2011 reviewed: stuck in reverse

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of looking back on Bradford City’s 2011 is the familiarity of the tone and content when comparing it to recent years. Disappointment, underachievement, misadventure and frustration; for 2011 read 2010, 2009, 2008 and so many others. We seem to end every calendar year looking back with dissatisfaction, while expressing hope the next 12 months will finally be better.

As a measure of how badly 2011 has gone for City, we need only reflect upon the outlook during its opening few days. The year began with back to back wins over Lincoln City and Bury which lifted the Bantams to a season-best 10th-placed league position, just three points shy of the play offs. Yet the 1-0 success over Bury was quickly overshadowed by fears manager Peter Taylor was about to leave the club, after it was revealed Newcastle United had offered him the position of assistant manager to Alan Pardew. With his City contract due to expire in May, it seemed inevitable Taylor would set off to the North East.

To widespread delight at the time, Taylor turned down the opportunity of returning to the Premier League. Perhaps when looking back on his own year and noting how well Newcastle are performing, the 58-year-old will feel a sense of regret for staying. Barely a month later, Taylor departed Valley Parade by mutual consent. Loyalty only gets you so far it seems; though for City, the compensation they missed out on if Taylor had accepted Newcastle’s job offer – rather than depart a few weeks later – would have come in handy too.

Taylor’s fall in popularity had started during the first half of the 2010/11 season, but it began to accelerate in pace barely a week after making his decision to remain a League Two manager. That was because of a shocking 3-1 home loss to basement club Barnet, followed by defeats to Oxford, Aldershot and Crewe, a 2-2 draw at leaders Chesterfield and then a further three reverses from four games. The last of these – the home fixture with Chesterfield – saw City easily outplayed and discontent in the stands relatively high. Taylor decided to stand down two days later, chiefly blaming supporters.

Looking back on Taylor’s reign ten months on, it is still a mystery why his appointment worked out so disappointingly. He looked to be the outstanding candidate from a wide range of choices to replace Stuart McCall back in February 2010, but despite his strong experience and notable track record Taylor was unable to repeat his previous successes. Taylor largely attributed poor form to an extraordinary injury list, and certainly this played a part in the club failing to live up to the tag of pre-season favourites. Yet still, his pragmatic style of football and the way certain squad players were alienated left little room for sympathy. We were entitled to expect more.

Enter Jackson

Taylor stayed on for one more game – a nerve-jangling 3-2 victory over basement club Stockport, which saw two Hatters’ players sent off and Gareth Evans netting the winner deep into stoppage time. For a long period it seemed as though City would lose to Stockport, and the frustration of a lack of promotion challenge was being replaced by very real fears of relegation. An upturn was needed. Quickly.

Peter Jackson rocked up at Valley Parade a day later as interim manager on a week-to-week basis – with Taylor’s backroom staff Junior Lewis and, more disturbingly, Wayne Jacobs placed on gardening leave. Jackson, a former City captain, quickly made it known how passionate he felt for the club and his desire to earn the job full time; though debates among supporters about his more recent Huddersfield Town ties ensured he received a mixed welcome.

A disappointing start at Gillingham (2-0 loss) aside, the early signs were encouraging. Jackson’s first game in charge was an entertaining 2-1 home victory over Rotherham, where Taylor’s workmanlike 4-3-3 formation was ditched for a more bright and attack-minded 4-4-2. A few days later James Hanson’s header earned a 1-0 win at Morecambe and Jackson appeared nailed on to get the job on a permanent basis; but after a 1-1 draw at home to Northampton Joint-Chairmen Mark Lawn spoke publicly of how he thought the performances against Morecambe and the Cobblers “weren’t very good”.

Soon City reverted to old form, losing five of their next seven games. During a 4-0 thrashing at Southend in mid-April, unhappy away supporters chanted “love the club, hate the team.” After a 3-0 defeat to Accrington on Easter Saturday, the gap to the bottom two was four points with three games to play. This nosedive – coupled with a revival in results for 23rd-placed Barnet, meant relegation worries had become stronger than ever. It was hard to see us earning another point all season.

To Jackson and the team’s credit, they dug out a vital 2-1 win over Aldershot two days later, and then a 1-1 draw at Hereford confirmed survival. A good job as the season ended with a shocking 5-1 home defeat to Crewe. The relationship between supporters and players seemed to be at an all-time low, a mood which Jackson helped to fuel with his public criticisms and by introducing a vote-winner policy of ordering the players to wash their own kit next season.

Financial worries

Any relief at surviving relegation from the Football League was completely overshadowed by yet more financial concerns. In April the club announced it was in talks with Valley Parade landlord and former Chairman, Gordon Gibb, about reducing the level of rent they have to pay to use their home. A bleak financial picture was painted regarding the consequences of failing to reach an agreement with Gibb and/or Prupim – the company that owned the Valley Parade offices and car parks, which the club also rented. No deal and City would look to move to Odsal, home of Bradford Bulls.

So much uncertainty surrounded the practicalities of moving to Odsal – such as the financial cost of breaking the Valley Parade lease – that some doubted its credibility as a threat. Gibb may have shared this view, and refused to renegotiate existing terms. In the end a deal was agreed with Prupim for members of the Board to buy the parts of Valley Parade it had owned, meaning a sufficient reduction in overall rent could be made to enable the club to continue playing at Valley Parade. Still, with the impact of failing to get promoted under Taylor including a vastly reduced playing budget for next season, the immediate future seemed difficult.

Reflecting back on these events, it would appear Gibb’s stranglehold on the club was strengthened rather than placed in any jeopardy. There has been previous talk of moving to Odsal and discussions with Gibb about buying back Valley Parade, yet he was unwilling to lower an extremely high asking price. The Spring negotiations were the most serious challenge to his arrangement so far, but he maintained his public silence and once again refused to budge an inch. Gibb was presented with the possible consequence of no longer having tenants and therefore a piece of land he would lose millions of pounds on, yet he refused to blink first and City never followed through those threats. Having survived without compromising, it seems unlikely he will feel sufficiently pressured to alter his stance in future. Talks to buy Valley Parade have apparently continued into this season, but it’s difficult to see a resolution anytime soon.

Before buying City in 2002, Gibb had no previous experience of football clubs. His quick departure in 2003 suggested he didn’t particularly enjoy what he saw, and perhaps he observes City spending relatively big on players like Tommy Doherty and despairs when they later approach him about paying less rent. A few weeks after City agreed the Prupim deal in the summer, the unexpected windfall of a League Cup draw with Leeds was being used in a failed attempt to sign Dagenham’s Romain Vincelot for £100k. You could picture Gibb smiling while shaking his head.

Long-term planning

While the rental talks stretched into the close season, the outlook for the 2011/12 campaign looked bleak for City. The vacant manager position was apparently a choice between Dagenham’s John Still and Jackson, but the former ruled himself out of the running after being painted a stark picture of how bad the finances he would have to operate under could be. Jackson may have got the job over Still anyway, and a day after the Prupim deal was announced his interim role was made permanent.

So began a low-key summer filled with talk of building for the future. The coming season – unlike the previous four – was not promotion or bust. Instead of targeting high calibre but ageing players; potential and hunger were key characteristics to look for in summer signings. Jackson oversaw this approach, with Archie Christie appointed above him.

Christie had come to Lawn and Julian Rhodes’ attention during the interviews with Still – who he had worked directly for ever since the Dagenham manager’s Barnet days. Still may have turned down the chance to move North, but the Joint-Chairmen had been impressed enough with Christie’s credentials to offer him a job as Chief Scout and Head of Football Development at City. Turning down a salary in favour of the club spending such money setting up a Development Squad, a 20-page report on how the club could move forward – produced by Christie – began to be put into action.

From supporters viewing players so negatively at the end of last season, the work-rate and passion of summer arrivals quickly won over those who attended pre-season friendlies. Nevertheless a slow start to the season seemed inevitable – as young players with limited League Two experience found their feet. When that slow start did occur, the long-term ethos began to go out the window.

Jackson resigned after just four league games – a decision yet to be fully explained in public. Both Rhodes and Christie alluded to him struggling to cope with the long hours that were demanded of him. This has incurred some criticism from two City Gent writers, but speaking personally as someone who works in an environment where long hours are expected and you have a passion to go beyond even that at times, in order your job better, it doesn’t seem out of the ordinary or unacceptable for Jackson’s employer’s to have expected more than he was apparently giving. We look forward to one day hearing Jackson’s side of the story (an autobiography is under production).

Three managers in one year

Colin Cooper – assistant to Jackson – oversaw two excellent results, then Phil Parkinson was appointed on a two year contract. In an ideal world Parkinson would have taken over during the summer; building and preparing the squad for the season in the way he wanted to. Instead, and quite understandably, there was a period of some disruption as he sought to bring in his own players and ideals.

The turnover has been high. Players brought in by Jackson and Christie – who hadn’t received sufficient time to either look good enough or not good enough for this level – saw their first team opportunities decrease as Parkinson’s arrivals took their place. With results failing to improve sufficiently, another relegation battle has materialised. The objective – just like a year earlier – is to avoid relegation. You get the feeling it could be a bumpier ride this time out, though the magnificent exploits in all three cup competitions does offer optimism that it is a battle City can win. As have the back-to-back league wins over Southend and Crewe which occured either side of Christmas.

Meanwhile Christie has followed Jackson in exiting Valley Parade after only a short period. His four year plan was still taking shape, and there were genuine reasons to feel optimistic that – despite poor first team results – initiatives like the Development Squad and a better scouting network would deliver improvement in time. Terry Dixon – a key member of that Development Squad – has recently left for Dover. While no one was expecting a 100% success ratio of these players making City’s first team and it should be noted Nahki Wells – another member of the Development Squad – has become a first team player, Dixon had been pencilled in by Parkinson and Christie for a senior debut by November. His departure therefore hints further that long-term thinking is no longer the main focus.

There is a strong argument to be made that it can’t be – City’s league position is perhaps too perilous to be focusing on plans that will take more time to bear fruit. A goalscorer is needed, so rather than wait for Dixon and others to develop, around £100k will be handed to Parkinson in January to recruit a proven one. If the spending of that money results in City still being in League Two this time next year, it will largely have been justified.

The future

Rhodes has spoken of replacing Christie – who had been offered a promotion to Chief Executive – and that search is hopefully taking place behind the scenes. Christie appeared to offer something that no one else at Valley Parade could and – without someone suitable coming in to pick up and continue his plan to improve the club – a greater weight of responsibility falls upon Parkinson’s shoulders. Not only does he need to deliver instant results on the pitch, without the appointment of a Christie-like figure the longer-term strategy and youth set up will become more of his responsbility than they were when he first joined the club.

A year ago if someone had told us we’d end 2011 still in League Two we’d have felt disappointed, now the expectation levels have been downgraded to the point maintaining our place in England’s bottom tier at the end of 2012 will be considered a successful year. Yet the problem remains that City habitually under-achieve on what we expect of them, and the subtle lowering of the bar over the past 12 months has only seen the level of achievement fall in line too.

Rightly or wrongly, we until recently believed ourselves too big to be in this division and easily capable of escaping its clutches. We may still tower above most of our League Two rivals off the field, but on it the road to recovery has never appeared so dauntingly long in its distance.

Categories: Opinion

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