Aaron McLean and the heroes of failure

The collective view of history

There is a view of history which holds that if there had never been a Genghis Khan, a Joseph Stalin, a Pol Pot, then the course of the world would have been drastically different. No Mongol hordes, no Cold War, no pogrom.

This is the individual view of history.

There is a competing view that suggests that those three people, indeed any person of history, is only of history because of the rising and falling of collective events. That if it had not been Genghis Khan then someone else would have been credited for leading the hordes, and history would have remember their name instead. That large groups rather than an individual caused the world to turn.

This is the collective view of history. It is less exciting, but probably more accurate.

From Pol Pot to Pulis

Stoke City’s rise to the place of mid-table in the Premier League is largely down to former manager Tony Pulis, and Pulis puts any success he has had down to a recruitment policy based on character.

When speaking about Ryan Shawcross Pulis commended the defender’s character – which is to say his desire to win football matches – saying that a team was built on players such as Shawcross.

“You can have other players who don’t have that (character),” Pulis added, “but only for eighteen months and then you have to move them on.”

The heroes of failure

Why do Bradford City supporters not curse the name Benito Carbone? Why is Ashley Ward’s time at the club given a light disregard when the memory of Mike Duxbury can cause grown men to froth at the mouth? What is it about Darren Morgan that has some City fans reserving a place in the inner circle of failure which even Aaron McLean – seemingly leaving City this week – need not fear reaching?

And what is this word scapegoat which is applied in defence of McLean? Has his treatment been unfair? What are the mechanics of failure at a club like Bradford City that can lionise one player and condemn another.

And let me start by saying…

When Aaron McLean leaves Bradford City, few will be upset. McLean has done well in the past proving his ability but did not do well at Bradford City. The sort of ability McLean is credited with is rare for Bradford City players over the last decade. Few players have been criticised for want of motivation rather than ability.

More common in the last decade have been the players who have shown a level of effort that defined their abilities. The words “give everything” are used about James Hanson, Gary Jones, and Andrew Davies. Players like Barry Conlon, Matthew Clarke and Lee Crooks were never said to be shirking, just that they were poor footballers.

McLean gets to nestle his name alongside Ashley Ward, Nicky Summerbee and Bobby Petta in the players who idled away their talents rather than had no talent to begin with.

In the worst possible way

Aaron McLean arrived to replace Nahki Wells. Wells enjoyed a meteoric rise at Bradford City. His speed and eye for goal were impressive and he played a role in taking City to Wembley twice in three months. After an early exchange of distaste for his choice of clubs following City it seems that Wells has settled back into his place in the hearts of City fans.

One might speculate that the fact that Wells has joined a Huddersfield side in the year they have achieved next to nothing is his saving grace for City fans. Were Town in the play-offs and Wells the architect of that, then things may be different.

But Wells is not an architect. The type of player he is – they are called “finishers” for a reason – puts him at the necessary end point rather than the engine room of a team. Wells was the end of a team of Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, James Hanson et al. Those players were the big characters who pushed the team. Wells, Nathan Doyle, Will Atkinson, Carl McHugh were (seemingly, and by virtue of their exit) the “eighteen monthers” that Pulis talks about.

Being Phil Parkinson

Losing Gary Jones was inevitable. Phil Parkinson probably joins with the rest of City fans who watch the skipper playing for Notts County and wonders if there was another year in the now 37-year old midfielder, but giving him that extra year is a delay of the inevitable need to replace him.

Losing a player like Gary Jones from your team – be it from age or transfer – matters more than losing a player like Wells because of the type of strong character he is. Bringing in or building a replacement takes time and may not be achieved. Those old enough may remember the attempt to replace the massive presence of Stuart McCall with Iain Banks and wince at the memory. If you are younger, read “Gary Locke” for Banks.

It is Parkinson’s hardest job and while developing Billy Knott may be a long term solution, one suspects the City manager has concluded that he needs to bring a character into the side and is working to that end. At the moment though Parkinson puts out the team he has and that team has some qualities, although is lacking in others.

Who does not love Xaviar Barrau?

Who was the scapegoat in David Wetherall’s relegation side which was the worst team Bradford City have fielded in my lifetime? Who carries the can for those feeble months? Not Wetherall, and not his players. Spencer Weir-Daley’s many misses against Leyton Orient and Omar Daley’s giving up of the ball on the wing are critical memories but on the whole the players are not criticised. Kelly Youga (injured during his time at the club) is fondly remembered. Who does not a place in his heart for Xaviar Barrau?

Wetherall’s side were simply too poor for scapegoats. To single out one player is to allow a club and a culture at a club to be freed from blame. No one points the finger because no one has enough fingers to point.

Likewise relegation from the Premier League is never assigned to a group of players, and the likes of Benito Carbone are heroes of the club. Circumstances dictate that a scapegoat will not be found, at least not on the field.

Parkinson’s team are not so outgunned as those two examples. The are far better than Wetherall’s side for sure, and the rest of League One is – in relative terms to City – not as good as the rest of the Premiership was in 2000.

Phil Parkinson’s team are closer to success. Indeed at the moment City win and lose on the basis (seemingly, but probably not in the opinion of the management) of individual actions. Billy Clarke puts the ball an inch lower and Oldham away is a good point; Christopher Routis heads a ball into the stands against Sheffield United then City get a battling point with ten men and so on.

Just as two years ago Rory McArdle’s determination was the difference between winning and losing against Aston Villa in the League Cup semi-final. When the difference between success and failure is small there is a temptation to assign it to individuals and individual actions.

Stevie Gee

Importantly though one can only justify assigning success to individuals when margins are small. A scapegoat is the player who did not apply the marginal difference. The opposite – a player who applied the individual difference between success and failure – is what he call in football a hero

Watching the career of Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard is watching that that theory in action. In European Cup and FA Cup finals (both of which ended 3-3) he has been heroic because he has been the individual difference between success and failure.

Last season his defensive slip against Chelsea – an individual mistake – seemed to cost his team the Premier League title. “If he had not slipped” is said with a misty eye by many, but few ask what would have happened if (now Liverpool’s) Dejan Lovren foul on Daniel Sturridge in November 2013 in a Southampton 1-0 win at Anfield had been given as a penalty.

Scapegoating is arbitrary.

Had Aaron set off in time

Aaron McLean’s first game at Sheffield United for City – a 2-2 draw – had the striker almost score the goal which almost built his confidence and almost put him on a run of goalscoring, and so on.

McLean is in poor form, and plays like a player in poor form, and many people (not me) consider that the problem City face at the moment is the need for a finisher. The logic follows easily that McLean, a finisher, could be difference between wins and defeats.

My view of football is increasingly more inline with Pulis, and it is more inline with the collective view of history. When Nahki Wells was scoring for City it was not because of his abilities so much as because of the team’s abilities (which he was a part of) and had you dropped Aaron McLean in then, McLean would be the “Goal Machine” his name so cruelly rhymes with. If you put Wells into the current City team, he would struggle.

The team struggles because of the recrafting job that is needed on its core following Jones’ departure. and the wider break up of the “History Makers” team that Phil Parkinson built. The eighteen months were up, and now Parkinson starts again. The manager is not back at square one, and the fact that the gap between success and failure seems bridgeable is a frustration, and causes this illusion.

Nahki Wells was a hero of Bradford City’s success.

Aaron McLean, because of his place in our history, is a hero of failure.

How far with the lesson of Germany reach?

Self flagellation has always been popular in English football and when the national side returned home from a World Cup 4-1.5ing by Germany the press and players had already begun to whip itself in a freeze of internalised loathing showing the defining characteristic of the media approach to the game: That the game is played by England and other sides are the subject of that.

So when England play well – nine out of ten in qualifying – it is because of our abilities and when we lose it is the lack of those which is the problem and credit is never extended to the opposition. Watching Germany ram four past Argentina though could cause cause for a pause. However poor one might feel England were either Argentina (and Australia) were equal to that or – perhaps – there is something worth noticing going on in Joachim Löw’s side.

There has been a consensus that the Germans – who played a central five in the midfield with an average age of just under 23 years old – have stolen a march on the World because of that youth and freshness and there is much to be said for the way that they have blooded their younger players. 25 year old Schweinsteiger is on his second World Cup. So is Wayne Rooney, scratch that idea then.

Much is also made about the formation which Fabio Capello – and Diego Maradona – employed compared to Löw’s Germans and suddenly the word “fourfourtwo” is becoming something of a negative in the English game. One can almost hear now managers up and down the country being charged with the idea that they – like Capello – lack the imagination to play a more exotic tactic and one can expect three months of randomly thrown together formations up and down football.

Freakish results will mark the start of the season as teams who deploy something more “characterful” than the 442 which has fallen from fashion. As Clough said “There is a lot of rubbish talked about tactics by people who would not know how to win a game of Dominoes.”

Not that this will effect Peter Taylor who has signed the players and settled on a 433 at Valley Parade and City can make hay as League Two players are deployed in fanciful ways to little effect. Finding a way of playing and sticking to it is perhaps the most important thing.

On the fourfourtwo one can say that while it may have faults when playing three games every four years in the World Cup in the cut and thrust of two games a week for nine months the simplicity, adaptability and ease of the approach is the reason for its enduring popularity. Week to week football requires not a surgeon’s tool but a Swiss Army Knife, which is what fourfourtwo is.

The German’s 4231 – originally a formation played in Portugal because of the freedom it gives to the kind of attacking midfielder that that nation excels in producing such as Luis Figo, Joao Pinto and his brother Sergio – is nothing especially new.

The lesson of the Germans is not in tactics but in the deployment of players within those formations. The heart of the German side is Schweinsteiger and Sami Khedira who play the deep set midfielder role in a revolutionary manner. Popular conception has it that the two in a 4231 should be holding midfielders and ball winners but Löw’s pairing are more box to box players capable of tackling and getting behind the ball for sure but also able to be used as a spring board for attacking play.

For Schweinsteiger and Khedira there is no need to look for a passer after taking the ball – the pair are equipped to play in the three more forward midfielder – increasing the speed of the counter attack and its accuracy. What they loose in not having a Claude Makelele they gain in rapidity of play creating a nod to total football ideology. As Schweinsteiger plays the ball forward so Mesut Özil or Lukas Podolski or Thomas Müller can drop back and tackle.

This is a stark contrast to the approach that many – myself included – have to for example the English midfield which agonises over the choice between attacking players like Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard and ball winners like Gareth Barry. The roles are as split as centre forward and full back but not for Löw’s Germans.

There is a plan for sure and positions – this is not total football Dutch style – but the less rigid assignment of player roles gives a fluidity which England, Australia and Argentina have been incapable of living with. The jobs are done in that German engine room but – crucially – the players who do them have the ability and remit to do each other’s tasks.

Even Lionel Messi and Javier Mascherano – as fine a pair of specialised players as one could see – looked old fashioned and stolid in comparison and as Schweinsteiger surged to the left touchline and set up a second goal it seemed obviously that if Germany could prevent Messi emulating that then Mascherano simply would not attempt it.

The granularity of positions – especially in the midfield – has become something of a mantra for modern football and one recalls Lee Crooks and Marc Bridge-Wilkinson but struggles to think of them both as “midfielders” rather one as a holder, the other as an attacker. The same could be said about Dean Furman and Nicky Law although perhaps not about Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock.

Indeed whatever lessons are emanating from the German side at the moment Peter Taylor seems to have adopted. His midfield trio next season are Flynn, Bullock and Tommy Doherty and none of them fit easily into the idea of being players only able to – or only ready to – performing a single role.

It remains to be seen what lessons the game as a whole take from World Cup 2010 and if those lessons create a path to success but City seem to be ahead of a curve that is coming and should that bring the same rewards for the Bantams as it has for the previously unfavoured Germans then next season could be a good year indeed.

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