Pob lwc Tom Bradshaw
Walsall’s Tom Bradshaw was the only newcomer in the squad announced for this week’s friendly against The Netherlands. Fellow Shropshire-Welshman Leon Barton looks back at Tom’s rise from the Welsh Premier League to the cusp of an international début and the precedents for strikers from England’s third tier making goalscoring débuts.
I wish every player about to make his Wales début the best of luck of course. But sometimes you root for some a little more than others. Often a player will make his début without you knowing very much at all about them, let alone having actually seen them play before. Four Four Two managing editor Huw Davies quipped on the most recent podcast #19 that when 18 year old George Williams made his début versus Holland he was playing because “he’d won a competition”, so little did he know about the young wing prodigy. I can’t say I knew very much about him either, but after showing no fear and no little ability against such star-studded opponents, I didn’t take long to see that he possesses some serious talent. Paul Dummett also made his début in that game (still his only cap, so if he plays on Friday, bizarrely, his first two international games will have been friendlies against Holland) and he was a player I did know a bit about, with him having been a semi-regular in Newcastle United’s defence for the past few seasons. I wish Dummett well, I hope his international career is a huge success; but I can’t say his turning out in a Wales shirt got my juices flowing particularly. He’d looked a steady but unspectacular player in the EPL for a little while, playing in a position – left back- where we actually have a bit of strength in depth. And besides, the current incumbent – Neil Taylor – is a personal favourite of mine, as I watched his fledgling career blossom at Wrexham always thinking that he potentially had what it took to get to the top.
With 23 year old Tom Bradshaw, who could well also make his début against Holland, it is different. I really, really hope his international career is a massive success, and have several reasons for saying so. A couple of those reasons are quite personal, so if you’ll excuse my self-indulgence, I’ll get those out of the way now.
I first saw Tom Bradshaw play live over five years ago in an under 19 friendly versus Liechtenstein (I only do glamour games, me). I’m fairly sure it was his debut appearance for Wales at any level. We won the game 2-0 but the second half was a very dull affair. The fact that Bradshaw was substituted at half time was not a coincidence in that respect. He spent the first half terrorising the young Liechtenstein defenders, buzzing about like a man possessed. After scoring a very coolly taken goal, hitting the crossbar with a spectacular shot from distance and harassing his opponents like the long lost love child of Ian Rush and Carlos Tevez (there’s an image for you), manager Brian Flynn decided that he’d seen plenty, with the young Shrewsbury Town forward having done more than enough to earn a place in the squad for the upcoming U19 qualifying games. I’ve often wondered if Flynn knew that 80% of the Wales fans in attendance were related to Bradshaw? ..and if he had known, would he have played him for a bit longer? I sat next to his father and three uncles, who’d driven over from Shrewsbury to watch their boy play for Wales for the very first time. It had taken them about 17 hours. So, basically, they’d endured a 34 hour round-trip for the sake of 45 minutes of football.
During the extremely dull second half I at least had the opportunity to talk to Bradshaw’s family and find out a bit more about his life and career. Shrewsbury born, Bradshaw’s family had moved to Tywyn in west Wales when Tom was a toddler. This immediately made him relateble to me – a fellow (sort of) Shropshire-Welshman. I almost had the opposite experience though, having been born in Wales, before moving to the west of Shropshire (within a Gareth Bale long throw of the border) as a youngster. Having impressed in a handful of appearances as a 16 year old at Aberystwyth Town – becoming the youngest player to ever play in a Welsh cup final in the process – his birth-town club Shrewsbury Town paid the Welsh Premier League side £30,000 in development compensation (eventually…) to take Bradshaw ‘home’ and give him the opportunity of becoming a professional footballer. Just over a year on, Bradshaw appeared to be grabbing that opportunity with both hands.
That’s something that struck me about watching him play: his sheer appetite for the game. There was a touch of the proverbial ‘kid on the playground’ about him. By mentioning the names of Rush and Tevez, I don’t want to give the wrong impression about his level of ability To be clear, as talented as he is, it’s highly unlikely Bradshaw will ever play in a European cup final. It’s just that in terms of opposition harassment, those were the strikers who first came to mind. Perhaps a more realistic comparison would be with someone like Kevin Doyle. Doyle also started out in his native land’s semi-professional league, before going on to make a real impact at Reading, Wolves and at international level with the Republic of Ireland. And if you’re thinking ‘if he plays a bit like Kevin Doyle then he’s not worth getting excited about’ then perhaps it should be brought to your attention that Doyle has scored 14 international goals. Which is more than John Toshack, Teddy Sheringham, Brian McClair and plenty of other much more revered strikers. If Bradshaw scores 14 goals for Wales that’ll certainly do for me.
Despite growing up in Wales, until 2009 Tom Bradshaw would not have been able to represent the land of of upbringing in international football, when the so-called ‘school rule’ came into effect. This allowed players with five years of COMPULSORY education in one specified country within the United Kingdom to be eligible to represent that nation’s football team. Not everyone is a fan of this rule change; I know Podcast Pêl-droed founder Russell is fairly cynical about it for one. Personally, I think it makes total sense. Growing up so close to the border meant I knew people born in England (simply because that’s where the nearest maternity hospital was) who still considered themselves wholly Welsh. There are generations of English-born people in the west of Shropshire who still consider themselves Welsh in fact. I’ve been to several Wales games with fans, who, until this rule came in, would have been denied the opportunity to play for the international team they support (had they not been shit at football). This will become more of an issue as more small maternity hospitals close, and as Wales continues to absorb more people from elsewhere, particularly England. My contention is that the ‘school rule’ will provide a rich seem for Welsh football in future and Bradshaw could well become the first real success to emerge from this new qualification method. The first player to qualify for Wales this way – Andy Dorman – was unable to make much of an impact in his handful of caps but plenty of others will in future, I have little doubt of that. I understand that the worry is that it gives England the chance poach more Welsh-born players, but that honestly seems very unlikely. Are the English FA really going to go out of their way to relocate swathes of the best 11 year old footballers in Wales when they already have thousands of their own youngsters to work with?
Besides, considering Bradshaw is very much a product of Welsh football, having come through the ranks of a Welsh club playing in the Welsh system, surely it be madness to deny such players the opportunity to play for Wales? It also surely would have been madness to have turned around to someone wholly educated in west Wales – a fluent Welsh speaker, no less – and said, “Sorry, you can only play for England”.
It’s also another feather in the cap of the much maligned Welsh Premier League to have him now involved in the senior set up, joining the likes of Owain Tudur Jones, Steve Evans and the League’s biggest success, Mark Delaney, in giving everyone involved a massive boost. As Chris Coleman said last week ‘a pathway does exist for players from the WPL to one day become international footballers’.
There has been some resistance to a Bradshaw call-up from some Welsh fans because of the level he plays at. I disagree. It seems symptomatic to me of a new snobbery amongst some about our new rarefied position inside FIFA’s top 20 and a presence-to-be at a major tournament. But as someone who grew up on stories of Wrexham’s Arfon Griffiths becoming a key player for Wales in his thirties whilst playing in the third tier, and someone who witnessed Daniel Gabbidon’s immense performance against the mighty Italy, Del Piero et al in 2002, I love the idea of lower league players stepping out of the shadows to gain recognition on the international stage. Besides, there’s a nice little line of third tier strikers who scored on their international début; Port Vale’s Andy Jones smashed home a cracking volley on debut versus Finland at the Racecourse in 1987, and Cardiff City’s Robert Earnshaw put a wonderful winner past Oliver Kahn’s Germany in 2002.
Away from Wales it’s also been known to happen too. I am old enough to remember Steve Bull of third division promotion chasers Wolves hitting the back of the net on his England début against Scotland in 1989. (As an aside, imagine the fuss if Roy Hodgson picked a League One player now? I struggle to imagine it ever happening again). But maybe when it comes to the knack of putting the ball in the back of the net, there’s less tactical and mental knowledge required and the goalscoring instinct can bridge the standard gap for a lower league player picked for his country?
And lets face it, our striking options are looking a bit bare at the moment. Simon Church and Hal Robson-Kanu have just four international goals between them in over 60 caps. Sam Vokes has scored only once in three years. If there is room somewhere in the squad for a lower league player to come through and stake a claim for a spot in the Euro 2016 squad, it’s certainly in the striker position.
There are many who think this call up is long overdue but perhaps certain circumstances explain why his call up may have been slightly delayed. In 2013 U21 manager Geraint Williams vowed to never pick Bradshaw again after the player pulled out of a squad to play for Shrewsbury Town instead. Normally the idea of anyone at any level putting club before country disappoints me hugely, but in this case I actually have some sympathy. After a difficult couple of seasons, Bradshaw was in the process of re-establishing himself in the Shrewsbury Town first team, and with his contract coming to an end, there seemed to be a fear that losing his place at Shrewsbury would have meant his career losing serious momentum. It’s not a fear without foundation. After getting released by a League Two club there’s often nowhere else for a professional footballer to go. Considering that he only had a few games left as an under 21 player, and that he wasn’t even a first choice Wales player at that level anyway, Bradshaw decided (quite understandably in my view) that for the sake of his long term career, making sure his club progress didn’t stall was more more important at that time. His Shrewsbury manager Graham Turner said “The next step is in several years’ time if he makes enough progress to be considered for the full Welsh national side. Whether that changes then, I don’t know.” To Bradshaw’s credit, he has made enough progress.
Bradshaw scored on his début for Shrewsbury Town, Walsall, Wales U19 and Wales U21s. The Dutch may be illustrious opponents but given decent game time this Friday, I wouldn’t put yet another début goal past him.
Good luck Tom. Pob lwc.