By Jason McKeown
The Width of a Post writing team were asked to vote for their top five Bradford City players of the 2016/17 campaign. Here is the collective result.
In 5th place…Rory McArdle
This was a season of two halves for Rory. Having missed the first month due to injury, the long-serving Northern Ireland defender had to take up an unfamiliar new regular position – a place on the bench. As City prospered without him, there could be few complaints. The Bantams remained hard to beat, and didn’t concede many goals. The new style of football looked unsuited to McArdle’s direct style. Evolution had its causalities.
Yet it is to McArdle’s huge credit that he never complained, did all the right things professionally, and took his chance when it inevitably came. As Stuart McCall looked to develop a winning edge to his draw-happy side, McArdle earned his place back in the side during January and hasn’t looked back.
The 30-year-old’s performances since that point have been outstanding. It took a few weeks to develop his partnership with Nathaniel Knight-Percival, but they ultimately flourished either as pairing or alongside Romain Vincelot when the Frenchman was pushed back. The famous McArdle hoof – whilst not retired – is no longer the default City attacking option. Rory has showed he can play it out from the back, and contribute to the team’s change of style.
And boy can he defend. There have been few City centre backs past and present who have relished the physical side of the game as much as he does. McArdle loves to tackle, challenge in the air and do whatever it takes to keep the ball away from City’s penalty box.
Add in his vital play off semi final winner against Fleetwood, and it has ultimately proven to be a season to remember for McArdle. It has ended with a valid and meaningful debate about how Rory compares with the most celebrated defenders in Bradford City history. With over 200 appearances under his belt, five years service and many vital goals, McArdle has elevated himself to one of the most popular players in City’s modern times. A genuine City Gent.
In 4th place…Romain Vincelot
Romain Vincelot has been known to Bradford City fans since that strange summer of 2011 when the club made an improbable six-figure bid to try and prize the then-Dagenham playmaker away from joining Championship Brighton. It was a move later revealed to have been gamesmanship on Archie Christie’s part, to help drive up the price Brighton paid his old club to buy him.
Since then we’ve seen Vincelot perform at Valley Parade for Leyton Orient and Coventry, where he always impressed, and so his summer arrival at Valley Parade was greeted with great excitement. In League One terms, this was a major piece of transfer business. A massive statement of intent.
And it has proven to be a hugely successful purchase, if not quite for the reasons expected. When on the opening day of the season Vincelot filled in as emergency centre half, it felt like a one-off occurrence. But even after actual City defenders returned to fitness, Vincelot kept his place at the back. He didn’t seem out of place. The Frenchman looked like he had been playing there all his life. And it really suited the play-it-out-from-the-back ethos Stuart McCall had instilled to have a centre back so comfortable on the ball.
As the team’s tactics and approach has evolved, Vincelot’s importance has grown further. Post Christmas he finally became a regular in his position, giving Josh Cullen greater licence to get forward. McCall also began to favour a 3-5-2, 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 approach that encouraged the full backs to push on. Vincelot slotted in at the back once more. His versatility allowing McCall to switch the approach mid-game.
All season long Vincelot has proven what a talented player he is. His reading of the game is exemplary, and his passing ability amongst the best within the club. For McCall to give him the captain’s armband when there are so many other strong contenders also demonstrates the authority and respect he commands. Vincelot is not a fist-pumping skipper in the Gary Jones/Stuart McCall mould, but a genuine leader without question.
Physically strong, technically capable and remarkably consistent, signing Vincelot was a wonderful piece of business. A wise old head to guide increasingly young shoulders around him. There has been many reasons to rock up at Valley Parade this season with a feeling of excitement. Watching Romain Vincelot has been close to the top of that list.
In 3rd place…James Meredith
Even by the Aussie’s own high standards, this was an exceptional season for James Meredith. The 29-year-old has flourished in the changing of playing style introduced by Stuart McCall, which has encouraged the attack-minded left back to get forward even more often.
Over the first half of the campaign especially, Meredith became the team’s attacking focal point. There were few finer sights at Valley Parade than watching Meredith receive the ball on halfway, dart past defenders and whip a dangerous ball into the box. When in September he scored a rare goal – with his head and just six yards out from goal – the evolution was complete. Here was a player who was always dangerous and effective under Phil Parkinson, now truly let off the leash.
The return to fitness of Tony McMahon at Christmas gave the team greater attacking balance from the full backs, which meant Meredith’s impact dimmed slightly. But his performances remained very strong. In a team that was becoming more clinical in the final third after the January window, Meredith continued to play a really big role. In fact McCall shifted the approach so Meredith could play as a wing back, to get even more out of him.
Meredith has also defended well, even if his go-hung approach can occasionally see him caught out. His performances have caught the eye not just within Valley Parade, but the rest of the league has taken note. Meredith earned a place in the PFA team of the season, and was heavily linked with moves to Leeds and Bolton. A transfer to either club would have hurt, but his choice of new club, Millwall, isn’t much better. A sad way to end five terrific years’ service.
In 2nd place…Josh Cullen
Josh Cullen is quite simply far too good for League One, so the fact the club was able to re-sign him last August was even bigger coup than bringing him to Valley Parade in the first place. The West Ham youngster made a huge difference when he signed on loan during the second half of the 2015/16 season. So much so it seemed his next stop would be the Championship or even a shot in the Hammers’ first team.
But back he came to Valley Parade, where he has further added to his burgeoning reputation. Still only 21, Cullen must rank as one of the most exciting young players in the country. Like other successful City loan signings of recent years, such as Jordan Pickford and West Ham team mate Reece Burke, right now the sky is the limit.
If Cullen was a fine young player during his first spell, he’s now developed into a true team player and someone who can significantly impact on games. Cullen understandably looked after his own performances last season, but with more experience, confidence and composure he has become a driving force.
Working under Stuart McCall must have been huge for the player, as there echoes in the way he plays and the manner in which the City legend made his name back in the 1980s. Not only will Cullen have learned a lot on the training ground, he has revelled in the responsibility given to him by a manager who understands the value of his position better than anyone.
We’ve seen Cullen edge closer towards becoming a true box-to-box midfielder. He has adept at sitting deep and breaking up play, and has the assurance and self belief to charge forward in possession and turn defence into attack. The Irish under 21 international is an excellent passer of the ball, and has the ability to spot opportunities that others on the field don’t see.
He may only have three assists to his name this season, but so many goals and near misses have involved an excellent Cullen pass in the build up. Cullen is the guy who sets up the other guy to cross for the other guy to score.
Like Burke a year ago, Cullen has clearly fallen in love with Bradford City and gone above and beyond the commitment of your typical loan player. Racing back from international duty to try and play at Scunthorpe in March deserves a lot of respect, with McCall having to make the tough decision to leave him out for his own good. There’s a huge connection between the player and crowd, with the Josh Cullen chant one of the most regularly aired of the season.
Cullen probably won’t be at Valley Parade next season, but his development over these past 18 months further enhances City’s reputation as a progressive club to send young players to. Josh has been outstanding over these past 18 months, making a huge difference to the fortunes of the club, and conducting himself in a way that has made him a pleasure to watch.
To City fans, he truly is better than Zidane.
And the winner is…Mark Marshall
What more is there to say about this man? The narrative of overlooked, neglected player on his way out of Valley Parade, miraculously turned into match winner and star performer, has been repeated ad nauseum. Here was a player who was expected to be plying his trade at Sixfields Stadium this season, destined to be added to the lengthy list of poor Bradford City signings over the years. Long forgotten.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if Marshall had left Valley Parade last summer who would have been unhappy? History has been slightly rewritten when it is suggested Parkinson treated the Jamaican badly, absorbing the player of any blame. The truth is that Marshall didn’t grasp the limited opportunities he was given by Parkinson last season. He spent a year on the bench because he was nowhere near as effective as Kyel Reid.
But Parkinson’s time at City is littered with players who just didn’t respond to his man-management style, and left quickly to revive their careers elsewhere. Marshall and Parkinson clearly didn’t gel, McCall has been able to motivate the player to perform much better. Marshall has taken greater responsibility for his own performances, bought into the new approach of McCall and flourished. He was not blameless under Parkinson, although the former manager too deserves the criticism he’s received for failing to make the most of such a talented player.
And Marshall is a good player, make no mistake. He is not as fast as his flying winger predecessors, Reid and Omar Daley, but his control, crossing ability and awareness of team mates is much stronger. Marshall is also excellent at tracking back and helping his defence. His work rate is exceptional, and the little unnoticed things he does off the ball have been just as impressive as what he does in possession.
Over the first half of the season Marshall soared as a winger. His jinking runs and ability to find space marked him out as a major threat. He does not stick rigidly to his position, and would cut inside to devastating effect. His stunning goal at home to Coventry in August was a demonstration of what a weapon he could be.
So influential has Marshall become that McCall has tried to push him further up the pitch to do even more damage. More than a decade ago McCall had tried Omar Daley as a striker with limited success, but Marshall proved himself excellent in the more central position, dragging defenders all over the field. He will never score 20 goals in a season, but it has worked well to give Marshall a part of the pitch where he has free reign to operate. Opposition defenders have found it really difficult to track and keep him quiet.
Performances prior to Christmas were good, but over the second half of the season Marshall found another level. Rested at Northampton on 3 January, he came off the bench and won the game for City. That set the new marker for what he was capable of, and he has continued to live up to that. There are many standout performances and goals. My personal favourite was the important home win over Swindon, where Charlie Wyke netted a late double to spark amazing scenes. Marshall set up both goals. He won us that game.
Over the Parkinson years the player of the season award almost always went to a defensive player, so it is highly fitting that McCall’s expansive approach has ended with an attacking player taking the season’s crown.
Mark Marshall is the WOAP 2016/17 player of the season. It has been an absolute joy to watch him prove what an exceptional player he really is.
Special mention to Tony McMahon who also received numerous votes and only narrowly missed out on a top five finish. In total, nine players received a top five vote.
The 2016/17 Width of a Post Player of the Season was voted for by Mark Danylczuk, Gareth Walker, Mike Holdsworth, Phil Abbott, Ian Hemmens, Mark Scully, David Lawrence, Kieran WIlkinson, Jason McKeown, James Pieslak, Nikhi Vekaria, Andrew Baxter, Nick Beanland, Damien Wilkinson, Tim Penfold, Tom Swithinbank and Mahesh Johal.
Past WOAP Player of the Season winners
2011/12: Luke Oliver
2012/13: Gary Jones
2013/14: Stephen Darby
2014/15: Rory McArdle
2015/16: Reece Burke
Categories: 2016/17 season review