By Jason McKeown
Slowly but surely, piece by piece, a clearer picture is emerging on the surface of the jigsaw Phil Parkinson is trying to build for next season. The arrival of 35-year-old Gary Jones on a one year deal from Rochdale on Friday has understandably raised eyebrows because of his age, but it is arguably the extreme end of a philosophy that Parkinson is hoping will instigate a quick dash to League One.
Andrew Davies is 27, Rory McArdle is 25. Both of Parkinson’s other summer signings have demonstrated they are capable of playing – and playing very well – at League Two level. Jones is no different, and it seems that a shared quality in all of Parkinson’s summer signings will be ‘experience’.
On Wednesday night, two of the people who know him best – the T&A’s Simon Parker and former BBC Radio Leeds head of Sport Derm Tanner – were explaining to a group of supporters how Parkinson is looking to build a squad made up of players who he can be confident of putting straight into the team and doing a job. No more hoping someone might prove themselves up to it, Parkinson wants there to be no doubts. It is not going to be a season where younger footballers – with the exception of proven League Two players such as Nahki Wells and Ritchie Jones – are likely to prosper at Valley Parade.
Parkinson ended last season with the spine of a team which can play successfully as this level. A goalkeeper in Jon McLaughlin who has played 64 times for the club now, centre backs Luke Oliver (278 career games) and Davies (179), midfielders Ritchie Jones (175), Ricky Ravenhill (350) and Kyel Reid (140), and strikers James Hanson (124 professional appearances) and Wells (67 career appearances). Davies has been kept on, and McArdle (201 career appearances) and Gary Jones (565) add to that experience.
We have been here before. Most recently two years ago, when Peter Taylor tried a not too dissimilar squad building approach that was aimed at having two players for every position. One of the major drawbacks was the realisation he had gone for quantity over quality (a bit like Nicky Law in 2003); and certainly it was a case of hoping several players, inexperienced and/or unproven at League Two level, would be good enough. Largely, they were not.
That is not to say that young players are suddenly a bad thing. Indeed it should be noted that several of the players who let Taylor down with his squad approach in 2010/11 were highly experienced and proven League Two footballers. By the time that poor season came to an end, experienced players were viewed as a bad thing because they were seemingly going through the motions of a career winding down. “We needed young, hungry players” was how the pendulum swung again. Now we are back looking for players who have done notable things in League Two – and asking them to simply replicate what they are capable of.
There are several new players still needed – especially considering exisiting squad players are being asked to find a new club – and it seems unlikely we’ll see any Louis Moults, Jake Speights or Tom Adeyemis coming in (or the next David Syers), beyond a loan player or two. Strikers are a moot point, where 34-year-old Andy Gray remains on the Bantams’ radar and seems reasonably likely to sign for the club. Two full backs are required also, potentially a back up keeper to replace the unwanted Duke, and – perhaps the key to much of how next season will go – a right winger. (Width of a Post understands Garry Thompson is currently on holiday after having productive talks with City.)
The interesting development to Parkinson’s signings is they are seemingly replacing high-performing existing players in a first choice eleven. Not many people would have looked at last season’s team and concluded that a centre half needed to be signed to play ahead of Oliver, but that is what Parkinson has done with the capture of McArdle. Ritchie Jones had a very good first season for City and – having signed a four year deal last summer – would seem to be a key component in the future of the club. There’s a sneaking suspicion that his namesake, Gary, will get the nod over Ritchie in the centre of City’s midfield next season. As much as many City fans are hoping to see Gray sign, I am personally not one of them if all he is going to do is take Hanson’s place.
But thinking of first choice XIs is probably where we are going wrong. Parkinson demonstrated last season a fondness for rotating his squad, and signing players as good if not better than the ones already around suggests that chopping and changing game-to-game could deliver far better results than it did last season. Expect to hear “Parkinson doesn’t even know his best XI” from dissenters throughout 2012/13, but football has clearly moved on from the days of a settled 1 to 11, and so too must we City fans.
Like with Taylor, ultimately you look at next season as a real sink or swim moment. On the surface Parkinson is paying limited thought to medium and longer-term considerations – it is all about instant results. If, like Taylor, he doesn’t deliver them, it will be difficult for him to escape criticism or to keep his job beyond his two-year contract expiring next May. Parkinson has to get it right, or he is going to face the usual consequences. Long-term building was last summer’s mantra and, as a club, we found we could not (some said should not) do it.
So you can understand the thinking of Parkinson in the type of players he has brought in and is still looking to attract. It’s going to be a season to trust in the wisdom of age and to hope we’ve signed players looking to end their career on a high, rather than in comfort. Expect some fireworks at Valley Parade next season – whether it goes right or wrong.