By Jason McKeown
It is proving to be one heck of a bumpy journey. The lows have been extreme, the highs less notable but still meaningful. Now there are only three months left to seal a positive majority jury ruling. Is Chris Routis a League One standard player? Is Chris Routis a professional footballer?
The Bradford City public is certainly deeply divided. But up until now, the most important opinion-former is also his biggest advocate. Phil Parkinson is a fan of Chris Routis, and that is hugely significant. The City manager has continued to stand by his man and offer him opportunities to impress. He can see that there is a good player in Routis, someone who can blossom into a real asset.
Yet Parkinson has never spent too long developing players, and certainly not to the detriment of results. If that leap from someone of promise to reliable first team player isn’t taken very soon, it will probably be too late for Chris Routis. He’s had a lot of opportunities, but more than once has failed to justify the faith placed in him by Parkinson.
Routis has remained a wild card, a loose cannon. Someone who can help the team to win a match, but someone who can also cost them it. Such unpredictability does not fit the template of a regular starter. Certainly not in a Phil Parkinson team.
Rewind back to a sunny August evening in 2014, where Routis first entered the audition stage. The Frenchman played in a reserve team pre-season friendly at Ossett Town as a trailist, forming a favourable impression during a 90-minute game where few of his teammates did not. Routis was a defender back then, partnered up with Matt Taylor. Parkinson saw enough to keep him around longer, and two more trialist appearances saw Routis build on his success. During a close season of budget cuts and with a need to find cheap back-up players, Routis fitted the bill and was awarded a one-year deal.
It is fair to say that his first season was mixed, but there were some high points. I remember his full debut for City, in a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy defeat to Oldham in September 2014. As a centre back stood out with his style of bringing the ball out from the back, rather than the route one clearances of other City defenders. He looked cultured, intelligent and brave. You weren’t sure if such an approach would work against the physical bustle of League One, but it was something different and it left you wanting to find out.
And so when Andrew Davies picked up an injury in September, the bigger chances came. Routis made his league debut and it couldn’t have gone better – City, struggling for form, went to the high-flying MK Dons and won 2-1. Routis impressed, and kept his place until Andrew Davies’ return in October. It wasn’t plain sailing, and a heated battle with Port Vale’s Tom Pope should have resulted in a red card for the Frenchman, given how he reacted to provocation.
Routis’ versatility kept him in contention for the team, and he played in central midfield against Sheffield United and at right back against Bristol City, during October. In the latter game, Routis scored his first goal in English football to earn City a welcome point against the league leaders.
So far, so good for the 24-year-old. With Davies injured again for the trip to Oldham three days later, no one really batted an eyelid when Routis was picked at the back.
What could go wrong?
39 minutes into the game at Boundary Park, Routis’ Bradford City career looked in tatters. The team had been awful, and Routis has fallen apart as centre back. He was destroyed by Jonathan Forte, and every time the ball came near him he made a mistake. Alan Sheehan screamed at him to sort himself out, but his head was gone. Soon after the substitute board was held up and the number 18 appeared. 39 minutes into the game, and Routis had got the hook.
There can be few things more humiliating for a footballer than to be hauled off before the interval.
Parkinson took Routis out the firing line, but didn’t give up. Routis’ weaknesses as a centre half had been brutally exposed, but the manager still saw something in him. Routis was worked on away from the public glare, and but for a few substitute appearances here and there (one of which was at Stamford Bridge) didn’t start another game until March. Against Crawley Town at home that Tuesday evening, Routis was deployed as a right-sided midfielder. He did quite well, and he started to play more regularly again. A run of games in the team included another Routis goal, this time at home to Fleetwood following a burst into the box. Some fans liked me loved him, others remained unsure.
And then it happened again.
Preston at home, and a promotion six-pointer. Do or die for City’s play offs hopes. Routis was back as centre half, and in the fourteenth minute Joe Garner got on his blind side and ran onto a through ball. Routis had been caught out, and in desperation hauled Garner down. A red card, and City had to play 76 minutes with 10 men.
The pattern had been established, and it has continued. Routis begins to get opportunities in the team, quietly impresses some people, but then has a high profile bad game. He loses his place, and has to go again. Last weekend at home to Fleetwood was the latest example. A dismal first half display saw him get the hook early once more. The desire of Parkinson to trust his player was undermined again.
Every player produces bad performances. But it’s how you respond to those poor games that defines your longevity at a club and as a footballer.
Gary Jones had bad games, but his positivity would shine regardless. Sheffield United away, 2013/14, has gone down as The Gary Jones game. 2-0 down to the Blades, Jones picked up and dragged his team mates back from the brink and to a 2-2 draw. It’s a game that will live long in the memory, but what is often overlooked is that Jones didn’t actually play that well himself. He was under-performing as much as anyone, but still had the influence and character to inspire his team to come back.
Routis is at the other end of this spectrum. When he has a poor game, it’s toxic to the rest of the team. He needs to learn how to manage his emotions and harden his mentality. Against Fleetwood early doors, he produced a couple of poor passes and the crowd groaned. He should have focused on keeping things simple and trying short passes, to restore his self-belief and the confidence of the crowd. But instead, he went the other way, trying even more over-ambitious balls and getting those wrong too. Chris Routis has to learn to play badly better. Otherwise he can never be more than a fringe player.
But like Parkinson, I do still think there is something there. Routis has vision, an eye for a good pass and an intelligence to drive the team forward. He can create opportunities, instigate attacks and get on the end of things. He spots openings that others don’t. He is not a central defender suited to the physicality of lower league football, but he can be effective further up the park, and at times he has been.
More than anything Routis has an obvious passion. There are few players in the current squad who want it as badly as he does. And though his mental strength and composure is suspect, his drive to keep coming back from huge set backs is admirable. Routis wants to be at Valley Parade, and he wants to succeed. He clearly listens to his manager, and he is evolving as a player. The rewards are there for him, and at times he has looked on the edge of grasping them.
But the question is how patient can you be? How many times can Parkinson pin his faith and, indeed, his reputation on Chris Routis? How many times will the manager be willing to risk playing someone who is so unpredictable?
These next three months will be vital. Routis was deservedly offered another one-year deal last summer, because of his obvious promise. So far this season, that potential is still going unfulfilled. Would you offer him another contract this summer? Is he somone you can build a team around? Can Routis be a player who drives City to the Championship?
The jury is still out, but what is clear is that Routis is running low on last chances.
Categories: Midweek Player Focus