By Jason McKeown
Whilst January signings Matty Foulds, Niall Canavan, Rumarn Burrell, Jordan Stevens and Will Huffer get acquainted with their new Bradford City team mates, other players have moved in the opposite direction. Perhaps equally as impressive as the speed of new arrivals is the swiftness that the Bantams have moved on players who are not in Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars’ plans.
The most notable departure of course is Ben Richards-Everton, who was frozen out of action as soon as the caretakers took the reins. It’s been a season to forget for the former Accrington centre half. A fall in standing and reputation that has been swift and painful to watch. Go back to the midway point of the 2019/20 season, and many people had Richards-Everton pegged as the player of the season. His performances were slipping before Covid brought football to a halt, but even going into this campaign he was widely assumed to be first choice.
The rise of Reece Staunton, and how well the young defender suited McCall’s 3-5-2, pushed Richards-Everton to the sidelines. In a team that relied on playing out from the back, the more basic footballing ability of Ben didn’t fit. And he didn’t exactly react brilliantly to the demotion, with whispers he was causing issues behind the scenes and a series of poor performances when he was called on, such as the League Cup humiliation to Lincoln City.
In the figurative collection of nails applied to McCall’s managerial coffin, the bad injury Staunton picked up at Leyton Orient in November was a significant hammer blow. It meant that Richards-Everton’s left-footed qualities were needed in starting action again, but the team and ethos of the manager completely didn’t align with his strengths. This, coupled with low confidence in both the player and overall team left City defensively suspect.
The situation reflected badly on Richards-Everton, who let McCall down with some pathetic performances, but it doesn’t showcase McCall in a brilliant light either. A ruthless call was needed on Richards-Everton that McCall would not make. Not taking action, either to adjust the team set-up to better suit the centre half – or leaving him on the sidelines – contributed in a big way to the manager’s sacking.
Kurtis Guthrie, another Bowyer signing, has also departed in the window. His eleventh hour arrival at the end of the 2020 January window was the ultimate panic buy, as Bowyer scrambled around to find replacements for James Vaughan and Eoin Doyle, after the pair’s sudden exit. Given Guthrie had been struggling to nail down a starting place at bottom club Stevenage, it didn’t look a clever piece of business.
So it sadly proved. Perhaps Guthrie can argue, with justification, that he was doomed by the fact the manager who signed him was sacked before the striker got to kick a ball. When McCall replaced Bowyer last February, he gave Guthrie one start – at home to Stevenage – but withdrew him after a less than convincing display. He didn’t figure again in 2019/20, as Covid hit a month later.
In the summer, at least one League Two club came in with an offer for Guthrie. McCall asked the forward what he wanted to do, and was encouraged the striker said he was keen to remain at Valley Parade. Given City had just moved on an unhappy Vaughan and the issues trying to find a suitable replacement, you can understand – even if you don’t fully agree – why McCall was happy to keep Guthrie at that point. City were already looking short of options up front, and time was running out.
Guthrie got the big build up from McCall during pre-season, but come kick off the striker couldn’t deliver. The frustrating aspect of watching Guthrie’s early season performances was how quickly his head seemed to drop. How easily discouraged he appeared to be. The opportunity was there for Guthrie to really establish himself, but he didn’t grasp it. Looking from the outside, that appears to be a familiar tale in his career. It will be very interesting to see how Guthrie gets on at his new club Port Vale.
There was no doubt that the Vaughan situation put City and McCall under real pressure to improve the attack over the summer, with the eventual answer put forward – Austin Samuels – far from proving the solution. So much has been said about Samuels and it is hard not to feel really sorry for the 20-year-old. He was put into a very difficult position. Asked to take on a role well beyond his limited experience and – probably – ability. And he received an awful lot of stick for failing to achieve it.
Watching Samuels play, and particularly the way he liked to operate on the shoulder of the last man, there was a logic in bringing him to the club. His lightening pace was a contrast to the other forward options. And he offered the potential to enable City to play in different ways. But Samuels needed to be brought in as a back up option, rather than be deemed the final piece of the jigsaw. James Vaughan he is not.
The Samuels saga undoubtedly exposed the limited level of planning evident at the club during the summer. The limitations of operating without a proper recruitment and scouting structure. A good advert for why Lee Turnbull was needed. After all, it wasn’t as if Samuels was the plan originally.
McCall had hoped to win around Vaughan, who had left for Tranmere in January following a reported fall out with Bowyer. When he realised Vaughan’s heart was set on staying at Prenton Park, a call had to be made. The deal struck to release Vaughan saved City a decent amount of money on settling the final two years of his contract, and the hope would have been that a good replacement could be found from the thousand plus footballers without a club during the summer.
McCall would later confirm that he tried to sign proven names. Talks were held with Ian Henderson (lured to big spending Salford), Jordy Hiwula (who held out for League One interest and eventually signed for Portsmouth), Nicky Maynard (who didn’t want to relocate to West Yorkshire) and Kieran Agard (still sat on the sidelines at MK Dons, presumably happy to see out his lucrative contract, rumoured to be £8k pw). Austin Samuels was not at the top of that list, but his arrival ultimately became another example of plans gone wrong.
The situation had echoes of the Simon Eastwood situation in the final season of McCall’s first spell. Where budget cuts and plate spinning left little budget for a goalkeeper, causing City to rely on the on-loan, 20-year-old Eastwood to perform a role in the team he wasn’t quite ready for.
Like Eastwood then, Samuels this season was a punt, in many ways. And if Lee Novak had stayed fit, had Guthrie proved his worth and if Clayton Donaldson showed more consistency, that punt might have been okay. But there was too much riding on Samuels proving a success – his role at the club too influential to the Bantams’ overall fortunes – for the loan move to be as disappointing as it proved. Especially when Novak, Guthrie and Clarke got injured.
None of that is Samuels’ own fault. It was in many ways a harsh introduction to the high pressure stakes of lower league football, and hopefully he returns to Wolves with his confidence in tact and a lot of lessons learned that can help his career. Like Guthrie, it will be interesting to see how Samuels’ career continues from here. But, sadly, the evidence seen with our eyes suggests he’s going to struggle to forge a career as a professional.
There is understandable concern that City have replaced the raw, unproven Samuels with the raw, unproven Rumarn Burrell. But the latter does at least appear to be higher up the food chain at his parent club. His recent FA Cup outing suggesting he is in Neil Warnock’s medium-term plans at the Riverside. In contrast, Samuels certainly wouldn’t have been close to breaking through into the Wolves first team.
Ultimately, the success of the transfer window will be defined by who – if anyone – City can bring in to replace Guthrie. If they can capture a senior, proven striker who can take some of the weight off Lee Novak’s shoulders, deliver the goals that the team still lacks, it will go down as a good period. You’d also like to see another winger, with more experience, come in.
Still, so far, the January window signs are encouraging.
With Finn Cousin-Dawson also deservedly receiving a contract extension, City are gearing up for a stronger second half to the season. And when they finally are able to play again, they will need to hit the ground running.
When the Bantams drew 0-0 with Port Vale at the end of December, their last match, they remained 18th in the league, with the cushion above the bottom two extended to seven points. But whilst City had been kicking their heels, other clubs have been in action – closing the gap.
Stevenage defeated Scunthorpe in early January. They are unbeaten in four league games and have climbed out of the bottom two. Southend have only lost one of their last eight games, giving them hope when they appeared doomed to the drop. Barrow, under new manager Michael Jolly, have lost only one in five games, beating Scunthorpe 1-0 on Saturday.
It all means City have dropped to 19th, only three points above the bottom two. Games in hand on four of the five teams below them offer comfort, but the prospect of another congested run of fixtures – starting with Cambridge, the Bantams face 14 games in 49 days, an average of a game every 3.5 days – means the momentum of late December needs to be continued when this break ends.
Two years ago, Bradford City were in League One relegation trouble but had an excellent December, moving out of the bottom four on New Years Day after a 3-0 victory over Accrington. Their next game was postponed due to the FA Cup, meaning they had a break of almost two weeks. They returned with a game at Barnsley, but were battered 3-0 and then thrashed 4-0 at home to Southend the week after. The momentum was lost, and relegation ultimately followed.
History cannot allowed to be repeated. The relegation worries significantly eased over December, and performances suggest that this team is far too good to go down. But the league has tightened, and the next few weeks need to be about putting any lingering relegation fears to bed. They’ve got to pick up where they left off.
Beyond that, what is the aim? After City’s last game with Port Vale, they were three places and four points above Mansfield Town. But the Stags have been busy over January, recording three straight wins. Prior to Saturday, when their game with Carlisle was called off due to a Covid outbreak for the Cumbrian side, Mansfield had climbed nine places to 12th, and were just five points short of the play offs. Yet if City win their two games in hand they have on Mansfield, they’d go above them again.
All of which begs the question – what are City capable of, if they get on a roll again? They currently stand 12 points off the play offs with two games in hand. If the promising January transfer activity continues to develop, the Bantams could be well set up to make up for lost time.
That all remains unlikely. But the expectation has to be to have a much better second half to 2020/21 than the first half proved to be. To start to really build a team with the capability to climb out of League Two. To end the season strongly, so they can really hit the ground running in 2021/22.
When City march out at the Abbey Stadium on Saturday, there will be 105 days of the season left – with 25 games to go (an average of 4.2 days per game). There are encouraging signs that the painful lessons of 2020 have been taken on board. We’ll have a better idea if that really is the case when the matches get going again, and when the window closes in two weeks’ time.