The second of Width of a Post’s end of season ‘essays’ sees Jason McKeown share his personal views on where things might have gone wrong for City.
“We develop players. We don’t have them growing in greenhouses out the back because we don’t have time for greenhouses. We’re more of a microwave sort of club.” Aidy Boothroyd, January 2007
The current Northampton Town manager, Aidy Boothroyd, has so far had nothing to do with the professional football club from his place of birth. But the above quote – made when he was managing Watford in the Premier League five years ago – suggests he would one day fit in very well at Bradford City.
Especially after the season just gone. It started with one set of plans, ended with another, and each one of them was given 100% long term backing at the time. It seems that in the space of twelve months Bradford City were able to illustrate the problems that have bedevilled the club for the last ten years. A season where any greenhouses installed at Valley Parade were hastily covered up in favour of a microwavable ready meal…
“The finances are still tight however, so we are taking a different approach this season rather than trying to ‘buy success’ as we have over the last four seasons in League Two. The playing budget has been reduced but we have increased our investment in developing young players for the future.” Julian Rhodes’ programme notes, Aldershot (home) Saturday 6 August 2011
This above quote, from the Bradford City joint chairman, was typical of the understated approach adopted by the club during last summer, on the back of a dreadfully disappointing 2010/11 campaign which had involved recruiting a top quality manager on a hefty wage and giving him a large playing budget. That manager – Peter Taylor – failed to come close to the target of promotion, and eventually quit. Peter Jackson guided City to safety, but only just. The club ended the season claiming it could no longer afford to keep playing at Valley Parade and even paid the players’ wages late at one point. Something had to change.
Dagenham & Redbridge’s John Still was interviewed for the job of long-term replacement to Taylor. At the meeting with the two Chairmen, he brought along his chief scout and a man who had worked for him for almost 20 years, dating back to Still’s Barnet days. Archie Christie had helped Still deliver success as manager by finding him find untapped talent which were eventually sold on for a large profit – Craig Mackail-Smith and Paul Benson, for example – and would also come to Valley Parade with Still.
However, the financial problems at City – eventually partly solved by the chairmen agreeing a deal to buy the Valley Parade office blocks which the club was previously renting at a considerable cost – saw Still rule himself out of the running. Jackson got the City job he probably deserved, but Rhodes and Mark Lawn asked Christie to write a plan of how the Bantams could reverse their continuous decline.
The results of that report were striking if not exactly earth shattering: the continuous approach of throwing all the club’s resources on ageing footballers – which for four years in a row had not worked for City – was not going to deliver sustainable success. It was time to stop ignoring those off-the-field problems and build a more solidly structured football club. So impressed were Rhodes and Lawn with the plan, they offered Archie the job of Chief Scout and Head of Football Development.
Christie turned down the salary that was offered to him, requesting this money instead be used to fund a Development Squad – a new tier to the youth set up, to give players aged 18-21 the extra support that football clubs often fail to provide. Christie dusted off Tom Cleverley’s contract from when City sold him to Manchester United, and found the then-Premier League Champions technically owed the club a lot of money. Having secured this cash from United for the club, the costs of operating a Development Squad for the season – which worked out slightly lower than the 12-month contract City had been forced to honour for Lewis Hunt last April – were covered.
Meanwhile Lawn and Rhodes partially addressed the training ground issues, and Christie set up a new scouting structure. The club spent pre-season talking of a building campaign centred upon ensuring we could challenge for promotion in 2012-13. As David Pendleton summed it up last week on this very site: “Here is the crux: if a football club cannot offer genuine hope, it must offer a vision and one that can be bought into.”
“We knew there were problems after the first game when we lost to Aldershot. Mark Lawn and I were talking afterwards and we said, ‘Hell, what are we going to do?’ We really were worried. We were honest with Peter and said, ‘We have to strengthen’. Peter decided he wanted to resign. That was his prerogative. It was our intention to help him but maybe after a few more games we would have had to act anyway.” Julian Rhodes, speaking to the Yorkshire Post in January 2012
So on the very same day that Rhodes’ matchday programme notes were published, he and Lawn began to panic and doubt the approach which they had chosen. Jackson would manage for only three more league matches (the last of which, Dagenham, saw home fans give the players a standing ovation for the performance), before resigning for reasons he has yet to make public. Width of a Post has heard very credible stories on why he left, from different sources, which all match up and suggest that – while Jackson had his own personal problems – the pressure from the Boardroom was greater than he considered to be fair or reasonable. I was also able to ask Christie straight if he had helped move Jackson out, and he made it clear that he had not always agreed with Jackson but had always supported him.
The Board acted quickly, with Rhodes, Lawn and Christie appointing Phil Parkinson barely three days after Jackson had walked out of Valley Parade. His brief was to keep City in the Football League – six weeks later, Lawn would go on record describing the squad Jackson had built over the summer as the worst in the division. Another wind of change was in the air.
It is remarkable to note that the only previous examples of genuine success at City over the last 20 years – promotion from Division Two via Wembley in 1996, avoiding relegation the year after, promotion to the Premier League in 1999 and top flight survival in 2000 – all featured slow starts to the first quarter of the season, where panic ensued in some quarters. Only this weekend, Rhodes has criticised a number of summer signings on the basis of their performances in just four games (the Leeds, Barnet and Sheffield Wednesday games, featuring these same players, conveniently ignored). All I can say is that it’s a good job Geoffrey Richmond had a calm head and strong leadership skills when sticking by Paul Jewell in September 1998, as the club languished second bottom.
“The point is that football clubs, prompted by media and fans, are always making financially irrational decisions in an instant. They would like to think long term, but because they are in the news every day they end up fixating on the short term.” Why England Lose, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski
It is a surprisingly tropical Bradford morning in September, and I am sharing a breakfast table with Christie, Peter Horne, Andrew Burns, Scott Brown and Terry Dixon. In the privileged position to be interviewing the three young City players for an article, listening to their confidence about forging a successful career at the club is uplifting. I’d seen and been very impressed by Burns and Brown in pre-season, and all three were expected to be in the first team this season.
Indeed Brown was 45 minutes away from making his debut for City against AFC Wimbledon a week before (Michael Flynn passed a late fitness test in the end) – he would end the season frozen out of things, playing a practice match at Leeds United, where the Elland Road coaching staff would apparently state their surprise that he is not in the City first team and that “he could do a job for Leeds”.
Burns was supposed to be breaking into the first team in January as cover for Simon Ramsden, when Liam Moore’s loan spell from Leicester expired. Yet Parkinson opted for the short-term fix of signing Rob Kozluk for the rest of the campaign – having released Hunt in October at a sizable cost to the club. Burns has ended the season on loan at Harrogate Town, then told he can find a new club (Kozluk has been released).
City seemed to believe themselves to be embroiled in a relegation battle long before they ever really looked to be. Those of us who witnessed the outstanding, attacking football displayed in Parkinson’s first home game against Bristol Rovers in mid-September would have concluded that – with the help of a couple more signings – it was simply a matter of the team getting going results-wise. Three days later City lost 3-2 to Vale in heart-breaking style, with home manager Micky Adams saying he believed we would challenge for promotion that season (“I’d like to bet they will be there or thereabouts”). There seemed to be no need to panic, but we were doing so anyway.
Rhodes stated at the weekend that the whole season was hindered by Jackson’s summer signings – an attack presumably levelled at Martin Hansen, Moore, Guy Branston, Chris Mitchell, Jack Compton, Mark Stewart, Ross Hannah and Nialle Rodney. Under Parkinson, “The worst squad in the league” was been quickly replaced by new signings. The reduced budget Jackson had to work under significantly increased. Who can really blame Parkinson for spending money rather than trusting in what he had in-house, and the potential of the Development Squad? Hand me your money and a budget to buy a new sofa for my house, and I will happily spend it all to get the nicest one.
There is no disputing that Rhodes and Lawn were right when they spoke to Jackson just before he quit – the squad that started the season did need strengthening. However, there is a difference between fixing a few problem positions and overhauling everything. The long-term benefits appear to be slim – just three of 16 signings Parkinson has made since joining as manager are still contracted to the club.
“If the manager has not got the commitment to do it, it means nothing. A scout can scout them, bring them to the club. The youth coach can develop them and put them in the reserve team, and the reserve coach can help him on his way and recommend them to the first team. But if the manager won’t play them in the first team, it’s a waste of blinking time!” Sir Alex Ferguson on Manchester United’s youth system
Christie left City abruptly in November – the day before he officially became the new Chief Executive – for reasons yet to be shared in public. And with it the Development Squad idea was allowed to diminish quietly without anyone left in the building taking responsibility for the idea of bringing it in. This apparently included the Chairmen, yet the same September day that I chatted to Burns, Brown and Dixon was also the last time I spoke to Lawn; and he made it very clear how much he supported the Development Squad concept and how highly he valued Christie (two weeks before his “worst squad” comment). Rhodes was also known to be a big fan of the idea.
The Development Squad was criticised publically in October by none other than Michael Flynn; and in November its coach Wayne Allison departed for a new job – with Parkinson opting to spend the money this freed up on strengthening the first team, rather than recruiting a replacement to coach these players. Everything about the club became here and now, ‘building’ was suddenly an ugly word. The same month that Christie left ended with City lining up a six-figure transfer deal to sign Benson. It fell through on medical grounds, but a statement of intent was made. One wonders what Jackson made of the switching of the goal posts.
As Sir Alex Ferguson’s quote says, the Development Squad was only going to work if it was backed by the manager. Not by him throwing loads of these players into the first team – no one should have been expecting a 100% success ratio from these kids, the departure of Dixon was an inevitable side effect and others would/will follow – but through trusting and handing those who were progressing with opportunities when they came up because of injuries and suspensions. And in time this approach could really pay off: back in March, I watched City lose 1-0 to a Crewe side where 9 of its 11 had come through its ranks. They made the play offs.
Instead Parkinson has apparently spent a huge sum of money – multiple times the cost of the Development Squad – stock piling loan players. What was the benefit in signing Charlie Taylor, Andy Haworth and Will Atkinson, rather than giving Dominic Rowe – a home-grown winger who featured in all but one of the club’s pre-season friendlies, awarded a two-year contract last October and part of the Development Squad – an opportunity? Beyond the Development Squad, in March Hannah was shunted out to Halifax so City could sign Chris Dagnall on loan to the end of the season. Good player Dangall is, but the benefits were purely short-term. Then you consider that the likes of Luke O’Brien and Robbie Threlfall – players City have spent years developing – have also been let go.
And that’s the problem when you look back at this season. We stayed up, and so you could argue that Rhodes and Lawn’s decision to ditch long-term planning because our position looked desperate was the right one; but all we have done is repeated the strategy of the past four seasons in throwing a lot of money at players, again with only marginal success. This year’s League Two is unique in that the clubs with the highest budgets – Swindon, Shrewsbury and Crawley– have gone up. Rhodes says City’s budget ended up around the 5th highest: is 18th place therefore a fitting return for the level of money parted on short-term signings like Craig Fagan, Kozluk and Atkinson, with little gained for the future because it has been ignored? Again we come back to this stat – just three of Parkinson’s 16 signings as City manager are still at the club.
Because from my viewpoint – which has included the performances from quickly discarded players against Leeds, Huddersfield and Sheffield United – I’m not convinced we were doing much wrong at the start of the season. It was obvious we needed to give it time, not judge things on a couple of games – just as City’s promotion winning squad of 1998/99 was not judged on its poor start. As well as Parkinson has done (and he has), significant improvement on the pitch is not obvious. For Rhodes to attempt to blame all of this season’s problems solely on Jackson is extremely unfair.
In Why England Lose, Kuper and Szymanski wrote: “At most clubs the manager is treated as a sort of divinely inspired monarch who gets to decide everything until he is sacked. Then the next manager clears out his predecessor’s signings at a discount.” It is such an accurate reflection of the last few seasons at Valley Parade that it is painful. Can Parkinson break this cycle?
“Archie’s ideas and plans were excellent but they were what should have happened years ago and I remember me and Dave Wetherall highlighting this in a presentation to Julian and Peter Taylor a few years earlier. Development squads 18-21 are massive to any club and so many good footballers get neglected at these ages because their club (s) can’t afford to employ the necessary staff but if you do invest in one it must provide results. Between the ages 18-21 is a massive time for any player to develop in more ways than one and I firmly believe that we’ve let a lot of good players go that would have been good enough for us. Let’s just use Jake Wright who is captain of Oxford as a sample example although I could probably name 10.” Peter Horne’s programme notes, Swindon (home) Saturday 5 May 2012
With relegation successfully avoided in the end, over the last couple of weeks we have seen a return of the long-term thinking rhetoric. Nahki Wells – the first and so far only successful graduate of the Development Squad – has proven the value of the RIASA link up, after a series of outstanding performances and stunning goals. As a result, Mark Ellis has been appointed new youth coach for the 18-21 age group. The Development Squad is, apparently, back up and running.
Meanwhile the club has announced plans to further improve the training facilities at the request of Parkinson – an eerie familiar situation to what Taylor demanded but did not get two years ago – and a couple of City youngsters made the bench for the final game of the season.
This all sounds great, and one would like to believe that the club is finally getting to grips with issues that appear to have held it back for the past few years. But the actions witnessed over the course of season give little confidence that this will actually happen. A bad start to next season, and Parkinson will go – with him another ripping up of the strategy. Failure for the RAISA tie up to reap Nahki-level benefits next year and it will probably be dropped (remember the Belgium link-up?). When the chips are down and strong leadership is required to think not just of the here and now, but of long-term building plans, we revert to type and sign an ageing right back.
That, speaking personally, is the biggest damage of this season – I no longer have confidence that the two Chairmen know how to take this club forwards. Promotion to League One has never looked so far away than it seems right now. That Parkinson is still manager and obviously has a plan of action is the only comfort I can take from this season, but Jackson will happily be able to tell his predecessor how quickly Parkinson might lose the support he needs from Rhodes and Lawn.
“For a club’s whose only priority should be climbing out of the basement division, it looked a case of trying to run before they could walk. That’s how Parkinson saw it when he came in, and he wasn’t the only one. Michael Flynn, the skipper, soon publicly questioned the wisdom of putting money into something that might never bear fruit when it could have been diverted towards strengthening where it matters.” Simon Parker writing about the Development Squad, February 2012
The questions remain: was the club wrong to appoint Jackson in the first place? Was it wrong to ask Christie to write a blueprint for the future? Is the Development Squad a bad idea? If not, was it wrong to abandon it mid-season? Whatever your view, Rhodes and Lawn were behind these decisions and have to either accept they have made mistakes or back up past words with actions.
Just like previous years, the local media is now helping to fuel this constant message from the club that things are better than they were and we are moving forwards. Yet as supporters, no one has ever bothered to tell us why Jackson left the club. No one has either admitted the Development Squad was a mistake, or come out to back it, post-Christie. We deserve better than to be kept in the dark.
What we need is not a new vision – the Parkinson path is the one we are on now, and we need to continue it – but belief that any vision adopted will be backed by the club. That a month ago Lawn backed Parkinson in public is commendable only if he truly means it, but over the past three years the club has repeatedly lost sight of what it wants and – when it has changed direction – has often destroyed much of the good work that had gone on before it.
Parkinson’s plan of action has seen short-term pain for this club, and if that’s justified by rewards in long run then it’s well worth going through the season we have just had. But if we go into next season ready to chuck all of his good work away at the first sign of trouble, then we will probably repeat the same mistakes all over again.
And even less people will be willing to believe in the next vision the Board places in front of us.