By Jason McKeown
Bradford City’s summer rebuild plans have suffered a double blow with the news over the past week that Paudie O’Connor and Charles Vernam have rejected contract offers from the Bantams and signed for Lincoln City.
O’Connor and Vernam were widely viewed to be amongst City’s best players and Mark Hughes was understandably keen to keep them both. The fact they’ve moved to League One says much about their wider value. And the loss of the pair will be keenly felt by the Bradford City manager.
No one will have fallen off their chair in shock that both players have opted to move on. Remove our claret and amber bias, and it was difficult to provide many sensible reasons why either player’s best career option at this point would be remaining at a League Two club that has finished mid-table three seasons in a row. Especially when the opportunity to play higher up the football ladder was available.
For O’Connor especially this was a big career moment. He’s 25 and approaching what should be his peak years. If he doesn’t make that jump up to a higher level now, it might never happen for him. And after three-and-a-half years at Valley Parade, what further development could the club really offer a player who has apparently attracted higher league interest for 18 months?
Since rocking up on loan from Leeds United in early 2019, O’Connor has featured under six different City managers, started over 100 games, played alongside many different centre halves, and captained the Bantams. Throughout his time, O’Connor has played under the wider narrative that the club is surely about to turn the corner, and that things are getting better. But for many different reasons, it has continued to be a struggle. And on occasions O’Connor can share the blame for that, but at other times he has been one of the few to be able to hold his head up.
O’Connor will have surely have appreciated the fact City wanted to keep him and the chance to continue working under Mark Hughes, but waiting for the club to come good and climb back up the ladder can test any ambitious player’s patience. In the end, O’Connor will know that the risk of signing up for two more years at Valley Parade was more of the same from the club. “This time next year Rodney.” Ultimately, it’s hard to disagree with the logic of moving to Lincoln.
The sadness for City is that the fruits of the investment into O’Connor are probably going to be realised by someone else. O’Connor’s rawness has at times being a hindrance. His lack of composure in certain situations has hurt Bradford City. But it’s a learning curve for any young player and the fact is O’Connor was developing nicely and getting better all the time. He joins Lincoln not yet the complete centre half but someone more than ready to take that next step. And if he continues to progress and learn, he’ll become an excellent defender over the next few years.
The heart wanted to believe it might be a little different with Vernam. He is a player who has bounced around several clubs. Only 25 like O’Connor, Lincoln will already be the seventh different club he will have played for. Vernam began at Derby, has had brief loan spells at Coventry and Chorley. Two years at Grimsby. Six months at Burton Albion. Vernam was someone who needed a home. A stage to feel settled on, with the clear opportunity of regular football.
Bradford City offered those things. And though the same issues that would have caused O’Connor to be wary of staying at Valley Parade applied for Vernam, you wondered if he’d want to give it a bit longer here. He’d already had that move up to League One with Burton, only to quickly depart. But given Vernam is from the Lincoln area, there was an emotional pull about moving to Sincil Bank.
Both Vernam and O’Connor will look at moving to Lincoln as a step up to a higher level, but not one where their careers could stall by hitting a glass ceiling. Lincoln are likely to view both of them as first team starters. They will get plenty of opportunities – which might not have been the case at other clubs higher up the pyramid. And they both badly need to make sure they’re not swapping their key player status at Valley Parade for sitting on the bench at another club. If they both do well over the next two years, they might be in with a good chance of taking another step up.
Nevertheless, they will be badly missed at City. It’s easy to spin this as they’re not that important to Hughes, easily replaceable. Some say that O’Connor has been too associated with bad times and so won’t be missed. Others have said Vernam only had a handful of good games for the club. But the reality is these are difficult players to replace. Can City sign a centre half as good as O’Connor is right now? A winger with the same level of ability on the ball as Vernam? It’s hard to imagine they can. If such players were available, Lincoln and others would surely be chasing them instead. They certainly wouldn’t be looking at League Two as their home.
Think about other moments in the last two decades where City have lost a good player courted by others. Nahki Wells. Charlie Wyke. James Meredith. Rory McArdle. Dean Windass. Jermaine Johnson. It wasn’t that City couldn’t sign replacements with good (in some cases better) pedigree, but those moves didn’t work out. I struggle to think of any examples where City have lost a player they wanted to keep and went from strength to strength. Chris Waddle in 1997 at a push? Eddie Youds in 1998 is perhaps one instance.
There’s also the question of how City’s overall recruitment strategy has been influenced by the will-they-won’t-they of the O’Connor/Vernam contract offers. How confident were the club that either might stay, and when did they find out they were leaving? In the last few weeks of waiting and seeing, were City looking to sign players to replace them or to play alongside them?
The same question applies of Elliot Watt, who as yet has offered no public indication over where his future lies. Watt had a very strong end to the season where he was thriving under Hughes. He was being linked with clubs higher up even when he was struggling under Derek Adams, so it seems inevitable that he’s got more than the offer from City to chew over right now.
Watt is possibly the hardest of the three to replace, given how influential he became in the final weeks of the 2021/22 season – and the way Hughes wants to play. If he does decide to move on, City will at least receive a transfer fee as compensation. But even that potential boost to the transfer budget brings a layer of uncertainty right now. Do you sign players now assuming Watt might stay, or do you wait to see if extra money is coming in which means you might be able to recruit someone better?
(It’s easy to say City should set a deadline for Watt and, if he doesn’t make a decision by it, to withdraw the offer and move on, but this would probably jeopardise the chances of receiving a transfer fee as to get one City have to offer Watt a deal on more than he was earning.)
The fact Vernam and O’Connor have turned down the option to stay seemingly only dampens the likelihood of Watt re-signing. But it would be a massive boost to everyone if he was persuaded to stay. The same logic of why Vernam and O’Connor needed to pick wisely applies here too.
For example, in January Watt was linked with a move to Norwich. Yet going to a club so far up the chain – one with ambitions to return to the Premier League – would risk joining someone where you barely play. And given the huge strides Watt has taken over the past two years, playing week in week out at City, that’s a step back that could really hurt him. For that reason, giving it a bit longer at Valley Parade wouldn’t be the worst choice Watt could make.
In the same week O’Connor and Vernam’s exits were confirmed, Harry Chapman was unveiled as the ninth capture of the summer.
Chapman follows a similar pattern we discussed here of being a younger player (aged 24) and with very little first team experience. Though City will be the eighth club he has played for – and his CV boasts first team appearances for Middlesbrough, Sheffield United, Barnsley, Blackburn and Burton – Chapman started very few games. Just 36 league matches, to be exact. With a further 65 appearances from the bench.
Just like Harry Lewis, Jake Young, Ryan East and Kian Harratt, this is a player with undoubted potential but not a huge amount of playing time. He might be fantastic, but there is no great track record to suggest either way. It is further evidence of the club recruiting in a different way to before, and the trust they have in the judgement of head of recruitment Stephen Gent to unearth diamonds.
It is a risk, but City can point to the progression of O’Connor and Watt as reasons to be confident it can work. After all, O’Connor had only 11 league starts in his career prior to joining the Bantams. Watt had only 12 league starts before he rocked up at Valley Parade. Both have grown and developed from the platform of regular football at Bradford City. The club will be hoping that many of the inexperienced new arrivals can do the same.
Still, it would all look a lot more positive if O’Connor and Vernam could have somehow been persuaded to stay. And it puts the club slightly on the backfoot of not just trying to improve on what it had last season, but in trying to replace at least two of its best players.