The 2020/21 Bradford City season preview #4: Are there enough goals in the Bantams to achieve promotion?

Image by John Dewhirst (copyright Bradford City)

Continuing from the analysis of the goalkeepers and defenders, Tim Penfold, Alex Scott and Jason McKeown assess the midfield and attack to see what good and great seasons might look like for each Bradford City player.

Harry Pritchard

By Tim

It was a real mixed bag for Harry Pritchard last season – some promising early performances, particularly in a midfield three, but a combination of injuries and a loss of form meant that he was mostly out of Gary Bowyer’s starting XI by the time Bowyer was sacked.

He started Stuart McCall’s first game on the left, but was back on the bench for the rest of the truncated season. With one year left on his contract, this is a key season for him to really establish himself as a Football League standard player.

What a good season looks like:

He is a fairly regular starter and plays well enough to get himself a new contract either at City or elsewhere in League Two. Filipe Morais in 2014/15. 

What a great season looks like:

He establishes himself as first-choice player in McCall’s midfield and ends up with double figures in combined goals and assists. Nicky Law in 2016/17.

Zeli Ismail

By Alex

It was yet another what might have been season for Zeli Ismail last season, in a career littered with them. A hot prospect as a teenager, injuries and circumstances have conspired against him to this point, where at 26 he finds himself on his 9th club looking for another fresh start with a new manager. Even in small flashes last year, we could see that beguiling potential, which – if he can stay fit – would be an irresistible prospect at this level. But the season ended up as it always seems to for Ismail with that “if he can stay fit” suffix to his name a permanent marker.

That said, he is fit again, and it’s reasonable to be optimistic. Playing under a manager like McCall – who has repeatedly shown himself to be able to get the most out of mercurial attackers who need the ‘arm round the shoulder’ approach to motivation – should suit Ismail. And with only Dylan Mottley-Henry for competition, Ismail will certainly get a chance to make the right flank his own too.

He’s shown himself to be quick, good on the ball, and decent defensively for a player in his role (not dissimilar to Mark Marshall) and with a shift towards wing-backs this season, you’d think, especially at home, he would have a decent chance to become a focal point for the team in an attacking sense. Entering a contract year, it is an important one for him to arrest his slide down the divisions. Everything is set up for him, and this could be the year he puts it all together. If he can stay fit.

What a good season looks like:

Maintains prolonged periods of fitness to play in the majority of games on the right flank. Key role in home games, and off the bench contributing 3-5 goals and 5-7 assists. Mark Yeates in 2014/15.

What a great season looks like:

Staying fit throughout, and making one of the forward spots his own with a leap forward in production amidst greater responsibility. Mark Marshall in 2016/17.

Dylan Mottley-Henry

By Tim

It was a bit of a surprise to some when we re-signed Dylan Mottley-Henry, but when viewed in the context of the home-grown player requirement it makes plenty of sense.

His pace will be a vital weapon in a team mostly lacks it going forward, and his work rate could well see him used as a wing-back if Stuart McCall goes for a back three.

What a good season looks like:

He provides useful cover and plays well enough when called upon, without ever establishing himself as first choice. Will Atkinson in 2012/13.

What a great season looks like:

He fulfills his potential, adding some consistency and end product to his raw ability, and becomes a regular starter and attacking threat. Joe Colbeck in 2007/08.

Callum Cooke

By Jason

Initially one of those 1,400 players left without a club this summer, Callum Cooke was in the positive position of being a man in demand. That he chose to come back to Bradford City, ahead of seemingly better offers, is a real feather in the cap for the Bantams. Now let’s hope he truly thrives.

It has been a stop-start career so far for Cooke, never quite settling anywhere. And during his loan spell at City last season, which started well but drifted, we probably saw why.

Cooke is yet to prove he can maintain his best form over the course of a full season, but he will never have a better chance than the one in front of him this season. He has a manager in McCall who clearly rates him highly, and the team will in many ways be built around the attacking midfielder’s strengths.

There should be no stopping him, and we can expect to see some excellent Cooke performances over the season. His ability to maintain high levels of consistency could be pivotal to City’s prospects.

What a good season looks like:

He plays regularly in the team, usually providing a 7 out of 10. If leaving a lingering suspicion he could offer a little bit extra and provide more goals. Billy Knott in 2014/15.

What a great season looks like:

He becomes the heartbeat of the side. Contributing several man of the match displays and winning the affection of City supporters. Scores some spectacular goals and ends up in double figures. David Syers 2010/11.

Elliot Watt

By Tim

On paper, he looks like the best of the summer signings that we have made – highly-rated, a good loan spell at Carlisle proving that he can handle the physicality of League Two football – and most importantly here permanently.

He’s a deep-lying playmaker, good in possession and on set pieces, and while not an out-and-out destroyer he has enough about him defensively to hold his own.

What a good season looks like:

He’s first-choice in central midfield and makes good contributions both defensively and going forward. Steven Schumacher in 2004/05 or Jake Reeves in the first half of 2017/18.

What a great season looks like:

He’s the heartbeat of the team – everything goes through him, and he runs games. His set piece delivery in particular causes a major goal threat. Josh Cullen in 2016/17.

Image by Thomas Gadd copyright Bradford City)

Billy Clarke

By Alex

They say never go back. Though at Bradford City, the ties that bind tend to be quite strong, not least evidenced by the manager who is on his fifth stint in BD8. And in fairness, there are far fewer idioms about the problems associated with going back a third time after failing the second time. In fact, as we know, the third time, if anything, is the charm.

Clarke’s commitment and fondness for the club can’t really be questioned going into this year, alongside McCall he is providing the club and the fans with a link to their previous glory days. The key question for this year is whether he has anything left to give. He is entering his age 33 season with only four goals in only 34 league starts since the play off final defeat against Millwall over three years ago. He has a long track record of injuries with his only real injury-free run coinciding with his first spell here. There is certainly a non-zero possibility this spell fizzles out like his second.

That said, as Tim noted on a recent podcast, in his spells last season with Plymouth and Grimsby, he was the best attacking creator in League Two. His emergence at Grimsby completely coincided with their upturn in form, and Ian Holloway (who also had him at Blackpool) was certainly keen to keep him. That former managers keep trying to re-sign him should be instructive.

Based on his performances (and our performances) last season, he should have been almost at the top of the target list, irrespective of his history. He fills a glaring hole in the squad created by his own absence and never filled since. As an aside, spending £250k on Shay McCartan in the summer of 2017 and not on re-signing Clarke and (Who Scored? 2019-20 League Two Team of the Year member) Rory McArdle ranks pretty highly on the Edin Rahic Disaster-O-Meter (still working on the name, and a big enough scale).

As the only real ‘link’ player in the squad at time of writing, a position McCall keenly values, Clarke has an opportunity to make this position in the squad his own, if he can perform at anything like the level he played last year. He was a high performer in 2016-17 in the McCall system, and it stands to reason he could do so again: he’s certainly a McCall “type of player”. This is a big opportunity for him to prolong his career.

What a good season looks like:

Recapturing his form of last year at Grimsby and establishing himself in the Number 10 role. Not a primary goal threat, but a key influence on the rest of the team. Billy Clarke in 2015/16.

What a great season looks like:

Staying fit throughout and becoming the key attacking player in the team. Supplementing his good play with more goals. Billy Clarke in 2014/15.

Kurtis Guthrie

By Jason

If there is a player with a point to prove then it is surely Kurtis Guthrie. Signed in the final moments of the January transfer window, with a huge whiff of desperation from the club, Guthrie was judged harshly before even making his debut. That his one and only start so far – against his former club Stevenage – was not exactly a stellar performance has only added to the number of fans writing him off.

Guthrie has apparently being the subject of interest elsewhere, but has chosen to stay and try to demonstrate his worth. A decent pre-season and warm words from McCall have aided his prospects, but it’s hard not to be skeptical still.

At 27, Guthrie has yet to achieve much of note at his previous six clubs. He’s only twice hit double figures in a season – and even then, the most he netted was 12 for Colchester in 2016/17. He arrived at Valley Parade with accusations from Stevenage supporters he was lazy and easily disinterested.

Still, in some ways he has landed on his feet. And the opportunity is there for Guthrie to repay McCall’s warmth and make the most of the bigger stage he now finds himself playing on. It doesn’t help that he is a number 9 at a club that is already well stocked in this position. But with Lee Novak and Clayton Donaldson past their prime, he might just surprise everyone and become the goalscorer desperately needed after James Vaughan’s departure.

What a good season looks like:

Becomes a first team regular and contributes positively to City’s attack, if not netting bucket-loads himself. Gareth Evans in 2009/10.

What a great season looks like:

Gets off the mark early and thrives in a team that creates plenty of chances, comfortably finishing top goalscorer and teaching us all a few things about making rash judgments. Lee Mills 1998/99.

Clayton Donaldson

By Tim

Clayton Donaldson has his strengths as a player. He’s decent in the air, he holds the ball up well, links play, creates his fair share of chances and harries opposition defenders.

When City were doing well last season, he was a key part of it – the focal point of the front line as we went into the automatic places in October. Unfortunately he has three major issues that may limit his chances this season.

Firstly, he misses too many easy chances. Secondly,  he’s 36 and that shows in his declining pace. Finally, and most worryingly for him, his strengths are very similar to those of our other out-and-out strikers.

He’s got to do something special to stand out from the rest.

What a good season looks like:

He’s a regular starter, and while not prolific he contributes his fair share of goals. His hold-up play keeps him in the team, linking well with the midfield. Jon Stead in 2014/15 (league version).

What a great season looks like:

He plays regularly and rediscovers the goalscoring touch that has eluded him in recent seasons. He ends the season comfortably into double figures for goals, and plays a vital tactical role in the front line. Jon Stead in 2014/15 (FA Cup version).

Lee Novak

By Alex

‘Where will the goals come from?’ is the key question heading into this season for City.

The defence is mostly returning from last year, and whilst they have talent, they have proven themselves unlikely to be a league-leading defence at this level. Which means City will probably need an above average attack to contend. Last season Clarke, Donaldson, and Guthrie combined for 11 league goals in 66 games between them.

Neither Cooke nor Pritchard have much of a track record for goal scoring from central midfield. Nor do Ismail, Mottley-Henry, or Wood from the flanks. If the team aren’t going to have the best defence in the division, they are going to need to score 60+ goals to contend. Where will the goals come from?

Enter Lee Novak. Himself without much of a goalscoring track record either (84 league goals in 369 appearances), it appears he is going to be the one tasked with the responsibility of leading the line. In fairness, he has spent much of his league career on the side of a forward three, flanking central strikers, which has certainly limited his opportunities, but now he is going to have to assume the responsibility of a 15-to-20-goal a year forward if this side will reach its potential.

The success with which Novak grasps this opportunity will be the key factor in whether McCall continues to strengthen his squad with another forward (in addition to the four he has on the books), and potentially will be the key determinant in how far this team goes. The difficult truth is that Novak hasn’t really ever been that guy. That’s not to say he can’t, but it is to say he hasn’t. Even an average (12-15 goal) return for him could actually be a decent season for him, but that isn’t what the side needs.

It is true that McCall’s 2016/17 City team didn’t have a player reach 10 goals, but that side only really reached the heights once Charlie Wyke arrived in January (who went on to score 7 in 16). Without a player who can score at that rate, and without a strong defence reducing the need for it, it’s very hard to patch together the goals you will need to contend. A McCall team will probably create the necessary amount of opportunities for goals. But where will the goals come from?

What a good season looks like:

Establishes himself as first choice forward and leads the line throughout the season. Fair goal return without tearing up trees. Eoin Doyle in 2018/19.

What a great season looks like:

Assumes talismanic role in Number 9 slot, and becomes key focal point in the team. Peter Thorne in 2007/08.

Categories: Opinion, Season Preview


3 replies

  1. The big worry for me is pace…we have one pace player, 2 tops (both wingers). 3 of our CF’s are the same player and Clarke is more of a link man. We need a pacey CF who can run the channels and run in behind. Defenders hate pace and we don’t have much of it. Add a pacey front man and i am happy with what we have up top!

  2. Reading up on all the current players available makes me realise what good players we had not so many years ago. The decline in quality is stark. I hope I’m wrong but it looks like being a long hard season. ( again ) PS Anyone know how many season tickets we have sold so far. ? CTID.

  3. Focus on the weakness up front is one issue. The alarming rate we’ve shipped goals in pre season is another forwards not good enough. Same for centre halves.

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