By Rob Burn
With our world as it is at the moment it’s almost too early to take stock and think of things other than Wembley. But the cup final is only one (glorious) match in a future that will be inhabited by lots of other, more mundane matches. So we need to put that one game, memorable as it may be, in a context so we keep sight of where we want to be after it’s finished.
Although the successes in all three cups this season have brought unbelievable memories, history making and a financial platform for the future, I think we’ve got to recognise there is actually a downside to the success of reaching Wembley, even though the downside may still be, just about, palatable. It’s worth reviewing some of the things that have been said and considering how this unbelievably successful cup run will affect the rest of this season, promotion and our future.
We have a small squad of players and it’s not realistic to expect them to win every remaining match when they’ve already played more matches than most other teams in our division. Plus, accepting human nature as it is, they’re bound to be playing in the next four weeks with one eye on Wembley. Most players in our squad can expect this cup final appearance to be the biggest game of their careers, no matter how long they continue playing, and it would be normal for them to wonder whether the next 50/50 ball will put them out of contention for a place.
I’m sure they’ll all continue to be professional in their approach to games. But when psyching themselves up, will they consider whether the feisty determination that stops an opposition forward scoring, or from winning the ball, should be tempered so there are no risks of yellow or red cards?
I’m only human and I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to exclude from my own mind any prospect that I’d not be part of the history the club’s creating. What a personal (and club) shame it would be, for instance, if James Hanson damaged his toe again the week before Wembley, or a yellow card meant that Gary Jones couldn’t play in the final. I can hardly bear to think about it!
Some might argue that the next few weeks will see the players more motivated because they’ll be playing for places in the Wembley team. I’m not sure I’m convinced by this kind of argument, because Phil Parkins knows what these players have already given and what they are capable of repeating and, I think, it’s probable that very few places will really be up for grabs. Maybe Parkinson will tryout the new signings that are eligible and see how they fit in, and possibly bring in the players coming back from injury. But he knows how this team has been able to gel.
I wonder if Parkinson has already, mentally, accepted a lower end of season league position, in order to look after the key players for the biggest game of his, and their, lives – and decided to give them as much protection as possible, so they are fit and fresh for the final? Wouldn’t it be normal for the manager to try to ensure he has the best opportunity to take one of the season’s glittering prizes, rather than being remembered as the manager of the team that almost did the impossible and won the cup?
The importance and “sense of occasion” of the Wembley game may put our promotion prospects in the balance. But I hope that we’re still in a good position by 25th February and that, by then, with fewer games left, it’s not too late to begin to concentrate on the league and snatch promotion. Most teams in and around the promotion race have been inconsistent, even erratic, and our squad has shown it’s capable of recovering any lost points and winning, at the very least, one of the play-off places. It would be great to hope for a higher position at the end of the season, but attaining a play off place would be, I think, acceptable.
I’ve said before that, for me, a play off place would be fine, because Parkinson seems able to motivate players and get the most from them in the high profile, sudden death games like these cup matches and the play offs. These big, high pressure games allow Parkinson to demonstrate his proven talent. In his pre-City days he seemed to gain more success winning the big, one-off matches than winning ordinary league games and so, hopefully, he’ll do the same for us if we’re in the play offs.
Look at the league table and it shows we’ve not been an outstanding team this year – we’re currently five points from being 3rd in the table and five points from being 17th, and we’re almost the same distance from top as from bottom. We wanted Valley Parade to be a fortress, but it’s not quite that yet and our away performances rank 15th in our division. Promotion clearly has the “work in progress” sign attached to it.
However, at the start of the season the Board’s priority for this season was to gain promotion and the diversions brought about by Parkinson, although being much more than pleasant, may have come at a cost. Whilst acknowledging the success Parkinson has undoubtedly brought, I think that the contract the Board offers him should make it clear that next year there is only one aim – and that’s promotion.
The club must start each season with a clearly understood aim for the full season that everyone follows no matter what – unless the Board change that strategy. For this reason I’d try to get Parkinson to buy into the Board’s current strategy of winning promotion as the priority. Next year I’d tie him to the single objective of winning promotion and I’d give him a very good financial incentive to deliver that. Statistics show that cup winners from whichever division or even country don’t usually retain the cups they’ve won and, in this context, it’s not being pessimistic to assume we won’t be at Wembley for the League Cup next year, even though I’ll secretly hope we are.
I’d ask the manager to next season deliver just one thing – promotion.
We may think of ourselves as a big club, albeit a sleeping giant of a club, and we’ve certainly got some big club ideas and innovation, but we’ve been down in League Two for a long time now and, in recent years, we’ve not shown any real prospect of changing our division. I hope Parkinson sticks with us and we stick with Parkinson through the inevitable ups and downs of a healthy relationship. If the Club and manager continue to develop together, we could both get the kudos and financial rewards available from having a stable situation in a largely unstable environment.
Parkinson needs to be given the opportunity and support to develop as a manager and progress beyond his previous and present performance levels, and the contract he’s offered should reflect our hopes for him and the club – and the Board’s strategy.