By Katie Whyatt
Sport loves narrative. As if there weren’t already enough bends and leaps in this particular tale, as if you already *couldn’t write any of this* story brimming with symbolism, this narrative that lends itself so willingly and seamlessly to romance, City’s third all-time highest goalscorer leaves one day after the fourth anniversary of his most iconic moment.
22nd January, 2017 marks four years to the day since James Hanson’s looping header sealed Bradford City’s place at Wembley in the penultimate turn of the most improbable cup run any of us will ever see. 23rd January, 2017 marks the day Bradford City accepted an offer for James Hanson to officially become a Sheffield United player, and it ends, just like that, without a real bang or a whimper.
What can you write about James Hanson that hasn’t already written itself, conveniently and instinctively, at some point in the previous seven years? As snow swirled at a frigid Villa Park and Hanson wheeled away, index finger raised, the sky luminous with flashbulbs, the press had their human interest story. Even a lifetime of writing those Roy of the Rovers yarns synonymous with the cups couldn’t dim Hanson’s light. From the Co-op to taking his hometown team to Wembley on the biggest night in Bradford City, in cup, history. It had to be him.
Cohen Brammall has potential but the depth, duration and ruggedness of Hanson’s story – that a club bumbling so perilously close to the trap door less than a year previous had this man steering them to their finest hour – is unmatched. Hanson was there from beginning to end, the face who had felt what came before.
And over the past four years of magic, while the rest of the football world seemingly grows increasingly stratified, it has been the essential humanity of the men behind the miracles that has allowed everyone to buy into the events so forcefully, with such utter conviction. The players that time forgot. Rag-tag bunches of men searching for a do-over, for redemption, to re-write the lines and catch the shadows they’d always chased. The injury-plagued West Ham winger sapped of confidence. The Rochdale outcast. The banished Huddersfield striker, once touching distance from England, breaching the void to the other world, being what he always thought he could be, for one grey afternoon at Stamford Bridge. Alex Scott, in his breathtaking Andrew Davies piece from 2013, summed it up more eloquently than I ever could: “Proving to themselves they belonged. Together.”
It had to be James Hanson, time and again. He was at the centre of 101 big moments with a reliance and consistency that was eerily storybook; but there were moments of real quality that twinned a deadliness with the unavoidable romance and sentiment.
Burton away, the last act before their Wembley curtain call, saw Hanson and Nahki Wells as clinical as they ever were. Watching Wells leap, writhe and squirm into the area, squirreling the loose ball into Hanson’s vicinity, then Hanson gambling on the tumbling defenders to apply the finish having earlier corralled one into Wells’ path to level the tie on aggregate – a pair who’d been as prolific as they had that season blew the lid off everything they’d already been.
When you talk about the defining individual performances of this era – Jon Stead against Chelsea, Billy Clarke against Sunderland, James Meredith against Leeds – Hanson and Wells that day have to share the same pantheon. They reached their peak in a moment, for a moment, that mattered more than any had before.
Watching those back today, Wells exhibiting an instinct and a menace that, truthfully, hasn’t been matched since his departure, underlines how lucky you were to watch those two as a pair. The closest thing we’ve had to that first goal, in terms of pure nerve and opportunism, is probably Meredith’s finish from Saturday. That they managed to keep it up for five months in League One, and netted 21 goals between them before Nahki Wells spirited himself away, is unremarkable, in hindsight. A level higher, yet Hanson got six, Wells 15 – by January. And Hanson created at least five of those Wells goals.
Maybe that runs the risk of being nostalgic, sentimental. But James Hanson is the fairytale that came true. He has an illustrated children’s book based on his life and his whole tale is so heartwarming and uplifting that any attempt at cynicism feels exhausting and pointless. The most unsettling thing about the discourse around Hanson has been that the line between valid criticism and malice has routinely become unnecessarily blurred.
The comments about Hanson, for whatever reason, always seem to take on a particular tone, mutate into something particularly vicious compared to anything any other player has to deal with. I’m struggling to think of a player who has been as divisive as he, despite the overwhelming scale of his contribution.
Criticism, where warranted, is fine; sycophantry isn’t the way to go here. But you can’t really skirt around the fact that some of the evaluations and tags that follow Hanson just don’t make sense. Apparently, this guy is clearly ‘not good enough for us’, yet Chris Wilder, Neil Harris and who knows how many others clearly recognise his worth and are blind to such a glaring shortcoming.
The bottom line is that every single City manager Hanson has worked under has picked him for the team over and over again, and four of his seven years saw year-on-year improvement. His record, his highlights package, should speak for itself. It’s worth repeating that criticism is fine – but why does the bottom line of respect always go out of the window when it comes to Hanson? Why do things become so malicious, so quickly? On paper, he really shouldn’t be this provocative.
A League One player has a children’s book based on his life. It begins as he’s working at the Co-op and ends as he lifts the play off final trophy at Wembley, and every word of it is true. Can we just appreciate that, for one second, before anything else? Maybe that is soppy, or silly, or childish, but isn’t that what football is, really? It’s just 22 men kicking a ball, ultimately. What is it if you can’t imbue it with this kind of meaning, this kind of belonging? If you can’t relish this kind of story when it comes along once in a lifetime? Debate over Hanson’s worth, in the guise and to the extent it’s waged and dissected, is the debate that should never be.
To an extent, this might come across as living in the past. Then again, if you can’t do that when Bradford City’s longest-serving present player departs, will the opportunity ever arise? Moreover, you can’t really judge the wisdom of this decision until the window closes, when the lot City have for the remainder of the season is declared definitively and categorically.
Truthfully, would you construct a team around Hanson right now? There are persuasive arguments both ways. This season, Billy Clarke and Hanson established themselves as the most dangerous pairing out of the forwards currently on the books, and Hanson has proved his worth and place in a markedly changed style; but the pair have shared precious few games together, and, even in a side as good as this one, they probably form part of the ceiling, that, really, to seriously challenge, this team need to shatter. But it’s all semantics. ‘Construct a team around’ and ‘a role to play’ become one and the same, given the nature of this team and what’s just happened.
If you’re playing Blackjack here, from City’s point of view, do you stick or twist? Do you back yourself to find someone else, a more effective finisher, at the risk of ruining what you have? People claim Hanson’s powers are waning, and you could probably construct something about dwindling influence if you were so inclined, but those problems were never his alone. The whole forward line was struggling. And note that in that three-game autumnal league run where City managed to start Hanson and Clarke together – Rochdale, AFC Wimbledon, Sheffield United – the side bagged nine goals, Hanson three and Clarke two. They were painted as the solution, fending all the other competition.
There was a reader comment on here over the weekend, when news of Sheffield United’s interest first broke in earnest, that said, objectively, Hanson has clearly had some injury woes that curbed his involvement this season – and last.
You run down the clock until May, and Hanson leaves on a free transfer, when you’re aware in January that there’s interest worth listening to – it’s a big gamble to ask the board to take.
‘Leaving on a free’ and ‘leaving on a free with City in the Championship’ are two different scenarios. City could have done a ‘Jermaine Beckford at Leeds circa 2009/10’ and been reimbursed handsomely for their nerve; equally, City could have fallen short, Hanson could left for nothing, and everyone would be left ruing their recklessness with empty pockets.
Maybe that’s not the right way to write this particular case, and maybe Hanson doesn’t fit into this bind as obviously as Wells did, but you have to consider all the angles. This has the potential to be shrewd business, but perhaps the way history remembers this moment will be decided partly by to the club’s actions – or lack thereof – over the final eight days of the window.
My son used to work at the Co-op, by Michael Hanson
Chelsea: One Year On – The Dad, by Michael Hanson