By Katie Whyatt
When I look at our squad, I can’t select the strongest player. Slowly, you can see them becoming a family. You can see them steadily finding an identity, fostering the cohesion that was absent for a sizeable chunk of September. Tony McMahon and Ben Williams have become the side’s cornerstones despite enduring torrid Augusts, and are benefitting from Phil Parkinson’s vote of confidence. City now sit just a win from the play-offs.
This revival has been catalysed, in part, by astute but necessary dealings in the loan market. Following the release of Andrew Davies, it became clear the quality of McArdle’s centre half partner would characterise a large chunk of the season; without Reece Burke, it’s hard to envisage how the defensive stability upon which this unbeaten run has been founded would ever have emerged. Lee Evans, on loan from Wolves, brings a precision that has solidified the midfield. The arrival of Kyel Reid has revived a demoralised fanbase and recharged the left side – the only player with the pace to really stretch a backline, every move he makes sends fans springing to their feet.
Hit by injuries to key men, the wheels could have fallen off – instead, Bradford City are looking like a potential promotion team. But what if you were to take Reid, Evans and Burke out of the equation?
When it comes to loan players, the balance between total and occasional reliance is such a hard line to strike. For any club, the margins are perilously thin – but next season, thanks to an illogical rule change from FIFA that will see the emergency loan market abolished and bar clubs from signing loan players outside of the transfer window, the game will change completely.
Long-term, you can plausibly see the development of thousands of young players stunted. Without a place to garner experience of life beyond the environs of youth football – of the steeliness and grizzliness needed to compete with the men – footballers must either grow up quickly, or fade to oblivion. And lower down the pyramid, the change favours only those able to stockpile loanees in August.
It’s asinine to challenge Parkinson’s pedigree. Unquestionably, he is the right man for this club. But inescapably, some of his signings have been ill-advised. He has got big calls wrong. And there was one decision, in January 2014, that could have redefined his tenure. And without the use of the emergency loan window, the landscape of the 2014/15 campaign would have been irrecoverably different.
Following promotion to League One, the signs were all there that Nahki Wells’ days as a Bradford City player were numbered. Bigger clubs were circling. When the striker rejected a contract extension and began to search elsewhere, the writing was on the wall. The club knew what was going to happen. They had time to plan.
That Parkinson made the decision to hand a big money, long-term deal to a striker that had not played regularly since 2012 was, at best, a gamble; at worst, reckless, naïve and crippling. So much was staked on the success of just one player, and, with Aaron McLean eating up a sizeable chunk of the budget, Parkinson’s hands were tied.
Picking up an injury and missing the bulk of pre-season, McLean’s first full campaign got off to the worst possible start. As the Bantams spluttered into September and registered four losses in five, McLean bore the brunt of the backlash and was loaned out to Peterborough. City toiled for little reward – without a reliable striker who could bring vision and intelligence in his build-up play, it was impossible to see where the team could go from there.
Then September turns to October, and Jon Stead and Andy Halliday arrive at Valley Parade.
Without a doubt, Aaron McLean could have been the signing that broke Phil Parkinson. If the City boss hadn’t been able to acquire Stead, you wonder whether he’d still be in the Valley Parade hot seat. I think he would have been, definitely – he’s always found solutions – but the team talk he delivered at half-time during the Halifax FA Cup clash became one of the most decisive moments of the season. That second-half performance heralded a ten-game unbeaten run. And that revival was lead by Billy Clarke, Stead and Filipe Morais.
Had that malaise continued, Parkinson could have paid with his job. It feels irrational, looking back, but the alternative reality would have been unrecognisable from this current one.
Jon Stead was the poster boy for the FA Cup run that defined last season. Stead’s composure, Stead’s goals, Stead’s hold-up play – Stead was the name on everybody’s lips. Without Stead, there would have been no Chelsea, no Sunderland, no late play-off surge. That iconic image of Stead fending off Gary Cahill, twisting, like on a pivot, and riffling the ball into the top corner… Forget it. It wouldn’t have happened.
Conceivably, Stead could have signed in January – but he was vital throughout the Christmas run-in. Without him, they wouldn’t have reached the second round, never mind the quarter-finals. And without that backdrop of league games, he wouldn’t have been able to run the show at Stamford Bridge. City would, in all likelihood, have limped meekly to mid-table.
Burke arrived in August, so within the allotted timeframe, but the point still stands: this rule change makes the transfer window more significant than ever for managers. Get something wrong, and it will be four months before you’ll be able to put it right. Make an error, and there will be no emergency loans to vindicate your call. Get hit by injuries, and you’re on your own.
Thankfully, Parkinson tends to get more things right than wrong. Time and again, he has dismantled a successful team to make yet another we fall in love with – and in Darby, Meredith and McArdle, he has three players you imagine will be at Valley Parade for years. Every manager makes bad signings – but the stakes will be raised next season. Getting the right business done early doors will be crucial.
Katie Whyatt is 18-years-old and has been following Bradford City for nine years. She also writes for the Bantams website Width of a Post.