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.