By Jason McKeown
So that’s that then. The January transfer window closes with Bradford City having made five signings, said farewell to 10 players and retained the services of an on loan striker who switched parent clubs. It hasn’t quite been the scale of strengthening that was suggested at one stage, but the hope has to be that it leaves David Hopkin with a good enough squad to keep the Bantams in League One.
There were expectations of bigger and better, which were not unreasonable for supporters to have harboured. Hopkin had in the past talked of being ready with new signings right for the opening of the window. Stefan Rupp pledged to make funds available if City’s league position necessitated large investment. With City going through a mixed run of results over January, it has made for a backdrop of frustration.
The reality of the situation is that City’s financial situation has limited their options in this transfer window. It is now well documented that the Bantams are on track to make a £1.5 million loss this season, which is a really disappointing turn of events for a club that spent several years operating in the black, progressively climbing the ladder whilst living within its means.
It is said that Rupp had not received an accurate picture of the situation from Edin Rahic during the final few months of his reign. And that has led to some unwelcome financial surprises, as the City chairman picks up the pieces of the mess left behind by his former business partner. First and foremost, as supporters we should be very grateful that Rupp is willing to underwrite these losses. Without this financial support, the club could be heading down a dark and troubling financial path.
Repairing the damage, and plugging the financial leakage, is clearly a huge priority. Especially as it is partly linked to the spiralling player budget, where wages seem to have gone out of control. A number of players signed during the summer were on substantially better terms than those they replaced, and the club has its largest playing budget in 15 years. Whilst some of those brought in during the farcical Rahic/Michael Collins period are proving their worth, there are others not part of Hopkin’s plans who are a burden on the budget.
The Football League rules state that League One clubs can only have a maximum player budget of 60% of their overall turnover, and so a combination of rising wages and reduced season ticket and commercial revenue has squeezed City’s margins. The risk of breaking the Financial Fair Play rules became a key considersation over recent weeks. As climbing over the threshold could have triggered a fine that would have only added to the overall losses. When it came to trying to sign players on deadline day, there was a low ceiling amount on the wages that could be offered.
Another key point in the January window is Jack Payne. He signed on loan for the season last August, and though his form was excellent, it wasn’t until his December purple patch that the possibility City might lose his services suddenly emerged. With Millwall and top League One clubs rumoured to be interested, Rupp ultimately renegotiated the loan deal with Huddersfield – with City now paying a higher portion of Payne’s wages, in order to keep Payne.
This has meant increasing the wage commitment for an existing member of the squad. Absolutely vital towards City’s chances of staying in League One, but clearly it had a knock-on effect on other potential transfer business.
The upshot is that City’s transfer window couldn’t live up to previous expectations. That is of course a disappointment to supporters, and if we are relegated it might be something we look back on with regret. But the financial realities cannot be ignored. We are still dealing with the legacy of Rahic’s wretched tenure. The club is recovering on and off the field, but it will take time to get back to where we were.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the January window activity, we at least now know the shape of the squad that will hopefully prove good enough to keep Bradford City in League One for next season. There is quality in most positions, but there remains a concerning lack of depth. Part of City’s survival hopes may depend on a quiet treatment table.
Richard O’Donnell will continue to assume the number one position. Opinions on the summer signing are generally favourable and he is on course for a top three placing in the Player of the Season awards, although some WOAP readers aired their concerns about O’Donnell’s performance following the Southend defeat. He might also have done better with Shrewsbury’s free kick goal on Tuesday.
Personally I think O’Donnell has proven to be a very good signing. He has filled the large hole that was vacated by Colin Doyle’s controversial departure. The fact O’Donnell is an ever-present in the league, and City have conceded the fourth-highest number of goals, is not a brilliant record, and the 30-year-old has made mistakes. But there have been some crucial, match-winning performances from O’Donnell too. A feature of many of City’s strong run of wins in December were big O’Donnell saves at crucial moments.
Behind O’Donnell is Ben Wilson, who in two cup appearances has shipped in five goals and twice been the losing keeper in a penalty shootout. I watched both of his outings – at Macclesfield and at home to Peterborough – and he did better than that conceded record suggests. Nevertheless he hasn’t really pushed O’Donnell hard, and there would be concerns if he was required to step up for a lengthy period to cover an injury or suspension.
At right back, Paul Caddis has been a revelation. The fact that, since his debut at Peterborough, City have started performing better is no coincidence. Caddis has tremendous energy in getting up and down the field, and is adept at both defending and attacking. The former Blackburn and Birmingham man has real character and his leadership skills have shone through. Caddis has moved well clear of the injured Kelvin Mellor, who when fit might find he is more likely to resume the right midfield role he performed very well at during the first part of December.
It’s less clear-cut in the left back position, as Calum Woods, Adam Chicksen and Connor Wood compete for the one spot. Adam Chicksen has been first choice until his suspension, but his performances have attracted huge criticism from many supporters. Calum Woods, who has joined from Preston after an injury-hit few years, has a welcome level of versatility that could be useful. Woods was excellent on Tuesday and, if he can stay fit, will for now become first choice left back.
Consistency is Chicksen’s major issue, in two different ways. Firstly, he has struggled to be regularly available for selection since joining the club 18 months ago, largely due to a range of different injuries and – more recently – a couple of suspensions. On the injury front, he has clearly been unlucky; but his patchy appearance record hardly suggests he will be available for each of the last 16 games.
And there is the consistency of his performances. When on top of his game, Chicksen is a good defender who reads the game well – without necessarily crunching into tackles in the same manner as Caddis. Chicksen is also a decent passer and can produce some excellent crosses. Alas, he just doesn’t seem capable of maintaining high standards. There are too many mistakes, and several opposition wingers have given him a torrid time. All in all, I think Chicksen is an underachiever. He can be better, and it makes him a difficult player for David Hopkin to rely on.
Many have expressed disappointment that Connor Wood hasn’t featured more often, following his decent run in the side over September and October. The 22-year-old impressed, but in truth it was more from his forward play than his defensive positioning, which has been lacking. Wood has cost the team a few goals, and again that makes it tricky for Hopkin to place his full trust in him just yet. Wood may find his greater opportunities come on the left side of midfield for now. On Tuesday he started tentatively but grew into the game.
In the middle of defence, Hopkin’s first choice when playing four at the back are Anthony O’Connor and Nathaniel Knight-Percival. After producing such an outstanding performance on his debut at Shrewsbury in August, I’m not sure O’Connor has quite lived up to the potential he offers. Performances have been decent if not colossal, and although he has assumed the captaincy you’d like to see more leadership at times.
It felt like Knight-Percival was finished after his woeful performance at Accrington in October, but to his credit he has come back very strongly and proven a standout performer in recent weeks. The longest-serving player at the club is out of contract in the summer, so has plenty to play for. He seems to have toughened up.
Ryan McGowan’s departure to Dundee is a shame. He did very well coming into the side for the injured O’Connor in the December home game against Scunthorpe. He kept his place over the Christmas period, but was left out after the Southend debacle. He and O’Connor did not look a good partnership at all. McGowan’s move North of the border is for family reasons. Had he stayed, he would still have played a role over the rest of the season. But for a player who isn’t first choice, there is the bonus that his departure helped to reduced the wage bill.
Prior to McGowan’s exit, Paudie O’Connor appeared to be a strange signing. The on-loan Leeds man has swapped the Blackpool subs bench for City’s, and it’s hard to see him becoming first choice. O’Connor is highly rated at Leeds, and may find opportunities arise if Hopkin reverts back to a 3-5-2 he has tried to deploy, with mixed results.
Elsewhere, City’s defence could still yet feature Joe Riley – the summer signing is said to be on high wages and is offering Hopkin little value for money. Riley has not completed a 90 minutes all season and hasn’t featured since a feeble display at Accrington. He is not the first, and sadly won’t be the last, Manchester United youth product City have signed who looks a long way short of what’s required. Thomas Isherwood has left after failing to make any impression. When he was signed in the summer, the club were quick to nudge WOAP that it was a sign of the strength of Edin Rahic’s links in Germany. However will we get by without those links?
In midfield, Hopkin is blessed to have been able to keep Lewis O’Brien and Jack Payne, who have proven to be inspirational figures. Both endured a slight dip in performances following the extension of their loan deals, but are showing signs of coming back. Payne’s blistering December form thankfully didn’t lead to firm bids from other clubs for his services, but it did succeed in making him a marked man. You could see that Barnsley and Southend were well aware of his threat and had taken extra steps to stop him.
The superb O’Brien – who appears to have a really bright future in the game – has been of late lining up alongside Hope Akpan in a holding role. When assessing Akpan’s background upon signing during the summer, it seemed clear that he was an erratic performer – capable of both the sublime and the ridiculous. And that is what we have seen at Valley Parade so far. On his day, Akpan is a good player who can drive on the team. But for a big man you’d expect more of a physical presence. And he can be guilty of hiding when the going gets tough. Unlock his best form, and Akpan could be a big lynchpin for Hopkin. The last two games have seen promising performances.
The man of the hour David Ball has performed strongly alongside Payne. At times earlier this season you suspected Ball wasn’t Hopkin’s cup of tea, but the former Fleetwood man’s quality was too evident to ignore. He and Payne have a great understanding and are that rarest of breeds in this City team – the pair, and O’Brien, actually look like they’re enjoying themselves. Ball is never going to be a prolific scorer, but his value to the attack is considerable. In the last two games, Hopkin has played Ball and Payne alongside Connor Wood, and they worked well going forward. What Wood also needs to take on board is how hard Ball and Payne work off the ball too.
The deadline day signing of Jacob Butterfield is fascinating. The Bradford-born midfielder has an excellent career record, playing Championship football for Barnsley, Norwich, Bolton, Crystal Palace, Middlesborough and Huddersfield. In 2015 he signed for Derby for £5 million and spent part of last season on loan at Sheffield Wednesday. The 28-year-old has played over 300 career games. And though he has not played any first team football this season, his pedigree makes him an eye-catching signing.
Where Hopkin will play Butterfield is unknown. Perhaps he will slot in alongside Akpan, with Lewis O’Brien pushed up to the wide left attacking role. Or maybe Butterfield will play further forward, and David Ball be considered more of a striker. Wherever Butterfield plays, he can only make the team stronger.
David Hopkin has spent most of the season playing without wingers, largely due to the lack of options. Sean Scannell’s early season form was promising if not mind-blowing, and he was starting to settle into an effective player before a silly sending off against Sunderland in October. His subsequent absence through injury since has given rise to conspiracy theories a plenty, as the vagueness of how long he is out for never seems to be fixed with concrete timescales for a return. But in that regard, he has nothing on Jake Reeves – will the former Wimbledon man ever play for City again?
The only out and out wide option available to Hopkin of late was Jordan Gibson, but after a disappointing performance against Oldham in the CheckaTrade he hasn’t started again – or appeared even from the bench since the 4-0 loss against Gillingham. Hopkin clearly doesn’t fancy him, and his loan departure for Stevenage offers him a chance to finally live up to his undoubted potential.
Along with Gibson, Riley, Omari Patrick and Alex Jones, Josh Wright has been an outcast, forced to train away from the first team. Wright is the poster boy of City’s poor summer transfer business wastage, and is hugely unpopular amongst supporters. WOAP understands Colchester attempted to sign Wright on loan, but refused to meet City’s expectations over how much of the player’s salary they would cover. That no other club came in for him says a lot, but you wonder if Wright might have some small part to play now that he is staying. Nothing in football is black or white, and Wright is not as bad a player as his reputation has sunk to. Nevertheless, any clamour to get him back in the side won’t be coming from WOAP.
Jermaine Anderson and Luca Colville are amongst a host of midfielders higher up the pecking order than Wright. Colville is another player unlucky with injuries, but his three goals in 11 appearances make him a valuable squad member. Anderson’s low key start makes him look like another baffling January signing. If all Anderson achieves at Valley Parade is to block the path for Danny Devine and Eliot Goldthorp, it will be an exceptionally poor bit of business from Hopkin.
Up front, City’s struggles for goals – only seven League One sides have scored fewer – has been a burden on Eoin Doyle and George Miller. Eoin Doyle had big shoes to fill replacing Charlie Wyke, and his return so far of eight goals (three penalties) is far from prolific. But over the last few weeks, Doyle has looked more the player who in the past was deadly for Chesterfield and Oldham. His career record shows a player who blows hot and cold.
On several occasions for City this season, Doyle has been asked to sacrifice part of his game and play as a targetman. It is less suited to his strengths, and on occasions his body language suggested he was not happy with the instructions. But with improved fitness has come greater sharpness, and Doyle has been more involved. We still expect more from Doyle, but he is certainly getting there.
George Miller’s attitude can never be questioned. He works tirelessly chasing lost causes, and on top of his game is real menace to opposition teams. Confidence is an issue at times, and it is noticeable that if he doesn’t start games well, his head drops. The move from Middlesborough to Barnsley, whilst staying on loan at Valley Parade, is curious. But keeping Miller for the rest of the campaign is very important.
The return of Billy Clarke has unsurprisingly split opinion. He is not the targetman that seems to be missing. He is not a prolific goalscorer, having failed to net double figures in a season since 2014/15. And though he is an excellent number 10, City are already blessed to have Jack Payne and David Ball who can play in that role.
On his day though, Clarke is a quality player who might thrive playing alongside Payne and Ball. He loves the club, and clearly didn’t want to leave when he was sold to Charlton in the summer of 2017. And it will only further show that City will succeed through playing high press attacking football, rather than going direct. The jury has to be out on Clarke, but he is a wild card who could make a big difference. It will be very interesting to see how this one turns out.
For City, other striker options are limited, with Tom Clare yet to figure at all and Omari Patrick out of sight, after returning from a disappointing loan spell at Yeovil. It now feels like a long, long time since Patrick’s memorable debut goal against Blackpool on the opening day of the 2017/18 season. It is an understatement to say that the three-year contract he was given just two weeks later was a hasty decision on City’s part.
Not one of City’s five incomings have signed beyond the end of the season, and only 12 members of the first team squad have a deal that runs beyond the summer (and that 12 includes Wright, Riley and Tyrell Robinson). It has been a window of short-term planning, and it looks inevitable that the 2019/20 City team will look very different to now.
In the meantime, City’s strongest XI looks good – much better than that of a relegation-threatened team – and in difficult circumstances, the squad at least is starting to look stronger. The January window was not perfect, but little about this season has been ideal. We are living in pragmatic times, and hopefully that will be enough to preserve City’s League One status.