Tag Archives: Phil Parkinson

Phil Parkinson’s building blocks remain in place for his new-look team

19 Aug
Image by Ritchie Jervis

Image by Ritchie Jervis

Crawley Town vs Bradford City preview

@Broadfield Stadium on Tuesday 19 August, 2014

By James Storrie

Bradford City travel to hosts Crawley Town on Tuesday night and will be looking to improve on their poor record at the Broadfield Stadium.

After a summer of mass change and rebuilding, it has been a welcome relief to see the Bantams take positive strides forward, a week into the new campaign. This summer was quite an unusual one for both the club and the fans, one that we have not really seen since Phil Parkinson took over the reins from Peter Jackson/Colin Cooper. That ill-fated summer of 2011, where Jackson spent his time chasing unrealistic targets, shared small similarities with what Parkinson has gone through recently in terms of having a threadbare squad as the season kicked off. Yet the differences between the two summer proved vast from kick off, as the class of 2014 have put in three strong performances in a week.

Another impressive quality to go with Parkinson’s overall management of the club is just how little the fans learn of the incomings to the football club. The papers and message boards have scarcely contained a rumour concerning the football club all summer, and it is due to this quiet approach that the club have secured the likes of Billy Clarke, Gary Liddle and Alan Sheehan. The recruitment drive has not gone altogether swimmingly, however, and it is obvious that Parkinson hasn’t landed his first choice targets in certain areas and has had to settle for other names further down his list.

This is one of the frustrating scenarios that all managers face up and down the country and respective leagues, and it has been impressive how Parkinson has started building the foundations of a strong side even with the well-publicised budgetary constraints that shackled some of his recruitment plans.

There are certain qualities that come from the manager that he has installed in all three of his sides that he has created whilst at the club. These, without dismissing the other qualities that he has brought to the party, are a strong ethos in respect of hard work, discipline and organisation. This may sound like the obvious, but it’s the heartbeat and lifeblood of every good team. How many times do you see a Phil Parkinson side lose their cool? Run off their shape? Or become unprofessional when losing and concede heavily when chasing a game?

This stems from good coaching from Parkinson and his wider team, and it’s these qualities that have been evident in the opening three games. There are obvious weaknesses that are a concern, and there is clear room for improvement. However, there are a lot of positive aspects to take forward into the season also. A lot of the summer was spent highlighting the new diamond formation the club would start the season with, and it has enjoyed mixed results so far.

One of the early problems with the diamond has proven to be the lack of protection it offers to the full backs and, if the opposition quickly switches play, then it can lead to Stephen Darby and Sheehan/Meredith being exposed to a two on one from the opposition full back and winger. This was evidenced particularly for Coventry’s second equaliser last week. One of the various more positive aspects has been the emergence of Jason Kennedy and Mark Yeates, who have both flourished so far with the greater flexibility and potential to roam that the system offers the midfielders.

The solidarity that Parkinson instialls in his team will be crucial in the upcoming months. It is clear that despite the nice football and interchanging of positions, City remain unlikely to be free-scoring this season. On the other hand, with two clean sheets and only one goal from open play conceded, it is hoped that the impressive defence we possess will help us to edge close encounters in what is set to be a very even and closely-contested division.

The need to stay strong on a cold Tuesday night is something Parkinson spoke about last week before Morecambe and, with Crawley unbeaten and yet to concede a goal, the Bantams resolve will be tested to the hilt.

Crawley have had a summer much like the Bantams with a sea of outgoings and incomings. They have made some notable signings. Two of which will be particularly of interest to City fans, one being experienced former trialist Brian Jensen and loanee Ryan Dickson. Izale McLeod is another to have joined and is a forward who always scores goals at this level.

It is likely that the Bantams will shuffle the proverbial pack for the game after three matches in a week coming so soon into the season. It is hard to foresee many changes in defence, bar the returning  Sheehan, however. In midfield the likes of Matty Dolan, Filipe Morais and Mo Shariff could all win starting spots in an area Steve Parkin described as ‘leggy’ after the weekends exhaustions in the draw with Walsall. It is likely that James Hanson will be partnered by eighteen year old Mason Bennett in attack again as the Derby youngster looks to get up to speed; with the returning Aaron McLean waiting in the wings to continue in his quest for match fitness.

Maintaining momentum as City travel to Walsall

15 Aug

20140418_195726

Walsall vs Bradford City preview

@Bescot Stadium on Saturday 16th August, 2014

 

By Katie Whyatt

Wednesday night’s Capital One draw threw up some interesting ties, but the highlight was undoubtedly Bradford City’s home clash with Leeds United. The game will mark the first time the two sides have met at Valley Parade for 14 years: back in 2000, Stan Collymore and Mark Viduka offered the goals as the spoils were shared.

Undoubtedly, City have always sought to match Leeds, but the current quality within the Bantams’ ranks, coupled with the malaise and uncertainty that has categorised the Whites’ tumultuous past year, means the divisional gulf is just a mere irrelevance. This tie promises to be one of the most closely fought and hotly fuelled of the entire season. For the first time in a long time, Leeds will stand before a Bradford team that will truly, truly grasp what this rivalry means to us. You close your eyes now and the silhouettes form in your mind’s eye: Jason Kennedy and Billy Knott swerving through the centre of the park; Mark Yeates dancing at the tip of the diamond; Sheehan and Darby doggedly fortifying the back line; Rory McArdle and Andrew Davies valiantly standing as the final bastions.

But that’s one for the future. Width of A Post will offer bumper coverage of the game when the time comes, but the focus now, both among the fans and within the club, rightfully turns to more imminent challenges. With three games to go before United’s team bus rumbles down Midland Road, the onus is on the team to make sure they enter that mouth-watering tie with the league position bolstered further and a hat-trick of promising performances locked under their belts. On the back of the Coventry win, it would be too costly to not maintain that momentum. To echo the doomed words of Steven Gerrard, this must not slip now. We go to Walsall exactly the same.

That said, with Sky snatching the TV rights for the derby, a much needed cash windfall, thought to be £100,000, suddenly comes into the picture. It’s difficult to say at this stage whether that money will go straight into the playing pot or instead towards recuperating this year’s overspend, but the noises from Parkinson suggest he is still trying to bring in new faces.

The picture isn’t complete yet, and we are just about entering the phase of the season where the planned loan signings will become available. Knott and Yeates are capable of playing wide, as is new recruit Mason Bennett, but perhaps one more out-and-out winger is on the shopping list. In the Telegraph and Argus today, Parkinson spoke about possibly loaning out Heaton, Clarkson and McBurnie over the course of the season. The squad looks thinned again without those bodies, but not as desperately bare as it was months ago. Either way, transfer activity is not done and dusted. Parkinson knows the picture can change in an instant. In football, a week is a long time, and five acquisitions at the eleventh hour last week illustrate this. Things can still, and will, fall into place.

Two wins from two – those wins a convincing home performance and decent away showing – have all but assuaged worries about the quality of the starting eleven and, to an extent, have started to condemn woes about the depth of the squad as a whole. Man for man, we stand looking at the most technically gifted and tactically astute side we’ve had in a long time – and they’re even stronger together. Clearly, early season enthusiasm needs to be reined in, but the versatility within the squad heralds a variety that can only serve the Bantams well throughout the campaign. Questions need to be answered still, but there is time – just. The constant question marks hovering over McLean need to be banished, but he is desperate to succeed. What’s been achieved thus far remains pleasing.

Turning to tomorrow, Parkinson has promised to keep shuffling his pack, breeding fitness and competitiveness within the squad so that everyone is up to speed when the heat is turned up towards the end of the month. The general adaptability of the squad means predicting the line-up feels fruitless anyway, but Parkinson’s promise to shake things up makes the guessing game even harder.

The City supremo said yesterday Mason Bennett could potentially be handed a start. A bright – and young – winger also adept at playing as a centre forward, Bennett is held in high regard at parent club Derby County, and adds another dimension to City’s build up play. As with any young player, though, he needs to be bedded carefully, and an outing so shortly after his arrival may come too soon for him. Alan Sheehan is most likely to miss Saturday’s game having flown back to Ireland in the wake of a family bereavement, meaning James Meredith will play at left back. Competition for this slot is rife, so the Australian will have to snatch this opportunity to assert his claim for a place in the side. Davies should partner McArdle at centre half and Darby will retain his place on the right flank. Pickford will start again in goal.

The midfield and forward line will probably to see the biggest areas of change. Gary Liddle is back in contention and should be selected, as should Billy Knott after resting for the most part of Tuesday’s game. If Bennett starts, it’s likely to be at Jason Kennedy’s expense, but perhaps Kennedy’s movement, conservatism, versatility and tidiness will be favoured if Knott is deployed as the wideman. Either Mark Yeates or Billy Clarke could feature in the in the hole – perhaps even Knott – but it will most likely be Yeates, with Clarke partnering Hanson up to ā la Saturday. Sadly, a full 90 minutes would probably again come too soon for McLean – expect him to come on for the final half hour or longer.

City go into the Walsall game on prime footing. The start to the season couldn’t have been better, really. The task now is to maintain this momentum, to walk away from this weekend with the diamond nestled further and the team working well together. The prospect of playing in front of a packed out Valley Parade later this month offers a tantalising incentive. If Parkinson uses that wisely, the tempo will be ramped up now.

Bradford City complete Morais signing

8 Aug

By Gareth Walker

Filipe Morais today became Bradford City’s ninth signing of the transfer window.

The Portuguese winger has signed a short-term deal, the full length of which has not yet been revealed, following him leaving Stevenage at the end of last season.

Initially brought to England by Jose Mourinho in 2003, he went into the Chelsea Youth system. But after being unable to make the break through at Stamford Bridge went out on loan to MK Dons, before signing permanently with Millwall for the 2006/07 season.

Spells in Scotland followed; firstly with St Johnstone on loan, and then with Hibernian and Inverness Caledonian Thistle. He then rejoined St Johnstone on a permanent basis.

Morais made the return to England in 2010 and has spent two seasons each at both Oldham and Stevanage, making over 50 appearances for both sides.

The signing of a much-needed winger will be a tonic for Phil Parkinson, but the nature of the undisclosed short term deal will do little to ease the concerns of supporters, whose fears about the lack of squad depth and budget issues at the club were already heightened earlier this week following the signings of three players on non-contract terms.

Whether the current nature of these signings is down to Parkinson having overspent, or the board not releasing the expected funds at this stage, remains unclear.

However, it is to be hoped that the release of cash the that Parkinson mentioned in his Radio Leeds season preview last night comes to fruition sooner rather than later, so that we can sign some of these players on longer term deals or so that the previously promised capture of some “stellar” loan targets can come to fruition.

2014/15 previewed: Stephen Darby will go from consistent performer to true leader

8 Aug
Image by Kieran Wilkinson

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

By Katie Whyatt

In a transfer window moulded by the infamous budget cut, retaining the services of Stephen Darby was high on Phil Parkinson’s priority list.

On the back of a campaign in which the defender had played every single one of Bradford City’s games, the elevation to club captain was the reward Darby’s stellar season had merited. For every City fan, this was the news they had been waiting for – the promise of three more years felt like a dream, the captaincy the fitting icing on the hugely satisfying cake. In your mind’s eye, you almost saw Gary Jones look on with a smirk of pride, handing the armband over to his Scouse counterpart: “Go on, Darbs. Polish your crown further.”

For Darby, this marks some sort of watershed moment in his City career. For the first time since his arrival, his role in the team is truly changing. Despite two years of consistent excellence, culminating in him sweeping the board at this year’s awards night, the full back has preferred to remain hidden beneath the radar. Now, however, his quiet composure is about to be superseded by a slightly larger sense of responsibility.

Previous squads were almost shaped by the fickle allegiance of the captain’s armband, characterised by the lack of a real leader and true continuity. For two or three seasons, it seemed the honour belonged to no one; instead, it was banded around with a blasé uncertainty, passed about with a last-minute ‘if the hat fits’ mentality. For most of Peter Taylor’s tenure, the absence of a strikingly genuine leader meant there was a feeling the captain had to do little but turn up.

Then, Gary Jones redefined City’s previously undervalued captain’s role. A leader in every sense of the word, Jones physically raised the performances of those around him, demanding an extra 10% from everyone as he wrestled to push his team over the line – and beyond. In a squad all about character and a winning mentality, Gary Jones personified those traits more than anyone.

Every manager has an avatar on the pitch, and Gary Jones was Phil Parkinson’s younger embodiment, playing with the same impassioned determination and guile the City chief showed as both a player and manager. Jones’ trial last week at Notts County (one of Darby’s former clubs, incidentally), during which the ex-City skipper enthralled with a goal and an assist, only served to reinforce the adoration many felt towards him. One of the best captains of recent history, if not the best, Gary Jones is truly a tough, tough act to follow. Succeeding him will be a challenge, but undoubtedly one Darby will relish.

So, what do City need from captain Darby? As the club prepare to enter the new season, the back line is the only element of the squad not shrouded in mystery and uncertainty: already one of the most commendable defences in the league, the arrival of Sheehan has served to bolster the most impressive section of Parkinson’s side. Unlike the new midfield, alive with competition and still gelling as the diamond is perfected, and the question marks hanging over the injury-plagued forward line, we just about know what to expect from this defence.

The back four is pretty much the only area of continuity between last season and this, packed with not only the majority of the experienced heads, but those familiar with Valley Parade life. Over the next few weeks, the likes of Darby, McArdle and Davies – the newly appointed captain particularly – will shoulder some of the responsibility for ensuring a smooth transition into the new-look Bradford City, sedating some of the unfamiliarity around them.

For a team defined so strikingly by its character, the onus falls on the experienced heads to inspire those around them from the outset, both by their performances on the pitch and the way they conduct themselves off it. It is here we will see Darby truly come into his own as a leader.

For sure, Darby’s quiet demeanour and no-frills style demands a slightly contrasting approach to the all-action, commando verve of Jones, but they both share at least one thing: a drive for nothing but the very best. Like his predecessor, Stephen Darby is representative of the mentality Parkinson has implemented so forcibly – perhaps not in the manic, commanding way Jones was, but silently, constantly, with the defender staunchly refusing to fall below a 6 or 7/10 every week. Never demanding the spotlight, but demanding the best of himself, subtly, every single game. The conversation may focus on how different the relatively young Darby is from Jones, but they the same where it really matters.

The difference is Jones pulled the team to results – sometimes with both parties kicking and screaming – by setting the tone in the middle of the park, and through his movements; Darby is more likely to push steadily, leading by example. Jones would dictate the play, moving the ball with Doyle and determining the way others read the game. As a defender, Darby can’t necessarily match Jones’ hands-on ethic, but that doesn’t mean responsibility can be shirked.

At the end of the 2012/13 season, as Phil Parkinson reflected on his marathon year, he noted the importance one of the campaign’s opening games, Fleetwood at home, in cementing the team’s trademark stoicism and resilience. James Meredith had delivered a crunching tackle to stall an attack, and the Valley Parade faithful had immediately erupted with cheers of admiration and gratitude. At that moment, the tides shifted. His players realised their crowd would get behind anyone who really gave their all, and that this support would not waver as long as they worked for each other. It was then the new recruits grasped what the club was all about. In that moment, every single one decided they had to give everything to the cause.

Darby has to set the tone in the same way. The band on his arm means he is now a constant point of reference, of inspiration. He has become a new role model, tasked with spurring on those around him by serving a captivating performance every single week. Like on that distant summer night in August, he must make his charges want to perform for him. His method will be by establishing an example, a precedent, always raising the bar. The team will have to mimic Darby’s tone-setting performances, and will have do so with the same consistency that earned him those awards last year. Darby may be less loud and overt in his leadership style, but his influence will be the same.

And it has to be. It really does. What Gary Jones’ workmanlike approach proved was that, contrary to whatever City’s chequered recent roll of captains suggested, the importance of the captain can never be underestimated. Think of the times Jones single-handedly hauled Bradford to points they had not necessarily deserved – simply Gary Jones, we’d said at the time; another day at the office for him. On days like those, his presence and influence were vital. Gary Jones was most striking when City needed a man to drag them over the line.

Will Stephen Darby be that guy? Or, more accurately, in what Parkinson bills a “team full of captains”, does Darby need to be that guy? It may come down to what we’ve just explored – that is, players performing simply because they want to do their captain justice – but it’s not too difficult to imagine a scenario at some point this season when a Gary Jones rallying call is urgently needed. Darby’s real test will come not in his performances – they are never an issue – but when the team are rolling through a rough patch, and someone needs to trigger a change, to spark a bang, to command his side the way Jones did.

Whether this is done through quiet composure and tenacity, the kind he is famed and revered for, or via a more direct and demanding route, remains to be seen, but it could potentially characterise a large portion of his season.

But Darby can be the one to give that rallying call, in whatever form it manifests itself. Having previously captained a Liverpool FA Youth Cup winning side, as well as the Reds’ reserve team, this is by no means completely uncharted water for him. Time playing under Steven Gerrard, one of the most prominent Premier League captains of the past decade, plus his personal closeness to Gary Jones, can only work in his favour.

2014/15 will be Stephen Darby’s most important year as a Bradford City player. As well as the new duties that come with that coveted armband, his function changes slightly because of the diamond formation. The lack of real width means the full backs now have to get forward more, potentially acting as wingbacks – note the arrival of Sheehan, and his attacking vigour against both Blackburn and Hartlepool. What’s more, the centrality of the midfield means there’s a new vulnerability about the flanks, too – there is even more defensive responsibility on the shoulders of the full back pairing. It’s not something either Darby or Sheehan should have a problem with, but it will nonetheless be interesting to observe those change in roles.

This year marks the start of a three-year deal that should, all going well, see Stephen Darby step out for another promotion-winning Bantams side. Entering the peak of his career, Darby now has a chance to solidify his position on the pantheon of City greats – a platform he is already well within touching distance of, if not on, for obvious reasons. Comparisons to Gary Jones will be inevitable, as this entire article can attest, but Darby is widely loved by his public – a public that desperately want to see him do well.

A new chapter is beginning. Books one and two are now finished, the curtain falling on the first series of Darby’s time as a Bantam. But on Saturday, the story re-starts, and the focus shifts to a new trilogy: a Bradford City revolution, and one that will be spearheaded by Stephen Darby. Because he can, and will, succeed.

2014/15 previewed: New season’s expectations must be judged against the three year plan

6 Aug

SAM_1706

By Katie Whyatt

Expectations. They’re the new elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about them, and can we? They’re a thorny enough issue anyway, without the spanner of an incomplete squad to wrestle with – you can’t judge the unfinished article. So don’t say anything, please – not now. We can’t talk about expectations yet.

Then, there’s that other thing: the budget. That infamous, obtrusive budget, engulfing the conversation, consuming the debate, dominating the discourse. And the expectations and the budget are so intricately linked. What we can hope for, what we’re allowed to predict, tied so intimately with the £500,000 cutback. For now, rightly or wrongly, these expectations go unuttered and unspoken, but, in the coming weeks, they will most likely form the lens through which this season will be judged. Undoubtedly, there is more than one way to measure success, but early expectations often become a barometer with which to gauge progress.

Setting out to define what’s reasonable to expect seems like a bit of a fruitless and difficult endeavour, given both the ambiguous noises from the club and the fact there are still gaps left to plug. Nonetheless, there are fundamentals to deal with, and what is OK to expect is dictated not only by the budget, but also by our wider position as a football club and where we see ourselves within the medium term. Within that, we have to maintain a culture of realism. Negativity can’t intrude here, but neither can fantasy. It’s about being balanced, sensible and realistic.

At the end of the 2012/13 campaign, Phil Parkinson and his backroom staff sat down, together, to sign three year deals, tying them to Valley Parade until the end of the 2015/16 season. This has been widely interpreted as a plan to be in the Championship, or at least knocking on its door, by the end of the three years – with, crucially, Phil Parkinson at the helm.

Year one was about consolidation, discovery and cementation. The team endured/enjoyed (delete as appropriate) the standard mixed bag of results inevitable for a newly promoted side, and were both hampered by injuries and helped by loanees in their quest to cross the line. Parkinson observed the way the division worked, concluded a new formation was needed and has subsequently tweaked his team accordingly this summer. Say what you like about the initial playing style or the one win in 21, but this objective was ultimately achieved with relative comfort. Phase one of the plan – survive, acclimatise and start to adapt – can now be checked off. Thus far, City are progressing in-line with, perhaps even beyond, the terms of the 3 year forecast.

Which moves us on to phase two, and the question of what this year entails as a part of the wider plan. With year three painted as the promotion season and City having already spent a year transitioning, year two becomes the bridge. At the end of this season, the strength and the position of the bridge will dictate how the Bantams approach next year. Year two will define whether initial aspirations remain feasible by the turn of the 2015/16 campaign. This might not be the promotion year, but this coming season has the scope to become the most important of the lot.

2014/15 is all about further progress. By the start of the 2015/16 season, City need to be in a position to look to seriously challenge for promotion. The foundations must have been laid by this point. The diamond has to work, but there also need to be alternative fallback formations that are just as strong and effective for when Plan A is nullified. The new signings must have not only adapted to League One, but have done so in a manner more convincing than their history-making predecessors. Because year two is about building up to year three sustainably.

The budget, although not ideal, is a necessary constraint to keep the Bantams above water – something that should resonate with our supporters more than most. The six weeks of madness might have been a completely different kettle of fish, but they still stand as a harrowing cautionary tale of what happens when a club spends drastically beyond its means.

To put City’s behemothic financial woes into perspective, I was three when the Bradford were relegated from the Premier League; fast forward eleven years, and the club were still grimacing from the scars of such profligacy, sinking in the basement division having just survived 3 relegations in seven years. The story of that decade of decline serves as a staggering recent reminder of what happens when a club enters the red, with the Bantams saddled with debts of £36 million.

Now, with the debts cleared completely, Lawn’s loan paid back and the finances stabilised thanks to the cup run and the sale of Nahki Wells, the focus turns towards making sure City remain in the black.

It’s fine to suggest increasing investment, but the bottom line is that Parkinson’s playing pot is determined by the tangibles and what’s salvageable. A larger speculative budget only works if you have fallbacks in place or the resources to avoid the darker side of the boom and bust cycle. The club have overspent again this year, but only by what can be recuperated before the start of the 2015/16 season through what David Baldwin termed “extraordinary income.” The reason, in Baldwin’s words, is “so we are not carrying debt into next year.”

It’s probably premature to deem this squad unequivocally better than the one before it, especially due to the relative unproven nature of this forward line in comparison to the prolificacy of the Wells-Hanson era, but there seems to be greater technical quality, man for man, within this latest version, plus the emergence of a style that should prosper in a league where much of the work is done in midfield. The lack of wingers and back-ups is worrying with less than a week to go, but Parkinson deserves to be applauded for how he has juggled the finances so far. He is recuriting a stronger core of players, but has managed to do so with £500,000 less to negotiate with.

That’s positive, but fundamentally this year’s warchest is, though competitive, probably not a promotion budget – and even if it was, there would always be the overriding danger of City running before they could walk. Regardless of whatever funds the club had at its disposal, I’d be wary if they were seeking promotion just a year after consolidation, especially while bedding a new team and a new style. The circumstances are different to 2012/13. The emphasis must stay on the words gradual progression.

The aim of the 2014/15 season is to lock down half the promotion team, ready for a convincing stab the following year. From the outside, it seems there wouldn’t be the scope for the club to head one make or break charge for the Championship – but would you want one?

I’m wary of clubs that pummel all their resources into one crack at promotion, because, if it doesn’t work out, where are they then left? Look at some of the budgets City boasted in League Two as managers failed to achieve the stated objective. ‘THE promotion season’ became ‘the nearly season’: a big budget had been set aside but, for whatever reason, the success we’d envisaged didn’t materialise. The consequences of that overspend stretched beyond end of season disappointment: bigger names had to be released and City finished 15th the following season, with a squad that, realistically, were never going to challenge. We need to be prudent.

Within this latest crop of players, the core of the ‘next generation’ is being assembled:

Rory McArdle – 3 years

Alan Sheehan – 2 years

Gary Liddle – 1 year, plus 1 year extension option

Billy Clarke – 2 years

Billy Knott – 2 years

Aaron McLean – 3 years

Stephen Darby – 3 years

James Hanson – 3 more years to run

The majority of those contracts stand for use within, or beyond, the allotted timeframe to be in the Championship. Lament the lack of a permanent goalkeeper, but it’s difficult to dislodge the above players’ places within the three year strategy. This window has been about gathering 50% of the promotion team, and then a supporting cast that will perform in a Bradford City shirt.

But even this raises wider questions about the three year plan: two years of consolidation and development, building up to that third season, places an awful amount of pressure on year three, doesn’t it? Undoubtedly true, but, because of how the plan is structured, much of that pressure has been alleviated.

The board haven’t released details about the budget for year three yet, obviously, but one would imagine the newer attitude to finances means that, while who dares wins, there has to be an element of conservatism and restraint in there, too. Julian Rhodes’ quote about using the League Cup windfall to run the club “like a business, not a hobby” springs to mind. The stakes will probably be raised, but not to such a degree that the following season is rendered futile as City recover. The board are finally in a position to allow City to grow in a financially safe way, but that requires discipline and dedication on their part. 2015/16 is huge, but it shouldn’t, and can’t, make or break Bradford City.

What all this means is that we are about to enter a season different to all the ones of recent history. With new aims and a wider plan to consider, the onus is on supporters to keep the season in context for the whole of the campaign, and not just the first few weeks. Last year almost had a feel of anti-climax to it because people interpreted the opening few games as ‘the norm’ and assumed the team just took a nosedive over Christmas, which is an over-simplification against a backdrop of other factors. The season’s ultimate significance was overlooked amidst the nadir of the one win in 21. Which is not to suggest the team and the manager were ever immune from criticism – far from it – but they arguably should have received more slack than some afforded them.SAM_1711

The diamond will work, but, as with any formation, it has its weaknesses. The new playing style means success will be measured not just in terms of the points haul, but how closely contested the league games are, and what glares out as the marked difference in matches. If City equal their 11th placed finish, and have dominated most games but just lacked that cutting edge, this is success of sorts, and the new weaknesses to address over the close season have therein been pinpointed.

This season will not be easy. For Phil Parkinson, this presents his biggest personal challenge yet. Tasked with delivering more from less, he will have to call on all his nous and experience to make sure not a penny is wasted.

He has to be shrewd in the loan market, bolstering the squad where necessary with footballers that will make a genuine impact – but leaving some of the recruitment until the eleventh hour has not rested well with sections of the support, and may herald problems as the season progresses. He has to get the best out of those players whose time at Valley Parade has, so far, been staggered – McLean, possibly the player who needed a full pre-season most, has spent the bulk of the prologue sat in the treatment room. The diamond needs time to be polished fully, and there will be times over the next nine months when that formation is rightfully shelved.

Most importantly of all, though, he has to make sure the club finish the 2014/15 season with a platform from which they can challenge for promotion the following year. And he has to do that within the confines of the budget. Accomplishing everything will be no mean feat.

Yet the perception of the season is dictated by our expectations. We will generate our own success criteria and will measure the campaign against this. It is likely these expectations will shift as the season develops, but we have a duty to make sure we are flexible and manage our expectations against what we already know. We cannot lose perspective like some did last season. Context becomes the new buzzword.

2014/15 is the frame for the bigger picture. New faces, new style, new hopes, new dreams. A promotion might not be on the cards, but that doesn’t mean we’re in for a bland ride. Depending on how you plan to assess the season, 2014/15 could still very much be our year.

The ticking clock

2 Aug
A strong first XI

A strong first XI

Bradford City 1

Clarke 72

Hartlepool United 1

Walker 71

Saturday 2 August, 2014

By Jason McKeown

This will not be a relaxing week for Phil Parkinson. As the big kick off creeps onto the horizon, there is still much to do in rebuilding the squad for the challenges ahead. And when the manager’s week is not tied up with finalising last-minute transfer deals or making sure his players are ready for next Saturday’s opener with Coventry, he will find it difficult to switch off from contemplating the strategy for this season.

Is this new shift the right one? Are the short-term issues going to derail momentum?

In this, Bradford City’s final pre-season friendly before it all gets serious once more, there was comfort to be taken from the quality of the home players on the field. The XI that started against Hartlepool United is likely to be the same team that lines up against the Sky Blues. Parkinson – who watched the first half of this encounter in the press box – can take satisfaction over his summer recruitment so far, in difficult circumstances. He has signed some very good players, who should flourish over the months.

But it was his bench this afternoon that raises the most concern. Just two senior players – James Meredith and Jason Kennedy – took their places alongside a clutch of trialists and youth teamers. On the day that it was announced Aaron Mclean will miss the start of the season, it is unsettling to see just how little strength and depth there is within the Bradford City squad, as it stands. The consequences of a further couple of injuries do not bear thinking about. Parkinson needs more players and quickly. But above all else, he needs more quality players.

The absence of Mclean all pre-season is a nightmare scenario, given so much rests on the striker’s shoulders. The team has been re-jigged to get the best out of the 31-year-old, but there has been no opportunity for the new players to gel with him on the field. Starting the season without Mclean is going to disrupt the new-look diamond formation too, because already Parkinson is being forced to push players into roles that they are less suited to.

Take Billy Clarke, who once again partnered James Hanson up front. The former Ipswich and Blackpool frontman was arguably City’s best player today, but his game is almost entirely played outside of the penalty area, as he prefers to take up positions out wide or deeper. Clarke should be the front-runner for playing behind the two strikers at the tip of the diamond; he does not look like the right man to partner Hanson in leading the line.

The result was a front-pairing too isolated from each other when City had the ball, and very few chances were created. The more we see of Hanson in this diamond formation, the less effective he looks – which is a worry. At present it does not seem to be a system as ideally suited to Hanson’s strengths, and he has not scored a single goal in pre-season, or even looked like scoring. You can understand why Parkinson will probably have to go with Hanson and Clarke as his two strikers next week, but you can’t imagine City scoring many goals this way.

By pushing Clarke up front, Mark Yeates had to play in the ‘hole’ – a role he can perform very well – and Matty Dolan pushed wide left. Dolan looked lost at times; and on one occasion was loudly berated by Yeates, who was angry at his team-mate’s positioning. Dolan is ideally suited to playing in front of the back four – just like the once-again-outstanding Gary Liddle. It is hard to see the diamond formation working with both Liddle and Dolan in the team, as City need more craft in the wide areas than either can offer.

That was the problem in the first half at least – the usefulness of the diamond formation was reduced by players being forced to play in less than ideal positions for their respective strengths. And the root cause of this reshuffle was an injury to one key player in Mclean, and his back-up, Lewis Clarkson. There simply are not enough alternative options available for City to survive a couple of injuries or suspensions. We know this situation will change very quickly, but it sits uneasy with everyone to go into the final week, before the season starts, with significant recruitment issues waiting to be resolved.

Matthew Bates is warmly welcomed back to Valley Parade.

Matthew Bates is warmly welcomed back to Valley Parade.

It is expected that two wingers will join very shortly, and their arrivals will widen the range of options available to Parkinson. Against run-of-the-mill League Two opposition here, the merits of the diamond formation came under heavy scrutiny in how well it might work in different scenarios. Colin Cooper’s Hartlepool side played conservatively and kept nine men behind the ball whenever the home side were in possession – and the resultant lack of space afforded to City neutered the vibrancy of their passing game.

At times it was too congested in and around the Hartlepool box. City players attempted to provide good off-the-ball movement, but possession was easily squandered. When it worked – Billy Knott running onto a clever dummy by Clarke and forcing a decent save from Hartlepool keeper Scott Flinders – there was a genuine cutting edge to City’s play. But for large parts of the game, it was surprising how easy Hartlepool found it defending against the diamond.

There are few League One clubs who will come to Valley Parade this season and park the bus; but if any do – on this evidence – City will struggle to break them down with a diamond formation. It would certainly be interesting to see how a larger City crowd would have reacted to this type of game if there had been something at stake. If the Bantams are losing at home and the visitors are sticking everyone behind the ball, expect to hear loud cries for Parkinson to introduce wide players.

Yet there were many positives about this draw too. In the second half – with Parkinson back in the dugout – City seemed to get a better grip on proceedings and played the diamond system to a higher tempo. What a class act Knott appears to be, and his first touch is something to behold. There was a moment where he picked up the ball inside the box and flummoxed his marker with a delightful turn. Knott is a box of tricks and has a workrate to match. Parkinson appears to have secured a real gem, and must ensure that he makes the most of him over the coming months.

The defence continues to look solid, with Alan Sheehan an upgrade on Meredith (although the Aussie too impressed when he came on as substitute to play in a midfield role). For the most part Jordan Pickford had little to do, although he did make a brilliant low save, when a Bradley Walker shot took a deflection as it headed towards goal. The on-loan Sunderland keeper had little chance when Walker picked his spot to fire Hartlepool into the lead a few minutes later. Trialist Matt Urwin sat unused on the bench. A back-up keeper must be sought in time to play at Morecambe in just over a week’s time, but Parkinson will want to do better than the former Blackburn stopper.

City were behind for barely a minute, with Clarke deservedly getting a goal following a crisp low shot from an angle. He later departed the field to a fantastic ovation. On a personal level, Clarke may worry that having to play up front will see him lose out on staking an early claim for the ‘hole’ ahead of Yeates; and that when a full Valley Parade crowd rocks up to take a first look at him, supporters will get a misleading first impression over what he can really do.

Certainly someone who did make an impression was Mo Shariff, who was introduced with five minutes to go and caught the eye with a stunning volley attempt from 30 yards out that was superbly tipped onto the bar by Flinders. The former QPR man is a confident player for sure and on the evidence of pre-season could be trusted to appear in the City first team very quickly. Of all the many trialists Parkinson has cast his eye over during the last few weeks, Shariff looks the strongest contender to earn a deal. French defender Christope Routis – who made a cameo off the bench – is also a good bet to earn a place in the squad, as Rory McArdle’s deputy.

So plenty of food for thought for Parkinson. He would surely have hoped to see the new formation prove more effective against league opposition, and he will remain desperate to get those extra bodies into the building in good time for the big kick off. The pre-season friendlies have offered so much promise in how the new signings look and the new style of football; but if these final squad places aren’t filled adequately and promptly, there is a very real risk that an encouraging close summer’s transfer business will be seriously undermined.

City: Pickford, Darby, McArdle (Routis 68), Davies, Sheehan, Liddle, Dolan (Kennedy 76), Knott (Meredith 76), Yeates (McBurnie 68), Clarke (Shariff 85), Hanson

Not used: Urwin, Coulson, Hassell, Campion, Heaton

SAM_2183333

2014/15 previewed: Mark Yeates can be Phil Parkinson’s diamond in the rough

2 Aug
Image by Mike Holdsworth

Image by Mike Holdsworth

By James Storrie

How to solve a problem like Mark Yeates? It was a conundrum often muted around by Bradford City fans during the course of last season.

Brought in to complement the existing players from the history making season before, Yeates joined on a free transfer from Championship side Watford, where he appeared in a large percentage of their games as they narrowly missed out on promotion to the Premier League.

Yeates, previously known to Phil Parkinson from his time at Colchester, presented an immediate dilemma to the manager in how to fit him into a side and formula that had served the Bantams so well over the 12 months prior. The problem stemmed from the diminutive Irishman not being really suited to the high energy and intensity wingplay as a replacement for Kyel Reid. and neither possessing the stature or goal threat of Garry Thompson on the other flank.

Yeates’s style of drifting around the park looking for gaps and spaces in-between the lines didn’t seem to fit in with the more structured and rigid style of City’s play, despite his talent being evidenced as he started the season in place of Reid and scored from 30 yards against Carlisle. This early promise didn’t last, as Yeates’s influence on the team waned and he found himself on the bench as Kyel Reid found blistering form and his extra pace and dynamism gave the team more in terms of counter attacking prowess. Yeates became the nearly man, his little flicks nearly paid off, his set pieces nearly went in, however his overall impact on games was minimal.

His next chance in the side came when Nahki Wells limped off against Shrewsbury at Valley Parade, thrust into his preferred position playing off a striker Yeates toiled and tried for the next few games. Despite the positive results, he didn’t grab the headlines. Wells returned and of course Yeates made way. He found himself and the other summer signings labelled as underperforming by Parkinson, it was a damming but true criticism from the manager – as the summer signings didn’t seem to have the drive or determination to push the established regulars for their place in the side.

This ‘nearly man’ conundrum continued for the rest of the season, and was highlighted in particular away at Sheffield United where Yeates skitted around the periphery of the game and infuriatingly pulled out of challenges (a sin in a Yorkshire derby). He came under heavy criticism from the Bantams’ following.

The end of the season marked the start of the mass change to come in terms of both playing style and personnel, and Parkinson steered away from his favoured 4-4-2 formation to a new diamond style, with a player having license to have an almost free role behind the two strikers. Surely this was tailor made for Yeates? Initially, however ,this was not the case as the impressive Adam Reach enjoyed a new lease of life in this role and was outstanding in the home victory over Peterborough. The conclusion of Reach’s loan deal gave Yeates a chance in his favoured position away at Tranmere, as he ended the season in the Bantams first eleven.

This summer has seen a wind of change blowing through Valley Parade, as familiar and much loved faces have departed for pastures new and their replacements although short in number at this current time have a youthful, combative edge, handpicked by Parkinson to deploy his new formation and new more careful possession style. One of the major summer additions to the side came from Crawley in the form of Billy Clarke, a classic ‘number 10’ who possesses the movement and clever feet to be a real success and fans’ favourite at Valley Parade.

What this means for Yeates currently is unknown. Thought to be one of the highest earners at the club he could see himself quietly pushed out along the same path as Matt Taylor and probable Jason Kennedy. However, Parkinson has remained tight lipped about Yeates and reports from fans attending early pre-season games have given positive vibes about both his fitness and commitment levels. It looks like Yeates has worked hard over the summer to give himself the best chance of making the most of his final contracted year as a Bantam. One of the most interesting lines from the ‘Width of a Post’s’ excellent recent interview with David Baldwin made it clear that more is expected of one of the top earners at the club.

“There has been a lot of talk about the budget being hacked back by half a million. 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.

I recently did an article in the T&A about efficiencies. This budget is not a hack-back, it is still a very strong budget. And as part of doing that, we are checking the efficiencies of each transfer so that we aren’t paying, for want of a better word, dead money.”

Whilst not a direct dig at Yeates, it’s not hard to work out that he forms part of the group Baldwin talks about, alongside the departed Andy Gray and Matt Taylor. However, if there is a manager to bring out the best in Yeates then it is undoubtedly Parkinson – under whom he enjoyed his most productive years.

The injury to Aaron Mclean has been a hugely frustrating one to the club and fans alike as some of his lacklustre performances last year were put down to ‘needing a good pre-season’. Yet to not feature so far at all, it looks like it could be into September before we see Mclean take his place in the side. This could spell an opportunity for Yeates to start the season playing in his preferred position against Coventry City on the opening day, with Billy Clarke pushed upfront alongside James Hanson.

What is clear, however, is that Mark Yeates has a second chance at Bradford City and – from the outside looking in – it looks like he is working hard to become the diamond in the rough.

2014/15 previewed: The view from the pundit sofa

1 Aug

SAM_2147

By Alex Scott

On the eve of the new season, regular Width of a Post writers’ Andrew Baxter, Mesh Johal, Luke Lockwood and Katie Whyatt take to the pundit sofa to share their views on the summer transfer activity and expectations for the coming months.

Now some time has passed since the end of last season, what are your views on last year’s 11th place finish?

Andrew Baxter: 11th is a respectable finish for a team that lost their best player in January, and suffered through injuries throughout the year, such as Reid’s injury at Sheffield United, and James Hanson’s various injuries towards the end of the season.

Mesh Johal: For me it was imperative to maintain our position in League One. Admittedly we had a horrendous run after Christmas, but it demonstrated that we lacked the quality and depth to compete consistently. Saying that, I thought we ended up in a comfortable and solid position in the league. For a first attempt back in the third tier, I’d find it hard to complain.

Luke Lockwood: It was a great achievement for our first year in League One, but just imagine how we may have done had we managed to adapt quicker following the sale of Nahki Wells? I don’t hold Parkinson responsible for that, as he set up at the start of the season correctly building his style around Wells and, after he left, it was quickly evident that Mclean was not a like-for-like replacement. Once we adapted to suit the players we had, our form picked up again and resulted in a very respectable finish.

Katie Whyatt: I think the problem was that so many people measured the success of the season against those abnormally bright first few weeks, rather than in the context of 46 games as a newly promoted outfit. To deem that initial series of home victories ‘normal’ makes it seem like the club took the mother of all nosedives over Christmas, which is overly-simplistic. It’s normal for the division’s new boys to storm a league at first, then drop off as other teams figure them out – hence the cliché “unknown quantity”.

For sure, the winless run went on much longer than expected, and the football might not have been entirely persuasive, but don’t forget that City lost the whole of their left side, Kyel Reid and James Meredith, within weeks of each other, along with Wells and Andrew Davies. They could have done it with more style at times, but they ultimately achieved the stated objective and finished with a stable platform to build upon.

One word to sum up the summer’s transfer activity?

Andrew Baxter: Progressive – Parkinson has brought in a blend of players who are experienced at this level, such as Alan Sheehan and Gary Liddle; and players who maybe don’t have that same level of experience but certainly have the potential to impress in League One this season, like Billy Knott.

I was disappointed with the departure of Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle, as I felt that both had plenty left to offer to the club, but Parkinson has recruited sensibly, with Liddle, Knott and Billy Clarke being solid replacements.

Katie Whyatt: Okay – I like how the club are privately handling their business. Additions are still needed, but I’m happy with the recent acquisitions. Players like Sheehan, Clarke and Liddle come with the track record and versatility that the slashed budget demands, and fans of their former clubs have heralded them all as sound, creative and consistent players. I’m also delighted we’ve managed to tie down Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle, making a solid back four, with the addition of Sheehan, into an exceptional one.

Luke Lockwood: Anxious – I have faith in Parkinson to right the transfer wrongs of last summer and it will be interesting to see how we adapt to the new style of play he is obviously going for. I am a little concerned that a number of signings seem to be from those teams who struggled in this division last year – even if they were the stand out performers. The reports coming from those who have attended pre-season have been promising, but I take little notice of friendlies and will reserve judgement till I’ve seen them in action in competitive fixtures.

Mesh Johal: Fragmented – The whole summer has felt fragmented. The way players has left and joined the club, it’s all happened in drips and drabs. We were told that the squad wouldn’t be finalised until August and at present it feels very incomplete. Whilst the summer signings seem exciting, it just feels that you’re waiting for some more news and it’s still yet to come.

Which new player are you most excited to watch this season?

Mesh Johal: I was a big fan of the Jones/Doyle axis so I am intrigued to see how the likes of Gary Liddle and Billy Knott fair. I have seen the majority of the summer recruits play for their previous club, but it will be interesting to see how they work in the much discussed “diamond” formation.

Andrew Baxter: Gary Liddle. Whilst the midfielder might not grab all the headlines, his vast experience (325 professional appearances, 283 of these in League One) will give the team more stability, and Liddle will be a calming influence in a team that at times last year, certainly in the defence, looked a bit shaky.

Luke Lockwood: Billy Knott – the only signing to really get me excited so far. Seems like he will be a key cog in the new City style of play and comes with very good reviews. I’m not sure he will score a lot of goals, but it sounds like he’s a classy footballer.

SAM_2083

Is Phil Parkinson under pressure? Should Phil Parkinson be under pressure?

Katie Whyatt: Kind of and kind of. I think the majority of fans are viewing this season as step two of three to get to the Championship, so, while entering with high expectations, they will know things won’t be perfect and allow for that. However, last season marked, for the first time, a clamour for Parkinson’s head from some sections of the support – not something I would agree with at all, but you can understand some of the venom given the ineffectiveness of the summer signings and City’s direct style as the season progressed.

There’s also the underlying issue of the reduced budget, with Parkinson expected to deliver better football and a higher league finish with £500,000 less to play with. The pressure on him has been turned up drastically, but I firmly believe most fans will recognise this and not bay for his blood if things go awry.

Luke Lockwood: No and no, however I don’t think it will be too long before that changes. There are a few Parkinson doubters about, but I think for the time being they are in the minority. Things change quickly in football as we saw last year when we went through the poor run so I do think he needs a satisfactory start to this season.

Andrew Baxter: I don’t see any reason why Parkinson should be under any pressure. The awful run of form last season is behind us now, but despite that, we still managed to finish 11th in the table. The signings he has brought in should provide extra creativity in the midfield (something that was lacking last season), and if the team performs to its potential, I see no reason why City can’t be in contention for a play off position, especially with Wolves and Brentford, who ran away with the league last year, being out of the division.

Mesh Johal: Yes I think he is under a little bit of pressure. After last season’s performance, some will expect City to improve on the 11th-place finish. However, with the mass exodus of key players and the much publicised budget cut, pressure has been placed on the manager. Also, after last summer’s disappointing recruitment drive, judgment will be made on this year’s class very quickly which may add some heat.

Finally there is much clamour amongst fans regarding a change in playing style. With so many big changes happening in such a short period of time, I just hope he is given time to fully implement his plans. Some still disagree with awarding him a three-year deal, but I see the progression of this club under his stewardship and think next season should be the one way judge him on.

What are your expectations for the new season? What would you class as a success?

Andrew Baxter: I think anything that improves on last season will class as a success, as this would be a top-10 finish. Obviously, I want City to get promoted, and I think that they can certainly contend in this division and contest for a play off place, but anything that builds on last year’s solid foundations will be a success in my opinion.

Mesh Johal: I’m unsure what to expect to be honest. Those familiar faces are no longer here so I’m intrigued to see if the likes of Matty Dolan and Knott can stand up in the manner we need them to.

I’m also still a bit concerned about the size of the squad. On paper the 2013/14 starting XI was a decent side; however, it struggled in the depth department. It’s the same again this year. If we get injuries, we could become unstuck. If we were to equal 11th place again then I would be very happy. I think this is a harder league than last season but with so many northern-based games I think we should look to enjoy it!

Luke Lockwood: Put simply any position above 11th place. Hopefully an outside chance of the play offs in the run-in, but with the budget being slashed and losing a 25 goal striker I don’t think we should be looking at this year as the time to challenge for promotion.

davies

Who do you think will be City’s most important player this season?

Luke Lockwood: Andrew Davies – he has been our most important player for the past two seasons in my opinion and makes the biggest difference when in the side. If we keep him on the pitch and not in the treatment room then I think we will finish higher up the table this time round.

It might be controversial but if I had a choice between a fit Andrew Davies and Stephen Darby I’d take Andrew Davies every time – the difficulty is keeping him fully fit.

Andrew Baxter: James Hanson. Hanson has adapted and improved his game drastically since arriving at the club, and this has led to him improving his goalscoring record. Last season, Hanson scored at an average of one goal every three games, and went on a fantastic run just after Nahki Wells’ departure, where he scored six goals in nine games. If Hanson can keep up his goalscoring record, it can provide a platform for the rest of the team to chip in with goals.

Mesh Johal: Andrew Davies. We are a team built on solid foundations and with him playing we are a better side. Unfortunately, his fitness record at the club suggests that he can’t play a full season and we need to make sure we have an able back up to fill his boots. Last season we didn’t and it cost us, especially during that run of one in twenty one.

Katie Whyatt: For me, the success of this season hinges on the front two, and whether the forward line, whoever it consists of, can become as prolific as the one before it. Whilst it’s obviously unfair to directly compare Aaron Mclean with Wells – hence why the jury has stayed out for this long, pacified by the prospect of a team built around Mclean – the fact the former Hull man’s three-year deal eats up a sizeable chunk of the wage packet means we desperately want (and need) him to come through.

If he does, fantastic – it’s further credit in the bank for Parkinson as an outward sign of progression, and the club can begin moving further up the ladder. Otherwise? It’s more ammunition to spray the gaffer with – and a genuine worry about where the goals are going to come from. The form of Mclean and Hanson will define the campaign.

Will Phil Parkinson be manager of Bradford City in 12 months’ time?

Mesh Johal: I hope so. Next August will be the final season of the three-year deal and I’d hope by then we’d be in a position to really mount a challenge out of this league.

Andrew Baxter: Barring an approach from a Premier League club (or Reading!) or an abysmal run of form, I believe Phil Parkinson will be manager of Bradford City this time next year. He still has two years left to run on his contract, and the ultimate aim of Championship football by 2016 is still achievable.

Luke Lockwood: I hope so and think he should be as long as we maintain our position in the top half. Considering he has had a significant chunk of his budget cut I think that will be an achievement. Then next year he should be given the mandate to take us to the next level.

Katie Whyatt: Yes. I think things would have to go horrifically, horrifically wrong – which I doubt they will – for the board to cast aside the three-year plan and sack Parkinson, and I don’t think they’d be pressed by any pressure from the stands, either.

The telling issues will be 1) Whether the team go through a prolonged rough patch and, if they do, how quickly and efficiently they handle the situation to regain form, and 2) Whether the new signings and anticipated new formation, diamond or otherwise, look worryingly out of depth in League One. Personally, though, I feel the side will make progress enough to allow Parkinson to see through the third year of his contract

2014/15 previewed: A busy summer for David Baldwin

28 Jul
Picture courtesy of Bradford City FC

Picture courtesy of Bradford City FC

By Jason McKeown

David Baldwin used to be long retired, living a relaxing life in Spain. Yet whilst the West Yorkshire weather on the afternoon of Bradford City’s pre-season friendly with Blackburn Rovers would rival temperatures in Madrid or Marbella, for David there are no Sangrias by the beach to enjoy, and instead a meeting with Stephen Hawthorn-Emmott, the club’s Head of Marketing, inside one of the Valley Parade boxes, followed by a pile of paperwork to get through and a further meeting with a scout in half an hour’s time.

It is 2pm, and in the Valley Parade main stand outside, City fans are beginning to take their seats, but David is working up to the last minute, before he can take in the entertaining 0-0 draw – today’s task list including an interview for Width of a Post. The close season is a frantic and unrelenting period for the Bradford City Chief Executive – persuaded out of retirement by Mark Lawn in 2007 – who amongst the many plates to keep spinning has the small matter of helping Phil Parkinson to rebuild the squad.

During a summer of vast change in the playing staff, it is no small challenge. Two weeks before the big kick off, many of the holes have been filled but there still gaps to address. Those lazy retirement days must seem a lifetime ago.

The retained list

One of David’s initial summer duties included the negotiating of new deals for the out-of-contract players who Parkinson wanted to keep: namely Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and, initially at least, Jon McLaughlin. David explained how the process of offering new deals works.

“When you do an offer of re-engagement with a player, the player has one month from receiving the offer to make a decision,” stated David. “There are two conditions of the offer; firstly that it must be an improved offer or at least matching what they were earning. Secondly, we have to give them a month to decide on it. That is then their protection and, if they want, they can go and test the market to measure if it is a good deal for them.

“Rory McArdle was the first one back from holiday and we sat down with his agent to sort his deal quite quickly. Some amendments were made to the original offer, and he signed on those terms. Stephen Darby received his offer then went on holiday a couple of days later. So it was longer before he came back, but then he very quickly came into the building wanting to sign, which was good news.”

Yet whilst these two players re-signed relatively promptly, it proved to be less straightforward with James Meredith and Jon McLaughlin, who failed to sign the deals on offer before the 30-day deadline, meaning the club had the right to withdraw them. The bottom line being that the club have ultimately brought in replacements for these positions, with Meredith re-signing to take up what initially looks set to be a back-up role, and McLaughlin departing altogether.

Image by Mike Holdsworth

Image by Mike Holdsworth

“Jon McLaughlin’s offer had elapsed, because I don’t think he was happy with the offer we had made,” revealed David. “And that’s when the positioning with him changed. With James Meredith it was the same scenario; he didn’t come back to us in time, although later decided that he wanted to be here.”

On McLaughlin, Baldwin admitted that the decision not to make a further contract offer was due to finances and the manager’s choice to bring in Jordan Pickford as his new number one. “You are balancing the economics of a playing budget with the positions that you need to fill,” he stated. “And the dilemma for the manager was, who is he going to hang his hat on to be his first choice goalkeeper? He’s looking at all the permutations.

“What you have to consider is that, if you can’t afford two first team goalkeepers, it becomes an expensive thing to have one of them sitting on the bench. Now if the manager was in a position where he was making Jon McLaughlin his first choice, then the offer to him would be a first choice offer.

“From Jon’s perspective, his expectation will be that he would receive an offer as a first choice. And understandably so, he was an ever present last year. But the manager picks the team. From a Board perspective it is simple economics of saying to the manager ‘you can’t afford both’. So he had to make a choice. We don’t tell him which choice to make, it was a decision he had to make balanced against making sure there is money set aside for other parts of the team.

“We can’t afford to have a keeper on a first choice budget sitting on the bench.”

And what of James Meredith? “We made James an offer; obviously he was weighing up his options, like anybody would. It probably didn’t help that James was over in Australia, but once the offer period had elapsed, we then targeted Alan Sheehan, who we had been discussing as well.

“Alan obviously comes with a good pedigree and was being chased by a number of clubs, including clubs who are favourites to go up this year. We kept it very much under the radar and brought him in, which was very much a disappointment to James. He felt that whatever options he was considering elsewhere, they hadn’t come to fruition as he had wanted them to, so we sat down and re-negotiated a different deal with him. I think we now have good competition for that position.”

Another ‘We Made History’ player to leave, despite the club keeping the door open, was Kyel Reid, who has signed a two-year deal with League One rivals Preston North End. David confirmed that City were not in a position to offer Kyel a new contract as they were still evaluating his recovery from long-term injury.

“With Kyel Reid we hadn’t made an offer at that stage, because we were assessing what his fitness situation would be. But in the meantime, his agent got him a good deal elsewhere. We wish him well. But Omar Daley didn’t come back quite the player he was, and we can’t afford to be in a position of paying wages if a player isn’t going to play.

“Other clubs might see it differently and will take that risk, but it wasn’t a decision that we could make at that particular time.”

sheehan

Image by Kieran Wilkinson

The incomings

Beyond the futures of last season’s playing squad, David has also worked with Phil Parkinson in bringing in new faces, and he highlighted midfield as the key area of change. “The ethos was that the midfield needed more running power and a bit more craft, to play a different way when needed,” David said.

“The positive is that, of the players we have brought in, they have got good pedigree. You look at Gary Liddle. I spoke to the Hartlepool Chief Executive about him, and they could not speak more highly of him. We spoke to Notts County about him, and they obviously desperately wanted to keep him, but I think he was ready for a new challenge. He’s a player’s player and a fan’s favourite.

“Then there is Matty Dolan. He was only on loan with us because we missed the January transfer deadline by three minutes, because Middlesbrough were trying to sort out the international transfer of a goalkeeper at the same time. Matty came in last season and found his feet at the club. It takes time to adjust, as he is only a young lad and has only just turned 21. What he has done is listened very intently to the instruction of the close season fitness programme set by Nick Allamby. We’ve spoken with him at length about the benefits of the sport science side of things that we offer, and he has taken it on board and come back in fantastic shape.

“You look at the midfield now as having three fresh new players in: Gary Liddle, Billy Knott and Matty Dolan, who are all good footballers. There’s a decent amount of athleticism in there, and there’s a good amount of craft too.

“Depending on formations, we also now have the typeset of a typical number 10 in Billy Clarke. He can play up front, and he can play on the wings. He’s played at a higher level. I think he is a good addition to the squad. But midfield is certainly the biggest fundamental change.”

In contrast, the defence from last season has been largely retained, with the addition of Sheehan at left back and the replacing of McLaughlin with Pickford. “The seventh-best defence in the league, and we have retained the entire back four,” smiled David. “And we’ve added another quality player to it. And we’ve added a real up-and-coming young talented goalkeeper.”

On Pickford, David was keen to highlight the young shot-stopper’s glowing reputation within the game. “The people that we talked to – people with decent reputations as goalkeeping coaches and managers – have said that we have got a real starlet there.

“The bottom line with Jordan Pickford is that he is highly rated as the next young talent coming through. Sunderland have given him a long-term contract, and Sunderland want to see him playing. This is a good stage for him to demonstrate to them how good he can be.

“Is he motivated to deliver? Of course he is. People say he is a loan keeper, so how committed will he be? Well – with the four-year contract he has signed at Sunderland – he is committed to making sure that, a year down the line, he is knocking on the door for their first team. I think that is the reality of it, and it means we get a good player along the way.”

Despite the six arrivals, there are still other new signings needed and time is running out. So how is recruitment progressing? David explained, “The end of the transfer window is probably a more important measure than the start of the season, because you can rush people in, not quite getting the people you wanted, and they end up sitting on the bench. And then a week later the person who you really wanted becomes available, and there is nothing you can do.

“As we stand at the minute, I would expect three or four (new signings). Three at the absolute minimum, possibly four, maybe even five depending on the deals.

“No one is rushing into a panic and we are monitoring the situation carefully, these players and their availability. And some things are just worth waiting for.”

One of the key considerations behind the new arrivals is the planned change of playing style this season, which was first mentioned by Julian Rhodes in May. I have been intrigued all summer about how this new direction was agreed and whether this decision has been placed upon Parkinson, similarly to how the West Ham board have laid out certain demands of Sam Allardyce. David confirmed that the new approach was in fact a joint decision between the Board and manager.SAM_2083

“It’s a collaborative decision. We discuss it as a collective group. You digest what went well last season, what didn’t go so well, what things we need to improve and how we can go about it. Now I would highlight the Peterborough home game. We saw a change of system, and it was effective. Although ironically, in the Peterborough away game, the system change that day wasn’t as effective!

“We can still drop to the core 4-4-2 if needed. But the difference now is we have got players who can play both that and the diamond formation. Ultimately the one thing that came out of these discussions is that more mobility and versatility is needed in League One. And so, with the new players, what we are seeing is that coming to fruition. And it’s something we want to supplement further.

“There will be times when we want to go for pacy wingers, so that’s why we are looking for pacy wingers.”

The budget cuts

An ongoing talking point all summer has been the news that the playing budget has been cut to the tune of £500k – a considerable sum of money, with last season’s wage bill rumoured to be just over £2 million. David stressed that he believes the revised budget is nevertheless competitive, and highlighted a wide-ranging focus on delivering greater efficiency in how the club operates, which includes the playing staff.

“There has been a lot of talk about the budget being hacked back by half a million. 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.

I recently did an article in the T&A about efficiencies. This budget is not a hack-back, it is still a very strong budget. And as part of doing that, we are checking the efficiencies of each transfer so that we aren’t paying, for want of a better word, dead money.”

But does that mean there are going to be further outgoings? “Never say never. What’s very important is that we still need to add to this squad. If you have a player leave, you’ve either got to bring in a better player or you’ve got to be in a situation of being made an offer that is too good to turn down that can create funds to improve the team further.”

This leads us onto the future of James Hanson, who has been the subject of tabloid speculation about a £300k transfer offer from Millwall. David confirmed that no bid has been made for James or any player. “There have been no offers. As far as I am concerned, everyone who is here is here and staying, but the picture can always change.

“As far as we are concerned, James Hanson is a good asset to this football club. And we would not want to see him go. However, somebody might make an approach that is too good a deal for him and too good a deal for the club to turn down. That could happen tomorrow, or it could happen in two years’ time.

“From our point of view, we are conscious that we only have 17 professionals in the building. There is enough to start and on the bench, but we are conscious that we need more players to strengthen this team.”

SAM_1706

Off the field matters

With ‘efficiency’ the phrase of the moment, I asked David for examples of where else this has occurred within the club. “We’re in a process of outsourcing to a third party the corporate side of the catering. The company has a good reputation out there in the market place. That arrangement starts on Friday. On a match day, what they will be managing are the Hendrie and McCall suites, Boardroom, 2013 Lounge, Bantams Bar and the boxes. They will also be running events on non-match days.

“It’s a better return for us without all the associated costs of managing it ourselves. I think they will drive the business on, and we – like with the shop – will be rewarded through greater turnover. We get a minimum guarantee and a percentage of sales on top of it, which is the way that the shop deal is structured.

“There is also the closing of the 1911 Club during the week. We haven’t closed it down, it just wasn’t running efficiently on a Monday – Friday basis, and however many people we get in there, versus the labour costs, it’s not going to generate enough income. And it can also detract from the service we offer on midweek match days, which is something we don’t want to do. Unfortunately there have been some redundancies as a result.

“The maintenance of the training ground has also been looked at, and the recruitment of the match day stewards. It’s all about counting the pennies, and no one has been immune to it.”

Another off-the-field developed this summer was the news that long-serving head of youth development, Peter Horne, had left the club. David was guarded over the reasons for this parting of ways but did reveal, “The facts are quite straightforward. Peter offered his resignation, and we accepted that resignation. There is nothing more than that. The reasons why people give their resignations I think it is private to them.

“From a transitional point of view, we have had natural progression of internal staff being promoted, with Alan Nevison taking over the academy. And I think that is testament to the quality of the people we have in the building.”

SAM_2147

The season ahead

Over the previous two campaigns, the Board has set a playing budget higher than the club’s true break-even point, with variants that can be considered for making up the shortfall over the course of the season. David confirmed that the reduced playing budget has again been structured in this way, although added that the difference between the budget and break-even point is lower this time, making it easier to claw back.

“We have another speculative budget this year. The break-even point, and the level we set the manager – there is a difference between the two. You make those decisions based on calculated changes that could happen throughout the season, which I call extraordinary income. Extraordinary income includes cup runs, transfer fees of existing or youth players, add on fees in relation to players who have left who are playing – there are certain trigger points, such as when they play and when they score goals. The other aspect is sell on clauses from other players sold who are further down the line.

“You look at that combination, and our expectation is that we will claw back the overspend from this year to give ourselves, in 12 months’ time, a break-even budget. So we are not carrying debt into next year.”

Earlier in the conversation David had joked about the ongoing speculation over former youth player Tom Cleverley – with any transfer from Manchester United triggering revenue for City through a sell-on clause. “Those things that may exceed the break-even point, we will want to give them to the manager to give him an even more competitive playing budget, without undue risk,” confirmed David.

So with the new faces almost all added, and the new playing style showing promise during pre-season, it just leaves one big, so far unanswered question – what, exactly, are the expectations this season? David declined making any predictions, but concluded the interview his own thoughts.

“My personal view – and the proof will be in the pudding – is that it is a more adaptable and better football team this year compared to last year. I think we have more versatility. We are not reliant on one or two players to score the goals. We are not sitting on laurels as we are not finished yet with building the squad.

“It is a moving beast, but I’m cautiously optimistic that we have a better footballing team in place now. I’m conscious that we have gaps, but it would be nice to think that we could make improvements on last year.”

Diamond in the rough becomes glittering prospect as newest recruits shine

26 Jul

SAM_2147

Bradford City 0

Blackburn Rovers 0

Saturday 26 July, 2014

Written by Katie Wyhatt (images by Jason McKeown)

In what probably provides the most accurate barometer of the development of Phil Parkinson’s squad thus far, Bradford City convincingly held an efficient Blackburn Rovers side to one of the most closely fought and hotly contested pre-season clashes since, well, ever.

This was a friendly on paper, but one edged with all the competitiveness, desire and combativeness of the real thing. Once again, we are presented with a team greater than the sum of its parts: a unit of youth and longevity, but with well-placed experience in the likes of Gary Liddle, Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle.

These players, although many are new to the Bantams faithful, already look eager and determined to match the affection in which their predecessors were rightfully held. After losing possession, for example, Billy Clarke raced back to City’s 18-yard box to – successfully – hound the ball back; Liddle later sprinted a good four metres to deliver a ruthlessly crunching tackle. No one should ever read too much into pre-season, but these initial sightings will undoubtedly provide relief to those worrying about the heirs to Jones’ and Doyle’s midfield.

The Bantams initially fielded what one would perceive, bar the ongoing absence of Aaron Mclean, to be a full-strength side, with all of the new summer recruits making their Valley Parade debuts as Parkinson continued to polish his diamond formation. With Billy Knott at the helm in the hole, Rafa De Vita and Matty Dolan made up the flanks, Liddle anchoring while James Hanson and Clarke framed the forward line.

And the diamond worked well. Bradford were creatively playing between the lines, shifting as a unit, and it’s obvious Parkinson has the intelligent ball players required to make the system work. City were never outnumbered in midfield and valiantly held their own. Liddle probed and hounded and set up the play with a work ethic Gary Jones would be proud of, later moving into a more box-to-box role as he and Dolan seamlessly interchanged. Knott utilised the space well and played countless defence-splitting passes to Hanson and Clarke – it’s clear the former Sunderland prospect possesses not only the brain to play in the formation, but the pace and technical attributes to boot.

De Vita, though offering nothing too fancy, performed tidily before an injury forced him off, providing the link between Darby and Hanson to continue the attacks, even if, at first, he offered little defensively. The diamond’s lack of width meant there was often space out wide willing to be exploited, and there was a period where Darby was under prolonged siege before finding his feet, and Liddle and Dolan shifted to marshal the back four. Time will tell whether De Vita’s cumulative efforts are enough to warrant a new contract. He is undoubtedly composed enough to find a place, but the Italian lacked match sharpness and may struggle to break through amidst a plethora of alternatives.

This isn’t total revolution: directness, of course, is still evident, adding the unpredictability and balance City will need in the coming campaign, but it wasn’t Plan A, and having the energetic Knott to sweep up Hanson’s knockdowns brought a fluidity and ingenuity that just wasn’t there last season. Billy Clarke curled a free kick just over the crossbar from close range, while Hanson and Sheehan both directed shots just wide in efforts that had stemmed from hugely admirable build-up play.

At the other end of the pitch, Jordan Pickford looked secure and patrolled his area with a confidence that belies his tender years, catching the eye with a number of challenging and brave saves. Alan Sheehan’s tenacity and verve were also of note and the defender is a class, class act. In the second half especially, we were treated to a full showing of the Irishman’s enthralling attacking talents when he pressed forwards with a number of quick and considered passes, creating an overload on the left hand side to exploit the space.

As the second half loomed into view, Mark Yeates replaced De Vita and made an immediate impact, pinging a delightful ball to Hanson that Clarke ultimately saw saved. Knott later made way for Kennedy as Yeates slipped into the hole. Yeates, last season’s forgotten man, looked revitalised and relished the greater freedom the diamond affords. What, last season, was mistaken for a lack of positional discipline was very much the order of the day, with the wideman flourishing at the tip of the diamond as he timed his runs and deliveries perfectly. All the while, Sheehan was a bullet of blistering pace and trickery, and complemented his Athlone compatriot perfectly.

The positive tone was maintained for much of the second half, with Parkinson tinkering his charges periodically. Oli McBurnie and Lewis Clarkson replaced Clarke and Hanson in a double substitution, and both troubled the Blackburn goal with clever runs and tackles. James Meredith followed Liddle into the holding midfielder role and did well. Potential goalkeeper Matthew Urwin, an ex-Rovers prospect, had very little, if anything, to do, so was difficult to judge. Two other trialists – French defender Christopher Routis and midfielder Mo Shariff – filled in for Davies and Dolan respectively. Shariff looks a bright prospect, if raw, and delivered several cutting passes; Routis seems fierce and dependable.

The changes marked the end of an afternoon that had heralded many positives. What was clear from the outset today was that Parkinson has the players with the hunger and ability to make this diamond work well, and, whatever teething problems still need to be ironed out in the coming weeks as the new style is tweaked, there were hardly any glaringly obvious errors in his formation, other than the absence of Mclean. The stakes riding on the former Hull man are no secret, so it is frustrating to see the team gelling without him, especially as his return will disrupt the forward line so pivotal to the diamond’s success.

The De Vita conundrum also remains unresolved and the Italian will be hoping today has given Parkinson some positive food for thought – in any case, the noises suggest new arrivals are still impending – but the early signs are nonetheless so promising. The diamond is no longer a glint in someone’s eye, or even a diamond in the rough; it’s materialising here, right now, with these players, and convincingly enough to get you salivating for the opening day.

While the diamond may not yet be sparkling, it is most certainly shining.

City: Pickford (Urwin 46), Darby, McArdle, Davies (Routis 78), Sheehan (Heaton 88), Liddle (Meredith 73), Dolan (Shariff 84), Knott (Kennedy 59), De Vita (Yeates 44), Clarke (Clarkson 69), Hanson (McBurnie 69)

Not used: Campion, Lambe

SAM_2156

 

SAM_2154

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,704 other followers