By Jason McKeown
They say that old habits die hard. And for the Bradford City community, the challenge this season is surely to maintain the feel-good factor of 2012/13 rather than reverting to type and allowing negativity to flourish during any bumps that appear along the road.
Which is not to make doom-ridden predictions of a season of struggle, but it is to express some concern about the high levels of expectation for City’s return to League One. They are expectations led from the front by the club’s joint chairmen, with both Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes separately on record talking up the prospects of another play off challenge. The high performers of last season having been retained, momentum could go a long way and the top six may not be an unrealistic objective.
But still, it’s highly questionable whether it is something that we should be expecting from Phil Parkinson and his players. League One is going to be a step up. A step up we should be able to make with a certain level of comfortableness, but that does not mean we’ll be good enough to be among the front-runners straightaway – nor should we be too concerned if we are not.
In recent years, promoted clubs from League Two have struggled to make it more than two seasons in the third tier before coming back down. The last team to earn back-to-back promotions from League Two to the Championship was Darren Ferguson’s heavily backed Peterborough in 2008 and 2009 and, before that, Peter Taylor’s Hull City, nearly 10 years ago. It is not impossible to scale the heights of a return to the second tier of English football, but I fear it will prove too much for City to achieve so quickly.
For a start, the club’s playing budget is said to be roughly same as it was in League Two last season, rather than massively increased (£2 million this time compared to £1.8 million in 2012/13). That is fully understandable and in fact should be applauded. The club committed to a playing budget in 2012/13 that was £600k more than break-even point – the stunning cup run more than making up the shortfall and therefore justifying the gamble. City will have increased revenue streams from moving to League One, although they won’t be spectacular. Enough, at least, to mean that a similar playing budget is this time within our break-even point.
Yet unlike in League Two, such a budget is not amongst the highest in the division. The May 2013 notes from the Bradford City Supporters Board suggest the average League One playing budgets range from £2-£3.5 million. Since then Rhodes has commented that many of our new rivals have indicated they are going to be operating on reduced budgets, but realistically we are still probably somewhere near the middle financial-wise.
The budget has been used to retain the existing squad. That is, for me, entirely the right approach. Those players who excelled for the Bantams last season deserve the opportunity of playing for the club at a higher level. Yet it is a step up, and that could prove a difficult transition for some players. One positive is that – Gary Jones, Ricky Ravenhill, Michael Nelson, Andy Gray and Garry Thompson aside – the squad is young and many players may not have reached their career peaks.
Finally, there is the quality of League One. It is true to say that there are many teams who will hold few fears and we should feel confident of at least four proving to be worse than us, but there are also plenty of clubs who look strong. Wolves come down with eye-wateringly high parachute payments that mean they will surely challenge for promotion. Bristol City and Peterborough were also relegated from the Championship and look capable of making quick returns. Swindon and Brentford did really well last season, losing in the play offs. Sheffield United are the division’s second largest club after Wolves. The likes of Preston, MK Dons and Notts County are threats.
Perhaps the biggest issue for City’s challenge to meet expectation levels lie in clubs like Leyton Orient (7th last season), Walsall (9th) and Crawley (10th). Rightly or wrongly we perceive ourselves to be a bigger club than these, most notably in terms of support, yet they are likely to prove difficult opposition. Just imagine the outcry were City to lose at Walsall in early October. We may no longer be the big fish in the small pond, but we’re still big.
The idea that City can better the majority of these and other clubs to finish in the top six is, to me, troubling. It’s not so much that I don’t believe we could do it, but I worry that it is being assumed. Were City to indeed be knocking on the door for a place in the 2014/15 Championship it should be treated as a pleasant surprise, rather than some form of entitlement.
And this is where the feel good factor is challenged. If the 2012/13 heroes are made to look mortal by a higher standard of opposition, expect individuals to be turned upon by the crowd. It’s happened before, so many times. Parkinson may have attracted a lot of goodwill last season, but City supporter sentiment towards whoever is manager has rarely being led by the long-term outlook. No one can take away what was achieved in 2012/13, but history has a habit of re-writing itself and the phrase “we only finished 7th last season and were lucky to go up” is likely to appear on many a message board posting if we struggle.
So what would class as a good season? Well, in my view, avoiding relegation has to be the main priority. That 50-point mark needs to be achieved as quickly as possible, and then we can see where we are from there.
Let us split the 24 League One final placings into four groups (I write about stocks and shares for a living, and we call this measurement approach quartile ranking). If City were to finish 3rd quartile (13-18) I’d be very satisfied; were they to end up 2nd quartile (7-12) I’d be ecstatic. Anything above 7th (1st quartile) would of course be incredible and, to me, anything below 18th (4th quartile) a disappointment (especially if it’s below 20!)
That’s my personal expectations, but I’d like to think others would share it too.
What that means is I will be happy with a season where we probably lose as often as we win. Where we hopefully have some memorable scalps to savour, but also endure a few moments where we despair at the dismalness. That will set the tone of my articles over the coming months: if City are stuck in mid-table, you won’t find calls for a change of manager from this writer.
Ultimately, for all the heroics of last season, the club is still not where we want it to be. The Championship is the Holy Grail and is a very laudable objective. A place in the second tier would be an end to the financial difficulties of recent years and it would mean playing a standard of opposition that we feel we belong amongst.
League One lacks the prestige, the glamour and the rewards – but also the fear factor. We are not particularly grateful to be here; just relieved we are no longer where we were. This division is correctly considered to be a stepping stone towards where our ambitions want to take us, but that doesn’t mean we are simply making a flying visit. The realities of League One’s difficulty level could mean that we need to unpack for a little while at least.