By Jason McKeown
David Baldwin has a rather wonderful office during the week. He lives in Box number five of Valley Parade, adorned by photos of former claret and amber heroes and with a glorious view of the pitch out of the window. The Bradford City Chief Executive kindly found time in his busy schedule to speak with Width of a Post for an hour, to reflect on a challenging season for the club during which the stated objective of League One survival has been achieved.
This is the seventh season that David has been working at Valley Parade, a period which has coincided with some very dark times for the club. He is keen that people have perspective about the steps forward taken since, when judging Bradford City’s 2013/14 season performance. “Let’s focus on those positives that have been achieved, but rest assured the people in the football club won’t rest on their laurels and we continue to look at what we can do to drive the club forward,” he recently wrote in the matchday programme.
With that in mind, Width of a Post quizzed David on the previous 12 months and what the future holds for the club.
WOAP: What have you made of Bradford City’s first season back in League One?
The season was all about consolidation and maintaining our League One status. The most important thing is that we have achieved that and are continuing to take forward steps.
Things change and you have to adapt. And the adapting for us in the league this season was that people worked out what we are about. It is also a much better division. It is extremely easy to fall out of, and it’s also extremely hard to get out of the other end. So being somewhere in the middle, and being in a comfortable position, is a nice thing.
Avoiding relegation has been in our hands. We were always in a position where we could ensure our own safety, and that has to be a positive. People judge the season negatively against the great start we made in the first 10 games. But then you have to reflect on what has happened since that October highpoint. We lost Andrew Davies through a long-term injury. We lost James Meredith through a long-term injury. We lost Nahki Wells through an injury and then, upon returning, we went into the transfer element of the season. We then lost Kyel Reid to a long-term injury. We have also had to do without James Hanson for a period.
I would say to any fan out there: if you lose five of those players from your team, how much of an impact is that going to have on your ability to perform? These are all high-impact players. And at any one time, there have been at least three of them out of the team.
New players come in and they need time to gel. So there was then this morphing period in January and February. There was also the exact same morphing period two years ago, when we were struggling near the bottom of League Two – and look what happened the following season!
WOAP: Going back to last summer, can you talk us through the player recruitment and retention strategy? There’s a feeling from many fans that the recruitment side proved unsuccessful…
The strategy last summer was two-fold. First and foremost, we put faith in the players who got us into League One. And I don’t think that anyone could argue that point. Retrospectively, you might question if we did the wrong thing showing loyalty to these players. But no one could stand up and say that, last summer, they thought the 2012/13 team didn’t deserve that right to demonstrate they were capable of playing at a higher level. It’s very easy to be wise after the event, nine months later.
As the season progressed there was an effect to that establishment of players by virtue of the injuries you had with James Meredith, Andrew Davies and the like, plus Nahki being sold. These events will have an impact on your season.
In terms of new players, if you look at the situation on paper, what we signed last summer were four players. One player had been part of a promotion-winning team from League Two to League One with Swindon. One player had been part a promotion-winning team from League Two to League One with Exeter, and then part of a promotion-winning team from League One to the Championship with Charlton. One player had been promoted from League Two to League One with Rochdale. And the fourth player had played 32 games in the Championship and being part of a play off final match just five weeks before we signed him. So in terms of their pedigree of the new signings and what you anticipate they can bring to the table in terms of ‘have they achieved it at this level?’ The answer on paper was yes.
But these are human beings we are talking about. And there are all sorts of permutations for why things do and don’t work. Could we have seen a better return on the incoming signings? Probably. Are there mitigating circumstances in that? Probably. Were they questionable signings at the very beginning in terms of their historic pedigree? Not to any fan that I spoke to.
What you had to do was bring in players who you felt would complement the squad. But at the same time they had to break into the team. And I think that was the thing that happened during the early days. It took a long time for them to break into the team. But more importantly, probably by the time there were opportunities there was an element of being disaffected.
Finally to say on these players, three of the four have contracts for next season. Two of them have carried injury issues throughout this season. And who knows what a full pre-season will bring to the table with those players? With that in mind, we will see how they do. I think everyone should be given a fresh opportunity next season. When you turn that page over at the end of the season, they are all starting with a blank canvas.
WOAP: The season got off to a flyer but then October saw the beginnings of a bad run. What was the reaction, internally, to these difficulties?
It was frustrating for everybody. But the most important thing is you don’t hit the panic button. And if I was to read some of the fans’ websites, some people hit those panic buttons very early.
What you need in situations and scenarios when things aren’t going how you want them to is calm heads – who can think methodically about things, and put a corrective action plan into place.
The reality is that the actions that were taken in January to freshen up the squad is a typical, stand-back-and-don’t-panic approach. And if you take the results as they have been from mid-February through to the end of the season, barring a little bit of inconsistency, the return of points has been much better than the middle block.
So that is a perfect scenario of not hitting the panic button. It’s actually saying ‘we are not happy about this, we need to do something about it’. It was about looking at the reasons behind results and then determining what we can do to correct it. We put an action plan in place to correct those shortfalls.
WOAP: The Nahki Wells situation increasingly dominated the conversation around the club approaching the turn of the year. Was there a moment where, as a club, you realised there was no choice but to sell him?
We offered Nahki the opportunity to name his price to stay; and his agent told us quite categorically that it didn’t matter what we were going to offer, he was not going to sign an extended contract.
We knew the ramifications of letting his contract run from January to July – which was quite substantial – so what was then important was to consider what action to take and when to take it. The first thing was to get the saga settled, early on, so we had the whole of the transfer window to then reconcile what our alternative plan would be. We were working on a number of permutations of that.
There were other players where fees had been accepted, but ultimately that player choose not to come to us. For example, our offer for Dicko at Wigan was accepted. At one point, Nahki was potentially moving to Wolves. So as a result of that, they probably wouldn’t have gone for Dicko. It was all a bit of a domino effect, as Nahki going to Huddersfield meant Wolves were still in the market for a player. And just as Nahki made the choice to go to Huddersfield, Dicko made the choice to go to Wolves. So we had to act accordingly.
We were covering a few bases. And that’s a constant thing when you are moving players in and out. You have to have more than one plan in place. The reality is you don’t want to wait until the end of the month and have the transfer window close on you.
WOAP: January was a busy month with loanees coming in and late difficulties with Matty Dolan…
Matty was to be signed as a permanent player on an 18-month contract. As it was, the transfer deadline passed without the deal confirmed. The deadline came and went, and the activation of that paperwork required Middlesbrough to add their signature, and they were dealing with a number of other transactions at the same time.
The two clubs have instead entered into an agreement that we will take him on loan and then we will sign him at the end of the season.
In effect, as a player Matty is one of our own. It has hindered us because of the impact it has had on the number of loan signings you can include in the matchday squad. Unfortunately, there was no round it.
I was up until 1am the evening on transfer deadline day, trying to get the deal over the line. I was actually at Darren Moore’s house, having a Chinese with Darren and Wayne Jacobs! It was Wayne’s birthday weekend and he was coming as my guest to the Wolves game (the day after).
Thankfully they are two football legends who completely understood, because I didn’t spend any social time with them. I used Darren Moore’s office and I used Darren Moore’s fax machine. I even had him running across to his neighbour’s fax machine because we couldn’t get a document through in time! It would have made for a fantastic sitcom! We did everything our end, but couldn’t get the ball across the line in time.
I think it is safe to say that the bodies we brought in during January freshened up the environment. Yes, we would like to see more goals from Aaron Mclean, but I am confident that he will get them once he has a good pre-season under his belt.
WOAP: Other than Mclean and accepting the Dolan situation, Phil Parkinson has brought loanees in during the second half of the season. This is a policy that both chairmen and the manager have criticised in the past. What prompted the change of heart?
It is more a case of circumstance. Let’s put it into context. We didn’t at the start of the season find a back-up keeper, and the one we had on loan we couldn’t extend to the end of the season. There’s one tied in.
The second, Matty Dolan, was never intended to be a loan. With Adam Reach, he was brought in because we have a long-term injury to Kyel Reid. Kyel could be available to sign a new contract with us at the end of the season and we will have a discussion with him in due course. But at that moment in time, we needed someone to fill in for him for the rest of the season. If we had signed a replacement on an 18-month contract in January, that could have hampered discussions that we might want to have with Kyel Reid during the summer. Adam Reach coming in has fitted the necessity of providing cover for Reid.
Then with Adam Drury, we have proved that finding left backs is not an easy thing to do. And he was brought in, like Adam Reach, to cover for a long-term injury.
Chris Atkinson was to offer the team another dimension. Sometimes you do a little try before you buy. You will remember we brought in Will Atkinson on loan from Hull a couple of seasons ago and subsequently signed him for another year. Chris could fall into that mould. He is out of contract at the end of the season.
Kyle Bennett has been brought in as an alternative on the right-hand side because of Rafa De Vita’s long-term injury. He has another year left on his Doncaster contract, but he might be a potential year-long loan next season. Jon Stead is the same scenario of covering an injury.
It was all about freshening up the squad but also taking the chance to look at players. We have been able to bring in players that cover injuries, but who don’t expose you to contracts beyond a period after which you might not want to keep them. Therefore, we have not made any unnecessary spend.
It’s not a policy change, although I do think that a number of League One clubs, who have brought in loanees from the Premier League and Championship, have demonstrated the benefits of the system. You look at Alex Pritchard at Swindon and Patrick Bamford at MK Dons (now Derby) as good examples.
If the ingredient is right, having a loan player is not a bad thing to have.
WOAP: Phil Parkinson has come under pressure from a section of supporters. What would you say about the job he has performed this season?
I think that Phil is extremely methodical. He thinks about everything carefully, and boy does it hurt him when we don’t get a positive result. He really cares. I have got nothing but praise for him as an individual – that’s my personal view. I enjoy working with him. Under Phil, that panic button wasn’t getting hit.
You look at where we were two years ago. You make improvements because you learn from some of the things that work and the things which don’t work. And the one thing about football is it’s not about doing things wrong – because there isn’t a right and a wrong way – it’s about when you try something and it hasn’t come off as you hoped it would have done, you re-evaluate and then you decide whether that is something you want to consider pursuing.
We have to keep analysing what we are doing well and what we could be doing better. Everyone is doing that, and that is the nature of sport.
What I would say is there are lots of progressive improvements being made to this football club, and this place is a better place than it was two years ago. And Phil has to be given credit for that.
The path of progress is not a straight line. It sometimes goes up and then goes down. And at that dip, you rise again if you learn the lessons. If you don’t learn those lessons, you continue to go down. As a club under Phil, we started at a low point, have gone on up but have not then turned and gone all the way back down again.
In part two, David talks about the playing budget for next season, the latest with out-of-contract players and the long-term ambitions of the club.