By Jason McKeown
Not for the first time in his seven years at Bradford City, James Hanson has a point to prove.
As the Stuart McCall passing revolution thrives at Valley Parade, Hanson’s own season has yet to get going due to a series of injuries minimising his involvement. Out of sight has been out of mind as far as many supporters were concerned, with a theory growing that City’s more modern and cultured way of playing makes a big targetman look primitive.
And with Hanson out of contract at the end of the season, his future suddenly looks less assured.
Yet it speaks volumes of the manager’s belief in the club’s longest-serving player that – back to fitness – Hanson is set to be put straight back into the side for Tuesday’s encounter with Southend. In doing so Hanson will overtake other forwards on the fringes with legitimate claims for a starting berth. Hanson is viewed as the man who could fix the club’s goalscoring troubles.
As a fully paid-up member of the James Hanson fan club, it has always saddened me how much time we have spent these last seven years debating his worth. There’s no question that, in some people’s eyes, his non-league background somehow makes him an inferior player to others at the club. And that his ongoing presence is somehow holding us back.
When City were fighting relegation to non-league in 2011, some fans argued that Hanson wasn’t good enough. The club has subsequently risen up the football ladder, with Hanson playing a huge part in that rise, but the debate has never really changed. If City do continue their upwards climb, at some point Hanson probably won’t be good enough to continue on the journey. Yet we still appear to be a way off this happening – there’s every chance that Hanson will play a key part in any future success.
But I do agree that he has something to prove right now, a challenge that every other player inherited by Stuart McCall from Phil Parkinson has faced. Some such as Billy Clarke, James Meredith, Tony McMahon and Stephen Darby have risen to the challenge, others like Filipe Morais and Rory McArdle still have much to prove. Hanson is in that same camp. Even though his new manager is also his old manager, and a confirmed Hanson fan, this is not a time for sentimentality.
The issue Hanson faces is that the last two seasons were not roaring successes for the player. In 2014/15 – the year of the diamond formation and Chelsea – Hanson found himself pushed into a wide attacker position, with Jon Stead and Billy Clarke the focal point of the attack. If it wasn’t for the fact Stead’s form suddenly fell off a cliff over the final two months of that season – and talks of a permanent deal fell through because of his wage demands – Hanson might have remained a wide attacker the year after.
And last season was clearly not a vintage year for Hanson. Although netting 13 goals and finishing top scorer, the ultra pragmatic final season of Parkinson saw Hanson isolated up front and left to feed on scraps of service. He couldn’t forge an effective strike partnership with anyone – a common theme since Nahki Wells left in 2014 – and by the end of the season wasn’t a guaranteed starter.
Yet this average form of last season is really important in evaluating Hanson’s ongoing value to the team. This narrative has formed this year that McCall’s attractive passing football won’t suit Hanson’s game, as though Parkinson was getting the best out of the striker through his long ball approach. He wasn’t. Hanson did not look good in the pragmatic style of last season. It was holding him back as much as every other forward.
Where Hanson struggled last season was a lack of attacking players around him and the fact he was so often being asked to play with his back to goal. That is not Hanson’s game in the way it was Jon Stead’s. Hanson isn’t especially brilliant at holding up the ball; he thrives on team mates running ahead of him and flicking the ball into their path. He is good in the air, and he feeds off crosses that he can run onto from a deeper starting position. That’s why he and Wells were so good, with the Bermudian the most forward player, stretching the play.
Right now I see a lot of games where City’s approach play is terrific and they do well to get the ball into wide positions, but I don’t see many players in the box ready to get on the end of things. So rather than swing over a cross, players pass it backwards and sideways and try to find openings in the centre of the pitch. It’s more congested there, and attacks break down.
If Mark Marshall had a target to aim his crosses at, his promising performances could go to another level. There is no player better at the club to get on the end of balls into the box than Hanson. Rather than this idea that, by moving on from the football of Parkinson, we are moving on from Hanson, the best might be yet to come from the big striker.
But of course it’s down to him to prove that, and tonight’s expected start is the first opportunity to cement his place and prove his worth. With an attack that keeps misfiring and a dilemma for McCall picking the right forward line, Hanson could very quickly make himself the focal point of Bradford City once again.
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