By Jason McKeown
Football, just like life, is full of people who squander their natural gifts, and others who thrive through endeavour. James Hanson is the embodiment of the latter type of person. He is a player who has earned everything the hard way.
You would never describe Hanson as the most natural of footballers. He didn’t enjoy a pampered background at a Premier League academy. He didn’t benefit from top youth coaches educating him on the finer points of the game. His career path didn’t run smoothly. Bombed out of Huddersfield Town at 14, after being used in junior teams as a left back, and rejected by Colin Todd’s Bradford City, Hanson was destined for a very different life. Recovering from such discouraging events was the first of many heroic battles he has won.
For years and years Bradford City fans have debated his worth. Firstly when the club was on the decline and he was viewed by some as part of the problem, and then more recently when City have been on the up and he was supposedly holding us back. The argument put forward was that we needed to discard Hanson to move on.
Yet the more disparaging views there were directed towards Hanson, the more credit he deserved. If the player really was as limited and ineffectual as his detractors suggested, he was doing a hell of a job maximising such a lack of talent.
For him to keep going when judged so harshly, so often, was incredible. Players with much more natural ability have failed to enjoy anything like the career of Hanson, simply because they lack his mental strength.
Managers came and went, City eventually climbed the ladder, and Hanson became one of the few constants. Progress has its casualties, and the last four years have seen many players left behind by the club’s rise and rise. Hanson’s turn to leave was always debated, but very few expected him to move onto a club in a better league position than City.
In four months’ time James Hanson could be a Championship player. That would be some story.
The first memories of Hanson remain vivid. A pre-season friendly at home to Premier League Burnley, with Hanson introduced as a second half trialist. He bullied a Burnley back line looking suspiciously short of Premier League quality, and after a few more impressive cameos earned a deal at Bradford City.
He worked in the Co-op; his trial period punctured by still having to complete shifts in the Idle shop. Combined with part-time earnings from Guiseley, and the contact offered by Stuart McCall actually represented a pay cut. Hanson waived and nearly turned it down. His wise-talking dad persuaded him to gamble on the opportunity of becoming a professional footballer. It was a punt that paid out.
I remember his first start, a League Cup defeat at Notts Forest. Hanson played on the wing and didn’t pull up any trees. City lost 3-0, three days after getting walloped 5-0 at Notts County. This was a summer of heavy cost-cutting that led to a move towards cheaper, non-league players like Hanson, whose £7,500 transfer fee was covered by a Bradford City supporter rather than the club. The early signs were alarmingly bad.
But Hanson settled in quickly, and City’s season eventually got going. McCall – in his third season in charge, and worn down by the pressure – left in February, but Hanson continued to thrive when Peter Taylor took over. His debut season saw 13 goals and the lifting of the player of the season award. A wonderful start.
That first year was Hanson’s peak in general popularity. A more trying second season for player and club dampened expectations over what he could achieve.
Taylor struggled to build a winning football team and left. Peter Jackson’s ego saw him put his own popularity ahead of Hanson’s best interests. His last action as manager was to placate Hanson’s critics by substituting him midway through the second half of a home defeat to Dagenham. Jackson sent Nialle Rodney on in Hanson’s place, and the team forlornly launched long balls up to the medium-height striker. No one was cheering.
Hanson was absolutely central to the reversal in the club’s fortunes. Once Nahki Wells burst onto the scene and the pair were picked together in December 2011, Phil Parkinson finally had something to work with. Hanson and Wells helped to keep City in the Football League, before memorably leading the line in the history makers season, netting more than 40 goals as a pair.
That was a season full of the very best of James Hanson, and where most of the stories of his Bradford City
achievements will be gleaned from. His famous, famous goal at Aston Villa sent his home town club to Wembley and made him nationally famous for a period. When the chips were down in the play off semi finals, Hanson had the game of his life at Burton and City were back at the national stadium. Hanson opened the scoring on that marvellous Wembley afternoon where the Bantams sealed a first promotion for 14 years.
Amazing times for the club, and great personal achievements for the player.
In League One, Hanson has had good days and bad. On top form he can bully the best defenders in the league, and he has continued to net vital goals to keep the club moving forwards. After scoring the winner against arch rivals Leeds in September 2014, he surely shouldn’t ever need to buy another drink in Bradford.
But he has struggled at times after City sold Nahki Wells in January 2014. A failure to strike up a good partnership with anyone since Wells has limited City’s progress. Although in Hanson’s defence, the number of genuinely successful City strike partnerships over the last three decades is thin. Perhaps the Hanson and Wells pairing set the bar too high.
Phil Parkinson was huge for Hanson’s career, but over his final two seasons he didn’t exactly deploy a style of play that enabled Hanson to flourish. Last season was a graveyard for strikers. Playing in a side that created few chances, Hanson deserved credit for still reaching double figures.
You always expect more goals from your strikers, and Hanson had to live with that criticism over his time at Valley Parade. He did miss chances, he didn’t always impose himself on defenders – but he always gave absolutely everything. There was always an integrity and honesty to his play. And many of us found it impossible to dislike that.
He has been accused of not fitting into City’s new style, even though the man who chooses the playing strategy rates him so highly. That Hanson’s City career went full circle with McCall’s return could have ultimately led to another seminal moment for the player. McCall has barely been able to select his favoured front two of Hanson and Billy Clarke this season, but on the occasions where he could they looked promising together. We will never know if it could have fired City to the Championship.
No one player is ever bigger than the club, but the longevity and impact Hanson has made at City will leave a hole off the pitch. Younger generations of Bradford people can read a book based on his life. His story is full of lessons about the virtues of always trying your best, having the courage to recover from set backs and to never give up on your dreams.
On the field, the joy he generated against Aston Villa Park, Burton, Northampton and Leeds will live with us for decades to come. Hanson deserves to leave with nothing but the warmest wishes of every single Bradford City supporter.
Where we’d be now, without him, does not bear thinking about.
The debate that never should be by Katie Whyatt