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Pre-season gets more serious in Ireland

14 Jul
Picture by Kieran Wilkinson

Picture by Kieran Wilkinson

UCD AFC vs Bradford City preview

@UCD Bowl on Tuesday 15 July, 2014 

By Jason McKeown

Bradford City’s annual trip to Ireland occurs with the squad for the 2014/15 season largely formed, and with only a few obvious gaps left to fill.

As Saturday’s 3-0 friendly romp over Guiseley evidenced, Phil Parkinson has plenty of strength in most areas of the team. There are several options and combinations for the centre of the park, up front and across the back four that will ensure keen competition for places. Although the appearance of defender and striker trialists at Nethermoor suggests Parkinson is considering adding to these areas, his main focus will surely be on the positions where he is severely lacking.

Principally that is someone to play in-between the sticks for the Bantams. As it stands, there is no contracted goalkeeper at the club. With less than a month before the big kick off, that reality prompts some apprehension – given it is such a key element of the team.

The folly of placing goalkeeper recruitment at the bottom of the priority list can be observed in Stuart McCall’s final season in charge, where he had infamously budgeted just £600 a week in wages to tempt a competent keeper. Cue problems. (And though the player eventually brought in that summer, Simon Eastwood, promoted huge derision over his performances at City, it’s worth noting that he might be back at Valley Parade next week as Blackburn Rovers’ keeper.)

Parkinson will evidently be weighing more importance on filling the position than as to leave barely any of his reduced budget left over to sign the two goalkeepers needed, but he’s probably not going to splash out the cash on the number two keeper at least. Last season, with the larger budget, Parkinson relied upon loan keepers to sit on the bench for half a season as insurance for a Jon McLaughlin injury. There may have been some financial commitment involved in borrowing Connor Ripley and Aaron Jameson, but it would barely have troubled the salary cap. With austerity the order of the summer, it’s hard to imagine Parkinson dramatically altering that stance.

Which makes the situation with McLaughlin all the more curious. City’s longest serving player was offered a contract to remain at the club, but for one reason or another it wasn’t signed. Clearly the club wanted him to stay when originally offering him that deal, but something stopped the Scot from agreeing to it. Without any public comment from the player, speculation reigns as to why he didn’t take the offer. Was he holding out for more money? Would he have preferred a longer deal? Had he been told that he might not be number one next season and was therefore unhappy? Was he aware of other clubs showing an interest in his services?

For the time being, McLaughlin trains with the club, presumably unpaid. If he was attracting interest from other clubs, what has stopped them from signing him, or why isn’t he at least appearing on trial for them? For these reasons, you can only speculate that offers from elsewhere have not being forthcoming, or at least any previous interest shown towards him has faded, should the keeper have been holding out for this. McLaughlin may have appeared on other clubs’ list of targets, but if other names were ahead of him on those lists, and if the club in question succeeded in signing them, there would be no need to follow up any initial interest shown towards Jon.

Such a scenario would appear to have occurred with James Meredith. In May the Aussie was quoted in Four-Four-Two as saying that although City would offer him a new contract, there was interest elsewhere that he would also look at. “I’m obviously assessing my options…Before I got injured there was a lot of interest from Championship clubs, that interest has died down a bit but there’s still a bit there.” It would appear that, as Meredith stalled over signing the deal on the table, City opted to sign Alan Sheehan instead (and on the day Sheehan signed, Sky Sports revealed Meredith had rejected his original contract offer). However, Meredith ultimately came back and agreed a revised one-year deal.

If there was interest in Meredith, it never materialised or wasn’t sufficiently tempting enough to better playing for Bradford City. Yet had Meredith originally signed the deal offered to him, would Parkinson have signed Alan Sheehan? The net result is that City now have two excellent left backs for League One level, and Sheehan – who was probably given certain assurances when he signed – is set to be first choice. By seemingly stalling, Meredith is now left with a lot of work to do earning a place in the team and winning over a doubting public. He must now have regrets.

A year ago I was speaking to the late former City Head of Development, Archie Christie, who was working for Harry Redknapp at QPR and quizzed me about Meredith. Unknowingly, I was providing him a reference about Meredith (I’m sure he also asked better qualified people than me) as he was on QPR’s lengthy list of targets for that summer. Again, nothing materialised and – to the best of my knowledge – City never received a transfer bid from Rangers. But it underlines the point that, as clubs draw up their wanted lists every close season, appearing halfway down one is no guarantee it will lead to something.

If there was still a firm contract offer on the table for McLaughlin to be Bradford City’s number one next season, he would surely sign it. He would not be training with the club, risking injury by playing in friendlies unpaid, and travelling over to Ireland, if he wanted to leave and if there was a realistic possibility of him doing so.

He has being accused of messing around the club and that’s probably true (though he has every right to secure the best situation for his career, as are you and I in our careers), but it appears that he is the loser of the situation. Simon Parker has stated the player “is still no nearer to finding out if he will be part of the club’s plans for the new season”, revealing that the balance of power has shifted. McLaughlin must now wait to see if the club still wants him, when at the beginning of June they had offered him a deal that he chose not to take.

The two games in Ireland begin with against the University College Dublin AFC (UCD AFC) Tuesday evening, at the wonderfully named UCD Bowl (can a 1,500 capacity stadium really be called a Bowl?) UCD play in the League of Ireland Premier Division (currently sitting second bottom, midway through their season) and will offer a useful workout.

Having initially being ruled out of the start of the season, central defender Matt Taylor is expected to experience some action over the two-game tour and may be fit enough to appear from the bench in the second half on Tuesday. On paper, Taylor still looks an excellent acquisition and, if he can sort his fitness issues, will add competition at the back.

Aaron Mclean, who picked up a minor knock in pre-season training, is also expected to figure at some stage of the tour and will want to hit the ground running. Last season his partnership with James Hanson saw very mixed success, and these games should be the perfect opportunity for the pair to build up a stronger understanding for when the serious stuff begins. In what is a big season for Oli McBurnie, he can’t afford to miss opportunities to impress in pre-season friendlies and will hope to be fit enough to figure on Tuesday.

Beyond Angelo Balanta and Nick Arnold, who have travelled to Ireland, it is unclear if any of the trialists from Saturday will be offered another opportunity to impress, and indeed there may be new trial players brought in for a go. Beyond that, Parkinson has stated his intention to give half of his squad 60 minutes on Tuesday and the other a full hour on Saturday, as fitness levels are pushed harder.

This is the third year in a row that Parkinson has taken the team to Ireland and it appears to work well in developing team spirit. Those supporters who have been on previous trips – after they stop talking about how brilliant the nightlife is – have always commented on an enjoyable atmosphere of openness around the matches, with players and management mixing freely with supporters.

And though some of the new signings still remain unfamiliar to us, there’s a good opportunity to meet and have your picture taken with people who might in future become City heroes. Two of my friends went to Ireland in 2012/13, and approached Ritchie Jones in the club house, desperate to have their photo taken together with the midfielder. Looking around for someone to take the picture they spotted an unassuming bloke nearby, asked if he would mind doing the honours and handed him their camera. Snap, photo completed. “Thanks very much” they said to the bloke, before walking back to the bar. “Who was that bloke?” one of them asked. “Erm (long pause) – oh he’s called Stephen Darby.”

Pre-season preview part two: Back to Guiseley

11 Jul

NV2G9609

Guiseley vs Bradford City preview

@Nethermoor on Saturday 12 July, 2014

By Jason McKeown

Pre-season begins and ends against managers with Bradford City connections; as first Mark Bower’s Guiesley welcome the Bantams tomorrow, and Colin Cooper’s Hartlepool travel to Valley Parade a week before the season starts. In total there will be six friendlies played in the space of three weeks, all aimed at ensuring the team hit the ground running.

Cooper’s time at Valley Parade was brief. He was brought in by Peter Jackson to assist in 2010/11’s troubling relegation battle, and took caretaker charge of two matches – both won – following Jackson’s shock departure early into the following season. Yet from such a short time period, Cooper left behind quite a legacy which has being widely cited as a key factor behind the club’s success over the past two seasons: Nick Allamby.

Having known fitness coach Allamby during his time at Middlesbrough, Cooper invited him to assist with Jackson’s 2011/12 pre-season and his knowledge and expertise have really taken the club forwards in how it prepares for the season. Upon replacing Jackson and Cooper, Phil Parkinson instantly recognised the value of Allamby’s work and retained his services. When the manager’s contract situation rumbled on during the second half of the 2012/13 season, one of the main reasons for the delay was Parkinson’s insistence that Allamby and assistant manager Steve Parkin had their own futures sorted at exactly the same time. The trio sat down together to sign three-year deals.

 The benefits of Allamby should be obvious to even the biggest sceptic. 2012/13’s 64-game marathon is the stuff of legend and it is to Allamby’s credit that the team looked as fresh as they were the previous August during their play off final demolition of Northampton. Simon Parker recently provided a superb stat about City being League One’s fourth-best second half team of last season, and we saw it with our own eyes. Recall, for example, the recovery from 2-0 down at Sheffield United in January when the team had looked beaten. What could easily have developed into a 5-0 hammering was turned around in the second half as City claimed a useful point. Credit to Gary Jones and co for dogged determination, but equally such comebacks were the result of the scientific fitness approach that Allamby has instilled.

It has helped to give pre-season a more serious edge to the days of old, and the friendlies – particularly the week-long stay in Ireland – are all part of a tried and proven plan. We have come a long way from going to Guiseley under Stuart McCall, with the manager, his assistant Wayne Jacobs and Mark Lawn’s son getting a run out. Allamby is a key figure all year round, none more so during pre-season where City do everything on their terms without a fixture list dictating the schedule. Nick told Width of a Post’s Nick Beanland last summer, “I try to give them ‘football intensity’ so we get them straight into playing football – there’s none of the old fashioned stuff where you’ll just run for two weeks before you get to see the football.” As the previous two seasons have proved, the work taking place now will stand this group of players in good stead for the battles ahead.

Beyond that, pre-season can from the outside appear fairly chaotic. The gaps waiting to be filled by new signings, the early judgements to form on new players, the uncertainty over who will be in the manager’s first choice XI when the season begins, the youngsters given outings, the trialists, the endless substitutions. Games, especially early doors, lack rhythm and tempo. Goals are applauded rather than cheered. Inevitably, someone will get injured and it often sets back their entire season.

Tomorrow will be the opportunity to take a first look at the new arrivals, with Billy Knott, Alan Sheehan, Gary Liddle and Billy Clarke expected to make their first outings in claret and amber. Matty Dolan is another new signing, but a player we are familiar with following his low-key loan spell last season. By 5pm there will probably be much talk about names that, at this moment, we have never heard of – the joy of trialists.

Other players who figure will have a point to prove and will aim to make the most of the fresh start. Jason Kennedy and Mark Yeates have a lot of people to win over and will want to impress – whether it be to figure more in Parkinson’s plans or to attract interest from other clubs. We’re looking for signs of a sharper and more settled Aaron Mclean up front, and that Rafa De Vita – who made a big impact on trial in this fixture last summer – is worth awarding another contract to.

The focus will also be on the man between the sticks. Jon McLaughlin continues to train with the club but has still yet to agree a new contract. Is he hoping to secure a move elsewhere or simply unhappy with the terms offered by Parkinson? His presence – or lack of – at Nethermoor tomorrow will offer some indication. Either way, expect a trialist of some sort to figure for 45 minutes at least.

Beyond that, it will be great to re-acquaint with the familiar faces of those who have done the business for City over the past two years and who remain a part of Parkinson’s plans. Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith and James Hanson – all know the Guiseley turf well from previous pre-seasons, and the journey ahead. As the warm up to a campaign full of unknowns begins, it is comforting to know that we have a core group of players who have consistently proven they can be relied upon.

For Guiseley – who over recent years have become a home for discarded Bantams players – there will be a few blasts from the past. Kyle Harrison and Danny Ellis were once in City’s youth ranks. Ben Parker spent the 2006/07 on loan at Valley Parade from Leeds. Danny Forrest made an explosive impact 11 years ago, scoring on his City debut. Andy Holdsworth was on trial at City under McCall in 2009 but was snapped up by Oldham before City could act. It will also be a special day for Bower, as he takes charge of a team against the club that he grew up supporting and represented for over 10 years. Last season, Guiseley were unfortunate to once again lose in the play offs.

At this stage of pre-season, Guiseley offer the ideal first test. Not least due to Nethermoor’s close proximity to Leeds-Bradford airport – last year the team flew straight to Ireland after the match.

Last day fun and games as Bradford City go to Tranmere

1 May

SAM_1741

Tranmere Rovers vs Bradford City preview

@Prenton Park on Saturday 3 May, 2014

By Jason McKeown

I’m really looking forward to this one, and for that I feel I should almost be apologetic.

What is a largely meaningless game for Bradford City could not be more vital for Tranmere Rovers, who are teetering on the brink of relegation. The anxiety, the fear, the misery – we have a box office seat to the range of emotions that Tranmere will be going through. Around 2,000 of us are set to pack out the Cowshed stand, and many of us are openly relishing the close-up viewing of the home side’s torture and anguish, in an almost perverse manner. People who slow down for car crashes and all that.

All I will say is that – ignoring, for a moment, being a Bradford City supporter and our own end of season experiences – I am a big football enthusiast. I love this time of year, where you get to observe other teams concluding their promotion or relegation battles. The agony and the ecstasy. Normally, you only get to see these highly charged, emotional moments on TV. This weekend, I will be watching a high pressure match live without the added burden, or joy, of my own feelings being heavily invested in the outcome.

I have no malice towards Tranmere whatsoever, but I am desperate to see my football team end the season on a high with a final day victory. But whatever happens, we are the sideshow to a huge day in the history of our hosts. I’m sorry, Rovers, but I’m going to enjoy watching you squirm.

After losing 2-0 at Leyton Orient last weekend, Tranmere fell into the bottom four at the worst possible time. A defeat to the Bantams on Saturday, and they will be relegated and have to play in the bottom tier for the first time since 1989. A draw would be enough to keep them up should Crewe – one point ahead but with a worse goal difference – lose at home to third-placed Preston. A win would secure League One football should Crewe fail to win or Notts County lose at Oldham.

If you were in Tranmere’s shoes of needing to win on the final day of the season, a home game against Bradford City would feature reasonably high up your preferred list of opponents. At this late stage, you always want to be playing sides with nothing to play for, rather than those with an equally big incentive to win. In theory Tranmere should be able to bring greater intensity and determination onto the field, which will count for a lot. We’d like to win, they are fighting for their lives.

Rovers caretaker manager John McMahon has viewed the fact that matters are out of their hands as the “worst case scenario” but at least they know what they have to do. “We’re at home and I’m calling on the spectators to come down in numbers and really get behind the players – they will give it everything they’ve got,” he said after the Leyton Orient loss. “We’ve got to be disciplined. We can’t just play six or seven up front. We need to play with our heads as well as our hearts.”

If McMahon could have had one further wish in terms of their opponents, it would surely be that Phil Parkinson would have revealed his retained list prior to the game. A final decision on who can stay and who will go would have a huge impact on the team’s morale, with those who are to be shown the door probably not in the right frame of mind to play and those who are to stay perhaps relaxing. Quite sensibly, Parkinson has made sure that’s not the case. Whilst final decisions have probably been made on every single out-of-contract player, the lack of disclosure means that everyone affected still needs to do what they can to impress, just in case.

Jon McLaughlin is one such example. The statistics show that this has been his best season at Valley Parade, and that has coincided with a step up the divisions. Up until last August, doubts have persisted over whether the Scot could sustain his form over the course of the season – he most certainly has.

I am sat right on the fence when it comes to McLaughlin. He has done little wrong this season, and yet there is a nagging feeling we might need a better keeper to push higher up the league. He lets no one down, but lacks the star quality that sees him earn the club points on his own. Still, this is now six years we have invested into McLaughlin, and I’m not sure if we should throw that away.

There are also question marks against three of the four back four positions, with only Andrew Davies in Saturday’s likely defensive line up contracted to play for City in 2014/15. Stephen Darby will be here next season if he wants to be – although rumours of Championship interest suggest he might have his sights set on a move. Rory McArdle has not enjoyed a perfect campaign but is ending it very strongly. Keep Davies fit for a season – a big if, admittedly – and we can have another brilliant year out of McArdle. It would be a major shock if he was on the released list. James Meredith will probably come in for Adam Drury, as he bids for an unlikely place in Australia’s World Cup squad. Drury has been an excellent addition.

In midfield, Garry Thompson’s match-winning cameo from the bench last week could be rewarded with a start before he is surely released, although the opinion-splitting Kyle Bennett (I personally like him) could come back into the side. Mark Yeates or Rafa De Vita will probably start on the left, with a central two (or three, if Parkinson goes 4-5-1 once more on the road) featuring Nathan Doyle or Gary Jones. My heart sinks that this could be the last time we see either or both of Doyle and Jones. The City skipper was born less than 20 miles away from Prenton Park, and if this is his farewell then I’d be recommending Tranmere bring him ‘home’.

Up front, James Hanson is not expected to be risked and will spend the summer getting over his back problem, meaning a final day outing for Jon Stead and (if 4-4-2) Aaron Mclean. Opinion is split amongst supporters about Stead. For me he is a Ronseal player – he does exactly what you expect, and nothing more. He will never be a big goalscorer, but has other excellent qualities that have made a difference. I’m not saying that I think Parkinson should sign him during the summer – he probably needs to find a wider range of striking options to complement Hanson, Mclean and Oli McBurnie – but I personally feel that Stead has proven to be an effective loan signing who has made a real difference.

For Tranmere is has been a troubled season to say the least, with McMahon recently commenting that mistakes have been made from day one. Ronnie Moore was sacked earlier this month after he admitted to breaking FA betting regulations. Over a three-year period, he apparently betted £1,100 and won back £900, although has stressed that he never once betted on Tranmere to lose. Rovers’ captain Ian Goodison, plus striker Akpo Sodje, have also been arrested over allegations of spot-fixing. Sodje is no longer at the club, but Goodison has continued to feature.

Both Moore and Goodison were the villains of Bradford City’s 1-0 home defeat to Tranmere last October that did much to derail the Bantams’ season. Bitterness over that afternoon has lingered, and it would have been fantastic to be going to Prenton Park on the final day and relegating the pair. But with Moore gone and Goodison uncertain to play, we instead face a very likable football club, going through a horrendously difficult afternoon that will have huge, huge implications for their future.

I cannot wait.

The lessons of 2013/14 as Bradford City end home season against Crawley

25 Apr

SAM_1706

Bradford City vs Crawley Town preview

@Valley Parade on Saturday 26 April, 2014

By Gareth Walker

It has come around again, the end of another season is nigh and on Saturday Bradford City will line up at Valley Parade for the final home match of the 2013/14 season. Some things never change from year-to-year. There will always be the poignant minute’s silence as a mark of respect and remembrance for the Fire disaster which was now 29 years ago; and, as such, emotions of Bradford City supporters will always be unique on such an occasion.

Things on the pitch, however, can differ vastly on this day from year-to-year.

This season, City are all but guaranteed a tension-free final two matches. Barring a pretty much impossible sequence of results which would have to see the Bantams lose their final two games 6-0, and Carlisle winning their final three games by the same scoreline, Valley Parade will be home to League One football again next season. Not just safe, but comfortably safe in mid-table, with a couple of games to spare, has to be seen as job done for Phil Parkinson and his team.

Mid-table obscurity is a welcome relief in some ways from the stresses of the closing stages of other recent seasons. This time last year, for example, the corresponding home fixture was against Burton Albion, where a win was needed to guarantee a play off place. The two seasons previous don’t really bare thinking about, as the team still had work to do during the final weeks in order to avoid the basement trapdoor to Non-League football.

Most supporters would consider the current scenario to constitute a successful season. Personally, I have always said that I’d be happy to avoid relegation this term and, in my pre-season predictions, I had the Bantams finishing a lowly 19th in the final table. In reality, it is only those who had unrealistic expectations of a promotion or play off push who are disappointed with the team’s overall finishing position.

There are, however, elements of the season that we need to improve on – and now should be a time to begin reflecting and learning the lessons from our first season back in the third tier.

If City are to make strides forward next season there are, along with the expected turnover in player personnel, three key areas that stand out as requiring improvement. In particular, our struggle to replace the now departed and previously disinterested Nahki Wells has been a major contributor to our failing form since the beginning of October – form which, if it were to be continued throughout a whole season, would have seen us firmly ensconced in a relegation dogfight.

It was never going to be easy to replace Wells – free scoring centre forwards are difficult to come by at the best of times, never-mind during the middle of a season. However, it is frustrating when you see other teams, such as last season’s defeated play off opponents Burton, almost seamlessly replace their own key departing players, such as Jaques Maghoma and Calvin Zola.

Also, given the amount of time that we had to prepare for the Bermudian’s departure – as well as the amount of money said to be committed in wages to his replacement Aaron Mclean – some disappointment at how we have struggled to cope with Wells’ absence is entirely understandable.

This leads on to the question marks surrounding Parkinson’s tactical approach to games. The long ball strategy had served us well when we had Wells running in behind of James Hanson’s flick ons and through balls. However, Mclean is a totally different type of centre forward, and his failure to hit the ground running can partly be attributed to the use of the same tired tactics which simply aren’t as effective without Nahki’s pace.

There is also the accusation that many supporters level at the current coaching team, that they lack a Plan B and, as such, opposing teams have simply “found us out” as the season has gone on. It has been encouraging therefore to see a couple of different styles of play being implemented during Hanson’s recent injury-enforced-absence from the side.

The use of a five man midfield, with loanee Jon Stead as a target man striker, has proved reasonably successful on our travels over the last couple of weeks. It has also enabled Parkinson to get the best out of players such as Nathan Doyle in the holding midfield-anchor role, where his mobility hasn’t been such an issue given he has been flanked by two fellow central midfielders.

In the home game against Peterborough, we saw Adam Reach employed in a free role behind Stead and, in the first half, this proved particularly effective. If we can keep Reach or Stead for the long-term, or replace them with players of a similar ilk, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see these two new approaches taken into games on a more regular basis next season.

Then there is the issue of consistency – something which seems to blight every team below the top four or five in the Premier League. Fans of every team in the country can be heard, at various stages in the season, bemoaning their club’s inability to back up good performances week-on-week. For City, however, there is a bigger issue here: we seem incapable of putting in the kind of performances that we see against the top sides in the division when we play against the strugglers.

This season has seen us muster only two victories against the current bottom four. A solution will have to be found to this issue next term, if we are to put any consistent run of form together.

Saturday’s opponents Crawley Town have undergone widespread changes since their last visit to BD8 in 2012, which resulted in the infamous end-of-match brawl. Only Kyle Macfadzean remains at the club, out of the three Red Devils players who were red carded that day – and of course manager Steve Evans is also long gone. Evans’ eventual replacement, Ritchie Barker, was sacked by the club in November after a poor start to the season – and the current incumbent is former top flight manager John Gregory. It would be interesting to know what Gregory would have made of the Nahki Wells transfer saga, after once being quoted as saying “if I had a gun then I’d have shot him” when discussing his former Aston Villa striker Dwight Yorke’s determination to move to Manchester United in 1998.

Since Barker’s departure, Crawley’s form has steadily improved, and they now find themselves settled in midtable – just one place and a couple of points better off than the Bantams. They have endured a season that has been severely affected by the weather, and at one stage had five games in hand on the teams around them in the table.

Their squad is made up of familiar names such as Billy Clarke, Sergio Torres, Rory Fallon and Bournemouth loanee Matt Tubbs. Scoring goals appears to have been their main problem this season and, along with City, they were linked with a January move for Halifax Town’s prolific scorer Lee Gregory – only to be put off by the Shaymen’s extortionate asking price.

As well as addressing the tactical and consistency issues highlighted earlier, there is expected to be somewhat of a clearout of personnel at City this summer – and Parkinson’s team selection in these final two games may give us some indication as to who is in his longer-term plans and who isn’t.

With Adam Reach now returned to parent club Middlesbrough, it will mean that only one of the current loanees will have to miss out on a place in the matchday squad. This could mean that we get to see Chris Atkinson and/or Matty Dolan in midfield action alongside Nathan Doyle, Gary Jones and Kyle Bennett. The disappointing Mark Yeates may also get the opportunity to stake a claim for not being moved out of the club during the summer.

The back four is likely to remain unchanged, mainly through lack of options – although the return to fitness of James Meredith may see him come into the side in place of Adam Drury. Jon McLaughlin and Rory McArdle are two players who could be considered to be playing for their futures, with goalkeepers and centre backs already being linked with joining the club in the summer.

Up front it will be interesting to see whether Hanson is fit enough to play some part in proceedings, or if the manager sticks with the impressive Stead – who can currently be doing himself no harm at all in enhancing his chances of a permanent deal at the club for next season.

With this season’s outcome all but done and dusted, thoughts are certainly turning towards preparations for 2014/15 for supporters and staff alike, and it looks like being a very big summer ahead for Bradford City.

Somebody else’s cup final as Bradford City go to Swindon

21 Apr

Mike (6)

Swindon Town vs Bradford City preview

@The County Ground on Monday 21 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

The quirk of going into the Easter weekend facing the two sides vying for the same final play off spot was the effect that Bradford City’s Good Friday result would have on their Monday fixture.

As sixth-placed Peterborough United began Easter seven points clear of Swindon Town, victory at Valley Parade would have all but sealed them a play off finish, meaning the Bantams’ Monday game at Swindon would be largely meaningless for the home side. Instead, City’s impressive defeat of the Posh – coupled with Swindon’s win at the fast-fading Coventry – has cut the play off gap to four points. This is now suddenly a huge match for Swindon, who know that achieving a sixth victory in seven, coupled with Carlisle taking something from Peterborough at London Road, would put them right back into contention.

A good job, then, that the pressure is firmly off City. They stand nine points clear of the drop zone and will travel back from Swindon mathematically safe whatever the result in Wiltshire. The grim battle to avoid finishing in the bottom four probably still involves 10 teams – the Bantams are not one of them.

That is largely due to a run of defensive excellence that – the collapses against Shrewsbury, Walsall and Oldham apart – have seen Jon McLaughlin’s goal superbly protected. City’s last nine matches have featured five clean sheets – a run that has coincided with Adam Drury’s arrival on loan from Leeds United. Whilst the veteran left back hasn’t prompted much excitement, his steady performances have been exactly what was required for an area of the team that has been a problem since James Meredith endured a long-term injury on New Years Day.

Stephen Darby has continued to be Stephen Darby. Andrew Davies has largely being terrific, save for the occasional dip, and Rory McArdle has improved immensely. A difficult season for the Northern Ireland international is ending on a high note, just when it comes to the time of the club ruling on his future.

Expect this high-performing back four to remain in place at the County Ground (with James Meredith making a welcome return on the bench). Parkinson has talked of making some changes from Friday to freshen things up, and that will most likely occur in the midfield and striker positions. It is the last game in which Adam Reach will be available for selection, as his loan deal expires this week and cannot be renewed for the final two games. The left winger was a revelation in the hole behind the strikers on Friday, delivering his best 90-minute performance since joining the club in January.

Expect Kyle Bennett to be recalled on the right wing for a conventional 4-4-2 (although Phil Parkinson might opt for the 4-5-1 that worked so well against Rotherham in the last away match). Rafa De Vita surprised many people – not least myself – with his excellent display on Friday night. There is no doubt that he possesses great quality on the ball and his first half cross for James Hanson, at 0-0, was outstanding. It is perhaps too little too late for the soon-to-be-out-of-contract Italian, but he will hope to get a chance, over the final few weeks, to convince Parkinson that he could make a better overall impact next season.

Matty Dolan will also come in either for Nathan Doyle or Gary Jones, or alongside them in a five-man midfield. Doyle’s return to the side has been typically understated but nonetheless impressive. For the last two games he has sat in front of the back four and looks so well suited for that role, dictating the game. It’s going to be interesting to see if Doyle is retained this summer, as inconsistency has blighted his season, but on form – and at a decent age – he is someone to build next season’s team around.

Up front Hanson will probably be spared two games in four days after being out for a few weeks, meaning Aaron Mclean returns to the starting line up to partner Jon Stead. Hanson and Stead led the line well together on Friday night. There is a growing clamour to sign Stead up for next season and I would certainly be in favour of that, although it needs to be highlighted that he is never going to score a hatful of goals for City – just look at his career stats. Stead would make a good third choice striker behind Hanson and Mclean, but let’s not turn on him if he signs and doesn’t trouble the leading scorers. No should be in any doubt about what we would be buying.

With survival all but secured (and no one can seriously suggest it is in any doubt now) the last three matches present Parkinson with opportunities to blood young players – at least from the bench – and to begin planning for next season. The manager might not admit it, but he and Steve Parkin must have gathered thoughts on who will be kept on and who is to be released, and these final few games offer those players with a question mark against them a chance to prove their worth.

There are certainly some borderline cases, and though whatever is achieved between now and the final whistle must be tempered somewhat by the fact the team is playing without pressure, there cannot be any let up from those who want to be part of Bradford City’s 2014/15 campaign.

Pre-season starts now.

Looking for a good, Good Friday as Bradford City welcome the Posh

18 Apr
Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Bradford City vs Peterborough United preview

@Valley Parade on Friday 18 April, 2014

By Ian Sheard

“I expected them to do better and, for one reason or another, they haven’t.” Peterborough manager Darren Ferguson’s assessment of Bradford City’s season perhaps echoes what a lot of fans have been saying about their own. Particularly after the decent start that was made to the campaign.

The Bantams are looking to get back to winning ways and replicate the home form of last season, against one of the early favourites. Peterborough, who are currently residing in sixth and who look a decent outfit, are a couple of victories away from securing the last play off place alongside Leyton Orient, Preston and that lot down the road. I think everyone expected the top two (Wolves and Brentford) to be there at the start of the season, and they have kept true to form. The play offs will be interesting to watch this year, as I can’t see much difference between the teams. My gut tells me it will be Rotherham – but I hope it isn’t!

So what is it that has prevented City from being part of this end-of-season shootout for promotion? I can say, but not prove, that the only thing I wanted this year was to stay up. It looks as though we will achieve that feat and won’t get sucked into the relegation battle at the wrong of the table over the final few matches. Most City fans would probably agree this season was about achieving stability and taking careful steps forwards. Would we have been in a position to compete in the Championship, had we performed better and got promoted? No, is the honest answer.

That said, it would have been nice to have been up there with Peterborough right now, and Phil Parkinson has a lot of thinking to do going into the summer – as fans expect more next season.

I could be rousing an argument here, but we were told at the start of the season that one thing we weren’t going to do was to dip into the loan market. It was interesting to note, in the last home game against Oldham, that half of the team were borrowed from different clubs. I know we have had a few injuries this season, but is there a lack of faith/confidence in the likes of Garry Thompson, Mark Yeates and Carl McHugh, or are they not good enough?

Whilst I am happy for loan players to come into the squad and show their parent club what they are worth, I don’t think there should be five in your starting line up when there are people on higher wages and with more experience sat on the bench. It’s a tough, tough call for Parkinson, and I’m sure everyone has their own views on this issue. However, the ‘make do’ feel of the team right now does leave him with some big decisions to make over summer, as a lot of players are coming to the end of their contracts.

Another reason for failing to mount a sustained promotion push is the lack of creativity we seem to have within the team. It seems as though we have lost the ability to pass the ball around sharply, particularly in the opponents half, and have suffered as a result. I think James Hanson is a wonderful player but, whilst he does win every ball in the air, we need to find another tactic beyond launching it to him. I don’t know whether it is panic mode or not, but we need to keep hold of possession more – like we did during the first 30 minutes against Gillingham.

Friday’s encounter with Rotherham was a good game. I thought City played well, and that having five in the midfield seemed to help us out a little bit. I am a fan of Jon Stead and think that, if he is available at the end of the season, then he should be signed up. Some may say that playing five in midfield is a bit negative at home; but with Aaron Mclean and Hanson potentially still injured, Parkinson would probably be best playing the same way with Stead up front.

Peterborough will no doubt look to win the match rather than play for time and try to wear us down to a 0-0 draw. Hopefully this will help us, as we always seem to play better when opponents bring the game to us and we catch them on the break. Having read Ferguson Senior’s autobiography, it worked for Man United and I believe Darren has the makings of a good manager too.

I hope it’s a good game tonight, as it seems as though the season is petering out somewhat. I would be more than happy with a draw that would all but nudge us over the line of mathematical safety. But recent home failings are still raw, and so a good start is vital in making sure that this proves to be a very Good Friday for Bradford City.

Nowhere to hide as Bradford City go to Rotherham

11 Apr

Leyton Orient

Rotherham United vs Bradford City preview

@New York Stadium on Friday 11 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

It is impossible not to fear the worst about tonight. It is difficult to envisage any other outcome but a home victory.

Rotherham’s defeat to Sheffield United on Tuesday was their first defeat in 17 matches – they had been unbeaten since New Years Day. During that run they averaged 2.44 goals per game and scored three or more times on six occasions. Despite their midweek blank, the Millers are the top scorers in the Football League, and the third highest of the 92 – behind only Liverpool and Man City.

The recent run has taken Rotherham from play off challengers to being in the hunt for the second automatic promotion place behind Wolves. They currently lie nine points behind second-place Brentford with five games to play, and recently crushed the Bees 3-0 at the New York stadium.

Be afraid tonight. Be very afraid.

Particularly when you throw in City’s wretched recent record against their South Yorkshire neighbours – six straight defeats for the West – and the Indian Sign that Steve Evans holds over Phil Parkinson, going back to the former’s Crawley days.

There is every chance that the Bantams could suffer a real hiding tonight. It is not the game we needed at this stage of the season, when there is still some work to be done to ensure survival. Had Oldham been defeated at Valley Parade last Saturday, tonight could have been considered a free hit for City. But it is not. It is an important match for both clubs.

The time for pragmatism

After enduring one of his worst days in office, Parkinson is undoubtedly under some pressure to produce a big reaction from his players – although he should not have to fear for his job. From where City were two years ago to where we are now, he has engineered a 30-place improvement in the club’s league position. In other words a climb of one-third up the 92.

When such progression stops over a meaningful period of time, we can certainly raise the question of his future. But for now he continues to hold plenty of credit in the bank, and the two remaining years on his contract would cost the club a pretty penny to settle up. And if we were hunting for a replacement, we’d be looking for someone with the qualities that Parkinson possesses to take us forwards. He deserves the opportunity to rebuild the squad during the summer, and nothing I have heard or read over the last few days has convinced me otherwise.

The local media chose to completely ignore the fact that Parkinson was booed twice on Saturday over his substitutions (a shame because, if nothing else, asking the manager about it would have allowed him the opportunity to explain the changes). In many respects Parkinson has done well to last this long without suffering the indignity of such booing before. I struggle to recall a single Bradford City manager over the past two decades who wasn’t booed for their choice of substitution (Peter Jackson perhaps, but he wasn’t around long enough).

Even Paul Jewell, during a City Premier League away match at Sheffield Wednesday in January 2000, was booed for taking off Stuart McCall. If the man who took the Bantams to the top flight for the first time in 77 years – and kept them there – cannot escape such booing, Parkinson should not be concerned.

And the most important thing that Parkinson can do right now is to continue to be his own man and not listen to the crowd. Worrying about such matters has been the undoing of past City managers – think of Nicky Law bowing down to supporters in 2003 by playing Ben Muirhead when he evidently wasn’t the answer. Parkinson is experienced enough to know that there is a big difference between doing the right thing and doing what the crowd believes to be the right thing. And over these last few games in particular, he needs to be pragmatic rather than popular.

With Rotherham prospering at Valley Parade on Boxing Day through a 4-5-1 formation, Parkinson needs to ensure that his side can match that system if Evans is to repeat its use. If that means going 4-5-1 also and leaving, say, Aaron Mclean  (who is struggling for fitness) on the bench, so be it. There’s a section of City fans who hate 4-5-1 and will criticise any manager who tries it. So what?

Parkinson cannot set up his team for another Rotherham thrashing. A point tonight would be a great achievement and there is nothing wrong with targeting that.

What’s needed

To have any chance of succeeding, Parkinson needs every single player to put in a shift ala-Leyton Orient – there can be no passengers like there were in the Oldham game. Parkinson needs Andrew Davies, Stephen Darby and Gary Jones to demonstrate their leadership skills and set the example for others to follow. Rory McArdle needs to quickly get over last Saturday’s woeful display and demonstrate why he should continue to be at the heart of next season’s back four. Jon McLaughlin has not been playing badly, but also needs a good night.

If City do go 4-5-1, Chris Atkinson or – if either are fit – Mclean or Nathan Doyle will come into midfield. Adam Reach needs to use the platform of being live on TV to impress, and I suspect we will get a better performance than recent feeble efforts. Kyle Bennett needs to forget last week’s no-show and get back to the level he had been building up towards before. That said, Garry Thompson’s promising cameo off the bench on Saturday could be rewarded with a start ahead of the Doncaster loanee.

If James Hanson is fit enough to play, it could change any such thoughts of a 4-5-1. Parkinson needs Hanson, but it would be asking a lot for the big man to start on his own up front if not 100% fit.

What hope?

If there is a chink of light to be offered, it is that Rotherham have been better on the road than they have away; winning nine, drawing eight and losing three at the New York Stadium, with no one in the top half of League One having conceded more goals at home, including the Bantams.

Small crumbs, on a night that seems to be about damage limitation and raised relegation anxiety. The heart fondly remembers recent shock away victories when no one expected anything from City – Leyton Orient, two weeks ago, Southend United, two years ago and, one my all-time favourite away games, Rochdale in February 2010 (Peter Taylor’s second game in charge).

I guess the minimum that we can expect tonight is an improved performance from Saturday, and to hope that the players show sufficient passion to demonstrate they want to still be wearing a claret and amber shirt next season. Whether that will be enough to avoid a seemingly inevitable defeat is highly questionable, but at the very least it would be nice to walk out of the New York Stadium at the end of tonight feeling more confident about the future than we did leaving Valley Parade last Saturday.

City on the brink of surviving The Oldham Division

4 Apr

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Bradford City vs Oldham Athletic preview

@Valley Parade on Saturday 5 April, 2014

Written by Jason McKeown (images by Mike Holdsworth)

It is just short of seven years since Oldham Athletic last visited Valley Parade – an Easter Monday afternoon where both sides were heading in polar opposites.

Bradford City, desperately fighting relegation from League One, took a surprise 65th minute lead when Moses Ashikodi (remember him?) smashed an unstoppable half-volley into the top corner. Perhaps if Joe Colbeck hadn’t got himself stupidly sent off for kicking the ball away, or if rookie caretaker manager hadn’t sacrificed strikers Billy Paynter and Ashikodi to play Spencer Weir-Daley (remember him?!) on his own up front, or if the defence hadn’t played so deep, City would have held out for a vital victory. But with three minutes to go, promotion-chasing Oldham equalised through Luigi Glombard. Their near 3,000 visiting support went wild.

City ended that season in the bottom four, relegated, Oldham finished in the top six, defeated in the play off semi finals. They have remained in League One ever since, but that doesn’t tell half the story of their Groundhog Day existence. Flash back even further – 1997 – and City had an even bigger impact on the Latics’ future. Both clubs – and Grimsby – were locked in a relegation battle in Division One (now the Championship). City survived, Oldham (and Grimsby) went down to the third tier. Athletic have not changed leagues since.

That makes the 2013/14 season Oldham’s 17th consecutive campaign in this division. 17. SEVENTEEN. When they went down in 1997, Tony Blair had just become Prime Minister, Hong Kong was still part of the United Kingdom and Titanic had just hit the cinemas. That 2006/07 season was Oldham’s best finish in the intervening years (sixth) and they have only finished in the top half of the table in five of the other 16 seasons. Similarly, they have only come perilously close to relegation on three occasions.

It must be somewhat unsatisfying to be an Oldham supporter then. A much of nothingness year in, year out. It scarcely seems credible that they were one of the founder members of the Premier League (voting for the breakaway top flight that has had such a dramatic effect on the distribution of wealth in football). 17 years in this division. The bottom tier often gets cruelly named ‘The Rochdale Division’. Surely League One deserves a similar nickname concerning Oldham?

For Bradford City, the job of staying in ‘The Oldham Division’ is almost complete. Tuesday night’s 0-0 with Coventry City took the Bantams up to 49 points, and with most teams having six games to play and the gap to the dotted line nine points and nine teams, the reality is that we are probably safe now. Still, a win tomorrow would take City past the 50-point mark and all but rubber-stamp survival. It would be nice to get the job done on home soil.

You can start to split City’s 2013/14 season into three different phases. The first, covering the opening 10 matches, saw City fly out of the blocks and produce promotion-standard form of one defeat in 10. Phase two – which lasted almost half a season – was that dismal one win in 20 league matches. That horrendous run ended with a 1-0 victory over Port Vale in mid-February, and the last 10 games (phase three) has seen four wins, two draws and four defeats.

Mid-table form, for a side which is surely set for a mid-table finish. Banish that lingering relegation question mark, and it’s all about finishing as high up the division as possible. After Port Vale’s midweek victory over Crawley, 11th is probably the best finish that City can hope for. At which point, we will very quickly start to plan for season two in League One, and the long-term challenge of not becoming the new Oldham.

It seems churlish to be talking about getting out of League One as quickly as possible on the weekend that its permanent residents are in town, but no one wants to stick around here for too long. The only thing we want to have in common with Oldham is that we are also an ex-Premier League side.

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The final six games offer plenty to play for, given there are so many players needing to demonstrate they should remain a part of the Bradford City journey next season. James Hanson, Adam Drury and Nathan Doyle remain fitness doubts, but for the rest this is not a time to stand still.

Jon McLaughlin is certainly under the spotlight. On City’s last Valley Parade appearance, a week and a half ago, the poor opener he conceded to Walsall saw him the subject of plenty of post-match criticism. Yet McLaughlin has responded with back-to-back clean sheets that included some important saves. In front of him will definitely be Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle – both out of contract in six games time – and Andrew Davies, with Carl McHugh (another whose deal is about to run out) likely to continue covering for Drury, should the Leeds loanee not make it.

There is no doubt that McHugh’s season could have gone better, and the irrepressible left-sided defender in the team ahead of him, Davies, looks set to continue blocking his first team path for at least another season. I love Carl, but I suspect that for his own good he needs to look for another club this summer. Tomorrow could be one of his final Valley Parade appearances.

In midfield the partnership of Gary Jones and Matty Dolan impresses – Width of a Post has more to say on it next week – and on the flanks, Adam Reach’s strong start to life at City continues to slowly fade and Kyle Bennett’s slow start continues to be strongly improved upon. Bennett looks very similar to Will Atkinson and is likely to be recruited during the summer to fill that wide-player-who-tucks-inside role. Behind him on the bench, Garry Thompson’s farewell lap will shortly begin.

Up front is likely to be Jon Stead – making a home debut against a side he was playing on loan for earlier this year – and the improving Aaron Mclean. It would be nice to see some of the youngsters given a chance over the final weeks when the right moment arises, and the sight of Oli McBurnie, Jack Stockdill and James Pollard on the bench recently would suggest they may get their opportunity before the final ball is kicked at Prenton Park in a month’s time.

By then, City will surely be playing only for pride while today’s visitors will have hoped to put their lingering relegation fears to bed. A loss to the Bantams tomorrow would certainly cause them unease, although after 17 years of this division you wonder if, on some level, the opportunity to visit some different grounds next season would cushion the blow of relegation to League Two.

More likely, next season’s The Oldham Division is going to include a repeat of tomorrow’s fixture.

Lessons in history as Bradford City go to Coventry

1 Apr
Picture by Claire Epton

Picture by Claire Epton

Coventry City vs Bradford City preview

@Sixfields (Northampton) on Tuesday 1 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

In the 20 years that the Sixfields stadium, Northampton, has stood, it has never been so overused and yet so sparsely populated as it has this season. Former Premier League outfit Coventry City moved in last summer, 70 miles away from their home city, with average crowds of 2,222 indirectly bolstered by protesting Coventry supporters on that large hill outside. Not since Wimbledon saw out their final days at Selhurst Park in front of one man and his dog, before relocating to Milton Keynes, have Bradford City embarked on such an unusual away fixture as tonight’s.

Yet it is the permanent proprietors of Sixfields who offer the more fitting perspective to the Bantams current struggles. Northampton Town lie second bottom of League Two, fighting for their lives to avoid relegation. The Cobblers were, of course, City’s play off final opponents 10-and-a-half months ago, crushed 3-0 at Wembley. After another 3-0 loss – to Bury at home, on Saturday - they are in deep trouble.

Only one of the previous 17 fourth tier beaten play off finalists have gone on to be promoted the following season – yet Northampton’s bouncebackability has been especially poor. They have gone from being disappointed not to leave League Two, to now desperate simply to remain in it. Sixfields is in serious danger of becoming a non-league stadium.

There but for the grace of God, and all that.

In the 30 years that the City Gent fanzine has existed, they can scarcely have published a more bizarre reader letter than one which appears in the latest edition, comparing Phil Parkinson to Hitler. Oddly bemoaning that Parkinson is too good-looking and that “if he had a face like a bag of turds and dressed like a tramp waiting for chips, would we have given him this much leeway?”, the letter-writing supporter goes onto state, “He is eloquent I will give you that, but so too was Hitler, and we all know how that turned out.” If I were Mark Lawn, I’d be carefully searching Phil’s desk to check that those opposition scout reports aren’t really secret plans to invade Poland.

Such stupidity represents the far extreme of negative views aired about Parkinson by an increasing number of City supporters, in the wake of some of the worst performances of the season against Shrewsbury and Walsall. There is undoubtedly a growing thought that the manager has taken the club as far as he can, with calls for a change growing in volume, if quietened by Saturday.

Writing as someone still very much in the pro-Parkinson camp (although please don’t mistake my personal views as WOAP editorial policy, we welcome contrary views and articles), the tone of the criticism directed his way continues to sadden me. Read the Bradford City Facebook page, Twitter and the Telegraph & Argus boards – and, in so many cases, what you see is abuse and hatred. It should be easy to put together a constructive argument for why the manager should, at the very least, currently be having his future questioned; but those people who are attempting to do just that are largely being drowned out by outright abuse from others.

It is completely unfair that any manager of Bradford City be the subject of such nasty and vile anger. You think of everything Parkinson has given to the club, of the loyalty he has shown, and you wonder how there could such little respect afforded to him by some people. There is a big difference between no longer believing in a manager and hating him, or at least there should be.

In the 111 years that Bradford City Football Club has toiled, rarely has there been a season as memorable as 2012/13. The 64 game marathon featured a rollercoaster of emotions. The drama, the excitement, the joy, the pride. What a happy ending: a first promotion in 14 years. It meant so much.

As City celebrated reaching Wembley for a second time in three months with victory in the play off semi final at Burton, the 1,600 visiting supporters that packed out the Perelli Stadium serenaded the players with the words “We’re proud of you” and responded to Parkinson’s clenched fist celebrations with a round of “Parkinson’s Bradford Army”. The pride indeed. The glow of which only increased further after the Northampton play off final victory.

As form has fallen off a cliff over the winter months of this season, not unreasonably, several people declared that last season is now irrelevant, and how we all needed to stop talking about it. As Parkinson came under his first genuine spell of pressure in February, the early advocates for change went further, arguing that his 2012/13 achievements should not count in any debates about his future. But of course, that is impossible to do. When evaluating the ability of someone to lead the club forwards, his past record has to come into consideration.

And so, the new, recent theme from some has been to talk down the past. ‘We made history’ has now become ‘Let’s re-write history’. Suddenly, promotion last season is being dubbed a fluke by many people. One that was only achieved because of Exeter’s late collapse in their form; one that was only achieved due to the Bantams scraping a seventh-place finish. A decent manager would not have luckily taken City up last season, they say, but won the league.

Words fail me at such a miserable outlook. That all those warm memories of last season’s run-in are retrospectively downgraded by some as ‘lucky’ and, by association, the success achieved viewed as unmerited. Did people really feel that way at the time? Did they not enjoy those late season victories? That afternoon at Burton? That second trip to Wembley?

Only seventh? Not since 1999 have City finished higher in the division they are in. Only through the play offs? In the five previous League Two seasons, only once did we come close to achieving that basic expectation (and in that year, 2008/09, we did an Exeter and fell away at the end). And we haven’t even mentioned that first trip to Wembley. You could talk down Parkinson’s achievements if they were happening all the time to the club, but years and years of struggle and underperformance should serve to highlight just how incredible last season’s success was.

Yet equally – and let’s be honest – 2012/13′s late run-in featured more than our fair share of luck. Exeter did indeed collapse when they (or other challengers ahead of us in mid-March) should have sealed that last play off spot. But still, that doesn’t change City’s achievement of only losing three of their final 15 games post-Swansea; of picking up 15 points from a possible 24 to steal into seventh, when others dithered. They made the most of the luck that came their way, capitalising in clinical fashion.

Parkinson’s influence on that never-say-die run-in does not deserve to be downgraded 12 months on, simply to suit the debate of today. There is nothing wrong with arguing he deserves to go in spite of last season if that is what you believe, but please don’t attempt to say he deserves to go because of last season. After all, if you’re not happy about last season…well why bother supporting this club?

Not since 1996 have City enjoyed such a spectacular late run of form. Year after year we have either been nowhere near or choked. Last season should always be remembered with fondness – not twisted and distorted.

In the first two years that Phil Parkinson managed Bradford City, he impressed not only those inside Valley Parade but the outside world. Blackpool looked to him as the answer to their struggles, and other clubs would be linked with his services. Parkinson was one of the hottest properties in management, and City did very well to keep him.

“Three years? What were they thinking!” has been a recent grumble, in light of the contract that Parkinson was offered by the club – and signed – last May. It makes debates about his future seem somewhat worthless, given it will likely cost a six-figure sum of money to dispense with his services. We are stuck with him.

Which suits me just fine. I have long believed in long-term thinking. By plotting a future in terms of years and not months, the club has a much greater chance of being rebuilt on firmer foundations. The three-year contract is a three-year plan, one that needs to conclude with City knocking on the door of the Championship, for it to be extended further.

Year one’s objective of staying in League One is a fair and realistic goal. It has not yet been achieved, and crossing that 50-point mark is proving to be an unnecessarily laboured task, but it is progress. We can question the route to get here – the edge of survival – but not the destination. It is vital that City remain a League One club, and that target is within touching distance after Saturday’s impressive away win at Leyton Orient.

As for the three-year debate; whilst there is no doubt that some did question the wisdom when the contract was agreed last year, they were very much in the minority. Very few people were against it, in fact the majority were for it.

That’s why I find those who are now questioning the logic of the contract difficult to take seriously. If we, as supporters, believe we deserve a say in how this club is run, you have to share in responsibility for the decisions you previously backed. If you wanted Parkinson to remain as manager 12 months ago, only for the club to go and make sure that was the case, it is unfair to now pretend you didn’t agree with that decision. And let’s be clear, had Parkinson walked away from Valley Parade last summer, the chairmen would have copped it big style.

In the 11 years that Phil Parkinson has been a football manager, he has made mistakes but also enjoyed notable success. He is a smarter, wiser and cleverer manager for going through those bad times. And what he will have learned over the past 12 months will undoubtedly make him an even better manager. We should be confident that he can apply this greater experience next season.

When looking back on Parkinson’s achievements at Valley Parade, his success in steering the club away from relegation to non-league, during his first season in charge, seems especially relevant at the moment. Today is two years and five days since that horrendous evening against Crawley, where you really feared for the future. Parkinson was able to lift the club from such dark times, and the rest is history.

His first season seems especially relevant at the moment, given the task facing the manager this summer – rebuilding the squad. In September 2011 he took charge of a Bantams squad that was woefully lacking in quality and, in 18 months, had turned them into League Cup finalists. I have no fears that he can deliver the improvements that are needed for next season.

Yet the problem of the here and now is that the sweeping changes needed cannot be implemented until this season is over. Parkinson has made major mistakes in the transfer market which he is in no position to rectify in the short-term. He must continue to make do with a squad that has over recent months let him down on several occasions, and who over the final seven games will continue to deliver inconsistent performances. And poor results will continue to make Parkinson look bad, adding to the pressure now placed on his shoulders.

The short-term outlook is not great. Parkinson must get us over that 50+ point line, even if it’s an undignified stumble – and then he must prove that he can take the club forwards in line with our long-term ambitions.

I have confidence he can do just that, although there are no guarantees he will succeed. The bottom line, however, is that he has earned the right to get that opportunity. After everything he has done for this football club and all the wonderful memories he has provided, Parkinson deserves our support and backing during these more difficult times.

In the 39 matches that Bradford City have played this season, they sit right in the middle of the table. Currently eight points clear of the drop zone but 10 away from the play offs, this looks set to be a season where both promotion and relegation was never seriously on the table.

And all things considered – not least our recent history - that will do just fine.

 

The bubble

28 Mar

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Leyton Orient vs Bradford City preview

@Brisbane Road on Saturday 29 March, 2014

By Mahesh Johal

With eight games to go it’s strange to think that I have watched my last game of the 2013/14 season. No, the sight of a toothless defeat to Walsall has not scared me off. Instead I am embarking on a month’s travelling around the States. I will be in San Francisco on the day of the Rotherham match. I have yet to research any British or Irish sports bars that might have Sky Sports, but one highly doubts that local Californians will see the importance of League One football in the same manner that I do.

It’s a shame that I finished this season on bum note, because I have genuinely enjoyed every aspect of it. The pre-season high and optimism, a bouncing Valley Parade, new away days, transfer window drama and of course all of those wonderful comebacks. I still believe we have enough for a strong finale and hope we can a secure mid table finish. However, with a tough away trip to high flying Leyton Orient, things may get worse before they get better.

City currently sit just outside what American sports pundits like to call ‘the bubble’. To give an example of ‘the bubble’, we can use this season’s Premier League. The current top three are all in the bubble to qualify for the Champions League. Arsenal – who are fourth – are also in it. Fifth and sixth placed, Everton and Spurs are on the bubble; whilst Manchester United could be described as outside it. Make sense? Looking at League One, I think it’s fair to say City are just outside the ‘relegation bubble’. We’re not in the thick of a dogfight; but only six points away, we are getting increasingly near it. One hopes Tuesday’s performance was a one off, because any more abject displays like that and we could be embroiled in a battle we didn’t want or expect.

I have seen enough bad Bradford City displays not to take it to heart, but it was the manner in which we performed on Tuesday that really hurt. For the first time in a long time, City’s performance lacked the Bradford DNA which is synonymous with this team. That being a side that is honest and hardworking. A team that runs for each other and grinds opposition sides down with their pure commitment and positivity. City lack the skills that some teams have in this league, but we have gained many a point from purely outworking opponents.

On Tuesday, I and twelve thousand or so didn’t see that. In all honesty, I think this is what caused so many to either leave early or boo at full time.As I was reminded on the way back to Manchester, only five of last season’s play off final XI started on Tuesday. Maybe that kinship and character has been broken up? Maybe it was a bad night? Either way, Phil Parkinson has to do something to get this side united and over the line.

Eyes will be on Jon McLaughlin; whose recent form has steadily been on the decline. I’m happy to admit I’m a Jon Mc fan. I like the way we’ve nurtured him and it’s nice to see someone we’ve developed succeed in our team. At times, he has shown flashes of brilliance and I would find it hard for people to argue against his shot stopping ability. However, he is prone to error, and this trait has come to the fore lately.

I look back to Tuesday at some of McLaughlin’s near calamity episodes. Whether it his miscommunication with Rory McArdle in the first half or his failed attempt to usher the ball out of play in the second that nearly cost us a goal. The much clichéd argument of a lack of a proper back up goalkeeper to threaten his position does hold weight, when comparing this Jon McLaughlin to the one we saw this time last season. An easy target throughout his tenure at City, I truly hope he succeeds and becomes our long-term number one. However his dip in confidence is worrying.
The target on Aaron McLean’s back is growing and the social media backlash seen after the Shrewsbury game demonstrated that some are already losing patience with him. Many expected Mclean to replace Nahki Wells’ goals instantly; but it’s clear that he is not a like for like replacement. With this in mind, I personally am happy to give him time and let the team work around his strengths, as we did Wells. However, with James Hanson unlikely to play on Saturday, more pressure will be on him to find the net. Mclean would expect to start but its unknown if he will be partnered by new signing Jon Stead, or if he’ll lead the line on his own in similar set up used away at Brentford.

Regardless of the formation, confusion remains regarding the selection for City’s midfield. The only definite is Nathan Doyle will not play. Gary Jones and Adam Reach are likely to be selected regardless of their off night on Tuesday, and Kyle Bennett will again battle it out with Garry Thompson for the right wing. After Matthew Bates’ inclusion in the holding role and his completion of the full ninety minutes against Walsall, will Parkinson continue to play him there again?

One must feel for Chris Atkinson, who has not had a look in since his move from Huddersfield. With the arrival of his former team mate, Stead, Atkinson will likely be left out of the match day squad due to a rule of a maximum five loanees in a squad rule. Matty Dolan looked sprightly in his cameo and could force his way back in the side. The back four completes itself, with Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, McArdle and Adam Drury.

I leave the UK with City a League One side. I fully expect to return to see City a League One side. However the bubble is close. Which characters are going to get us over the line and secure our position in the third tier?

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