By Jason McKeown
Bradford City have pulled off their most notable signing of the summer so far with the news Callum Cooke has signed for the club on a two-year deal.
The 23-year-old rejoins the Bantams after impressing on loan last season. With a pass success ratio of 84.5%, Cooke was the fourth best passer of the ball in the whole of League Two last season. City have beaten off competition from other clubs who offered more lucrative terms, with Cooke’s desire to continue plying his trade at Valley Parade said to be the deciding factor.
It is a big boost for Stuart McCall, who is rebuilding the team from a starting base of no senior central midfielders on the books, following the clearing of the decks of last season. Cooke played under McCall briefly, producing a strong performance in the manager’s first game back, against Grimsby, before injury ruled him out for three games. Cooke’s first start back was the dismal 2-0 loss to Salford – the last game before Covid-19 hit.
Cooke originally joined City towards the end of the August 2019 transfer window, on loan from Peterborough. He made four promising cameos from the bench, before earning a first start in a September 3-2 defeat at Cheltenham. Up until that point, early season performances under Gary Bowyer were laboured and unconvincing. City lost at Waddon Road but played much better football, with Cooke at the heart of things.
In fact Cooke’s inclusion in the starting line up led to City’s best run of the season, as they won four and drew one of their next five games, climbing up to the promising heights of second. But Bowyer began to play Cooke in a deeper, defensive midfielder role that was less suited to his attack-minded strengths. After making a bad mistake in the last minute of a home defeat to Port Vale – costing City a goal that resulted in a 2-1 defeat – Cooke’s confidence took a dent. He was sent off in the next game, a 2-0 home win over Exeter, which earned a public blast from Bowyer.
From there Cooke’s performances failed to hit the same heights. The increasingly pragmatic style of football did not suit his performances. And he didn’t especially gel with the finally fit again Jake Reeves. Nevertheless, there was something admirable about Cooke’s bravery for the ball and willingness to make things happen. Ultimately, he was playing in a side not suited to his strengths.
You would expect that Cooke will prove better suited to playing under a more attack-minded manager like McCall. He will also enjoy linking up with someone like Billy Clarke, who will probably play just in front of him. With strong rumours young midfielder Elliot Watt will also be making a permanent move from Wolves, the midfield for next season is beginning to take shape.
For Cooke, this represents a really important career move. The Peterlee-born midfielder emerged through the youth ranks at Middlesbrough, but his first team opportunities peaked with CheckaTrade trophy appearances for Boro’s under 23s side. A loan move to Crewe over the second half of 2016/17 saw Cooke net four times in 18 appearances. Cooke spent 2017/18 on loan at Blackpool, playing under Bowyer, where again he did reasonably well – leading to Peterborough signing him for an undisclosed fee on the eve of the 2018/19 season.
Peterborough – with their reputation for finding, improving and selling on gems for large fees – seemed like a good fit for Cooke. But he only made 10 starts for Posh, and was quickly deemed surplus to requirements. When on loan at City last season, Peterborough owner Darragh MacAnthony repeatedly made it clear Cooke was available on a permanent deal.
The problem for City was they were only able to pay a portion of his sizeable Peterborough wages. So when his loan at Valley Parade ended, it appeared that would be it.
Cooke will be attracted by the lure of first team football at City, which is exactly what he needs at this stage of his career. A clever passer with a decent shot within him, Cooke’s next stage is to turn potential into greater reliability. To show he can play week in week out, and can continue to grow from there. At his very best for City last season, Cooke looked a player far too good for League Two. This move is his chance to really grasp regular football, and begin to fulfil his potential.
For City this is a coup without question. There have rightly been fears over the quality of players coming in this summer, and though rumours have persisted the Bantams were chasing him, his wages appeared too high. Yesterday’s revelations about salary cap changes have probably allowed City to push the boat more than they thought they could – and so Cooke is now a Bradford City player again.