Bradford City vs Coventry City preview
@Valley Parade on Sunday 17 November, 2013
By Jason McKeown
The outstanding progress made by Bradford City over the past two years is not simply down to Phil Parkinson having greater resources than his predecessors, but because of the culture which the Bantams manager has embedded into the club.
The team that Parkinson has built is full of talent for sure, but more importantly has strength of character and conviction to play in front of a large but demanding crowd that – for five years in League Two – could prove an obstacle that did for many a talented player. Is Gary Jones better than Paul McLaren and Tommy Doherty? On paper no; but seen through Valley Parade eyes of what each achieved, the latter two wouldn’t deserve even to clean Jones’ boots.
Twice I have met and spent a good length of time talking to Parkinson, and on both occasions he talked about how highly he values character in his players. Over the course of his managerial career he admits that he has let talented players go because he didn’t consider them to have the right character for his ethos. At a club like Bradford City, where expectations are always sky high and negatively can spread so quickly, having players who can handle the pressure is an obvious requirement. Something that other City managers failed to find across the board.
The story of Jones sums this up. At last May’s Player of the Year awards, Parkinson told a packed out McCall suite about how he came to sign the veteran midfielder. Interested in recruiting Stephen Darby and watching videos of the Liverpool right back on loan at Rochdale during the 2011/12 season, Parkinson noted the influence of Jones on Dale’s performances. So he called up his assistant, Steve Parkin, who was on holiday at the time and who had managed Jones. “What’s he like?” After a long pause, Parkin replied, “The best thing I can tell you about Gary, is the only time he is ever happy is 5pm when his team have won”. It was everything Parkinson needed to hear.
The impact that Jones had on City’s 2012/13 season cannot be overstated. He cleaned up at the player of the year awards that evening, and at seemingly every match in the run-in – and in the pubs and concourses before and after – his name was sung loud and proud by City fans. All season long he was an inspirational leader who proved the catalyst behind the success enjoyed.
Jones was the closest thing we have had since Stuart McCall and, like the City legend, the most commendable qualities in Jones are his never-say-die-attitude and authority on the field; which visibly lifts the players around him and makes them perform better.
Character was in abundance everywhere you looked last season. Nathan Doyle, Andrew Davies, Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith, Ricky Ravenhill, James Hanson, Garry Thompson, Nahki Wells, Alan Connell, Will Atkinson, Matt Duke. Players who left nothing on the pitch and – even when not selected – were said to be hugely supportive of those who were in the side. Players who stood firm under pressure, who never hid. Players who never gave in when it looked like promotion was beyond us following the League Cup final distraction. Players who came back from the shambolic play off semi final first leg 3-1 Burton deficit to earn a second trip to Wembley and a place in League One that opponents Northampton were not given a sniff of taking from them.
Fast forward six months to the here and now, and the abilities of many of these heroes are being questioned. And with the pressure building following a poor run of results, that character is once again needed to kick-start a season that had begun hugely promisingly but has stalled. A woeful FA Cup defeat at Rotherham resulted in even Parkinson questioning the attitude of his players. By the time they walk out against Coventry on Sunday, it will have seemed like a very long week.
That intense criticism certain players have subjected to seems somewhat ungrateful. No more so than the growing theme from a section of supporters that Jones, of all people, needs to be dropped. I must admit I am absolutely bewildered by these calls. For me, Jones made a slow start to the season that certainly suggests he is not going to go on forever and may even be phased out as the season progresses, but once he got going he has been outstanding. I didn’t go to Rotherham so can’t comment on how he played, but one poor game is not a reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In a sense, Jones’ age makes him an easy target. He’s 36, so his performances are questioned on the basis he is “too old”. It is baseless criticism that simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. As we examined earlier this week, Jones has played every minute of City’s league action and has never looked tired or in need of a rest. There is no doubt that an evolution is taking place where his younger partner and early player of the season contender, Nathan Doyle, is assuming greater responsibility; but Jones can still play a hugely important role in driving the team forward, for some time yet.
The McCall comparison is also apt in looking at the autumn years of each player’s career. Like McCall, Jones has a huge affinity with one club (Rochdale) where he is still highly regarded. Nevertheless, both found themselves released (McCall partly due to finances) and moved on to pastures new – where they enjoyed a spectacular first season. McCall was part of a Sheffield United side that reached two major cup semi finals and lost the play off final in 2002/03. A player who a year earlier was told by Jim Jefferies “your legs have gone” proved up to the demands of a marathon season. Jones, Rochdale, John Coleman, Bradford City – a similar story of proving doubters wrong.
McCall was still a key figure in his second year at Bramall Lane, before finally winding down and moving onto the coaching staff under Neil Warnock. A path you could see Jones undertaking at Valley Parade with Parkinson. He would surely make a great coach one day, but for now he still has so much to offer on the field.
Jones is not the only player being questioned at the moment, and there will be plenty who line up against Coventry on Sunday believing they have a point to prove to supporters and manager. By far the most telling aspect of Parkinson’s Rotherham comments were his disappointment that those out of the team are not pushing those who are in it hard enough, so it is difficult to predict what sort of team will face the in-form Sky Blues.
Jon McLaughlin will certainly keep goal. Another player question recently (after Wolves), the Scot bounced back from a rare mistake that day to keep a clean sheet at Crewe and be the only player to emerge from the New York stadium debacle with his reputation enhanced.
The back four will almost certainly feature Darby and Meredith, but in the centre much will depend on whether McArdle returns from international duty - he was an unused sub in Northern Ireland’s 1-0 defeat to Turkey - fresh enough to play and if Matthew Bates’ slight dip in high standards is sufficient cause for Matt Taylor or Carl McHugh to be brought in. Luke Oliver will probably get the nod if McArdle doesn’t make it, but the right-sided pair are highly unlikely to play together.
In midfield the right wing slot is the biggest concern. Thompson has paid the price for average form, but Rafa De Vita has hardly convinced since taking his place. There is undoubtedly a quality to the Italian, but it has been observed only sporadically. Perhaps a run of games will deliver improvement, but seeing out-of-form players earn or keep a place in the team is never a good thing. Mark Yeates is another option.
Jones, Doyle and Kyel Reid take the other slots, with James Hanson and Nahki Wells leading the line. At the fans forum on Wednesday, Parkinson revealed Connell has recently turned down two loan moves for geographical reasons. As exciting as Oli McBurnie’s debut from the bench was last week, that it resulted in neither Caleb Folan, Andy Gray or Connell making the 18-man squad does not bode well for them. McBurnie has returned from international duty with Scotland Under 19s and is in contention to make a home debut from the bench.
Coventry City make their first Valley Parade visit in just shy of 10 years (a 1-0 loss to a Dean Windass goal in December 2003, where Steve Staunton booted a second-half penalty over the Bradford End stand and, probably, into the middle of Bradford). Width of a Post would like to extend a special welcome to fellow Football Blogging Awards Best Club Blog nominee, the excellent Sky Blue Blog.
After a hugely difficult summer that has seen the club ludicrously relocated to Northampton, Coventry are enjoying an excellent season and are unbeaten since the end of September. Were it not for the 10-point deduction they were handed for being in administration, Coventry would have gone into this weekend sat in fourth in the league. Their strikers, Leon Clarke and Callum Wilson (11 goals each), will need to be carefully watched. It is going to be fascinating to watch how the Clarke/Wilson and Hanson/Wells partnerships compare.
A tough task for the Bantams then, but this team has faced so many tough tasks over the last two years that there is nothing to be fearful of. After a week where they have been questioned by their manager and many supporters, it’s time to see the character of the squad come to the fore once again. The glare of the national TV spotlight means there is no place to hide, and everything we know about this group of players suggests they wouldn’t dream of it anyway.
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