By Jason McKeown
Back when The Simpsons used to be great, there was a brilliant season nine episode – Bart Star – where Homer takes charge of a pee-wee American football team and takes great pleasure in telling children they’ve been cut from the team.
“Good practice, kids. Okay it’s time for the easiest part of any coach’s job. The cuts.”
Over the episode Homer continues to cut many children from the team, with the joke even running to the end credits where he tells the show’s producers they’re gone. “Brooks, Groening, Simon, you’re all cut.”
Mark Hughes is too decent of a person to have taken pleasure in cutting Bradford City players from his squad. And that arguably shows in his retained list announcement, where more players than perhaps most of us expected have been offered deals for next season. 12 senior Bradford City players were out of contract, five have been released, along with youth product Olivier Sukiennicki. The chance to tweak an underachieving squad has been taken, but it’s hardly a reset. It means next season’s squad will have a lot of familiar faces.
“Theo is cut. Caolan is cut. Gareth, you’re gone.”
Some decisions would have been easier than others. Since taking charge of City in February, Hughes has given Theo Robinson just 90 minutes game time (and they were over his first two games in charge, meaning Robinson has not played since the beginning of March). Caolan Lavery has fared slightly better with 238 minutes playing time under Hughes; but has only started two games. Gareth Evans became a regular under the Welshman. However, he has not featured since the 3-0 Colchester defeat on Easter Monday.
There are no surprises that the three forward players have not earned new deals. Robinson’s time at Valley Parade is destined to go down in infamy in the same way the likes of Kurtis Guthrie and Austin Samuels trigger involuntary supporter shudders. The 33-year-old rocked up at Valley Parade during the final hours of the summer transfer window. He became the unfortunate symbol of a recruitment drive that had gone wrong. The ink was barely drying on his one-year contract when manager Derek Adams was muttering that Robinson was “no Lee Angol” – the player he was seemingly brought in to cover the injury of.
I wrote on Robinson’s arrival that he “will probably do a job for City in the short-term, without pulling up any trees”. That’s possibly an over-optimistic prediction compared to how it turned out for Robinson, who started just seven games league and cup. But it wasn’t all bad. Robinson netted arguably the goal of the season away at Swindon, as part of a purple patch of three goals in four games. The fact he only managed one further goal after that – and has not scored any since December – underlines his lack of overall success.
Robinson was not a bad player by any means, but he was not someone able to make a notable difference for a team with supposed ambitions of pushing for promotion. He will probably drop into non-league now and have a few more years in his career. For City, the objective is to make sure they don’t go into the final hours of this new transfer window scrambling around for a striker in the way they did with Robinson. Let other clubs do the panic buys this time, please.
At least Robinson comfortably out-scored Lavery, who managed just one goal in a City shirt. His mid-summer arrival was curious. Lavery had a questionable record at Walsall and, like Robinson, didn’t seem to fit the bill of a team recruited to win promotion.
Lavery was the sort of hard-working, low scoring forward we’ve seen a lot of over the years. Someone who looks busy and who you can get behind when they’re on the field, but who when it matters in front of goal just doesn’t have the presence. In both Adams and Hughes’ versions of the 4-2-3-1, there just wasn’t a suitable place in the team for him. Lavery is probably best suited to a wide striker role in a 4-3-3, but it probably won’t be a very prolific – or successful – team.
“You’re cut too, shushy!”
There was suggestion – fair or otherwise – that when Stuart McCall brought Gareth Evans back to Valley Parade he thought he could still play as a striker. That was the role Evans performed during his first spell at City, a decade earlier. But since moving onto have a good lower league career at Rotherham, Fleetwood and Portsmouth, Evans has dropped back and made his name as an attacking midfielder.
Assuming McCall did, in fact, know what he was getting from Evans, I personally thought at the time it looked a clever signing. Even ignoring Evans’ past history with City, his record at Portsmouth especially suggested he would do well in League Two.
Alas, it never happened for Evans last season. Injury problems kept him out for long periods, and he couldn’t find a role in Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars’ 4-2-3-1 system. Adams initially picked Evans this season before leaving him out for months. Hughes brought him back from the cold and the veteran played very well – with some even calling for him to earn a new contract – but it proved fleeting.
Evans made his name at Pompey as an all-action, hard-working player full of running. But back at City, his legs don’t quite seem to be there anymore to allow him to do what he does best. And though Evans did show his quality early doors under Hughes, the 34-year-old’s powers are only going to keep fading.
It was good that he got to have that mini revival to remind us that Evans is a player of ability. And that means he departs with warmer wishes than you might have anticipated over the past two years.
“Now, there’s so many cuts here, look, I’ll just post them up and you see where your name is.”
Another player departure that is no surprise is Richard O’Donnell. The experienced Bantams stopper has not played since the end of November. Hughes has not afforded him any game time since taking the reins.
It brings an end to four up and down years for O’Donnell. He was signed in that infamous summer of 2018 by Edin Rahic, with the-then City chairman facing a lot of heat for allowing Colin Doyle to leave the club. Rahic needed a good keeper replacement to silence the critics, and O’Donnell’s record certainly offered that.
137 City appearances later, O’Donnell has become something of a permanent fixture in a period of turbulence. The one constant, with everything changing around him. O’Donnell has been at City under seven (seven!) different managers. Players have come and gone. Change after change, but the holder of the number one jersey has remained the same.
Not that O’Donnell has always been number one on the pitch during that time. He lost his place at the end of 2018/19 after a poor run of form. Last season, he got injured and struggled to regain his place ahead of Sam Hornby. O’Donnell was a regular up for the first four months of this season, but his powers definitely seemed to be fading.
I think O’Donnell was a better keeper than some gave him credit for. He produced a lot of very good performances over recent seasons. He made many brilliant saves. But during a period where the club has struggled to produce results, he was always going to struggle for universal popularity. The fact is the last four years have been some of the most miserable in the club’s modern history. That is far from O’Donnell’s fault, but he is unfortunately associated with these unhappy times.
Nevertheless, O’Donnell seemed like a really decent person. Keen to get involved with the Bradford City community. Proactively engaging with fans. He clearly enjoyed playing for the club. And in a period of Bradford City villains, O’Donnell is definitely one of the good guys.
Hopefully O’Donnell’s career has another couple of years somewhere else – although the fact he was seemingly made available in January, with no takers, didn’t speak volumes for his prospects. Wages were probably an issue then, and with a blank negotiating sheet clubs will be more likely to want him now.
Wherever O’Donnell goes, most of us will be rooting for him. He deserves better than the claim he only found out he had been released via Twitter.
“Callum, I like your hussle. That’s why it was so hard to cut you.”
Some decisions would have been tougher than others. The WOAP reader poll of who to keep and release saw 46% vote to offer Callum Cooke a new deal. It suggested it was a decision that could have gone either way, but in the end he hasn’t been offered a new deal by Hughes.
Cooke’s departure brings an end to three years as Bantam, the first year initially on loan from Peterborough United. Cooke instantly caught the eye and has regularly impressed for his passing ability and his ability to spark attacking moves.
We saw the best of Cooke last season under Trueman and Sellars, where in their conservative 4-2-3-1 the team was built around his strengths. Cooke contributed a high number of key passes, more than a few assists and his overall accuracy was the joint best in the league at that point. He looked excellent and – for a time – so did City.
Before and after that strong run of form, it’s been a curious case of Cooke not quite nailing down the opportunities seemingly in front of him. Gary Bowyer didn’t seem to know how to get the best out of Cooke, playing him as a deeper midfielder. McCall had Cooke more attack-minded but, with Billy Clarke also in the team at the time, the midfielder struggled to carve out an effective role. Cooke looked excellent earlier this season under Adams, but his confidence began to dip and he soon lost his place in the team. Once again, he just wasn’t able to assert himself in a system that wasn’t fully aligned to his talents.
Cooke’s excellent performance away at Hartlepool – where he set up both goals – offered Hughes a taste of what he could offer. But just like under Adams, Cooke has struggled to break into the first team. Jamie Walker and Dion Pereira’s late season runs of form have really put Cooke in the shade. Alex Gilliead has reinvented himself as a holding midfielder. The club has moved on.
The run Cooke enjoyed under Trueman and Sellars shows what Cooke can do in the right circumstances, but is it an approach that can deliver the club long-term success? The tail off of City’s form in 2020/21 suggests it wasn’t, and so Cooke leaves Valley Parade with the feeling he is a good individual player who lacks the adaptability to fit into different systems.
There’s a really good player there, and Cooke’s next career move will be really interesting. With the right set-up you could see him thriving and a few questions asked back in BD8 about the wisdom of letting him go. But his record of the last three years overall suggests it was time for a clean break – especially given Walker has signed a two-year deal to stay at City.
“Congratulations, the rest of you made the team!”
Two other decisions that looked close calls were Levi Sutton and Luke Hendrie. Both have new offers to chew over and you would expect the pair to snap them up.
For his whole-heartedness and effort levels, Sutton has become a popular player with fans. When, mid-season, things were going badly and frustration rising, Sutton was at least one player who was letting no one down.
Not that Sutton is just a runner. He is decent in the tackle and driving forward in possession, catching the eye for some brilliant dribbles with the ball. He is not the best passer and lacks a few technical attributes, but he never lets anyone down.
With the focus on a more possession based style of football under Hughes, Sutton’s opportunities have been reduced. He’s not quite delivered what he is capable of since Hughes took charge.
Ultimately, Sutton is a reliable League Two player. A certain starter for any mid to bottom half of the table team. For a club like City, trying to move upwards, Sutton is probably seen as a squad player who can fill in for a few positions. Unlikely to be first choice, but when injuries occur someone to step in. He could easily play 25-30 games next season and will give it everything he has.
Like Sutton, Luke Hendrie has let no one down. In view of the highly controversial way his last spell at Valley Parade ended, it’s good he has been able to return and prove what a decent player he is.
Hendrie has been a regular since signing and benefited from a good run of form. He is decent going forward and has a good cross in him. On a couple of occasions, he has struggled defensively, but Hendrie proved a much better option than Oscar Threlkeld.
Like Sutton, Hendrie’s versatility could prove a useful option next season.
“I don’t know what you’re doing here because you’re all cut”
They weren’t City players anyway, but the retained list makes mention that Alex Bass, Dion Pereira, Nathan Delfouneso and Tom Elliott have all returned to parent clubs following their loan spells. Matty Daly had already gone back early after an anonymous time at Valley Parade.
The jury remains out on Bass, but you can make an argument to try and bring him back next season. In these modern football times when the top clubs expect their goalkeepers to be as good at passing as they are at saving shots, you can see Bass going onto to do good things. He is not just a decent keeper but a good footballer. It’s all about fine tuning his decision making. If he can get that right, Bass has a lot of qualities that will appeal to Hughes.
Pereira would certainly be wanted again, and much might depend on how Luton’s play off campaign works out. He seems to be highly rated at Kenilworth Road. And though unlikely to be in Nathan Jones’ first team plans next season, Luton might feel his development is better suited with a loan higher up the pyramid. Or, they may view the guarantee of regular football at Valley Parade is the right route.
The less said about Delfouneso and Elliott the better.
“Matty, you stay”
Matty Foulds is in unique company as being the only Bradford City player you can say exceeded individual expectations this season. With 28 appearances and two goals, Foulds has had his breakthrough campaign and impressed for his confidence, composure and quality on the ball. Keeping the 24-year-old – especially in view of his homegrown status – was surely a no brainer for Hughes.
The late season return of Liam Ridehalgh from injury – and into the team ahead of Foulds – shows there is a pecking order for the young left back to overcome. But he’ll surely snap up the contract offer on the table and relish the battle next season.
With Ridehalgh having turned 31 last month, you might expect a slow transition that will ultimately see Foulds inherit the left back spot. From what he’s shown this season, Foulds is ready to take the chances that come his way.
Bart Charles Vernam: “You don’t get it, do you? I don’t want to be your stupid quarterback winger! I quit!” Homer Mark Hughes: “What? Well, I’ve got news for you, mister! You can’t quit! You’re cut!”
Like Foulds, Charles Vernam, Paudie O’Connor and Elliot Watt have contract offers on the table to chew over. The problem is, they’re unlikely to be the only offers they receive.
Vernam, O’Connor and Watt have all fared well under Hughes and not surprisingly City are keen to keep them. There is every chance all three will depart though, with other clubs interested. If they can retain any of the trio it would represent a big victory for the club.
There’s rumours and counter-rumours. “Vernam’s off to Lincoln”, “Vernam’s about to sign a new deal”. It will go around and around for a few weeks you suspect. Expect to hear updates on what Elliot Watt and his partner have ‘liked’ on social media and the places they visit. “Look, there’s a picture of Watt on Norfolk broads – he’s off to Norwich!”
Hopefully, City have put offers on the table that will be hugely tempting, no matter what other clubs might dangle in front of them.
Each of these players would be very difficult to replace.
“Although I wasn’t able to cut everyone I wanted to, I have cut a lot of you.”
The unfortunate quirk of Bradford City’s in and out of contract list is that there are players with deals that run into next season who Hughes surely doesn’t want to keep. Oscar Threlkeld, Fiacre Kelleher and Sam Hornby will probably spend this summer feeling slightly unsure about their future. Should offers come in, City probably would be delighted to offload any of them. They may even choose to pay up the contract of Threlkeld at least.
Also not feeling fully happy will be youngsters Reece Staunton, Finn Cousin-Dawson and Kian Scales. This was the season where they would have hoped to kick on, but it never happened. Adams was criticised for overlooking them, but Hughes has taken a similar stance. He rejected calls a few weeks ago to give them a go before the season ended, saying they had deals for 2022/23 that meant he didn’t need to look at them. Not exactly a stirring vote of confidence that they are in his plans.
We’ll see. But like Threlkeld, Kelleher and Hornby, if they didn’t have deals for next season, you’d have been wondering if they would be joining the six players who have being released.