Issue Robbie Threlfall the comeback kid

As told by Jason Mckeown

Two months on from his shock resignation as Bradford City manager, Peter Jackson has yet to utter one word in public regarding his reasons for departing, other than apparently telling a group of Huddersfield supporters that “two people at City are going to kill the club” for the way they are running it. When the day comes he sees it fit to explain himself, it’s hoped whoever is holding the microphone in front of him asks what his thought process was towards his left backs.

Back in those care-free days of pre-season, a flattering 4-1 win for Premier League Bolton over the Bantams was followed by Jackson revealing he’d told full backs Robbie Threlfall and Lewis Hunt, “they can go if they find a club”. For Hunt – only still at the club because a desperation for a right back forced City to offer him a new contract – being told he could leave was understandable and he’s only featured once this campaign. Yet as Threlfall made his 18th start of the season in the home win over Northampton – enjoying arguably his finest game to date in a City shirt – a question popped into my head concerning why three months ago he was told he had no future at all.

I’ll admit I’m a big Luke O’Brien fan. When it comes to selecting who plays left back between Threlfall and O’Brien, I would always – and still would do – favour Luke because of the greater attacking threat he provides. When Jackson rarely picked Threlfall in pre-season and then made his revelation post-Bolton, I was pleased that O’Brien has apparently won his battle to be first choice.

What happened next – and where Jackson’s honest opinion would be welcomed – was baffling. The final pre-season friendly against Carlisle saw Threlfall brought in from the cold and then starting the season’s opener against Aldershot with O’Brien not even on the bench. An unfortunate own goal wasn’t the greatest of starts, but Threlfall’s superb assist for Michael Flynn’s goal at Leeds will live as long in the memory as the Welshman’s terrific strike.

Yet still, we waited for O’Brien to reclaim his place in view of Jackson’s earlier declaration; and as City made a slow start and Threlfall looked fairly average in those early games, bewilderment grew. When O’Brien was brought on as sub in the Johnstones Paint Trophy win over Sheffield Wednesday – a week after Jackson’s exit – there was a chant of “hallelujah” in support of the Halifax-born player. But neither caretaker Colin Cooper nor new manager Phil Parkinson took Threlfall out of the team.

Which would have been harsh – because with each passing week, Threlfall has quietly gone about his business looking more effective than the last game. Having originally being signed by Peter Taylor in February 2010 and much made of his set pieces during his initial loan spell, he’s again making his mark in this area too. Most notably setting up City’s opening goal at Huddersfield in the superb JPT victory.

O’Brien played that night too, and to date all of his appearances have been as a winger rather than his natural full back role. With his greater dribbling ability and willingness to take people on, O’Brien could make a good career out of this position. Particularly because – unlike your bog-standard League Two winger – he has a much greater awareness of his defensive responsibilities and will regularly help out his full back. In the last two home games Parkinson has started with two out and out wingers and then brought on O’Brien when needing to protect a lead. On each occasion he made a decent impact.

So having apparently won the full back war only to lose the battle quite badly, O’Brien’s City future now appears to hinge on his willingness and adaptability to become a winger. Competition is strong in this area of the team too, but with Michael Bryan and Jack Compton only here on loan for now O’Brien’s aim must be to prove to Parkinson these temporary players are not needed long-term. New rivals, but the same kind of challenge he has been used to at left back.

Meanwhile Threlfall has surely become one of the first names on the team sheet. He was outstanding against Northampton, time and time again successfully tackling his winger and providing good cover for Luke Oliver and Marcel Siep, while showing great positioning. Meanwhile in the less-celebrated side of his game – going forwards – he put in a strong display, linking up well with Kyel Reid. He doesn’t take people on like O’Brien, but his greater passing ability means he is starting attacking moves and then joining in further down the line by charging down the flank. With Chris Mitchell struggling to get back into the starting eleven, Threlfall has taken on the greater responsibility regarding set pieces.

All credit to Threlfall for his attitude. There are more celebrated and eye catching members of the team, but his determination to re-discover his form – after a disappointing 2010/11 campaign – and battle for his future at the club is a shining example of what City are trying to achieve this season.

Improvement in individuals, improvement as a team. Threlfall was supposed to be consigned to the scrap heap, but too often City have given up on players and released them rather than develop them. Told to get lost by Jackson, he has come back stronger than ever. Threlfall’s first team spot is his to lose – and on current form I can’t see that happening anytime soon.