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.