By Jason McKeown
Bradford City have continued to bolster their striker options with the arrival of Andy Cook on loan from Mansfield Town until the end of the season. The 30-year-old has been in and out of the Stags team of late, especially since Nigel Clough took over as manager. Out of contract at the end of this season, his intention in joining the Bantams will be to make an impression and earn a new deal in the summer – either at Valley Parade or with another League Two club.
Cook’s background has some similarities to Danny Rowe, in the fact he has only broken into the Football League in the later stages of his career. He was part of the youth ranks at Carlisle but never got a first team chance, moving onto local(ish) non league side Barrow – initially on loan, before the deal was made permanent in January 2011. By the end of that first season in the Lakes, Cook had netted 17 goals in 39 games for the Blue Square Premier League side.
It was excellent form that made Grimsby – also in the Blue Square Premier at the time – sit up and take notice, and Cook was brought in to Blundell Park club in the summer of 2012. His two years with Grimsby weren’t great – 11 goals in 2012/13, and just three in 2013/14 – and Cook ended up rejoining Barrow when his deal ran out.
From 2015, Cook was prolific once more for the Bluebirds, with 24 goals from 45 appearances over 2015/16. It again put him on the radar of so-called big Conference clubs, and so in 2016 he went to Tranmere, where he had two terrific years. 23 goals in 44 games in 2016/17, when Rovers lost the play off final. A year later, Tranmere went one better with Cook scoring at Wembley – his 28th goal in 45 games that season.
At last, Cook was a Football League player. Although he opted against staying with Tranmere, moving instead to League One to sign for Walsall. 2018/19 was not a happy one for the Saddlers, and they were relegated along with Bradford City. Cook played a role in the Bantams infamous 3-2 loss to Walsall in February 2018 that did for David Hopkin – with the striker getting sent off after just six minutes. City couldn’t capitalise on playing with an extra man for 84 minutes.
Despite a poor season for Walsall as a club, Cook himself scored 18 goals in 50 appearances. And when Mansfield lured him to Field Mill that summer, it was seen as a coup – a sign of the Stags’ high ambition. Yet in truth, it hasn’t been a brilliant move for Cook. He scored just seven goals in 2019/20 before Covid struck (one of which was in the 3-0 win over City that pushed Gary Bowyer closer to the sack). He has only scored three times this season, one – again – against the Bantams, in the 3-1 loss in October. His last goal came on December 5.
Cook’s arrival at Valley Parade is curious given the abundance of strikers of similar style. It arguably suggests the injury to Lee Novak is more serious and prolonged than has been made public. Or it could just be an extra insurance policy. The memories of City struggling badly with just the aging Clayton Donaldson as a senior option remain vivid. At the very least, there should be no repeat of such limited options.
Whether Cook will start games is unclear. Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars have continued to favour the 4-2-3-1 approach, with Rowe leading the line impressively. Although there are some concerns that Rowe is not a targetman and likes to come deep, sometimes limiting how far up the field City stretch the play, the decent midweek win over Southend showed a team increasingly benefitting from the former Oldham striker’s strengths.
The two goals from Gareth Evans demonstrated a clear instruction for attacking midfielders to break into the box when Rowe comes deeper, with high rewards. Callum Cooke is also revelling in being given licence to push further forward. There are really promising signs from Roots Hall that the system spearheaded by Rowe can give City a more clinical edge.
Trueman and Sellars might ultimately be tempted to go with two up front – the current formation does not suit Billy Clarke’s strengths, which may seem him taken out of the starting line up – so Cook could push his way into contention.
It all leaves City in a much stronger position to score more goals than was the case over the first half of the season. Tuesday’s win over Southend pushed the relegation spots further away in the distance, and the gap to the play offs doesn’t appear insurmountable, with a fair wind behind them.
It’s all going so, so well right now. And Cook could play a part in what might yet develop into an unlikely Bradford City promotion push.