The strange decline of Andrew Davies

Ross County? Really?

That Andrew Davies has left Bradford City an unpleasant reality. That he has seemingly taken a move downwards to join Ross County lends the whole situation a baffling air.

On Davies I shall say this. He was my player of the season last term and I believe that when he is not in the City team that difference manifests itself in the number of goals conceded. Put any other defender in in Davies’ place and City concede about one more goal a game.

(I’m tempted to add “Put Christopher Routis in and it is two” but it seems both uncharitable and troublingly prescient)

That Davies often does miss games is the unfortunate part of this equation and it is said that City offered Davies a deal tied to how many matches he played in. It is my belief that in the balance of games he played he was worth employing for those he missed.

Seemingly Phil Parkinson disagrees and so Davies has accepted another offer which over two years will – one assumes – pay him more than City were offering.

But Ross County? Really?

No disrespect

I’m not going to claim that Scots football is a lowly enterprise or that the quality of the football played in it equates directly to a division of the English game. Ross County are a top division side, albeit one who finished in ninth position last season.

And with Davies aged 31 and no stranger to the treatment room one can see how his value in the marketplace is not as strong as it could be but he is the man who stopped Drogba, and to exit English football so soon to join a team that with the best will in the World are playing for Second (and probably not likely to get it) in Scotland borders on early retirement.

There will be games at Celtic Park for sure and who knows if The Staggies can make Europe there may be some interesting trips on the road but all those things would surely have still been open to a 32 year old Davies had he taken another year at Valley Parade.

Of to a 34, or 34, year old Davies had he been able to use his exposure this season to promote himself to another club in English football. I would have written here that a Championship side would have found him a useful recruit but I remember watching Sunderland and suggest that if he were prepared to be a bit part player he could have aimed higher.

Really, no disrespect

Which is not to say that had Andrew Davies remained in England with Bradford City or anyone else he could have guaranteed himself another Chelsea away, or a trip to Wembley, but in heading North so early he seems to have excluded himself from having those opportunities in favour of the not especially attractive proposition of middle league Scottish football.

Which is really not to be rude to Ross County or to Scottish football but one cannot help but have the feeling that whatever there is for Andrew Davies there would have waited a year or two more for him.

On the bright side his arrival will make Ross County more likely to be more top half than bottom half next season, more likely to get a “famous win” at Celtic Park, more likely to take a Cup perhaps.

The only that that exceeds my puzzlement at Andrew Davies’ move North is my desire to wish him all the best at his new club.

He deserves it.

The strange decline of Andrew Davies

He started at Middlesbrough in the UEFA Cup and moved onto Southampton who were a league below and then Stoke where it did not work out and he went to a series of increasingly lowly loan deals before settling at League Two Bradford City who he played for before joining Ross County.

Reading Davies’ career written out sounds like a managed decline rather than the endeavours of one of the biggest hearted, most characterful, and best defenders I’ve ever seen play the game with my own two eyes.

Chelsea away might be a part of history, and Davies’ part in that history and the rise of Bradford City, might be recorded but to a stranger who did not see those days Davies career is not what it should be.

We were there, it was glorious, but as he starts life at a new club it seems that rather than reading like the annals of a defensive hero that it was Andrew Davies’ career has the sound of a strange decline.

How Bradford City got to the sixth round of the FA Cup and how easy it was

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Andrew Halliday, Mark Yeates, Francois Zoko

A story of abject failure

Bradford City’s 2-0 win over Sunderland was most remarkable because of how easy it was.

From Billy Clarke’s third minute shot deflected in by John O’Shea onwards the result at Valley Parade was hardly in doubt.

Bradford City played accurate passing at tempo which Sunderland could not match, and with a shape which Sunderland would not adapt to. Robbed of midfield quality in Jack Rodwell and power in Lee Cattermole Sunderland played Liam Bridcutt and Sebastian Larsson in the middle against City’s three of Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle and Billy Knott and lost the midfield.

Bradford City dominated the first forty five minutes. Liddle sat behind his two partners who were both admirably disciplined, and while Bridcutt picked up Billy Clarke in the playmaking role Sunderland manager Gus Poyet left Larsson on his own with three players.

And Larsson could not deliver a quality of possession on the flanks for Sunderland who had based the game on the ball to wide players – Adam Johnson looked lively – which would be put in for Steven Fletcher to finish with Danny Graham in support. Fletcher vs Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies was hardly even a contest.

Better matched were James Hanson and Jon Stead against O’Shea and Wes Brown but with Clarke coming forward and Hanson moving out wide left City pressed with strength, movement and intelligence. O’Shea and Brown with Bridcutt coming back were unsettled by Hanson’s strength and Clarke’s speed with ball at foot.

Only unsettled though, but with so much of the rest of Gus Poyet’s team selection playing exactly as Bradford City’s Phil Parkinson would have wanted it to be it seemed that the Premier League time arrived at, and played with, a hand tied behind their back.

And that hand was tied by Gus Poyet. At half time, watching his team lose the midfield battle, Poyet threw on Connor Wickham for Graham, went route one, and lost the game.

In terms of a manager approaching the game, understanding how the opposition would play, and putting out a team capable of navigating that Poyet failed utterly abjectly.

Shall we switch narrative?

We have become old hands at this of course. The giant killing narrative that is spun around a team who have done what Bradford City have done in the last few years. The talk is of passionate performances and playing with character. It is of small changing rooms and bad pitches.

(The pitch was was better today, something I would congratulate and praise Roger Owen for but as he has said he is not directly responsibility for the pitch and that it is not his responsibility so I offer him no congratulations and no praise at all.)

Talk like that misses the point of Bradford City’s wins against Chelsea and Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan but it especially misses the point of this game. Bradford City did not approach Sunderland with a blowing hurricane, just with determination, but Sunderland’s preparation and approach was so far away from what it should have been that the distance between the two sides was great.

For all the coverage of a “team of heroes”, or “plucky players”, or (curiously) “real men” the reality was a Bradford City team who put in a very steady performance. Not that the players were not very good – they were – but that at the end of the game where City had won in something of a canter no player had especially surprised, or played beyond himself, or amazed.

All had played very well, in a very good unit, and carried out the roles that they were assigned very adeptly. Billy Knott – the agent provocateur against Chelsea – slipped into the discipline of a central midfield role as well as he had since first he joined from Sunderland. Filipe Morais continues to curb his solo excesses too.

Everyone played very well but Bradford City did not spring a surprise on Sunderland, or mug Sunderland, or rough Sunderland up. Bradford City played in the same way as in the win over Milton Keynes Dons on Monday, and did not have to play better to beat Sunderland.

Sunderland were the team that were beaten 8-0 by Southampton once again. Bradford City – in this giant killing – were just here to make up the numbers.

The best thing about Sunderland

The only good thing one can say about Sunderland is that the team is much, much poorer than the supporters. The supporters of Sunderland applauded former players, applauded Bradford City for beating them, applauded Bradford City fans for the atmosphere in Valley Parade. They deserve better.

They will be told – perhaps by Guy Poyet – that City roughed up the team on a bad pitch and the media will tell them they were beaten by a team with chutzpah.

But that is not true, and those fans know it.

Poyet set out an attack that played to City’s strengths and a midfield that was outnumbered in the centre of the field, and they played without the commitment to a team structure and the belief that what they were doing would work.

One does not want to downplay what Bradford City and Phil Parkinson have done against Sunderland or in his time at City. The level that City play at is very high and the squad’s character is obvious to all.

Sunderland played badly and often Parkinson’s teams make other teams play badly. Parkinson has his team close down the space for opposition players making time on the ball claustrophobic. That was certainly the case today.

But Parkinson just had to ensure that his team continued Monday night’s MK Dons performance and the victory was not even difficult.

So then now…

After a few minutes Billy Clarke took the applause after lashing a shot back across goal which cannoned off John O’Shea and into the goal past Vito Mannone and City – perhaps – expected the Premier League visitors to come back into the game. Phil Parkinson’s return to 442 from his 4312 was the making of his City team against Halifax in the first round of this competition, as City go into the sixth round the three men in the middle smothered Sunderland.

Sebastian Larsson – a fine player – struggled to move the ball to the flanks effectively. Occasionally Johnson looked impressive but with only Larsson in the middle either Knott or Morais could help full backs deal with wingers. Graham was anonymous finding no room to play around Gary Liddle and Stephen Fletcher’s abilities in the air are less than either of Davies or McArdle’s.

The best Fletcher did – and the best chance Sunderland got – was a ball that slipped through the offside line and nestled at the Scots striker’s feet until McArdle appeared (as if from) nowhere and hacked the ball away. The cliché writes itself here, McArdle wanted it more, but Fletcher did not seem to want it at all.

Contrast that with the quick thinking in the second half when James Meredith pushed Johnson all the way back into the corner of the pitch and Johnson lobbed the ball out for James Hanson to head softly beyond Brown and O’Shea, but not beyond Johnson deep, and to Jon Stead who picked up the ball and finished well under Mannone.

An hour in and with Sunderland resorting to playing long balls which Davies and McArdle took care of, and aside from Ben Williams making a single save the Bantams defence was untroubled.

Phil Parkinson and his City players took plaudits from a capacity Valley Parade – including a good few Sunderland fans – for a fifth Premier League team beaten in three years. The sixth round of the FA Cup is the last eight teams in the country. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United (or Preston North End), Aston Villa West Brom, Reading, Blackburn Rovers and Bradford City.

Wigan was unexpected and tough, Arsenal was hard but deserved. Aston Villa was a double sucker punch at the end of the game and Chelsea was understanding the power of pressure and seeing that pressure pay. These were all great, great games and great football matches to be at.

Sunderland, though, was easy.

Remembering Our Dean Richards

After his sad death this week it was curious to see the outpouring of football’s grief for Dean Richards with supporters and officials at Southampton, Wolves and Tottenham Hotspur all being rich and fulsome in their praise for the former Rhodesway school boy who started his career at Valley Parade.

Indeed it is rather touching that the reflections of the professionalism, attitude and ability of young man who started his City career in 1990, joined the first team in 1992 and left in 1995 carried on until his retirement in 2005 at Spurs. All three clubs who Dean went on to play for found him to be as he was as an aspiring professional at City. A talented footballer for sure, but a good guy too, at all stages of his career.

So there is talk of why the defender did not get rewarded with England honours – he was the most expensive uncapped player in English history – and reminiscent of his debut at White Hart Lane in a 5-3 defeat to Manchester United which is part of Premier League folk lore but for Bradford City fans Richards was forever the teenager starting off in the game.

Richards joined the squad under John Doherty’s watching defender Phil Babb taking a role in the forward line but it was under Frank Stapleton when he was given a debut. For a brief time he and Babb made a central defensive partnership for Stapleton before the latter’s departure for Coventry City. That the loss of Babb – who had excelled after Stapleton relocated him to the central defensive position – was not felt was largely down the emergence of Richards.

Stapleton’s team prized Richards and his ability. A strong player, capable of playing the ball listen not to those who call him “an old fashioned hard man” for Richards was the depiction of the modern defender that emerged in the 1990s. A Shepparder who would pressure strikers into mistakes rather than dive in to clean the ball there was an obvious difference between Richards and his predecessors’ in City’s defence. Never once can I recall Dean Richards recklessly tackling a striker but frequently I recall his ability to drive opponents into areas of the field he wanted them in, frustrating them.

When Geoffrey Richmond arrived and Lennie Lawrence became manager Richards was the heart of the Bantams defence and my clearest and favourite memory of Richards comes from Lawrence’s first game at Chester City when the Bantam’s defender gave one of the home strikers a six or seven yard head start but effortlessly went through the gears to catch, over take and guide the ball away.

I’ve often talked about that moment since as one of the best examples of a player who knew the reach of his abilities and matched his game to them. It has been my favourite example of a player in control of his own game, taking responsibility for his own performance, and will remain so.

Richards left City when Lawrence’s team’s promotion hunt faltered having spent much of the season injury – a problem exasperated by the manager attempting to bring him back too quickly and Richards breaking down – which robbed City and City fans of too many of the classy defender’s performances. His exit to Wolves was saddening not just because it worsened the side, but because it meant that we would not enjoy watching Dean Richards play again and – and it is a cherished thing in football – Dean Richards was a very enjoyable player to watch.

Heart and soul into his performances for sure, but control and poise too.

As it turned out Richards had a return to City’s history in May 1999 when as a Wolves player he was charged with trying to stop City reaching the Premier League on the final day of the season. His contribution was a battle for pace with Jamie Lawrence which ended in a penalty to make the game 4-1 and allow City to stroll out the remaining time once Beagrie had netted the spot kick.

Plans are seldom that simple and while City held breath following the penalty miss and finally celebrated at the end of the game which concluded 3-2 Richards took applause from his own supporters in what turned out to be his final game for the Midlands club.

On to Southampton and Spurs and then back to City to work with the young players Dean Richards had much to offer the game as a player and a coach and football is the worse for his passing. The tributes to him are as heartfelt and as honest each one of them picking out a part of a broader picture.

And my contribution to that is the sunny day in August 1994 which would end in a 4-1 win at the Deva Stadium and Richards motoring past the opposition striker and taking the ball under control and away with what looked like the ease of a man strolling in the park.

A moment to savour, and never to forget.

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