Does every team have a scapegoat? That player first in the firing line, widely derided at any opportunity, and often unfairly criticised for being just one poorly working cog in a bad team performance?
For so long at United, this has been Liam O’Neil. Even just writing his name in this article will be filling readers with either red hot rage or a strange form of motherly protection. But with Liam, two things can be true at once: firstly, at times early on in his United career, he would often fall short of the mark accused of maybe not quite giving enough every time he put on the amber and black. And secondly, that now, he has vastly improved under Bonner (who hasn’t), to the point where he is a very useful asset in a League One squad. For another local boy in an over-achieving team, of which he has been undoubtedly a crucial part of, the derision now feels very misplaced.
But this season, at times, it feels as if we’ve replaced one small ginger scapegoat with another. James Brophy, who coincidentally also joined United on a three year deal, has been as close to a mainstay in this year’s team as anyone. After that flattering win on Tuesday night against Doncaster, it felt like the right time to revisit the James Brophy question.
Brophs has somewhat split the fanbase this season – maybe ‘split’ is harsh, but he has at the very least been a topic of conversation after so many games. Over the past few weeks, he has clearly shown he is a good player – direct, dangerous, always putting the full-back on the back foot. But still, he remains an incredibly frustrating player to watch. And I don’t mean frustrating in a particularly negative sense, but more the fact that he seems to carry the ball so well up the pitch and then either make a poor decision or fail to properly execute his final ball.
But what is it about him that’s so frustrating? Is it the fact he has particular running style that sometimes can look like he’s not fully in control of the ball? Is it a decision making issue? Is it simply a poor final ball? Or is it an over reliance on his left foot? The last option seems odd considering how frequently he seems to cut onto his right foot – I say right foot, closer to what looks like a prosthetic limb stapled onto his hip at times.
Tuesday night seemed like the epitome of his performance. There’s a strong case to say he was man of the match; a constant threat and always looking to take on the full back, who he had the beating of every time. But still, there was tangible feeling of frustration when he would beat his man, come face to face with another defender and instead of either getting in a cross (to a striker who seems able to flick on even an oncoming meteor, a winger’s dream surely) or going to the byline and whipping in a dangerous ball from there, he cuts back on his right. Meander infield, look for another option, play a simple ball inside.
It could just be the ever-present non league United fan in me – that hankering for a young Harrison Dunk playing direct and simple. Smash the ball past the right back, do him for pace, smash it across blindly from the byline. Brophy, very likely, is simply a better player than that. But it seems a strange situation that someone who is that dangerous with the ball at his feet can equally bare the sort of frustration reserved for players who fans might brand “not quite good enough”.
There’s probably people reading this who still think that of Brophy. If there’s one thing to conclude, it’s that that simply isn’t true. His dip in form around the end of October and early November was stark, but he bore the brunt of an awful team performance in Milton Keynes perhaps unfairly and maybe he’s never managed to shake that off for some people. If we play badly, it’s Brophy that gets the attention – when often, he’s been a huge part in our attacking moves. But his stats (one goal and two assists so far this season) could really do with reflecting that.
The jury’s not out, but that sense of frustration still lingers (and keeps cutting infield on its right).