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.

Topp exits Valley Parade

Willy Topp was not the player we thought he was when he signed. Being fair he was never going to be.

Aside from the obvious difference when he arrived he changed his name from Billy because, well, because he though Willy Topp and Dick Head were a little too close together the Chilean who promised goals delivered none.

Topp was to be the new Robbie Blake. He was to be the tricks and the flicks that lifted Stuart McCall’s first generation of Bradford City out of League Two. One good turn against Shrewsbury Town deserved another but did not get one and an impressive goal in the reserves apart Topp hardly even registered on the Bantams radar.

Nevertheless he figured in the minds of many. Topp should be given a chance – we heard and in some cases said – but reports of injuries, returns to his homeland for rumoured curious reasons and poor training seemed to add up to one thing. When put in the squad at Bradford City Topp could not match the efforts of others.

In many ways Topp should be where Barry Conlon is now – Topp started the season as City’s cult hero and Conlon as a boo figure – but the application of the Irishman on the field puts his rival into the shade.

Stuart McCall watches Barry and Billy, Leon Osbourne and The Bouldings and Peter Thorne every day in training and the Chilean has started to figure bottom of that list. Without wanting to suggest a blind faith in McCall’s judgement one has to assume the Topp offered nothing in excess even of the younger players in the squad like Rory Boulding who figured above the Chile man on the bench on Saturday.

Other suggest that Topp was hamstrung by a manager unwilling to try out a formation that would suit him supposing that a 433 would have benefited Topp allowing him more room to show off his skills and this may be true but at what cost to the rest of the squad? Chris Kamara played a team to fit in Chris Waddle but faced relegation until the star man left and he was replaced with more down to Earth football. All of which assumes that if unleashed with a formation change Topp would have been worth the effort. His impressive flashes numbered fewer than those that Kyle Nix produced last season.

On Topp’s exit City are second in League Two and nothing has suggested that that extra place could be earned by bending the team to fit in the Chilean. On the contrary the moral of City’s season to date has been the triumph of effort, believe and the rewards of doing the right things most often rather than hopefully employed low percentage solutions.

In a way that is the lesson that Topp gives us as he leaves. While eyes look at Billy with hope and optimism Michael Boulding – who’s arrival at City was met in places with a grimace rather than the smile of Toppy – was scoring goals and running himself into the ground and has a half dozen goals to his name.

It is impossible to form an argument that Topp should feature above Michael Boulding, Conlon or Thorne and in the end – distressingly – all the man from South America offers is tricks and mirrors while three strikers deliver goals.

Topp may go on to great things – few will wish him bad on the way out – but City have learnt another lesson on going for solid, consistent ability rather than unknown and perhaps talent.

Of course there will persist in the mind the Topp – when “given a chance” – would have been as sublime as Benito Carbone or Peter Beagrie but the reality is the player sitting on his hands while others strive and succeed.

Willy Topp joins a list with Jorge Cadete and Bruno Rodriguez. The players who we thought were going to be.

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