Phil Parkinson’s December Manager of the Month award may have crowned a period of significant improvement for Bradford City, but indifferent results in January have underlined how far there still is to go.
With the added distraction of the January transfer window – which, just like every other City manager before him since transfer windows were introduced, has seen Parkinson questioned by some over every in and out – the City manager has increasingly come in for criticism over the club’s recent and overall performance since he took charge. Perhaps this viewpoint doesn’t merit much significance – the majority of supporters appear to be firmly behind Parkinson for the moment – but this soundtrack of grumbles demonstrates the challenges he faces merely keeping his job beyond the end of a two-year contract.
Something which doesn’t necessarily correspond with the objectives of having a Development Squad. This week’s player departures included one member of this initiative, Patrick Lacey, and another who many assume was a part of it, Nialle Rodney (actually a first team summer signing). With Terry Dixon having already departed, and Parkinson so far favouring bringing in loan players rather than utilising Development Squad players – some of who were expected to be on the fringes of the first team by now – there has recently been much discussion about whether the Development Squad is quietly being scrapped.
Indeed Parkinson has already made some interesting comments regarding the Development Squad when asked about it during a Friends of Bradford City Forum at the beginning of January; offering the opinion that he thought it a good idea, but not in the current model. He felt that the high number of players at the club, as a result of having it, meant the backroom staff struggled to cope. This suggests a scaled down version of the Development Squad may evolve.
This is fair comment, but it is worth looking at some of the reasons for the problem of having too many players and not enough backroom staff. For one thing, the first team squad itself has become top-heavy due to the high turnover of players we have seen this season. My matchday programme for the first game against Aldershot Town, back in August, lists 29 players – 21 of which have featured in the first team since, of which six have left the club. Parkinson has made 12 signings since taking charge, of which nine remain. 34 different players have played for Parkinson this season – 26 still employed by the club. With so many comings and goings, it is no wonder the backroom staff have struggled to cope with a Development Squad on top of the first team.
Archie Christie – brought to the club by Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn during the summer – was supposed to be in charge of the Development Squad. Since he departed in November he has yet to be replaced. Wayne Allison was supposed to be the Development Squad coach; he left in December, and Lawn revealed that – rather than recruit a replacement coach – Parkinson preferred the money be added to the first team playing budget instead. It is little wonder that the Development Squad has apparently become more of an issue to manage, because it no longer has dedicated support to operate it. Peter Horne is said to be overseeing it now, but has all the youth teams to focus on too.
All of which demonstrates the change in priorities that the Development Squad is left to suffer from. Christie’s departure from a role of overseeing the footballing side of the club means greater responsibility has fallen upon Parkinson’s shoulders; but his priority is understandably to make sure the team win on Saturday, the club ultimately avoids relegation and that he can keep his job.
There is much less incentive for Parkinson to spend time developing players, because if first team results aren’t fantastic – like in recent weeks – he is the first person to be criticised and come under pressure. So beyond even the Development Squad, short-termism is taking precedence even over using players on the fringes of the first team. Deane Smalley has rocked up at Valley Parade on loan as a proven League Two player, while Mark Stewart – a player of some potential – heads back to Scotland for first team football. Meanwhile Ross Hannah will now struggle to even get a place on the bench and Rodney is released.
The here and now is once again becoming the be all and end all; and this halfway through what was heralded last summer as a “building season”. And while the club’s relegation worries dictate that priorities have to adapt – because an exit from the Football League would be a significant set back threatening the very future of the club – perhaps there is also an ingrained culture at Valley Parade which means everything has to be about instant success. As supporters we have seen manager after manager struggle to revive our fortunes, yet still for some the cause of recent problems is the man in the dugout. Six months into its launch, the Development Squad idea is said to be a failure.
Whatever it is, there is a fear that – while the club should avoid relegation and as much as that would be something to be pleased about – we increasingly look as though we are going to end this season with not much greater promise about the future than we had at the end of the last one. Perhaps some of the short-term players Parkinson has signed will earn longer contracts during the summer and be a key part of our future; but if fringe and Development Squad players find they have to look away from Valley Parade for opportunities to further their career and the short-term players also leave, not a great deal will have been gained from this season.
Ultimately, the future of the Development Squad is down to the club’s Board and how serious they ever were about it. One of the reasons Christie was hired over the summer was to implement this strategy; and Rhodes and Lawn set aside extra cash to help fund it, along with Archie volunteering to go without pay so more money could be available towards it.
If Rhodes and Lawn still believe in the benefits of pursuing the Development Squad strategy – which has already helped to produce one first team player in Nakhi Wells, and sees Andrew Burns captaining the reserves ahead of out-of-favour senior players – they need to get someone in to manage it. That’s not a criticism of Parkinson, as it’s completely understandable that he has different priorities. But alongside the first team manager having a number one aim of climbing the league table, the Development Squad needs someone overseeing it with a single-minded objective of providing first team-standard players.