O’Connor and Vernam departures are a blow to Bradford City – increasing the need to recruit well this summer

Image by John Dewhirst

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.



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19 replies

  1. Post-Bosman players are free agents when their contracts terminate. We lose players and we sign players without fees. It’s a fact of life. I think
    if an out-of-contract player does not sign within a relatively short period of time in the close season, it must be naturally assumed he purposes to leave. He exercises his prerogative and we exercise ours to look for better players. No one at our level is irreplaceable. Let him go and good luck to him. I’m now personally and pragmatically
    only interested in next season’s players.

  2. I’m not sure I agree with the down-hearted tone. I am excited about the season to come – maybe this is in part that in my mind, Paudie and Charles were already gone so I haven’t been clinging onto any hopes.
    As far as I am concerned, we are already much improved on last season – yes we have lost a couple of gems – but we have gained more and cleared out dead wood.
    The fact we are not following previous recruitment strategies is a fantastic sign of improvement in the club’s mentality which is something we have all struggled to understand or get on-board with at some point in the recent past.
    Let’s see what the next few days brings – if some of the rumours come to fruition, I look forward to your next article and will be looking out for a change in tone 😉

  3. “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?”
    Yes. They certainly can. And I’d argue that in Chapman, they already have. Here’s a player that’s made more first team starts in The Championship than Vernam has in L1.
    Even at this early stage, I’m convinced that the potential Platt / Songo partnership will be better, for L2, than the last season.
    It’s a bit puzzling as to how they can be mentioned in the same article about players hard to replace as the likes of McArdle, Wells, Wyke, Meredith. All four of these remain our best players in those positions for the last 15 seasons. O’Connor / Vernham are simply some of the best of a bad bunch during the last five seasons.
    Quite honestly Ridehalgh or Songo would be more of a blow, if they left, because what we need is canny experience, consistency and leading by example by playing well virtually every week. I like Paudie, but no-one I know thinks this of him.
    Some fans love Paudie, because he gets stuck in and is ‘passionate’ etc. Let’s be honest we’ve needed something to hold on to during the last few seasons. But that doesn’t make up for the dozy defending. To me he’s been the weaker partner of the pre-injured Canavan, Anthony O’Connor and even Songo.
    Ironically, I do think Paudie will revel in L1 as he clearly has quality. His issue is, like John Stones used to do, he doesn’t apply it consistently enough – arguably, defending in L2 comes too easy to him, so we get those bored lapses of concentration. A new challenge will do him good and good luck to him.
    So I’m very happy with the progress so far and think that the squad is already significantly better now than it was after the Carlisle match.

    • Just to be clear, Harry Chapman has not started a single Championship match so this claim is inaccurate. You can find his career details here:

      https://www.soccerbase.com/players/player.sd?player_id=90264

      • Apologies for the oversight. These were substitute appearances, although he did get one or two cup appearances, when Blackburn were in The Championship.
        My point is and I think I’ve given enough evidence, that he appears to be at least as good a Vernham – certainly if you read all the comments from fans of his former club, plus he is actually younger.

  4. Usually Jason McKeown is spot on but not with this….O’Connor was a liability outside his box and not vocal enough to be a Captain and thats along side his number of coloured cards.. Centre Halfs are Ten a Penny. Centre Halfs that wear the ArmBand are also on the Market. Vernam went missing in games far too often and his injurys are the reason hes playing in lower leagues. Chapman is a great replacement for him and probably a better player. Watt will be a tricky player to replace and i hope he stays. Football is all about players playing in the teams that suite their style. Players shine or on the flip side fail playing in teams that dont set up to match their ability. Parkinson was a Master at this lets hope Hughes can get it all to click.

    • Watt won’t be a miss, because the way Hughes seems to want to set up – with three ‘go for the throat’ midfielder / attackers, supporting the front man, means that we must have two more defensively minded central midfielders.
      Otherwise, the good teams will run right through us. Watt is more attack minded and actually will suit a L1 team, more than us.
      So again, I’m not particularly bothered if he stays or goes.

      • Disagree, Watt will be the biggest loss in a Hughes side. Back to him, he could progress in this side or move to an Adams style of play. Big decision for him but I think we are currently discussing compensation

  5. Let’s hope Mark Hughes can put some luster into those rough diamonds that have been recruited. I guess the emphasis on youth, potential and inexperience has gone from the boardroom to the players on the pitch. Definitely a refreshing change which comes with a high degree of uncertainty. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out on the pitch. Fingers crossed.

  6. Rather surprised to read this, usually – no, almost always – Jason has it spot on but I can’t agree this time and, from other comments, I’m not the only one. Paudie had qualities certainly but he always had a mistake in him that too often led to a goal. I’d be happy to settle for a less committed but more reliable centre-half. And Vernam at his best was great but we certainly haven’t seen that greatness over a whole season. Chapman may be better or not, we shall see, but nothing in his record so far makes him a worse bet than Vernam when he arrived.

  7. I honestly don’t believe we’ll miss any of the three players mentioned, assuming we have a few more signings lined up. Happy for Watt to stay but not going to gnash my teeth if he goes.
    I’m not convinced the club pushed the boat out to re-sign any of them and MH knows their wages can be better spent elsewhere.
    Over the last 2/3 seasons, they were made to look better than average by virtue of playing alongside some very average players signed by some very average managers (and a very average dummkopf who absolutely didn’t know football)!
    I’d be worried if our recruitment was already finished at this point but I feel (on paper) we are signing players with the right physicality, mentality and work ethic, which is as important as skill at this level.

  8. Don’t think either are huge losses to be honest but it would have been interesting to see how Vernam would have got on with a full season fully fit.
    Surprising that people don’t rate Watt, it was clear from the moment he arrived that he was a cut above.
    It would be good to know when Watt was first offered an extension, if he’d have been offered one was last summer we could be getting big money for him this or next summer. The fact he is leaving on a free given his potential is poor.
    We’re four first team players, RB, CB, CM, ST, away from being ready transfer wise.

    • Can someone clarify this — is Watt likely to generate a fee or not if sold or decided to leave etc? If he is going to generate a fee how is that made possible if he’s out of contract or am I missing something?
      Rich

      • If a player under 24 is out of contract and receives an improved offer to stay, but turns it down, the club who signs him have to pay a transfer fee. So assuming we offered Watt a better contract we will be entitled to a fee if he moves on.

      • As I understand it rather than assessing the market value of a player …compensation is awarded on the basis of the added value the club has made to a players development. Esoteric stuff!
        As to summer business overall alarm bells are ringing for me with accent on the talented but unproven. We will see

  9. Good article but really would appreciate it if you stopped using the term “rocked up” it’s not good and imo is very annoying.

  10. It’s not often I disagree with Jason but on this I do.
    O’Connor was often a liability and had a mistake in him which often led to a goal conceded. He also had poor self discipline and you felt a red or yellow card was never far away.
    Vernam has not played enough games for me to have a view. He is injury prone which is probably why he is playing in the lower leagues. Sometimes he looks like a game changer or a match winner. Sometimes he does nothing.
    In both cases I think there are players out there who can do a better more consistent job, probably for less money. It’s a pity Adam’s fell out with Canavan as I think he was more valuable than POC.
    These players have probably looked better than they really are because the standard of players around them has been so poor.
    I dont think either of them will be missed.

  11. I agree with some of the other comments already posted.
    I never got all the hoopla about POC. I didn’t rate his distribution of the ball nor his decision making. This lead to us conceding a daft goals or his marching orders.
    Vernam was different in that here was a player that does have real talent but the biggest issue is his fitness. He could have re-signed only to spend another 3 months out injured and the team poorer for it. We’ve enough players with suspect injury problems still left on the books who if they’re fit can be an asset but when injured a hindrance.
    Jason you refer (somewhat worriedly in my opinion) to the age and relative inexperience of our summer recruitment. But I’d rather potential diamonds than over-the-hill players with plenty of experience but who hopelessly mis-fire when pulling on a City shirt. We’ve had too many of them over the last few seasons.
    I think the key element will be Hughes. Can he bring on and develop these new crop of young guns? It seems that might of been part of his remit when he joined the club.

  12. I’m sure MH is looking for a squad that wants to learn, to listen and to be part of something. I’d imagine his playing and managerial career leave him less inclined to attempt to teach a L2 veteran new tricks and so would rather risk his reputation on working with talented but inexperienced youngsters.
    Watching a youthful team grow through the season hopefully always in or in touch of the playoffs would be a great season.

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