far poll – is the newly crowned Australian international, James Meredith. Like Darby, 2014/15 was not all plain sailing for Meredith, with the contract issues and early season fall behind Alan Sheehan; but he has not looked back from that and is a key player, both at the back and going forward. His long-awaited call up to his national team is just reward for his solid consistency.
But of course, Darby, McArdle and Meredith were part of the early season horror shows. The collapse at Swindon on day one, and the further five goals that were shipped in over the following three games. As we filled out of Valley Parade following the Gillingham home defeat that already now feels like a long, long time ago, the brutal post match inquest continued to be dominated by one man’s name: Andrew Davies. What are we going to do without him?
Nathan Clarke had begun the campaign in his place, performing dismally in the Swindon and York games and leaving Parkinson with no choice but to take him straight out of the firing line. Alan Sheehan came in, but was only ever going to be a stop gap. Parkinson attempted to sign a centre back for a six-figure sum – supposedly Millwall’s Mark Beevers – but when that deal fell through, the desperation grew.
Step forward Reece Burke. The West Ham United teenager, sent up North for first team football by his club, who evidently rate him highly. Burke was instantly put into the back four, and back-to-back clean sheets quickly followed. He was the difference for sure, the man who helped everyone to find their feet. As we wrote following the Oldham victory that included Burke’s first-ever senior goal, “He is 95% of what Andrew Davies was to Bradford City, only likely to be available 100% of the time.”
Yet in spite of the upturn that followed, the fear remained that City had traded in the unreliability of Davies for a short-term boost of a Premier League player who they could not hope to keep. Burke’s injury, following international duty, coupled by Meredith also returning from his world travels with a knock, has had a positive outcome. For it has allowed two deputies to come in and show they can do the job too. The run of clean sheets continued, up until Saturday.
Nathan Clarke has begun his redemption, with his performance against Coventry especially outstanding. Watching him so evidently relish the battle, going in for challenges and emerging with the ball, had echoes of the man whose shirt number he has inherited. Clarke is no Davies, but can step into those large shoes, after all. With Burke’s loan extended, Clarke will no doubt face another spell on the bench; but he will continue to have a role to play over the season.
As will Greg Leigh, the understudy of Meredith. The former Man City youth product, Leigh is still raw and cannot match Meredith for consistency, but on his day he can be even more effective. Just like the Aussie, Leigh has been able to make a big difference at both ends of the pitch, and chipped in with two goals already. Matching Meredith’s Bradford City goal return in 134 fewer matches.
Parkinson will be delighted by how every single defender is performing, and he’ll be proud of his goalkeeper, Ben Williams. The keeper has had a tough time with his public. Last season Williams played in the epic cup games over Leeds, Chelsea and Sunderland, but held little more than a supporting role. Promoted from cup keeper to first choice stopper following Jordan Pickford’s departure, Williams struggled and Parkinson seemingly spent much of the summer trying to bring in someone ahead of him.
But as it turned out, a man who made a career sitting on Premier League substitute benches was considerably worse. Brad Jones was the modern day Robert Zabica, and after being wrongly dropped for three, opposition goal-filled games, Williams was brought back in. He rose to the challenge of Jones’ arrival, and his confidence has been boosted further by winning the number one battle hands down.
People still criticise Williams, but you can’t argue with these facts. There is absolutely no doubt that Williams has contributed to this run. He has made a string of impressive saves, he seems to be growing in stature game by game. He is reversing people’s negative opinions. Williams is not perfect and future mistakes are inevitable – but then all goalkeepers make errors.
Importantly, you can feel that he now has the confidence of the crowd behind him. He will know that too.
This Magnificent Seven couldn’t have succeeded without the help of others. Without the defensive solidity of Tony McMahon in front of Darby, and the conservative positioning of Lee Evans, Gary Liddle and Billy Knott in the centre of the park. City have become a low risk team who don’t pile bodies forward when on the attack. The priority has become stopping the opposition and being solid, rather than overwhelming them on the attack.
Such an approach has clearly aided the efforts of the back five players. But still, the defenders and Williams deserve to bask in the glow of their recent performances. In no game I have seen have the opposition failed to pose a threat to them. In no game that I have seen were City able to cruise to a clean sheet. The desire and the commitment has been exhilarating to watch. The defence has truly excelled over the last few weeks, and is more responsible than anyone for City’s ascent into top six contention.
And most importantly for the battles ahead, Bradford City have quickly moved on from Andrew Davies. No one can ever take away Davies’ achievements, or undersell just what an important player he was in the history of the club. But the City back four’s performances, so far this season, mean we can remember him with fondness, rather than pine for his return.