By Jason McKeown
As Bradford City prepare for the annual retained list announcement in the next couple of weeks, on Wednesday it was revealed that Lee Angol has signed a new one-year deal. The club also has an option to retain the 27-year-old for a further year after that, should his 2022/23 performances merit it.
With six goals in 21 appearances for Bradford City this season, Angol has made a decent impression and produced a series of promising performances. He is ending the season in particularly strong form, greatly impressing leading the line in the last two City matches that have ended in victory.
The big concern, of course, is Angol’s fitness and availability. After going off injured in August’s 4-1 thumping of Stevenage, Angol missed the next 14 matches for the Bantams. He returned in November, coming on as sub in the home FA Cup tie with Exeter City. But after picking up another injury in the January 0-0 draw with Rochdale, the forward missed another huge chunk of the season. He has only just returned to fitness. All in all, Angol has started just 13 of City’s 45 league matches this season.
Angol’s lengthy absences have caused issues. In August Adams claimed he had plans to bring in a number 10 to bolster his squad before the window closed, but because of Angol’s injury he had to switch targets at the last minute. The result was the deadline day arrival of Theo Robinson, who before he’d even played received the confidence kicker from Adams that he was “no Lee Angol”.
It all meant City struggled for months to win matches, with Adams routinely listing the injury of Angol as one of the reasons for failing to turn dominant performances into three points. Angol’s mid-season return didn’t actually lead to a big improvement in results, but he chipped in with a few goals. Indeed, compared to the output of Robinson, Caolan Lavery and – over the second half of the season – Tom Elliott and Nathan Delfouneso, Angol looked positively prolific in front of goal.
Watching Angol at his best this season was to see clear evidence of why he had begun his career on the books of Tottenham, and played League One football for Peterborough. He is a talented, skillful player with a presence up front. When you play the ball into him, it sticks. He takes all kinds of kicks and physical challenges, and more often than not retains possession. He is also good in the air. Mark Hughes must see a bit of himself in Angol, given the City manager’s playing reputation as a fearless character.
Ultimately, if Angol didn’t have the injury issues he has had over the years, he would not be playing in League Two for Bradford City. And so that is the dilemma and gamble that the club is taking in renewing his services. If Angol stays fit, City have a really good player who can take the club a long way, on probably a lower cost than he might otherwise command. But it is a big if. And Angol’s career record suggests it’s likely he will have more spells on the sidelines next season.
It’s all about how much Angol and City can minimise those absences, as there is a clear correlation of better results with Angol in the team than without him. So far this season, in all competitions, City have won 38% of games Angol has started compared to a win record of 20% without him. They’ve lost 25% of games with Angol in the starting XI – and 46% when he isn’t.
It’s a different position, and ability wise there’s a big difference, but you can make a convincing case to compare the dilemma with Angol to that of Andrew Davies. The central defender came to Valley Parade on loan from Premier League Stoke City in 2011 and signed permanently for the League Two club the following summer. He was brilliant for City – far too good for the level – but the way he played attracted injury problems. And for long spells of his City career, he was on the sidelines.
Just look at the 2013/14 season as a case study. Davies began the season fully fit and played a big part in the Bantams climbing up to fourth by October. Then he got injured and didn’t start another game until the end of January, at which point City had slumped to mid-table. He just about stayed fit for the remainder of the season, and the club’s form improved.
In 2013/14, City won 46% of the League One and cup games Davies started. They won just one game (5%) when he didn’t. 25% of games were lost with Davies in the starting XI, versus 52% without him. It was a similar story over other seasons that Davies was at the club.
It was a trade-off. Have a player of Davies’ quality, on a good wage for City’s budget, but know you will have to have spells without him. In the end, Phil Parkinson took the difficult decision to release Davies in 2015. The 2014/15 campaign another year of City looking radically different with Davies starting (53% win rate, 18% defeats) compared to without him (25% win rate, 50% defeats). They missed out on the play offs by four points. Had Davies stayed fit all season, they would surely have made it.
There was a logic of keeping faith with Davies for as long as Parkinson did, and you can see why – with a different type of player and in different circumstances – Hughes would trust Angol in a similar way. If he can stay fit, Angol is a very good player for Hughes to call upon. If he can play more games than he is injured, the gamble – and it is a gamble – pays off. City are more likely to be successful at this level with a fit and firing Angol.
Nevertheless, the challenge for Hughes is to make sure that, unlike under Adams, Angol is not a key player for City next season. If he is too much of a first team starter, then Hughes will be in trouble if he is injured. Parkinson and City struggled in 2013/14 because the understudy for Davies was Matthew Bates. Adams and City struggled this year because the understudy for Angol was Theo Robinson.
City need goals next season. They need better options in attack. If they go into the campaign with Andy Cook and Lee Angol as their best strikers still, then the success or failure of the season could lie in how often Angol ends up in the treatment room.
And history would suggest it won’t end well.