Bradford City vs Southend United preview
@Valley Parade on Friday 6 April, 2012
As Bradford City’s relegation plight continues to look very serious, there has been some talk this week about how the club should be looking to develop a longer-term focus in the summer, in order to build stronger foundations that mean future relegation troubles might be avoided.
And you want to bang your head on a table repeatedly in frustration.
Long-term thinking? Building for the future? That was exactly the plan last summer, with certain initiatives and preparations put into place. Yet ludicrously much of this long-term outlook was dismissed within a matter of weeks. A few bad first team results, and the value of everything that doesn’t instantly help to get three points the following Saturday was angrily questioned and allowed to be ripped up.
What happened to the Development Squad? Not suitable for a League Two club was the mantra from Michael Flynn, the local paper and many supporters. Should only be done when we get to the Championship was the other point made, as though a Development Squad is just something to have when you’re successful rather than something that can deliver you success.
So it’s quietly being allowed to die a death, and the players still within it are struggling to progress without the coaching and leadership that was previously in place. Only Nahki Wells has graduated from the Development Squad so far, yet even if it had carried on as it was and not delivered any further regular first team players this season, the strategy of building for the future would have still been on track.
Earlier this week, Width of a Post was told by a reliable source the amount of money which the club has spent on loan signings this season. Although it would be wrong to make this figure public, I can say it is quite astonishingly high (far, far above the annual cost of the Development Squad, according to Archie Christie at the time). Much of this high spend is no doubt tied to Andrew Davies’ weekly wage contribution that City are paying to Stoke, but by my rough estimates this still accounts for less than half of the overall figure I have been quoted.
The big question is whether a high spend on loan players is delivering value. Certainly not in the long-term of course – how many of the players we have taken on loan this season will be at the club beyond May? But even in the short-term the value is highly questionable. Davies has been a great signing for sure – even taking into account his disciplinary record – yet the same cannot be said of the likes of Will Atkinson, Andy Haworth and Deane Smalley; or before them the likes of Charlie Taylor, Jamie Devitt, Adam Reed and Michael Bryan. Atkinson and Haworth are not even making the City bench right now, stock piled in reserve in case they might be needed.
Yet rather than adding strength, they are merely taking the places of fringe City players who have been loaned out. Are the club better off for sending Mark Stewart – who can play striker or wide midfield – back to Scotland and instead having Smalley and Atkinson in reserve? Why wasn’t Dominic Rowe given a few games in the cups at least, so we knew better if he could come in now while Kyel Reid struggling to remain available? With defence so short on numbers, wouldn’t it have been better to have tested right backs Andrew Burns and Chris Mitchell at opportune moments earlier in the season, instead of bringing in Rob Kozluk until the end of the season?
All of this is not supposed to be an attack on the loan system. I believe it has plenty of benefits, and without it we would not have Davies at the club and Matt Duke would not have been able to rediscover his form by spending time at Northampton. But Phil Parkinson has replaced fringe players who might develop into good City footballers – in time – with loan players he doesn’t seem to have much interest in playing now, never mind signing permanently. And we are no better off for it.
The principle of the approach taken last summer – of signing young, promising players like Stewart and Mitchell, backed up by the Development Squad nurturing the next tier of players – was to me the absolute right one. But for it to succeed there had to be recognition that performances at the start of the season were something to be improved upon, not a definitive marker of how well the strategy was going to work. We can complain that Mitchell and Stewart struggled on day one against Aldershot – so too did Jack Compton, but kept in the team he began to flourish. Most of all we needed cool heads and genuine belief in what we were trying to do. That didn’t happen.
Which leaves Bradford City tredding water until the end of the season, looking increasingly desperate for games to run out before they sink below the dotted line. The squad has improved over the campaign for sure, and there is the basis for something to build on going into next season. But abandoning the long-term thinking last autumn because the club’s plight was apparently too serious (the reason given at the time) has caused all the resources to be sunk into short-term plans that have led to minimal improvement. And so we approach the final furlong of the season with no tangible signs of progress, as a club, from where we were a year ago.
And it’s all very well and good talking about building the right way now; but we said the same thing a year ago, tried it for a bit and then ditched it. And now there doesn’t seem to be a vision going forward, and the longer Parkinson is in this job the more the doubts about him are growing. No faith or trust whatsoever in youth when the going gets tough, it seems – witness the number of starts younger players Ritchie Jones and Wells have received over the past few weeks. Trust the seniors to get us over the line – and right now we’ve ended up in a position where we don’t really have any choice – but then what?
Much of these points are for another day, perhaps. But it seems to me that City have got themselves into a bit of a mess, which is pretty much entirely self-inflicted. The summer planning and building for the future could have come in handy at times like this, but instead Scott Brown, Rowe, Burns, Mitchell, Stewart, Ross Hannah and others are at pretty much the same stage they were nine months ago – untried potential.
None of these players are likely to feature tomorrow for the crucial visit of Southend, as Parkinson looks to build on a promising display at Plymouth by turning narrow defeats into points. City have lost five in six – only one of those, where Craig Fagan had been sent off, by more than a goal. Improvement is required, but the Bantams are not a million miles away from getting the positive results they badly need. The sight of Southend – who City defeated last December to spark a three match winning streak – could provide inspiration. Not losing tomorrow looks very important.
Matt Duke keeps goal having attracted a lot of plaudits for his display upon returning to the club, at Plymouth last Saturday. In front of him will be Guy Branston and Lee Bullock, with question marks once more about the full backs. Although his form has been average, Parkinson will be hoping Matt Fry is back to fitness so he doesn’t need to keep Kozluk on his wrong side. Simon Ramsden was apparently not fit last weekend, despite starting, but hopefully a week without a Tuesday fixture will have helped his recovery.
In the middle Parkinson attracted a lot of criticism for selecting four central midfielders in Devon, though it was good to see Jones back in the fold after been unfairly overlooked for almost a month. If Reid is fit and not on baby duty, he will return from the start; or Smalley could get a recall in a wide midfield berth. On the other flank, Craig Fagan is a likely candidate to drop back from up front given Parkinson has good forward options. So two from Jones, Ricky Ravenhill, David Syers and Flynn will probably make way.
James Hanson has scored only twice in seven since his return from injury, but is generally playing well and should come back in up front. Alongside him Chris Dagnall is proving a worthwhile use of that significant loan signing spending. That said, Wells does not deserve to be on the bench following his recent performances. The Bermudian is, however, a good impact sub and gives the crowd a lift when he is introduced – so he will probably remain on the sidelines ready to be used later in the match.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of how the club has been managed this season, it’s clear that this is a vital point in the club’s future where we all have to pull together. The atmosphere in home games this season has largely been improved, and the fact Southend are near the top means we supporters will stick behind the players rather than get on their backs. There is a lot of talk about how important the next home game, Macclesfield, is likely to prove – but one of the biggest dangers of that fixture is that the expectation levels will rest more heavily on the players’ shoulders, compared to tomorrow.
So tomorrow is not a day to waste by weakly losing. Everyone together, trying to make sure a giant step to safety is taken. At which point we can fully debate how we can stop this club from tredding water in the vein that we have for the last three seasons.