By Jason McKeown
Back in 1995, George Weah – then one of the world’s best players – brushed off a less-than-thrilling AC Milan performance with the immortal words, “Football matches are like days of the week. It can’t be Sunday every day. There are also Mondays and Tuesdays.” That analogy can stretch to football seasons, and is one that in many ways sums up Bradford City’s 2013/14 campaign.
There is no doubt that the club has progressed over the previous nine months. As newbies in the division, they have successfully established themselves as a League One club, albeit with some late doubts that kept supporters sweating up until the Easter period. Yet however laudable an achievement finishing 11th in a higher division can be considered, it was a matter of job done rather than cause for great excitement. We are where we hoped to be, and that is fantastic and highly commendable – but let’s keep the open top bus in its garage for another year.
The 2012/13 season – with its double Wembley visit, 64-game marathon and jubilant ending – represented a hedonistic weekend of incredible excitement that we will be talking about until the day we die. A Sunday, in Weah’s terms. And in contrast, 2013/14 was being back in the workplace, slightly hungover and keener to talk about the weekend just gone than the task in hand. It was a very productive day’s work, but ultimately something to get through rather than gleefully enjoy.
If we suppose that the rise of Bradford City in 2012/13 is continued over the next few years, then it is doubtful that 2013/14 will be remembered with great affection. It reminded me of the season I first started supporting City – 1997/98 – which was a quiet, mid-table lull during an exciting rise from the third tier to the top flight. There are many similarities between the positives and negatives of 1997/98 and this season, even in the pattern of results. 1997/98 was a necessary forwards step for the 1998/99 promotion season. And now, we can allow ourselves to aspire to believing that 2013/14 might one day be judged in similar terms.
Which is not to say that it has been a dull campaign, or that there haven’t been great moments to remember – there were plenty – it’s just that no one’s favourite days of the week are Mondays or Tuesdays.
“Great result is following great result. Superb performance is following superb performance. And we are running out of reasons to argue that it cannot last.” Walsall 0 Bradford City 2, October
Bradford City’s first 10 fixtures yielded 21 points. That represents an outstanding start in anyone’s book; and were it not for an even more incredible race out of the blocks by Leyton Orient and Wolves, such a point haul would have seen the Bantams within the automatic promotion spots. It did place City in fourth, and kept them in the top six until December – play off hopes were more than wishful thinking until Christmas at least.
We can, with the benefit of hindsight, argue a number of mitigating factors for such a fast start to the campaign. The momentum from the previous season’s promotion; the well-drilled nature of a team that was basically the same as the one that had triumphed at Wembley in the play off final; the surprise factor (it is common, up and down the leagues and season after season, for newly promoted clubs to make good starts and then fade).
The teams we faced during those 10 games were also, in retrospect, not as formidable as we believed at the time. Bristol City and Sheffield United never lived up to pre-season promotion contenders hype, Carlisle were a near-shambles all season, Gillingham and Brentford were going through difficult spells when we defeated them, Colchester and Walsall flattered to deceive. Throw in a bit of luck in certain games, and the fact everyone was fit, and it was no wonder that this proved to be the best spell of the season.
I really enjoyed the opening day trip to Bristol City. The sun shined brightly, the atmosphere was fantastic and – after a scary half hour where the Robins threatened to humiliate us – we gained a very good point. Valley Parade’s first hosting of League One football since 2007 was equally memorable. Carlisle were completely humiliated – the 4-0 scoreline flattered them – and the non-stop chanting from home fans made for one of the best league atmospheres since the Premier League days.
The August bank holiday weekend victory over Sheffield United was the high point of the whole season. 18,000 inside Valley Parade, an absorbing derby played in front of a wall of noise from both sets of fans. A brilliantly balanced game settled by the individual excellence of Nahki Wells. This was everything we hoped League One would be and more.
No one was getting carried away back then; but as the good form continued throughout September there was a subtle raising of the expectation bar. The ‘We Made History’ team – already deeply loved – was flourishing as a higher level. One of my favourite memories of that period was walking to the club shop before the home game against Colchester, and seeing a crowd of fans waiting to welcome the players as they turned up for work – asking for autographs and to pose for photos. Brilliant. This lot are genuinely loved by their public. A day later the 1998/99 promotion heroes were in town for a charity match, but here was a group of players surely destined to be as fondly remembered.
Three consecutive victories at the end of September and early October really made us giddy. At the third of those wins, Walsall, Kyel Reid scored a screamer and James Hanson sealed a highly impressive scalp, achieved without the injured Wells. City were five points clear of the team in seventh position, and I walked out of the Bescot Stadium genuinely believing we were the real deal. That we were play off contenders.
No one expected us to be in this position; but just at the point it seemed possible, it would be taken away from us.
“Parkinson’s two years at the club has seen him faced with far worse situations than this and each and every time he successfully turned it around. I have absolutely no doubt that he will do so again.” Crewe 0 City 0, November
Tranmere bloody Rovers. Or, more accurately, Ronnie bloody Moore. The 1-0 October home defeat to Rovers, who were then bottom, put a curse on City’s season. The first of the ‘one win in…’ sequence. It haunted us for months.
But still, if the referee Darren Drysdale had only sent off Ian Goodison for his awful elbow on Reid, or awarded that blatant penalty for the tripping of Mark Yeates, or got a handle on the visitors’ over-the-top time-wasting efforts. If, if, if. I couldn’t stop thinking about this defeat for weeks, and I doubt that I was the only one. Haunted, we were.
That the season was about to decline to the tune of picking up just one win in almost half a season was not immediately obvious. 10 days later we went toe-to-toe with Preston in probably the most entertaining game of the season. Reid delivered the individual performance of the campaign. Rory McArdle’s dramatic late equaliser. A brilliant night.
City were unfortunate to lose to Wolves in the next match – although the division’s eventual Champions had a 25-minute spell better than anything I saw all season – but after that there was a worrying decline in performances. Crewe a week later was woeful (the second of four games against sides at the time bottom of the league, and the only time we picked up a point) and the tame FA Cup exit to Rotherham did much to damage the goodwill afforded to the players.
Yet the performances up until Christmas weren’t dreadful. There was that crazy 3-3 with Coventry on Sky in which Wells netted a hat-trick, and an entertaining 1-1 draw at Oldham. A last minute Wells equaliser against Leyton Orient the week after was probably the last time you felt we were capable of challenging for a top six finish – the subsequent Christmas period resulted in one point from 12. Still, promotion was never the season’s objective. We can see it out in the comfort of mid-table, right?
“All the talk about him now moves to legacy, to how he is remembered. And unfortunately, the way he left will forever taint that.” Nahki departs, January
He was always going to leave in January, and City’s drop out of the promotion picture made it an easier sell to supporters. Ever since he netted the Bantams’ first goal of the season at Ashton Gate, Wells had looked more than comfortable at this higher level. He was a standout performer, and his price tag was arguably at its peak.
Watching Nahki during the first half of the season was a genuine pleasure. Between 10 April and 14 December 2013, the Bermudian striker netted 23 goals in 26 matches. I have never known a City forward so prolific over such a sustained period, and no matter what feelings we might have over the way he departed the club in January, I for one still hold him in high regard.
The club’s not-so-subtle attempts to talk up his value commenced in November when Mark Lawn spoke of the unlikeliness of keeping him. As it was, the club told Wells to name his price to stay but his agent stated that the 23-year-old had no interest in signing an extended contract. There are rumours and counter rumours of who else was bending the ear of player and agent that December, but whatever happened it resulted in Wells declaring he wanted to sign for Huddersfield and Huddersfield only.
Losing such a big player has inevitably impacted on the season. Even though Wells has endured a bumpy few months at the Terriers, his return of seven goals betters that of his Valley Parade successor. Comparing 2013/14 to 1997/98, Aaron Mclean still has the potential to do to Parkinson what John McGinlay did for Chris Kamara. As the former Hull striker took his time adapting to life in West Yorkshire (ending with a flourish), you can’t help but wonder how City’s 2013/14 might have turned out had Wells wanted to take up the club’s offer and kept his focus.
He wasn’t the only change to the side during a busy January transfer window. It was widely accepted that the time was ripe to begin replacing the 2012/13 heroes, with new faces coming into a starting line-up that had barely been changed all season. The dreadful injury to Reid at Bramall Lane was another big loss.
With the 2013 close season signings having failed to impress, there is a feeling that Parkinson’s midas touch in the transfer market had vanished since the summer before. There was a mixed bag in terms of the success of the January 2014 recruits – partly due to the fact the manager had to largely utilise the loan market – but it did succeed in steadying the ship, eventually.
We moved on, suddenly with sides almost 50% made up of loan signings. It has been less easy to identify with the revamped team compared to the old, but at least some previous heroes have moved into the background before they risked spoiling their legacies.
“A clear message from the players that they are not yet giving up on themselves; and neither should we give up on them.” Sheffield United 2 City 2, January
For all the talk of the ‘one win in 21’, things were never as bad as they seemed. There were only two results during that sequence where City were defeated by more than one goal – a 3-0 shocker at Notts County (with two goals in the final minutes) and a 2-0 loss at leaders Wolves where key players were rested. Which means that, in 19 of the 21 games of that run, there was only ever one goal in it.
As gloomy as things seemed at times, City were never out of their depth. As worrying as it became that the relegation zone crept into view, the Bantams never came close to dropping below the line. That said, it took an awful long time to get back on track.
There were moments where you thought the tide had turned, and here the influence of Gary Jones instantly springs to mind. By early January, large sections of support were ready to write the skipper off. But when the chips were down and leadership was required, Jones’ influence was huge. The 2-2 draw at Sheffield United was a classic example. Like his team-mates, Jones had a poor first half and in truth didn’t play brilliantly after the break, but his sheer determination and passion shone through. He gave a McCall-esqe performance to drag his team off the canvas and claim a point they didn’t merit.
He was at it again at home to Crewe a few weeks later. 2-0 down to a struggling Alex side, the sky was about to fall in on City’s season. Jones netted a stunning equaliser and – after Crewe went 3-2 up – scored another crucial goal. There were other big performers around that period, such as James Hanson, Stephen Darby and Adam Reach, but Jones was pivotal. And though it took a long time to turn around the ship, collectively this group of players eventually managed it.
One win in 21. Luckily for City, the other 25 games delivered 13 victories.
“The Bantams are still moving through a natural period of calibration and consolidation, and Parkinson is learning this division along with us.” City 1 Gillingham 1, March
At the end of the 2013/14 season, it was announced that Phil Parkinson had been voted by City fans as the greatest manager in the club’s history. There are other names who it can be argued deserve that accolade above him, but no matter – it at the very least demonstrates the high regard in which Parkinson is held by many.
And that support was crucial when it mattered, in mid-February. After the last of the ‘one win in…’ sequence, a 1-0 loss at Carlisle, genuine pressure was heaped on the manager’s shoulders by a section of support who went completely over the top in their demands for a change.
Tuesday 18 February saw Port Vale in town for what had become a huge, huge match in City’s season. And as Parkinson walked down the touchline for the start of the match, an unexpected occurrence – he received a brilliant ovation from many supporters, who began chanting his name. A memorable show of support towards a man who has given the club so much. In his hour of need, a large part of the crowd demonstrated their support. I am unapologetically pro-Parkinson and felt a huge swell of pride at that moment. I’m sure the reception meant a great deal to him.
And his players showed that they were with him too. The Port Vale performance ranks as one of the best of the season, in view of the pressure the team was under going into it. There was an evident determination to put this poor run to bed once and for all. Parkinson had once again pulled out a result when it really mattered. Carl McHugh’s stoppage time winner was no more than City deserved. It triggered wild celebrations around Valley Parade. We badly needed that kind of moment.
And though form hasn’t been perfect since that night and the players have put in some of the worst performances of the whole season (Stevenage, Walsall and Oldham at home were woeful, as was the wretched display at Shrewsbury) they have continued to pick up points on a regular basis. Relegation was still a possibility up until Easter, but there was always a high number of clubs sandwiched between City and the bottom four. The league position has always looked healthier than the points distance to the dotted line. To finish 11th – 12 points clear of relegation and 15 shy of the play offs – demonstrates how comfortable it proved to be in the end.
For that, the manager and players deserve credit. Circumstances had deemed that pragmatism had to reign, meaning it wasn’t always pretty, but the final few weeks were all about confirming the maths rather than genuinely believing an instant return to League Two was on the cards. Comparisons were often cited with this season and the 2006/07 League One relegation, where in both City started really well before form collapsed from October. Well, history didn’t repeat itself this time around.
Relegation would have been a huge set back after six years of struggling to get out of League Two, so we should take pride in the fact it hasn’t.
On the final day of the season at Prenton Park, we got an up-close view of genuine relegation panic in the eyes of our hosts. It was nice to relax and watch them sweat it out, particularly after what they did to our season. ‘Bloody Tranmere’ we said in October. But it is they who for years will utter the words ‘Bloody Bradford’ with genuine pain.
“As a team, they are probably going to have to be 30 goals better over a season than they are at the moment, without giving much up on the back end. And that is a hell of a lot of goals.” On next season, 23 April
Mid-table finishes are laced with imperfections and frustration. You don’t end up here by being consistent, by winning every match you are supposed to, and by always playing at the top of your game. We began the season full of goals and producing excited football, but by the winter the service to the strikeforce was non-existent and risks taken in getting forward were reduced.
Defensively we were good, especially during the latter months of the campaign. Only six teams conceded fewer goals than City’s 54, which is a notable achievement for a mid-table side. Yet at the other end, just 57 goals scored was a slight disappointment. Wells played only half a season yet remained our clear top scorer, Hanson was the only other player to hit double figures. Jones, with six, was our third highest scorer.
The areas of improvement for next season are obvious, and Parkinson faces a busy summer finding the solutions. Speaking after the Crawley victory, he expressed clear understanding that a mid-table finish in League One is only going to be tolerated for a short period, and that expectations around the club are only going to creep higher.
For now he can enjoy reflecting in the fact that 2013/14 was a case of job well done. Less thrilling than 2012/13, but more progressive than the 12 sorry years which preceded that truly amazing season. Parkinson’s next challenge is to make sure that 2013/14 is looked back upon as a stop-off point en route to bigger and better things for the club.
That the next weekend isn’t too far away from coming around.