Tag Archives: 2012/13

2014/15 previewed: Parkinson faces tough challenges to deliver further progress

7 Aug
Image by Alex Dodd

Image by Alex Dodd

By Jason McKeown

“I think it’s a big season for Phil,” stated Mark Lawn in early July, although when is it not a big season for any football manager?

Unless you are the seemingly unsackable Arsene Wenger, every incumbent in the 91 hotseats up and down the country is just one poor season away from being dismissed. At Valley Parade, Phil Parkinson faces what on paper looks set to be one of his most challenging campaigns as Bradford City manager. He is tasked with continuing the considerable improvement he has delivered during three years in the role – yet for the first time must do so with a scaling back of the resources available. To achieve further forwards progress, he will need to make more from less; meaning that every move in the transfer market will be heavily scrutinised over the coming months.

To put it another way, Parkinson simply cannot afford a summer recruitment as poor as the last one.

And though the manager goes into the season popular amongst the majority of supporters, he is but a couple of poor performances away from a return of the pressure that he came under from a section of the crowd during difficult periods last season. In 2013/14 there were calls – from a vocal minority – for the club to sack Parkinson. A level of discontent simmered for a period, and it was only extinguished by a promising end to the campaign that resulted in a highly commendable top half finish. Nevertheless, the halo slipped somewhat on his high standing amongst supporters. It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage a re-emergence of grumbles about his performance as manager.

No matter what pressure there was on Parkinson at times last season, his sacking was never on the agenda. The signing of a three-year contract, in May 2013, provided him with a level of immunity from being handed a P45. It would have cost the club a considerably large amount of money – probably six figures – to have dispensed with him last season, with over two years on his deal still to run. As though he were Wenger, you could argue that City could even have been relegated and the job would still be Parkinson’s if he wanted it. As much as a manager can be, for 12 months he was bullet proof.

And he deserved to be. He really did. The modern day history of the club does not need retelling yet again, but it nevertheless continues to provide an important perspective when measuring the scale of Parkinson’s achievements. Turning around the flagging fortunes of Bradford City had eluded so many of his predecessors – anyone who can bring success deserved to be praised, lauded and loyally backed. That three-year contract was a reward for the unprecedented success the Bantams achieved in 2012/13, and it left Parkinson with credit in the bank that ensured he deserved ongoing support and security when bumps occurred during 2013/14.

The reality last season was that – when the chips were down and old familiar tales of on-the-field woes resurfaced – the vast majority of supporters remained calm, measured and understanding of the situation. Those who were calling for him to go found themselves vastly outnumbered by those who remained right behind him. The fantastic reception Parkinson received prior to the recent friendly at home to Blackburn Rovers dismisses any doubts over his popularity. The goodwill afforded to the manager endures and rightly so. Over a two-year period, Parkinson has pushed the club almost a third of the way up the 92 ladder.

Yet despite the majority verdict from last season, it’s highly likely that the fragmented lines will be redrawn over the coming season, and the debates about the manager’s worth will resurface. The downbeat pre-season mood perhaps helps the manager in terms of where the expectation bar is positioned; but if City are performing worse than they did last season, the excuse of a reduced budget (14th-best in the division according to Mark Lawn) may fail to wholly register.

And though it is fair to say that clubs on lower playing budgets than the Bantams finished above us last season, the correlation between resources and performances is generally a strong one. We must always live within our means, but budget cuts at Valley Parade in the past have not gone well.

Chief Executive David Baldwin told Width of a Post that the aim is to find greater efficiencies in the playing budget, rather than allowing for wastage. “The bottom line is that, over the last few years, we have had players in the building that have not come in on cheap wages, and yet their game contribution to the team has been sporadic to say the least,” he noted.

Undoubtedly true, and the objective of not stocking the bench with, or leaving on the sidelines, unwanted players earning good money is a commendable one that no one would disagree with. The proof will be in the pudding however, and the reality at City – as it is up and down the country – is that managers make poor signings, or players who look good on paper are signed, fail to settle and under-perform. It has happened before, and it will happen again.

If the budget leaves very little margin for error in the players Parkinson has available – meaning any bad signings he makes will have to nevertheless be more heavily relied upon – the problems begin. That players who last season failed to impress are still part of the scene, and expected to contribute more this time, is also a concern.

Because in 2013/14 – with a larger playing budget – Parkinson’s good fortune was that he was able to get away with the fact his summer signings did not work out. He could continue to rely on the History Makers of the season before and, in January, made effective loan signings. Whatever criticisms were at times directed at the likes of Adam Reach, Kyle Bennett and Matty Dolan, the reality is these players all contributed more to City remaining in League One than the likes of Mark Yeates and Jason Kennedy.

And then there is the problem of Aaron Mclean. Despite an improved goal return at the end of the campaign, the striker has yet to convince in a City shirt and the jury is very much out. Rather like John McGinlay did for Chris Kamara, Mclean has the potential to make or break Parkinson. After Wells left in January, the manager was afforded a replacement budget considerably higher than any City manager in recent years has been given to bring in a striker. There is simply no way that Mclean could not be in the first XI this season, so he has to deliver. A pre-season stalled by injury is the worst possible start for the high earner.

In this summer – and like in 2012 – Parkinson has taken a radical approach to the squad. Letting go of numerous players hugely popular with supporters, and bringing in new faces who already it is clear will have a bigger role to play than the 2013 summer signings were expected to. The positive is that, in 2012, an even greater turnover of players reaped spectacular rewards. The business that summer remains conclusive proof that Parkinson has a fantastic eye for a player. He needs to reaffirm that faith, as it has been tested by the business of a year ago.

The other big question mark directed at Parkinson has been his style of football, which fairly or unfairly came in for criticism last season. As is sadly typical of these types of debates, it was over-simplified at times and the efforts of some good players was unfairly dismissed with the tag ‘hoof-ball’.

The fact is that – since Christmas 2011 – Parkinson had built a team around the immensely promising partnership of James Hanson and Nahki Wells, and he was spectacularly rewarded for doing so. At their best in 2012/13, and the first two months of 2013/14, the fast-paced nature of City’s attacking play was enthralling to watch. There was a real mixture of approaches, from the direct ball to Hanson, the attacking wide play of speedy wingers – who linked up so well with overlapping full backs – and the masterful passing of Nathan Doyle and Gary Jones. It was deliberate chaos at times, as opposition teams were attacked from all angles, sometimes not knowing what hit them.

When things started to go wrong last season and players’ confidence dipped, this style of play looked increasingly one-dimensional and easy to defend against. The attacking verve and high tempo waned, and the departure of Wells meant a key part of the team’s focal point was lost. It’s easy to criticise the football when things aren’t going as well as hoped, but the problems were more complex.

Nevertheless, last season saw a gradual shift to a new style of play, and it will be continued in 2014/15 with the diamond formation and greater versatility to change it around. I’ve never believed that Parkinson is a long ball manager, and a rewind back to his first few games in charge in 2011/12 – where he attempted to instigate a passing style of play with mixed results – demonstrates his adaptability. He built the high tempo 2012/13 side after learning the most effective way to prosper in League Two. And now, after a year in the third tier, he is adapting the playing style yet again.

This is the true pragmatism of Parkinson. He will set up his team in a way that he thinks will work in the environment that they play in. And ultimately his performance as manager will be judged on the results he gets. If playing more direct football continued to work past last October, no one would be complaining about him still using it now. If the football this season is more pleasing on the eye but leads to adverse results, no one will be happy and accepting of the playing style. Which would you rather have: principled football or three points? Both would be nice, but if we are forced to choose I don’t think there’s any doubt which would win out.

So some tough battles ahead for the manager. By the end of this season, he will have only 12 months left on his contract and become more easily sackable if the club is not progressing in line with expectations. A failure to match last season’s standards will see him come under heavy criticism. If his record in the transfer market is more 2013 than 2012, there will be no hiding place for him.

A big season for the manager, and a potentially difficult one, in view of the reduced budget and the rising demands. His track record of progress over the past three years continues to be relevant, but in the immediate term he will be judged in terms of how well he can manage his resources and further acclimatise to the division.

On his side, the summer signings are looking good in pre-season and – in view of the challenges around the cuts – he appears to have juggled the budget well. He should be applauded for what he has done this summer, because it has clearly not been an easy task. Even if time proves that he hasn’t got every tough call right, the circumstances around them should not be forgotten.

We fans, and the Board, owe it to Parkinson to support him throughout the season and not lose sight of the conditions under which he is working. This campaign won’t be easy and there will be times when the manager deservedly comes in for criticism, but we need to keep this season in context, and remember that, long-term, Phil Parkinson has the track record and know-how to ultimately build further on his list of Bradford City achievements.

Carl McHugh will always be loved at Bradford City

16 Jun

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By Jason McKeown

Carl McHugh’s two years at Valley Parade has seen the young defender become hugely popular amongst Bradford City supporters – and it is due to that affection that most of us will conclude that his free transfer move to Plymouth Argyle is ultimately for the best.

McHugh’s impressive development needs to be continued. But at City – and thanks to the colossal presence of Andrew Davies – his career is in danger of stalling. At 21-years-old and with so much potential, McHugh needs to be playing first team football week in week out. Stepping down a division to an ambitious Argyle outfit will offer him that opportunity.

One step back, but one that is necessary to ultimately move many steps forward.

For McHugh has ably demonstrated his vast potential, and should be destined for a long and successful professional career. On his day he would not look out of place in the Championship. That is something for him to ultimately aspire to over the next few years. At Plymouth he can continue to learn his trade. Make mistakes and improve. Most of all, he can build his confidence further.

He leaves Valley Parade having contributed some wonderful memories. Signed from Reading during that fruitful 2012 summer recruitment drive, the then 19-year-old was seen very much as a squad player who would only feature in the cups. My first viewing of him was at Hartlepool in the JPT, in his less comfortable position of left back. Decent, steady, but nothing spectacular.

Then, on the eve of the Wigan game during the League Cup adventure, Phil Parkinson was robbed of his two centre halves to injury and we all expected a weakened back line to be no match for the Premier League team’s might. Yet McHugh – and Rory McArdle – were sensational on that memorable October night at the DW. For such a young performer, it was some coming of age.

He was then a prominent figure in the games against Arsenal and Aston Villa home and away. That first leg semi final against Villa included that stunning third goal past his boyhood hero Shay Given. How we celebrated that moment. Who could also forget this image?

McHugh started the Wembley final against Swansea, but then his progress slowed with Davies’ return to fitness. Whilst McHugh was such a star performer when defending against Premier League teams who kept the ball on the ground, reading the game superbly, he struggled at times with the physical nature of League Two. Still, it was some first season for the youngster.

2013/14 must have proven more frustrating for McHugh. Starting on the sidelines once more, this time when the chance came to replace a once-again-injured-Davies he was overlooked. Matthew Bates blocked his route to the team, and it was only after James Meredith suffered an injury and there was no left back available that opportunities for him came about. McHugh gave his all at left back, but struggled whenever up against a pacy winger. A positional switching of Bates for McHugh helped him, but soon after Davies was back.

That was always the problem for the left-sided centre back – his direct competition happened to be the best defender at the club. Parkinson tried them both together in the home game against Crewe, Davies moved to right-sided centre back. The three goals conceded underlined how badly it worked. It was either Davies or McHugh. Not and.

Yet there was one last great McHugh moment to enjoy. Port Vale home in February, City had won just one in 21 and were under mounting pressure. McHugh, playing at left back and brave as ever, headed home a last minute winner to save this season. Just like Aston Villa home 13 months prior, what celebrations. He deserved that.

With Davies contracted for another year and seemingly content with life at City, the way forward is blocked for McHugh. A hugely promising career will go backwards if he stays around another 12 months, waiting for Davies’ next injury.

It is a huge shame that McHugh must leave, as he could have been a mainstay at City for many years in other circumstances. But it in his best interests to move on right now; and for that we let him go with sadness but thanks. We will watch his career with interest, always rooting for him.

McHugh has not been the most celebrated figures of the last two seasons, but he was certainly one of the most widely loved.

We Made History one year on: ending 12 years of hurt

17 May

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On this weekend one year ago, Bradford City were promoted to League One after defeating Northampton Town 3-0 at Wembley in the play off final. In the first of two articles looking back, Jason McKeown reflects on this unexpected achievement.

It seemed as though everybody had given up, I know that I had. Promotion from League Two just wasn’t going to happen. Too much ground to make up, too little time remaining. A seventh straight year in the basement division beckoned, it was time to come to terms with this frustrating reality.

My personal belief that we could do it was extinguished on a Tuesday evening at Plymouth, in the middle of March. Bradford City drew 0-0 with the then-basement club. And though the second half performance was good, the failure to turn late pressure into a winning goal seemed symbolic of what was surely to come in the final few weeks. I departed Home Park frustrated and deflated. There was plenty of consolation to take from the League Cup heroics that would ensure 2012/13 would go down as a good season, but in the league, it seemed, it was all over and all that was left was a nagging sense of what might have been.

When, a few days later, City were thrashed 4-1 at play off contenders Exeter, it appeared to be confirmation that my immediate Plymouth reaction had been right. I listened to the St. James Park capitulation at home on the radio, and began to think about next season. Defeat left the Bantams languishing in 11th place, 12 points behind the Grecians all be it with two games in hand. Too much ground to make up, too little time remaining. Year after year of watching failure suggested that a familiar tale was being played out in front of us again. Ah well, at least we had some fantastic memories to take away from this season. At least it wasn’t as bad a campaign as the last two.

The Exeter loss

The Exeter loss

Two months and two days after the Exeter debacle, Bradford City were celebrating promotion at Wembley stadium.

It was an incredible turn around in form. Started, it was said, the day after the Exeter defeat when Phil Parkinson held a summit meeting with his players. Whatever was said at the training ground that Sunday morning, it had a drastic effect. In the nine remaining games, City produced five wins, three draws and a defeat. Enough to secure the final play off place with a game to spare – a place they snatched from Exeter, for whom the 4-1 Bantams victory would be their final win of the season.

Initially it was difficult to tell that anything special was beginning. The next league match was Wycombe at Valley Parade on a Tuesday, with an early Garry Thompson goal enough to settle a contest between two sides seemingly with little to play for. Any hopes of rekindling play off ambitions seemed to quickly extinguish in the next match, at home to Southend, as City found themselves 2-0 down after just 11 minutes. A commendable comeback saw Zavon Hines and James Hanson make it 2-2 with a minute remaining, but when Kyel Reid had a stoppage time penalty appeal turned away you assumed that that really was it.

Easter Monday at Torquay was the true rebirth to the hopes. That City won 3-1 at Plainmoor wasn’t exactly earth-shattering, but the realisation that every other result had gone our way suddenly made promotion seem a realistic hope once more. We were back in this.

Northampton were next at Valley Parade. Nahki Wells ended his personal goal drought with an early tap in, and it proved enough to secure back-to-back victories. Make that three in a row, after Bristol Rovers were swept aside in superb fashion three days later. 3-0 at half time through Wells (twice) and Andrew Davies; Thompson sealed a 4-1 win in the second half and, amazingly, City walked off the field at full time inside the play off places.

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Exciting, thrilling and unexpected times. Chesterfield away followed and the away end was bouncing. With the score 1-1, Ricky Ravenhill drilled home a lot shot from the edge of the box to spark wild celebrations. So good was City’s form and so indifferent those around them, that a top three finish was in grasp. A stoppage time equaliser by Chesterfield all but ruled that out, and the following Tuesday promotion rivals Rotherham punctured the mood with a smash and grab 2-0 Valley Parade victory. Forget automatic promotion; let’s just get over the play off line.

The final regular home game saw Burton Albion rock up. They looked ordinary, with Calvin Zola in the centre lifeless. Hanson scored a scrappy goal before half time, Lee Bell was sent off for the Brewers early in the second. City held on comfortably and, due to results elsewhere, were guaranteed a play off spot with a game to spare (a game that, at Cheltenham, was used to rest players). There were fantastic celebrations at full time. Finally, after five previous years where we only once came close, City were part of the end of season shootout.

Burton were back for the play off semi finals, and in the first leg at Valley Parade looked a different side. They were far from ordinary, with Calvin Zola full of life. He scored two brilliant goals, Jacques Maghoma tore Stephen Darby to pieces. Half time and City went in 3-1 behind and in big trouble. The second half of the first leg was crucial. Burton failed to press home the fact that we were on the ropes and sat back on their lead. Thompson reduced the arrears with a quality strike from distance. We left the ground feeling disappointed but also relieved – Burton had let us off the hook. Whether we could turn it around at their ground was unclear, but there was certainly no way we would play as badly.

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Sunday May 5 was such a memorable day. The sun was shining brightly, the away end sold out, and as we drove up to Burton the pubs were packed out with City fans full of confidence. I really believed we would do it, although as soon as the game kicked off I was filled with terror and nerves about just what was at stake. This means everything.

We started the game slowly, but then grew into it and – 27 minutes in – a mistake put Wells in to give City the lead and level the tie. Then, five minutes into the second half, Hanson struck a thunderbolt from the edge of the box that arrowed into the bottom corner. Pandemonium. Burton made it 2-1 straightaway to level the tie at 4-4, but then in another instant Wells had made it 3-1 and caused another outbreak of jubilant scenes behind the goal that he scored.

What an afternoon Burton was. The impressive way that City came back, the sheer determination to get to the play off final and the brilliance of Wells and Hanson. “We’re proud of you” was sung at full time and the on-pitch celebrations seemed to go on another hour. Me and my group of friends kept the party going all night when we got back to Yorkshire.

We’re off to Wembley, again.

Meeting Peter Beagrie

Meeting Peter Beagrie

Saturday 18 May, 2013 began for me at 4am. I was riding down on a bus with the Skipton Bantams supporters club, which was departing at the ungodly hour of 5am. We were parked up on the edge of London before 9am, already merry from alcohol. A fry-up in a pub, a short underground journey to Wembley, and more beers in the Hilton Hotel next to the ground. I even bumped into City legend and Sky pundit Peter Beagrie. His former team mate and another Bantams legend, Jamie Lawrence, was sat on the row behind me inside the stadium.

Unlike the sheer I-can’t-believe-we-are-here-wow joy of the Swansea cup final, this visit to Wembley was filled with nerves, panic and fear. Game 64, and a whole season rested on this. It didn’t bear think about, losing twice here in one season, yet there was every chance that this was how it was going to end.

The players clearly did not agree. They were so determined, so focused, so ruthless. They blew Northampton away in the first half. Hanson – goal! Everyone around me was hugging everyone. McArdle – goal! This is unbelievable. Wells – goal! 3-0 and only 28 minutes played. We celebrated in stunned disbelief. No one thought this would be easy, but that’s just what it was proving.

Some people say the second half was an anti-climax, but I didn’t agree. The worry that Northampton might score kept me nervous, and then, as time ticked by and you realised that the improbable was now impossible, excitement grew. We have done it! Promotion, at last. Let’s have that final whistle blown, let’s begin the party, let’s ‘ave it!

The moment of Gary Jones and Ravenhill jointly lifting the trophy will stay with me forever. It was the near-perfect day, and to have finally escaped the bottom division meant the world to us supporters. I attended the Centenary Square open top bus ride a few days later to revel in more public celebrations.

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Supporting a football team like Bradford City carries one undisputable guarantee – the bad days will outnumber the good ones. It means that, when something truly special occurs, like a promotion, a cup run or a thrilling late victory, you savour the occasion that bit more because of what it means.

Perhaps as Manchester City fans celebrated clinching the title last weekend, in a much more reserved fashion than when they won it two years earlier, they would reflect that the thrill of success dulls when it occurs more and more often. It was notable that when Man City fans talked of the bad times, they still referred to their brief flirtation with third tier football in 1998/99, rather than anything since their first Premier League title win. It might have been fun to support Man City this season, but it was probably even better in 2011/12, when it was all so new to them.

1998/99 was also the year of Bradford City’s last promotion. In between that day and the start of the 2012/13 season there had been an even greater ratio of bad days to good ones. Only defeating Liverpool to avoid Premier League relegation in 2000 counted as success over that period. The League Cup miracle was the first subsequent occasion of hedonistic times in 12 years, and it was continued with promotion in May.

Of the two Wembley games, you’d have picked the play off final as the one to win. It all worked out perfectly, and for that we are left with a treasure chest of memories from 2012/13 that we will store lovingly until the day we die.

For all we had been through in the 12 years prior, May 18, 2013 truly was one of the greatest days in the club’s history.

A (magic) man for all ages

12 May

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By Jason McKeown

As Phil Parkinson drove into work last Friday, he would have been mentally preparing for one of the most difficult meetings of his managerial career. Telling any footballer you are effectively making them unemployed is never easy, but it’s part of the job and the accepted reality. This one is a bit different. This one is going to really, really hurt the player.

Parkinson would not have known that Friday 9 May 2014 also happened to be the 15th anniversary of Bradford City’s promotion to the Premier League, and the finest hour of the club’s greatest midfielder, Stuart McCall. But the unhappy coincidence would not be lost on others. It was some anniversary upon which to tell the club’s second-greatest modern day midfielder that his contract was not going to be renewed.

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As he rolled up at Valley Parade ahead of the summit meeting with his captain, perhaps Phil Parkinson allowed himself a few moments to reflect back on the circumstances and reasons for originally signing Gary Jones, two years prior. It was the close season, and the manager was tasked with revamping a playing squad that had endured back-to-back 18th-place finishes in the basement division. He was working through a list of targets that included Liverpool right back Stephen Darby, who had spent the previous season on loan at Rochdale.

Parkinson was watching DVDs of Darby’s performances at Spotland, when someone else increasingly caught his eye. A distinctive, bald midfielder, known to everyone in the lower leagues: Gary Jones. He was everywhere on the park, dominating the games that Parkinson was carefully studying. And, in a misguided development that summed up John Coleman’s doomed spell at Rochdale, Gary Jones had fallen out with his manager. He was available on a free transfer.

Parkinson picked up the phone and called his assistant Steve Parkin, a man who happened to know Gary Jones very, very well. “What are your thoughts on Gary Jones?” asked Parkinson. After a pause, Parkin replied, “The best thing I can tell you about Gary Jones is that the only time he is ever happy is at 5pm on Saturday when his team has won.”

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As Gary Jones drove to Valley Parade on Friday to meet with Phil Parkinson, he was evidently hoping that it would be to thrash out another contract to stay for another year. He was happy at City, that much was obvious to everyone. And though realistic about his age, he was nevertheless confident in his ability to continue playing a part in the club’s rise.

The workmanlike, all-action style of Gary Jones, which Phil Parkinson was so impressed by when watching those Rochdale DVDs two years ago, was simply who Gary Jones was. Born on the out-skirts of Liverpool, Jones was a youth trainee at Anfield but never came close to making it, instead finding a route into football through Caernarfon Town of the Welsh league. 18 at the time, he quickly impressed enough to earn a professional deal at Swansea City, who were then lumbering in the basement division.

Still only young, Jones was loaned out for experience at what must have then seemed an inconsequential destination – Rochdale. And so began the love affair that would result in him becoming the club’s record appearance holder. After making the deal permanent, a first spell at Spotland saw him play 138 times in three seasons. Firmly on his way to legendary status.

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Phil Parkinson himself was something of a one-club man, after spending 11 years at Reading in the centre of the Royals midfield. They say that a manager should know his own position best. Now in 2014 and faced with the decision over Jones’ future, he must have called upon his own playing experience to help him make such a difficult call.

It wasn’t that we supporters assumed Gary Jones would stay, but the smart money suggested he would remain a Bantam for another 12 months at least. He wouldn’t start another 46 games, but could still play an important role. Perhaps even becoming a member of the coaching staff.

After all, Gary Jones had ended the 2013/14 strongly. Most of his team mates did. The season had been a struggle at times, and March had seen some of its worst performances, but a promising ending had banished relegation fears and ensured a top half finish. Jones was excellent during the final few games, none more so than at Tranmere in what would prove to be his last game for City. By some distance the man of the match, he had dragged his team over the line to victory in typical influential fashion.

Just another day at the office for Gary Jones. You thought it could last forever, or at the very least that it wasn’t about to end.

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From the very first moment I saw Jones in a claret and amber shirt it was obvious that he possessed star quality. Guiseley, pre-season, and he ran the show. Gary Jones was the leader even though Ricky Ravenhill beside him was wearing the armband. Jones struck the opening goal of a 4-0 romp and ran past me as he celebrated. I had been unsure what to make of his summer arrival, but was immediately won over. A special player, who offered everything we needed.

He made a strong first impression on everyone connected with the club. So many new signings have needed time to ease their way into life at Valley Parade, but straight away Jones looked like he owned the place. Linking up with Nathan Doyle (Ravenhill on the sidelines injured), Jones was full of drive and energy, getting up and down the park. Every City fan you talked to in the opening weeks of the season steered the conversation towards Jones. He was our type of player, and we instantly took him to our hearts.

Gary Jones was never about scoring goals, yet his first for the club stuck in the mind. Morecambe, a Tuesday night in September, City are 2-1 up in the closing stages and trying to further strengthen their promotion push. A free kick on the edge of the box, Jones lifted it over the wall and into the corner. Cue massive celebrations for a massive three points. Jones raced to the front of the Kop, leapt up and punched the air in celebration. That goal meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to us.

Phil Parkinson’s office overlooks the Valley Parade pitch that Jones had dominated for two years. As Gary Jones arrived for the Friday meeting, a rich tapestry of personal memories of this stadium might have been at the forefront of his mind. He was desperate for the opportunity to collect another 12 months’ worth.

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Just six months out of Gary Jones’ 17-year professional career were spent playing above the bottom two divisions. A month after jumping ship from Rochdale to Barnsley, Parkin raided his old club to bolster the midfield by bringing Jones to Oakwell. The pair couldn’t stop the slide, however, as Barnsley were relegated from Division One (now the Championship).

That, from a divisional point of view, was as good as it got for Jones. You wonder why he didn’t play more at a higher level. How could such a reliable lower league footballer not have been considered someone who could do a job in the Championship? There just aren’t that many Gary Jones’ around.

Perhaps the Barnsley move dented his reputation. Now in the third tier, the Tykes were saddled down by debts and would go into administration, resulting in Parkin being sacked to save money. Without his mentor, Jones increasingly struggled for game time. He was loaned back to Rochdale, where Parkin would shortly afterwards return as manager. There were no surprises when the move was made permanent, but it left Gary Jones back in the bottom tier, where he looked destined to spend the rest of his days.

A lifetime in the bottom division. As Jones sat down to hear the news from Phil Parkinson last Friday, he might have reflected on how hard he had worked to get to the position of captaining a club like Bradford City to 11th in League One.

If Phil Parkinson had bad news for him, it was back to square one. Looking for employment, and most likely a return to the basement.

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“His legs have gone” became a familiar and tedious criticism during the early months of 2014. Everyone is an expert, but when such bland and meaningless statements are uttered, you roll your eyes and politely try to change the subject. Football is more complex than this.

Gary Jones’ legs had not gone. Week in week out, the 36-year-old was still a key part of the midfield. If he couldn’t run around the park, as was suggested, Phil Parkinson wouldn’t be picking him every game. It wasn’t as though there weren’t other options. Jones was in the team on merit. He was wrongly blamed by some for wider team failings.

Post-Christmas, City’s style of play suffered from a range of injuries. From Nahki Wells’ head being turned. From opposition being more wise to the gameplan. After being an attack-minded team early doors, City were no longer creating enough opportunities. Blame the centre of midfield if you want, but as the January transfer window opened and players came in and out, no attempt was made to replace Gary Jones.

And why would Phil Parkinson have even considered it? Jones enjoyed some of his more famous games for City during this period, chiefly the Sheffield United and Crewe matches, where his leadership and drive were so important. I remember the Preston home game with everyone around muttering pre-match about how Jones would no doubt undeservedly get the man of the match award again. Yet Jones was outstanding that evening, and when it was announced that he was indeed man of the match, even his growing critics applauded.

Gary Jones’ performances weren’t flawless around that time, but nobody could claim that theirs were either. When the chips were down and character and courage were needed, Jones demonstrated it in spades. When the team was rebuilt in January, Jones remained a key figurehead and looked a better player for the fine tuning taking place around him.

He wasn’t going to let the season go down the toilet, not on his watch.

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The League Cup miracle produced so many heroic stories, but behind the headlines devoted to the exploits of Garry Thompson, Rory McArdle, Carl McHugh and James Hanson, there was one constant supporting act that featured in the stand out moments.

Jones helped to set up every goal that City scored against Premier League opposition. His set pieces were outstanding, as he planted superb balls over to team mates, who will go down in history for turning those crosses into goals. Jones was also a cool customer in the shoot out victories over Wigan and Arsenal.

As City lit up national TV, Jones’ striking appearance was a topic of conversation. “I love your captain” people would say to me, as he looked every inch the working class hero that personified the narrative of a Division Four team’s incredible adventure. Particularly, when in the midst of the Villa Park celebrations, he spotted first leg mascot and nine-year-old cancer survivor, Jake Turton in the away end and planted a kiss on his head. His father, Andy, was a survivor of the Valley Parade fire. The photographers caught the head kiss, and the most iconic moment of the League Cup adventure was assured.

Gary Jones was vital in those games. His lead-by-example, determined style of play had seeped into his team-mates, who matched his never-say-die attitude and tireless work rate. If the old man of the team is going to cover every blade of grass, everyone else had better do the same, too. Gary Jones’ experience was invaluable in getting City to Wembley, in getting past all those illustrious teams.

A lifetime as a lower league player, you wondered if Jones might have been daunted to play against some of the most famous footballers in the land. Yet he took it all in his stride, even finding time to truly put Arsenal in their place by declaring Torquay United had given City a tougher game than the Gunners.

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The day before Gary Jones and his team mates were dancing around Villa Park, Rochdale had sacked John Coleman. The Dale were stuttering in mid-table of League Two, and envious eyes were cast towards Bradford City and the incredible role that Gary Jones was playing. Coleman and his assistant Jimmy Bell were said to have had a bust up with Jones the season before, and they went into 2012/13 believing they no longer needed the veteran.

Yet Gary Jones was Mr. Rochdale. Over 530 appearances during two spells at Spotland that totalled 12 years. In 2010 he became only the second Rochdale captain in their history to lead the club to promotion, with a second place finish in League Two. Gary Jones excelled in League One the year after, netting 18 goals and finishing the club’s top scorer in 2010/11.

This was the first half of a golden period for the ageing Gary Jones. 2009-2014 were five years of amazing personal success – with that uncomfortable Coleman/Bell bump midway through. What a mistake it would prove for Coleman. Gary Jones was not some relic of the past, but the future hero of Valley Parade. How Dale – and Coleman – could have done with him in 2012/13. But he was elsewhere, performing heroics and having the time of his life.

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The pinnacle moment of Gary Jones’ playing career was promotion for Bradford City at Wembley in May 2014. He described it as the happiest moment of his life, beyond the birth of his children. Mr. Rochdale was now Mr. Bradford. He had become the first Bantams captain in 15 years to lead the club to promotion. The first captain, in fact, since Stuart McCall.

We loved him, how we loved him. The Bradford public hero-worshipped Gary Jones. Everywhere we went during 2012/13, his name was sung. In pubs before and after games, on concourses, and on the terraces. “He’s magic, ya know”. And we truly believed that he was.

No one can ever touch Stuart McCall in the eyes of most Bradford City fans, but Gary Jones runs him close. His two seasons at Valley Parade saw unprecedented success and highly commendable progress. The club that he joined two years ago is transformed. We can, this summer, look forwards from a position of great strength, but we would never have got here without Gary Jones.

He has been such a joy to watch. Such an inspiration to everyone connected with the club.

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Like all managers, Phil Parkinson should know his own position best. Gary Jones was his representative on the pitch, playing the game in the same wholehearted manner that Reading fans once loved Phil Parkinson for. Like all managers, Phil Parkinson should know his own position best – and he will also know just what will be going through Gary Jones’ mind as his career winds down.

Could Gary Jones have accepted the role of bit-part player at City next season? Would he have happily sat on the sidelines, playing 20 or so games, largely coming off the bench? If City were struggling for a result and he was not seen as the solution by Phil Parkinson, could Gary Jones have coped with that reality, or would his desperation to be more influential cause him to become a bad influence?

Which is not to suggest that Jones would ever be a disruptive character, but whole-hearted players of his ilk don’t cope too well at being handed half-hearted roles. Even Stuart McCall found it difficult and had clashes with managers such as Craig Brown, as he was phased out. Jim Jefferies was unbelievably stupid to once tell Stuart “your legs have gone”, but Stuart didn’t need to react so poorly to it.

Perhaps Jones deserves better than to spend his final couple of years on the sidelines; there is plenty of time for the coaching stuff, he still has a hell of a lot to offer on the field. If Parkinson doesn’t see Jones as a first team regular next season, maybe it is fairer on the player to offer him a clean break now. There will be a long queue of clubs willing to sign him this summer, clubs who will be able to provide the first team assurances that Parkinson clearly cannot.

Yet still, no one who has shared in the pride of watching Gary Jones play for Bradford City can feel anything but sadness to see him depart like this. The head might rule that it is for the best, but the heart feels the pain that Jones must now be experiencing. The numerous great memories we have of watching Jones reminds you what a huge loss he will be. The outpouring of devastation expressed by so many since Friday illustrates just how much he meant to people. Wherever he ends up, I’m rooting for him.

The heart of the 2012/13 team has just been ripped out. Clearly, Phil Parkinson is going to have to build a new side this summer. But whoever comes in and however they fare, Valley Parade won’t feel the same without the sight of magic man in the number 18 shirt.

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That’s character

8 May

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By Jason McKeown

Not too many players released by Bradford City over the past decade got to leave with their head held high; but as Garry Thompson begins the search for a new club, he deserves to reflect on his two years at Valley Parade with great pride.

It’s not just about those headline-grabbing moments – the Arsenal goal and all that – Thompson played a key role in changing the culture of the club. He in many ways is the embodiment of what Phil Parkinson has attempted to do over the past few years in terms of the players he has brought in. A manager who lists the number one player requirement as being ‘character’ recruited one of the biggest in Thompson.

Consider his career prior to joining the Bantams in the summer of 2012, and there was little to us regular supporters that suggested Thompson would be any different to a number of other players brought in, over the years, who subsequently failed. He was, like many of these others, older than seemed ideal, and had endured a difficult couple of years that were blighted by injury. Scunthorpe United fans weren’t exactly complementary towards him either.

Superficial damaging, which left you fearing it would result in the same old story.

Perhaps, even now, Parkinson doesn’t get enough credit for his 2012 recruitment drive. There is no question that every single player he signed that summer played their part in the 64-game marathon; but behind the fact that many were clearly considered good ‘characters’, the majority brought with them a very specific type of experience that would ultimately stand the club in good stead.

Stephen Darby had been part of a play off semi final on loan at Swindon and even scored in a semi final shootout against Parkinson’s Charlton. James Meredith had been to Wembley twice in a season, promoted with York City in the second of those visits. Gary Jones and Rory McArdle had also played at the national stadium for Rochdale (beaten 3-2 by Stockport in 2008 play off final), and Jones remained at Spotland to lead them to automatic promotion two years later. Nathan Doyle had scored in a play off semi final for Hull as they climbed into the Premier League. Alan Connell had been Swindon’s top scorer in their 2011/12 League Two title victory.

That is a heck of a lot of experience of the big occasions; of players who had first-hand knowledge of just what it took to be successful. And that counted in bucket loads throughout the 64-marathon. The character came to the fore during that late and successful play off charge, and in turning around the Burton semi final tie that City appeared to have blown. Most of the 2012 summer signings had played in big promotion games before and delivered. For City, they would do so again in stunning fashion.

Thompson himself could draw on experience of past achievements. At Morecambe, he played and scored in the play off final victory that took the Shrimpers into the Football League. After first catching the eye of the Bantams, when he almost single-handedly destroyed Stuart McCall’s side in October 2007, Thompson rejected the chance to move to West Yorkshire in favour of playing higher up the league ladder with Scunthorpe. He again played a significant part in a promotion, featuring in the League One play off final victory at Wembley that took the Iron to the Championship. As Parkinson brought him to Valley Parade in 2012, all that was missing from his CV was the challenge of coping with playing for a large, demanding crowd.

Yet it was here, rather than any of his more celebrated Bantams contributions, where Thompson truly proved his mettle. He began life at City very slowly, and for the first few months was unloved by his new supporters. “Parkinson’s summer signings were good, apart from Thompson” was a familiar criticism around that time. He had muttered something about preferring to play as a striker rather than winger, but was hardly going to get such an opportunity ahead of James Hanson and Nahki Wells. His initial games on the right flank suggested a lack of commitment, or interest. Burton away, in late October, a low point, after his lazy clearance cost 10-men City a share of the points. You wondered how much patience Parkinson would afford him.

The turning point was Bristol Rovers in November. A rain-soaked afternoon saw City 2-1 down at half time, and Thompson in particular was woeful. As we dodged the rain drops on the uncovered Memorial Stadium terrace during the interval, we speculated that it might prove the beginning of the end to Thompson’s City career – he must surely be subbed. Instead of getting the hook, Thompson remained on the pitch for the second half, but had clearly had a rollicking from his manager. Thompson looked a different player, full of energy, determination and creativity. He set up one of the three City equalising goals and generally ran his heart out. From that afternoon onwards, Thompson progressed considerably.

To turn around such an unpromising start to the season – ending it with many arguing he was the club’s best player, post-Christmas – deserves a huge amount of credit. Over the years, we have seen so many players start badly and never recover. The Valley Parade crowd is notoriously quick to make up its mind and stubborn in changing it back. Thompson dug in, as the grumbles from the stands rained down on him, demonstrating true character to find his form and win people over.

Especially when, one cold December evening, he earned his place in Bradford City folklore.

Close your eyes and I bet you can still picture it. Jones’ free kick, Will Atkinson’s flick on and there at the backpost was Garry Thompson: a difficult shooting opportunity was taken with aplomb. After the ball hit the back of the net, Valley Parade went crazy. Thompson’s goal against Arsenal will be forever remembered, and firmly provided the player with the lift off to grow in stature and become one of the side’s key men.

It was the second of nine goals that Thompson netted in 2012/13. Five of the others came after the first trip to Wembley, amongst that successful late bid for promotion. They were important goal contributions too – the second clinching goal at York a week after the Swansea final; an early headed winner against Wycombe that began the late season rally of victories; and another header at Torquay, on Easter Monday, where City won and every other result went their way.

Thompson was truly flying during this period. He didn’t offer the direct pace of Kyel Reid on the opposite flank, but his skill on the ball and link up play with those around him led to numerous goalscoring opportunities. He and Stephen Darby combined with increasing effectiveness, whilst Hanson benefited from Thompson’s physical presence that meant opposition defenders couldn’t solely focus on stopping the supply to the former Guiseley man.

Most vital of all was Thompson’s play off semi final strike against Burton Albion, which turned around a tie that had fallen out of City’s grasp. 3-1 down at home in the first leg, Thompson cut inside, ran past a defender and struck a powerful shot that deflected off Jones and into the top corner. That goal – and Wells’ first at the Pirelli in the second leg – were arguably more vital than the three City scored at Wembley in the final. Had City trooped off Valley Parade defeated 3-1, it would have been almost impossible to come back in the second leg. That goal changed the mood in both camps, prompting fear in Burton and belief in City. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the 64-marathon.

Thompson is not the only 2012/13 promotion winner who failed to hit the same heights this season, but probably stood out more than others as being on borrowed time. His performances during the first half of the season were generally average, and as the team’s form dipped there was a growing sense that he needed competition on the right flank.

It was too simplistic to put his disappointing form down to age; for me it seemed as though he had experienced a dip in confidence. But even if he was producing 6 out of 10 performances, his commitment never waived. He might have looked a little scared of the ball, but he never hid away from receiving it. And every now and then, he would produce an exceptional cross or pass that would remind you of his quality.

That character, again. You could criticise Thompson’s performances – many people did – but no one could accuse him of ducking responsibility. And even when he faded into the background after January and became a regular substitute, he still contributed positively in the games he was introduced into. How nice it was that he got the happy ending of a winning goal on his final Valley Parade outing.

Thompson is a shining example, one that those who follow him in playing for Bradford City would do well to follow. It not as an easy club to play for, where expectations so often exceed reality; and there is no hiding place. Yet Thompson won the doubters over, following a difficult start, through his own determination.

If future Bradford City signings struggle to adapt to life at Valley Parade, Parkinson could do a lot worse than sitting them down and playing the video of Thompson’s goal against Arsenal, before telling them the story of how the veteran overcame his own early struggles by calling upon his strength of character.

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.

 

League Cup miracle one year on: Swansea City

24 Feb

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By Jason McKeown

It is one year ago today since Bradford City took part in only the second – and in all likelihood the last – major cup final in its history. 33,000 Bradfordonians filled one half of the vast Wembley bowl, taking part in an occasion that none of us would ever believe we would be invited to.

Bradford City – our Bradford City. Slumped at the time in 12th position of English football’s fourth division. Taking on the might of Premier League Swansea and looking for another top flight scalp. One game away from qualifying to play in the Europa League. 90 minutes away from lifting a major trophy. It is wonderful to look back and reflect upon how excited and proud we all felt as the teams marched out onto the pitch. That even though we strongly suspected we were going to be defeated, there was nevertheless a glimmer of hope that our name was on that cup.

It wasn’t just about that wintry February afternoon in the capital, but the whole build-up to the big match which was like nothing we had ever experienced before. When City defeated Wigan in the last 16, the October before, the national media mentioned us only in passing, behind Arsenal’s remarkable 7-5 victory over Reading. Come December when the Bantams and Gunners met, the incredible penalty shootout victory over Arsene Wenger’s men sent shockwaves around the football world. Then came Aston Villa and the even bigger achievement of defeating Premier League opposition over two legs. The Villa Park celebrations eventually subsided, but the international spotlight would not be dimmed.

There were four-and-a-half weeks in-between that barmy night in Birmingham and walking down Wembley Way, and being a Bradford City supporter had this centre-of-the-universe feel. The media went to town covering every angle – not only looking at the football club, but the city of Bradford itself. The week before the game was especially memorable, as Sky Sports News featured City heavily each day, BBC Radio 5Live hosted a special supporters forum at Valley Parade and on the Friday evening you could watch back-to-back TV programmes devoted to the Bantams.

When earlier that day the players set off from Bradford’s Cedar Court Hotel down South, the moment was captured live on Sky Sports News. It must have been thrilling for the players, many of whom had never received such media attention. There was a wonderful story to tell about City’s cup final opponents, Swansea, but they were completely overshadowed by the exploits of the fourth tier side.

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My main memories of that period are how hectic it all was. We went to town with our Width of a Post coverage, which required a lot of planning and hard work from many different people. We received numerous emails from supporters pleading for help getting a ticket to the game and tried to help those who we could. We assisted TV and magazine researchers by providing background information on the club which helped them to shape their stories. We helped Bantams Banter get permission to broadcast at Wembley.

And like other City sites and fan groups, we received our own media requests. I spent one afternoon at Valley Parade meeting BBC Yorkshire’s Paul Hudson (a top bloke) for a documentary, appeared on college radio in the USA, wrote an article for the When Saturday Comes website, contributed to a special League Cup magazine and Mahesh Johal was interviewed for New Statesman magazine. Proudest of all, on a personal level, was being interviewed on BBC Two’s Newsnight, with the caption ‘widthofapost.com’ appearing on national TV.

It was hard to take in all of the attention bestowed on Bradford City. Our Bradford City. You tried to read as many newspapers articles as possible, watch all the TV specials and listen to bits on the radio, but it was all very wonderfully overwhelming. I was regularly stopped in the office by people wanting to chat about City (“Are you going to the game Jason?” Stupid question) and it was strangely enjoyable to listen to people who three months ago knew nothing about the club share their opinions on your players.

“You’re going to win” a completely trollied Geordie told us on the train journey from Kings Cross back to our hotel, the night before the match. That expert judgement will do me.

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Game day brought panic and terror. I barely slept a wink the night before, as I had become so nervous about it all. Knowing that the rest of the world was watching our Bradford City made you proud, but also apprehensive. What if we seriously embarrass ourselves? What can we realistically expect from our team today?

The morning saw us share a champagne breakfast with Archie Christie and then spend a few hours in the Hilton Hotel by Wembley stadium, supping drinks in the same room as several Bradford City directors. You tried to enjoy it all, but it was difficult to focus on anything beyond those fears about the game. I loved walking up and down Wembley Way, and we set foot inside the stadium at around 3.20pm. The atmosphere was already incredible. When, with 10 minutes to go, Rudimental’s ‘Feel the Love’ came over the PA system and everyone waved their flags frantically, I unexpectedly burst into tears. The nerves giving way to pure happiness.

It seems needlessly painful to go over the game, but equally it has long haunted me. It’s not that I thought we would win, but I expected far better than for us to wait until the 86th minute to have a shot on goal (and a rubbish shot at that). I’ve reflected back so many times on what Phil Parkinson might have done differently and how we could have given Swansea a better game, but there really was nothing that we could do.

Swansea were simply outstanding.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t one of those supporters who could shrug it off and merely be happy with the non-stop chanting for the last 25 minutes. I joined in of course, and I felt proud of the way we supporters responded to such adversity. But for all the times in the build up that I told myself we had no chance of winning, part of you still clung onto the hope. Even the most pessimistic amongst us wanted to win the game. It was a cup final, something we will probably never experience again in our lifetimes. And so it was devastating to watch that impossible dream be ripped up in front of our eyes in such clinical, brutal fashion.

It hurt. A hell of a lot. Rationale and reason simply go out the window at moments such as Matt Duke’s red card. I stayed at full time and applauded our players – they deserved it no matter what had happened on the pitch. I cheered them up the steps to collect their losers medals and applauded Ashley Williams as he lifted the trophy. Then we walked out of the stadium and into the London night, feeling empty.

The bubble popped so quickly; and to go from all the giddy excitement of the build up, straight to feeling crushed, was difficult to take. I remember thousands of us City fans walking back to the train station in near silence. The party was just getting starting inside the stadium behind us, but we had been locked out.

The national media dropped us like a stone. In the post-game coverage they focused solely on Swansea’s brilliance – good on them, they deserved it – and we went back to life in League Two, with the most unglamorous fixture possible to look forward to in three days time: Dagenham & Redbridge.

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Being honest, it took me weeks to get over the cup final defeat. I shared in the pride of how we supporters stuck with the players and loved the amount of praise that came our way for it; but for a four-month period it seemed that the League Cup miracle had completely dominated our lives. To have all those glorious moments come to end in such miserable fashion was unbefitting. Getting back to reality was hard. The struggles of the players over the subsequent weeks suggested they felt the same way, too.

As we look back a year on, the pain has long since faded and the return to Wembley for the play off final three months later exorcised the demons. It was our turn to dominate the opposition to the point they didn’t have a shot on goal until the final minute; it was our turn to lift a piece of silverware in the royal box and to dance around Wembley. And if, a year ago, we’d have been asked to pick which of the two Wembley games we’d prefer to win, I dare say 99.9% of City fans would have voted with me in choosing the play off final.

I’ve watched the League Cup Final back on my Sky box several times. The heartache dulled, I just enjoy the fact we were part of such a wonderful occasion. Proud of such an incredible cup run, one that we will never experience again. Relieved that the story was to have a happy ending in the shape of League Two promotion.

One year ago today was one of the proudest days of my life. It’s just a shame that the day didn’t end at 4.01pm.

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Read our look back on the League Cup miracle

Aston Villa 2 Bradford City 1

Bradford City 3 Aston Villa 1

Bradford City 1 Arsenal 1 (City win 3-2 on pens)

Wigan Athletic 0 Bradford City 0 (City win 4-2 on pens) 

Bradford City 3 Burton Albion 2

The early rounds

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