Reece Staunton departs Bradford City with opportunities for club developed players harder to come by

By Jason McKeown

It was a significant moment in the most insignificant of games. Bradford City were 3-0 down at home to Rotherham in their final Football League Trophy group game, having already qualified for the next round, when in the 74th minute young defender Reece Staunton was introduced from the bench. His debut came at the age of 15 years and 332 days – making him the youngest-ever player to appear for Bradford City.

Nearly five years on and still only 20, last week Staunton waved goodbye to Valley Parade after apparently requesting to move permanently to non league neighbours Bradford Park Avenue. City had a plan to loan him out again, but Staunton had had enough of waiting for a first team chance that looked increasingly doubtful. He will now get regular football but will operate at the sixth tier of the pyramid, in a semi-professional league.

Staunton’s surprise Bradford City exit comes at a time when two of the club’s other highly rated youngsters – Finn Cousin-Dawson and Kian Scales – have headed out on loan. And Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Newport County had a first for Bradford City since April 2018. They didn’t have a single club developed player in the starting XI or on the bench.

In the summer of 2018, the Football League had introduced a rule that all EFL sides much have a club developed player in its matchday squad. It’s why, since 2018/19, there’s been a least one Bradford City youngster on the bench, or former academy player like Luke Hendrie and Matty Foulds in the 18-man squad.

That decree remains in place, but clubs who sell at least two developed players are exempt for a season. A criteria City have achieved by selling Darryl Ombang (to Leeds) and Sahil Bashir (to Brighton). The Football League also maintains the homegrown rule – which means at least seven of the 18-man squad have to have been registered with a club in England or Wales for at least three seasons before their 21st birthday.

At our level, that’s not a difficult rule to abide by – every single member of City’s squad meets this criteria – but at the top of the Championship it’s already a challenge. Watford, for example, had to take a different recruitment approach this summer to make sure they had enough homegrown players, and early season team selections have seen some non-homegrown players left out of matchday squads so Watford can abide by these conditions.

What it all means for a team like City is less significance in having club developed players involved in the squad for this season. Although the four seasons that they’ve operated with the club developed rule suggested it was ineffective anyway – given the intention was to get clubs to play more youngsters. At times City have had an academy graduate on the bench seemingly as a token gesture, as Danny Devine and Ellis Hudson can probably attest to. They warmed up with the other subs during the game, but stood next to no chance of ever actually getting on.

Nevertheless, the rule change was clearly a blow to the prospects of Staunton, Cousin-Dawson and Scales, with the former deciding enough was enough. And given the summer recruitment activity at Valley Parade, it’s easy to understand. Staunton has seen three new centre backs brought in, including Romoney Crichlow on loan from Huddersfield Town – he’s behind a young player borrowed from another club.

With Yann Songo’o still at Valley Parade, there are four centre backs ahead of Staunton in the queue. He played left back pre-season, but is behind two specialists in this position and will know that Crichlow can also fill in here. So Staunton is fifth choice centre back and fourth choice left back. That is not going to add up to much game time.

It might have been so different for Staunton. Two years ago, the early promise that saw him make a first team debut before he could legally buy cigarettes was starting to be fulfilled. In the Covid season of 2020/21, Staunton began in the team and was a key component in the 3-5-2 system then-manager Stuart McCall adopted. As McCall tried to get City replicating the success of Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United system where centre backs came forward with the ball and joined in attacks, Staunton was a brilliant fit. The set up suited his ball-playing strengths and he at least was starting to flourish.

Indeed, he was so important that the formation only worked if he was available. When injury problems slowed Staunton’s progress and Ben Richards-Everton had to fill in, City’s form collapsed. Staunton was rushed back into the side for a November trip to Leyton Orient and early in the second half went down in a heap. It would be the end of his season and the beginning of the end to McCall’s third spell as manager.

For the player, it was dreadful timing. Given Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars replaced McCall in the dugout, Staunton would have found an environment where he would have got plenty of chances that season. But he missed the pair’s entire managerial tenure, and by the time he was fit Derek Adams was in charge. In the meantime, Cousin-Dawson and Scales excelled from first team opportunities under Trueman and Sellars. Not that it counted for much when Adams took over.

The 2021/22 season was a difficult year for all three. Adams made little secret of the fact he didn’t rate them, criticising their ability in public more than once. Cousin-Dawson was the only one of the trio trusted with league appearances, but even then Adams preferred to pick the struggling Oscar Threlkeld over the youngster as much as possible. Scales didn’t figure once in League Two. It’s no coincidence that Staunton’s one and only league opportunity came a week after Adams was sacked and Trueman became caretaker. Alas, he picked up another injury and couldn’t complete the 90 minutes at Oldham.

Whilst Adams received a lot of supporter criticism over his treatment of City’s younger players, Mark Hughes has avoided the same scrutiny. The reality is the prospects of Staunton, Cousin-Dawson and Scales have been just as limited under Hughes as they had been under Adams. The difference is that Hughes is too classy to publicly criticise them. But the underlying message is still the same.

It’s no wonder then, that Staunton has decided to move on.

With City’s ambitions rightly focused on promotion from League Two and a climb back up the pyramid, it’s hard to be too critical about the lack of chances Hughes is affording younger players. He will no doubt be aware of the revolving door managerial situation at the club, and ultimately has to get results now to avoid adding to the quick turnover. Hughes wants and deserves to have the best squad possible, and to pick a team based on merit rather than individual backgrounds. The club is not a charity and three points on a Saturday is what matters the most.

But still, it is sad to see another youngster of huge promise leave in Staunton. And it remains disappointing that the club continues to fail to bring through youngsters who can grow and drive it forwards. In recent years we’ve seen different youth age groups chalk up some notable achievements, but it’s not translated into first team suitable players down the line. It’s a situation the club has experienced for many years now.

Does it matter? Yes and no. If City are successful this season, no one will mind that it will be a group of players who weren’t born in Bradford. When City went on the history makers run a decade ago, and indeed throughout the Phil Parkinson years, few supporters really cared that academy players were rarely seen in the first team. And with the youth set up still making the club money by producing the likes of Ombang and Bashir (each sold for reported six figure fees), the financial costs of having an academy remain justified.

But still, you’d like to think that one day it will be different. That many of the kids of Bradford right now can rise to the ranks of starring at Valley Parade. And that in time Bradford City supporters will have reason to chant “he’s one of our own” on a matchday.

Categories: Opinion

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10 replies

  1. Game time is very important in the ongoing development of young players with very little provided by City. They were clearly sold a bill of goods that weren’t delivered. In retrospect, the four year contracts were a publicity stunt that went badly wrong. Someone at Valley Parade certainly dropped the ball, big time!!
    I wonder who that could have been??

  2. A well thought through piece as usual. Unfortunately the lack of opportunity to home grown talent is not new to clubs at all levels from Premiership to League 2. With our most recent crop of young talent there seemed to be doors opening to them, particularly with Trueman & Sellars at the helm but sadly changes in managers and the recent infux of new recruits has closed those doors. Had we a manager that stayed in post for at least one full season perhaps there would have been time and therefore confidence in the home grown ability over squad players from other clubs – albeit the incoming players bring with them a number of seasons experience at this level? Continuity of management team can only improve this situation in the future.

  3. Until the club can get promoted to the Championship level and funds become available to run an U-23 team its going to be difficult for those progressing at City to go beyond the current U-19s without going out on loan. Unless they are an absolute star ready for the first team, in which case a Championship/ Premiership team will take a punt on them for their own U-23s. The fall out from Brexit mean you can no longer shop in the bargain bins of Europe, so home grown talent is at a premium.

  4. I was exceptionally sad to see Staunton go on a permanent move. He has ability and it’s a pity that no one at City saw that. I believe he will get better given game time. Avenue will believe in him and he will blossom there. I further believe he will move on to a bigger club and also blossom. He should have been loaned out to a national league club for a year and review his performance ongoingly. Nothing I say will change this decision but I would like to say good luck Reece and thank you for your time at City. Go out there and prove a point.

    • Couldn’t agree more. What a talent he had, but sadly a victim of circumstance with a serious long term injury that lasted longer than most recent managers. I really hope that Reece proves to be successful in the future and wish him well.

  5. as always a very good read
    I’ve just checked the population of Bradford and it is 372, 828
    it is a sad indictment of a club very much of the city that apparently there is not even 1 of those who can play professional football in League two…

    • The problem we have now, is how will the next crop of youngsters react. We seemingly have a real good crop of under 19s (some even younger( who romped their league last year. How will they feel about their chances of developing, will they feel that they too will benefit from moving elsewhere.

      Whilst it’s great for fans to see a kid coming through the ranks, I think now is the time for us to be realistic. Any player on the fringes of the first team might not actually be “all that”. The chances are that if they were they’d have been picked up and sold on before then

    • Sorry to be pedantic but players such as Fabian Delph, Mason Greenwood, Kayden Jackson, Tyler Magloire and James Tavernier would all do a job in City’s current X1, undoubtedly. Although far from being a hotbed of talent, Bradford does produce it’s fair share…

  6. Many players have looked world beaters and never been the same after a serious injury. Staunton appears
    to be in that category. Let’s all hope not , and who knows one day he maybe back

  7. Great thought provoking article. One correction tho’ scratch Barnsley and replace with Brighton.

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