By Jason McKeown
It is no secret that Bradford City need a striker. A promising start to the season performance-wise has featured three clean sheets but only one Bantams goal, with the new attack-minded approach employed by Stuart McCall seeing chances created but a struggle to convert them. With the transfer window closing in just over two weeks – and no emergency loans allowed this season – the urgency to bring in another forward is growing every day.
The big problem facing McCall is that he is in a market where demand far exceeds supply. Every club in the land wants a striker who will score 20-30 goals, but players who can deliver such returns season-after-season are that rarest of breeds.
We only have to look at the past 20 years at Valley Parade for evidence of this. Only three players have managed to score more than 20 goals in a campaign – Lee Mills, Dean Windass and Nahki Wells – and all manner of forwards have donned claret and amber in a failed effort to match these feats.
There is no set formula, no guarantee a striker will score the level of goals desired. As they say in investment circles: past performance is not a guide to future returns. It is such a tough ask – particularly when you don’t have the biggest resources – and yet the stakes are really high for McCall. The key to success this season, it would seem, lies in bringing in the right striker.
It leaves McCall and head of recruitment Greg Abbott with much to consider. There is the early makings of a Bradford City side who can cut opposition defences open and create opportunities for a clinical striker to finish off. Yet it’s not quite so simple to bring someone in whose only job would be to lurk inside the six-yard box, waiting for the ball.
Introducing a new striker would mean taking someone out of the side. If you’re not careful, you suddenly become less creative and stop producing chances for the great striker hope to convert. So you ideally want a striker who can positively influence City’s efforts in the final third beyond shooting at goal. Oh, and you also need someone who can gel with at least one of the other forwards already at the club.
Goals, influence, chemistry – quite a list of requirements. Let’s delve into the recent history of the club to see what lessons can be learned.
John McGinlay / Lee Mills
I first started watching Bradford City during the 1997/98 season (playing in the second tier), where the debates of the day were strikingly similar to the current situation. Under Chris Kamara, the Bantams had made a strong start to the season but by November were fading out of the promotion picture. A lack of goals was the issue, prompting Geoffrey Richmond to give Kamara the green light to break the club’s transfer record on a striker.
And so in came John McGinlay from Bolton Wanderers, costing £625k. A prolific goalscorer for the Trotters (101 goals in 192 games), including netting 30 times the year before, the Scot seemed the perfect answer. Yet McGinlay was a huge disappointment at Valley Parade, scoring on just three occasions and missing sitters that would ultimately cost Kamara his job.
It was an expensive lesson. That season, the team struggled to create opportunities for the forwards, and McGinlay’s lack of involvement in the build up play meant he looked pedestrian and disinterested. He couldn’t strike up a partnership with any of the other strikers, namely Rob Steiner, Edinho and Robbie Blake. But they weren’t the type of players that would ever get the best out of him. McGinlay had flourished at Bolton alongside the targetman Nathan Blake, but only Steiner came close to providing a physical presence up front.
Flash forward to that summer, and the club once again broke the transfer record signing a striker – £1 million man Lee Mills. It was an eye-brow raising move by new manager Paul Jewell, simply because Mills – who had netted 14 goals the season before for Port Vale – did not appear to be a prolific scorer. He wasn’t anything special on paper.
Yet Mills flourished at Valley Parade, scoring 25 goals in 1998/99 as City earned promotion to the Premier League. The summer recruitment of Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley in the centre of midfield – replacing the more workmanlike Nigel Pepper and Craig Ramage – plus a massive improvement from Peter Beagrie on the left wing, meant City were a much more creative force.
Mills was a targetman style of striker and provided a lot besides goals. He held up the ball well, had two good feet and was more than happy to run forwards in possession, taking people on. He famously struck up a great partnership with Blake, but he equally scored plenty of goals playing alongside Gordon Watson and Isiah Rankin. Mills offered the team a lot and was rewarded by great service.
What’s interesting about Mills is that he never replicated such form again. In the Premier League he did okay before a costly fall out with Paul Jewell, and from there his career declined with less productive spells at Portsmouth, Coventry, Stoke and non-league Telford. Managers would have bought him believing he could be a 20-goal-a-season striker, but he only once managed that tally. Past performance is no guarantee.
The best Bradford City goalscorer since Bobby Campbell, Dean Windass racked up 86 goals over two spells at Valley Parade, his second period undoubtedly the most prolific. Windass was one of the most intelligent players I have seen wearing Bradford City colours, and the fact pace was never one of his attributes meant his game was not hampered by growing old.
In 2004/05 – City’s first season outside the top two divisions in a decade – Windass scored 28 goals to win the League One golden boot award, and he got 20 the year after that. City’s drop down to League One suited him. Windass was far too good to play in the third tier, as evidenced by Premier League Wigan twice trying to sign him and the fact he would later take his hometown club Hull City to the top flight for the first time in its history.
The Bradford City of 2004-2007 were still in a bit of a mess after the nightmare of administrations. Colin Todd possessed two high earners in Dean Windass and David Wetherall, and sensibly built the team around these talents, getting the best from the pair. But with the budget for other players thinbare, it brought around mixed results.
Windass’ heroics were no mean feat. Other than the excellent loanee Dele Adebola (who went onto better things), Todd had little chance of finding a strike partner of equal ability; the over-age Steve Claridge, the limited Andy Cooke and – shudder – the underachieving Danny Cadamarteri having spells alongside Windass. The service from wide players Ben Muirhead, Bobby Petta and Owen Morrison was sporadic at best. At times Windass carried the team.
In the end bills had to be paid, and so Windass was sold. The club went from midtable mediocrity to another relegation. Windass’ departure was not the only cause of this sudden collapse, but it was certainly a crucial factor. On the day City’s demotion was sealed at Chesterfield, Windass scored the goal that kept Hull City in the Championship.
The lesson here was of the folly of having an over-reliance on just one player to score goals. Without Windass’ heroics a decade ago, City would have fallen into League Two much quicker. In that 2004/05 season of 29 Windass goals, City almost made the play offs. But over this period no other player in the team was scoring regularly. Having a 20-goal-a-season striker like Windass is great, but it cannot become your only source of goals.
None of the current City crop can afford to sit back and assume the much-vaunted new striker will compensate for their early season failings in front of goal. Everyone has a big part to play.
Peter Thorne / Barry Conlon / Michael Boulding
From Stuart McCall’s first spell in charge, Peter Thorne must rank as his best signing. Like Lee Mills in 1998, Thorne was not the most obvious of striker solutions. A good goalscorer at Stoke City and for a time at Cardiff, Thorne’s career had stalled through numerous injuries and he struggled badly at Norwich City, prior to McCall bringing him in.
Like Windass, Thorne benefited from dropping down the divisions. It took him a while to get fit at City, but very soon he was demonstrating what a class act he was. Thorne is one of the best finishers I have ever seen. In the box he was so alive to half chances, and would destroy defences with clever movement and devastatingly accurate finishes.
His hat trick against Notts County in 2007/08 was his most celebrated moment, but his goal in the reverse fixture at Meadow Lane that season was my favourite Thorne goal. A long pass was worked towards him, he adjusted his body to let the ball roll into his path, took a touch to control it and drove it home into the bottom corner. Deadly.
But the injuries never went away completely. Thorne would play a couple of games but invariably have to sit out the next one. Sometimes he was out for weeks. The reason he was playing in League Two and not the Championship was the injuries so it was hard to complain, but his absences would undermine City’s promotion ambitions.
It was a real shame that Thorne was never able to play with James Hanson, who was signed in 2009 and ultimately took the ageing striker’s place in the team. Thorne’s injuries were getting too much, and he retired before the season was over. He never managed 20 goals in a season for City, but that was because of his fitness issues.
Barry Conlon was a good foil for Thorne – at least on his good days. When in top form Conlon was an excellent player, but sadly he was blighted by a lack of consistency which explained why he went through so many clubs over his career. It meant that for McCall’s second season, the manager brought in another striker with much better prospects.
Michael Boulding looked a terrific signing. He scored 25 goals in 2007/08 for Mansfield, and a host of clubs were chasing his signature over the summer of 2008. McCall won the race, but found it difficult to get the best out of Boulding. His goal return was okay but well below expectations (13 in 2008/09, half his Mansfield tally the year before).
At Mansfield the team had clearly being built around getting the best out of Boulding – but the plan worked badly as they were relegated. McCall wasn’t going to make the same allowances for Boulding, who relied on service in the box and others to do the running. He was barely involved in the build up play and anonymous in so many games.
McCall will have learned a lot from this, and when he keeps talking now of not just bringing in any striker I wonder if Boulding plays on his mind. Like John McGinlay in 1997, Boulding rocked up seemingly with a guarantee of scoring a glut of goals – but it never took off. Thorne still outscored him because he linked up with others better and operated in a bigger area of the pitch than Boulding was willing to do.
Nahki Wells left Bradford City in 2014, but continues to cast a shadow over Valley Parade. He was a tremendous goalscorer at Valley Parade and we have seen such a natural young talent only rarely over the years. It’s hard to enjoy his success when he is wearing Huddersfield blue and white and after the way he left the club, but the impact he made and memories he provided will vastly outlast the short-term bitterness.
Wells often got accused of being lazy at City, but comparing him to Boulding or Devante Cole is like night vs day. Wells ran the channels so well and wore defenders down through his pace and energy. Not everything would come off but he largely maintained strong levels of self confidence and would keep plugging away. If the opposition defence had a mistake in them, he would pounce.
All but one of Wells’ 53 City goals came under Phil Parkinson’s management, and the City boss adapted his charges to get the best out of the Bermudian because of the high rewards. Wells was to good of a player to ignore, to much of a weapon to rein in.
James Hanson was the perfect partner for Wells. There are few targetman in the lower leagues who can win as many high balls as Hanson, and the chemistry between the pair meant Wells could read exactly where the flick ons were heading and pounce. His first touch was not great at first, but in League Two that was less important.
Wells scored a hatful of goals (26 in 2012/13) and got better and better as a player. The team were conservative but attack-minded over the final 30 minutes at least, with Kyel Reid, Zavon Hines, Will Atkinson and Garry Thompson providing lots of crosses outwide, and Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle adding the drive in the middle. Wells was the last great goalscorer we have seen.
It’s always a difficult job for any club to replace a player they sell for relatively big money – witness Tottenham after Gareth Bale and Liverpool after Luis Saurez.
The reality is that players like Bale, Saurez and Wells belonged at a higher level than where they were playing, and the transfer fees the selling club receives don’t mean they are suddenly in the market to bring in a replacement of the same calibre. So invariably the club squanders big money on replacement players who disappoint, and very often the results decline. Andres Villa-Boas and Brendan Rodgers lost their jobs in the end, judged to have failed to capitalise on the Bale/Saurez money.
We can talk about the post-Wells disappointments – Aaron Mclean and Devante Cole – and use them as a stick to beat Parkinson with. But in reality Parkinson deserves a lot of credit for keeping City moving forwards after selling his biggest asset (and some would say selling that asset too cheaply). Go back to 2007 and Dean Windass leaving Bradford City, as a reminder of how badly it could have gone.
Parkinson struggled to bring in a natural goalscorer, and last season there can be no doubt a lack of goals cost City promotion, but he kept the club progressing by ensuring they were not over-reliant on just one person to score the goals. There was no post-Wells Apocalypse.
And for McCall there is an interesting post script. Wells had an excellent 2015/16 for Huddersfield and – in a Championship division awash with silly money – he could be about to earn a big money move. If that’s the case, City’s 20% sell on fee could land McCall with a big windfall to aid his striker search. He might just have two striker shopping lists right now. One for if Wells moves, and the other for if he stays.
Lessons in history
The point of looking back at these strikers is to highlight some of the learnings. Signing a striker with a strong goalscoring record is no guarantee (McGinlay/Boulding). Bringing someone in with a moderate goal ratio needn’t be the end of the world (Mills). There is value in players the rest of the market has overlooked for reasons like age or fitness (Windass/Thorne), but it’s not without its risks (Thorne).
Most of all a new striker must enhance the team but not define it. With such a low success ratio of signing 20-goal-a-season strikers, we can’t afford to pin all our hopes on the player McCall ultimately signs. Like Wells you hope they can lead the line and make the crucial difference. But if too many allowances are made elsewhere, the previously promising attacking style of football could be compromised and the goal return be just as low.
Of course it would be fantastic for Bradford City to sign a 20-30 goal striker, but what we really need is 70-80 goal Bradford City team. It requires everyone to step up to the plate and deliver, rather than allowing the success or failure of this season to rest on just one person’s shoulders.