Barry Conlon the short-term hero

There were plenty of notable results across England’s four professional divisions on Saturday – emphatic victories for Chelsea and Norwich, surprise defeats for Man City and Leeds – but while events at Saltergate provide an interesting talking point for Bradford City supporters, they should not come as a shock.

Barry Conlon, signed by Chesterfield on a month’s loan only that morning, marked his debut by netting the winning goal over Torquay United. The crisp strike from the edge of the area was typical of the Irishman – in the sense of starting well at a new club. It is the 14th transfer the Irishman has been the subject of, it is the 13th year of the 31-year-old’s playing career. There’s a reason he doesn’t stay anywhere long.

For Conlon has proved himself to be an effective short-term impact player. His one and three-quarter seasons at Valley Parade characterised by short spells on the sidelines and short spells in the team. It can be argued he wasn’t given a fair run of games in the team, it can be argued he made it impossible for manager Stuart McCall to give him that run.

I was always a fan of Barry, but it was Bury away almost a year ago that my tolerance of his short-comings vastly-reduced. Three days earlier at Luton, he’d come on a sub and made a decent impact in a second half the Bantams dominated. At Gigg Lane he partnered Steve Jones up front, and though the on-loan Burnley was unhelpful in his positioning and link up play, Conlon’s anonymous performance and miss of a sitter in the final stages of the 1-0 defeat summed up his lack of reliability.

It left me looking back over his City career up to then and realising just how inconsistent he generally was. It seemed to be a never-ending cycle. Brought into the team to give it a boost, he would make a good impact and often score. The next game he’d be a definite starter and usually carry on where he left off. But then the week after less effective, then the week after even less so. The hauling off as sub wasn’t far away, the bench his home again the following week. Then the odd cameo appearance before the cycle started all over again.

A perfect example was in late October 2008. Conlon came on as sub in a battling home game with Bury and scored a late winner. The following Saturday against Barnet, he started the game and scored two excellent goals. Then his performances began to drop off in away games at MK Dons and Wycombe. He was then dropped against Rotherham, before returning in the home game against Chesterfield, playing well and scoring from the spot.

When on form it wasn’t just Conlon’s work rate which impressed, he was very effective at holding up the ball and enabling others to get forward. He was had a great shot on him (often unlucky with some great efforts hitting the woodwork) and he showed intelligence in his passing and positioning. His poorer performances were notable in that the work rate was clearly missing. He wouldn’t chase causes as vigorously, he’d try illogical passes to others when he needed to show more endevour in trying the harder things, he’d fluff his lines in front of goal.

It was as if he only played well when he was under pressure or had something to prove – such as why he should be in the starting eleven.

Of course that point to prove led to him becoming a hero when he moved to Grimsby Town on loan towards the end of the season. Scoring in each of his first three appearances, he pulled a struggling outfit away from the relegation trap door.

In doing so, he also made life that bit more uncomfortable for McCall. Having allowed him to leave with rumours of off-the-field indiscipline circulating, Conlon’s on-loan like-for-like replacement Paul Mullin failed to work out. As Barry made the headlines in Cleethorpes, Mullin struggled to make any impact and City’s season continued to implode. Promotion hopes were as good as ended by a 3-0 defeat at Dagenham where Mullin looked dis-interested. At the exact same time, Conlon was smashing home a double which almost virtually sealed the Mariners’ survival.

But this was a few games, not a season. Whether he’d have made a difference to City’s collapse is highly doubtful. Since that double-strike against Barnet on November 1, he’d only managed one goal from open play during his final four months at Valley Parade.

Conlon’s ability to make a short-term impact was only re-affirmed. His capability of doing it long-term a remaining question.

And one still unanswered, for despite a bright start at Grimsby this season after making his move permanent, Conlon’s form faded badly and with the club struggling more than ever, this time he couldn’t be counted on when the chips were down. Two sendings off, more rumours of off-the-field misbehaviour, only one goal – a penalty – since October. When we went to Blundell Park in November, City were up against a mere shadow of the player Conlon could be. The work rate was nil, the passing poor, the finishing hilariously bad.

His manager has put him on the transfer list, with the excellent Cod Almighty stating, “Conlon is a player who might have been genuinely useful to the Mariners had his head been right but has looked less and less interested as Town have sunk deeper into the mire – so fair play to the manager for deciding to get shot.”

So Conlon is on the move again and, with Grimsby drawing 0-0 at home to Cheltenham on the same afternoon Conlon was a goal-scoring hero on his Chesterfield debut, it’s the turn of Mariners manager Neil Woods to feel uncomfortable.

Chesterfield have signed him on loan with a view to making it permanent for the rest of the season. McCall and Woods – not to mention the many other previous managers Conlon has exasperated – would probably advise John Sheridan to reserve judgement for a few weeks.

City go to Grimsby waiting in the balance

Michael Flynn put into words the season for City when he said “If we had cut out a few mistakes, we would be higher up the table than we are.”

That Gareth Evans – who has put in much to his first three months at Bradford City and more than deserves the break for this – blasted a last minute penalty wide of the post on Saturday allowing two points to squirm away proved Flynn’s protestation. The Bantams are a team inefficient giving away enough goals to counteract the many good things that go on at the other end of the field but with a balance that when upset may tip one way or another.

Certainly Grimsby Town will have an empathy with such problems after sacking Mike Newell some half dozen or so winless games ago and giving one time Bantam striker Neil Woods the chance to take the team, well, not very far. Woods got the job on a full time basis on Monday afternoon underlining the effect of getting rid of Newell which seems to be that the former manager no longer has to turn up to work but still is paid while the new incumbent goes about the role with the same resources. The attempt to tip the balance of Town’s early season displays having either no effect at all, or a counter effect. Certainly the “new manager/new beginning” which is often hoped for simply had not happened at Blundell Park.

Not that any more than the usual would be of the opinion that the way to tip the season towards success would be a manager replacement but rather the manager himself looks for ways to cut out the mistakes starting with a 442 on Saturday that was – well – duller than the usual 433 but did stop the customary two goals a game concessions. Perhaps the return to two wingers was a preparation of sorts for the return of Omar Daley who would have been backin reserve team action this week were it not for a rearranged juniors match at Valley Parade.

The middle three of Michael Flynn, Lee Bullock and one other has worked well – and provided no little excitement at both ends – this season but a pairing of Bullock and Flynn with Omar Daley on the left and new recruit Simon Whaley on the right could be the shape that the Bantams will take into the Christmas period. All of which is long sighted talking and rather harsh on Scott Neilson who has on the whole been excellent since joining the Bantams. It also assumed that Chris Brandon will not continued to be shoe-horned into the side or – if one rumour is to be believed – will be leaving for Greg Abbott’s Carlisle in the transfer window.

Evans and James Hanson are expected to retain the forward places with Michael Boulding restricted to the bench against the team that list him as a favoured old boy. Boulding performed well coming off the bench on Saturday and might get the nod over Scott Neilson in an attacking three but the hard work of the younger pair has been one of the base blocks of City this season and is not something to change.

The back five of Simon Ramsden, Zesh Rehman, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien in front of Barry Conlon Simon Eastwood is also expected to remain. Ramsden’s return on Saturday showed his quality while Luke O’Brien continues to be an able full back and an attacking force. The middle pairing impress some, but not all, and may have to cope with the attacking prowess of Barry Conlon as the former Bantams hopes to get a start against the club he left last season.

Far for universally loved Barry left City under a cloud of discipline and drink – letting himself down – but in his one and a half years at City his full energy performances showed a way forward that the Bantams have followed – James Hanson and Barry are not dissimilar players although Hanson’s ability to get both headed and kicked balls somewhere near his intended target puts Conlon to shame.

Much of last season was a debate about the merits of Conlon and Omar Daley but in the last three months of the season when one was at Grimsby and the other injured – effectively giving some supporters who used the words “get rid” a little too much for my tastes what they had wanted – the Bantams imploded. The balance upset, tipped the wrong way.

Not repeating this is the task Stuart McCall faces.

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