By Jason McKeown
Bradford City’s summer recruitment activity is gathering pace with the news that Elliot Watt has signed from Wolves on a two-year-deal, after the Bantams paid an undisclosed fee. The 20-year-old midfielder has been heavily linked with the Bantams for weeks, so his capture is no great surprise. But it is another important step forward in building a stronger central midfield for the season ahead.
There has been a lot of social media criticism of Bradford City’s recruitment activity this close season, indeed going into this weekend they stood accused of having no ambition and of only signing players Stuart McCall already knew. The arrival of Callum Cooke on Saturday, and now Watt – a player with no previous connection to City or McCall – should ease those fears. And with a starting date for the 2020/21 season now penciled in, there are reasons to feel more excited again.
Scottish-born Watt has emerged through Wolves’ youth-set up after being released by Blackburn at 12. He enjoyed one senior start for Wanderers in an August 2018 League Cup victory at Sheffield Wednesday. He has also seen game time in Wolves’ under 23 Football League Trophy outings.
At the start of 2020, Watt was loaned to Carlisle United where he impressed greatly. He made 12 league appearances for the Cumbrians, and was only on the losing side four times, as United gradually improved on a poor first half to 2019/20. Watt also played in the FA Cup for Carlisle. In total he scored one goal and delivered five assists.
According to former Wolves Academy editor Andy Hipkins, Watt is “an agile deep-lying playmaker, technically gifted with a wicked set-piece in his locker.” Watt has written a touching piece about his own development from the age of 14 which is well worth a read. On his outlook to football he writes, “Developing as a leader can give you an edge. If your coaches see you’re more influential to the team than another player you’ve got more chance of playing. Learning quickly will do that too. All the top players are quick learners.
“When you’re being told how to do something, make sure you understand it. Just by playing football every day you’re going to develop technically. Your game understanding is down to you.”
Watt’s arrival is a further indication that the Bradford City team that take to the field in 2020/21 will be more youthful than in recent signings. He joins summer signings Cooke (aged 23), Levi Sutton (23) plus Dylan Mottley-Henry (22), with Billy Clarke (32) so far the only signing over the age of 25. Seven of the 10 players released at the end of last season were over the age of 24.
Watt is the youngest and most inexperienced signing so far. Bringing in young players not wanted by top end clubs can be fraught with issues. A player who looks great in academy games can quickly falter when cast into the battles of senior lower league football. Rewind to Stuart McCall’s first spell as manager, and there was the signing of 18-year-old Scott Phelan from Everton – he struggled badly and made just 10 starts. Other examples of untried players over the years who struggled at City include Michael Standing, Paul Tierney, Oliver Gill, Simon Eastwood, Mark Cullen, Louis Moult and Joe Riley.
On the flip side though, some young players have come to Valley Parade with no experience and thrived. Tom Kearney, James O’Brien, Dean Furman, Josh Cullen and Reece Burke.
There’s a risk of signing players who have yet to cross the white line of proper first team football. And though Watt’s short spell at Carlisle does not conclusively prove he will enjoy a long and successful career in the game, the fact he has tasted League Two action and won admirers for his performances offers Stuart McCall greater confidence that he can trust in Watt to make an impact at Valley Parade.
It is a little bit like the philosophy Manchester City followed for a time. When they were bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008 one of their first activities was to sign Robinho for £32 million. It was supposed to be a statement of intent, but Robinho did not settle in Manchester and ultimately proved a flop.
As a result, for several years Manchester City put a rule in place to only sign foreign players who already had Premier League experience – players who had proved they could be successful. It was a way of reducing risk, as they grew from also-rans to competing for the Champions League places. And the rule stayed in place until they had the recruitment infrastructure to be bolder and go for the likes of David Silva and Sergio Aguero, with their research ability greater.
Bradford City might not be thinking that strategically in choosing Watt, but ultimately they are not just bringing in any old promising player from a Premier League youth team – City have signed a player who has already made a notable impact in this division. And if he can build on that at Valley Parade, the Bantams could have a real gem on their hands.
Time will tell, but there’s encouraging reasons to be excited by Watt’s arrival – as another piece of the jigsaw slots into place.