Ending the near-perfect summer as City kick off at Gillingham

Gillingham vs Bradford City match preview

@The Priestfield Stadium on Saturday 18 August, 2012

By Jason McKeown

104 days have passed since Bradford City ended the 2011/12 league campaign with a credible draw against champions Swindon Town, and the general mood in and around the club has remained suitably upbeat ever since.

In fact, it is difficult to imagine how the close season could have gone much better for the Bantams. True, Phil Parkinson failed in a bid to bring Andy Gray back to Valley Parade; and a nasty Guiseley tackle has robbed him of Ricky Ravenhill until November. But when judged against pre-seasons of the last few years, which have included all manner of issues, this summer’s 104-day gap has proved a tranquil and satisfying journey.

Indeed it’s worth comparing the last three months at Valley Parade with the experience of tomorrow’s opponents, Gillingham. On the field, it took the Kent club two months to replace the sacked Andy Hessenthaler before they finally settled upon Martin Allen. As a result they’ve had a late start recruiting new players, though will be due a sizeable sell-on windfall if and when Wolves cash in on ex-Gills winger Matt Jarvis.

Off the field, money problems have caused some headlines for Gillingham with £34k worth of utility bills going unpaid (the club apparently claiming they did not know they owed money). Former Bantams loanee Mark McCammon has also successfully won a tribunal claim of racial victimisation when they dismissed him from the club (earning a £68k payout). And Travellers have taken over part of their training ground! An eventful summer for Gillingham then, and – despite winning six of their seven pre-season friendlies and enjoying an impressive League Cup win over Bristol City midweek – not one that you would want to swap with City’s generally stress-free break.

But from tomorrow, it really does get serious all over again. Writing in the Telegraph & Argus earlier this week, Parkinson showed a degree of self-awareness regarding the rising expectation levels that he himself has helped to cause. There has been a big turnover of players – just like any other pre-season – but new arrivals have been lower in number, with quality over quantity.

The pitfalls of having a smaller squad are obvious – let us hope for a quiet treatment room over the coming months, because every time a City player goes down injured this season we will all feel that little more anxious. The loan market remains a likely stop off point along the way, though whether Parkinson has much of his budget left is doubtful. Last season he apparently spent £250k on loan signings; there will certainly be no repeat of this.

Instead Parkinson will know that how successful the Bantams are going to be this season is dependent on a relatively small group of players. Again, no repeat of last season, where 40+ players were utilised. As supporters we can expect to become very used to seeing the same players’ week in week out. In many ways there is going to a change of mentality that we must get used to: from demanding that anyone under-performing is dropped or got rid of, to instead hoping they can improve on the training ground. It very much appears – at least at this moment of time – that we will see the most settled Bantams starting XI and subs since the 1998/99 promotion season.

Oops, we just said the ‘p’ word. That’s the interesting aspect of a close season watching Parkinson spend the biggest playing budget in four years – the absence of that word from everyone’s lips. It’s not that people aren’t thinking it, many people clearly are, but that – like a pantomime actor who has to be told to “break a leg” instead of “good luck” – there’s a superstitious fear that saying it out loud means City will be jinxed again.

Contrasting mood

At least that is the outlook amongst a large section of supporters. For many others that I have chatted to over the summer – who, for one reason or another, have felt a need to stay quiet – there is worry and doubt. We’re talking about a club which finished 18th last season, and who looked a long, long way off being promotion material. Julian Rhodes’ attempts to blame last season’s failings solely on the management of Peter Jackson were unfair and ill-judged; the quiet dismantling of the Development Squad and distancing from the good stuff Archie Christie delivered a worryingly short-term move. The catalyst for the feel-good summer was the permanent signing of Andrew Davies. Yet as good a player as he undoubtedly is, he was still part of last season’s side that struggled to remain in the Football League.

I find myself agreeing with both camps. With the latter viewpoint, there is no doubt that the club is placing all of its eggs in one basket, which could come back to haunt us if things do not work out. Mark Lawn has once again publically praised Parkinson this week (while unfairly insulting two club legends). That is commendable, but if Parkinson fails to deliver, the joint chairmen will have a difficult time turning around and criticising their own managerial appointment in the manner they did of Jackson. There will be a mightily big inquest if things don’t go to plan this season, and if the short-term focus leads to another summer of cut backs and a need to move on players who we can’t afford – with not many players behind them.

Only this week, young winger Dominic Rowe has been released by the Bantams. Last October, Rowe was on loan at Barrow and performing extremely impressively for the Blue Square Premier Club. Parkinson was happy enough to agree to award Rowe a two-year contract. Yet less than a year later City have torn it up at a cost. Perhaps his progress has gone backwards since the Development Squad was binned, but it seems premature to release him so soon.

That is the negative side of things, but I do also understand the pre-season optimism. The team undoubtedly looks a lot better than last season’s; we should be competing in the top half of the table rather than the bottom. Parkinson is a good manager, and continues to impress as he approaches his first anniversary in charge. There is a lot of ground to make up on last season, but we all start together at 0 points come 3pm tomorrow. A close run on the play offs would leave me very happy.

The first league test

Gillingham tomorrow represents a tough start. Rarely a happy hunting ground for the Bantams – five of the last seven trips to the Priestfield stadium have ended in defeat – Gillingham finished short of the play offs last season but are expected to challenge again. It is therefore a useful early barometer of how the Bantams measure up, even if it would be far, far, far too early to make any conclusive judgements either way.

After Saturday’s cup heroics in Nottingham, Parkinson will go into tomorrow’s fixture not needing to make wholesale changes. He has revealed this week that a final decision has not yet been made on whether Matt Duke or Jon McLaughlin will begin the season as City’s number one, but the smart money would be on Duke retaining his place after impressing at Meadow Lane.

The back four from Saturday surely all deserve to retain their places, but with Davies and Nathan Doyle close to fitness there may be a temptation to accommodate one or both of the star summer signings. Full backs Stephen Darby and James Meredith started the season well, meaning there is no urgency in pushing Rory McArdle into right or left back so Davies can be accommodated. It would be a big call to drop Oliver, given he has continued where he left off last season.

Davies or Doyle could be moved into the centre of midfield – the former performed this role effectively against Huddersfield in the JPT last season. This would allow Gary Jones to take on a more attacking role in the centre of the park, though if Ritchie Jones is fit it may be him who replaces Will Atkinson as Gary Jones’ partner. Kyel Reid and Garry Thompson continue on the flanks.

Up front, the impressive competitive debut of Alan Connell could leave Nahki Wells on the bench again, which would be a surprise and unsatisfactory start to the season for the highly-rated striker. You do feel this is an important few weeks for Wells. A summer of rumours that big clubs were going to sign him will likely continue if he starts scoring regularly once more, with that fresh contract still unsigned. However, the fall of David Syers down the Bantams’ pecking order last season is a lesson he should heed.

Wells needs to react in the right way to not being a guaranteed starter at this point, or he may be relegated to impact sub on a regular basis. James Hanson will start alongside Connell or Wells.

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