By Jason McKeown
This summer marks the 10th year anniversary of one of the most miserable sequence of events in the modern day history of Bradford City – and as much as we might like to believe those days are behind us, much of the present is still weighed heavily down by the past.
10 years ago the club was in ruins, on the brink of closing as debts of £36 million pushed the Bantams into administration. We ultimately survived, but the after effects included losing ownership of our ground – while the playing squad, which in 2002 saw mass departures, has struggled to regain stability ever since.
Since then, we keep partaking in an annual event each May which reaches its 10th anniversary this summer: the big clear out.
Once again, City are going for a large overhaul. Seven players released, another six told they can go. Should Phil Parkinson get his way on getting rid of all of the latter group, we would have just eight players contracted for next season. That figure will hopefully swell to 11, with three out of contract players mulling over new offers; but it all means that – just like the nine previous summers – the manager has a lot of recruitment business to attend to. A manager fairly new to the job always finds favour from some by taking this approach, and there is no doubt that the mantra of getting rid of under-achievers sounds like a good PR message to supporters.
However – and this is a generalisation to make – going down this route have hardly proven to be a successful strategy for the Bantams in the past. Each pre-season, we have welcomed a high number of new faces and had to accept the reality that the club is going to struggle to hit the ground running when the league matches begin, because there is time needed to gel. Each season, the summer transfer activity has led to a mixed bag, with some clever recruitment and some unsuccessful signings. Perhaps this year it will be different and Parkinson will build a squad capable of matching the club’s increased ambition, but the last nine years offer little confidence that this “tear it up and start again” strategy will be different and work this time around.
And when you look at what kind of signings Parkinson will need to make, the likelihood of people complaining of disappointing signings come September appears very likely. It has been pointed out that – if the City manager can persuade the out of contract Luke Oliver, Simon Ramsden and David Syers to stay – eight of the 11 players who started the final game of the season against Swindon will still be at the club. But that suggests Parkinson is going to either spend the summer signing players to take their place in the team, or have to find squad players to back them up.
Take the centre of midfield, which for much of the 2011/12 season was generally considered to be our strongest area. With Ricky Ravenhill, Michael Flynn, Syers, Ritchie Jones and Lee Bullock to choose from – Parkinson was never going to be struggling for options. Just two of those five will definitely be at Valley Parade next summer and, even if Syers signs a deal, the focus for Parkinson for this part of his summer recruitment will surely be finding a back up to Ravenhill, Jones and Syers – rather than someone to take their place. In such circumstances, you wonder why he has chosen to let Bullock leave the building. Basically, Parkinson must find a player of Bullock’s ability, and be happy to join City to sit on the bench; or otherwise sign a first choice midfielder and break up a part of the team which – in the case of first choice Ravenhill and Jones – has spent much of the last few months developing the sort of understanding you would expect to be key next year.
Then there is the defence. As is stands City have just no contracted defenders who Parkinson wants to keep, but is hoping Simon Ramsden and Luke Oliver will sign up. The offer of a deal for Ramsden surprised me. As good a player as he has been for City, his injury record ever since joining three years ago has meant a greater reliance on having a strong back up right back than squad budgeting would appear to allow. In my view, Ramsden did not end the season in great form and is beginning to look like his injuries have taken their toll. If he is to be first choice right back next season I have some concerns; but even if he is to become back up – that injury record does not offer great assurance that he would be available when needed.
Last season the defence improved greatly under Parkinson, but we are almost having to start all over again from scratch with just Oliver penned in for a regular spot. That, as well as he performed, was the folly of entrusting Andrew Davies all season. One is left disappointed that Parkinson is so keen to get rid of Guy Branston after the impressive form he displayed at the end of last season. He was demonstrating that he can forge a good partnership with Oliver. It is unrealistic to expect Parkinson to sign someone as good as Davies to replace the Stoke defender in the backline, but can he sign someone better than Branston?
Up front we have a similar issue to midfield. A promising forward partnership has been developed between Nahki Wells and James Hanson, and they deserve to continue that next season without Parkinson looking to replace either of them. Indeed the manager has spoken recently of his determination to keep hold of them both, following rumours they may leave. Throw in Ross Hannah too, and City are looking for a 3rd or 4th choice striker rather than a headline act. Parkinson is said to be chasing Port Vale’s Marc Richards.
Add in the possibility of a new keeper being recruited to replace the potentially departing Matt Duke, and Parkinson goes into this summer needing not only to find the right players to fill three or four key positions in his first choice team, but needing squad players to act as cover and directly replace the fringe players he has told to find a new club.
And herein lies the dilemma, because Parkinson faces either signing a lot of players who he won’t expect to start in the first eleven, at least at first (which in time will lead people to arguing he has made poor signings) or risk destabilising the parts of the team he has already successfully built because the players he targets to sign will only join if they are promised regular football. After all, what striker – Richards or otherwise – is going to want to sign for the Bantams knowing they will be third choice to Hanson and Wells?
The answer, it would seem, is young players. Those discarded by bigger clubs, looking for an opportunity to at least be closer to first team action than they were. And here is where the cycle of the last 10 years continues. Because we’ve done this approach to death – from Luke Cornwall to Robert Wolleaston, from Steven Schumacher to Michael Symes, from Eddie Johnson to Nathan Joynes, from Simon Eastwood to Robbie Threlfall. We take on other clubs’ discarded youngsters with their supposed pedigree – and sometimes they work out well for a time, but eventually they move on with a handful of decent memories and little progress to their careers. Or overall progress for the club.
The player turnover at Valley Parade over the past decade has been incredible. By my calculations, approximately 210 different players have pulled on a Bradford City shirt for a competitive match since we exited administration for the first time. That’s an average of 21 debuts per season. It’s not an approach which has proved conducive to building a winning football team.
That is not Parkinson’s fault of course, and there is no doubt he needed to strengthen the squad for next season. But it’s worth pointing out that he has been in the job for almost a full season now, and that perhaps – in return for the money he has spent – we might reasonably expect to have more than just three of his signings still at the club and in next season’s plans. If we are to seriously suggest that Parkinson had no choice but to take a short-term route of spending money on players to keep City in League Two last season, with little thought on matters beyond that – because last summer Peter Jackson ripped up the playing squad and made a number of poor signings – then sadly you have to fear the high possibility of a repeat.
Perhaps the 12-14 signings Parkinson will probably have to make this summer will turn around the club’s fortunes, but – for a change, when looking at the last decade – I hope he is not targeting players with the insular view of merely being successful next season, but also proving successful over a longer period. It would be nice if this 10th anniversary of clearing the decks could also prove to be our last, at least for a while.