By Jason McKeown
Half time inside one of the Kop’s Gents toilets, and the mood was foul as supporters took turns to complain about different aspects of Bradford City’s first half performance.
“He needs to get shut of both goalkeepers”, “Reid is a waste of space”, “Get Hines off”, “What does Hanson bring to the table?” As anger and despondency reigned, you could only stay quiet and occasionally agree. There was little to feel enamoured about, following a first half as poor as anything that City have served all season.
One hour and one stirring fight back later, and the invitation to feel happier about your team rescuing an unlikely draw was there to be accepted. Sure, a point doesn’t help our slim play off hopes. And if, unlike myself personally, you still thought a top seven finish could be secured, the reality of that tall order becoming even taller wouldn’t have felt enjoyable. Yet I left Valley Parade with spirits lifted by what I had seen in the second half, and my faith in Phil Parkinson enhanced even more.
For years now, TV coverage of football has been littered with ex-players performing as pundits, having gone straight into the studio from retirement. They are, somehow, considered to be experts on what managers should do – when they have no experience of the demands of the role themselves. Predictably and dismally, this means usually means urging a losing manager to start making substitutions five minutes after the interval, and then criticising them when this does not happen.
Such lazy and subjective punditry has spread to football fans up and down the land, including Valley Parade. Without fail, every single Bradford City manager I have seen has been accused of always making their subs too late. Or of not knowing how to change a game.
But although certain flavour-of-the-month managers are cited for making substitutions early, I’ve often thought that it covers their failings – such as did they pick the wrong starting XI in the first place? And when football is primarily a sport where two teams battle it out and the better one wins, I think too much emphasis can be placed on the influence that substitutions have.
Which is not to suggest that Parkinson’s three changes on Friday were anything but vital in City coming from 2-0 down to earn a draw, but I don’t agree with the criticisms that he should have made them sooner. Parkinson had picked a side that we know was capable of much better than what they had showed in the first half. And, to a man, those players deserved the opportunity to prove that. Which they did after the break, with a much stronger performance. And because they wrestled back control of the game if not the scoreline, the substitutions could be used for what good managers should use them for.
That is to tactically change the shape of the team and the course of the game, rather that punish badly performing players. For me, Hines performed better than Reid; but replacing the former with Will Atkinson enabled City to have the extra body in midfield that the middle two of Gary Jones and Ricky Ravenhill increasingly required. Ravenhill was also taken off at this point, with Alan Connell playing just in front of Jones and Atkinson. A central triangle of intelligent footballers in place, who linked up impressively.
It was a good tactical change. Southend’s impressive (but temperamental) Bilel Mohsni had spent the afternoon sitting in front of his back four and was as close as anyone to setting the game’s tempo. Pushing Jones or Ravenhill directly onto the Frenchman would have resulted in one of the two Southend attacking midfielders having a free reign to run at City’s back four. It meant City had to attack down the flanks, which although stretching the game was something Southend increasingly got to grips with. So Connell came on to force Moshni onto the backfoot, and Jones and Atkinson got on the ball to start pulling the strings. Southend were pushed further and further back.
Then with 10 minutes to go, a last gamble of City going three at the back and Nahki Wells, introduced for Stephen Darby, an extra man up front. City effectively went 3-3-1-3, with Wells and Garry Thompson wide forwards and Hanson in the middle. A risky strategy that could have been punished by an effective visiting counter attack, but there wasn’t going to be much difference between losing 2-1 or 3-1. As it was Wells – who looked back on form – set up Hanson to equalise within two minutes of his introduction.
To me this was good management by Parkinson. He made three very effective substitutions that contributed to the rescuing of a point, but what was more impressive was demonstrating the trust he holds in his players. The half time mood in the stands dictated that a double or even triple substitution at that point would have been widely cheered, but he retained his belief in players who had unfortunately allowed themselves to fall below acceptable standards for 45 minutes, and gave them the opportunity to put things right.
It might not have changed the world yesterday, and it wasn’t enough to earn the three points needed to make unrealistic play off hopes realistic, but it was a useful exercise in good management by Parkinson. And it was further confirmation of the character and qualities he has natured in this group of players – a team that needs tweaks rather than an overhaul, in order to fulfil top seven ambitions next season.