By Jason McKeown
It was supposed to be a relatively quick visit, League Two. We’d be here for two, three years tops. Treating stop offs at the likes of Accrington, Rochdale and Dagenham as a quirky adventure we could one day tell the grandkids. “You think it’s bad today? I remember watching City lose 4-1 at Barnet!”
It was supposed to be a relatively quick visit, League Two. Yet here we still are, about to enter our sixth straight season in the basement division. Like a car stuck in a puddle of mud, we’ve been frantically trying to move forwards but with no success, only sinking further into the bog. 10th in the first season was a disappointment, 9th the year after the closest we’ve come. Then 14th, 18th and 18th again. Over the past two years, we’ve experienced genuine concerns about exiting the division in the wrong direction.
It was supposed to be a relatively quick visit, League Two. Yet over these six years we’ve seen so many other clubs – ones we have looked down upon – overtake us and climb into the division above. The turnover in this league is quite startling, and it means our initial hopes of merely being League Two tourists no longer carry credibility. I hate to admit this, but we’ve kinda become part of the furtiture.
Consider this. When looking at consecutive seasons in this division, City are now the joint third longest serving club in League Two. Only Barnet and Accrington were here before we got here, with Rotherham and Morecambe both embarking on their sixth straight season at this level too. Rochdale – back in League Two this season after a two-year spell in League One – famously stayed in this league for 41 years. They called it ‘The Rochdale Division’. How long until League Two is dubbed ‘The Bradford City Division’?
It was supposed to be a relatively quick visit, League Two. So how about sixth time lucky? On paper, our chances of a top seven finish look promising. An encouraging end to last season provides a degree of momentum to take into this one, with manager Phil Parkinson’s summer transfer business appearing to be very impressive. City have recruited some quality players and, of those who have left the building since May, only David Syers can truly be described as a genuine loss. The squad looks much stronger than it did a year ago, and if everyone is fit there are going to be some very good players left on the bench. At the very least there should be no repeat of an 18th placed finish, or of any relegation concerns.
The division does not look easy. Fleetwood replace Crawley as big spending newcomers, albeit far more likeable. The odious Steve Evans is in charge of a Rotherham outfit buoyed by finally moving back to their home town and sizeable transfer funds. Southend, Cheltenham and Torquay were all unfortunate not to get promoted last season, and the sides coming down are in relatively good shape. You cannot really see the Bantams challenging the top three automatic promotion places – we were 34 points short of it last time around, and as good as the new signings look that’s an almighty gap to make up – but it should be a season of winning more than we lose.
Parkinson’s popularity amongst supporters is largely positive. There were mutterings of disapproval from a small section last season, but from others the backing has been fiercely strong. What impressed from day one was how Parkinson obviously had a plan of action and was not afraid to start implementing it. That undoubtedly caused some short-term pain last season, as a group of players who had done little wrong were shunted out and new signings arrived. A sizeable chunk of money was spent on loan signings – many of whom were quickly forgotten and barely used. Relegation frustratingly remained on the agenda, as solid bursts of good form were punctured by some tame results. It was not an easy time.
Yet Parkinson impressed many by the way he guided the club through some choppy waters, and in his steadfast determination to do things in the way that he believed was right. At times City were too conservative – especially on the road, which saw far too many fruitless trips – and the direct style employed could be accused of being ugly. But, slowly, a level of resilience grew, and the players Parkinson had brought in, or stuck with, could not be accused of lacking effort. It was a team of players performing for their manager, and that team has been further moulded over the summer into Parkinson’s style.
There is no doubt that criticism of Parkinson will increase if results are not forthcoming this season. The expectation bar has risen again – both by the Board and supporters – and there will be far less patience towards perceived negative tactics or poor results. Last season Parkinson showed a preference for rotating his squad and – if this is continued – you can expect similar mutterings of disapproval. With strong options in reserve, squad rotation will be understandable; but it’s never been tolerated at Valley Parade. A good start is important – when is it not? – to ensure a positive mood.
It was supposed to be a relatively quick visit, League Two. But as much as we want to make this a final run of trips to Accrington, Barnet and Morecambe – what exactly is the expectation for this season? I’ve not heard anyone demand we are in the top three; but as much as a top seven place seems to be a realistic target, finishing there would far from guarantee a promotion. The play offs are something of a lottery, where 75% of participants will fail. If we are placing the expectation level on City finishing somewhere between 4th and 7th, then we also have to accept there is a strong chance of a seventh-straight season in League Two.
With Parkinson’s contract expiring at the end of the season, he has to deliver significant progress in order to earn another one. That doesn’t mean we must finish top seven or it’s P45, but surely does require a top 10 finish and for us to be able to look back on the previous 12 months and feel good about the level of advancement. At the same time, a failure to earn promotion cannot leave us needing to overhaul the squad once again, either because we can’t afford certain players or they are too old. However many steps forward we can take this season, we want to be able to retain trust in the bulk of the squad that they can take further steps forward the year after.
It was supposed to be a relatively quick visit, League Two. It may yet go on for some time, and that’s why this season – above all else – I want to believe that we have an exit strategy. One which we have either just successfully implemented, or is well on its way to succeeding. This should not be a promotion or bust season, because the past few years have shown that the year after “going for it” is pretty much a write off if we fail (see 2009/10 and last season).
We may not get it right this season, but let’s at least come close to getting it right. Otherwise, we might have to face up to the likelihood that League Two is going to be less of a visit, and more our permanent home.