Phil Parkinson spent the Summer accumulating strength in depth so his side wouldn’t fold under the effects of an injury crisis as we did last season. It’s an appropriate moment to take stock of Parkinson’s squad replenishment as we’ve finally seen what Jordan Tunnicliffe has to offer.
Tunnicliffe was an eye-catching capture. He enjoyed an impressive season with Crawley Town in League Two last season, and had always caught the eye when he played against us for AFC Fylde.
While it was perfectly understandable that Parkinson would stand by Max Cleworth at the start of the season – after all, the youngster is a real prospect, and followed up his superb breakthrough season with an imperious pre-season – the complete absence of Tunnicliffe was a surprise.
After 14 games of the season he was yet to set foot on the pitch, his seven matches spent on the bench hardly a consolation. Still, Cleworth’s form remained solid, so it wasn’t a huge shock that Tunnicliffe had to wait for his opportunity.
That is, until we went to Blyth.
I think everyone assumed that he’d get a chance in that match. We were bound to rotate the side, and he was the obvious player to give game time to. However, when the team was released, Tunnicliffe was on the bench again. Cleworth had been rested, but Tom O’Connor was dropped back into defence rather than give Tunnicliffe a go.
Eyebrows were beginning to be raised, and the best explanation I could come up with was that the new man was purely seen as cover for Ben Tozer.
Parkinson likes to see his wide centre backs join in the attack, and Tunnicliffe is a stopper, similar in style to Tozer. Last season Shaun Brisley, a similar style of defender, spent some time in the left-sided central defensive role and came up short – his lack of pace was an issue and he cost us a goal at Halifax with a sloppy pass. That turned out to be his final match for Wrexham.
However, the Blyth replay did see Tunnicliffe start as a wide centre-back, and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
He isn’t as quick as Aaron Hayden, or as happy to stride forward and link with attacking players as Cleworth, but he’s perfectly comfortable on the ball and has gone forwards more as his first team games have accumulated.
Most importantly, Tunnicliffe is a rock-solid defender. He’s hard to beat, physical and reliable. He wins his headers and is strong in the tackle. When Boreham Wood tested his resilience, he repelled them with confident ease.
His presence in the side offers two other advantages to Parkinson. It allows Cleworth to have a break from the side: the youngster will be back soon, but it never hurts to allow a young prospect a chance to take a breath before returning to the fray.
Secondly, he has altered the balance of the side. We have conceded more goals than we’re comfortable with in recent weeks, and the remarkable 7-5 Barnet win really brought that issue into focus. Callum McFadzean and Cleworth combine brilliantly down the left, but as both of them drove forwards, Barnet were cute enough to get in behind them. That’s no criticism of them, but it was clear that our attacking approach left us vulnerable to the counter on that side of the pitch.
Tunnicliffe shores that side of the pitch up nicely, with his natural reluctance to over-commit when going forwards. His stable presence also allows Parkinson to get imaginative in other parts of the pitch.
With the back three more cautious, Parkinson has been able to use Elliot Lee in midfield, knowing there is a solid base behind the mercurial play-maker.
It’s been fascinating to see the manager integrate his new signings into an already effective side. It’s taken a while for Tunnicliffe to join the party, but early signs suggest he could be a very important addition to the squad.