Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
Just for a change, this wasn’t a vintage Bradford City season. Celebrating achievements when the bar is so low can seem hollow. But amongst the general greyness, some players stood out more than most for their performances and endevour. And they deserve some credit for that.
Width of a Post regular writers Jason McKeown, Tim Penfold, Alex Scott and Adam Raj – plus our Facebook page editor Gareth Walker – have voted for their top five players this season. The results have been totted up – and we can now reveal our top five Bradford City players for 2021/22.
In 5th place…Andy Cook
For the second season in a row, Andy Cook has finished fifth place in the WOAP vote. The City number nine goes into the final weekend of the season with 12 goals from 41 appearances, making him comfortably top scorer. It’s also the most goals a Bradford City player has scored in a season since Charlie Wyke’s 15 in 2017/18. Yes, that bar really is low of late.
After a successful loan spell last season, retaining Cook’s services last summer was an important piece of business. Without the 31-year-old, City would have seriously struggled for goals. Cook began the campaign in a similar manner to his loan period, with a hat trick early doors against Stevenage and a late winner at former club Mansfield. Those who backed Cook to be the division’s top scorer had every reason to feel confident.
From that point, goals became more irregular. It was eight more appearances before Cook found the back of the net again – a penalty against Rochdale – although that triggered a personal run of six goals in his next 12 appearances. But after scoring at home to Crawley, Cook’s form suffered. He’s only netted two goals since, none at Valley Parade.
With other strikers recruited by City last summer, Cook has carried a heavy burden. On top form he is without question the club’s best forward option, but when Lee Angol especially was injured, Cook was asked to play too much football when he needed a breather. Even a less confident, fatigued end-of-season Cook was a better option than some of the other strikers at the club. So he continued to play.
It all meant Cook’s stock has slightly fallen in the eyes of supporters. Ultimately, he hasn’t quite being able to live up to the blistering 2020/21 loan form that saw him score eight goals from 16 starts.
Still, with a rest this summer, hopefully better recruitment around him, and under the tutelage of Mark Hughes – who knows a thing or two about strikers – Cook should remain an important player for Bradford City next season. And if he can get back on the goal trail to match his whole-hearted style of play, Cook could cement his status as a Bradford City cult hero.
In 4th place…Elliot Watt
The 2021/22 season will go down as a huge learning experience for Elliot Watt – one that has a happy personal ending. After his breakthrough year of 2020/21, it was unclear just how the attacking midfielder would fit into Derek Adams’ more industrial approach. In the event Watt became a regular under the Scot, even though the system didn’t match his strengths.
What followed was a range of up and down performances from Watt. At times he tried to be too ambitious with his passing, while the more cautious and static nature of Adams’ 4-2-3-1 limited his options to pick a pass to. It meant Watt received a lot of supporter criticism yet was never dropped by Adams. A classic case of a manager failing to get the best out of a player.
Under Mark Hughes and the more attack-minded style that has developed, Watt looks a player reborn. At last, there are runners around him, bodies in the final third to look for, and Watt has excelled. It’s like a car radio that was all fuzzy and not tuned in properly before, now suddenly sounding crystal clear. Players are on Watt’s wavelength, making him look a much better footballer. No City player can be enjoying themselves more than Watt at the end of this season.
The big question, going into the summer, is where this leaves Watt and City. With rumours of higher league interest even when Watt was struggling early season, there can be little doubt he will be on the radar of other clubs. Expect to hear plenty of stories this summer – from fanciful to realistic – of Watt being the subject of offers from others.
It’s a no brainer that City will offer him a new deal, if for no other reason than to ensure they receive a transfer fee if he does move on. Maybe, just maybe, the success Watt has experienced under Hughes might tempt him to stick around.
It took a while, but in the end we saw a run of performances that showed Watt’s true potential this season. And even when it wasn’t going well, the 22-year-old deserves credit for always looking brave on the ball and never hiding.
It will stand him in good stead for whatever the future holds.
In 3rd place…Yann Songo’o
Like Watt, Yann Songo’o proved to be something of a late bloomer this season. Big, big things were expected from a player who Derek Adams takes to every club he manages. Adams clearly knew how to get the best out of Songo’o, and we sat back and waited for a series of hugely influential performances to drive the team forward.
It quickly became apparent that Songo’o isn’t quite that type of player. He is not the new Gary Jones. And though at no point could you accuse him of lacking in effort, Songo’o struggled to offer the senior leadership needed in the middle of the park. His displays immortalised by the words of WOAP’s Tim Penfold, who said that when Songo’o played in midfield he looked like an out of position central defender, and when asked to play at the back he looked like an out of position central midfielder.
But as time has gone on, Songo’o has quietly got better. And when Niall Canavan was controversially sold at the end of January, Songo’o became Paudie O’Connor’s regular centre back partner, where he began to truly impress.
Songo’o is never going to win awards for technical ability. He can look awkward on the ball, and on occasions lacks finesse. But he is very whole-hearted. He puts his body on the line. You can look back on several brilliant Songo’o last ditch blocks. He also looks competent playing it out from the back, which has been especially useful since Alex Bass rocked up on loan.
For a time, the North West corner was displaying a banner that read ‘Yann Songo’o – midfield enforcer’. He never quite lived up to that, but his end of season run of form gives you confidence that Songo’o can play a big role next season.
When Hughes is looking for players with the right attitude to play for the club, he can point to Songo’o as an example of the type of character he needs to find more of.
In 2nd place…Charles Vernam
There hasn’t been an abundance of joy from watching Bradford City this season, but observing Charles Vernam’s performances has been an absolute pleasure. Having arrived midway through the 2020/21 season, things never really clicked last term for Vernam. The more defensive minded 4-2-3-1 of Trueman and Sellars, and insistence of playing Vernam on the right hand side, saw the left-sided attacker struggle.
This season Vernam has been excellent – and the only real black mark against him has been the injury problems that have restricted his appearances. With one game of City’s season to go, Vernam has figured 23 times and missed 29 matches. City have lost 47% of those games without Vernam (1 in 2). With Vernam, they’ve lost 29% (1 in 3).
That shows the difference, as is the fact Vernam will end 2021/22 as City’s second highest scorer. With eight goals from 32 appearances, Vernam is arguably the only player to live up to his true goal record potential.
Beyond the goal threat, Vernam has looked terrific running at players and beating them for fun. His first half performance at home to Stevenage – where he destroyed the visitors’ right back – will live long in the memory. As will his two-goal display at Sutton last week. Vernam isn’t necessarily the greatest crosser, but that ability to bring the ball forward 30 yards and skip past full backs often leads to a City chance. Vernam has three assists to add to his eight goals.
Out of contract this summer, Vernam is surely someone Hughes will be desperate to keep. And yet will probably attract some of the keenest interest. There’s every chance City will have to rebuild without Vernam’s talents. But hopefully they will do everything they can to keep arguably City’s most exciting wide player since Mark Marshall.
And the winner is…Paudie O’Connor
Last year Paudie O’Connor won the official award but was second to Callum Cooke in the WOAP vote. This season, it’s likely he will sweep the board. A fitting reward for another season of notable improvement.
In a year where inconsistency has plagued so many members of the Bradford City squad, O’Connor has stood out for a series of calm and assured performances. In the past he was rightly accused of being too hot-headed and costing his team in certain situations. That was still evident on a few occasions this season, but he has largely reined it without losing his fierce determination.
O’Connor has really developed and emerged as comfortably City’s best central defender, showing leadership qualities that resulted in him being given the captain’s armband once Canavan departed. That extra responsibility has sat well with O’Connor. He rallies those around him and sets a good example for the way he takes ownership of his performances.
Composed on the ball and in the timing of his challenges, O’Connor has caught the eye and become another City player courting interest from clubs higher up. You don’t want to help him pack his bags, but at the age of 24 and with over 150 career appearances under his belt, this is the big career contract moment for O’Connor.
With a bit more development, he can clearly play at a higher level. If you were advising him what to do next without wearing claret and amber spectacles, you probably wouldn’t be recommending he signs on for another couple of years in League Two.
Given City’s downwards trajectory over O’Connor’s time at Valley Parade, he is destined not to be remembered with great fondness. But he’s rarely let the club down, developed hugely as a player in claret and amber, and become an important figurehead at Valley Parade. It will be genuinely sad if he does leave.
On the eve of this season, I wrote about Paudie, “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.”
He’s just about achieved the former scenario – and, for that reason, he can afford to be choosy this summer.
Paudie O’Connor is the WOAP 2021/22 player of the season. He’s a player on the cusp of the best years of his career, and he goes into it having given everything he could for the Bradford City cause.
Past WOAP Player of the Season winners
2011/12: Luke Oliver
2012/13: Gary Jones
2013/14: Stephen Darby
2014/15: Rory McArdle
2015/16: Reece Burke
2016/17: Mark Marshall
2017/18: Matt Kilgallon
2018/19: Paul Caddis
2019/20: No award, as season curtailed
2020/21: Callum Cooke