The 2020/21 Bradford City season preview #3: Are the Bantams defensively strong enough to go up?

Photographer Alex Dodd/CameraSport

In the first of a two-part look at each member of the 2020/21 squad, Tim Penfold, Alex Scott and Jason McKeown analyse what a good or a great season might look like for Bradford City’s goalkeepers and defenders. 

Richard O’Donnell

By Jason

Richard O’Donnell is in the unique position of being a player signed in the troubled summer of 2018 who the club has actively kept. He had a mixed first season at Valley Parade, but the new, two-year contract agreed this summer was a fitting reward for a 2019/20 season where his performances were largely excellent.

Since emerging through the youth ranks of Sheffield Wednesday and moving on in 2012, O’Donnell has not spent more than two years at any club, but the 31-year-old seems to be very settled at Valley Parade. His love and respect for the club even stretching to his six-year-old son fundraising for Stephen Darby’s charity earlier this year.

O’Donnell should be a certain starter all season. He has the confidence of the fans and Stuart McCall’s decision to retain him should mean few headaches over who is number one.

What a good season looks like:

He largely plays solidly with no major errors. Often going unnoticed due to his reliability. Colin Doyle in 2016/17.

What a great season looks like:

O’Donnell grows even more in stature to produce a series of match-winning saves, genuinely earning City extra points over a successful season. Gary Walsh in 1998/99.

Sam Hornby

By Tim

Sam Hornby is coming off the back of a difficult first season as a City player. He’d had a promising pre-season, but his competitive debut for the club saw him concede four against Preston in the League Cup, and his second appearance, against Bolton’s kids in the Football League Trophy, saw him partially at fault for the Bolton goal.

He seemed to drop behind George Sykes-Kenworthy in the pecking order and went on loan to AFC Fylde for the rest of the season. Even when Richard O’Donnell was injured he wasn’t recalled, and would most likely have been released if he was out of contract in the summer.

With O’Donnell firmly established ahead of him, the most likely path ahead for Hornby involves him sitting on the bench for 46 league games and playing in the Football League Trophy.

What a good season looks like:

He plays well in the Football League Trophy and some other cup games, and fills in effectively as a backup for O’Donnell when needed. Mark Prudhoe in 1997/98.

What a great season looks like:

He takes advantage of a vacancy in goal, most likely through an injury or loss of form afflicting O’Donnell, and plays well enough to establish himself as the number 1 keeper. Matt Clarke in 1999/2000.

Levi Sutton

By Alex

A new signing in the summer, Levi Sutton joins from Scunthorpe to likely play a key part in our central midfield rotation. A 23-year old defensive midfielder and right back, Sutton was described as “[Scunthorpe’s] best academy graduate in recent years” and would have re-signed there were it not for lockdown. Whilst Sutton never really broke into Scunthorpe’s first eleven, he was a valuable rotational piece in both Leagues One and Two, providing defensive cover in both central midfield and right back. It is notable that after returning from injury, Sutton started 14 of Stuart McCall’s last 17 games at Glanford Park.

He’s likely to play a key role off the bench again here after his suspension for a straight red card in his last game for a desperate lunge at Elliot Whitehouse’s ankle in a local derby defeat four minutes after coming on. That his style of play on  WhoScored? is described as “Likes to tackle; commits fouls often” isn’t much of a surprise then, and frankly, bodes well given recent experiences in the centre of the park.

What a good season looks like:

A fair number of starts and appearances off the bench, filling gaps in an otherwise lightweight midfield without moving the needle. Matty Dolan in 2013/14.

What a great season looks like:

A frequent starter in midfield away from home, and a key squad player. Ricky Ravenhill in 2012/13.

Image by John Dewhirst (copyright Bradford City)

Paudie O’Connor

By Jason

It’s easy to forget what a major coup it was when Gary Bowyer pulled off the permanent signing of Paudie O’Connor a year ago. The young centre back had impressed on loan at the back end of the 2018/19 season, and seemed too good a player to be dropping into League Two.

But 2019/20 didn’t really go to plan for Paudie. He started just 16 league games, largely finding himself behind namesake Anthony in the battle for the right-sided centre half slot. He did get something of a run in the side when Bowyer made the uninspiring move of five at the back over the winter period. But his performances were far from convincing, and he was hauled off at half time in Bowyer’s last game in charge, at Oldham, looking a shadow of the player he threatened to be.

At 23, O’Connor has to start proving himself a first team regular – so this is a big year for the Irishman. Anthony O’Connor will continue to represent stiff competition. But McCall has hinted at playing with three centre halves and attacking wing backs. And that might enable Paudie to make a stronger impact.

What a good season looks like:

He battles hard to dislodge Anthony and enjoy some mini-runs in the team, to continue his development into an accomplished centre half. Andy O’Brien in 1998/99.

What a great season looks like:

He quickly grasps the first choice spot from Anthony, impressing greatly and being the subject of rumours of interest from clubs higher up the food chain. Andy O’Brien in 1999/00.

Anthony O’Connor

By Tim

Last summer Anthony O’Connor’s reputation with City fans was at rock-bottom. He was a major part of a side that failed miserably in 2018/19, and the incident with the captain’s armband at Portsmouth meant that the vast majority of City fans would’ve been perfectly happy to see him leave.

Last season went some way to restoring his standing – his performances were generally solid, and would’ve probably had him in contention for a decent finish in the player of the year awards had they happened.

What a good season looks like:

Very similar to last season – his performances are solid, and he remains a first choice pick. Anthony O’Connor in 2019/20.

What a great season looks like:

He’s the central part of a very solid defence and is a contender for the division’s team of the season. Darren Moore in 1998/99 or Rory McArdle in 2015/16.

Ben Richards-Everton

By Alex

Ben’s form last year at the back for City mirrored closely the form of the team, with a strong start soon fading towards Christmas. He assumed the important role in a League Two team as defensive header winner in chief, and routinely went up against the most physical opposing striker. He often fared well – especially early on where at the quarter-mark he was probably Player of the Year frontrunner.

Nevertheless, and we can’t really get away from this, the City defence fell off a cliff last year, and Richards-Everton was ever-present in that collapse. City kept one clean sheet in their final 13 games of last year, and not once with Stuart McCall. And on that point, it’s probably also worth saying that robust, physical defenders like Richards-Everton are not necessarily McCall ‘type’ players.

Given the depth (if not necessarily strength!) in central defence, he will face competition, and it probably isn’t nailed on that Richards-Everton will be guaranteed a place in the team. Especially if Paudie O’Connor’s and Reece Stauntons’s development continues as projected, both of whom are more comfortable on the ball. There is certainly a non-zero chance he is loaned out in January after losing his place in the team. Pre-season isn’t everything, or anything necessarily, but Richards-Everton didn’t get a starting place in a back three at Huddersfield. Just worth keeping an eye on.

But, for now, he is the incumbent, and certainly showed early on last year he can be a high performer in a good team. Indeed, however neatly McCall wants his team to play, you can’t get around the need at this level to be able to defend long balls to physical forwards, and Richards-Everton remains by far the strongest candidate for that role, at least for now.

What a good season looks like:

Capable starter, and key cog in defence against more physical teams. Ben Richards-Everton in 2019/20.

What a great season looks like:

Able to prolong good start from last year and grow into key starter and team leader. Andrew Davies in 2012/13.

 

Image by Adam Raj

Tyler French

By Jason

It’s probably fair to say that Tyler French will look back on his first season at Valley Parade with mixed feelings. The step-up from the seventh tier of English football to playing in League Two was never going to be easy, but the 21-year-old would have naturally aspired to play more often.

Instead, he found opportunities difficult to come by. French did impress coming off the bench during the final seven minutes of City’s October 2-1 victory over Swindon. But other than that he only tasted one even shorter League Two sub cameo, and had to make do with outings in the cups. Not quite what was hoped for when he was City’s man of the match during the glamorous pre-season friendly with Liverpool.

French was ultimately loaned to National League side AFC Fylde, and for his personal development it was a real shame the season was curtailed due to Covid-19. A run of games in the North West would have set up nicely to make a stronger push at City this season.

This is final year of French’s two-year City deal, so it truly is make or break for the young centre half. It is not the easiest path to the first team, given some strong competition, but the potential three centre half approach does open the door that bit wider.

He will have to be patient at first, and cannot afford to let any opportunity slip him by. But the glimpses of potential that French has shown leave you thirsty to see more of what he can do.

What a good season looks like:

He has to wait for his chance but when he gets one he demonstrates enough to suggest he can carve out a career as a professional footballer – either here or at another EFL club. Carl McHugh in 2013/14.

What a great season looks like:

He gets his chance and doesn’t look back, producing a series of accomplished displays that quickly has City vying to tie him down on a longer-term deal. Steve Williams in 2009/10.

Reece Staunton

By Tim

Reece Staunton has been the great hope of Bradford City’s youth setup since his record-breaking debut in 2017.

He’s spent the last couple of seasons impressing at left-back and centre-back in the youth team, while also earning excellent reviews on loan at Ossett United and Bradford Park Avenue.

Now he’s a first-year pro and will be looking to get a more regular spot in Stuart McCall’s matchday squads. If McCall goes with a back three, as has been hinted, he’ll be in direct competition with Ben Richards-Everton for a spot on the left of that three, and his proficiency in bringing the ball out from the back could make him a useful option there.

What a good season looks like:

He plays every Football League Trophy game and gets a handful of first team appearances. Danny Devine in 2016/17.

What a great season looks like:

He has a genuine breakout season, making himself a regular in the City first team and tops it off with a call-up for Ireland’s Under 21s. Simon Francis in 2002/03.

Connor Wood

By Alex

The unofficial presumptive winner of last season’s Player of the Almost-Year, Connor Wood built upon his position as “only bright spot” in 2018/19’s dismal relegation to become “pretty much only bright spot” of the 2019/20’s mediocrity. To continue to distinguish himself so early in his career in pretty dismal circumstances bodes very well for him going forward.

Indeed, he has a lot to look forward to this season, entering a contract year with vastly improving circumstances around him. A few factors have fed into McCall’s presumed move to wing backs, but not least is Wood’s ability on the left flank. He seems ideally suited to a more attacking role, with a little more cover behind him, and it seems likely he will be a key focal point of City’s approach this season.

Being able to showcase his skills in the freedom of the left flank as nailed on starter, in what should be a decent team with an attacking manager is almost the ideal scenario for Wood going in to this season. He could barely have drawn it up better. Especially with his contract expiring next year as he turns 25, entering his peak. Meeting his potential now should set up a decent contract somewhere towards the top of League One next season.

It’s hard to avoid the temptation to compare him to his predecessor James Meredith, but there are a couple of key things I think to note. It is fair to say that by the time he left City, Meredith was much better than Wood defensively, and in general, excelling at a higher level than Wood. But at the same time, it’s worth noting that at the end of this season Connor Wood will be as old as Meredith was when he started with City in 2012. Wood is still very young.

If he performs up to expectations this year, and again he should have his eyes on being a – if not, the – key attacking outlet in an attacking team. A career path similar to, or perhaps more ambitious than, Meredith should be his aim.

What a good season looks like:

Continues to establish himself at this level, maintaining his strong forward play whilst cutting some of the mental errors out of his game. James Meredith in 2012/13.

What a great season looks like:

A leap forward of the same magnitude again, becoming a key attacking outlet in a strong team as well as a strong defender setting up a move up the divisions in 2021. James Meredith in 2016/17.

Jackson Longridge

By Jason

Since his breakthrough season at Stranraer in 2014/15, Jackson Longridge had played at least 38 games a year for three different Scottish clubs. So to see his career grind to a halt at City last season must have been hugely frustrating.

Longridge achieved just 10 minutes League Two playing time over 2019/20, and that came on the opening day of the campaign. He had a bad night in City’s League Cup hammering to Preston and after that only featured in Leasing.com Trophy matches. He ended up being loaned out to Torquay.

There was just no way Longridge was getting past Connor Wood in the team, and it is hard to imagine that changing this time around. His best hope appears to be an injury to Wood. But even then, the jury is firmly out over whether he is good enough to slot in.

What a good season looks like:

He impresses when given the opportunity in cup competitions, so is trusted in the league if Wood gets injured or suspended. He proves dependable and worthy of replacing Wood, should City fail to keep their rising star when his contract expires next summer. Lewis Emanuel in 2005/06.

What a great season looks like:

Longridge gets an early chance because of an injury to Wood, and does so well he proves undroppable. He demonstrates an eye for a goal that he showed in Scotland and leaves Wood stuck on the sidelines. Luke O’Brien in 2008/09.



Categories: Opinion, Season Preview

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4 replies

  1. The squad certainly lacks depth in the backline and midfield areas.

    There is potential and some cover in certain positions. The 2 O’conners and wood can be excellent at this level and O’Donnell is a very competent keeper.

    If McCall opts for 3 at the back then BRE would be the weak link. Sutton and Wood as the over lapping full backs would bring decent pace and strength running the line both offensively and in defence.

    However, after a 6 month lay off and start of 50 plus game season lack of fitness and game time may lead to players becoming injured and the the defensive cover will become stretched.

    The midfield and forward positions are also areas of concern for me and with the season starting on Saturday the squad requires further strengthening in key areas such as a strong ball winner, a goal scorer and possibly a wide player.

  2. A midfield ball winning general who can lead the team on the pitch. A leader by example rather than by armband. They do still exist!
    Why have multiple successive managers not managed to get one. Even when we were spending money!

  3. The defense looks the strongest part of the squad, which aint a bad thing. Hard to tell how strong they are as a unit during pre season. I don’t ready into results and we have been playing clubs in the Champ/Div one. McCall will attack so a strong defense is key to success…i think we lack pace up top so would like to see some quick runners come into the team…especially at CF. I’m a SM fan so i’m saying top 7!

  4. Having watched the Huddersfield v city match on YouTube I thought the performance was a mixture of good and bad. The good was the first half, where I thought city showed up well. City conceded what I thought was a poor goal. The lead up to their goal was as a result of a stray pass from Staunton. City was pushing forward at the time. The second half was very poor. It was a friendly I know but I was worried about the way city performed. Defensively was not the problem. It was city’s inability to string two passes together. Midfield was a worry. It is early days but we do need a strong tackling experienced midfielder. Also a right back and front man. The current squad is too thin. Time is passing. Other clubs in L2 are starting to build their squads. The activity at VP is none existent. We are missing a marquee signing that will encourage and revitalise home supporters to keep the faith.

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