The Bradford City 2021/22 season preview #4: Is the spine of Bantams side strong enough for a promotion push?

By Alex Scott, Tim Penfold and Jason McKeown

The 2012/13 Bradford City had Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle. The 1998/99 Bantams leaned heavily on Darren Moore, John Dreyer, Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley.

Behind any promotion-winning side is invariably a good centre back pairing and powerful central midfield. Usually the headlines go to the attacking players further up the pitch, but success would not happen without a strong spine to the team.

So how does the 2021/22 Bradford City central defender and central midfield options measure up? In the second of a three-part assessment of Derek Adams’ squad, we focus on the players who will be competing to play in these crucial positions.

(Statistics from FBref.com and Whoscored.com)

4. Paudie O’Connor

Age 24. Central defender. Final season of contract.

Last SeasonTeam(s)StartsMins %GoalsAssistsWhoScored Rating
Paudie O’ConnorCity4190%227.22

By Jason

What a huge season this is for Paudie O’Connor. The three-year deal comes to an end next summer, at which point he will be 25. That next contract – whoever it is with – could be career-defining.

Paudie had a mixed 2020/21 campaign, but when he was on top form his performances were said to have attracted interest from higher league clubs. Such speculation has not manifested itself into transfer offers just yet, but his growing reputation means his 2021/22 displays will be monitored by others.

If O’Connor can display greater consistency and produce another run of strong performances, this could be the year where he cements that next career move higher up – giving him a chance to fulfil his undoubted potential. If it’s another up and down affair, he might just solidify his status as a lower league defender. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but the bigger prize is there if he sets his mind on achieving it.

For City it will make for an interesting subplot. If O’Connor’s form is strong and other clubs circle, would they cash in on him during the January window, given the risk of losing him for nothing in the summer? With part of any transfer fee received going to Leeds (due to a sell on clause), the financial rewards might be limited – plus the better he plays for City, the bigger the potential impact of his loss.

What a good season looks like: He continues to perform at a steady, up and down level with decent performances mixed in with one or two shockers. Nat Knight-Percival in 2016/17.

What a great season looks like: He manages to control his emotions better and produces exceptional performances week in week out, earning a lucrative move to a bigger club. Dean Richards in 1994/95.

5. Niall Canavan

Age 30. Central defender. Final season of contract.

Last SeasonTeam(s)StartsMins %GoalsAssistsWhoScored Rating
Niall CanavanPlymouth (L1), City2554%126.73

By Tim

Niall Canavan must’ve thought that his chance to play for his hometown club had disappeared when City released him as a teenager, but he bounced back from that blow to forge a good lower-league career at Scunthorpe, Rochdale and most recently Plymouth.

Last season he did a solid job defensively, providing organisation and leadership alongside Paudie O’Connor and being a major part of our run of clean sheets and narrow wins. His experience at Plymouth will be useful this season in a couple of ways – firstly, as a promotion winner under Ryan Lowe, and secondly having played regularly under new City boss Derek Adams. He’ll be a trusted lieutenant, first-choice centre back and potentially a candidate for the captaincy.

What a good season looks like: He does a solid job defensively and remains a first-team regular throughout the season. Rory McArdle in 2013/14.

What a great season looks like: He’s the first name on the team sheet and is the best defender in the team, standing up to whatever opposition attackers can throw at him. His leadership raises the level of those around him. David Wetherall in 1999/2000 or 2005/06.

21. Reece Staunton

Age 19. Central defender and left back. Three seasons remaining on contract.

Last SeasonTeam(s)StartsMins %GoalsAssistsWhoScored Rating
Reece StauntonCity817%106.89

By Tim

For the first third of last season, Reece Staunton was streets ahead of his competition for player of the year. He’d forced Ben Richards-Everton out, and done a fine job on the left of Stuart McCall’s back three. He was comfortable on the ball, composed in defence and even offered an attacking threat on the overlap – he was undroppable.

And that, in the end, proved his undoing, as he was recalled too early from injury – in part because of the disastrous performances by Richards-Everton in his place – and seriously damaged his hamstring. His comeback was cut short before he even made it back to the squad when he damaged the same hamstring again, and that was that.

This season looks trickier for Staunton – his path to the team at centre back seems blocked, especially with the move away from a back three, and he’s spent pre-season in a less familiar central midfield role. It could be that his opportunity comes at left back, where Matty Foulds is inexperienced and Liam Ridehalgh not completely convincing in pre-season. However, he does need this opportunity.

Too often City prospects have had a good initial impact – Danny Devine, Danny Forrest, Tom Penford – and failed to kick on. Staunton is surely too talented for this to happen to him however.

What a good season looks like: He gets a good amount of games in whatever position he can fit into the team and continues to develop well. Lewis Emanuel in 2002/03.

What a great season looks like: He makes a position his own – whichever one that may be – and is a first team regular earning rave reviews and interest from higher up the pyramid. Andy O’Brien in 1999/2000.

16. Fiacre Kelleher

Age 25. Central defender. Two seasons remaining on contract.

Last SeasonTeam(s)StartsMins %GoalsAssistsWhoScored Rating
Fiacre KelleherWrexham (National Lg)4195%00N/A

By Alex

Irish central defender Fiacre Kelleher is another of Derek Adams’ recruits this summer, brought in to compete with presumptive starters Niall Canavan, and Paudie O’Connor. 

Kelleher has already experienced a lot in his short career, notably being appointed a 23-year old captain of now-defunct Macclesfield Town by Sol Campbell, before they were eventually relegated out of League Two, despite his Player of the Season performances.

After a following off-season mired in uncertainty due to the Silkmen’s off-field woes, Kelleher had to scramble to find a contract in the final couple of weeks prior to the season – eventually taking a one-year deal with Wrexham – and will now be looking to make up for lost time in League Two.

After a youth career with Celtic, where he played alongside Kieran Tierney, Kelleher moved to Oxford United before embarking on a series of season-loans, meaning that despite his young age, Kelleher has played over 175 league games – a path not yet travelled by younger brother Caoimhin, now Allison’s primary reserve in the Liverpool goals. 

Kelleher strength and experience at this level will ensure he will be stiff competition in the centre of City’s defence this year, though with Canavan and O’Connor, he will likely have his work cut out to break into the team straight away. Adams’ so-far ill-fated dalliances with three at the back in pre-season will likely lead to him favouring a back four, at least to begin the season, and it seems Kelleher will have to fight for his place.

What a good season looks like: Capable understudy for the two key starters in central defence, filling in capably when called upon to maintain a strong defence. Nathan Clarke in 2015/16.

What a great season looks like: Finds his way into the side early, and doesn’t give one of his competitors a chance, proving to be an important physical presence in the centre of defence. Luke Oliver in 2011/12.

25. Jorge Sikora

Age 19. Central defender. Final season of contract.

Last SeasonTeam(s)StartsMins %GoalsAssistsWhoScored Rating
Jorge SikoraCity12%005.98

By Tim

Jorge Sikora has ended up somewhat overshadowed by his fellow young defenders at City, but did show enough in his limited opportunities to earn a new deal. His performances in the Football League Trophy were solid, and he did well enough in his one league start.

He’ll be hoping to push on this season, but there is a lot of competition at centre back – he’s already behind O’Connor, Canavan and Kelleher in the pecking order, and the likes of Cousin-Dawson, Staunton and Yann Songo’o can also play there.

It may be that he’ll need a loan move to get the first team football that he’ll need to keep on developing.

What a good season looks like: He starts every Football League Trophy game, does well and gets the occasional league start without looking out of place. Simon Ainge in 2006/07.

What a great season looks like: He makes the breakthrough into the first team and secures his place. Mark Bower in 2001/02.

6. Yann Songo’o

Age 29. Central midfielder and central defender. Two seasons remaining on contract.

Last SeasonTeam(s)StartsMins %GoalsAssistsWhoScored Rating
Yann Songo’oMorecambe3473%627.06

By Jason

The headline act of the summer recruitment, Yann Songo’o’s previous three spells working under Derek Adams have helped him carve out a decent reputation in the lower leagues. A grafter, tough in the tackle and no little skill on the ball. Capable of breaking up opposition attacks and playing a key role in his team’s overall goals output

Songo’o’s arrival at Valley Parade feels exciting in the sense that on paper he offers the type of qualities that Bradford City supporters in particular value. That heartbeat-of-the-team midfield role, setting the standards and influencing all those around them. A fanbase who holds Stuart McCall and Gary Jones close to their hearts has a lot of time for players like Songo’o. He’s not quite the same type of player – but if he can do half as well as those two, City have brought in a potentially huge piece in the promotion jigsaw.

The doubts with Songo’o really belong to our own past scars as supporters, rather than any obvious holes in the 29-year-old’s playing record. 11 years ago, Peter Taylor was Bradford City manager and signed a talented midfielder he had worked with before – one who had caught the eye of Bantams fans from previous encounters. That was Tommy Doherty, but what should have proved an inspired piece of business ultimately turned very sour. Doherty showed flashes of his genius for sure, but it proved a long way short of high expectations.

There is no reason to suppose Songo’o is the new Doherty. But during a summer recruitment drive where many fans applauded the club for not signing big names, Songo’o is the one player with a certain level of fame – and, more than anyone else, he could be a make or break signing. If he can do what he has done at Ross County, Plymouth and Morecambe under Adams, the City faithful should have their next hero.

What a good season looks like: He plays a regular role in the centre of midfield and is warmly regarded by supporters for his consistency, composure and understated influence. Gary Liddle in 2014/15.

What a great season looks like: He shows his quality in the middle of the park and stamps his personality onto the team – helping to drive the team forwards with no little skill. Romain Vincelot in 2016/17.

22. Levi Sutton

Age 24. Central midfielder. Final season of contract.

Last SeasonTeam(s)StartsMins %GoalsAssistsWhoScored Rating
Levi SuttonCity3066%236.71

By Jason

If 2020/21 wasn’t a season most Bradford City players involved will look back on with huge pride, Levi Sutton can at least feel pleased with the progress he made. 30 league starts was comfortably the best of his career so far. And unlike at Scunthorpe – where he was a utility player alternating between full back and midfield – Sutton carved out a settled starting role in the Trueman/Sellars 4-2-3-1. The partnership with Elliot Watt showed real promise at its height.

It’s true to say that – like most of his team-mates – Sutton’s form dipped towards the end, meaning it was a campaign of starting slowly and ending on a bum note, but the strong run of performances in the middle of the campaign earned the acclaim of supporters.

The challenge for Sutton will be to do it all again and win over another new manager – one who has brought in a highly trusted foot soldier, Yann Songo’o, who’s best position is the same one Sutton has just excelled in. That extra competition could inspire and take Sutton onto the next level – after all, Adams needs someone to play deep alongside Songo’o – or it could spell a return to the back-up role that he endured for long spells at Scunthorpe.

What a good season looks like: He plays lots of games, scores a few goals, picks up a few bookings and does well without necessarily taking the team to new heights. Nigel Pepper in 1997/98.

What a great season looks like: He becomes a hugely influential figure and sets up a partnership with Songo/Watt – one where fans look back on in years to come with huge affection for the influential role they had on a successful season. Nathan Doyle in 2012/13.

18. Elliot Watt

Age 21. Central midfielder. Final season of contract.

Last SeasonTeam(s)StartsMins %GoalsAssistsWhoScored Rating
Elliot WattCity4495%326.86

By Alex

A successful first full season as a professional, Elliot Watt was an almost ever present for City last season in the middle of the park. Despite the turmoil around him, Watt was a consistent performer in the middle of the park, and looks set to be at the outset of a long career.

Bringing back memories of former City metronome Josh Cullen, Watt performed well keeping the team ticking over last season, even with a slight sense as the season grew on that his influenced waned. City became far more direct as the season went on, and consequently Watt became less influential on the ball.

Now with a new manager coming in, who in doing so immediately brought in competition for his place, Watt may not be an automatic starter in this team, in a style of play which will likely closer resemble the second half of his last season rather than the first. Yann Songo’o and Levi Sutton in particular will provide stiff competition, which will be a good challenge for Watt and one he will be looking to win if he is to reach his potential in the game.

Entering the final year of his contract, and with a style of football that may be more suited to higher divisions, this season is a good opportunity for Watt to put himself in the window for a jump up the leagues next season, but with the increased competition around him, this may not be straightforward. In a team searching for goals, an improved contribution going forward could be decisive in Watt making his position his own.

What a good season looks like: Picks up where he left off last season playing the majority of games, but adding slightly more influence to the team. Elliot Watt in 2020/21.

What a great season looks like: Takes on more responsibility in the team to become a key influence in the centre of midfield. Josh Cullen in 2016/17.

Concludes tomorrow with a focus on the forward players.



Categories: Season Preview

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