2011/12 review: what the club got right

12 May
Like sitting an English Language GCSE exam, a number of Width of a Post writers were handed a topic heading relating to the 2011/12 season and asked to run with it; taking whatever direction they choose and writing as much or as little on it. The result is a series of ‘essays’ reviewing this season, which Width of a Post will present over the next fortnight. Kicking us off, Alex Scott answers the question of ‘What the club got right this season’.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Things that Bradford City got right this season? This is either going to descend into a joke column where I progressively come up with funnier ways to say ‘nothing’, or an in-depth review into the sensational array of kits the club featured this year. It’s neither I swear. (And before you start, that pink kit was fantastic.)

Detaching yourself from the emotion of a long (and depressing) season is almost impossible, but in the cold light of day, it wasn’t all bad. No, really.

At the beginning of the season were we sold an idea; we bought into the long-term. This was set to be a year of transition. Last season ended on a low note with a 5-1 home thrashing by Crewe. The squad was old, underperforming, not ours, or some futile combination of the three. There was little to build around. The arrow was pointing up on David Syers. That was about it. The first year midfielder was the only building block; morale around the club had bottomed out.

So the owners decided to rip it up. Blank slate. Archie Christie was installed as a Chief Scout and Head of Football Development with a remit to revamp the club’s squad and build towards a better future. This year was immaterial really. Just don’t get relegated.

We as fans were willing to accept this deal, we were sick of the status quo, and at least investing in youth afforded us the ability to grab hold of the potential. It was something at least.  Just don’t get relegated. If this season left us struggling, but with a core of five or six young starters to build around, that would be just fine and we would be better off for it next season.

Well here we are. Jon McLaughlin (24), Ritchie Jones (25), David Syers (24), Kyel Reid (24), James Hanson (24), Nahki Wells (21) all represent above-average starters at this level, who are all on the upswing. Not to mention the establishment of a new club captain in Ricky Ravenhill and a breakout star in Luke Oliver who has been universally anointed Player of the Year. We would have taken that at the beginning of the season. So why is the fan base so disgruntled?

It’s not him, it’s us.

Our expectations were raised with the perceived ‘substantial’ capital invested in the team after Parkinson’s arrival and the lofty projections emanating from within the club. But that is all in our minds. Expectations are in the eye of the beholder. For all we know, Phil Parkinson (who signed a two season contract) was under the same instruction as Jackson to ‘keep us safe for this year whilst building for next season.’ If the board decided that more money needed to be invested to achieve that end, and were more comfortable with Parkinson investing it rather than Jackson or Christie, then that is their prerogative. It is their money.

It has been a bumpy ride at times, and the club may have overspent, in capital with the fans as much as the banks, but the target has been achieved. If instead of the rhetoric of ‘Top Half by Christmas’, the club instead stuck to its early season target, only with a different triggerman, would we all be as pessimistic? (In a season of many mistakes, the mismanagement of expectations seems like a big one.)

We can argue on the merits of the identity of their chosen man, but frankly, they know more than we do. We can complain that the club has wasted money in achieving this end, but that’s their money to waste. There is no certainty the apocalyptic scenario foreseen by Lawn would have been realised, but who are we to criticise him paying for his own peace of mind?

The owners decided on a plan, and then quickly assessed it wasn’t working and changed it. Many times in football, fans complain of owners driven by their own ego, in fact that is a criticism readily levelled at the Bradford City ownership. But if you are going to do that, you must credit them in this case. They felt their decision was wrong, and changed it quickly before the damage was too deep. They owned up to their mistake. They knew they would look stupid, but had the courage in their conviction to do it. We can argue on the merits of that decision, but we have incomplete information. They know more than we do.

Furthermore, the owners have provided both regimes complete autonomy in their management. The curious aspect of George Galloway’s comments about the club is that finances aren’t the problem, and haven’t been for a while. We as fans are hyper-critical of the ownership, but you have to credit them with providing their managers with whatever they wanted.

Beyond the owners, the fan base has also been critical of Parkinson’s tendency to rely on loan players and short term contracts. Andrew Davies aside, they haven’t all been stars (I’ve never been sure why we expect them to be), but the majority of them represent potential permanent signings this off-season. If Parkinson knew he was building toward next season anyway, why not spend a section of his first-year budget on ‘advanced’ scouting?

He’s been able to spend six months looking at Deane Smalley, Will Atkinson and co, with almost no risk, and decide with certainty whether he wants them for next year. If they don’t perform (Haworth, Taylor), fine, strike them off the list. If they have obvious talent but negatively affect the dressing room (Devitt), isn’t it prudent management to establish that now, instead of signing them on multi-year deals in January or the summer? If the manager felt Mark Stewart wouldn’t be in his squad next year, but Chris Dagnall could be, wouldn’t it be logical to find that out now? We may not agree with his decisions, but at the same time we wouldn’t want a manager hamstrung by outside influences.

He must be his own man, and we must let him be so.

At times this year it seems the manager and fans have been on different wavelengths; we’ve been criticising him for something he’s not even trying to do. If you view every decision he has made as one for the betterment of next season, they take on an entirely different complexion. There are a lot of things that the club has got right.

I’m not arguing that the club hasn’t underachieved this season; I’m not arguing that Parkinson has done a great job. But, if we judge him by the same criteria as we were willing to judge Jackson and Christie, then he’s doing just fine.

On a slightly less controversial and divisive note, one facet of this season which has been an unqualified success has been the emergence of club captain-elect Ricky Ravenhill.

Fans are difficult beasts to please universally. Our demands on players are discrete and prejudiced. Even top scorers can be widely derided. Whilst each fan wants different things from their players, a common theme highlighted by Ken Dryden is that “We want them to prove beyond even unreasonable doubt that they’re not in this for the money, but for the love of their/our sport and their/our team, and demonstrate that at every moment by being willing to do whatever it takes.” This generalisation stands as a good jumping off point for every fan, and Ricky Ravenhill epitomises as much. People can criticise certain facets of his game, but they tend to pale in comparison to the overall package.

Next season’s presumptive captain, the tenacious midfielder flourished alongside Ritchie Jones down the stretch, and will be a fundamental component of next season’s team. For a player acquired initially on loan, then on a free transfer, this stands as a primary success story of the Parkinson administration. With two years to run on his contract, his manager will likely utilise Ravenhill as a tone setter, moulding the squad in his image. This can only be a good thing.

A cynic may wish to retort about broken clocks, but on the whole, the impact of Parkinson’s signings has been positive. Andrew Davies just about kept the club in the division. He was head and shoulders above every forward he faced, and infuriating suspensions aside, he must go down as a success story.

Kyel Reid is a star. Convincing him to sign a two-year deal with the club may go down as Parkinson’s crowning glory. For long spells of the season he was the club’s single attacking threat. A plethora of midfielders on the opposite flank headlined by Craig Fagan failed to generate any sort of impact offensively, and Reid spent the entire season being doubled-up upon by defences. Yet he starred. Week in, week out.

Before his injury, Marcel Seip played an integral role in the side’s defence, playing all three positions at one point or another. For a free transfer recruit, he far outperformed expectations. Ravenhill, Fagan and Smalley all played their roles. Even players we didn’t get to see all that much of in Dagnall, Devitt and Atkinson impressed in spells. Not all of the signings have paid out, but it would be inaccurate to portray Parkinson as a poor recruiter, batting .500 is accepted as a decent ratio on signings, and under that prism, he’s done pretty well.

The undoubted high point has been the discovery of Wellson. (Or Hanells, delete as appropriate) A legitimate strike partnership, Nahki Wells and James Hanson combined for 43% of the club’s goals this season. They have notched 13 goals in the 16 games they have started together whilst 16 of their 23 combined goals in the league have been with both on the pitch. Beyond their goal scoring impact, they look an actual partnership. Their strengths mesh well together. Whilst often seen reductive in the modern game, their little man-big man partnership has been a revelation. They have both shown a knack for scoring goals, and should go into next season as a focal point for the team.

Whilst the emergence of Wells has been something of an accident (Jackson didn’t want him, Parkinson showed a continued reticence to start him), the commitment to Hanson at the beginning of the season has proven a great decision. Regardless of your view on the target man, three respected managers have seen fit to make him a focal point at the club. (Granted, Parkinson has attempted to replace him, but he has only benched Hanson twice as a managerial decision, at Plymouth and at home to Rotherham, the club lost both those games.) Promoted to number nine, James Hanson has blossomed in his third season as a professional, again leading the goal scoring charts whilst playing with a drive and incisiveness not before seen from him. With an injury free off-season ahead of them, Wellson will be looking to hit the ground running next season, providing they are both still here.

Does the end justify the means? This season has met with the familiar oxymoronic incandescent malaise. ‘Twas ever thus. It has been an ordeal at times.  But looking at the component parts of the squad compared to last year (including the manager), the club are in a far stronger position going into next season. Wasn’t that all we were after this year. Has this not been a successful ‘transition’ year?

And that pink kit was great.

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