By Katie Whyatt
Bradford City enter the second week of September second in the table (subject to Gillingham’s result today) and as one of only three unbeaten sides in the division. As they gear up for a month in which they’ll face reunions with Billy Knott, Devante Cole and, ahem, Phil Parkinson, we take a look at a handful of things we’ve learned so far.
1) Romain Vincelot is the best thing Coventry have given us since The Specials
The line “just imagine how good they will be when everyone is back” has rightfully soundtracked the opening few weeks, but it would probably be more accurate if you tagged on “and everyone is playing in their favoured positions”. Romain Vincelot, arguably the biggest coup of the summer until Matt Killgallon, Josh Cullen and Haris Vučkić arrived (check that transfer window out – more marquees than a garden centre), is arguably the most obvious example, but to say he has looked out of place at centre half is way wide of the mark. Vincelot has been persistently unflappable, marshalling the back four with the same assured nonchalance that has characterised the side’s temperament under McCall.
It feels like Vincelot speaks particularly loudly to something we’re seeing right across the board with City this year. The abolition of emergency loans was always going to tilt the specification towards versatile players – kudos to McCall and Greg Abbott for combatting that in the way they have. This could potentially be the most adaptable City squad in years – in the early weeks, they played a different formation every game, but coped adeptly. McCall has created a side that’s so technically astute that the right in-game tinkering and fine-tuning allows for an efficiency that never stifles their creativity. Against Coventry, we saw how shifting Billy Clarke slightly wider and using him as a focal point allowed City to build from the middle, not the back, and keep the ball in the danger zones for longer – they were rampant in that second half, bearing down on goal constantly.
What’s more, there is a greater balance about the team that, with hindsight, Phil Parkinson’s caution probably undermined slightly. One of the key failings with the diamond came from the exposure to the full backs – Stephen Darby, in particular – but, even before then, it was long the Parkinson way to team an out-and-out winger with a conservative one. That worked, and it turned McMahon, Reid, Meredith and Darby into key staples of the side last year, but left the team lopsided in that those wide roles were so clearly defined that they became rigid. We knew what Reid and Meredith were going to do even before they did at times.
Now, City have to completely different wingers – one more of a quasi-winger, mostly – in Law and Marshall. There is seamless interchanging, players dropping in and out of triangles all over the pitch. And in the two games he’s played since his return from injury, Darby looks stronger than he did before. McCall’s confidence in his high intensity approach has given his players a license to unleash their previously latent flexibility – a flexibility that, for some, perhaps wasn’t realised as fully under the old style.
2) The EFL Checkatrade Trophy opening game wasn’t as bad as we all feared it would be
Keep the pitchforks at bay for just a second and bear with. I was against these reforms from the outset – that the Premier League can just frogmarch the Football League into stuff like this (and EPPP) with such ease and indifference is disconcerting, to say the least. This constant dialogue about correcting a tired format, and all the rhetoric about doing it for the good of the national team, just feels ironic in view of the top flight’s overriding reluctance to get their own house in order.
I mean, for background: Chelsea loaned out 39 players this summer. Thirty actual nine. How can the FA see that bottleneck, that logjam, of stockpiled young players, and then innocently scratch their heads over the stagnation of the England team? Unless that whole mindset towards youth development changes, they’ll find themselves asking the same questions again and again and again. We all know ripping apart the Football League Trophy isn’t really going to do much in the grand scheme of things.
It’s easy to see these changes as nothing more than an affront to the integrity of the Football League, and, on one level, they are. I went to the game on Tuesday night not really knowing what to expect from anyone – but it ultimately proved a worthwhile enough exercise, for what it was.
City had to field five who started the previous Saturday, the six blank spaces over which McCall and Black had free reign proving useful in the context of several players reaching match sharpness at once and the renewed attitude towards the academy players. That Phil Parkinson never capitalised on the club’s young players shouldn’t really be used as a stick to beat him with – there were mitigating circumstances explaining his reluctance, and, at the end of the day, he delivered year-on-year improvement. But one of the more endearing tenets of the McCall philosophy thus far is this commitment to peppering an already adaptable squad with players younger than me.
Tuesday night sat nicely with that overall change in approach. A stern test, a useful exhibition of our own youngsters, an up-tempo introduction to the Stuart McCall style – but with no pressure and nothing really at stake. Last Tuesday reaffirmed everything Rahic and Rupp stressed they wanted to achieve when they took over – because City have some hugely promising younger players. Kwame Boetang looked particularly sharp and was comfortable with everything he was asked to do; Ellis Hudson terrorised his full back at times, ran the channels with an intensity and read the game superbly – his defensive awareness off the ball was outstanding. Repeatedly, City’s starlets did some things better than Stoke’s lot did – where Oliver Shenton bit back at the taunts of Nathaniel Knight-Percival, for example, City managed the game calmly.
But where the final group game would probably have marked their curtain call under Parkinson, we know Stuart is far more likely to let them have an encore – and at the right pace. Players have been quick to praise his man-management style, and that climate of mutual respect is obvious, even from afar. Most strikingly of all, McCall told BBC Radio Leeds after the Millwall victory that Mark Marshall simply “needed to be told he was loved” to give his best performance. Marshall was looking to move back down south over pre-season, but McCall persuaded the winger to hang around for two weeks, just to see how things went – the rest is history. Young or old, McCall will handle this squad in exactly the right way.
3) City still have a bit of thinking about what to do up front
The brief ‘find a 20 goal a season man’ was a tough – and, to an extent, misdirected – ask, especially in view of the club record fee MK Dons allegedly threw towards Kieran Agard; but City landed two impressive additions at the eleventh hour in Haris Vučkic and Marc McNulty. Vučkić was a one-every-two man at Rotherham and under McCall at Rangers, and McNulty’s record is similarly favourable.
Now, City have some thinking to do about how they want to set up offensively. As Jason McKeown pointed out here, it’s rare to find someone like Nahki Wells who has that natural, instinctively predatory gait around goal; often, it’s about putting players around the right men more than their historical goalscoring record – witness Lee Mills and Michael Boulding. When Billy Clarke issued his rallying call before the visit to Milton Keynes, he was right in his message: the older guard still have a lot to offer. And given his renaissance under McCall, he knows just how far the truth of that sentiment holds.
Billy Clarke was probably under-utilised last season in that he only really found compatibility with Jamie Proctor, who was able to bring the widemen into play so that Clarke could find the pockets of space from which he sees the things others don’t. Even then, however, it felt limited, Clarke inhibited by the lack of options from the right and the deep midfield pairing behind.
With McCall revising City’s overall set up, we’re seeing another dimension to players like Cullen and Clarke – Clarke’s play on the edge of the box has returned to its 2015 level. Where the team was tailored to his needs early in 2014/15, he came into his own – see Coventry and Halifax – and, in Nicky Law, Clarke has already found a useful ally. It’s no one’s fault Hanson and Clarke didn’t work together – they just weren’t a natural pairing. That channel-runner Devante Cole left before he struck up a real partnership with Clarke was frustrating at the time.
One football cliché that always pains me is ‘strikers are judged on goals’, because it condenses the success criteria through which we view forwards into something that’s massively overly-simplistic. Clarke has looked a renewed man this year, and his urgency and vision in the final third has been key. The jury is still out on Jordy Hiwula, but the same principle applies. There is a rawness about him – he still is only 21 – and a lot to work on with his first touch and decision-making; but they come with practice, awareness. What you can’t teach is a striker’s instinct. Hiwula making the runs he does and getting into the space he finds is one more thing than the front two were doing this time last year, and is a valuable contribution in its own way. He deserves time.
When asked for his thoughts on a transfer window that saw the record broken again, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp told journalists: “If you bring one player in for £100m or whatever and he gets injured, then it all goes through the chimney.”
“The day that this is football, I’m not in a job anymore, because the game is about playing together,” he explained. “Other clubs can go out and spend more money and collect top players, yes. Do I have to do it differently to that? Actually, I want to do it differently. I would even do it differently if I could spend that money. If I spend money, it is because I am trying to build a real team. You can win championships, you can win titles, but maybe there is a manner in which you want it. It is about how it is.”
At this point, City at least have the reassurance of knowing they will not be dependent on one man – and they’re doing things in the right way under McCall. They’d win the Jurgen Klopp seal of approval. It’s impossible to tell how this team will line up – Vučkić can play out wide or up front, and McNulty, Clarke, Hanson and Hiwula all have a different set of strengths – but they look far bolder and more dangerous than they have done for two years.
4) Whatever happens, we will be fine
The almost unanimous sense of positivity at the moment is actually quite weird. We’re just not used to this. After everything we’ve been through – at one point facing the season with only eight permanent players, two of whom would miss the opening few weeks anyway – to be now entering September with such an embarrassment of riches all over the park is testament to just how united McCall, Abbott and the chairmen were in their recruitment strategy. Things were never going to go massively belly-up, because regardless of how well McCall did, the bottom line is that we’ve struck lucky with two owners as responsible as ours; but for City to be looking this good, even ignoring their starting point, is unprecedented.
All of which keeps bringing me back to the spring of 2015, when the club was nearly sold to Gianni Paladini. Given what happened at QPR, there was a feeling that City wouldn’t be so much building a house on the sand as becoming embroiled in something that would be far harder to get out of than they might think. If Paladini had taken over, Parkinson almost certainly wouldn’t have hung around for another season – and if he had, he wouldn’t have lasted long. If Paladini had been able to push that deal over the line, you wonder where the club would be now. How many managers they’d have employed – maybe even what league they’d be in. Even if the squad had looked good, there’s a way you go about things. Undercurrents of uncertainty and off-field fragility would surely have abounded.
For the Rahic and Rupp philosophy to stand in such a stark contrast to that alternate reality is what solidifies the tempered optimism around Valley Parade at the moment. This is a squad we can easily believe in, a manager we can easily believe in, and a style that will buy McCall time and credit if things stall further down the line. It’s truly compelling to believe the realism with which fans are discussing the club right now stems from Edin Rahic’s long-term outlook. This is a total project, in which infrastructural developments and gradual off-field progression will be as vital as the changes to the playing style. It might not happen this year – and if it doesn’t, they will go again. But right now, you’d be foolish to write them off. In a League One that already looks far tougher than last year’s, City look the real deal. There is so much about this team, and they are already giving us so many reasons to smile.