By Jason McKeown
He’s gone where? Seriously? News of Elliot Watt’s summer departure from Bradford City hardly comes as a shock, but his next destination is a bit of a bombshell.
A player habitually rumoured to be the subject of League One, Championship and even Premier League interest has turned up at, erm, League Two Salford City. A club who, at 2,126, had the lowest average crowd in the division last season. Bradford City were averaging seven times that attendance.
Crowd size isn’t everything of course. But swapping Valley Parade for the Peninsula Stadium is at best a sideways career move for a player seemingly on an upwards trajectory. This was supposed to be Watt’s big leap up the Football League pyramid. And if there was risk that moving to a higher league club would see him swap guaranteed first team football at City for being stuck on the sidelines, well, surely it made sense to stay where you are instead. Remain a key player on the big stage, developing under the management of one of the game’s biggest names.
Not go to even smaller, low key surroundings.
Watt departs on the same day that Bradford City have announced the arrival of the highly rated centre back Timi Odusina from Hartlepool United on a three-year deal. Like Watt, Odusina has been linked with a whole host of clubs this summer and for City to win the race is a massive coup. He joins Richie Smallwood in the marquee signings category. A player to shift the dial upwards.
22-year-old Odusina spent time at Arsenal as a teenager and emerged through the youth ranks at Norwich City, although he never played for the Carrow Road outfit. He enjoyed a loan spell at AFC Fylde in 2018/19 which included playing at Wembley in the North West club’s 1-0 FA Trophy victory over Leyton Orient.
Odusina went on loan to Hartlepool the following season, impressing greatly and was signed permanently by the National League club. In 2020/21, he was a regular in Hartlepool’s successful promotion campaign. He had a slow start to last season, United’s first season back in the Football League, starting just four games up until November. Odusina’s prospects improved when Dave Challinor quit as manager and ex-City defender Graeme Lee took over, with his form soaring. In February the Daily Mail reported that Odusina was being watched by a number of Championship clubs.
Challinor once said of Osdusina, “He has pace and that’s a massive attribute for a defender, particularly at the highest level. He wants to defend and head the ball, which are attributes that will potentially take him a long way as a defender and I think he’s improved game on game.”
Osdusina will be seen as Paudie O’Connor’s replacement although is left-sided. O’Connor was right sided but switched to the left after Niall Canavan was sold and the right-footed Yann Songo’o was dropped back to centre half. On paper, it looks as though Songo’o will partner Osdusina next season. This development does not look good for the prospects of Reece Staunton or Fiacre Kelleher. Expect one or both to depart pre-season, possibly on loan.
Osdusina’s arrival is a big morale boost on the day that Watt has chosen to move on. “The big thing for me was I wanted a fresh start, something new,” he declared on his Salford unveiling. It’s an interesting comment and you’d love the chance to ask Elliot a bit more about what exactly he means.
Because, yes, you could use Watt’s exit as a moment to bash Bradford City and the way it has operated for the last two years that Watt has been a Bantam. Why should he stay, when there has continued to be a huge disparity between City’s ambitions and its on the field achievements? The club talks big, but underdelivers. Even arguing that Watt should stay because of Hughes can be countered by the lack of stability in the dugout. Going by City’s recent history, there’s every chance Hughes would lose his job at some point next season. Can Watt have risked re-signing for City on the basis that Hughes will last the duration of the contract offered to the player?
But – at the risk of bursting Watt’s bubble – all these valid criticisms of Bradford City apply to Salford also. They talk big about promotion, but so far have not delivered even a play off spot – all with the largest budget in the league. Managerial security? Salford can rival us in the turnover stakes. On Salford’s latest manager, Neil Wood, Watt said, “I spoke to him and he was a massive part of why I chose to come here.” Hmmm. Let’s hope it wasn’t the only reason.
There are, of course, good and fair reasons why Watt has chosen Salford over City. A Preston lad, Salford will be much closer to home. He has a young family. And why would he want to miss out on the precious early years of his child’s development because he’s stuck inside a car for hours, travelling to and from Bradford on the M62.
The money will be good, and it’s not as if playing for City was turning Watt into a millionaire. And Salford will inevitably get their act together and win promotion at some point. In the race to get to League One first, you wouldn’t bet against Salford pipping City to the post.
But still, it’s hard to look at this as anything but underwhelming. Watt is a player who looks to have a big future. When you saw the way that he ended the season under Hughes, and the level of performances he was delivering, there was something potentially special there that could have been really crucial for City in 2022/23. A season worth of Watt playing at that kind of standard would be massive for any club at this level. If Watt can reach those heights at Salford, they’ve got some player on their hands.
Given his talent and potential, you could accept losing Watt to a club in a higher division. But Salford? He can surely do better than this. And as fans, we are entitled to believe that we shouldn’t be losing our best young players to a club of such little pedigree. Perhaps the fact City were due a fee for Watt meant more attractive offers from clubs above League Two weren’t forthcoming. Maybe it’s better in the long run for City, as they at least get a transfer fee because of Watt’s age.
Watt’s two seasons at Valley Parade were good for the player. He swapped the Wolves youth academy for instant first team football, making 93 starts. Prior to signing for Stuart in the middle of the pandemic, Watt had just 14 senior appearances under his belt, earned during a promising loan spell at Carlisle. City gave Watt a stage, and that was huge for the then-20-year-old.
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Watt, but the hard knocks have made him a better player. Last November away at Tranmere Rovers, for example, Watt had an absolute shocker where nothing went right, and his individual mistakes sent City to defeat. Lesser players might never have recovered from such a traumatic night, but Watt had an admirable mental strength. He is a better footballer for going through such experiences, and City deserve every penny of the undisclosed fee they’ve received for giving him such a development platform.
City were beginning to reap the rewards with Watt’s excellent form under Hughes. He hadn’t been managed brilliant by Derek Adams, who used the holding midfielder as the only creative player in a defensive system not built for his forward-passing strengths. With Hughes giving players more license to be creative, Watt began to thrive in a side of like-minded individuals. There was suddenly movement in front of him. Options to pick out a pass to. And he grew from it. Watt was a big part in City’s end of season uptick in performances.
With the Stephen Gent-led summer overhaul of the Bradford City squad that is focused on youth, the painful irony is that Watt is exactly the sort of player that fits what the club is trying to achieve. If Watt had no previous attachment to Valley Parade but it was known he was available to League Two clubs, City would have been doing everything to sign him.
A Watt-Richie Smallwood partnership would have been a tantilising prospect. With Smallwood’s ball-winning skills complimenting Watt’s passing ability. They would have surely thrived together.
It is a loss for City. And maybe it was one that was always on the cards. When clubs like Norwich, Hull and Blackpool were mentioned as interested in Watt, in many ways persuading him to stay at Valley Parade seemed a fanciful idea that ignored City’s place in the football world’s pecking order right now.
But to see Watt venture to Salford – instead of so-called bigger and better – shows how close we must have been to staying. He seemingly was within our grasp to keep after all. Instead, a promotion rival has been significantly strengthened at our expense. And on the same day that Stockport County have pulled off the signing of Fraser Horsfall from Northampton – beating off competition from Bristol City no less – it offers a sharp reminder of the challenge the Bantams face getting promoted next season. A good job that Odusina was quickly announced then.
City will move on – of course they will – and if the transfer fee money is invested wisely (as it probably has been with the fee paid for Odusina), this might all be for the best. But Mark Hughes is building a team and employing a style of football that would have really suited the young midfielder’s evident talents. And you can’t quite believe Watt’s turned that down to go there.