To really do justice to the success of Reece Burke’s loan spell thus far, it’s worth providing context to his move. For third tier Bradford City, the unprecedented success of manager Phil Parkinson’s era, including that famous 4-2 FA Cup scalp over Chelsea, was underlined by two precepts: character, and an efficient back four. Alongside centre half partner Rory McArdle, former Stoke and Middlesbrough defender Andrew Davies was talismanic for the Bantams, and integral in upholding both of these values but he was decidedly injury-prone, leaving Parkinson repeatedly scrabbling for an able replacement each season.
With his contract on the brink of expiry and Davies in the club’s top echelon of earners, both parties parted ways in July. For a while, it was a contentious decision, in the past, Davies’s replacements had proved just about satisfactory, but the disparity had remained striking. And as City slipped down the table as summer turned to autumn, the size of the missing link became more galling.
Enter stage, Reece Burke. Even at this relatively early stage in the season, it’s probably not hyperbolic to cast him among the front-runners for the Player of the Year award, he’s been that good. Th us far, Burke has banished Davies’s shadow with such fl air and aplomb that he halted comparisons before they even began.
It’s not that he’s categorically ‘better’ than Davies, I’d place their abilities on par with each other, but that he’s a completely new style of centre half, the likes of which we’ve not seen at Valley Parade before. Burke is very much your ‘modern’ centre back. What separates Burke from Davies’ other ‘replacements’ is the general confidence in his play, and his ambition with possession. As well as exhibiting solid defensive acumen, his vision is exemplary.
He likes to bring the ball out from the back, and, against Wigan, sliced six men out the game with a surging run before delivering a pinpoint cross. Among our defenders, Burke is alone in being the one with the composure and the vision to read the game in this way repeatedly, while possessing the belief in his ability to pull off such a move. He feels like an old head on young shoulders. Th at’s not to say he never gets himself into trouble – there’s a time and a place for such runs, shall we say – but errors are few and far between. He’s dogged, reliable and his positional sense works like a compass. He knows when to run with a man, when to hold the back line, and he copes well with sudden bursts of play.
For his goal against Oldham, Burke took a pacy punt back in onto his back foot, opened up and coolly slotted into the bottom corner. For City’s second against Bury, Burke was harrying on the edge of the box and managed to hustle the ball home via a deflection. He’s slick and works with flair, but can do the ugly stuff well, too. And it’s testament to the mutual benefits of keeping Burke at Valley Parade that his stay has been extended for at least one more month.
Truthfully, I think there’s still a negative perception of what life in the lower leagues entails, that the game’s too physical, or full of embittered ex-pros seeking one last paycheque. And while it won’t match the Premier League for explosive pace in the final third, the overall pace of the game is generally much quicker, with greater physicality and more congestion in key areas of the park. Hammers scouts have spoken publically about wanting to take Burke beyond the parameters of Valley Parade, and, in our minds, there is no doubt he will ultimately make waves in the Premier League.
But this doesn’t mean the off-field landscape behind a club like Bradford City isn’t providing a steep learning curve. With aspirations of Championship football, plus the freight of historic cup endeavours this side cannot be separated from, expectations here are perpetually high, but often outstrip reality. There is little margin for error, yet Burke has risen to such demands manfully. Valley Parade consequently becomes a breeding ground for this warrior-like mentality. Today, only four players remain from the Bradford squad that took the jaunt to the League Cup final, and three of those make up the current back four. These defenders, two of whom are Australian and Northern Ireland internationals, and one an ex-Liverpool player, are a well-drilled unit and have repeatedly placed among the most efficient back lines in Leagues One and Two.
But they’ve also proved vital in sustaining the mentality that Parkinson emphasises, and that will be just as vital as any experience Burke garners on the field. It’s comforting to think Burke’s growing up is going to be done within this group of consummate professionals but honestly, he looks like he’s already had a lifetime of football.