By Jason McKeown
What’s it really like to be a footballer who is stuck in a back-up role? To train all week for a match you’re not going to be a part of? To turn up on matchday knowing that – barring some freak turn of events – you won’t need your football boots, and that at 3pm you’ll be watching the game from the stands? Do you want the team to win, or are you secretly hoping they flounder, giving you a chance to get into the starting XI?
Ask a footballer these questions and expect to hear a load of cliches. Of course it’s hard, they’ll probably tell you. But the team comes first, they’ll say. When the players cross the white line, you just want the club to win, they’ll claim.
And it’s not that they’re lying. But for those not picked, there must surely be something within, where you’re secretly hoping the guy who has been selected ahead of you has a shocker, or gets injured (not hurt though), or red carded. And if none of those things happen and the team wins, it must be a hollow, bittersweet experience knowing that the toil on the training ground over the week ahead will end with a similar non-involvement.
For Mark Hughes, managing the players not in his immediate first team plans – The Other Guys – could be just as important as those he deems to be first choice. The Bradford City manager has been clear in his desire to have a big squad. In fact, well-placed sources tell WOAP he was especially vocal about this to the powers above, after the early season loss to Barrow, which quickly saw the Bantams re-enter the loan market to bolster.
Hughes will argue that, as the games come thick and fast, he needs depth. That with the change to allowing clubs to bring on five substitutes, having a good range of options on the bench should see City carve out extra points over the season. That with an expectation of City competing well in all cup competitions, he needs to have cover for all eventualities. And the harsh lessons of Stuart McCall’s thinbare squad approach of 2020/21, and of Derek Adams’ pining for the injured Lee Angol last season, undoubtedly back up this viewpoint.
But it’s more than that. A large squad of players promotes healthier competition for places. It keeps everyone on their toes. Those in the side should know that if they drop their standards, there’s someone else ready to come in and take their place.
With City bringing in 17 players during the summer, and the transfer window closing with the Bantams’ immediate squad totalling 28 players, strength in depth exists. And we’ve seen good evidence of it in the first third of the season. In each game, the bench has looked strong and substitutes have regularly had a positive influence on the outcome of the game. Take Levi Sutton’s impetus-adding introduction at Tranmere in September. Yann Songo’o’s calm, get-the-team-over-the-line late outing at home to Walsall. And Vadaine Oliver’s dramatic stoppage time equaliser against Wimbledon.
Still, with City having just completed a week of three draws in eight games, all with an unchanged starting line up, there are questions starting to grow about the big squad approach in terms of how well it is being deployed. Is it breeding genuine competition for places? Are those on the sidelines sufficiently pushing those in the team? And is there too much reliance on certain players, especially when it comes to scoring the goals?
The Bantams are arguably too well stocked up in some areas, meaning some decent players cannot even get on the bench, and yet other parts of the team are a little light on quality options. No one outside Cook has netted more than four goals.
Perhaps most crucially of all, there’s starting to be a clear gulf in game time and opportunities between those players firmly in Hughes’ plans, and those who are barely getting a look in. With overall performances okay right now, but not wholly convincing, you’d want players in the first XI to be really feeling the pressure from those in reserve.
And for whatever reason, that no longer seems to be happening.
Before we get any further, it’s worth looking at the League Two game time of each Bradford City player so far this season, and how spread out first team action is proving amongst the group. With the help of Whoscored.com, we can split the squad out into four groups.
First up are what we’ll call “Sparky’s favourites”. Eight members of the squad have been pretty much nailed on certain starters since the opening game. Harry Lewis, Matty Platt and Richie Smallwood are League Two ever-presents. Brad Halliday is just behind, only missing one game due to a suspension. You’ve got Romoney Crichlow – left out for three games through injury/a slight dip in form – but otherwise a firm fixture. And finally, there’s Harry Chapman (sub on the opening day and has since started every game), Andy Cook (started every game since the end of August) and Alex Gilliead. The latter has missed four games, either through injury or when he became a father.
The next group we can call “Coming into the fray”. These are players who have either joined after the season began (Tyreik Wright, Dion Pereira and Scott Banks), or Matty Foulds, who came in for the injured Liam Ridehalgh in September and hasn’t looked back, making the left back position his own.
There is a question over which two will start out of Wright, Pereira and Banks, now the latter is back from injury. But combine “Sparky’s favourites” with “Coming into the fray” and you have 12 players who have pretty much been first choice over recent weeks.
So what about the rest? Well, the next group, “In and out” have had a mixed time. Ridehalgh is close to returning to fitness but will surely find he’s no longer a member of “Sparky’s favourites”.
Lee Angol, Vadaine Oliver and Ryan East did start the season in the team but have lost their places. They can no longer be certain of even a spot on the bench. Sutton has started just once in the league and seems a player getting left behind, as do summer arrivals Jake Young and Timi Odusina. Young has not even been on the bench in recent games, despite looking as potent as the other forwards.
And that leaves the final group “Out of favour/injured”. We can’t judge Jamie Walker and Emmanuel Osadebe (injured since the opening weekend), and their eventual return will certainly present some big selection dilemmas. Abo Eisa has continued to have injury problems, and it’s not clear what Hughes thinks of a player he inherited but has barely seen.
Kian Harratt (who has some significant off the field problems), Songo’o and Luke Hendrie have no such hard luck injury stories. They’ve been around but barely figured in the league, with just one start between them. Of this group, only Colin Doyle can feel fairly satisfied – he can’t have come back this summer under any illusions he was going to play very often.
Looking at the four groups together, we have eight players who have figured in at least 73% of City’s League Two season, and 12 who – injured or otherwise – have appeared in fewer than 30% of the campaign so far.
This does feel fairly typical of any City squad in any season, and there’d be something wrong if Hughes was drastically chopping and changing week in week out. Nevertheless, there’s a growing gap between those who Hughes rates, and those who he doesn’t seem to fancy. And that is not necessarily good news for maintaining a competitive squad.
If you don’t have that ever-present threat to your place in the team, your performances could drop off. As Andy Cook admitted of his own dip in form last season, “We didn’t have as good a competition for places…If you’re underperforming and there’s nobody to take your place, then you’re (still) going to play.”
So what’s the story for those ‘in and out’ and ‘out of favour/injured’? Well, there’s a seperate narrative worth exploring here. Namely, the Papa John’s Trophy games, where squad players have been given a chance to impress, but haven’t necessarily experienced the reward of a league start when they have done well.
Firstly, let’s look at the first six league games that were played before the Papa John’s Trophy campaign began. Over this period, Hughes made an average of 1.8 changes to his starting line up. He was certainly open to change, and in the midweek defeat to Colchester – for example – rested a couple of players. The defeat that night might have dissuaded him from rotating as a strategy.
Then came City’s first Papa John’s Trophy group game, at home to Sheffield Wednesday, and a team that included fringe players Hendrie, Songo’o, Odusina, Foulds (at the time), East, Sutton, Young and Oliver. They collectively produced a tremendous performance, as the Bantams defeated their League One opponents.
Going into that weekend’s league encounter with Walsall, Hughes must have faced some genuine selection headaches because of how well his back ups had played. That wasn’t necessarily reflected in his subsequent choice of team, with only Sutton and Young getting another starting chance.
Nevertheless, the next sequence of league matches saw an increase in starting XI changes.
Over these five games, Hughes made an average of 2.4 changes per game. There were important reasons for this, such as injuries to Ridehalgh and Gilliead, Halliday’s suspension, plus the deadline day arrivals of Pereira and Wright, but there did appear to be greater competition for places. City picked up 13 points out of 15 over this run, by the way.
The next group game, at home to Leicester’s Under 21s, wasn’t quite as impressive. Songo’o, Hendrie, East, Sutton, Young, Angol, Oliver and Harratt got to start – and Oliver and Sutton did score – but City blew a 2-0 lead and were defeated on penalties. None of these players got to start the next league match, at home to Stockport, as Hughes went back to what had become his clear first choice XI. (Odusina also played in this game, but this was in the middle of his brief spell starting league games.)
In the two games that followed, Hughes made an average of 1.5 changes per game. A reduction on before.
And then came the final Papa John’s group game, which saw City lose, badly. 4-0 at Burton. With Hendrie, Odusina (demoted again), Songo’o, Sutton, Harratt, Young and Oliver failing to have much of an impact. Some of the goals were shambolically defended. And ultimately City got nowhere near a struggling League One side, who had already qualified for the next stage, meaning they had nothing to play for.
It won’t come as a shock that none of these players started in the following game at Grimsby. In fact, only Oliver has had any minutes on the pitch since. Hughes has made no changes to his League Two starting XI since the Burton defeat, this is despite last week’s sequence of three games in eight days, where you might have expected him to freshen things up.
There was a notable contrast between the bright, energetic way that City set about defeating Sheffield Wednesday in late August, and the pitiful manner they were hammered at Burton in October. And there are many good reasons for this. But you can’t discount the likelihood that players, who have found themselves sidelined week in week out for the league, are no longer feeling as motivated or as confident they have a meaningful part to play this season. And so, their heads may have dropped.
This is not to criticise Hughes, who – as the league table shows – has got far more right than he has wrong this season. The bar has risen, and players like Hendrie, Songo’o and Sutton are a victim of the higher levels of ability in the squad. And though Harratt – or at least Harratt senior – have aired displeasure about the situation, Hughes has only talked positively about every player. Publicly, he has not closed the door on anyone.
But it is a situation that could cause problems down the line. If The Other Guys start to believe that they have little chance of getting into the side, no matter how hard they work, they will naturally drop off. Come January, the likes of Songo’o might decide they want to move on elsewhere – I reckon there’s a certain struggling League One side who have a manager that will be desperate to sign him. And all the while, the competition for places becomes less intense. Players firmly in the manager’s plans can start to subliminally believe that, even if they don’t have the best of games, they’ll still keep their place.
In other words, a situation a bit like what Cook admitted he experienced this season. Cook’s form has been great, but slightly less impressive in recent weeks. He might benefit from a rest, and another player could seize the opportunity and in doing so raise the bar further. Cook is unlikely to look at his striking rivals this season in the same way he understandably was dismissive of the competition a year ago, but he could still yet suffer the same burnout where an over-reliance on his goals catches up on him and City.
For those on the sidelines, there is an uncomfortable truth. They are not going to suddenly get an extended run in the side. Their overall starts for the entire season may fall short of even double figures. But Hughes will still consider them an important part of his plans.
He needs Songo’o to be okay with a reduced role, because that calm-everyone-down appearance from the bench could be an important weapon over the season. He needs Harratt and Young to be okay with coming off from the bench, as in tight games the fresh impetus of energetic forwards could make all the difference. He needs Sutton to be ready to fill in. Odusina to be ready if Huddersfield decide to recall Crichlow in January. Angol to combine his tricky and hold up play when the occasion demands.
And that brings us back to those inner thoughts of those on the sidelines. On Saturday against Crawley, the likes of Sutton, Hendrie, Harratt and Young were sat in the main stand alongside injured players like Walker. What is their mindset watching the events unfold? What are their realistic expectations of game time in the next few weeks? What is it like to be one of The Other Guys?
The fact is they will be needed at some point. City’s 2012/13 promotion winners had their obvious first choice star men, but the less celebrated roles of Will Atkinson, Zavon Hines, Carl McHugh and Alan Connell more than played their part. Go back to 1998/99’s Premier League promotion and it was the same story with Andy O’Brien, Lee Todd, Ashley Westwood and Gordon Watson. Every brilliant team needs its Other Guys. They ultimately wouldn’t succeed without them.
So what’s the solution? Well, with City’s form not quite as impressive as it was, and home failings beginning to become a bit too habitual to be considered one off, this should surely be the moment for shaking things up a bit. That doesn’t mean dropping all of Saturday’s starting XI, but it might be in everyone’s benefit if a couple not quite at peak form were given a mini kick up the backside by being left out of the Harrogate FA Cup game. And if those who come in do well and keep their place for longer than a cup tie, it might send a message to everyone in the squad – places truly are up for grabs.
Time will tell, but right now Hughes has a dilemma. He probably wants his team selection decisions to prove more difficult than they have proven of late. Because no team, in this day and age, is going to get promoted with just 12 players. Hughes needs The Other Guys to know they all have a part to play, and that even the smaller roles have huge value.
Are we still without a Reserve team set up?
I haven’t heard anything about reintroducing it since we dropped it.
Playing with no reserve team fixtures really limits the ability of those not in the squad to get any competitive experience, form and confidence.
Might be worth the club getting the reserve side up and running again at the next opportunity.
And who would they.play?
Very few clubs, if any, have a reserve team.
Oh for the days of the Northern Intermediate League or the Yorkshire Floodlit League.
Mark, you’ll remember the days when you could watch the first team in action at VP one Saturday afternoon, and the reserves the following Saturday. It certainly didn’t help the the state of the pitch when winter set in, but it kept the fringe players focussed, and match fit.
Virtually every manager, whatever the industry, has their favourite employees. Individuals that colleagues, and outsiders, can’t see the value in, but the manager supports and promotes.
Mark Hughes appears to be no exception, in relation to certain players.
Yes we used to go to watch the reserves to get the City score if they were playing away.
The reserve team was often made up of promising youngsters,.First team.players coming back from injury and players not good enough to be in the first X1.
I enjoyed the mid week floodlit games. We even got to.know the players. McNally, Ferries, Marsh etc.
Excellent article – thank you. Stated clearly what many supporters have been thinking since the season started. Not sure what the solution is and as ever the manager’s approach will be judged by the league position next May.
However one issue is clear.
We have a problem playing in front of the big VP crowd. It’s difficult being ” favourites ” every match.
Our players are intimidated by the our expectations.
Opposition teams raise their game because of ” perceived ”
status of our club in this division.
Our tactics are predictable and opposition managers regularly devise successful counter strategies.
Our players are not consistently good enough to allow their quality and mentality to overcome the above challenges which are faced by all ‘ big ‘ clubs in lower league.
We need a team with a strong stable spine consisting of players with enough ability to adapt to different tactics according to the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. Plus a band of
understudies and “other guys ” to step in regularly dependent on the opposition and current form of the core players.
A difficult ask for league 2 budgets but we seem to have overcome that particularly issue this year.
If we can only escape this division I am sure we would have a more fruitful experience at VP when not facing ” fired up ”
underdogs every match. It may require greater use of more direct tactics .
Think they key point is a strong squad is there to keep those with the shirts performing.
Those players are performing and keeping their shirts. I fully expect Hughes to make changes where required.
Ironically despite his exceptional start Cook could be at risk if he doesn’t start getting on the scoresheet soon as he is more limited as a footballer but certainly knows where the back of the net is.
Kian harratt should have ruled himself out due to his conviction for barbaric behaviour.