Issue Barry Conlon the short-term hero

As told by Jason Mckeown

There were plenty of notable results across England’s four professional divisions on Saturday – emphatic victories for Chelsea and Norwich, surprise defeats for Man City and Leeds – but while events at Saltergate provide an interesting talking point for Bradford City supporters, they should not come as a shock.

Barry Conlon, signed by Chesterfield on a month’s loan only that morning, marked his debut by netting the winning goal over Torquay United. The crisp strike from the edge of the area was typical of the Irishman – in the sense of starting well at a new club. It is the 14th transfer the Irishman has been the subject of, it is the 13th year of the 31-year-old’s playing career. There’s a reason he doesn’t stay anywhere long.

For Conlon has proved himself to be an effective short-term impact player. His one and three-quarter seasons at Valley Parade characterised by short spells on the sidelines and short spells in the team. It can be argued he wasn’t given a fair run of games in the team, it can be argued he made it impossible for manager Stuart McCall to give him that run.

I was always a fan of Barry, but it was Bury away almost a year ago that my tolerance of his short-comings vastly-reduced. Three days earlier at Luton, he’d come on a sub and made a decent impact in a second half the Bantams dominated. At Gigg Lane he partnered Steve Jones up front, and though the on-loan Burnley was unhelpful in his positioning and link up play, Conlon’s anonymous performance and miss of a sitter in the final stages of the 1-0 defeat summed up his lack of reliability.

It left me looking back over his City career up to then and realising just how inconsistent he generally was. It seemed to be a never-ending cycle. Brought into the team to give it a boost, he would make a good impact and often score. The next game he’d be a definite starter and usually carry on where he left off. But then the week after less effective, then the week after even less so. The hauling off as sub wasn’t far away, the bench his home again the following week. Then the odd cameo appearance before the cycle started all over again.

A perfect example was in late October 2008. Conlon came on as sub in a battling home game with Bury and scored a late winner. The following Saturday against Barnet, he started the game and scored two excellent goals. Then his performances began to drop off in away games at MK Dons and Wycombe. He was then dropped against Rotherham, before returning in the home game against Chesterfield, playing well and scoring from the spot.

When on form it wasn’t just Conlon’s work rate which impressed, he was very effective at holding up the ball and enabling others to get forward. He was had a great shot on him (often unlucky with some great efforts hitting the woodwork) and he showed intelligence in his passing and positioning. His poorer performances were notable in that the work rate was clearly missing. He wouldn’t chase causes as vigorously, he’d try illogical passes to others when he needed to show more endevour in trying the harder things, he’d fluff his lines in front of goal.

It was as if he only played well when he was under pressure or had something to prove – such as why he should be in the starting eleven.

Of course that point to prove led to him becoming a hero when he moved to Grimsby Town on loan towards the end of the season. Scoring in each of his first three appearances, he pulled a struggling outfit away from the relegation trap door.

In doing so, he also made life that bit more uncomfortable for McCall. Having allowed him to leave with rumours of off-the-field indiscipline circulating, Conlon’s on-loan like-for-like replacement Paul Mullin failed to work out. As Barry made the headlines in Cleethorpes, Mullin struggled to make any impact and City’s season continued to implode. Promotion hopes were as good as ended by a 3-0 defeat at Dagenham where Mullin looked dis-interested. At the exact same time, Conlon was smashing home a double which almost virtually sealed the Mariners’ survival.

But this was a few games, not a season. Whether he’d have made a difference to City’s collapse is highly doubtful. Since that double-strike against Barnet on November 1, he’d only managed one goal from open play during his final four months at Valley Parade.

Conlon’s ability to make a short-term impact was only re-affirmed. His capability of doing it long-term a remaining question.

And one still unanswered, for despite a bright start at Grimsby this season after making his move permanent, Conlon’s form faded badly and with the club struggling more than ever, this time he couldn’t be counted on when the chips were down. Two sendings off, more rumours of off-the-field misbehaviour, only one goal – a penalty – since October. When we went to Blundell Park in November, City were up against a mere shadow of the player Conlon could be. The work rate was nil, the passing poor, the finishing hilariously bad.

His manager has put him on the transfer list, with the excellent Cod Almighty stating, “Conlon is a player who might have been genuinely useful to the Mariners had his head been right but has looked less and less interested as Town have sunk deeper into the mire – so fair play to the manager for deciding to get shot.”

So Conlon is on the move again and, with Grimsby drawing 0-0 at home to Cheltenham on the same afternoon Conlon was a goal-scoring hero on his Chesterfield debut, it’s the turn of Mariners manager Neil Woods to feel uncomfortable.

Chesterfield have signed him on loan with a view to making it permanent for the rest of the season. McCall and Woods – not to mention the many other previous managers Conlon has exasperated – would probably advise John Sheridan to reserve judgement for a few weeks.