Issue Differing career directions

As told by Jason Mckeown

The Team

Lloyd Saxton | Adam Robinson, Lee Bullock, Louis Horne, Robbie Threlfall | Jonathan Brown, Tom Adeyemi, Joe Mitchell, Leon Osborne | Scott Dobie, Darren Stephenson | Oliver Forsyth, Dominc Rowe, Declan McGivern

There’s a saying about being kind to people on your way up as you’ll meet them on the way down – rarely in football is that greater emphasised than a reserve team fixture.

As up-coming youngsters strive to impress enough to earn a professional contract and the chance of a spot on the first team bench, senior players skulk about trying to maintain fitness and wondering what the future might hold. A wide spectrum of emotions and experience; and, as much as many ultimately don’t want to be here tonight, for everyone it’s the best passage to getting into the team on a Saturday.

It was in the number 9s of Bradford City and Derby County reserves sides tonight where the contrast was at its greatest. For Derby there was 35-year-old Michael Boulding – a familiar face at Valley Parade – coming to the end of a long career, while for the Bantams 18-year-old youth team striker Darren Stephenson is on the cusp of earning the opportunity to at least begin one.

The return of Boulding was a curious one. It’s just over a year since we last saw him on the Valley Parade turf after a 28-minute run out from the bench in a 1-0 home win over Darlington. His performance that afternoon almost encapsulated his time at City – he missed two reasonable chances and the team’s tactics failed to play to his strengths. A few weeks later new manager Peter Taylor released him, and he soon declared that he had lots of League One offers in the pipeline.

Then Boulding rocked up at Championship Barnsley pre-season, on trial while forgoing pay but failing to win a contract. Now he’s at another Championship club in Derby, but his actual first team prospects appear zero. Boulding’s final game for City was an eight-minute cameo at Port Vale on March 9 2010 – he’s not played a senior match for anyone since.

One wonders why he’s chasing rare first team opportunities at clubs so high up the football ladder, rather than seeing out his career playing week in week out for a League Two or Conference club. Certainly you’d imagine his first return to Valley Parade hasn’t quite gone as he dreamt it might.

Tonight Boulding looks pretty much the same player he did for 18 months at City. He was starved of service, balls were played to his head rather than his feet and in truth he rarely touched the ball. Undoubtedly he is a player of some finishing ability – he showed it in glimpses wearing City colours – but unless the team is built around his needs he doesn’t seem a player who will ever flourish.

But one number 9 who was flourishing was Stephenson. Having impressed at youth level, the teenage forward has been offered reserve team opportunities this season and made it two goals from six starts with a well-taken penalty to fire City in front after 13 minutes, following a foul on Scott Dobie.

That capped off a performance of huge potential. Sure there was a rawness at times – and the beauty of a reserve game is mistakes from promising youngsters aren’t greeted by loud groans but positive encouragement from the scattering of spectators – but the runs he made, his willingness to mix it and a good awareness of team mates saw him lead the line commendably. Arguably his best moment was a beautiful back heel to right back Adam Robinson – who also impressed – which no one, least of all more experienced Derby opponents had expected. A long way to go still yet you feel, but Stephenson’s potential is one to feel excited about and could even lead to a first team chance before the season is over.

More in the frame for an immediate game are Lee Bullock and Louis Horne, who both played as centre backs with watching interim manager Peter Jackson said to be considering one at least to start at the back on Saturday. It’s been a funny season for Bullock – like Boulding, his career winding down you feel – but he took to the centre back role expertly and made a series of well-timed tackles and headed clearances. Playing him – or Horne, who also impressed – at the back against Shrewsbury on Saturday represents a huge risk, but on tonight’s evidence it could work.

All of which would enable Lewis Hunt to stay as right back and David Syers to start in the central midfield in place of the suspended Jon Worthington. And given how poor Tom Adeyemi was in his 45-minute first half run out this evening, Jackson may favour this option. The on-loan Norwich midfielder gave the ball away far too often and one particular charge forward, which ended with him tackled after he should have passed long before, left reserve manager Peter Horne with his head in his hands. Adeyemi can be a good player, but continues to display erratic form which is difficult to trust.

If Adeyemi is the clear loser of Taylor’s departure and Jackson’s arrival, Leon Osborne isn’t far behind. Tonight Osborne wasn’t shy at vocally complaining about his team mates – at one stage Horne ordered him to shut up – but failed to demonstrate to Jackson that he should be earning a first team recall. After such a promising end to last season, Osborne’s stop-start City career has stalled again and one fears the leap to first-team regular is going to prove beyond him. Already on his fourth different City manager, more is expected at this stage.

Derby – with Nigel Clough watching on – equalised Stephenson’s penalty within a minute through a stunning Ben Davies free kick (another lower league player whose career has stalled by moving upwards), and on the half hour Chris Porter (there’s another!) fired home want proved to be the winner following hesitant defending.

Throughout the final hour, however, there was much to encourage Horne and Jackson. The on-trial Jonathan Brown impressed on the right wing, while in the centre of midfield Joe Mitchell and – after coming on at half time – Oliver Forsyth showed some good touches and produced the occasional eye-catching pass. In goal Lloyd Saxton commanded his area well and made a couple of decent saves. During his 45-minute run-out, Dobie showed greater levels of application and effort then he’d shown when playing for the first team of late.

Ultimately you feel these sort of evenings are quickly forgettable to experienced pros like Dobie, while for Stephenson and co they could prove a memorable stepping stone to greater things. Just remember to be nice now.