By Jason McKeown
Go back to the summer, and you’d have struggled to find a Bradford City supporter with a positive word to say about Billy Clarke.
The Bantams number 10 had just endured a season of personal frustration. Plenty of game time, and a not insignificant influence in City’s play off finish, but a meagre return of just four goals from 36 games meant Clarke carried much of the blame for the club’s difficulties in front of goal. At one stage, Clarke went five months without netting.
The memories of Clarke’s hugely impressive first campaign at Valley Parade, where he netted 14 times from 46 appearances, had faded fast. It had also been overlooked that Clarke started 2015/16 well, before a bad injury left him sidelined for months. He was arguably rushed back when he didn’t look fully fit.
Nevertheless, the most vivid Clarke memories of last season were bad misses rather than great goals. His fading form suggested he was reverting to his career type, and showed why City was already his 10th different club despite only being 28-years-old. Clarke is a player who has produced patches of excellent form but has struggled to sustain it. Without a lengthy City contract to fall back upon, he might well have found himself looking for another new club over the summer.
The turnaround this season has been as stark as it it impressive. Clarke has recaptured his best form, and is head and shoulders out in front in being the club’s best forward so far this campaign. The change in playing style, and the coaching style of McCall, has re-awoken Clarke. His recent injury has been keenly felt, and it is no coincidence City have suddenly stopped scoring as many goals since he was forced out onto the sidelines.
In hindsight it’s not hard to understand why last season was one of personal underachievement for Clarke. Phil Parkinson’s decision to go ultra pragmatic has been covered extensively on this site, and meant the team played deep, focused on protecting the back four, and went forward in low numbers. Clarke was left badly isolated, with very few options to play off. Even those who were tasked with getting forward to support him weren’t exactly ideal options. Kyel Reid’s game is more about taking people on and crossing than linking up with people in the middle, while James Hanson is less effective at playing with his back to goal.
This season, Clarke has players to feed off, in order to bring out his creativity. Nicky Law is the standout example and the two are so often on the same wavelength, collaboratively cutting defences open through clever on and off the ball running. Josh Cullen, more advanced this time around, has linked up well with Clarke. Mark Marshall is also a more effective winger for Clarke to play alongside.
But what has really helped Clarke is McCall, who has challenged the Irishman to take up more effective positions and become more of an attacking threat. Clarke thrives in the number 10 role of going deep and looking for the ball, and it works very well as City mount attacks. But it can often mean the middle of the park is congested, and there’s a lack of people in the box. Sometimes Billy Clarke’s effectiveness can make him ineffective.
So McCall has encouraged him to not only come deep, but stretch the play. Get on the end of attacks, rather than instigate them. This has particularly helped Hanson, who always fares better with people to run onto his flick ons or to pass the ball forwards to. McCall is entitled to feel a little smug when he debunks the myth that Clarke and Hanson can’t play together.
What has really helped them to work well is the role of other players too. If we wanted a striker to only stay in the area and get on the end of things, McCall wouldn’t select Clarke. There are other people at the club far more effective at that type of role (namely Marc McNulty), but the problem with trying this approach is that the fox-in-the-box is barely involved in the build-up play, making it more difficult to get the ball in the right areas.
So it helps City for Clarke to come deep and do what he does best. And to make this work, City midfielders have been told to get into the box and take up the space the striker leaves behind. That way, Clarke has more forward options than Hanson, and there is a greater likelihood of the attack leading to something.
Due to injuries, Hanson and Clarke have only played up front together five times this season. The early season games with Port Vale and Bristol Rovers, and more recently the encounters with Sheffield United, Wimbledon and Rochdale. In these most recent three matches, City scored 10 goals. Clarke got two of them and Hanson three, with the rest of the goals shared out between the team.
That’s an important point. There is currently a big focus on the amount of goals each of City’s five strikers are scoring. There are big hopes that McCall and Greg Abbott will sign a proven goalscorer in the January window, but absolutely no guarantees they can get the right person at what is often a difficult market for buyers (Exhibit A: Aaron Mclean). Yet whilst Hanson and Clarke are never going to score 40 goals between them over a season, their partnership and approach play around them hints at City being more prolific in front of goal as a collective.
That could be the key to a successful season. And McCall deserves credit for the way he has evolved the team. For Clarke and Hanson to be supported by midfield runners, more risks are being taken and the back four is more exposed than it was. For me, it’s one of the main reasons why City are winning more than they were earlier in the season, but are also losing games now. The riskier approach has its downsides – see Southend and Swindon – but it can lead to bigger rewards.
It means that the McCall second era is evolving further and further away from the Parkinson years, where defensive solidity was the foundation of every success. City aren’t completely abandoning such principles, but they are refining their approach in a bid to become more effective at the other end.
The signs are that – when everyone is fit – this strategy could pay off. And the previously unloved Billy Clarke will continue to be one of the biggest beneficiaries.