By Jason McKeown
Suddenly, it’s all starting to feel exciting. With just over five weeks until Bradford City’s 2022/23 season begins, the players are about to return for pre-season training and a genuinely marquee signing – Richie Smallwood – has been unveiled.
31-year-old Smallwood joins Valley Parade from Hull City, after making 42 Championship appearances last season. Smallwood was captain and had been offered a new one-year deal by the Tigers, but he turned it down because he wanted a longer-term contract.
The Redcar-born Smallwood has had a very impressive career that began at his local club Middlesbrough, where he emerged through the youth ranks to make his debut in October 2010. For the next five years he was something of a squad player, averaging around 15 games a season. Before moving on loan to Steve Evans’ Rotherham in 2013/14 – he scored the winning penalty in a shootout at Wembley that earned the Millers promotion to the Championship.
After eventually signing for Rotherham for £175k, Smallwood remained a key figurehead as the South Yorkshire club defied the odds to remain in the Championship for the next three seasons. He eventually fell out of favour when Alan Stubbs took over as manager and had a loan spell at then-League One Scunthorpe. In the summer of 2017, and despite Stubbs long gone, Smallwood turned down a new Rotherham contract and moved to Blackburn Rovers – freshly relegated to League One.
His first season at Ewood Park – 2017/18 – saw Smallwood chalk up a second promotion for his CV. Rovers finished second to Wigan, with Smallwood featuring in every game. He continued to be a regular in Blackburn’s return to the Championship before losing his place, paving the way for a move to Hull. Still then-Rovers manager Tony Mowbray valued Smallwood highly, once saying, “He’s a competitive footballer who likes to get stuck in and win tackles, he gets into the team because he’s a warrior. I’ve spoken about artists and soldiers at this club, and he’s definitely a soldier.”
In 2020/21 – the Covid season – Hull went up from League One, giving Smallwood a third promotion medal of his career. And last season he was a regular for the Tigers, said to be very popular with supporters.
Hull Daily Mail journalist Barry Cooper wrote in April, “At the age of 31, Smallwood isn’t getting any younger, but his experience throughout his campaign has been instrumental, particularly in a relatively young squad which, at times, has found the going tough at this level. Every good team needs a player of his style within it, one to win the ball and give it those capable of creating something with it. It requires a calm and steady head to understand his role within the side and what his manager wants from him.”
Make no mistake, this is a real coup by Bradford City. Smallwood could have chosen to stay in the Championship with Hull City and was said to have attracted a lot of interest from League One clubs. He comes to Valley Parade with a clear winning mentality and track record for success that has been sorely lacking in the dressing room. And with City taking a very youthful direction with recruitment this summer, the experience of Smallwood could be a huge asset. He is surely in with a good chance of taking the captain’s armband in Mark Hughes’ side.
Smallwood is a holding midfielder. Said to be a tackler who can pass well. His goal record (11 in 350 league appearances) suggests he is less of an attacking threat. But with City having plenty of forward options, Smallwood looks set to be the ideal sitting midfielder in the 4-2-3-1. A player who can offer the balance that allows others – including full backs – to attack.
It would be unfair to heap too much pressure and expectation on Smallwood, but there are shades of the signing of Stuart McCall in 1998 about this. McCall came back to City after a great career with Everton and Rangers, and he looked a cut above the level he was playing. McCall’s inspirational leadership qualities brought out the best in those around him as City achieved promotion to the Premier League. He had a presence and an aura that encouraged others to follow. Setting the standards in good and difficult moments.
Smallwood is not exactly that type of player, but could be that influential catalyst that sees teammates find another level to their game. The Valley Parade crowd can be great when it’s on your side, but requires bravery in moments where it begins to turn on the team. Everything about Smallwood suggests he wouldn’t hide – and that will hopefully encourage others to stand tall too.
For Bradford City, there can be a deserved sense of triumph with this announcement. We’ve seen a pattern of young players come in with very limited track records – the latest, Huddersfield’s 23-year-old Romoney Crichlow, was confirmed as a season-long loan signing the day before. It looks a brave approach that – if the judgement of Stephen Gent proves reliable – could deliver huge rewards. But the club also leaves itself open to accusations of doing it on the cheap. Of not properly backing Mark Hughes.
Smallwood certainly eases such concerns. He is a statement of ambition. A player who other clubs in the division will sit up and take note of. A signing to enhance City’s promotion chances next season.
This could be huge.