By Jason McKeown
It says a lot about how difficult the last few years at Valley Parade have proven that the happiest moments to be a Bradford City fan have occurred when the team wasn’t even playing.
There was the summer of 2019 when – fresh from relegation to League Two – hopes were high that the Bantams had reclaimed its soul after the Edin Rahic era, and that an instant return to League One would be masterminded by Gary Bowyer. And then there was last summer, where the arrival of Derek Adams prompted great excitement that City were about to conquer all.
Both periods turned out to be false dawns, with pre-season optimism disintegrating soon after the campaign began and the limitations of the team became evident. And so, in the middle of another close season where the mood seems to be positive once more, it’s hard to avoid being wary that we’ve been here before. And that feelings of giddiness should be largely avoided.
And that’s probably a good thing, when you survey Bradford City’s close season activity so far. Because as much as it’s exciting to already welcome eight new signings and see some out of contract players agree deals to stay, there remain plenty of unknowns and questions about the strength of the squad that’s under construction.
Team building in the close season is always a jigsaw where, as fans, we don’t know what the full picture is supposed to look like, or how significant each individual piece seen so far will prove by the end. Right now, there are clearly some pieces missing. Nevertheless, a pattern is beginning to emerge.
The positives are that things do seem a bit different. The strategic approaches taken in every summer since the 2017 League One play off final defeat have habitually failed. Over that time there has been a back and forth between recruitment getting overseen by the chairman/head of recruitment, to being considered solely the remit of the manager. This inconsistency – coupled with high turnover of managers – has proven messy. The club has often been doomed to failure before a ball has even been kicked, because of poor decision-making and a lack of consistent, strategic thinking.
Over the last 12 months, that pendulum has swung even faster. Lee Turnbull was the man who held the role of heading up recruitment, but left just weeks after a disjointed end to the 2021 summer transfer window. Derek Adams was firmly in charge for January’s activity, yet would also lose his job within weeks. Mark Hughes inherited a squad built by Adams, Turnbull, Mark Trueman, Conor Sellars, Stuart McCall and even Gary Bowyer. No clear identity, and an awful lot of waste. Hughes still has players under contract for this coming season who appear to have no part in his future plans.
Under Ryan Sparks, the club did try to move away from giving the manager full control over recruitment – a wise move given the instability that’s always attached to the man in the dugout – before allowing Adams to take over that responsibility. With Hughes now at the helm, there is once again a head of recruitment working with the manager. Stephen Gent has joined from Middlesbrough. And if things go well from here, Gent could go down as the most important signing this summer.
Gent’s appointment was confirmed within days of the 2021/22 season ending. The 37-year-old has worked at Middlesbrough for over 10 years in a variety of roles. More recently he had spells as head of scouting operations as well as loans and scouting operations manager – positions that have enabled him to build up a good knowledge of players across the EFL and beyond. He appears to be someone who Hughes is comfortable working alongside, with the City manager stating of Gent, “He has great knowledge of all levels of the footballing pyramid, and we were all struck by the insight Stephen has into the character of players, which will be important in ensuring we get the right ones through the door.”
The early indications are that Gent’s influence is leading to City recruiting differently. For better or worse, in recent summers there has been a heavy reliance on the manager’s contact book. On bringing in players that suit that particular man in the dugout, but who often turned into an expensive headache when that manager departed a few months later. The unwelcome truth is that Hughes holds one of the most unstable managerial hotseats in the country. Simply still being in charge at Valley Parade 12 months from now will be an achievement – one that his last seven predecessors were unable to reach.
The volatile nature of football management means that Sparks and Gent have to build a squad that has greater longevity than Hughes, especially given the players signed or re-signed so far have agreed two-year (with option) deals. With that in mind, it’s understandable that the emphasis has so far been on signing younger players. People who may be far from the finished article right now, but who can grow and blossom on the Valley Parade stage.
Nevertheless, that presents obvious risks. Four of the new signings – Southampton’s 24-year-old Harry Lewis, Forest Green’s 20-year-old Jake Young, Swindon’s 20-year-old Ryan East and Huddersfield’s 19-year-old Kian Harratt – have extremely limited experience. The latter three have rocked up with the billing they’ve been part of more successful League Two sides last season. But scratch below the surface and their role in those teams was minimal.
Young has started just 12 league matches over his career (39 sub appearances), East a mere six (11 sub) and Harratt only five (19 sub). Lewis does at least have a bit more pedigree with 30 starts in a loan spell at Dundee United. But that was back in 2017/18 – he hasn’t made a single league appearance for over four years.
The question with these players is just how much of a role they are expected to play in 2022/23. It’s clear that Lewis is ear-marked to be City’s number one, and there are suggestions that East is lined up to replace the out of contract Elliot Watt. One of City’s biggest issues last season was a lack of goals – are forwards Young and Harratt seen as the solution?
It’s not just a case of whether these players are good enough to make a meaningful contribution for a club with ambitions of promotion. It’s also whether they can perform at a sufficiently high level week in week out. It’s a long season, and to succeed City will need players who can do the business 40+ games. Right now, no one can say if Lewis, Young, East and Harratt are ready to do just that. It’s a big unknown.
Still, it comes back to that jigsaw. Lewis aside, just how important are these pieces in the immediate term? Are they ear-marked as immediate starters, or viewed as squad players who can push on and blossom as the season develops? Hopefully Gent has found some diamonds in the rough. The development of these types of players could say a lot about his ability and judgement.
That will also be true of two of the other new arrivals, Barrow’s Matthew Platt and Walsall’s Emmanuel Osadebe. Both are a little older (Platt is 24 and Osadebe 25). Both have more experience (Platt has 88 league starts under his belt and Osadebe 106).
Platt only started 24 games for Barrow last season, although this appears to be due to an injury that kept him out between August and October. He was certainly a regular under Phil Brown at the end of the season, when Barrow pulled clear of relegation trouble. Osadebe started 35 games for Walsall (eight sub appearances), scoring three times and providing seven assists (for comparison, only Callum Cooke matched that assist amount for City last season). The social media noise from Walsall fans suggests a player lacking consistency.
With Niall Canavan controversially sold by Derek Adams to Barrow last January, and Paudie O’Connor moving to Lincoln, at this stage Platt looks like a starter at centre back next season. Osadebe wore the number 10 shirt at Walsall and is perhaps the replacement for Callum Cooke/Dion Pereira. Though the latter has been linked with a welcome return on loan.
The other two arrivals so far are the most well-known to City fans – Colin Doyle and Jamie Walker. Doyle’s 2018 departure was really unjust given the great commitment he showed over his two years at Valley Parade. It feels like righting a wrong to see him back. At 36, it’s unlikely we’ll see much of Doyle on the field. He has been partly brought in to become the new goalkeeping coach.
Walker ended last season really impressively and became something of the focal point for the 4-2-3-1. At 28, Walker has 177 league starts so far – and that greater proven experience will be vital in a more youthful City side. Importantly, he is a player who has shown he can thrive on the Valley Parade stage.
Last summer, you could look at each new arrival – and what was already at the club – and question where the goals were going to come from. The average age of the new signings then was 27.7. This time, the average age of the arrivals so far is 24.5 (or, if you exclude Doyle, 22.8). There are less complete track records to analyse this time around. It’s a lot of investment in potential. And, with it, faith in the judgement of Gent.
When you add in the fact City have retained the services of 24-year-old Matty Foulds, 27-year-old Luke Hendrie and 25-year-old Levi Sutton on two year (with option of more) deals – plus are aiming to keep 22-year-old Watt and 25-year-old Vernam – the impression forming is that City are trying to build a squad that can remain in place and be developed for a few years. A move away from the year-on-year churn of often journeymen players.
As with those other close seasons where things began to feel optimistic, time – and League Two football matches – will tell if this will be a successful approach. There are reasons to be fearful that some of the new players will take time to bed in, and that investing with one eye on the future means accepting patience is needed. And, let’s be honest, patience isn’t something the club – and its fanbase – have shown much of in recent years.
But there are reasons why adopting a seemingly more long-term approach is something to get behind. It could provide the club with some proper foundations. A clearer identity. A path back up the Football League ladder that is more visible. Even if it doesn’t lead to instant success, it could at least give us some green shoots to hold onto.
If it’s going to work, these players need good coaching and a supportive management style. These are qualities that Hughes appears to offer, as evidenced by the end of season improvement he coaxed from several players.
Again, City have been on something on a pendulum with the type of manager they’ve employed over the last few years. Adams, for example, was not someone who’s strengths included developing players. Hughes’ more humble and supportive nature appears to be one that players who play under him relish. And that could be a key factor in turning footballers of potential into effective players.
That said, Hughes will know that his longevity as Bradford City manager will ultimately lie in results on the pitch. And he needs to be given the right tools to achieve success. The squad redevelopment remains very much a work in progress and clearly there’s a need for more significant arrivals before the season begins. Call it marquee, big name, game-changer, whatever – the headline acts are surely yet to be revealed. Let’s hope the club doesn’t fail on this, like it has in the recent past.
If things really do prove different this summer, there’s a lot for us supporters to look forward to when the action begins. And perhaps this time around – unlike the 2019/20 and 2021/22 campaigns – the close season won’t be looked back on as the moment we fans were at our happiest.