By Paul Askham
A couple of weeks ago in the aftermath of the Bolton game, Alex Scott’s match report described Danny Rowe as “Windassian”. I think any of us over the age of 30 would struggle to disagree with that likeness, as on his day Rowe can morph from brickie to ballerina in a split second. You wouldn’t want to defend against him as he could put you on your backside using either brains or brawn. It’s just a case of how he fancies making you look inadequate.
Our issue at the moment is that the shape of the side and/or the style of play aren’t suiting our wild-card at all. He’ll willingly have a sleeves-up battle with anyone when he’s the one up top. The montage after the Morecambe game, where he put several players on the deck in his 25-minute cameo, showed that he’s not shy of a battle. I absolutely loved it and shared it in my group chats saying “Look at this lad. He scores screamers as well *heart-eye emoji*”
Bottle’s a great trait, but that isn’t where he will win games for us. We saw enough of James Vaughan picking fights with centre-halves last year, at times seeming to put more emphasis on daftly sparring with his assigned centre-half than applying his obvious footballing talent. Danny Rowe’s best work is where he sneaks up on people and finds pockets of space. A traditional number 9 doesn’t have much of a hiding place, as he has an assigned defender, whereas a number 10 has more scope to subtly ghost into space and not be anybody’s property.
Before I go too deep into squad numbers, I’ll admit my perception isn’t particularly relevant nowadays as my starting point is a 1990’s Mike Bassett 4-4-effing2. The teams indelibly etched on my brain when growing up were England in Euro 1996 where Gascoigne 8, Shearer 9 and Sheringham 10 were correctly numbered, and City in 1998/99 where Blake 8, Mills 9 and Whalley 10 were incorrectly numbered (for younger readers, Whalley and Blake needed to swap shirts).
This squad number parlance is no longer really valid in modern-day football where fourth-tier Bradford City are playing a fluid 4-2-3-1. If I could grow a proper beard I’d go full football-hipster and educate myself on liberos and trequaristas, but I can’t, so I won’t. The fact remains though that if you are hitting more than ten long-balls in a game, as we currently are, a number 9 remains a number 9, whether the year is 1971 or 2021.
When Dean Windass returned to City in 2003, he (like everyone else) struggled as we were relegated from the old First Division to the new League One. If I remember correctly, he was ploughing something of a lone furrow up front, expected to be both chief-aggressor and chief-architect. The following season we signed Dele Adebola on loan, he did all the number 9 donkey-work, Windass was liberated as a number 10 and had a 30-goal season. Adebola was gone by Christmas, but Andy Cooke (the original), Zema Abbey and Aaron Wilbraham continued to do the unglamorous things to free Deano up to earn himself and Nathan Doyle their moves to Hull.
I personally think this is what we need to try to achieve with Rowe to get the best out of him. Get the new Andy Cook in at number 9, which he’s really good at, and engineer a way to let Rowe scheme behind, as he’s a butterfly with a sand-bag on his back foraging up top on his own. His best work comes when dropping off, but the Catch-22 as lone-striker is that he leaves a void on the penalty spot when he does that.
For Rowe to be truly Windassian, Cook needs to be on the pitch being Adebolian.
It’s a given Rowe’s not mobile enough to fill the Callum Cooke role through the middle unfortunately. It appears nobody in the squad has the same legs or skillset as Cooke, which seems ominously as though it could be our ultimate undoing. There must be scope for Rowe to fill the role either Vernam or Crankshaw played against Oldham though. I’m not trying to dig either of them out, but the youthful exuberance they’re in there to show isn’t quite translating into putting the opposition onto the back foot at the moment.
Trueman and Sellars have a conundrum on the horizon. 4-2-3-1 worked very nicely up until the last fortnight and I’m not advocating change for the sake of it. But with an understandably tired workforce, now is time for squad rotation and/or a tweak to the team shape. Sticking to the same shape and personnel seems as though it is the one thing that would guarantee the play offs being out of reach for this year. Maybe the way for a next push would be a Plan B neither us as fans, or opposition managers will be expecting.
To go back where I started referencing the article after the Bolton game, if the question a fortnight ago was “Stick or Twist?”, it must now be a case of “When Do We Twist?”. The build-up to Easter will define whether we’re still going to be in the mix come April. The next few games are a free-hit to experiment. The best-case scenario would be the completion of a miraculous play off push, but if that’s not to be we would at least go into next season wiser having tried and tested some alternative methods.