By Jason McKeown
I guess we should have expected this. For much of the season it felt like Mark Hughes was playing it a little too safe with his team selection, sticking with players even if they weren’t performing at the perceived right level. And so the fact the 2022/23 retained list features fewer departures than we supporters might have liked is no great surprise. There’s a level of familiarity that Hughes seems to like in his charges. He knows what to expect from them, and is happy to keep faith – even accepting their limitations.
Ruthless is not a word you would use to describe the decision to offer Liam Ridehalgh and Alex Gilliead new deals to stay. In the build up to the announcement, as fans debated who should go and who should stay, many were hoping for a bigger clearout. And though Ridehalgh and Gilliead were far from the biggest weaknesses in the Bradford City squad, there was a feeling from some that seeking an upgrade wouldn’t hurt.
To an extent, we do have to be mindful of our emotions. Passions are running high right now, with the rawness of last Saturday’s play off defeat still felt. It’s easy to react in haste. To want to tear everything down. Because in its own way, there’s a positive feeling that comes from doing something – anything really – towards addressing City’s shortcomings. Hughes’ job is ultimately to distance himself from the emotions, and to make considered calls. Whether we agree or disagree, he sees Ridehalgh, Gilliead and of course Andy Cook as part of his plans next season.
Still, the fact only five of the nine players out of contract – who have some level of Bradford City first team experience – are definitely leaving the club indicates a relatively quiet summer ahead.
Assuming Ridehalgh, Gilliead and Cook sign – and we’ll get to that – it means City have a contracted squad of two goalkeepers, two right backs, two left backs, five centre backs, six midfielders and four forwards. That’s a 21-person squad. And though there will of course be new arrivals on top of that, it’s clearly not going to be on the scale of last summer, when 17 signings were made.
The summer transfer business looks set to be all about strengthening rather than rebuilding. And that doesn’t sound bad on the face of it. but The bigger question remains – is there enough quality in those 21 players? And, where there are gaps, can we find the right summer signings to raise the bar?
Keeping Cook is clearly going to be huge for City’s future. The 31-goal man has been offered a new deal and us supporters will spend the next few weeks anxiously loading up the T&A website each morning to find out if he’s going to take it.
For Cook, the next contract that he signs could be life-defining. He’s just had the best season of his career, but at 32-years-old he only has a few more football earning years left. There will naturally be considerable interest elsewhere for Cook’s services, potentially even from League One. And so City have a battle on their hands to convince their number nine to remain at Valley Parade.
We can all see Cook is happy and thriving at City, but can we offer him the best deal? That’s going to be the key question. If you’re Cook, you are naturally going to want a rewarding contract from the Bantams, otherwise you’re looking elsewhere – reluctantly or otherwise. If City can somehow win this race, they will not make a more important signing this summer.
It’s fair to argue that Cook is not going to repeat 31 goals next season, but there are no signs of him significantly dropping off. And given pace is not amongst his attributes, his age should not really be a concern for next year, or the year after. His advancing years do not need to affect his game, for now anyway.
Cook’s form over the second half of the season was outstanding, so why can’t he go and get at least 20 goals next year? If you’re Hughes and City, you’d absolutely take that – and you will struggle to find it elsewhere. It’s huge what happens with Cook. Especially when you look at those other 20 City players, and their very limited goal returns.
Meanwhile Gilliead is offered a new deal after a two-year spell at Valley Parade where managers, coaching staff and the player himself eventually worked out the type of player he truly could be. Gilliead was signed by Derek Adams in the summer of 2021 as a winger, but with a very mediocre goals and assist record that suggested he would bring limitations. And at Valley Parade, we knew this only too well after Gilliead’s previous two loan spells at the club had seen lots of industrious running and effort, but little end product.
So it really wasn’t a surprise that Gilliead did not especially impress playing as a wide forward under Adams. Again, you could never fault his endeavour, but where was the impact where it really mattered? Gilliead has many attributes that make him look a decent winger, but much of City’s struggles of the past two seasons have lied in the three attackers, behind the striker in the 4-2-3-1, not contributing enough.
By the time this long-standing problem fell onto Hughes’ shoulders, Gilliead was reinventing himself as a deep lying midfielder. One of the two sitting in front of the back four, in that 4-2-3-1. And it suited him much better. Gilliead had a very strong end to 2021/22 playing alongside Elliot Watt – the two offered real balance.
It hasn’t quite been the same this year, with Gilliead partnering Richie Smallwood. But post January, and after the back and forth with the diamond formation, Gilliead did improve again. He certainly suited the diamond well, and when Hughes did go back to 4-2-3-1, the mid-season influence of Adam Clayton inspired Gilliead and Smallwood to deliver better performances. Gilliead was one our better players in the run-in.
Ultimately, Gilliead ends this contract period converted from underachieving winger to decent defensive midfielder, with the licence to roam forward with the ball. Again, we’re not seeing notable goal and assist contributions from Gilliead, but that doesn’t matter as much in this newer role. He’s the guy who wins the ball, brings it forward, and sets up attacks. And he’s done it reasonably well.
Long-term, is Gilliead the answer for a club like City with ambitions to climb up the leagues? Probably not. And so you wonder how much he would be seen as starter next term, or if there will be a gradual progression that seems him become more of a squad player. Given the issues of 2022/23, there is surely no way that Hughes isn’t going to seriously look at strengthening his midfield options this summer. Gilliead may sign a new deal and find that he plays less football.
The decision to offer a new deal to Ridehalgh is a surprise, given the left back has had two years of injury disruption. What Ridehalgh has going for him is a strong record when fit and in the team. In 2021/22, City won 32% and lost 29% of the games Ridehalgh started – when he was injured, they won only 19% and lost 52% of their games. This season was similarly notable. City won 47% and lost 23% of the games Ridehalgh started, compared to winning 36% and losing 32% when he didn’t play.
I think the issue for us City fans watching on is whether the disparity in City’s results, with and without Ridehalgh, is truly down to the left back. For example, his return to the starting line up in February this season coincided with Sam Stubbs making his full debut and becoming just a permanent fixture in the back four for the remainder of his campaign. When looking at the improved results since then, who was truly the biggest influencer?
Ridehalgh has been solid and defensively it’s difficult to think of too many errors. But in a City team that can be too conservative in going forward, they badly need attack-minded full backs to make it work better. Ridehalgh hasn’t offered enough going forward. Add in his age (32) and his injury record, and it did seem more logical to shake hands and move on, especially with Matty Foulds having had a good loan spell at Harrogate. Instead, Ridehalgh is set to remain at Valley Parade. Hmmm.
Adam Clayton won’t be joining Ridehalgh at City next term. The veteran midfielder always looked a short-term signing, brought in last January to pep up a struggling midfield. And to a degree he delivered what was needed. Clayton improved City initially, although left an overall suspicion that the team’s balance was suffering by having too many defensive-minded midfielders. That’s not necessarily Clayton’s fault, as Hughes could have left out Smallwood or Gilliead to find that balance. But when Clayton got injured in early March, City definitely became a more attacking force in the 34-year-old’s absence.
Clayton returned to the starting line up on the final day of the season at home to Leyton Orient, when City just needed a point. He didn’t do great, but offered the solidity needed that day. Continuing to play Clayton in the play offs was not unexpected, but definitely is something to look at during the post season inquest. He was awful at Carlisle in the second leg and should have been brought off much sooner.
Of the others out of contract and leaving, there’s not too much new to say. Yann Songo’o basically said his goodbyes in January when he was loaned to Walsall. The only surprise is how little he subsequently featured at the Bescot Stadium. Songo’o is a player fairly popular with City fans for his performances in 2021/22, but when Hughes came in and changed the style, his lack of technical ability was a factor. If beleaguered Morecambe can find some semblance of a budget this summer, expect Songo’o to reunite with Adams once more.
Oscar Threlkeld has not figured for City since April 2022 and spent some time on loan at Oldham this season, without pulling up any trees. Unfortunately for him, Threlkeld will only really be remembered when in future years we fans are debating the worst right backs of all time. Abo Eisa might have been a good signing for us but all those injuries got in the way. We just never really saw his true quality. No hard feelings though, Abo.
Kian Scales departs despite having won praise for his performances on loan at Farsley this season. He played 43 times and netted three goals, as Celtic just avoided relegation from the National League North. Scales also caught the eye for City last pre-season. It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Finally Colin Doyle is staying after City exercised the option to extend his contract. Doyle has not featured once for City this season, with Harry Lewis ever-present. But the superb performances of Lewis are testament to Doyle’s coaching skills and it’s no surprise he is staying on. You would imagine the transition from player to coach will continue at pace.
Ultimately, Hughes has made these retain/release calls whilst having a number of other players still under contract who have not been part of his plans – and who look surplus to requirements. And so there are likely to be more close season departures. If Foulds, Timi Odusina, Jake Young, Ryan East, Luke Hendrie and Vadaine Oliver in particular are unlikely to force their way into the team next season, moving them on seems to be in everyone’s best interests.
In the meantime, let Andy Cook Watch begin.
The retained list was exactly what I had hoped. You can’t have big turnarounds year upon year and expect results. The core group of players is good, so if we can add just quality upon that then I think we’ll be right right up there next year.
If you let gilliead go, you then have to sign two players in that position which a) may dilute the amount of quality you bring in and b) new players need time to settle and that may impact the start of the season
I personally think Ridehalgh has been one of the standout performers since returning from injury. Unfortunately fans forget and don’t see the unflashy but good pieces of play. If he can stay fit then I think he’ll be a massive asset next year.
We talk about needing more attacking fullbacks however it was the creativity infront of them that was lacking. Improve the creativity and pace throughout the midfield and forwards and keep it solid at the back and we’ll be in a very good place.
Onwards and upwards but I’m confident for next season
I need to differ on your remark regarding Gilliead ‘He’s the guy who wins the ball, brings it forward’. I agree on his energy and work-rate but I don’t see him as a ball winner. In fact quite the opposite. Frequently loses in a 50/50 challenge and seems to do more shadowing than tackling. We need a nasty little so and so in the middle of the park to win the ball and a playmaker to utilise it efficiently. Just my observation.
Gone are the days where you have a hard tackler. You can win the ball in many different, ways such as interception, harrying, creating mistakes in the opposition.
Overall not too different from what I expected. With Gilliead I thought it may be time to look elsewhere. Having said that, if we carry on playing a 3 man midfield, and the 3rd man can be someone that looks to break into the box and support Cook and Walker (or whoever might be up there), then we might actually have the makings of a well balanced midfield. Smallwood has to be the player picking up the bits and pieces and just distributing the ball, we don’t need two of them.
If on the other hand we play a 2 man midfield or a 3 with a Clayton type holding midfielder, we can look forward to a similar season.
For me the offer of a new contract to Gillead shows a total lack of ambition, East and Smallwood as playmakers passers I can live with then we need to be looking for a T Wright, Scot Banks type of player to really push on next season, we need more pace in midfield NOT more of the same ( 1 goal a season ) tippy tappy disappearing midfielder, also let’s move on some of the fringe players who obviously are never gonna be used by mark hughes ….. bring in quality not quantity for me ! I said this last season with enough thumbs down and I see no reason to change my mind after last season’s performance, it was an improvement on the previous years but do we want to kick on or remain the same?
That, Jason, puts it in a nutshell. Hughes is clearly a decent man who likes to wear a suit and tie, speak diplomatically and conserve what he’s got. This time last year he hung on to Angol and Sutton, players he knew, rather than looked to find better replacements. If Ridehalgh stays fit he can do a reasonable job. Gilliead did a reasonable job. I am personally not displeased with either signing. A more ambitious and less cautious manager, however, might have wanted to upgrade both. One of the hardest and potentially most expensive tasks will be to persuade about half-a-dozen contracted players to move on. They are equivalent to NHS bed blockers, taking spaces urgently needed for a new intake. Jason identifies them so there is no need to name them again. One of the problems last year was having far too many squad players and not enough legitimate first teamers. Conservative managers like to comfort themselves with large squads of good guys who will not give any trouble and ‘can do a job’. As Jason says, perceptively, it looks as though this might be a relatively quiet summer – with much of the focus on whether Andy Cook will stay or leave. My greatest hope beyond his re-signing is that we have seen the back of the three-year contracts. They are a hostage to fortune at this level – as we might well find this summer when trying to move them on.
In summary, pretty much what was expected. I agree with the comment above they are players to do a reasonable job and a squad needs them.
If Gilliead is on reduced terms to reflect his role as a squad player and he will be invaluable. Someone who can play multiple positions he may end up playing 30 games filling in at full back, CM, winger and let nobody down. We aren’t going to have backups the same quality as the first team so that makes sense. But if he is selected as a fixture next to Smallwood we will still see our games becoming a war of attrition.
We need someone with the ability to transition play quicker, take the ball on the half turn and start attacks at pace. Gilliead for all his qualities always wanted that extra touch and his passing range is limited.
Only Ridehalgh was a slight surprise for me and that’s because we had Foulds but it make sense we will go for a first choice left back and Foulds may move on. Ridehalgh is from Halifax so staying local could be the most important thing to him while for Foulds it will be first team football I’m not sure we will guarantee.
There’s no denying we were a solid team but just lacked that bit of quality. For me this team were only 1/2 players from going up automatically (7 points) and that was another quality winger and the centre mid mentioned above.
Obviously Banks is gone so we need to replace him too (Wright on loan?) but make those 3 signings and I’d be confident in our starting XI.
Would be great to bring Critchlow back but Platt showed this year he’s more than capable.
Chapman could be similar to Gilliead play 30 games across LW/10/RW.
If we had had a full season out of Banks and Wright I’m certain we would have done it this year so evolution not revolution is fine by me it doesn’t mean my ambition is for anything other than automatics this year!
I am hoping that Ryan East gets more game time next season and isn’t shipped out on loan or permanently. Whenever he has played he seems very good on the ball and always looks to get forward. He has never let City down when he has played.
Agree. He gets forward , is fit and gets a shot off. Simply put we need (obviously) a box to box midfielder who is not scared to shoot
I be very surprised if Cook stays. If someone offers him more £££ a week at another club for a longer contract, he’d be mad to stay. Rom Id put in the same boat, I hope they both stay but we need to be realistic.
Therefore, with Banks gone we need another 4-5 players who can walk into our 1st team. Firstly, I hope Mark can uncover the next attacking midfield footballer. Someone who’d take gladly on loan if we had to, like Lee Evans when he came to us, he always looked to push forward. An attacking full back, like the one Gillingham had (I think or was it Colchester) who delivered two of the best crosses I saw at VP this year in the 1st half against them.
A replacement for Wright, sadly I don’t think we ever recovered from when he left. That definitely was a spanner in the works.
Also, Id argue the wages paid out for Costelloe, Nevers and Bola were wasted. I’d rather have spent that on one 1 proven player who walked into our team than the hit and hope that one fringe player turns out okay. Quality over quantity.
Finally, please can we have a more attacking style of football at VP, yes the current style of play suits away matches, but at home we never really put a team to bed (except Stevenage). Many of the home games this season will not live long in the memory, hoping next season we have an improvement on this front.
One thing in our favour is that Cook doesn’t want to move and has reportedly turned down Stevenage’s contract offer for that reason.
Sometimes it’s better the devil you know.
Midfield was a weakness at times last season; we need someone with athleticism and a physical presence to sit in front of that back 4, plus a bit more creativity in there with someone to rival Walker for that number 10 role. Re-sign Cook and get at least a couple of wingers in the Banks and Wright mould, plus be a bit more positive in our approach to games particularly at home, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t be up there challenging again; it all sounds so simple!
It’s still a bit raw though, as that complete non performance and being punished for making a defensive substitution, has in my eyes totally overshadowed the progress we had made this season. It wasn’t the fact that we lost, which although devastating in itself; it was the manner of the defeat. You’ve felt Hughes has been too negative at times this season, and football has a nasty habit of biting you in the backside at crucial times, which unfortunately was illustrated to our detriment in that 2nd leg.
Maybe it’s me, but I also find it strange that not one of the players has apologised, or at least acknowledged how poorly we played. I think Hughes greatest challenge will not be the players he can bring in; it will be picking up the existing group to ensure we don’t have hangover from this going into next season.
I’m bewildered by the constant negative reaction to Ridehalgh. I honestly think he’s one of our best players. The difference between him and Foulds is stark and that’s no criticism of Foulds who is still young and learning and doesn’t let City down. The problem for Ridehalgh is what is in front of him. And that’s the same for Smallwood who puts in an enormous shift every game but can’t do it on his own.
City lack pace and a spark. That player who plays on the turn as Jason put it. I believe we almost had this with Wright and Chapman and if we could have had all 3 of them (including Banks) we would have been a much more dynamic side. And then the likes of Smallwood will make the players and the team tick.
For me, the Swindon away game did for us. Firstly Chapman who had come back refreshed and confident, limped out of the season and then Hendrie who had done an admirable job got injured and the goal followed. I think had that not happened we might have done it.
That’s not to say, you can’t do better than Ridehalgh, Gilliead, Chapman etc but you don’t kick them out in the hope you can get better. That’s why he kept Angol and Sutton, you don’t just throw your base, your core away, on a whim.
We have a really solid core now and just a few additions, who I believe will be already lined up, will see us take the next step.
Disappointed but confident we are heading in the right direction.
Agreed I think Ridehalgh had a strong end to the season. All he needs is a decent option in front of him (ieVernam!) If you are going to get an upgrade on Gilly at League Two level you would be playing a blinder. Smallwood and/or Gilly/East plus AN Other would suffice. Good luck to Oscar who does not deserve the opprobrium heaped on him irrespective of performance
It may well be the offer of a contract to Ridehalgh has been prompted, in part, to the possibility of Foulds deciding he way wish to move to Harrogate permanently. He seems to have settled in to their side well and appears to be appreciated by Weaver.
The January window is notoriously difficult but how much did we know about Nevers, Costelloe and Bola, before they joined us? Did we take some of them purely on the recommendation of the parent club?
With his understandably limited knowledge of the lower leagues, Hughes will be heavily dependent again on Gent for the summer’s permanent signings. Certainly, Stevenage and Orient’s season will have been boosted by the extensive knowledge that Evans and Wellens had, not only of effective lower league tactics, but also players, when it came to team strengthening.
The weight of expectation, for next season, now lies heavily on Steven Gent’s shoulders!
Liam & Gillead are solid, no reason at all to release them.
Wright & Banks need replacing but it looks like all promising speedy wingers get stockpiled by the prem clubs so they’ll need to be loans again.
Addition of a midfielder that can control possession and distribute effectively is the difference we need, a midfield version of the Stubbs signing would be ideal. Perfect age, just had a little bad luck with injuries at the wrong time.
If we can get that guy and turn up a couple more young guys in the Lewis & Chapman mold, i’d be pretty happy.
I agree with Rob on Ridehalgh. I think he’s a good player, but what chance had he of building an understanding with a left winger that changed so many times. You could see that Halliday and Banks built that on the right side, and knowing when and where overlaps were on. Rides didn’t know from week to week who was ahead of him so not surprisingly couldn’t forge that relationship and reading of play.
Jason is spot on about the Cook twitch. I feel like a back seat kid asking if we’re there yet.
……………Has AC signed yet?
I watched the film Moneyball a few weeks ago (not a big Brad Pitt fan, but a good film). It’s all about the randomness of scouting for new players in US baseball. Let’s hope Steven Gent does better this summer than the Oakland As scouts in the film!