By Jason McKeown
Timing is everything in football. And for Bradford City, the weekend announcement that Romain Vincelot has arrived from Coventry City could prove to be the turning point of the summer.
Prior to the weekend, a level of cynicism and pessimism had developed amongst many supporters over how deep Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s pocked really are. That the talk of developing young players and implementing a long-term strategy disguised the fact the playing budget at Stuart McCall’s disposal was a weak one. That hints of big spending from the club were no more than attempts to shift season tickets.
There had been nothing to disprove such a negative outlook. But not now. Vincelot rocks up at Valley Parade on a two-year contract, with the transfer fee potentially rising to six figures. Not since Andy Tod was signed by Jim Jefferies in 2001 has the club paid such a big fee, and that was before the first period of administration. 15 years we’ve waited for a buy like this.
It is a move that blows away the fears and demonstrates the new owners mean business. It’s not only the transfer fee, but the fact the club had the ambition and confidence to approach a promotion rival and rob them of arguably their best player. The complexion has changed and confidence about the season ahead can only grow.
With two weeks to go and as momentum starts to build, this was great timing to hear news of such a marque signing. What’s more, WOAP understands this is not going to be the last notable signing this summer.
For such a significant buy, it is right that we pin a lot of expectations on Vincelot. The 30-year-old Frenchman has been known to City supporters since the summer of 2011, when the club put in a transfer offer for the then-Dagenham midfielder that came from nowhere. It was all a bit of gamesmanship on the late Archie Christie’s part. An attempt to bolster his asking price with Championship Brighton trying to drive a hard bargain with Christie’s old club over purchasing him. Vincelot didn’t do a great deal on the South Coast, but has continued to prove his ability in League One with Leyton Orient and Coventry.
He can – and should be expected to – achieve great things for City. The comparison has been made between Vincelot and Gary Jones, and that type of impact would make a huge difference to the Bantams’ prospects. City badly missed a Jones type of leader and character last season, where at times during games they would fall apart under adversity, rather than demonstrate inner strength. The infamous Colchester home defeat in March, and more costly first leg play off semi final against Millwall, were two such examples of this.
Stuart McCall the manager needs a Stuart McCall type of player. Someone with experience, courage, assurance and leadership. A lot of hopes are pinned on Vincelot that he can be that player. Given that Rahic’s philosophy is to sign younger players rather than 30-somethings, Vincelot also represents a leap of faith in McCall’s judgement. If this one doesn’t work out, the inquest will be led by the boardroom.
Watching Bradford City’s opening home pre-season friendly against Burnley on Saturday, it was evident just how badly an authoritarian midfielder is needed. Whilst Nicky Law and Timothee Dieng impressed with their abilities on the ball, they both left an alarming gap behind them that a ruthless Premier League Burnley were able to expose and profit from.
The ease at which the Clarets ran through the Bantams and racked up three first half goals was deeply troubling; but with a more defensive-minded central midfielder marshalling the people alongside him and making sure there are no such gaps, these issues can be rectified when the real stuff begins. Vincelot will be tasked with doing just that, and the defenders playing behind the City midfield will be grateful for him.
Without that protection against Burnley, this was a dreadful day at the office for the home back four. Nathaniel Knight-Percival gave a first impression here that was as bad as Nathan Clarke’s introduction to Bradford City a year ago. The summer signing from Shrewsbury appeared confident and composed on the ball, but was found badly wanting physically, not to mention routinely failing to track the runs of Burnley’s quietly impressive Ashley Barnes. Things can only get better.
Nathan Clarke too had unfortunately reverted back to the tentative, out-of-sorts player he looked to be when he first joined the club. Andre Gray exposed his frailties and dominated Clarke both on the ground and in the air. Clarke came good last season and made an important contribution, only to struggle in the play off tussle with Millwall. You don’t really want to see him a regular starter over the coming months.
And of course he won’t be when Rory McArdle is back; just as midfielder Daniel Devine – who battled gamely out of position here – won’t be first choice left back; and Tony McMahon – who played well up until gifting Burnley a fourth goal – is unlikely to play ahead of Stephen Darby. This was a City back four that might feasibly begin the campaign, but not for long. They won’t face tests quite as tough as this, but certainly still need to do much better.
But what was really interesting about City’s performance against Burnley was the intent. This was 4-4-2, but not as we have known it under Phil Parkinson. The ball was zipped around on the floor with quick-fire passing in the final third. With two wingers in Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall, there was a push to get the ball into wide positions – but it wasn’t the only approach. City tried to play through the middle, and they cut Burnley open on many occasions with clever intricate passing.
There was a real drive to attack and pour forward in numbers, which partly explained the big gaps at the other end.
What a contrast. Whilst Parkinson was capable of playing in a gung ho way – something he did more often than he now receives credit for – there was no doubt that his final season saw the most pragmatic and defensive-minded football of his reign. He found a way to win matches through keeping clean sheets and nicking a goal, and the results of that approach spoke for themselves. But it wasn’t great to watch at times.
Against Burnley, we clearly saw the new blueprint. The strategy that Stuart McCall will look to implement over the coming months. Perhaps today was a lesson in how far he should take it, because it left City soundly beaten in the end. But the manager will be encouraged by what his players produced in the final third. Especially as some of the key players to make the blueprint work were unavailable at both ends.
It would have been interesting to have seen how James Hanson would have fared in this game. With Billy Clarke and Filipe Morais paired up front, the attack lacked a focal point and several promising crosses into the box would have suited Hanson’s game.
Morais played well and impressed with his movement – you could see Burnley realise he was the home side’s key attacking threat. Billy Clarke took longer to get going but did well in fits and starts. He is still not the force of 2014/15, and you wonder if he can fit in with City’s new approach.
Because with Nicky Law and Paul Anderson in particular pulling the strings when City attack, they don’t need a striker who likes to play deep moving into their space – they need runners in front and bodies in the box to get on the end of through balls and passes. That is not Clarke’s game. If Stuart McCall asked me what should be on his shopping list now, I’d say a proven League One striker and another commanding centre back. Get those two players in, and we’re not far away.
Departing the field beaten 4-1 at home might have slightly dented morale, but this weekend has been a good one for Bradford City. They’ve just made a powerful statement to the rest of League One – and just as importantly to their own fans.