By Jason McKeown
The final part of our Player of the Season Awards sees us dish out the gong to our winner (see parts one and two). The chosen one is of no real surprise of course, but before we go through the formalities, here are some honourable mentions to players who received votes but didn’t make the top five.
So well done to Stephen Darby, to Josh Cullen and Lee Evans (if only we’d had this pair all season), to Nathan Clarke and to Kyel Reid. Their efforts were appreciated in this parish.
And this brings us to our winner. We present to you the 2015/16 Width of a Post Player of the Year…
In fifth place… James Meredith
In fourth place… Ben Williams
In third place… Tony McMahon
In second place… Rory McArdle
And the winner is…
By Jason McKeown
He saved Bradford City’s season. A few days after a dismal 2-1 home defeat to Gillingham that left Bradford City bottom of the league, the announcement that a young West Ham United centre back had been signed on loan was met with some frustration. The club had spent much of pre-season trying to sign a defender and had tabled six-figure transfer bids. For all that to fall through, and for a teenager to rock up on loan instead, only added to the worry and gloom.
It didn’t last long. Reece Burke’s arrival coincided with a first clean sheet of the season, at Barnsley. It was a hugely positive early impact. City went from no-hopers to one of the division’s form sides. Devante Cole was getting the early season headlines, but Burke’s influence at the other end was huge. I remember at Oldham away in September, observing Reece order around his senior partner Rory McArdle. He was full of confidence and know-how, and that was vital in revitalising a back four that early doors was sinking badly.
As City became more pragmatic over autumn and winter, Burke’s importance grew and grew. He just never had a bad game. Strong in the tackle, unflustered against big tough lower league strikers, and comfortable bringing out possession and running past people.
He was filling some huge boots vacated by Andrew Davies, and without his arrival I’m sure we would have spent most of the season bemoaning the decision to allow Davies to head North of the Border. There is no big of a compliment to pay to Burke than to say Davies has not been missed. It is truly remarkable that the club’s defensive record has improved without the former Stoke City man.
Watching Burke week in week out has been a genuine pleasure. He looks every inch a player who can make it in the Premier League with West Ham. When people talk about John Stones now, I can’t help but feel that in a couple of years Burke will be getting similar attention. He has the potential to play for England, to be someone who represents his country in World Cups and European Championships. The sky is the limit, and here in Bradford we will always be rooting for him.
Burke’s impact goes beyond his own performances – he has changed the way we view loan players. We’ve had years and years of poor, disinterested loanees who have not been able to take the club forwards. When Phil Parkinson came in, he all but did away with them. The likes of Blair Turgott and Curtis Good were back up players to the main squad, rather than taking on someone else’s role. Loan players were well out of fashion around these parts.
Jon Stead, Adam Reach and Jordan Pickford changed that mindset, but Burke has taken it much further. His commitment to City has been staggering. When he was injured at Gillingham in January, and with his loan spell up, it was assumed that he would be sent to a Championship club over the second half of the season. West Ham even had offers from clubs playing in the Europa League.
Burke made it clear he only wanted to return to Valley Parade. A mystified West Ham eventually allowed him to do so.
Then at the end of March, City had a vital home game with Millwall over the international weekend. Burke played for England Under 20s on Friday, and it was assumed he would not play again until the following week. But less than 24 hours after playing for his country, Burke had hot-footed it back to Valley Parade and started against the Lions. He was typically outstanding, helping his team to a 1-0 win. He marked Steve Morison and kept him subdued.
What other loan player would have done that? Burke could have justifiably rested up on Saturday, rather than played, and not one person would have thought any less of him. But there he was, putting his body on the line for a team that didn’t even pay his wages. Going above and beyond for a club that his ability vastly exceeds.
That kind of attitude will take him such a long way in the game.
It was truly heartbreaking that Burke missed the two play off games through injury. Morison dominated the City backline over the 180 minutes of action. Without a doubt, Burke would have made a big difference, and perhaps with his full fitness it would have been City and not the Lions who progressed.
City’s failed promotion bid means they no longer have first refusal on Burke next season. For his sake, he needs to play at a higher level in 2016/17. We’d love to have him back, of course, but we must be realistic and let him grow into the player we think he can be. Maybe one day he’ll play for this club again. Certainly the off-field stories about his conduct suggests that Bradford City now mean a huge amount to the young defender, and that he will be following our results with interest.
And the legacy is that we supporters are going to be willing Parkinson to venture into the loan market again this summer. To find another gem like Burke. To tap into that relationship that there now is with West Ham. If any of the Hammers’ other young players get the chance to consider coming here on loan, and sound out Reece for his view, they will only get amazing feedback about playing for Bradford City.
It is sad that we never got to say a proper goodbye to Burke, but for everything he did for the club he will be long remembered. He was never our own, but Reece Burke is without doubt a true City Gent.
Past WOAP Player of the Season winners
2011/12: Luke Oliver
2012/13: Gary Jones
2013/14: Stephen Darby
2014/15: Rory McArdle
Categories: 2015/16 season review