By Jason McKeown
In four weeks’ time, football will go crazy again. The January transfer window will be a particularly big one at the top and at the bottom of English professional football. While Premier League teams have record levels of TV revenue burning holes in their pockets, Football League outfits have for the first time grappled with the true nature of a transfer window.
No mid-window loans allowed anymore, meaning no Football League manager has been able to look externally for answers.
But that will change for the 31 days of January, and it presents big opportunities for everyone. At Bradford City, we are no different and already for weeks now it seems supporter conversations have been dominated by who Stuart McCall could/should be signing.
It’s going to be a very interesting mid-point of the season.
Top of most supporters’ shopping list for McCall is to bring in the much-vaunted “proven goalscorer”. So far, the promotion challenge that has formed has been built upon having a strong defence (the third best in League One) rather than a potent attack (joint 11th-best in the division). Only Charlton have drawn more games than the Bantams, suggesting an improvement up front could lead to a further boost in results.
Yet trying to sign a striker in January is not going to be an easy task. Players like Grimsby’s Omar Bogle and Barnet’s John Akinde are talked up as potential targets for their goalscoring exploits in League Two, but they are likely to be on several other clubs’ radar. Can City compete? Will the price they have to pay be good value?
Similarly, bringing in a player from a higher league, who is not in his club’s plans, is risky given the closing off of the loan market means such players are probably vastly short of match fitness. We’ve got recent past form in the perils of such a move – namely one Aaron Mclean.
Edin Rahic has pledged to make funds available if City are still in a strong position, but even that’s not so simple. In the summer City held talks with Kieran Agaard and Leon Clarke, but in both cases couldn’t match the wages offered by other clubs. Is that likely to change now? And do we actually want to smash the wage structure, given it could risk destabilising team spirit? When it comes to top League One strikers, City don’t seem to have the financial clout of others.
The big challenge with the striker hunt is expectations. Bringing in a forward player who is genuinely a step up on everyone else on the books is going to be very difficult mid-season. Even if the club can afford to do so, it must be a sustainable signing rather than a short-term gamble. In other words, you don’t want it to lead to future belt-tightening and a reduced budget in the summer.
And it’s why a more realistic focus is probably on looking at strengthening the back up options. Haris Vuckic is clearly a talented player. But his effectiveness in McCall’s system is highly questionable, and he is not at the level to justify changing the overall approach to get the best out of him. It’s a similar story with Marc McNulty. For all his rawness, Jordy Hiwula has brought more to the table.
With Billy Clarke and James Hanson contracted to City until at least the summer, McCall will probably be keen to bring in someone who can really push them. Perhaps not be as a guaranteed starter from day one, but someone who can grow and take on more of an influence over the second half of the season. Equally, in view of the Rahic youth-focused philosophy, they might want to sign a player with the longevity to contribute next season and beyond.
If McCall, Rahic and Greg Abbott are looking to target a big signing, it is likely that we’ll see players leave to fund it. Certainly at centre back, McCall has something of an embarrassment of riches. Romain Vincelot and Nathaniel Knight-Percival are genuine contenders for player of the season, whilst behind the pair are Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke and Matthew Kligallon. Good experienced centre halves, who other clubs would be interested in.
In hindsight, McCall might regret signing Kilgallon. That’s nothing to do with his performances when in the team – he did a decent job covering for the irreplaceable James Meredith – but the manager took the decision to sign him in pre-season, when defensive injuries were prevalent and resources stretched. Kilgallon didn’t even end up playing then, and with everyone now fit he is some way down the pecking order.
It sounds unthinkable, but McArdle is a player McCall might be willing to sacrifice. He is too good a player at this level to be happy remaining a back up option forever. Will he get more game time over the second half of the season? Only if injuries strike, but in which case Nathan Clarke and Kilgallon could deputise. McArdle is not someone you’d want to encourage out the door, but of the three back up centre backs he is arguably the most sellable. Stick or twist?
Elsewhere, Filpe Morais is perhaps a contender to be sold although the Portugese has vowed to stay and fight for his place. There’s no question it has been a season of underachievement so far for Morais. His confidence looks damaged, and when on the field he often looks frustrated with other players. The fact he has proven to be ineffective from the bench in some games hasn’t helped either. McCall may want to bring in a winger ahead of him.
Whatever changes lie ahead, you want signings to be meaningful – but to be wary of them coming in with the pressure of being considered season-defining. With so much talk about signing a striker, many have already suggested that a failure to sign a goalscorer will cost City promotion. Perhaps, but perhaps not. With all the challenges there will be in bringing in a top striker in January, it seems foolish to pin all of our hopes on it happening.
As Greg Abbott said recently, “Most fans will probably say we’ve got to go out and get a 20-goal striker – but that’s almost a Neanderthal statement…you look at the players where clubs have paid an absolute fortune and there is no guarantee they will score those goals.”
Over the years we’ve seen more bad January transfer windows for City than good, and perhaps last year’s was the best example we’ve seen of using the window wisely to bring improvement. Phil Parkinson made some big calls letting Devante Cole and Gary Liddle leave, but the arrivals of Jamie Proctor, Wes Thomas and Josh Cullen sparked significant improvement. Parkinson used his budget wisely and – whilst McCall is likely to have a little, but not a vast amount, more – he faces the same challenge.
And perhaps the form of City last season, pre and post-January window hints at the true priorities this transfer window. A new striker would be nice, and we won’t exactly be in tears to see McNulty and/or Vuckic leave. But the player who made such a big impact last season is still a vital part of all that is good about Bradford City this year.
Josh Cullen’s loan is up for renewal in January. West Ham are struggling in the Premier League, and might just be keen to explore what the young Irishman can do for them. If McCall is able to persuade Slaven Bilic to let him keep Josh Cullen at Valley Parade for the rest of the season, it might go down as the best piece of January business he can possibly do.