Good player, bad player

Nathan Doyle’s accent to the top of football predicted by many during his four months at Valley Parade could not have gone much further off track than it did yesterday. Released from Hull City and then signed by Barnsley where he spends most of his time on the bench. Yesterday Doyle and two other men were pulled over while driving in Derby which resulted in three men being arrested for possession of a Class A substance.

The future for Doyle is difficult to appreciate – footballers like Mark Bosnich, Roman Bednar and Shane Nicholson have played after public abuse of cocaine – but the fact that his projected career did not match his actual career is a lesson for all when it comes to gradating and valuing footballers.

We hang onto words like “good player”, “bad player” and “not good enough” but which would be categorise Doyle as simply on the basis of his playing career? He was “good player” when he left Bradford City, “not good enough” when he was at Hull City and probably considered “bad player” now yet one doubts his abilities have changed. If anything having played with Premier League players at Hull for two years he has probably learnt much.

His motivations, on the other hand, are no doubt different. Leaving Bradford City after being picked by Colin Todd from the stiffs at Derby Doyle seemed to relish every game and no doubt he was spirited enough when he arrived at the KC Stadium but a year or two of reserve football, the infamous on pitch telling off and a few changes of manager later and Nathan Doyle is where he is now.

From a playing point of view Nathan Doyle is far from alone. Football is peopled with players who kicked up a storm when they were young and spend the next few years trying to get back to where they were predicted to be going. Robbie Threlfall – wowing all with his youth team performances for Liverpool a few years ago – is a current example of this in the City team but scanning down the squads of most teams turns up many a player who was subject to “The Boys A Bit Special” articles a few years before.

There are no “good players” or “bad players”. Players play well, or they play poorly. That is all.

Motivation changes, colleagues change, situations change but the idea that Threlfall kicks a ball worse than he did two years ago or that Doyle so forgotten how to control a ball is a little silly. The more anyone does anything the better they get at it. Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers creates a rule of thumb that the one things that unites World Class performers is not a genetic quirk or an enlarged part of the brain but that all have put in 10,000 hour of practice.

For all the talk of “God given” talent David Beckham got good at free kicks by kicking a ball at a traffic cone on the park until after it had gone dark. Physical changes might rob a player of his skills – broken legs that do not heal and all – but just like you never forget how to swim a player never forgets how to play.

In the event of a player like Lee Hendrie – coming back from years of injury – then perhaps one can suggest that a player has lost the ability to access his skills. Hendrie might not be able to get up and down the pitch like he used to but he knows what to do, and how to do it, if his body will let him.

Motivation changes and managers try to control the mind-set of players as Peter Taylor has done and one can imagine that for a player like Doyle going up the leagues but into the reserves, or a player like Hendrie used to checking into the training facilities of Aston Villa and now avoiding dog poo on Apperley Bridge, retaining the mind set that brought you to prominence is hard.

The French side Olympique Lyonnais – masters of the transfer market – identified a different problem in motivation in that they looked at the performance of players signed after winning World Cups, Champions Leagues or European Championships and noted a dip which they put down to motivation. Such players are not hungry for success any more – they are successful – and their performance suffers as a result. It is probably not going a problem that is going to apply to City any time soon but it explains why Fernando Torres and Stephane Guivarch did not set the Premier League alight on return with a World Cup winners medals.

Following Lyon offers a set of rules for the transfer market that are tried and tested as the French side won their domestic league from 2001-2008. Lyon were one of the first clubs to seriously engaging in “settling” which is often lampooned as “telling spoilt rich footballers how to get to Tescos” but they have found is a way to protect their investment. They sign – pretty much – only French and Brazilian players because they know they can settle them. From Bruno Rodriguez to Billy Topp, Juanjo to Jorge Cadete City have a string of players who would not have been signed under the Lyon guidelines.

Another of Lyon’s maxims of the market revolves around the notion that players are not the subject to wild fluctuations in ability and – having accepted that – any problems they do have can be solved and the player can be returned to form.

“Buy broken players, and fix them” is the summation and it would apply to Doyle right now. Pick him up, straighten him out and get him back on track and then you have the player who left for Hull City. If Barnsley decide they have had enough of him then from a purely footballing point of view it would make sense for any club to sign him although as City saw after signing Jake Speight the ethics of the broken player are a different thing indeed.

How good is James Hanson?

When a shelf stacker and Guiseley forward put a couple of goals past Bradford (Park Avenue) on new year’s day two years ago one has to wonder if the people at the other Leeds/Bradford game asked the question “How good is James Hanson?”

For sure he had – by all accounts – dominated the Park Avenue defenders but – like Hanson – they were part times and while the Guiseley looked good he did not stride the field like a Colossus. Eventually Mark Ellis had a whisper to Stuart McCall who took him to Bradford City where he became top scorer in his first season.

When watching England beat Hungry on Wednesday night most of the discussion around our sofa was on the young players called up by Fabio Capello and the ramifications of that. There was a contention – by yours truly – that Newcastle United’s much coveted Andy Carroll should have been given a call up. Others thought that (amongst other things on a lively night of discourse) a player could not be judged as good enough for the England side if he had not been proven good enough in the Premier League.

So the question formulated that if Carroll might be considered good enough on the basis of a season not competing against the top class of English football how good could Hanson be?

Rewind to Hanson’s first season at Valley Parade and one recalls on many occasions turning to those around and exclaiming with an amazement that “that guy just does not lose headers!”

Indeed Hanson – when fit and on form – is uncanny in his abilities to rise high, win the ball and feed it accurately to his team mates. Ball winning was a Barry Conlon thing but Barry did not win as often, nor did he head it as accurately, nor did even he put in the effort of James Hanson and when watching last season’s player of the season very few would have put the limits on him that were placed on Conlon.

Conlon – it was said – had to have his best game to be as good as the rest of the side and “good enough” for League Two. Hanson – thus far – has not come up against a League Two defence where he did not enough the balance of play. Long may his superb attitude continue because – at the moment – one doubts that League Two is poising different problems than that game with Park Avenue.

Then came Nottingham Forest a team that – were it not for the randomness of the play-offs – be in the Premier League and the squad to go with it. Hanson – a half time sub – enjoyed as good a return against the twice European Champions as he did against League Two sides, and did in his non-league days. He won more in the air than one would expect against a League Two side, let alone a side who have pretensions for the Premier League.

So how good is James Hanson? Tongue in cheek one might say that if Andy Carroll might wear the three lions then why not give Hanson a call up? If one does not believe that having played in the top flight is essential for England honours – and Steve Bull‘s five in thirteen suggest that a player who has not been at the highest level can offer something to England – then perhaps the national management should be looking at the League Two players who impressively play up when facing a side from a higher division. Scalability in football play is a rare concept.

Returning to the question in hand – and not suggesting that he should be partnered with Wayne Rooney next game – how good is James Hanson?

Certainly he has proved himself able at levels lower than League Two and at League Two itself. His first game against a higher opposition did not curtail his progress so perhaps all one can say is that so far we have yet to see a ceiling on his abilities.

Perhaps though for an answer to the question we need to look not at ourselves, but at the stars. The younger stars of Nottingham Forest that is who were used that night and that manager Billy Davies described as having things come to easy to. Davies’ criticism that a young player has the big car and the nice house too early at his club and as a result they lack the hunger makes a sharp contrast to the two City goalscorers on the evening.

As Davies bemoans the BMWs that his teenagers drive Hanson and fellow goal getter David Syers and men of the match Jon McLaughlin Steve Williams know that a failure will take them back to the days of part time football and a day job. If they ever drive a BMW it is because they have rewarded themselves for a lot of hard work by replacing the broken down Skoda.

There is something utterly refreshing about watching Hanson, Syers, McLauglin and Williams play. When asking how good one of these players can be then the answer is something of a cop out – they can be as good as they want to be.

At present there is a debate on McLaughlin and if he is “good enough” as if this were a binary situation and one which should the player kick back and stop making the effort that has put in him in the position he is in now he would remain at the level he is now.

It is an excellent attitude which has brought them into league football and that same attitude that saw them as the core members of a team which beat Nottingham Forest. Maintain that attitude and it is hard to set a limit on what they can achieve, lose it and they will stop being “good”.

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