By Jason McKeown
In what is surely the least surprising piece of transfer news of the summer, defensive midfielder Yann Songo’o has followed Derek Adams in moving from Morecambe to Bradford City after rejecting the chance to stay with the Shrimpers.
It is the fourth time that Adams has signed Songo’o, after the 29-year-old previously enjoyed spells working under the Scot at Ross County, Plymouth and Morecambe. In 2014, Songo’o was a Blackburn player when Adams brought him to Ross County on loan for half a season. The Frenchman – who prior to joining Gary Bowyer’s Blackburn had spells in Spain and the USA – made a big impact for the Highland side, scoring three goals in 18 appearances.
After ultimately failing to break through at Blackburn, in 2016 Adams’ lured Songo’o to Plymouth, where he finally began to enjoy a sustained run of first team football. Songo’o played a key part in the Pilgrims League Two promotion-winning 2016/17 campaign. He remained a big player in their two-year League One adventure that in season one nearly ended in a play off finish but in season two saw relegation.
Songo’o was offered a new deal to stay at Plymouth in the summer of 2019, but with Adams sacked he opted to sign for fellow relegated side Scunthorpe United instead. His time at Glanford Park wasn’t especially notable, and last summer he opted to sign for his old manager once more – after Adams resurfaced at Morecambe.
Yann Songo’o would appear to be the ultimate Derek Adams player. Like the manager, he has a hardman reputation and takes no prisoners. His 11 yellow cards and one red last season suggests a player who likes to get stuck in. But just like with Adams, there is clearly more to his success than simply being deemed horrible by the opposition.
Songo’o is a player of some talent. He scored six goals for Morecambe last season and contributed two assists. On the final day of the regular season, when Morecambe defeated Bradford City 2-0, he produced a glorious through pass that led to Cole Stockton scoring the clinching second goal.
Songo’o has come up against the Bantams several times over recent years and has always impressed for his athleticism and workrate. Plymouth supporters say that he is not the most skilful, but always gives 100% – which makes him a fans’ favourite. He appears to offer all the ingredients of a player who would be very popular with the Valley Parade crowd.
There is a but, however. It can’t be ignored that Songo’o has a recent blotch on his record. In January of this year Songo’o was given a red card in a home defeat to Tranmere after he was accused of making a homophobic insult to a Rovers player who was on the ground receiving treatment. During an FA investigation, Songo’o admitted to using the insult. In total, he received a six-match ban and was ordered to complete face-to-face education.
The unsavoury incident is told in more detail here, including Songo’o’s defence, published in the FA report that, “He expressed considerable remorse and explained that, because English is not his first language, he had not appreciated the offence which his comment would cause.” Songo’o also said sorry in public, stating, “I’d like to offer a sincere apology for any offence I’ve caused. I’m really disappointed in myself for using that term, because it does not reflect the type of person I am but it was under provocation.”
Songo’o has served his punishment and undertaken the required education, ending the season playing an important part in Morecambe’s surprise promotion. He is clearly a player who Derek Adams deeply trusts, and he will be ideally suited to the 4-2-3-1 formation the manager typically favours.
The arrival of Songo’o to Valley Parade adds competition for Levi Sutton and Elliot Watt in defensive midfield. After Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars opted for the 4-2-3-1 formation when they took the reins, Sutton and Watt really flourished in those two spots. But the club was criticised for not strengthening this part of the team in the January window, which caused issues down the line when the pair struggled for fitness and form.
Three into two doesn’t go, and Songo’o’s durability (he has started 158 games in the last five seasons) would suggest either Watt or Sutton will struggle to nail down a regular place in Adams’ side.
Songo’o is the eighth signing this summer following the earlier news of Andy Cook, Abo Eisa, Oscar Threlkeld, Lee Angol, Liam Ridehalgh, Alex Gilliead and Fiacre Kelleher joining the club.
The 25-year-old Eisa – a Sudan-born wide player – began his career in the London non-league scene after his family moved to the capital when he was seven-years-old. He followed in the footsteps of his older brother Mo – who currently plays for Peterborough – in climbing into the Football League. In 2018 he joined Shrewsbury, before having spells at Colchester and Scunthorpe United.
Threlkeld’s journey has been equally varied. Having emerged through the youth ranks at Bolton, he played under Adams at Plymouth for several seasons before moving to Belgian side Waasland-Beveren. With first team opportunities hard to come by, the 26-year-old returned to Argyle on loan the following season and has spent the last two years at Salford City.
Angol – also 26, and there is a trend forming on the age of most of the players coming into the club – joins from Leyton Orient. A Tottenham youth product who never got near the first team, Angol has already played for 10 different clubs, including several non-league outposts. He has spent the last two years at Leyton Orient and scored just two goals last season – one of which, interestingly, was against Adams’ Morecambe.
Angol looks every inch a squad player. Although the way that Adams’ turned the previously indistinctive Cole Stockton into a goal machine at Morecambe last season would suggest Angol shouldn’t be written off just yet.
A little bit older in age, 30-year-old Ridehalgh has a strong lower league pedigree and looks every inch a good piece of business. The left back has turned out for Tranmere Rovers for eight years, playing more than 250 games for the club during a period where they have endured double relegations from League One and Two, bounced back with back-to-back promotions to the third tier, were relegated from League One two years ago and finished in the League Two play offs last season.
Ridehalgh has been a regular throughout Tranmere’s ups and downs and brings a wealth of really good experience to Valley Parade. He has also had spells at Rotherham, Chesterfield, Swindon and Huddersfield, and is closing in on 400 senior career appearances.
Gilliead is a more familiar name to Bradford City supporters – this is his third spell as a Bantam, following loan moves, when still a Newcastle player, in 2016/17 and 2017/18. Gilliead lacked an end product in both of those loan periods (just two goals and one assist in 48 appearances over 2017/18 for example). But recent games for Scunthorpe against City in 2019/20 and 2020/21 showed a greater level of effectiveness in his play.
Gilliead, 25, was crowned player of the season for Scunthorpe last term – an admittedly low bar, given the Iron finished third bottom of the Football League – and was interestingly linked with moves to Coventry, Huddersfield, Ipswich and Sunderland earlier this season. On that basis, his return looks a coup.
Irish centre half Kellecher – another arrival in the 25/26 age band – joins from National League side Wrexham where he played a big part in their 2020/21 campaign that ended in play off defeat. He was released in the summer by Wrexham without an explanation, stating, “It clearly wasn’t based on performances as far as I am concerned anyway. I wasn’t really given any reason behind it and why they were doing it which I thought was a bit unfair so I am not too sure why I was released. I am disappointed that I am not part of the club anymore and the way I was treated at the end wasn’t great so from that point of view, I am quite happy to get out of there.”
Prior to joining Wrexham in August 2020 Kellecher spent two years at Macclesfield Town, when the troubled Cheshire club were struggling financially, and he had a season on loan at Solihull Moors in 2017/18. Kellecher began his career at Celtic but didn’t get a first team look-in, while a move to Oxford in 2017 also saw him fail to make an appearance.
Kellecher has played regular first team football for the last four seasons. His younger brother, Caoimhin, is back-up goalkeeper at Liverpool and made six appearances for the Anfield outfit last season.
The positive reception to the arrival of Songo’o and Threlkeld – players who Adams has already managed several times – and lingering possibility of more Morecambe/ex Plymouth players joining the Bantams shows a shift in the overall mood of City supporters compared to 12 months ago. When Stuart McCall was criticised for bringing in players he had previously worked with, like Billy Clarke and Sutton.
The fact we are in the honeymoon period where the manager can do no wrong, and that Songo’o is a more exotic signing than Clarke or Gareth Evans – whose strengths and weaknesses were well known to City fans – goes some way to explaining the shift in supporter tolerance. It seemed fair enough then for McCall to put faith in characters he knew well anyway, and Adams certainly has every right to do the same.
From Phil Parkinson re-signing Stephen Darby when at City, Peter Taylor bringing Luke Oliver to Valley Parade, and Gary Bowyer with Callum Cooke, it’s a well-trodden path for City managers to sign players they have worked with before. The fact Songo’o and Threlkeld have always performed well for Adams gives us every reason to believe they will both really thrive here.
Adams will also be confident that in Songo’o and Threlkeld he has players completely bought into his way of doing things. And that they will enact the manager’s instructions on the field. This will be crucial in setting the tone going into next season. For several seasons, different City managers have struggled with the fact a portion of the players at the club would not buy into what they were trying to achieve, which more often than not speeded their exit.
It is a problem articulated brilliantly by the outgoing Billy Clarke, who three weeks ago offered some wise words of advice for a club he clearly holds dear to his heart. “You’d hope it’s a very different club next season. Something needs to change,” Clarke told the Telegraph & Argus. “You need a system in place where a new manager coming in is buying into the club and the structure is already there. So, if that manager doesn’t work out, the whole philosophy doesn’t have to change.
“You’ve got the likes of Barnsley and Brentford who have that model. Obviously it’s different at every club and not the blueprint of success by any means – but what won’t work is having manager after manager, transfer window after transfer window and always throwing in different types of players.”
Clarke’s recent experiences at Valley Parade make him extremely well-positioned to offer an insight into how the revolving door of managerial short-termism has hindered the club. He returned for a second spell at City in 2019 under David Hopkin, but less than a month later there was a change in the dugout with Gary Bowyer taking charge, who released Clarke that summer. The forward came back again a year later, with McCall now manager, only for another mid-season sacking leading to Trueman and Sellars. 26 league starts across those two spells, four different managers. “The whole cycle of ‘if it doesn’t work, completely rip it up’ doesn’t work,” added Clarke.
The hope – however much recent history makes it seem unlikely – is that, in Adams, City finally have a manager they are prepared to stick with. Even with the continuity support of head of recruitment Lee Turnbull, the arrival of Songo’o and Threlkeld emphatically demonstrates that Adams is leading recruitment. The new manager is tasked with building a Bradford City side capable of promotion. His track record shows that, with a bit of time, he can achieve that. But with City failing to stick with a manager for more than 12 months since McCall’s 2016-18 spell, the Bantams’ managerial position is not one with a recent track record of stability.
Yet there is a new broom feeling about Bradford City this summer. A sense that lessons of the past have been learned. That success isn’t simply going to happen through pure luck, it needs building up in every area.
From hiring the best manager in League Two last season to re-signing Andy Cook to fancy new dugouts to revamped exec areas to a full seat replacement programme to enhancements to the backroom staff to new commercial deals to new catering partnerships to a promising season ticket uptake to inclusive community events to family friendly parts of Valley Parade to a new atmosphere section to sprucing up run-down parts of the ground to keeping Mark Trueman as assistant manager.
There is a fresh and energetic feel to the club – driven, without question, by the tireless Ryan Sparks – that offers greater supporter buy-in.
It feels like the people working for the club really care. Not just in delivering success on the field; but making the matchday experience better for supporters. Every area, big or small, is being attended to. It appears the club – and Sparks – is following the marginal gains theory. Which is all about making small incremental improvements to every process of how the club works, with the aim that – collectively – they will make a significant improvement.
Offering Bantams burgers or a more comfortable seat for your bum or half time face painting for kids doesn’t directly lead to three points on a Saturday, but it all feeds into a culture of self-improvement through hard work. Of a club having a bit more self-respect and care, which in turn encourages us supporters to love and care for it again – after a testing few years where Bradford City has been difficult to like.
You can see what they’re trying to do, with the vision being painted in front of our eyes. And that gives you greater reason to want the club to succeed – and patience in giving it time to work.
Just over a month since Songo’o was spraying passes David Beckham would have been proud of, to defeat a desperate and directionless Bradford City side, the Frenchman’s new football club increasingly feels like a very different place. As a club, City seem less passive, downtrodden and insecure.
A new sense of purpose is evident on and off the pitch, offering growing optimism that better times finally lie ahead.
WOAP will be back in a few weeks.