By Jason McKeown (with extra research and table by Alex Scott)
“Myself and Steve (Parkin) sat down at the end of the season and had a discussion about players we wanted to bring in, and players with the right sort of character was very high on our list of priorities.”
Phil Parkinson, speaking in June 2012
It’s brutal. But after another disappointing season, it needed to be. Bradford City’s retained list was announced yesterday, confirming that nine of the 13 out of contract players are being released. It means there are just 11 City players who definitely have deals for next season, and it will be another busy summer of incomings.
There are deals on the table to keep the promising youngsters Jorge Sikora and Kian Scales. Whilst the former City youth trainee – Matty Foulds – has been offered a deal to stay, despite barely figuring since returning to Valley Parade on a short-term contract last January. Sam Hornby – who ended the season as first choice keeper – also has an offer to mull over.
For Anthony O’Connor, Connor Wood, Clayton Donaldson, Billy Clarke, Lee Novak, Harry Pritchard, Connor Shanks, Will Huffer and Zeli Ismail, their time at Valley Parade has ended and they join the hundreds of footballers hunting for a new club this summer.
It is arguably the decision to release Anthony O’Connor and Connor Wood that attracts the biggest attention. They are players who have been at the club for three seasons, collectively contributing more than 250 league and cup appearances for the club. But given those three seasons have largely proved failures for Bradford City, they are tarnished by the overall lack of success they’ve been a part of.
There are certainly very few positive Anthony O’Connor memories to look back on. When he joined during the chaotic, Edin Rahic-led summer of 2018, the club still harboured immediate ambitions of pushing for the Championship. O’Connor was one of the more notable spends out of a £4 million playing budget. “When I spoke to the chairman (Edin Rahic) and Greg Abbott they really sold the club to me,” O’Connor stated after signing a three-year deal. “Their vision for the club and what they want to achieve – they are very ambitious people similar to myself.”
It’s fair to say those ambitions were not realised.
Greg Abbott had added of O’Connor “He’s got a great character” – but that statement feels questionable when reflecting on O’Connor’s time at City. He enjoyed an outstanding debut away at Shrewsbury in August 2018 – as the Bantams started the season with a notable win – but just like the team, O’Connor’s form quickly fell away.
For a fanbase who had spent several recent years marvelling at the defensive grit of Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies and Stephen Darby, there was something troubling about watching City concede multiple soft goals, and observing O’Connor berating everyone around him. He didn’t look like a leader. He wasn’t taking responsibility for his own performances, never mind inspiring those around him. When the team’s morale looked fragile and greater courage was needed, O’Connor did not appear to be someone you could count on.
The numerous managers that O’Connor has played for over his three years might think the same. O’Connor was signed in 2018 before the next manager had even be installed by Rahic, and his departure has just been confirmed two days after the news that Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars will be stood down. It all means O’Connor has been there for the start and end of the reigns of five different managers.
That doesn’t include the one-game caretaker match overseen by Martin Drury in March 2019, where O’Connor – who had been demoted as captain but was given back the armband after Paul Caddis went off injured – famously threw the armband onto the ground midway through the second half. He apologised and explained the armband had been causing physical discomfort – a not unreasonable explanation given it had been adjusted for Caddis to wear. Whether fair or otherwise, it was a moment that soured his relationship with supporters. An unfortunately poor piece of symbolism for the player at what was a really dark moment for the club.
Since that point, there has generally been a grudging level of respect for O’Connor, rather than any warm affection from the crowd. O’Connor stayed on after relegation and performed reasonably well over 2019/20 and 2020/21, but he tended to have at least one poor game every five or six matches. For example, in the Carlisle United home defeat in December when he switched off for a throw in that enabled the visitors to score. It was a poor mistake by the centre half, and really let down Stuart McCall in what was such an important afternoon for the under-pressure manager.
Since the January window and the arrival of Niall Canavan, O’Connor largely found himself asked to play out of position and do a role for the team. He did this very well, such as slotting in at right back or defensive midfielder. And it went some way to addressing those doubts many fans still had about his commitment for the club.
But it also damned his future. Because if the way forwards for City was a centre half partnership of Paudie O’Connor and Canavan, and Reece Staunton was still to come back, where did that leave Anthony in the long-run? He might have been happy to stay on next season as a utility player, but the wage he would have been commanding since his 2018 contract would not be viable unless he was prepared to take a huge pay cut.
Ultimately, O’Connor will not be a player remembered with huge affection. He was a part of so much underachievement. And sometimes he was unfairly scapegoated for that, but at other times he was so central to the failures that it was hard to see how City could ever prosper with him.
Over the last 15 years (going back to 2006/07), 12 players have made 120 or more appearances for Bradford City – names such as James Meredith, Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and Lee Bullock. Their lengthier than usual service for the club typically leaves them well regarded by supporters. Anthony O’Connor is part of that 12-person club, but definitely doesn’t command the same level of affection. The obvious answer why, of course, is that he has never been part of even a half-decent City team.
The stats illustrate this point. The following chart shows the PPG record of each of these 12 players, and how that would work out of a 46-game season. O’Connor appears at the bottom of this list, demonstrating just how little success he has been a part of.
Of course, there have been City players with much worse win ratios than O’Connor, but typically they have quickly departed after a season or two. O’Connor has been here a relatively long time, and results that have included him in the team have largely not being great.
Clearly O’Connor is not the bad person that the press he sometimes got suggests, and his efforts deserve some appreciation. But he is complicit in too much failure – failure that led to too much change, especially in the dugout. For his own sake, he needs a fresh start. O’Connor might very well go onto perform really well at his next club, but it was time for everyone to move on with no hard feelings.
It’s good to see that, ultimately, he leaves on good terms. There’s no danger he will be booed if he returns to Valley Parade as a visiting player. That would not have been the case if he had left in 2019.
Perhaps the most positive illustration of how Connor Wood is seen is that he is not tarnished with the same negative brush, even though he has been a part of the same level of failure as O’Connor. It’s largely because Wood’s performances have been better at the right times. And at the very start of City’s sink from League One to Two, Wood was a back up left back rather than a central culprit of that dismal relegation season.
Indeed, Wood didn’t play at all for Michael Collins and he was used rarely by David Hopkin. In games over 2018/19, Wood seemed to really struggle to get going in the early stages but would eventually come on stronger. Nevertheless, even accepting how bad Adam Chicksen was at left back ahead of him, in his first year at Valley Parade the then-21-year-old didn’t look ready.
That changed in 2019/20, where Wood benefitted from the drop down the division as much as anyone. He quickly grasped the left back slot from Jackson Longridge and became a regular over the season. Had 2019/20 not being curtailed because of Covid, Wood would surely have gone onto win the Bradford City player of the season.
In this, the final year of his contract, the fear was that City would have little chance of keeping him. Wood’s reputation as a good attacking full back was known beyond BD8, and rumours of higher league interest began to circulate.
Yet, curiously, 2020/21 did not prove to be the springboard season Wood would have expected. He has been an ever present league starter in the City side, but his performances have rarely hit the standards of the year before. Wood certainly struggled in McCall’s 3-5-2 – a curious development, given it looked like a formation made for him – and though he has proved solid in Trueman and Sellars’ more conservative 4-2-3-1, he hasn’t stood out.
Perhaps, a year ago, Wood would have found a queue of clubs willing to sign him, from higher up. Lower Championship sides and higher League One outfits. He will of course still get another club no problem, but it might take a bit more effort and his expectations might have to be lowered.
Nevertheless, it is a surprise City have not tried to keep him. That is, assuming there have not been conversations that have led to them discovering Wood is not prepared to stay. Having been signed in the more care-free spending days of 2018, Wood probably has a decent contract – on terms the club won’t want to continue. But after all the investment into his development since 2018, it’s a shame City won’t benefit from it.
A disappointing Connor Wood season is still a decent season by many players’ standards.
The other players released are difficult to argue against letting go. Had Trueman and Sellars’ remained in charge, I’d have personally looked at giving Clayton Donaldson another year. That’s because their preference for a 4-2-3-1 means you would have needed forwards happy to accept not being first choice, and who could come on in games and have some impact over the course of the season.
The episode of Danny Rowe so quickly arriving and then leaving – as he was starved of first team opportunities – suggested a problem for Trueman and Sellars next season. If they’d have kept a 4-2-3-1, they would have faced challenges having enough strikers around and keeping them happy with reduced game time. Donaldson would have helped them, but the change of manager and likely introduction of a different approach alters that need.
Donaldson’s two seasons at his hometown club have seen him score 11 goals from 42 starts (and 19 sub appearances). Probably about what could have been reasonably expected, given he had only scored 13 goals in 91 games over the previous three seasons before joining City.
At 37, Donaldson was clearly past his peak but was still a useful squad member. He did surprisingly okay when asked to play as number 10 by Trueman and Sellars. He always put in lots of effort – and seemed to be someone who had the presence to lift others. Hopefully, Donaldson can find a club for at least one more season before he bows out – even if a dip into non-league might be needed. He obviously loves what he does.
Non-league might very well be Billy Clarke’s next destination too. It has been a difficult few years for the player ever since his bad injury at Charlton. He’s had some lonely experiences trying to find a club, and positive impacts at Plymouth and Grimsby were short-lived. This tricky existence has also included two spells back at Valley Parade. His loan period in 2018/19 wasn’t great, but this time around he did offer more early doors.
It’s no secret that Clarke is a player McCall values, and the veteran began the season as a first team regular, scoring four times by mid-November. But injury problems struck at the wrong moment for the manager and player. Clarke missed the crucial final few games of McCall’s tenure, when down to the bare bones the team continued its losing run.
The 4-2-3-1 of Trueman and Sellars looked a good fit for Clarke as number 10, but understandably he played second fiddle to Callum Cooke, who grew into fantastic form. It left Clarke having to operate wide left – where he did a job, but it hardly played into his strengths. And once the January window saw more naturally suited wide players arrive, Clarke’s opportunities became more restricted.
It remains curious why – when Cooke got a bad injury – Clarke was never tried as number 10, given the general lack of success from those who were tried instead. But it certainly showed the writing was on the wall. Ultimately, Clarke is not the force he was – and City need to look elsewhere to improve.
A year younger than the 33-year-old Clarke, Lee Novak might be a player who still had something to offer City. But WOAP understands he was signed on relatively large wages by Gary Bowyer in February 2020. Which, post-pandemic, might not be the best use of overall resources.
Novak leaves City with a record of nine goals from 23 starts, which is very strong. He started well at the back end of the aborted 2019/20 season and netted four goals in his first four starts this campaign.
Alas, his season became a tale of two long-term injuries. The first spell – over October to December – saw Novak badly missed as City plunged. But during the second period out – January to late April – the Bantams moved on, with the goals of Andy Cook and Rowe. And though Novak ended the season back in the team, he failed to score.
When fit, Novak proved to be an excellent player at this level, even though he does miss a few too many chances. But that injury record really doesn’t tally with CEO Ryan Sparks’ recent comments about wanting to sign players who will play 40 games rather than 20. Ultimately, Novak’s time on the sidelines probably did for him, especially for the wages he was commanding. Still, he is one of the better Bradford City strikers of recent years.
The other players to leave are no surprises. Harry Pritchard looked a decent player and his brilliant goal in the crucial December victory over Cambridge will be long remembered. But he’s had injury problems too, and ultimately lacks a yard of pace that would make him a top end League Two player.
Zeli Ismail just cannot stay fit and there is absolutely no way City can risk giving him another chance. A shame, because on his day he was brilliant fun to watch. Will Huffer was a bit of a stop gap and was never going to be kept. Connor Shanks also leaves having not had the same opportunities as the other breakthrough City youngsters.
The true test of whether these retain/release decisions are the right ones can only be measured with the perspective of time. Who would have thought, 12 months ago, that Kelvin Mellor would play well for a team in the League Two play offs? But even if some of those released by City go onto bigger and better things, there is a real need to improve the culture inside the Valley Parade dressing room. There’s just been too much failure to believe it can be magically changed. A clear-out of people who have contributed to a questionable culture can only help.
The following chart shows the City XI season on season based on who made the most appearances for each position. We’ve set it up broadly as a 4-4-2, which admittedly works less well over recent seasons when City have preferred different formations. But in terms of the most common 11 players on the pitch year on year, it does the job. Those in a yellow box were a City regular in that position for more than one season.
The greater amount of white boxes, over recent years, is testament to the large amount of season on season change in certain positions, not least up front and certain midfield areas. Whereas the consistent spine of a Bradford City over the successful years of 2012-17 is clear.
That was an era of strong characters and players who drove and maintained high standards, taking City a long way. It’s clearly very difficult to replicate that, but the aim must surely be to build a Bradford City squad that can grow together and reverse the slide down the leagues. The blueprint of 2012-17 is not a bad one to follow.
The next Bradford City manager will come in and find plenty to do – there are no forwards on the books, for example – but they have an opportunity, working with Lee Turnbull, to create something very different. Of all the qualities they will pour over as they assess players from here, there and everywhere, you hope that character is high up on the list.