By Katie Whyatt
I don’t think anyone has ever lived in greater dread of the prospect of a family holiday. Watching the Capital One Cup draw at home in August 2014, the terror was genuine. Whoever City drew, I knew I would not be there. I would be in Spain, 1,447 miles away from Bradford. I wouldn’t be able to see it. I would miss out. As the balls fell into the bowl, and numbers were checked from the screen, I typed 13 fateful words into Twitter.
“If we get Leeds, Huddersfield or Man United, I will not be happy.”
I’d ultimately watch the game in a sports bar in Spain, wedged between two sets of Whites fans. My brother and me sat on the beach that night and couldn’t believe how much potential that City side showed. That game marked another collective triumph, but there were some superb individual performances – Gary Liddle, James Meredith. But no one could tear their eyes from Billy Knott.
I look back on that period – that month – as a particularly golden period for Bradford City. Billy Knott was 1/5 of the crop that ushered in the next facet of the Parkinson era, the others being Alan Sheehan, Jordan Pickford, Billy Clarke and Gary Liddle. There were anxieties, understandably, going into that season, but the transition was a necessary one.
And with these additions – unquestionably technically better than their History Making predecessors – came the dawn of the diamond. Out with the robustness of the year previous; in with seemingly telepathic cohesion and understanding, persistent dovetailing, Swansea City Jr. That opening game against Coventry – in which Jason Kennedy would offer the assist of the season to clinch a dramatic last-minute winner – was up there with the greatest (non-cup) Bradford City performances I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to forget how good that team were in the opening few games.
You can’t talk about Billy Knott without viewing him alongside the grain of what that time meant and symbolised. Of all the signings Parkinson made that season, perhaps Knott embodied the idea of new beginnings most of all. Brought in to replace the ageing Gary Jones – but cast from an entirely different mould – Knott was the figurehead for the wholesale changes going on around him. Dynamic, technically astute and a visionary in his distribution, Knott brought a finesse and an ambition that allowed City to move forwards aesthetically. That individual performance against Leeds was perhaps only eclipsed by Jon Stead’s afternoon at Stamford Bridge, or maybe Knott’s own on January 24th.
That the diamond was never entirely sustainable in its original guise wasn’t really surprising, in hindsight. City lacked real widemen. Aaron McLean just wasn’t good enough. Mark Yeates’ bright start eventually dulled. Knott jumped from point to point on the diamond as Parkinson wrung major changes, and, on the whole, did well. Knott has long-cited his favoured role as behind a front two in a 4-3-1-2, a role he has only been able to take on a bunch of times, given the increasingly stretched shape of the forward line as the season wore on and the form of Billy Clarke.
That his form never dipped in this time reflected well on his flexibility: Knott would ultimately settle into one-half of a midfield pair with Gary Liddle in which Knott shored the entirety of the attacking mantle, yet the Chelsea game would see him resume his role at the tip of the diamond. With Parkinson planning to avoid the congestion in the middle of the park and exploit the wings via Filipe Morais and Andy Halliday, Knott was tasked with sweeping up the second balls – a plan perfectly in evidence for Stead’s goal.
It wasn’t a faultless campaign, but more went right than wrong. Knott’s stock was high, his star was bright, and he hinted at a vast potential that matched the trajectory of his club. Then only 22, he already had a giant-killing cup run under his belt and rounded the year off with a seventh placed finish. Everything was there for Knott to champion his side’s promotion push. Parkinson dubbed him an “asset”, a young player who could grow and progress in line with the club. With this in mind, it’s frustrating to look at how his second season would pan out.
The same quality that sealed Knott’s awesomeness also proved his tragic flaw. Alex Scott and Jason McKeown observed before Parkinson’s reluctance to start Knott in away games, a result of the one catch of starting Knott. Knott would be daring, but with bravery came inevitable fallibility. Hollywood balls didn’t always supply a Hollywood ending. Knott was bolder than others dared to be – a classic Parkinson player – but he couldn’t always team that with discipline in the final third. Knott often moved with the tempo of the game. When things got manic, Knott would, too.
Understandably, Lee Evans’ security and distributional range would prove a natural successor, but to jump to how the season wound up cuts out how vital Knott was through October and November. Parkinson tried Knott and Evans together against Bury, and Knott was simply outstanding. City needed a man who was willing to try anything to push his team over the line, and, at the time, Knott was alone in the squad in being able to conjure up something out of nowhere. Ambition paid dividends, but there was still an inevitability to what happened in January. With Gary Liddle leaving, Parkinson’s midfield needed greater balance. Enter Josh Cullen, and cue tweets of, “THIS MIDFIELD PAIR, THOUGH!”
Cullen and Evans were better for what City needed at that time. Sometimes, you wonder if it was just a case of timing with Knott. His rawness, really, wasn’t that much of an issue, given the circumstances. It was just the fundamental limitations of who City were. They were making a lot of compromises, looking back – Knott was making a lot of compromises. Who City were early doors in 2014/15 wasn’t sustainable – look at the changes between then and how they would finish. Knott and Liddle worked, but was often inescapably unbalanced both defensively and offensively. The assembly instructions were there, but Parkinson had to reshape the pieces slightly.
With that in mind, it’s sometimes hard not to feel a pang of frustration over possibly how far unfulfilled Knott’s potential went – at least, with us. He figured 29 times this season – in just over half of the games – but it never felt like there was any real plan in place, post-Christmas. For a player like Knott – young, and in need of game time – it was a tough lot. That Reece Burke (19), Josh Cullen (19) and Lee Evans (21) were putting in faultless displays almost made some more unforgiving of Knott’s seeming lack of progress.
That narrative of unfulfilled potential speaks only to one season, and, even then, things were more complicated than they seem at the outset – issues of wider team failings as much as Knott’s own. You wonder if Knott had been Cullen’s foil, rather than Evans’ competition, things would have panned out differently. But maybe they wouldn’t. At the end of the day, Knott just didn’t have the intricacy and visual accuracy that allowed Evans and Cullen to flourish as a pair. Maybe in two, three years’ time, he would have. But in the midst of a play-off hunt, Parkinson couldn’t wait around for that day. Whether prioritising loan players over your own men is laudable or not is another question: on the plus side, it’s clear Parkinson cares not for reputation or stakes. The question is whether such short-termism must prevail in every instance.
Which is not to look disparagingly on Knott’s time at City. You just can’t overlook just how much of himself he gave in the two years he was here. When City hurt, Knott was visibly devastated. When City won, Knott was leading the celebrations. There was a spark there that Parkinson, deep down, probably believed he could sculpt into a player who would lead his Bantams midfield for years to come. That he didn’t go on to do that is just a shame, but sometimes, team and player just end up sailing under two different skies.