Boycott / Loans

I am not going to tell you to not go to tonight’s game with Stoke City u23 but I would like to play with your intuitions around the situation League One clubs find themselves in.

The English Football League Trophy (EFLT) should be boycott because – it is said – allowing teams of under twenty three players from the top two divisions of English football represents a first step towards allowing Reserve Teams/B Teams/u23 Teams into the Football League itself.

(Those top two division are referenced to as “Premier League” for the rest of this article. That would be a taxonomy that included Aston Villa more than Rotherham United.)

This would be inherently devaluing – the argument goes – because it would create a set of teams who were not representing communities but were using the resources of those who do. The upshot of this could be that competitions like League One are devalued by being won by teams which – by definition – are not as interested in them as they are other competitions.

Scunthorpe

Last season Scunthorpe United missed out on a play off place to a Barnsley team which had three loan players – Ashley Fletcher, Ivan Toney and Harry Chapman of West Ham United (now, and Manchester United then), Newcastle United and Middlesbrough respectively – who are the very type of footballer who will be playing for the likes of Stoke City u23.

As a Scunthorpe United supporter you might wonder how much of an impact Barnsley’s bringing in those players had and – considering the gap between Barnsley and Scunthorpe was three goals – you might conclude that without those three players your side would have been sixth not The Tykes.

You could think similar things about Josh Cullen, Reece Burke and Bradford City. What did Bradford or Barnsley do to bring those players in? Are we happy with a League where a decisive factor is the ability to maintain relationships with Premier League Academies?

That players can be borrowed from one club to another is a standard of football but we kid ourselves if we say what we have now is the loan system as we have always known it.

In the 1980s loans were used to cover injury – Liverpool’s Steve Staunton in for City’s Karl Goddard is a good example – and in the 1990s it was used to freshen up squads with an new face for a month or so and for try before you buy deals.

Now loans are a part of squad gathering. Each season a club looks at loans as a way to support the squad they are building. Signing Reece Burke was not to cover injury or because the players in that role were failing it was a cornerstone to Phil Parkinson’s summer recruitment.

So we kid ourselves if we do not notice the changes to how loans are used and we kid ourselves if we do not notice why those changes have been made and what the results are.

In a year Reece Burke went from squad man to valued asset at West Ham. The benefits of loan deals for Premier League clubs are obvious.

It is less clear what League One clubs get out of them.

League One’s clubs are now defined – in some part – by who they bring in on loan. The right contacts at the right Premier League academies would allow four Reece Burkes to be brought in by a team.

These loan signings happen at every club – more or less – and one could argue that they have a cancelling out effect. City only need Reece Burke because Barnsley have Fletcher and Coventry City have Adam Armstrong. If all loan players were to return to all parent clubs all League One clubs would be effected equally.

These loan players represent a cheap option for clubs – some free, some with subsidised wages, all without long term contracts – and loan signings make up three or four players in every squad of twenty two.

To make that explicit the Premier League is funding League One clubs at a rate of (around) 15% of their wage budgets and in return for that they are taking the value of having their players play a full season in League One which provides the experience needed to improve. They get to turn a young Reece Burke into an £8m rated player.

This has had a warping effect on League One squads.

The loan players available to League One clubs from the Premier League are young and because a squad must be balanced League One clubs know that they must build group of senior players. This necessarily stops League One young players progressing.

An example. A League One club wants three central defenders and – because they do not have to pay for him – they take a kid on loan from Premier League allowing them to spend more on the other players.

The manager – knowing he already has one kid at centreback – is not going to be able to progress one of his own team’s youngsters for fear of ended up with a situation where he has two teenagers at the heart of his back four. So he brings in older players to balance his squad.

So the manager makes a team of senior players and any value for progressing young players goes to the Premier League team. If you take a Gladwellian view – as I do – that good footballers are forged by playing games rather than born.

Which means that a Reece Burke is worth £8m to West Ham United while City;s 19 year old professional contracted defender James King has yet to play. With King it is almost impossible to say if he is worth a place in the team but a concern would be would a Dean Richards or an Andrew O’Brien be in the same position as King is now?

The Premier League clubs take all – or a lot of at least – of the value that comes from developing players in League One.

We have a situation in League One where the Premier League make a funding contribution to most of the teams in the division in some way, that the quality of loan players attracted has an unnatural and disproportionate influence on those teams finishing positions, and that the value from this transaction goes to the Premier League at the detriment to the teams in League One.

We worry about the Football League Trophy bringing B Teams into the Football League but I think we worry for no reason and that the problems that that would represent are already with us.

I’d suggest that if you consider the above you’d conclude that all the benefits of B Teams have been given to Premier League clubs and are already in League One today.

Preview / Players

It’s just words I assure them. But they will not have it – Simon Armitage

Something unique at Bradford City as one of the goalkeepers is the only player in British Football to have his transfer fee on his back as a squad number. Number one, and costing just one pound, is Colin Doyle arrived from Blackpool and looks to be starting on the first day of the season.

A commanding figure at six foot five Doyle has had the kind of career that seems to engulf goalkeepers who get used to the bench. He is thirty one and has played less than one hundred games.

Steve Banks – who arrived as keeper coach from Blackpool alongside Doyle – has the faith that the Irishman can step up to the duties of a starting keeper and should he fail then Rouven Sattelmaier gets a chance.

Sattelmaier – City’s first European number twelve goalkeeper – has played more first team games than Doyle, albeit at a lower level, and is three years his junior. The German talks confidently about challenging Doyle for his position.

It will be interesting to see at what point Stuart McCall opts for change – if he does – but the relative levels of experience afford an odd unbalance in confidence levels in Sattelmaier’s favour.

Joe Cracknell is third choice. He wears number thirty. The lesson he might learn is to not to get to thirty having been anything other than a first choice goalkeeper.

Of the five candidates for the central defensive roles Stuart McCall is spoilt for choice. Rory McArdle is initially unfit having had an operation in the summer and Matthew Kilgallon has had not pre-season following his release from Blackburn Rovers and so may not figure in the opening games but Nathan Clarke is able enough in the short term and Nathaniel Knight-Percival impressed on previous visits to and from Shrewsbury Town.

Kilgallon seems to be too high profile a signing to be anything other than McCall’s long term choice in one of the two central defensive positions and Knight-Percival has probably not moved to West Yorkshire with now expectations. McArdle has proved himself to be as close to undroppable as a player could be and there is little reason to imagine he will not carry on at such a high standard.

Which leaves McCall with – when fitness comes – the sort of headache any manager might want of having too many good players. There is the option of playing three central defenders which the new manager did experiment with when he was the old manager but failing that it seems that Kilgallon, McArdle and Knight-Percival have got reasons to perform in a fight for their places.

Which damns Nathan Clarke and youngster James King to a season picking up scraps.

On the left side of the two full backs James Meredith has no competition for his position following Gregg Leigh’s departure although there are moves, we are told, to bring in cover for the Australian. Meredith could be employed further forward should McCall play a three man central defence with wing backs. Should Meredith miss out then someone in the squad will be press ganged to left back.

And that someone is probably Tony McMahon who has played in most positions at Bradford City in his one and a half years at the club and after being – some may argue – the best player last season on the right hand side of midfield he has been officially announced as now being a right back.

A stranger move it is hard to imagine considering Stephen Darby’s position not only as right back and captain but consistent performer over the last few years. It is not accident that Darby’s name – as with McArdle – appears alongside the better moments of Bradford City’s recent history. An acid test of McCall’s second/forth spell at Bradford City is his ability to see this.

Again as with McArdle Darby starts the season injured and is two to three months away from full fitness. McMahon has the position for now.

Darby is important – very important – but McMahon’s abilities are not to be underestimated either. He led League One on assists last season and performed the wide midfield role far better than players who were signed with much more flourish. Finding a place for McMahon in the side is important but to replace Darby is to cut out the heart to add an extra hand – or foot – where it should not be.

Daniel Devine can also play right back, but he can do anything, read on.

Stuart McCall’s situation with midfielders is similar to his central defensive proposition in that he has at least three players who one might argue should have places and two places to play them.

Romain Vincelot continues the Brexit baiting European-ness of not only being French but also wearing number six and playing in midfield – does he believe he is Luis Fernández? – and seems assured a place in McCall’s side while Timothée Dieng who wears a more respectable eight jersey has done enough in pre-season to suggest that the two might combine into a dogs of war midfield. Or should that be chiens de guerre or perhaps coeur de guerre which sounds much more romantic.

However Nicky Law Jnr’s return – the first summer signing of what can justifiably be called a new era – suggested that he was likely to be favoured in a central midfield role. The aforementioned McMahon and Filipe Morais can also play the role and Devine has impressed too.

Devine, King and Reece Webb-Foster who we shall come to later have an interesting position in the 2016/2017 Bradford City squad. Where previously injuries in the Football League were on the whole covered by loan players new regulations mean that such moves can only happen within transfer windows.

This sets a requirement for players like Devine to be kept near the first team squad as cover rather than being sent out on loan, or isolated from the first team squad because the intention is to send them out on loan.

As the aim is to have a Devine, or a Webb-Foster, or a King ready to be dropped into first team action in the way that Wes Thomas or Tom Thorpe was last season then there is an opportunity to have those players blended into the first team squad. And in that context should Webb-Foster show day in day out in training that he can score then his path to the first team is highlighted.

This was not the case under Phil Parkinson where young players would complain about a lack of development – there was no reserve team some of the time – and there was an obvious preference to loan signings over development players. News that McCall is interested in Liverpool’s Cameron Brannagan and is trying to bring back Josh Cullen is interesting in this context.

It would seem that Vincelot and Dieng will start the season in the centre of midfield for City and that Law Jnr, and Devine, will cool their heels waiting for an opportunity or for McCall to try a three man midfield that would take Dieng holding and Vincelot and Law alongside him.

It would be odd if McCall – an advocate of the FourFourTwo – abandoned that formation just as its resurgence post Euro 2016 took hold. His willingness to do that perhaps depends on Brannagan or Cullen signing or the performance of the most disappointing group of players last season.

We shall dub these the creators if only because repeating the words “wingers, attacking midfielder and and drop off strikers” over and over will get tiresome. Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall’s failure to fulfil these roles last season deformed City’s season and to expect both to improve is an act of faith.

Anderson’s first season was interrupted by injury but when fit his play was not especially useful. He is fast and able to send a ball into the box at a ninety degree angle to his running path but as previously mentioned crossing is football’s overrated virtue and not only would Anderson have to play better this season to impress he would have to play differently.

Which means that Anderson – who enjoys a seniority at the club and is expected to perform – needs to not take the easier options he so often did in his performances at the start and the end of last season where he went wide hugging the touchline and hit the ball into the box and to nobody. His delivery was poor and considering the lack of numbers City got into the box that was a problem.

Anderson needs a reinvention. He needs to be the player who uses possession much better than he has done previously. He needs to be the player who can effectively cut inside as well as go outside of a full back and when he does he needs to have more presence of mind to find a target more often or to choose to do something else such as a surge into the area.

It might be that Anderson does not have these attributes to his game but if that is the case then he condemns himself as a very easy player to play against and one which will struggle. Even at League One level football has no time for the player who has but one way to achieve his aim and persistence is only admirable when a player carries on doing something effective.

Which brings us to Mark Marshall who has a similar situation albeit one he has shown more capacity to address. Marshall’s delivery is better than Anderson’s and he shows a willingness to vary his play which makes him genuinely difficult to play against but he is troublingly negligent in the defensive side of his game.

Marshall too often could be accused in his appearances last season with exposing the full back behind him and not working well in the defensive unit. A coeur de guerre midfield might give Marshall more licence to idle in this regard but he is simply not a good enough winger to set up a team to carry him if he does not track back.

Unlike Filipe Morais who offers McCall the type of endeavour that the previous manager loved but not the creative output which the team needs. Morais is being considered more of a drop off striker to play in what is now called the number ten position but was the hole although his effectiveness there seems to be a result of his randomness rather than the teams ability to blend him into a style.

Morais, as with Marshall and Anderson, is a creator who does not create enough and this is where the worries about Stuart McCall’s planning for the season start. The back six players provide a superb platform – arguably better than the one that Parkinson’s side had – but there seems to be a dearth of creators to stand on that platform.

Which leads back to McMahon who – like it or not – created a lot last season and should Anderson, Marshall and Morais not step up their contributions significantly then one suspects that McMahon will need to be taken out of whatever hole he would like to fit into and bashed back into one of the wide midfield positions.

Creation, assists, and defensive ability to not leave the team undermanned this should not be a difficult choice to make but one worries that McCall will have to learn this lesson the hard way. As it stands McCall is putting a lot of faith in players who have done little to merit it.

Should McCall favour a three man midfield then one might see Anderson and/or Marshall deployed further forward as part of an attacking three but that does not seem to solve the problems so much as make them less relevant by shifting the creation to the three midfielders. If McCall opts to play Vincelot and Dieng deep and a row of three creators behind a front man then one might worry about the effectiveness of such an approach but still these players would have to step up their performance.

McCall seems to be prepared to put that faith into Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall and one hopes that his faith is rewarded – much depends on it being – and one expects to see both starting against Port Vale for the opening game of the season and hopes to see the two players who were promised twelve months ago.

Which leads us to the subject of Billy Clarke and the strikers. Clarke’s promise at the start of last season evaporated leaving the top scorer of the year before idling towards the end of Parkinson’s time at City.

As with Anderson and Marshall the problem Clarke presents is that he does not scorer enough to be considered a goalscorer nor does he create enough to be thought of in that role and unless there is a drastic change in either of those qualities then there are problems when he is in the team.

One can try play a passing game routed through Clarke the number ten but to do so is to put undue faith in the Irishman’s sporadic ability to unlock a defence. This is a distinct contrast to James Hanson who one can rely on to beat defenders to high passes on a regular basis.

This was always the unsaid – or perhaps unheard – quantity in the debates over how Phil Parkinson’s side played football. Hanson would reliably win high balls, Clarke would not reliably unlock defences through craft. The argument was more pragmatics than cosmetics and the nature of that argument has not changed with the change of manager.

Get the ball to Hanson and there will be flick ons more often then there will be through balls from working the ball through Clarke. The two can play together with Clarke playing off Hanson but to do that Clarke needs to remain close to the man they call Big Unit and not wander off on esoteric crusades for the ball deep in the midfield.

Likewise to play the ball through Clarke and look for craft to open defences Hanson would need to be more mobile than he is and make the sort of runs which have not been a staple of his career.

Which is where Jordy Hiwula and Webb-Foster present options that are valued if only because they are unknown.

The problem that Stuart McCall has is that Bradford City do not score enough goals. I would argue that they do not create enough chances and the reason for that is that the team was set up defensively after a recruitment issue left the team with a goalkeeper and back four who could not deal with crosses.

The solution to not creating enough chances is in the creative players: the Andersons and Marshalls; and in the strikers: Clarke and Hanson; and the onus on them to make more chances to allow a reasonable conversion rate to result in more goals.

It is not impossible that this situation will have been addressed by a general step forward by the entire team – the defensive posture of last season prized not conceding over everything else – but unless it has or unless the players perform then the strikers will spend the season once more trying to convert a high percentage of fewer chances.

One can expect to see Hanson and Clarke start the season and one can expect before August closes the strikers and the creators to have been augmented. At the moment City and Stuart McCall seem to have a team that his half right which at least is not a step backwards.


This preview might get out of date quickly and if it does it will be updated. Just so you know.

Retained / Leave

Steve Davies has been released by Bradford City along with Christopher Routis, Billy Knott, Alan Sheehan, Dylan Mottley-Henry and Sam Wright. Greg Leigh, Nathan Clarke, Ben Williams, Jamie Proctor, Joe Cracknell and James King have been offered contracts.

Davies leaving the club seemed to be inevitable after a season which he failed to secure a place in the starting eleven. The same could be said for Billy Knott who was always individually impressive in games but played a kind of attacking midfield which Phil Parkinson seldom uses. Knott and Davies could both be retooled into the withdrawn striker role which Billy Clarke plays but Parkinson obviously has not seen enough from either in that position. Davies’ legacy is a late goal against Millwall in the league game at Valley Parade and any number of kicks and niggles that earned him the nickname “The wind-up footballer” so easy did it seem to be to get under his skin as seen at Coventry City.

Knott scored against Leeds United, and played against Chelsea, and shall always have a place in my heart and I suspect yours.

That Jamie Proctor has been offered a contract to stay – and the contract offers in situations where the player will be at the end of a deal always tend to be of the take-it-or-leave-it variety – says something about his usefulness in the squad. When Phil Parkinson is asked to choose between Proctor and James Hanson his decision seem to be given the weekly grind of a season – and the injuries that brings – he might as well have both if the money is right. Otherwise Proctor is free to look elsewhere.

One suspects that along with Proctor Nathan Clarke, Greg Leigh, Ben Williams have all been given an understanding of their position in the pecking order. Clarke might have thought he did enough at the end of the season to warrant a chance in the starting eleven but his similarity to, and inferiority to, Rory McArdle has allowed him to leave if the offer he has is not suitable. The younger Greg Leigh is in a similar situation as understudy to James Meredith.

That Parkinson is prepared to let record breaking goalkeeper Ben Williams reject a deal and exit the club says a lot about his position and – one suspects – the hunt being on for a new custodian with often loaned out Manchester United man Sam Johnstone supposedly of interest to City.

All of which leaves City with:

  • Perhaps Ben Williams
  • Perhaps Joe Cracknell
  • Stephen Darby
  • Perhaps Nathan Clarke
  • Rory McArdle
  • James Meredith
  • Perhaps Greg Leigh
  • Reece Webb-Foster
  • Mark Marshall
  • Filipe Morais
  • Tony McMahon
  • Josh Morris
  • Paul Anderson
  • Billy Clarke
  • James Hanson
  • Perhaps Jamie Proctor

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