By Jason McKeown
How Stuart McCall must have longed for a period in the Bradford City season like this. As things continued to go from bad to worse during his final few weeks as manager – the injury list remaining stubbornly long, and the January opportunity to improve the squad still a way off – McCall and City could have benefitted from the time out of some postponed matches. From a chance to pause and regroup.
Instead, the games continued to come thick and fast. The depleted squad was woefully ill equipped for successfully navigating the unrelenting Saturday-Tuesday fixture list. A bad situation grew even more desperate, ultimately resulting in McCall’s P45.
The great irony of this most unusual of Bradford City seasons is that the current pause, which would have been craved just two months ago, has now come at an unwelcome time. Especially for the joint interim managers, Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars. The pair have impressed greatly in stopping the rot, by producing a five game unbeaten run that is pulling City away from relegation danger. But that upwards momentum has been slowed through three straight weekends of match postponements.
By the time City take to the field at Cambridge on Saturday – and assuming that fixture does go ahead – it will have been 25 days since the Bantams last played. Prior to that, the 0-0 draw at home to Port Vale was amazingly City’s 22nd game in 84 days. For three months, the club was averaging a game every 3.8 days.
Feast or famine. But at least the unexpected mid season break we’re currently experiencing is so far proving time well spent by the club, with a host of January transfer activity already undertaken to revamp the squad.
For us long-suffering City fans, still harbouring the scars of the January window let downs of 2018, 2019 and 2020 – it makes a refreshing change. There seems to be a clear sense of purpose in the way the club is going about its transfer business right now. A real contrast to the passive nature of the past three Januarys, where the club was slow to act and went into the final hours of the window under huge pressure to address problems they seemingly had plenty of time to have sorted out.
Dashed hopes of stellar arrivals, like the infamous Kieffer Moore episode in 2018. Or Sam Surridge in 2019. And the Eion Doyle in-out saga of last January. Each time it lead to panic last minute signings and a decline in results, habitually resulting in the manager leaving within weeks.
This year, City are on the front foot. With unwanted players hurried out of the door to make way for new arrivals. The influence of recruitment director Lee Turnbull is evident, but the proactive approach can also be credited to the driven style of new CEO Ryan Sparks. Through the autumn of woe, it felt like Bradford City were desperate for the window to open so the damage could start to be repaired. And there’s been no waiting around, especially with no distraction of matches taking place.
Final judgements should be reserved until the window closes in two weeks, as there is still work to do. But there is an evident plan in the players recruited so far. A recognition of the immediate issues that – had the last three games have taken place – needed to be addressed.
The dismal stories of the January windows of 2018, 2019 and 2020 came against a backdrop of awful results on the field – City have won just four of the last 18 matches they’ve played in the month of January, which in each of the last three mid-season windows only added to the pressure to sign players. But this time around, the fast pieces of business would have instantly supported Trueman and Sellars if games had gone ahead.
Goalkeeper Will Huffer, for example, is an important arrival in view of the goalkeeping issues that emerged at the end of 2020. A long-term injury to Richard O’Donnell is a huge blow, given the City skipper has been in decent form all season. Although back-up Sam Hornby has showed potential in his cup appearances this season, his recent outing against Port Vale was only his 10th career start in the Football League.
The Januarys of 2018 and 2020 were also punctured by goalkeeping injuries that left City without their number one – O’Donnell, again, this time last year, and Colin Doyle in 2018. The Bantams failed to win a single game without O’Donnell last year, whilst Rouven Sattelmaier’s January 2018 run in the side is best forgotten. Like Hornby now, Sattelmaier was viewed as a decent back up keeper who could fill in without issues. Hopefully Hornby does not suffer the same fate as the German, but it is prudent that City have brought in goalkeeper competition with Huffer.
Signing from Bradford Park Avenue until the end of the season, on the face of it Huffer’s arrival at Valley Parade looks underwhelming. But when you dig deeper, the 22-year-old’s potential is more evident. Having climbed up the youth ranks at Leeds United, Huffer made a league debut for the Elland Road outfit in a 2-0 win over Bristol City in November 2018 (answers on a postcard for the last Bradford City youth keeper to play a league game for the club). He won England honours at under 17 and 18s level. He was highly rated by Leeds.
But over the last few years, a succession of injuries have disrupted his career, starting with bending his right wrist when saving a shot in training. It didn’t break. But every time it appeared to have healed, the injury resurfaced and it was back to square one. Huffer was eventually diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis. Attempts to fix the issue with immunosuppressant drugs were hindered when Covid-19 struck, as continuing to take the medication could have exposed him to the worst affects of the virus if he had caught the illness. Oh, and he’d also torn a muscle in his hip in the summer of 2019.
With his Leeds contract up in the summer, it was no surprise he was released and Huffer’s dream of playing professional football was seemingly over. He even enrolled in an Open University degree. But in October Bradford Park Avenue offered Huffer the opportunity to train with the club, and after regaining his fitness the Bantams have judged him capable of playing professional football again. “City have got themselves an excellent goalkeeper and Will leaves with our best wishes,” commented Bradford Park Avenue manager and former Bantam Mark Bower.
The six-month contract Huffer has been awarded to play for the Bantams is an opportunity to revive a career in professional football that seemed to have been denied him by injury. He has every incentive to give it everything he has in pushing both Hornby and O’Donnell.
Huffer is not the only youthful City incoming, with former Leeds team mate Jordan Stevens and Middlesbrough forward Rumarn Burrell also arriving at Valley Parade. What both outfield players have in common is they emerged through the youth ranks of a League Two club, and were quickly snapped up by Championship sides before they had made any real impact.
Stevens, who was at Forest Green and bought by then-second tier Leeds when he was just 17, is a central midfielder/right back converted to a winger during his time at Elland Road. Burrell, a striker, was at Grimsby before Middlesbrough lured him to Teeside.
Stevens made five substitute appearances for Leeds during their promotion-winning 2019/20 campaign, and began this season on loan at League One Swindon. Despite scoring on his debut against Burton, it wasn’t a happy spell at the County Ground and he especially struggled for game time after John Sheridan became manager. “For Jordan’s sake – and this is me being honest to him – he needs to have a bit more fire in his belly and realise how fortunate he is,” were the less than glowing words of Sheridan upon Stevens’ Swindon departure.
At Valley Parade, Stevens has an important immediate role in providing width in a squad lacking wide options. Whilst McCall’s plan to play 3-5-2 this season meant out-and-out wingers were evidently not at the top of his summer shopping list, going with just the perennially injured Zeli Ismail and the underwhelming Dylan Mottley-Henry really hampered the former manager’s options to change things when Plan A wasn’t working.
So far, Trueman and Sellars’ 4-2-3-1 approach has seen Billy Clarke, Gareth Evans and Harry Pritchard in the wide attacking roles. It has worked to a point so far, but City remain short of a player with the true ability and confidence to hug the touchline and stretch games by running at people. The hope is that Stevens can offer that.
Meanwhile Burrell rocked up just days after making his Middlesbrough debut in an FA Cup defeat to Brentford as a late sub. The 20-year-old has yet to start a senior game for either Boro or Grimsby, but is known to Trueman and Sellars from his youth team days at the Mariners, when their City counterparts came up against him. “He is fast and direct with an eye for goal, which are all things we are desperate to bring to the side,” revealed Trueman.
If Burrell is a signing that you can seemingly attribute to Trueman and Sellars, the most eye-catching arrival so far this window – Niall Canavan – looks very much a Turnbull idea, given their paths crossed at Scunthorpe.
At 29, Canavan has a wealth of experience and has recently passed his 300th career appearance. Having started at Glanford Park, Canavan had spells at Shrewsbury and Rochdale before moving to Plymouth in 2018. In two and a half years at Home Park, he has helped Argyle win promotion last season and was a regular in recent weeks.
But having grown up in Yorkshire and even acted as a ball boy at Valley Parade for many years, the lure of returning North was too strong. “Niall did a brilliant job in getting us back into League One last season, away from his young family, and we thank him for his contribution to Argyle,” beamed Ryan Lowe.
Although City have improved considerably defensively in recent weeks, there have to remain some question marks about the long-term form of the two O’Connors. Both Paudie and Anthony are playing well right now, but their City careers have been patchy and they’ve let the club down at times. There’s also no experienced cover if either was to get injured. It will be very interesting to see where Canavan fits into this team.
Further left-sided defensive cover has been added in the shape of left back/centre half Matty Foulds – like Canavan, he started out in the youth ranks at City, getting released during the Parkinson years and signing for Bury. Foulds was well regarded at Gigg Lane and made his senior debut in a League Cup defeat to Leicester, before Premier League Everton snapped him up for an undisclosed fee. “Matty is a really exciting prospect because he is a left-footed centre-half with a real margin of development,” exclaimed then-Everton manager Roberto Martinez.
Foulds played against City in 2018/19 when Everton’s B team drew a Football League trophy tie at Valley Parade. But ultimately he failed to get near the Everton first team, and was released in the summer. He ended up signing for Italian Serie C side Como – the club Benito Carbone joined when he left the Bantams in 2002 – who Dennis Wise is said to be working for.
Foulds made three appearances in Italy’s third tier, before leaving by mutual consent at the start of this month. After a spell on trial, Foulds has returned to Valley Parade for the rest of the season.
Continues tomorrow with a look at the outgoings and expectations for the second half of the season.