The mark of progress, or the lack of it

“I’ve got nothing to prove to Liverpool” said young midfielder Jim Magilton when he went back to Anfield as an Southampton player for a Division One game at the start of the Nineties.

Magilton had spent his youth career at the Reds but never made a first team appearance. He went to Oxford United and made 150 appearances, then on to Southampton where his full circle moment happened. After that he ended up at Sheffield Wednesday and Ipswich where he was coverted by Paul Jewell’s City but ended his career at Portman Road. A good career no doubt but at no time did he ever eclipse the midfielders who replaced him at Anfield.

He had nothing to prove to those at Liverpool and in a way he proved nothing to them. He did not play at a higher level, he did not end up with a Champions medal, and whoever decided he was not the “good enough” was proved right.

There was a way to mark the progress of Bradford City which worked in the same way. Players come and go from clubs and City were forced to let a number of players go because of financial reasons and watched those players carry on good careers. Robbie Blake, for example, won promotions post-City and played in the Premier League.

Other players though were “got rid of” – to use the vulgarism – by the choice of the club because the club thought that it could do better. Players like Paul Bolland and Scott Kerr were young lads at the Bantams who were released and went on to good careers in the lower leagues but never rose higher than the club. The decision to allow those players – like Magilton – was never questioned.

One could add a whole host of players who the Bantams have disposed of (indeed that most clubs dispose of) who never troubled professional football again. The decision to allow Wayne Benn, Tom Penford, Danny Forrest, Joe Brown, Robert Morgan, Craig Bentham et al has never been questioned because those players have never turned up at a higher level than City.

I should qualify this with the idea that there is an impact in releasing a player on his career. Being released can be the making of a player’s career seeing him buck up his ideas but most often it kills a that career as real life problems and jobs take over.

In the last few years watching events at VP though there has been an increase in the players who were decided to not be able to cut the mustard who not only got their careers back on track but started to do well, better than the Bantams.

Michael Symes represents the best example of this. The Bantams were not impressed (nor was I especially) but turfing up at Accrington Stanley he ended up doing enough to earn a move to AFC Bournemouth where he plays his football a division above the Bantams. Perhaps one could put that down to the startling effect of being released, and perhaps one might conclude that he is only the player he is now because of our releasing him, but it is hard not to wonder why the Bantams were not able to unlock his potential.

Symes was a far more popular player than Gareth Edds who was jeered away from Valley Parade but Edds won promotion (after switching to a holding midfield role) with MK Dons and moved onto another League One club Tranmere Rovers as City idled in League Two. Not only are the players we cannot afford playing at a higher level but the ones we did not think were good enough are now too. Jake Wright’s red card at when Oxford United came to Valley Parade might have been an amusing moment in the season but the fact his current team ended the season a half dozen places over his previous one gave him the last laugh.

Gareth Evans – a part of the so called “worst team ever” – exited Valley Parade in the summer with the club deciding that they could do better. Evans rocked up at Rotherham United who finished higher than the Bantams and are preparing for another promotion push. Evans’ play in the last month of the season suggested that – perhaps – he knew he had something to go to next term but the spin from Valley Parade was most definitely that Evans was out because the club was going to improve.

I would underline that I believe that there are many players who left City and were never heard of again – one of them did the electrics for my boiler – who had the club given them the first team slot rather than someone like Luke Cornwall or Robert Wolleaston then they could have achieved something but when dealing with the likes of Symes, Edds, (perhaps) Evans and a number of others it seems that the club’s judgement on players in the longer term has become questionable. That players who we would like to have we are getting rid of.

The rapid turn around, the one year contract, the often changing manager, the levels of patience in the stands, the comparative quality of facilities here and elsewhere. All these things have contributed to the club which is letting players go who could do a job. We end up with this “worst team ever” but some of the off cuts of it are doing well for themselves.

James Hanson is being linked to Crewe, Omar Daley has gone from the club, Gareth Evans will come back wearing Rotherham United red. I’m not sure if the losing culture needs to be broken so much as a consistent plan to improve the squad is required.

The Thorney issue

A few years ago, a City supporter submitted an article on this website stating that Andy Gray’s ability level was that of a pub footballer. This view came during a period when Gray was struggling to recapture his previous season’s form for City where, converted from a winger to a striker, he had managed a career-changing 15 goals that would belatedly signal the end to the dreaded tag of unfulfilled potential. As part of a City side speedily hurtling towards the relegation trap door in 2003-04, he was unable to match his previous season’s exploits managing just six goals.

Very shortly after this article appeared, Gray was sold to Sheffield United and his career continued to head upwards with a £1 million move to Premiership Sunderland a year after. This proved a step up too far but Gray has since re-established himself as a decent Championship striker with Burnley. Last Saturday he scored twice as Burnley won 3-2 at Colchester. Layer Road is hardly one of British football’s most beautiful stadiums, but it’s still a better level than the local park behind The Queen’s Head.

It’s this sort of striker debate which has been typical with Bradford City in recent years. Finding a pair of decent goalscoring forwards has proved difficult and is ultimately why the Bantams have been unable to climb back towards Championship level. Those that have toiled up front since have nearly all split opinion among supporters. Some arguably should have had more of a chance, others undoubtedly gave everything but came up short, too many rarely looked like scoring and just one player has managed double figures in a season since Gray departed.

Not since the legendary Mills and Blake partnership in 1998/99 have City been fortunate enough to possess two regular goalscorers at the same time. Only Dean Windass has consistently done the business, yet finding a suitable strike partner was a problem never solved while he was banging in all those goals during his second spell at the club. This over dependence meant that City were never able to lift themselves above midtable and, when Deano departed last January, no one was able to fill his void with dire consequences.

Different division, different management, different bunch of players and many more supporters; but so far the familiar problem has remained. In the five games to date, five goals have been scored. Not the worst of records but, when analysing the performances and number of chances the team has created to date, this figure should be at least double. In the home games at least, City have been largely dominant and created a host of chances. Unfortunatley, the strikers in the middle haven’t been able to convert them and, with each miss, have split supporters’ views once again. Perhaps the biggest question hanging over Stuart’s squad as we enter the second month of the season is if there is sufficient firepower to enable City to push for promotion.

Dividing views more than most is Barry Conlon. He arrived at Valley Parade during the summer with a reputation as a decent goalscorer at this level, but with a disconcertingly high number of former clubs. Conlon has so far looked very much your average target man, but unfortunately a little too average. He holds the ball up well and has good awareness at bringing others into play, but he seems to lack the goalscoring prowess and his efforts on goal have been generally tame. Confidence is a big part of this and his previous record suggests he usually manages double figures each season. Yet without a goal so far he looks more likely to match Andy Cooke and Danny Cadamarteri in the regularity of his City goals.

Unsurprisingly he has attracted a lot of criticism. Although, just like Andy Cooke, there seems to be a section of supporters who appreciate the undoubted effort he puts in. One thing is for sure, he’s going to need to improve his performances. With his height and physical ability he should be capable of giving opposition defenders a really hard time and his hold up play should at least allow others to come forward. On occasions Conlon has looked isolated and received the ball too deep. Hopefully as the whole team get to know each other better this will improve and Conlon will receive the ball where he can hurt people.

Very much vying for cult status, Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu has made a decent impression so far. He has a really good touch and is also strong holding the ball up. He has more pace than Conlon and has shown the odd burst of acceleration that’s put the opposition on the back foot. However, just like Conlon, he hasn’t really got into enough good positions to shoot on goal. How many goals he will score, at least until his loan move ends in January, remains questionable. In many ways Guylain and Conlon are very similar players but hopefully they will play together more effectively as they become more familiar with each other’s runs. Hopefully G (or Dave depending on your nickname preference, personally I like Dave!) can add that little bit missing and score a few goals for us.

So far, Nathan Joynes and Luke Medley have played the back up role. Joynes started against Shrewsbury but was unable to make an impression. Meanwhile Luke couldn’t have made a bigger impact with his first touch! The youngster’s wonder strike against Wrexham has made everyone sit up and take notice. There will inevitably be a lot of expectation on the striker’s shoulders, remember Gareth Grant, Danny Forrest, Kevin Sanasy and Joe Brown? Hopefully Luke can build on his superb start and fulfil his potential. While technically not our youth player, its still been a long time since City had a young striker who became a first team regular and scored lots of goals.

At Barnet, Stuart played Omar Daley up front in the second half and the Jamaican international will barely believe he has yet to score this season after hitting the post three times so far. After his much trumpeted arrival in January, Omar has yet to really find his form and, while he was very impressive in pre-season, we all hope he can do better than his displays so far this season. The hope is that Daley can nail that right wing position and consistently deliver there. He has looked reasonably effective when thrown up front, but is arguably needed more out wide. It’s both nice but a little unusual to think Eddie Johnson is our top scorer so far. Despite a slow start, Eddie is looking comfortable in midfield and it would appear that he has waved goodbye to a career as a centre forward.

Which just leaves one more forward on City’s books and one who has yet to play. Peter Thorne’s summer signing felt like a huge coup but it’s been hugely frustrating waiting for him to recover from injury. After suffering two years at Norwich that were dogged by injury, there are some fears over how much we will see him wear Claret and Amber and some of our more lunatic fans are calling for City to get rid of him already. Given the injury problems he has endured, it would seem City are being sensible in not rushing him into first team action.

When he is ready though, he may find expectations are pinned firmly upon him. The more our other strikers fire blanks in front of goal and points are lost as a result, the greater the pressure on Thorne to deliver. It may take him a while to get fully fit, but the signs during his brief reserve and friendly appearances are encouraging and his past goalscoring record suggests he knows where the goal is.

It seems likely that Thorne will figure at some point this week against either Doncaster or Lincoln. As City’s slow start continues, everyone will be keeping fingers crossed he can deliver. Although at the same time we need at least one from Conlon, Dave, Joynes and Medley to be able to consistently deliver alongside him if we’re going to start climbing the table and threaten at the right end.

Otherwise, with a certain East Yorkshire club splashing out £1million on a striker last week, how long will it be before rumours of a former regular City goalscorer returning on loan start up?

City Offer Deals To Ainge, Penford, Colbeck and Bentham

The need for Bradford City to change focus from a club that buys to a club that produces players has been obvious at Valley Parade for some time and the fruits of that policy – first voiced by Gordon Gibb but continued through the investment in the youth set up – are becoming apprarant as the Bantams offered new deals to Tom Penford, Simon Ainge, Joe Colbeck and Craig Bentham.

The four – who all featured in David Wetherall or Colin Todd’s selections last season – are offered new deals while cohorts Joe Brown, Patrick McGuire, Nick Smith and John Swift are released.

The mystery of the stunted development of John Swift will remain at Valley Parade. Impressive in the first team on his debut under Colin Todd and a mouth on committed leader of the juniors who played well in the reserves something – and one doubts is was the performances of Richard Edghill – stood in Swift’s way.

Joe Brown’s release comes after his shined as a bright young thing but failed to nail down a place in the first team squad. Both Brown and Nick Smith are released to allow a more clear path through the ranks for seventeen year old Leon Osborne who featured in the last game of the year. Such a process – of setting a bar for the young players to beat and backing them when they do – replacing them should they not – maintains a healthy demand for continued improvement in the ranks.

Of the retained players Ainge looks ready for a place in the starting eleven next term and Bentham and Colbeck are already considered squad players. Penford has ability to spare as a succession of managers have believed and one hopes that with the exits of Marc Bridge-Wilkinson and perhaps Steven Schumacher he can turn that ability into performance.

Bridge-Wilkinson, Schumacher, Richard Edghill and Xavier Barrau are waiting for a new manager to be installed – something expected within two weeks – before being offered deal. Schumacher and Barrau are thought to be ready to sign, Edghill to be thinking over an offer from Macclesfield and Bridge-Wilkinson to be Port Vale bound.

Russell Howarth has also been released with Ben Saynor stepping up to number two goalkeeper.

Forrest goes at graduation day

I was always very keen on Danny Forrest – released by Bradford City today aged 21 after 12 years at Valley Parade – but facts that had to be faced were that it was apparent that at this stage of his career Forrest did not look like the player who City need and he needed to be moved out.

Moved out is a harsh term to use about anyone who has been associated with a club for over a decade and applied the levels of passion to it that Danny has but as is right and proper when dealing with young players a graduation day – a day when a level is set and those who are above it prosper and those below fail – has to come and Forrest unfortunately falls under the bar.

Development of young players is a constant filtering process which is done on a timeline of player improvement and Forrest’s improvement seems to have been arrested.

There are some that would say that he was never “going to make a footballer” and they are entitled to that view but City are no less wrong to have persisted with him as they were to pick up the 16 year old Stuart McCall and give him a chance. Development is about graduations and affording chances for young players to rise through the ranks and as Forrest falls under the graduation mark along comes Joe Brown to test himself against it.

Forrest’s release to give Brown a chance is common in football and at City. Lee Sharpe was allowed to leave Manchester United to give Ryan Giggs the left wing position and at City Graeme Tomlinson was pushed through the ranks by pushing Scott Partridge out of the club. Partridge went on to a respectable career – at one point he lived with Helen Chamberlain – and had a decade of football after City let him go. One hopes – fervently hopes that Forrest can do that same and he can use leaving his home town club as the spur to move on as he seems unable to do at City and Halifax.

In the meantime he – and I – have some great memories of the local boy shining out in a sea of rent-a-players like Andy Gray and professionals winding down like Robert Molenaar and playing for Bradford City as if it meant something to them because it meant something to them.

Joe Brown, Joe Colbeck, Tom Penford, John Swift, Craig Bentham et al are all carrying on it the footsteps reforged by Danny Forrest. I know he enjoyed the goals he score din claret and amber – I saw them all – and I enjoyed him scoring them and as he leaves I can only hope that he enjoys the memories as much as I do.

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