McCall’s Midfield Mission

Stuart McCall of Bradford City. Image Credit: The Herald

Heading into the 2020/21 League Two campaign, Bradford City boss Stuart McCall had one recognised central midfielder in the squad- which was Harry Pritchard, but even he isn’t your traditional number 8 box to box midfielder.

With that being said, stalwart McCall had a laborious task on his hands to rebuild a City midfield with limited resources, due to the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic.

The first midfielder McCall unveiled at Valley Parade was (for his third stint) Billy Clarke. Yes, again he’s similar to Pritchard and he isn’t necessarily accomplished as a sturdy central midfielder, but Clarke would challenge Pritchard for the number ten role behind the striker, something which excited Bantams supporters as it showed the attacking intent the Scotsman had for his side.

Since departing City at the end of the 2018/19 campaign, Clarke has struggled to find himself a new home, briefly moving down to the coast to feature for Plymouth Argyle but after nine appearances his contract was mutually terminated, most likely because he missed his family back in West Yorkshire and was feeling homesick. After nine games for the Pilgrims, Clarke was offered a contract by Ian Holloway’s Grimsby Town, which he gratefully accepted.

Clarke shone for the Mariners, netting twice and contributing four assists to Holloway’s side whilst also becoming a fan’s favourite for his flair and playmaking ability, able to thread difficult balls in tight situations an having enough experience to motivate his fellow teammates to go that extra inch.

However, Clarke’s advanced playmaker role isn’t set in stone in West Yorkshire, after McCall opted to bring in extra firepower- another former Bantam in Gareth Evans.

Signing his second contract under McCall, after doings so in his first tenure in 2009, the midfielder will be eager to win back the love of the Bradford faithful after making an enemy of them in 2012 when tauntingly netting twice for Rotherham and jeering in front of the travelling City fans.

However, what’s in the past is in the past, and the 32 year old has signed a two year contract for Bradford.

Evans is the next piece in the complex Bradford City puzzle, and is the perfect player to be bringing in at this stage. Something City lacked last season is creativity, with Clarke showing promise but perhaps needed extra incentive and competition to maximise his performances, but with Lee Novak being the club’s leading marksman right now it looks likely that Evans is joining the club to aid Novak’s form and hopefully help the under pressure Kurtis Guthrie to break his deadlock and start off his goalscoring campaign under McCall.

The former Portsmouth man has most recently operated behind the striker in a kind of attacking midfield role, but his versatility and adaptive finesse is one of his best qualities. Evans has previously played in right-back, central and attacking midfield, as a left winger and, as his main position, on the right side in a 4-2-3-1 formation which he excelled in during Pompey’s remarkable League Two promotion back in 2017.

Attacker Evans is a completely different player compared to his first stint with City, and his experience could prove vital in League Two, having made over 470 appearances in the EFL and scoring on 83 occasions.

He is also familiar with the grit of England’s fourth tier, having fought in it for Bradford, Rotherham, Fleetwood Town, Portsmouth and Macclesfield Town, so he knows what to expect coming into the season.

His experience and leadership qualities will be put to better use this season as well, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing McCall to turn to the youth of the squad, Evans’ advice and superintendence could help guide the likes of Kian Scales, Connor Shanks, Finn Cousin-Dawson and of course Reece Staunton to have a positive impact on the outcome of the season and to make the step up from youth football to the backbone of senior football.

A player adored by Portsmouth fans, it looks increasingly likely that Evans will become a fan favourite and break into the first team squad in no time, providing excellent back up and most importantly competition all over the pitch, he threatens the attacking midfield role, the right and left flanks, the deeper midfield position and he could provide a helpful strike partner to Novak if required.

With the number ten role flourishing with quality, because of Clarke, Pritchard and Evans, all that was left to do was bring in the resources behind the attack.

McCall turned his attention to highly-rated Wolverhampton Wanderers figurehead Elliot Watt.

Whilst the Bantams faithful know what to expect from fellow central midfielder Callum Cooke due to his loan spell last season, many are unaware of the talents and expertise Watt possesses, the kind of player he is and how he could be the midfield general City have lacked since Joshua Cullen’s loan spell ended in 2018.

Watt has had previous spells at youth level with Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End before eventually settling down at Wolverhampton Wanderers and signing his first professional contract in November 2017. His singular ever appearance for Wolves came in a 2-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday in an EFL Cup tie, but he is no stranger to senior football, having made 12 appearances on loan at Carlisle United last season and impressing, despite it just being a short tenure at the Cumbrians.

At 5″9, Watt usually operates as a deep-lying playmaker which is good news as fans are wanting to see Cooke play in his more accomplished advanced role, but he is known for being agile, composed and a good decision-maker which is why he was able to adapt to League Two football with Carlisle so instinctively. Watt has also built up a reputation of being a wizard at a set-piece, being the specialist for when it comes to free-kicks and corners. This is again a positive for Bradford supporters as they have lacked a real constant threat at free-kicks, especially now Shay McCartan has left the club after the wonders he performed at Swindon Town away last campaign. Under the tutelage of McCall, Watt could prosper into a huge coup for the Bantams alongside Cooke, and even a possible future club captain, as Wolves journalist Tim Spiers described the midfielder as a “tidy player and captain material- got the attributes to have a very good career.”

Bantams boss McCall has thoroughly scouted promising Watt himself, having watched the Scotland Under-21 international in a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool Under-23’s a few months ago. This game saw Watt challenge the likes of Herbie Kane and Rhian Brewster, who both play at Championship level, yet he got stuck in and showed he was up for the fight, rarely shying from a 50/50 and showing his technical ability when controlling the midfield from a slightly deeper role, one which McCall envisions Watt doing in West Yorkshire. 

Despite the fact he is just 20 years old, Bradford fans should be excited about the midfield general McCall has attracted to the club, especially as the Scotsman acquired his services on a undisclosed fee which is a huge risk due to the financial implications of the coronavirus pandemic for a League Two club, so the manager must be confident in Watt’s abilities to perform and how he can lead the club forward from here. Especially as Watt has shown a desire to be at Valley Parade despite interest from elsewhere, saying: “From the minute I heard Bradford City was interested, it was straight ahead. I wanted to get the deal done. The size of the club speaks for itself and we should not really be in the division we are.” 

McCall didn’t have to scout far to his find the next piece of his Bradford boys, as he made contact with free agent Cooke to discuss the player’s future, and how he’d feel about returning to West Yorkshire after his loan spell last season.

Despite reported interest from higher division clubs and Bolton Wanderers, Cooke signed on the dotted line and committed his future by agreeing to a two year deal at the club.

Cooke earned the plaudits last campaign, being praised for his ability to calm down the game, find a pass due to his excellent vision and capability to spread a ball about the pitch. Whilst it’s still early days and City fans are familiar with him, it’s looking likely that a Cooke-Watt partnership could be one to look out for this season.

To say the difficult challenge on his hands, Stuart McCall has done an impressive job assembling a midfield that already looks more passionate and fervent than the likes of Hope Akpan, Jermaine Anderson and Danny Devine, but also one that is well balanced yet competitions remains healthy. There is also Levi Sutton and Kian Scales, who can both do a job in the middle of the park, as well as Finn Cousin-Dawson who has looked promising in a holding midfield role in the EFL Trophy. The implement of youth, experience and quality is astounding and McCall really does need the full backing of the board, but most importantly, the supporters.

Saying that, this is being written after the Newport County game on Saturday, which resulted in a heavy 3-0 defeat- so perhaps this should be revisited in a few weeks time- or a season or two.