Issue Barry signs up and the boos go quieter

As told by Jason Mckeown

“More hoof ball to look forward to!”, “I’m amazed we kept him for his hold up play”, “Waste of money and results won’t improve due to his presence”, “My nose runs faster than he does”, “What sickens me too, is the fact that some of my hard earned money goes towards his wage bill”, “That’s all I hope for, an injury that would rule him out for the rest of the season.” Just some of the early comments posted by Bradford City fans on the Telegraph & Argus’ website after Barry Conlon revealed he was ready to sign the new contract offered to him for the rest of the season.

Barry is the type of player who will never be universally liked at this club. He can look ungainly, miss easy chances and launching balls up to him to win and hold up is never going to result in a 100% successful ratio. Yet it is to Conlon’s credit that the number of people who think he’s not good enough to play for this football club has drastically decreased; not just during the last few weeks when he has enjoyed his best run of form and goals in a City shirt, but since the day his signing was announced to underwhelmed supporters.

Barry was Stuart’s first signing as manager and as he and Peter Thorne drove up to the club they reflected on the more illustrious names of Carbone, Petrescu and Collymore who were signing Bradford City-headed contracts not so long ago. Conlon was known to some City fans, a preverbal lower league player with as many clubs as hot dinners; he’d played at Valley Parade for Barnsley in October 2004 and his goals could be seen on local news when York City were in the Football League. A quick glance at his career record hinted that another Non Scoring Forward (NSF) was on board to frustrate us all and, when he woefully missed a headed chance in a debut friendly appearance at Harrogate it was already enough for some to question Stuart’s judgement.

There was nothing in those first two months of competitive action to suggest anything different. He missed a penalty on his debut and, though he started the first few games, he looked slow and clumsy. Guylian Ndumbu-Nsungu was looking better alongside him and there was Thorne recovering from injury. A promotion challenge would not be achieved with the number 9 in the starting eleven it was felt.

Then he started at Morecambe during that dreadful autumn run of form and looked outstanding, holding the ball up effectively and bringing others into play. He carried that on in the next match against Darlington, though easy chances were spurned. He was less impressive at Grimsby the following week but still kept his place for the Brentford game. When he missed two easy chances in a matter of minutes, with City trailing 2-0, the boos rang down and Stuart took the sensible option of quickly subbing him. The team improved without him over the next few weeks and other League Two clubs came in offering loan deals. He was allowed to go, but opted to fight for his place.

There have been others at City with apparently more skill and ability who have not possessed such mental strength to cope with problems, but Conlon showed he carried bucket loads of it with a stoppage time winner against Lincoln on Boxing Day – his first City goal from open play – and then a good run in the team where his partnership with Thorne blossomed. During away games at least, Conlon was a cult hero with “Barry Barry” regularly chanted. Others kept their arms folded, frowned and thought it was all a joke to show him any support. A missed penalty at home to Dagenham, despite the fact he’d scored his last three spot kicks, meant the knives were out and he was on borrowed time.

But Stuart kept him on during the summer and though his popularity sunk to new depths when he was harshly singled out as scapegoat for the Huddersfield debacle (he was terrible that night, in fairness) some took to booing him when he came on as sub. That manifested itself most publicly at home to Luton when he came on at 0-0, yet with his first touch he’d put the ball in the net and another upturn in form followed. This time, the goals came too and Conlon took the mantle as the main man for scoring during autumn as City kept pace with the early runners. With Michael Boulding also on board, competition for places is fierce, but there never seemed any doubt Conlon would be offered another six months – and an increasingly number of people feel he deserves it.

Conlon is not going to go down as an all-time City great and there will be some who will stubbornly hold onto their views that he is ‘garbage’ long after he’s departed, but the fact he’s won over so many – including his manager – is testament to work rate and commitment. Imagine if other recent players at Valley Parade, with twice the ability, had possessed such desire to play for this club, would we be in League Two right now? Barry said on signing until the summer, “There were a few sniffs here and there but it was Bradford City all the way for me. I had no doubts at all. I just feel at home. I love being around the place, the lads are a great bunch and there’s no way I wanted to leave.”

The biggest question with Barry has always been his consistency. If he could sustain the sort of form he showed in October and November over a full season he would have played at a higher level for longer. It’s partly because of this that he has only been offered short-term deals and, if City gain promotion this season, he is likely to become surplus to requirements. Nevertheless he will find no shortage of clubs willing to take him on, with a lot of their fans no doubt taking an instant disliking to him and dubbing him a “pub footballer.” Yet when he does eventually go he will leave with the best wishes of a significant proportion of City fans because he gave everything he had and proven a lot of us wrong.