By Alex Scott
The strategy employed by Phil Parkinson during the past year has undoubtedly been a triumph. We can’t avoid analysing it through the lens of the outcome, as fantastic as that has been. I could write with some attempted rational objectivity here, divorcing the end from the means, picking apart at every thread of luck and happenstance, but there’s no point really. Nor would it be any fun as an exercise. Objectivity is overrated anyway.
The aim was to get out of the division. City finished 18th last season and had a lot of hold-overs under contract. After five years in the doldrums, there was a limited budget available, and Parkinson somehow had to transform one of the worst sides in the country for the last few years into something successful. Whilst the plaudits have come from far and wide for the City manager, we really shouldn’t lose sight of how bad the team were, and how bad the team has been for a prolonged period. To go from where they were to where they are now is really in the realm of miracle work.
Last summer, after the tortuous relegation fight was concluded, Parkinson attempted to tear up the script. Forty players featured for City last year. Four-zero. No more. This year he was going to build up a core of about 16 players who would feature throughout the season, and then support them with a host of cheaper, younger players who could fill in where necessary, and propagate the enthusiastic, determined culture he was attempting to develop. Gary Jones has and is the obvious beacon for the club, the tone-setter. But as much as the impact has been top-down, the recruitment of young players like Carl McHugh, Will Atkinson and Blair Turgott as complementary players has helped drive forward the momentum from beneath.
It has been picked up elsewhere many times, but it bears emphasising, the raising of the bar in terms of performance on the field was only a small part of what was needed for this season to be a success. The more important component in need of change was the culture. There needed to be a wholesale shift in mind-set, and not just in the players. We have seen this attempted year after year after year. Each new manager has stressed its importance, and all have failed and become old managers. We were a losing team. Before and after. We underwhelmed and we lost. That was our identity.
It wasn’t just a matter of changing the players. The club has done that countless times. The experienced old heads were recruited; the next year brought a youth movement. The loanees were the answer; they then were anathema. We’ve had the rah-rah leaders, the leaders by example, the highly paid and the highly sought after; none have managed to alleviate the clouds encircling the Valley. Each successive saviour increased the velocity of the spiral. But the gyroscope didn’t spin forever.
It wasn’t just about the players. Of course their talent helped, and having a 26-goal a season striker makes a lot of ills disappear. The players made the team a force to be reckoned with, but that force was 12 points off the play offs in the middle of March. Good players couldn’t make this team great, for that they needed great men, and that is exactly what Parkinson unearthed.
Only a truly special collection of men could have bridged that gap. Forget all the rest for a second, and just look back at that gap. 12 points and on the back of a 4-1 doing at the hands of the team they were chasing. They were dead. They had absolutely no business making the play offs. None. The mentality of the squad is what made them great. They never, ever know when they are beaten.
It has been a running theme all season long. The collective determination and enthusiasm wouldn’t let them fall. The adversity the squad had to power through this season would have defeated lesser men, but this group would not be denied. Exeter’s implosion played a role, of course it did. But the surging City outfit undoubtedly contributed to the Grecian panic, and you feel if it wasn’t Exeter it would have been someone else. The collective will of the squad made the outcome feel like a fait accompli.
Each year has seen a change in philosophy, this year was no exception. Last year’s mindless hoarding was this year’s feng shui. There was consideration, actual thought (!) into strategy, into how the squad was built. The unending vacillations between the ends of the spectrum paints a picture of a strategic arm which didn’t know the correct answer, and of course, another failure this year would have led to another torn script on the floor, and a new cast up on stage. Perhaps they have learnt their lessons, or perhaps now is one of those times in the day that they are right, who knows? I can want to believe the former. But the majority of the evidence and my critical mind lean toward the alternative.
As this year has shown, in the same way each new manager has proclaimed in the past, there was a club and a fan base within desperate for anything to cling on to. Parkinson’s strategy of a smaller, more settled squad of enthusiastic, determined players has given fans that body to live through.
Financially, they overspent. By, like… a lot. Estimates place it around a 50% overspend on wage budget, £600,000 over their allotted £1.2m. For comparison here, Yeovil Town were promoted into the Championship with an annual wage budget under £1m. So it’s not like the club were impoverished, or shy. Nor should they be with a fan base (revenue base) as strong as ours. Obviously this was a gamble worth making. Look at the outcome, how could I even present an argument that it wasn’t? The idea of ‘worth’ isn’t the same as ‘morally acceptable’ (those in uproar over Crawley’s overspend last year lost their moral high ground – only in that aspect, mind), but who made any of us the arbiter anyway? And, fundamentally, it isn’t our money anyhow.
But even at the time, from Phil Parkinson’s perspective, the gamble was absolutely worth taking. If he could get the team out of the gates quickly, in and about the promotion places come the winter and then few players amongst the small squad went down, what were the board going to do, refuse him funds for a loan player? With promotion on the line? They were so desperate for success, everyone was. He knew it, everyone knew it. He backed himself to pull it off, and we are lucky that he is even better than he thinks he is.
The question which dominated the season, (but is irrelevant now), was “where would they be without the cup run?” Not to waste too much time on navel-gazing whatiffery, but imagine if Yoann Arquin scored that open goal eighty nine minutes into the season, knocking the boys out of the League Cup in the process? City would have gone up automatically is the common, and the happy, response. It does however ignore the necessity of those cup-raised funds to the solvency of the club in January, and the impact that money’s absence would have had on the status of the club’s 26-goal centre forward upon whom they were utterly dependent.
If there is anything in football which can be classed as a panacea, an unfathomably pacey goal scorer up top is it. And that wasn’t news to the City manager who built his history making squad around a strong defensive unit that was insulated by their midfield, and a forward line that could create goals out of not much.
Having a player like Nahki Wells in the side afforded the squad to be more withdrawn in structure, knowing the goals would come anyway. The fact they restricted their opposition to by far the fewest chances shouldn’t come as a surprise. Without Wells the side would (and did) crumble. Either the goals would dry up, or Parkinson would have had to build a squad that would inherently carry more goals in it than this version.
Nahki Wells was the primary reason why this squad was good, but what’s more he embodied everything that made them great. It was less what he was, and more who he was.
The moment, the decision which has averted the spiral and turned this team from good to great has been the acknowledgement that you need more than talent and theory. For all his admirable pragmatism and consideration and jumpers, Phil Parkinson’s acknowledgement of the intangible is what has made him special. We needed more than great players to become great again.
You can’t attempt to break every decision down to the financial bottom line or cold-hearted logic. Before, and especially after, the central defence went down I thought (and said) that the squad was probably too small, they had invested too much in too few, and despite a great starting eleven able to get themselves up for one-off games, they could not keep it together for the entire season.
It’s (yet another) example of how little we… I… know from the outside, and how any objective attempts at second guessing must always be accompanied by a disclaimer: they know more than we do.
The spirit has been almost the most important thing about this season. Sure they’ve played well; there are a lot of good players in this squad, but the thing which has carried them through this arduous, glorious season is the spirit. As a chronic over-thinker, I’m always drawn to things that make me completely rethink my stance on a topic. As a result of my flawed mind, I always take safety in the idea that you can distil a lot of life down into an understandable logic stream. Looking at things rationally always makes things clearer. I enjoy looking through data and statistics; the ‘Moneyball’ revolution in American sports probably plays a huge part in why I like them so much.
But this team, this year, has changed how I think, and it essentially boils down to one decision. Phil Parkinson appears a very considered man with a great mind (and fashion sense), and a lot of that innovative thought and preparation is apparent in how this squad was built. As much as that work, that thought, laid the foundations of this season, what pushed them over the top was something else, something less tangible, something less safe for people like me.
The spirit of the team, the culture, the “type” of people involved has turned a good team into a great team, and this has been defined by Gary Jones. I was a vocal and adamant critic of the decision to (essentially) let Dave Syers go and replace him with a 35-year old midfielder whose own team was willing to let him go. I’m not sure in my life I have been as wrong, and proved as wrong as fast as I have been in this case. I can (and may) pipe back in a couple of years when (if?) Jones retires, and Syers is entering his peak in the Championship somewhere, but it will be, and will appear, half-hearted. Jones is what lifted this team from competence to greatness, and even if he never plays another game, he will go down as a club hero.
It doesn’t follow the cold-hearted logic, but sometimes you need to make a leap of faith. Being objective may be overrated. I could say that going into next season in League One that I’d like another keeper, or that the team needs a different type of centre forward instead of James Hanson to maximise their chances of success. But those things would make me sad, and even though they may objectively make the team better, I don’t care about objectivity.
I want these guys back. I want them all back. I don’t care if it makes us slightly less effective because this team has something else, something beyond reason. They are truly special, and the thing that makes them special isn’t what they are, it’s who they are.
This spirit to which I keep referring has been nurtured by not just the nature of the members of the squad, but the size of it. Breaking away from years of overindulgence, Parkinson went for quality over quantity, and not only increasing the talent level of the starting eleven, but engendering a spirit not seen among larger, more disparate groups. Never being a footballer of any consequence, this is an aspect of the decision making I completely oversaw in my attempted analysis throughout the year.
The fact the squad is smaller, with a lot of the “right type” of people in it meant that it was a lot easier to build up the “all-in-this-together” culture which has embodied the squad. I noted that the mounting injury list and subsequent drop off in form was merely a function of this quality over quantity strategy. Which it was. But despite the short term struggles which were alleviated by loan players and squad members, it was the reason everything worked out later on.
There was a versatility to the squad in body and mind, a sacrificial nature to the play which represented all the squads we wanted to support, and all the teams we wanted to be a part of. When we play, we want to play in a squad like this. They all fought for each other. However they got where they needed to get, they would not be denied. From the first day to the last they barely stopped running. Each celebration was met by a giddy hoard of claret and amber.
Our reductive stereotype shorthands dictate that for a player like James Hanson, a hard-grafting local lad, this isn’t a surprising characteristic. But the same can’t be said for a player like Nahki Wells. He did not have to care as much as he did. Work as hard as he did. Run down as many dead chases to the corner flag. But he cared. Something about him and about the squad in general, made them all care in a way none of their recent ancestors have been able to, or at least convey.
Alan Connell is another who has every right to be frustrated, but has never once showed it. It’s amazing.
What Parkinson got out of these players is just an embodiment of everything he has achieved this year. Not only a potential-fulfilling level of competence, but something more, something outside of that, something beyond that. For the first time since maybe the late eighties, there is something happening. There is a something there which means something beyond the fact they are quite good at football. They are greater than the sum of their parts, which is a novelty for a City team in itself, but they do it in a way to make you want them to succeed. Not the team, that’s a given, but them, these specific people. Those views over City Park the other week weren’t just a community getting behind a winning team. There was so much more involved.
Beyond than getting better on the field next season, they need to keep this going. Whatever this is. They need to keep the momentum going. I’m not even sure how much the footballing talents matter at this point or on this scale, this group have never looked like they will be denied.
I’ve fought all the way through this piece against a metaphor with science and religion. Not because it isn’t good, but because this situation is more than just two ends of spectrum. The pragmatism, the thought is still there in the design of the club, the design of the squad, the strategy employed. But Parkinson managed to develop something beyond that, something special, something that harnessed the power of both. This strategy was as dependent on belief as any. It is hard to question him. It is hard not to have faith in him.
For the first time in almost 15 years, the club has momentum, we have momentum. We have something to build upon. We have something to build upon, and we have the perfect man drawing the blueprints. Optimism abounds. More of the same.