Youth development and the different culture of Bradford City

Picture by Claire Epton

Picture by Claire Epton

By Jason McKeown

Midway through Bradford City’s opening pre-season friendly as Farsley Celtic, in July, a good bit of Bantams play ended with a shot being wastefully blazed over the bar. Nearby to us, a group of City fans in their 40s laughed, before choosing to barrack one of the players stood near them on the sidelines, who wasn’t involved in the game.

“Even you could have scored that,” joked one of the group, before embarking on a rant about how what a rubbish striker he was, whilst lapping up the chuckles of his friends. The player in question was 19-year-old Oli McBurnie – less than half the age of the supporter getting in the digs. McBurnie said nothing back, but looked very uncomfortable. Yet he was about to have the last laugh – a few days later, it was announced that McBurnie had been signed by Premier League Swansea City.

Less than six months after his move to Wales – and after an impressive start in the Swansea development squad, where he has netted seven goals in eight games – McBurnie, signed up by the Swans as someone for the future, has been loaned to Newport County. His League Two debut was a dream. Coming onto the pitch as a 58th-minute substitute, McBurnie scored his first ever Football League goal within five minutes. By the 86th minute, McBurnie had a hat trick. Another key milestone in the blossoming young player’s career – and it is one that Bradford City fans can now only follow from afar.

There can be no complaints over Bradford City’s decision to sell McBurnie to Swansea City during the summer. The Bantams were rumoured to have received a six-figure sum, and the young striker gets an opportunity to play in the top flight. The club could not stand in his way, and have been very well compensated for a player who, at that point at least, was struggling to get near Bradford City’s first team.

There are no guarantees that McBurnie will make it at Swansea City – or, indeed, sustain a career in professional football. But his prospects have clearly been enhanced over recent months, which in addition to impressing in Wales, has included making his debut for the Scotland Under 21s.

Yet still, it is another Bradford City youngster making his way in the game elsewhere. Joining a list of former youth team players, in recent years, that includes Fabian Delph, Tom Cleverley and Andre Wisdom, who are all playing Premier League football this season. If City could have hung onto such players, they would have had a mightily strong first team, logic suggests. Selling them before they were first team-ready did, however, guarantee transfer fees that might otherwise have never materialised, given they might not have developed into professional football standard players. George Green is an example of this.

The problem for Bradford City – and it is a problem in some people’s eyes – is that we have become a football club that doesn’t really give youth an opportunity. This is not a criticism solely directed at Phil Parkinson, it’s a cultural thing that heavily incorporates us supporters. It is why we can all stand at a pre-season friendly against Farsley Celtic, watch a 40-year-old barrack a 19-year-old striker for supposedly not being good enough, and say nothing. It is why you have to go back many years to find the last genuine star of our youth ranks.

I’d argue that the last player to really establish themselves, and become a City hero, was Mark Bower, who made his debut in 1998 and played for City until 2009. Before him there was Andrew O’Brien, who after five excellent seasons was sold to Newcastle United for £2 million. Simon Francis, the current Bournemouth captain, is another player who came through and made 55 appearances for the Bantams. He was sold far too cheaply in 2004, as City, in administration, were desperate for cash. Were it not for City’s dire financial position at that time, Francis might have remained at Valley Parade for several years.

Even then though, Francis didn’t really go through the City youth ranks. He was spotted in 2002 playing for South Nottingham College, and made his first team debut in a matter of weeks.

This is not an attack on the youth coaches who have been employed over the last decade or so – the stories of Delph and co show they can unearth and harness talent – but the two-fold problem is that City have been a selling club when it comes to their best youngsters, and those who aren’t cashed in on as teenagers, and instead get to City first team contention, find they have a difficult time.

And that’s where we supporters come in. The relationship between the Valley Parade crowd and youth players has always been a strange one. You often hear loud demands for youngsters to get a chance, and great excitement when they make their debuts, but the expectations always seem too high, and the patience too thin. Some people really believe in youth, and will support it even at the expense of results in the short-term, but others simply will not.

Some young City players came in and started off well – Lewis Emmanuel, Tom Penford, Danny Forrest, Joe Colbeck and Luke O’Brien the obvious examples of recent years – but there seems to be no understanding from many fans that young players will be inconsistent and have difficult periods. And when that does happen, people quickly turn on, and seem to be doubly hard upon, these players. “He’s one of our own” is not always a celebrated fact around these parts.

Oli McBurnie’s time at City was a case in point. In the summer of 2013 he emerged on the radar after Manchester United borrowed him for their Milk Cup pre-season tournament. McBurnie did really well and scored plenty of goals for the Red Devils; and he returned to Valley Parade in everyone’s mind, as the youth team made a blistering start to the season and McBurnie was a prolific scorer. There were increasingly loud calls for him to get a first team chance, and he made his debut in the FA Cup defeat to Rotherham.

A few weeks later, at Oldham Athletic, McBurnie was named on the bench. A tight 1-1 game saw him introduced to the action with a packed out City away end chanting his name and enthusiastically cheering his every touch. This is the period where our expectations are too high, and the blast of criticism isn’t going to be far away.

I always thought McBurnie was unlucky, in that the chances he was given by Parkinson were the wrong ones. A full debut at home to a tough, physical Rotherham United side on Boxing Day – with his strike partner the lightweight and, at the time, increasingly disinterested Nahki Wells – was a predictably poor afternoon. McBurnie was too raw to carry the hopes of a large crowd, against a good team, that day. In February City were at Wolves and 2-0 down, with 10 men. McBurnie was brought on for Andy Gray and asked to play up front on his own, against the champions-elect. Again, he hardly got a kick and at this point City fans were turning on him.

McBurnie had chances early in the 2014/15 season and struggled, and a loan move to Chester City seemed to do him the world of good. The Chester Chronicle reporter Dave Powell had this to say of McBurnie, “He impressed us because he was tall and could physically hold his own in the Conference. But more than that, he is an intelligent footballer. We had Jon Walters at Chester before he played in the Premier League and I could see the similarities. Walters ran the channels well and McBurnie played in the same sort of way.”

High praise indeed. And yet, back at Valley Parade, McBurnie had somehow turned into a figure of comedy. Contrast McBurnie’s tough spell with someone like Stephen Darby, who when he went through his own poor run of form was rightly criticised, but not ridiculed.

Joe Colbeck and Luke O’Brien managed to win over the crowd for a while, and both can be proud of the fact they won player of the season trophies during their time at the club. Yet before either has reached their 30th birthday, their careers have long ago come to a halt. You can argue this is proof that they weren’t that good in the first place – both, after all, signed for other Football League clubs before it started to go wrong for them – but the effects of the Valley Parade crowd turning on them, Colbeck especially, won’t have aided their development.

This is the dilemma though, because when do you stop wrapping people up in kid gloves? Just because a player is one of your own, shouldn’t they still be judged by the same standards of others? I would agree with that sentiment, and when people now are asking why Dylan Mottley-Henry is not in the team, for example, I think the principle applies.

Parkinson has to select the best team on merit, regardless of if they are from Baildon or Brazil. If he selects youngsters who aren’t matching the standards of senior players, the rest of the team will lose respect for the manager.

Nevertheless, at other clubs – like Crewe – you see youngsters given more time to be bloodied into the team and to make mistakes, with the team’s fortunes intrinsically linked, and the fanbase understanding of this. You see neighbours Leeds United – the embodiment of a badly run club right now – bring through young player after young player. One of their current young stars, impressing fans, is Charlie Taylor. He was on loan at Valley Parade as long ago as 2012, and in truth struggled to impress. Four seasons later, and the patience afforded to him by Leeds means there are rumours that Manchester United want to have a look at him.

(Let’s add another important argument to the pot – both Crewe and Leeds are struggling in their respective divisions.)

As I say, it’s a club culture thing, and City are increasingly moving away from it. Other than McBurnie, Parkinson has rarely turned to youngsters, even during seasons when there have been meaningless final few games. City never switch off and experiment like other clubs do, and that is a key reason why they finished 11th in 2013/14 and 7th last year, following late bursts of form that pushed them up the table a couple of places.

Ultimately, I’m not sure that we as supporters are bothered enough about seeing young players coming through. I think we just want to see a team of committed, hard-working players, regardless of who they are, and where they have come from. Our youth system is only in focus when the first team is struggling and people demand kids come in; but if a team is under-performing, it is usually the worst time to bring in youngsters, as too much burden is placed on their shoulders.

Hopefully McBurnie will enjoy a good career, potentially even at the top – he seems like a good kid – and there is no doubt that City can enjoy some of the credit for any of his success. He is clearly not the first City youngster to go elsewhere to progress; but back at Valley Parade, the wait for the next Andrew O’Brien, Stuart McCall or Don Goodman could prove a long one.

Categories: Opinion

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16 replies

  1. In my opinion, OMcB suffered partly because of the lack of reserve football too act as a bit of a cushion – he went from the youth team to first team, and to be honest if you take out the context of the games he appeared in for a moment, he rarely if ever looked like scoring, and it came to a point where he looked too desperate, such were the nature of his cameos. Had we had a reserve team he could have dipped in and out to build up some confidence and experience. When its youth team -> first team, at some point they have to look like they can deliver.

    With DMH, there were a few games at the back end of last season when we had little to play for apart from maybe a place or 2 in the league, and many fans, me included, were calling for him to be given a chance but he still didn’t get it. If there ever was a time to have a run out in the first team it would have been then.

    We’ve always been poor though at developing talent internally to first team level – the real good ones are picked of early, such is the nature of richer teams to dredge the lower leagues of any talent, and the 17-19 year olds we keep on often barely improve, if at all. From what I have also heard, the ‘friend of a friend’ whose kid is a youth footballer, often put Bradford City at the back of possible options such is the reputation for developing talent.

    I think back to Gareth Grant as a classic example – showed so much promise in the youth team, but was in and around the first team for about 5 years, during which time he didn’t improve, at at 22/23 still looked as sleight and gangly as he did at 16/17. I’ll always remember one comment – “Hasn’t anyone ever thought to send him to the gym?”

  2. What a superb article Jason! I really enjoyed reading this one.

    Call me a traditionalist but I like to see home grown players in the Bradford City first team. I remember thinking how comfortable Dean Richards looked on the ball. How many of us remember Graeme Tomlinson? I think that he had a goal scoring ratio of one goal in every three games for us before being sold to Manchester United. With hindsight you could say that he should have stayed at Valley Parade, where he would have played more first team games but how many teenagers would have refused signing for the team from Old Trafford?

    What about Des Hamilton? I remember the thrill of seeing him score both at Bloomfield Road in the play off semi final and then at Wembley in the play off final in 1996. Mark Bower was loaned out to York City before his return to Valley Parade and a successful run in our first team.

    Then there was Danny Forrest. Who can remember him scoring that spectacular goal in front of the Kop against Ipswich Town? Tom Penford and Craig Bentham both featured for a while whilst we tumbled down the divisions.

    I am not ashamed to say that I have called for Mottley-Henry to be given a chance to feature in our first team this season. I think that he would add some much needed pace to our first team (and maybe some crosses for Hanson and others to possibly score from).

    I am not saying that we should fill our first team with young home grown players as I am a believer that good teams are a mixture of youth and experience.

    The main reason why many home grown youth players don’t get an opportunity in the first team is because of the pressure on the manager to get instant results.

    Personally, I admire what Crewe Alexandra have achieved over many years producing home grown players who have gone on to ‘bigger’ clubs.

  3. To be honest I think City get the balance just about right and its probably indicative of where we are as a club right now.

    As David Baldwin pointed out to WOAP a few years ago the reality is that players in league 1 and 2 do not tend to change clubs for large sums of money, but the young players in the youth teams do and I think its great credit to our youth team coaches that they have produced a number of players that have not only gone on to make a mark in the game but have brought in considerable revenue to the club. Investing time and money into these players to establish them as a league 1 or 2 player effectively reduces their value to the club.

    If and when we get into the Championship our financial position maybe such that we can afford to gamble a little bit with the young players, opting not to sell but to bring players through to the first team as an established Championship player will attract larger transfer revenues, replaying the investment in time and money we spend developing them into first team players.

    In a parallel universe Crewe might have taken this route and might have been more successful in climbing the leagues based on money earned from their youth system sold earlier in their careers – we’ll never know!

    I read an article some time ago on how the non leagues are full of talent that didn’t make it into the football league because they either had brains and went onto do A levels / college etc instead of going into football full time or were late developers which meant they were not ready either mentally or physically to be taken on by the professional clubs at 16 / 18. We can see numerous examples of this type of player in David Syers (joined City from university), Weatherall (Chemistry graduate)Hanson (failed to make the grade when younger and went non-league) and of course Stuart McCall (released by Leeds for not being strong enough at 16).

    As we develop as a club the balance between buying in established players, unearthing non league talent and developing our home grown players may change but for me, for where we are now, I think we have it just about right.

  4. I think it all about the pressure of management to produce results quickly. As you say youth players on the whole are inconsistent and when your job is on the line week to week, why would you do something that may benefit the club 3 years down the line when the average manager only lasts a couple of years?

    Would the fans accepts us standing still for 3 years maybe even declining slightly because we are giving the opportunity to kids who aren’t quite ready but might be with experience. Look how quickly a certain section of fans already jump on Parky’s back and I think there is your answer!

  5. How do we shift a culture that has been comparing itself to the success of others for such a long time? We redefine our outlook on the game and stick to it. Look at Swansea, three managers that fully committed to playing it out from the back, and they’re now in the Premier League. Pessimistic Bradfordianism is the scourge of the city. Thankfully, the work of the owners and the coaching staff have done a lot to remedy this fact. Also, the rejuvenation of the city centre has instilled a renewed sense of pride in being a resident. LONG MAY THIS CONTINUE!

    As for the selling of our youth and pulling the rug out from under ourselves, I fail to see the benefit of any approach that steadfastly holds onto a gamble at most. Football, like any other modern day product, is a commodity on the game stock market. Southampton, another famous ‘feeder club’ were always targeted as selling the ‘future’ to butter up the ‘now,’ yet we don’t see their supporters complaining of late; this is because Southampton plan for the contingency and aren’t destroyed by the outcome because they tie future clauses to the player’s value. Selling on players is not a crime but needs to be in the right context of contingency planning. Parkinson has been hurting in this field, undoubtedly. However, perhaps we’ll see him turn over a new leaf in regards to potential interest in Meredith and Cole.

    I can’t wait to see how this goes, and will be waiting in the wings to see how everything pans out.

    P. S. Bower being termed a successful youth product is quite tenuous. A tumble down the league tables and a permanent spot in the first team do not go hand-in-hand to define a successful career. We as fans must not get these two things confused with one another.

    • Very harsh on Mark Bower, who played for the club for more than 10 years. By this logic we can’t call David Wetherall and Dean Windass City heroes either.

  6. By my logic, you can’t call Bower or Wetherall legends, Windass is a different case in point. He had the quality to go elsewhere, but chose to stay with the club until the deal became too sweet.

    If you value long tenure over success, then you’re welcome to your opinion. Personally, I think you need to do more than just show up for a long time in order to be considered a legend. It’s really not that hard to understand. We’ve had reunions of the Class of 99′, as opposed to the classes on 2006-10, for very good reasons.

    • Hang on a minute, let’s go back to what I orginally wrote, “I’d argue that the last player to really establish themselves, and become a City hero, was Mark Bower”.

      Where have you got legend from? The only person to use that term is you. I am not saying that Mark Bower is a City legend, I am saying he came through the ranks and established himself. The fact that he played for the club for 11 years is surely clear, indisputable proof that he established himself. I don’t see how you can argue different.

      On Wetherall I suggested he was a hero and again did not say legend. I would stand by that to be honest. David Wetherall played for City for nine years and was a massively important player over that time. His performances were never short of exemplary for us.

      Is it Wetherall’s fault that Richmond drove Jewell away? Did Wetherall sign Benito Carbone and nearly kill the club? Was he responsible for the fact subsequent managers could only afford sub-standard players like Bobby Petta and Lee Crooks? No, he wasn’t. The reason the club declined over nine years was not Wetherall’s.

      I’ve seen this argument increasing recently – anything from 2000-2012 was bad and can’t be considered good, simply because City struggled over that period. Well that’s 12 years of my life following City that I want back then! It wasn’t all bad, and if it was we would have all given up going.

      The best players from that era are retrospectively criticised when they deserve to have their efforts fondly remembered. This is not a black and white debate. Wetherall was instrumental in slowing down the pace of City’s decline. His efforts more than anyone ensured we stayed in League One for three seasons rather than drop straight down. He gave us hope when not many others were capable. That to me makes him a hero. Yes he never scored in a League Cup semi final or got us promoted like some of his predecessors, but he stood up for us in some dark times and should be appreciated for it. Who knows where we would be now without Wetherall.

      And finally, in that Class of 99 reunion game you mention, both Wetherall and Bower were invited along and played. #justsaying

      • So, you’re playing the technicality? I guess I’ll have to issue a response:

        A hero is someone who is recognised for their distinguished courage or ability. If you believe that Bower was either of these things, then you are truly mislead in your understanding of the game. In fact, taking the definition of ‘legend’, where a body of notable stories has centred around an individual, I was being kind to your previous statements; ‘Hero’ is a faraway description when compared to ‘legend’, for Mark Bower. Minor differences, but still very important to the context of my opinion.

        Whilst we’re being pedantic: How close is ‘2006-2010’ versus ‘2000-2010′ in terms of the dark years? I would contend that you are more than half wrong in this regard. Regardless of the torrid nature of those five seasons, I still think that they are integral in understanding the pitfalls of the game. Hopefully we, as Bradford fans, will ever witness such a dark period again and we can at least be somewhat positive about that period because of this fact. Coming back to our discussion: yes, the bulk of Bower’s career at Bradford was before the team entered the doldrums of the basement division, but what about his appearances? Did he make many appearances in the Premier League?

        I will admit that the Wetherall debate is very nuanced, and that a good number of the Bradford faithful have him as their poster boy of that decade. Wetherall was a gentleman that had a long tenure at the club, undoubtedly; however, I do believe that a marked absence of success during his tenure as a Bradford player negates his legendary status. That kind of mantel, at least in my way of thinking, should not be handed out like complimentary sweets in the corporate seats. A legend defines a person or period of time that is worth remembering for decades to come, as opposed to a person or period which is notorious. Wetherall was notable but not legendary.

        As for the 99’ game, would you argue that both of these players played important roles in the promotion side? I’ll leave that one for you to come to grips with on your own.

      • You are still missing the point – all I wrote was Mark Bower was the last youth player to truly establish himself. I am not calling him a hero or a legend, you are the one debating this.

        I would say Wetherall is a hero but again I never said legend.

        It’s a wider debate. Is someone only a legend or hero if the club is successful during their time, or is judged on their own performances? Who is a bigger Bradford City legend/hero, Gary Jones or David Wetherall?

        (After getting shot down angrily a year ago for suggesting Jones was a legend, I am staying out of such debates.)

  7. the simple fact is that you cannot call a player a hero because he was at the club for a long time, especially as for most of that time City were tumbling down the divisions. he was part of that team..
    Compare that with a hypothetical situation (however hard it might be to visualise it in the real world) of City having had and kept the same manager as we tumbled down the league. if he stayed for 10 years at the club as we went from premiership to the fourth tier. would he be a hero? the players who were at the club as relegation followed relegation should be viewed exactly the same and should not be considered as heros. to be a hero at any club takes far more than a long tenure.

  8. So to summarise – David Wetherall and Dean Windass are not City heroes. Glad that’s sorted.

  9. Dean Windass was more than just a long tenured player, that’s exactly the point. He had a competitive edge that raised him above the sinking morass. Some of his traits weren’t as palatable, but you couldn’t deny his talent.

    • I’m sorry but you are making up the rules as you go along. Wetherall isn’t a City hero because he played during City’s decline down the leagues. Windass played over pretty much the same period but because you rated him as a player he is a City hero.

      I would say they are both heroes but I don’t see how you can judge one is and one isn’t.

      • We will have to agree to disagree. Ultimately, Windass would have a chance of making it into the best Bradford squad for his ability throughout his tenure at the club. Wetherall probably wouldn’t make the side, despite being a decent player in the late 90s/early-2000s. That’s the dividing line, and those that are on the other side of it are going to disagree.

  10. This issue is a long standing one and is more than just a cultural issue. We refer to the successes of Cleverley and Delph playing in the PL but then forget how long it is since they left City and how arguably it was their subsequent clubs which enabled them to develop to the players they now are. I’m not convinced that had these players stayed at VP that they would now be plying their trade in the PL. And since then, what we, and many other lower league clubs haven’t yet come to terms with is the fundamental change that has taken place in the development of youngsters throughout English football over the recent years which has tilted the playing fields against clubs such as our own.

    When the new EPPP rules were introduced 4 years ago, our Academy was classified as Category 3 or the lowest level in pro-football. Most PL and a number of Championship clubs are Category 1 and many Championship clubs and a handful of Div 1 clubs are in Category 2. The differences between these Categories is in the quality and depth of development provided by the Academies to their future stars. And unfortunately, that comes down to money and how much clubs are willing to invest in their young talent and the academy infrastructure. We choose for all sorts of reasons to invest a bare minimum in our Academy when compared to those clubs with Cat 1 or Cat 2 Academies. And if I were a parent of a young child in West Yorkshire, would I prefer him to attend an Academy where development opportunities are more limited (such as our own) or one at a local or not-so-local rival (such as Huddersfield, Leeds, the Sheffield clubs, Barnsley and others across the Pennines) where the quality of the facilities and quantity of development resources is so much greater? It isn’t surprising that thse days, Cat 1 and Cat 2 Acadamies already attract the better talent even at such young ages.

    Until we as a club choose to invest significantly more in our youth development then I don’t imagine that that particular route will be as productive as we might all wish.

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