The growing benefits of loan players as Bradford City welcome a returning hero

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Image by Mike Holdsworth

Bradford City vs Southend United preview

@Valley Parade on Tuesday 16 February, 2016

By Jason McKeown

It stands out in my mind as one of the worst Bradford City debuts I have ever seen. Just short of four years ago, at Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Ground, Will Atkinson made his first appearance for the Bantams after signing on loan for the season. The young winger almost immediately ducked out of a 50-50 tackle, continually ran up blind alleys as he surrendered possession, and looked like he was playing with his boots on the wrong feet. Atkinson was withdrawn on the hour.

And it didn’t get much better, over the final four months of the season that Atkinson remained on loan for. He started only six times, and quickly found that the crowd were on his back. Atkinson looked too lightweight, too individual and lacking of in-game intelligence to make it as a footballer.

He looked anything but a Phil Parkinson player.

And yet, over that famous summer of 2012, Parkinson made Atkinson’s loan spell a permanent one, offering the out-of-contract Hull man a 12-month deal. It attracted incredulity, but on the eve of the first game of 2012/13 – a League Cup match at Notts County – Parkinson sat down with Atkinson and talked in detail about the way he needs to go about winning over a sceptical Bradford public. It was about working hard, minimising the fancy flicks to only the moments when they might benefit the team, and to find greater courage.

Parkinson played Atkinson as a central midfielder that day, alongside Gary Jones. Atkinson was highly impressive, clearly learning a huge amount from his experienced team mate. The penny dropped, and Atkinson became a regular in the team over the History Makers season. He wasn’t a guaranteed starter, but he played a major role in the double Wembley run and in winning promotion. Of those 64 games City played that season, Atkinson either started or came off the bench 57 times.

And we loved him, as a crowd we really did. In a team of so many heroic and highly respected players, the workrate, passion and skill set of Atkinson made him a hit. His most notable contributions were the cup home games with Arsenal and Aston Villa, where he played so well and gave his full back really difficult evenings. It was a surprise – and a sad one – when Atkinson was released that summer.

On Tuesday, Atkinson is scheduled to make his first appearance back at Valley Parade since leaving. During that summer of 2013, Southend’s Phil Brown snapped up the widemen and he has continued to be a key player at Roots Hall. Only recently Atkinson made his 100th start for Southend, and his two-and-a-half years in Essex included helping the club win promotion last season. Atkinson will be guaranteed a great reception from City supporters on Tuesday. He is by no means the most celebrated of the History Maker players, but he certainly won’t be forgotten for the role he played.

And as Atkinson reacquaints himself at Valley Parade this Tuesday, he might be surprised by the change in how loan players are currently being utilised by his former manager. During his initial spell at Valley Parade, loan players like Atkinson were only really used marginally. They were little more than back up players. Parkinson might not have had his ideal Bradford City team in 2011/12; but Andrew Davies and Ricky Ravenhill aside, he didn’t turn to loanees to provide what he was missing.

Indeed, Atkinson rocked up during a period of Charlie Taylor from Leeds, Andy Haworth from Bury, Deane Smalley from Oxford and Chris Dagnall from Barnsley. Some were decent players, but they and Atkinson were largely used as substitutes, whilst Parkinson trusted in a core group of players to avoid relegation. It was similar in 2012/13, where Parkinson brought in loan players to cover injuries, but only as back up squad members. Curtis Good, Blair Turgott, Tom Naylor, Craig Forsyth and Ryan Dickson were little more than extras to the main cast.

This stance has evolved over time, with Jon Stead, Adam Reach and Jordan Pickford signing on loan and playing regularly, but there was still people like Oliver Burke and Jordan Graham who barely had a kick when borrowed.

Yet as City trounced Peterborough United 4-0 at the weekend, in mightily impressive style, it was notable just how the use of loan players is changing. Parkinson’s starting XI featured five loanees, which included Wes Thomas (brought in to replace permanent signing Devante Cole, who was sold) and debutant Josh Cullen (who is replacing Gary Liddle, who was sold amid rumours he was refusing to sign a new contract that had been offered). Parkinson is using the loan market to fill bigger holes compared to the past.

Three of City’s four midfielders against Peterborough were loanees, and City’s top six hopes are looking increasingly reliant on the young loan pairing of Lee Evans and Cullen. The creativity is coming from the borrowed Kyel Reid, and the goals are partly resting on the shoulders of Thomas. Reece Burke also continues to be vital at the back.

It has been well documented of late that there won’t be an emergency loan window next season. Once the transfer window closes for making permanent signings, bringing in loan players won’t be permitted either. If a key player gets an injury in October, or is sent off in February, Football League managers will have to turn to reserve players or youngsters for the answers.

It will be interesting to see how clubs cope, but Parkinson’s evolving approach to loan players is one that other managers are likely to replicate. If you want to sign a player on loan to boost the squad – and most lower league managers will still target this market – it will be about demonstrating to the parent club that their player will benefit from going to your club for a longer-term period.

This is particularly the case with younger players that Premier League and Championship clubs believe could make their first team, with the right development, and want them to go out and get the right type of experience.

In this sense, Parkinson’s reputation is growing. The continued presence of Burke at Valley Parade – months after West Ham’s chief scout had said on the radio the defender would be loaned to a club in the Championship later this campaign – and arrival of Cullen demonstrates that there is a good relationship between Bradford City and West Ham. This can only continue to benefit City going forward, especially with West Ham’s long-held reputation for developing good young players.

Sunderland’s Sam Allardyce has also publically spoken about how much Jordan Pickford has gained from his loan spells at Bradford City and Preston. Pickford recently made his Black Cats debut, and is doing everything right towards ultimately becoming their number one.

Having a good reputation within the game, and a good relationship with specific top flight clubs, will help City with loan players following the rule changes. Parent clubs will next season think harder about where they send players, knowing that the young player will be on loan at a club for at least half a season, rather than just a month. A bad move could stunt their development, and that could prove hugely significant at such a crucial stage of their careers.

A few years back, City infamously had Reece Brown and Oliver Gill on loan from Manchester United. Both struggled, and their presence caused other issues for the permanent Bradford City squad. A member of City’s backroom staff from that period summed up much when he told me, “clubs like Manchester United don’t send their best young players to League Two”.

And they don’t, but top clubs will still want a good temporary home for their youngest and brightest. Bradford City now have a greater chance of being higher up the list of suitable clubs, thanks to the success of Burke, Cullen, Pickford, Reach and Evans. Parkinson has had to change his ways with loanees due to wider circumstances, but the success of the five loanees on Saturday would suggest it’s an approach that has plenty of positives.

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2 replies

  1. Just a thought but could Parkisons groping reliance on loan players be partly to do with the budget that he has available?
    I imagine that we’re paying Burke and Cullen less than Davies and Liddle.

    • Possibly, but I would have thought it’s more likely that he’s identified where he needs to change things and found that he doesn’t have the sort of player he needs in the building. I’m not sure the word ‘reliance’ is correct here. After all many clubs at this level make use of the loan market and it seems to me that if used well it can freshen up a squad with committing financially to a player that is often over priced in January.

      Just speculation. Unfortunately it’s all we as supporters can do on this sort of thing – especially those of us who are stuck in Cornwall rather than at VP watching City move to within 3 points of the playoffs…….

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