The play offs: Parkinson’s revolution reaches next stage

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By Jason McKeown

It was all over. But, this time, there was seemingly a good excuse for failure. Already cut well adrift of the play off spots, in mid-March Bradford City faced two Devon games in a week in what felt like a last chance to put a run together. The return of one point from a possible six was not enough to suggest the 10-point gap to the top seven could be made up. The door was locked on promotion hopes. The fat lady was singing. Over. Done.

And that good excuse – the incredible League Cup run had proven too much of a distraction – was there to be taken by the management and players.  The stats backed up what our eyes told us when watching players holding back or showing hesitancy in the League Two run-up to Wembley. We’d become distracted. Found another priority. And after the last claret and amber flag had been cleared from Wembley stadium, we’d been slow getting minds back onto the bread and butter.

So it was all over after the St. James Park debacle. Begin the inquest. Talk about who needs to stay and who needs to go. Debate the manager’s contract. Plan for next season. That was how it seemed to us supporters at least, but not within the dressing room. You often see managers talk up a team’s chances of promotion/avoiding relegation long after all realistic hope has gone, but Parkinson’s similar rhetoric proved to have substance – and City have indeed made the play offs.

It wasn’t all over. There was no need to hide behind any excuses.

We have waited over a decade to have a team like this. We have waited over a decade for a club like this. There are many contributory reasons behind this shift in culture and pride, but one man links them all – Phil Parkinson.

The transformation of a football club

There’s a certain narrative you see time and time again when a successful manager is praised. It’s all about focusing on the state of the club when they started, talking up how grim things were and how the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were on their way – in order to provide perspective to the progress that the manager has made.

In truth, the narrative of Phil Parkinson’s rebuilding of Bradford City has been over-egged. Were we really under such dire straits under Peter Jackson, before Parkinson took over in September 2011? Was Joint-Chairman Mark Lawn’s assertion that Parkinson inherited “the worst squad in League Two” a fair one? It is true to say that things were not great back then, and that a difficult season looked in prospect; but Parkinson was the beneficiary of being the right man at the right time. The club was ripe for his makeover.

The summer of 2011 was the club’s low ebb. We’d underachieved so dismally under the handsomely paid Peter Taylor, the season before. We’d talked openly about departing Valley Parade because we couldn’t afford the rent. The term ‘administration’ had reared its ugly head again. Jackson marked his promotion from interim boss to permanent manager by releasing every out of contract player. Clear the decks. Start all over again. Mould the club.

That process was still in its beginnings, when a false start saw Jackson depart quickly. Parkinson did not so much enter the Valley Parade doors to find a blank canvas, he found early imprints that could be easily rubbed out and then reshaped his own way. The problems back then were deeper than the club struggling to retain its Football League status, we had ambitions of being at least two divisions higher. It was not about finding the best 11 footballers money could buy and hoping for the best, it required something more concrete to reverse the rot.

So Parkinson’s objectives last season were two-fold: keep City in League Two, whilst also constructing the foundations of a sustainable climb out of the division and beyond. As such, he viewed the short-term pain of ripping everything up that he inherited as a worthwhile trade for the long-term gain of implementing his master plan.

There were bumps along the way, last season, for sure. Relegation could have been avoided more comfortably, and the football wasn’t great. But progress was made and a degree of momentum created. Momentum that has been carried into this season.

The mirror image

Mid-way through Bradford City’s first home league match of the 2012/13 season, and the visitors are shading it. Newly promoted Fleetwood look confident and – with the sizeable Jon Parkin leading the line – physically stronger. City are yet to demonstrate to a quiet home crowd that they can better their opponents.

Then James Meredith produced a crunching tackle, just inside City’s half. It is clean, it is legal, but it is tough. And it leads to a loud roar of approval from the City fans housed in all four sides of the ground. And it stated a lot about this club’s identity.

Most football supporters talk about their basic ambition of having a team that gives its all, but at City we’ve long since responded to blood and guts. Think of our heroes: Stuart McCall, Bobby Campbell, David Wetherall. Both Gary Jones and Kyel Reid have different weaknesses on a football pitch, but there’s little doubt which of the pair’s failings we are more willing to overlook and which we struggle to forgive.

Meredith’s tackle set the tone for this season. It was an early marker of intent, one that suggested this year’s side was going to be loved. A side full of quality, but more importantly a side brimming with commitment. This lot could be out-thought but not out-fought. They won the game that night. They won the following Saturday too. They’ve won on a regular basis for most of the season.

Whatever qualities this group of players might lack, honesty, dedication and endeavour are not amongst them. You think back to Jackson being stuck managing a group of players he disliked, going down to a shambolic 4-0 defeat to Southend in April 2011 and supporters chanting “Love the club, hate the team”. Just two of the 18 players involved that night remain at City (Jon McLaughlin and Luke Oliver). They are part of a squad whose names we will be able to recall 20 years from now.

Parkinson is either a perfect match for this club, or has taken the time to understand its values and mirrored them on the pitch. He realised that if he builds a group of players with the mental toughness to play in front of a demanding crowd, he will be rewarded by that demanding crowd roaring to their feet with approval over every goal, every victory and every tackle.

Gary Jones, the side’s talisman, best exemplifies this. The central midfield engine room position has not been an easy one to fill – witness the failures of Paul Evans, Paul McLaren and Tommy Doherty. Jones has taken the poisoned chalice of trying to win over a crowd that has been spoiled by two spells of Stuart McCall. On and off the field, the closest we have come to another Stuart.

Parkinson has built a team that possesses the qualities that we fans value the most. Love the club, love the team.

The Wembley nightmare

When Phil Parkinson led Bradford City out at Wembley stadium for the League Cup Final against Swansea City, it was the peak moment of his time at City. It was also the peak moment of his managerial career. Surely whatever happened on the field could not diminish that.

Yet a thumping 5-0 defeat was anything but a glorious loss. It was humiliation on the biggest of stages. There was not much that Parkinson or his players could have done to avoid it, Swansea were simply sensational. But after all the incredible feats getting to Wembley and the unforgettable build up, what a shame that it ended so badly.

Back in the team hotel that evening still licking the wounds, Parkinson’s speech to his players and their families was videoed by someone and posted on YouTube. It wasn’t meant to be seen by such a wide audience, but the sharing of a relatively private moment has done Parkinson plenty of favours, revealing just how determined he was to keep driving for promotion.

Here’s what he said:

“We have got 15 games left … We have got a squad capable of going on a good run. And we are going to have a real go at it. Every single game we are going to play it like it’s our last game. We’re going to run harder; we’re going to tackle harder than the opposition; we’re going to play in a positive frame of mind. Every single game. And if, at the end of those 15 games, we haven’t got where we want to be, we’ll hold out hands up.”

Talk is cheap, but those words have come to fruition. Of those 15 games, City have won six, drawn seven and lost two. 25 points from a possible 45. 36% of the team’s 69-point haul this season have come since Wembley.

You can bet that, privately within the dressing room, the cup final defeat has been used to spur the players on. Use that disappointment as a positive by getting back to Wembley and – this time – go up to collect a winner’s medal.

The rot has been stopped

The decline of Bradford City is best illustrated by looking at its season-upon-season standing within the 92. From being ranked the country’s 17th-best team in 2000, the fall is spectacular. 20th, 35th, 39th, 43rd, 55th, 55th, 67th, 78th, 77th,, 82nd, 86th and 86th. This season we are up to 75th. Not exactly earth-shattering, but the 11-place rise is huge for a club that has gone backwards and backwards.

There is an argument to be made that Parkinson was given the resources to produce such a performance – if not better – and so this is the least we can expect. But the delving into the past shows how simplistic the outlook that investment = success can be.  As much as I love Stuart McCall, he could not get us over the dotted line of a play off finish. Taylor and his wonderful CV could not do it either.

If there’s anything that the last 13 years of decline should have taught us, it is that success is difficult to achieve. We’ve tried everything and anything to bring back happier times, but until now no one has been able to achieve progress. It goes without saying that Parkinson merits a new contract. The club would be foolish to be doing anything short of everything to keep him.

Reaching base camp

“Well you have to have bite-sized chunks don’t you? And my first bite-sized chunk is that we’ve got to start finishing in the play offs. That’s got to be the minimum bite-sized chunk. Every season we don’t get into the play offs is, in my view, failure.” Mark Lawn, speaking to Boyfrombrazil.co.uk, January 2011

Clearly the pressure is very much on. Parkinson and City have not put in so much effort over the last few weeks retrieving a lost cause to go down weakly to Burton in the play off semi finals. But it won’t be an easy task, and promotion is still someway off.

But you wouldn’t bet against City doing it. The experience of the League Cup run will help, particularly the fact a two-legged semi final victory was achieved with City home in the first leg. Before that first leg with Aston Villa, Parkinson admitted that he would take a draw if it was on offer (“keep it alive for the second leg”). If City do not win on Thursday, the last person to panic will be Parkinson.

This team has twice this season overcome considerable odds – the League Cup Final and a play off finish – and so whatever happens on Thursday and Sunday, you can be confident of one thing: Parkinson’s Wembley speech remains applicable. They won’t give in until the last kick.

Until the last tackle.



Categories: Previews, The 2012/13 play offs

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9 replies

  1. Well said Jason, a brilliant article as always!! Bring em on!!

  2. Great article – we need Parky to sign ASAP and then to go on a 3 match unbeaten run 🙂

  3. Great article Jason. Reminder of what was for me in nearly 50 years of supporting City, the very, very lowest ebb – Southend 4 0 away (not the defeat but the chants of “love the club, hate the team”). But how can we not love every one of this PP team and their efforts this season. Just hope they can now get what they – and we- all deserve and that winners trophy at Wembley. Can’t wait…oh – and PP – post up this article in the dressing room !!

  4. Excellent piece as always Jason, I just have one problem with it.

    You quite rightly praise Phil Parkinson for everything he has done and for delivering the team and the league finish that we have all demanded. My issue with it lies with the the fact that he hasn’t yet signed a contract extension. Whatever the reasons are for this, I can’t help the niggling feeling that he won’t be our manager at the start of next season. I don’t want to feel this way but there seems to be a fobbing off sort of tone to the messages that have come out of the club and from Parkinson, while the repeated rumours of interest from other clubs seem to have a lot more substance.

    It’s probably just me and the instinctive reaction I’ve built up over the years to protect myself from inevitable disappointment. I hope so and I hope this season finally turns out to be the one that lets me think positive about things again.

    • I agree about Parky’s contract. I’m disappointed it hasn’t been resolved. We can speculate all we want but I draw comfort from the fact there hasn’t been a definite “he’s going”. I’m just wondering if there’s been a “memorandum of understanding” or something like that between the two parties and its just confirmation of which division we’ll be playing in next season that’s required before the final T’s, C’s and playing budget can be agreed upon. if that is the case its probably pretty shrewd business on both sides. That’s my optimistic view.

      The pessimist in me feels that either:

      1. Park goes either through getting a better offer elsewhere or simply refusing our terms.

      2. Parky stays (hooray!). After a bright start next season we hit a sticky patch partly due to bad luck and / or injury. Club panics and he’s sacked after 10 / 15 games. New man comes in with broom – back to square one….

      Who was it said “A Bradfordian always wears a raincoat. Because he believes that if it isn’t raining – it soon will be”….?

      The great thing about this season is that many of us hung our raincoats up for a while. Lets hope it continues and its not a false dawn…

  5. Mention of the Southend 4-0 drubbing brings back one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had as a City fan.

    We got the train to London, only to be delayed for 2 hours due to someone jumping in front of one of the trains ahead. Still ahead of time thanks to my obsession with being early, we made it to our train from Fenchurch Street with no further incident. Two minutes into our journey and the train lost all power. Cue frantic attempts by the train staff to literally switch the train off and then back on again. Somehow we limped into a station, disembarked and boarded a much later train which was now packed to bursting with commuters and creeping slowly towards Southend.

    Arriving into Southend over 3 hours later than planned, tired and irritable, we then completely failed to find a taxi rank at the station and had to leg it half a mile to one of the other Southend stations to get a cab to the game.

    We made it just in time for kick off and, to be honest, we would’ve been better off stuck on the first train of the journey. We had Michael Flynn up front on his own and we only managed to get out of our own half twice in the entire game. A pitiless performance compounded by the fans turning on the team.

    Our torture wasn’t yet over – we had to wait 30 minutes outside the ground for traffic to clear before a friend arrived to give us a lift back to their place near Southend. Finally able to relax, our host uttered the magic words – “would you like a drink, or some food?” Yes, I thought – of all the times in my life, this was one where I could absolutely murder a beer and a burger – finally things were looking up! It was at that point that our host was revealed to be a teetotal vegetarian. We had to settle for a cup of tea and carrot sticks with humus.

    I’m never going to Southend again.

  6. Love the article Jason. I just have the feeling that many Bantam fans think it’s a foregone conclusion. Burton then bring on whoever at Wembley. Predestined? I would like to think so, but I think its going to be tough, very very tough.

    Why? Despite “our run” I think we have been far from convincing. Jason’s comment about six wins, seven draws and just two defeats. 25 points out of 45 – hardly amazing stuff – just play-off form at best. Of those six wins – we won two away – at York where anyone was winning and Torquay (probably a good result) but at home we managed three 1-0’s winning against Northampton and Burton with what can only be generously described as fortuitous goals. Yes we smashed Bristol Rovers (I am hearing a weakened team) but Rotherham proved our nemesis.

    Moreover the only real reason we are in the Play-Offs is because Exeter imploded! Exeter after beating us, quite handsomely, then only gained one point from the last seven games. Amazingly, Fleetwood also only managed five points from their last nine games. Finally Southend, who were above us at the time of the 2-2 draw, gathered only eight points and one win from their last ten games. Predestination?

    Certainly the haul of 69 points is one of the lowest, if not the lowest, ever to win a play-off place.

    Whilst applauding our achievement this season, let’s just hope, we havent used up all our luck for the last three games. Remember both sides have a 1-0 home win under their belts and we won that remarkable third round game just 3-2 in extra time. Nothing between us. I just wonder whether “the boy who would be Windass” – Michael Symes might come to haunt us?

    Pessimism aside – we have to acknowledge both a memorable and remarkable season. If PP stays – who would want his job of deciding how to improve the side? A team that has never given in and one that will long live in the hearts and minds of supporters.

    Anyone fancy a 1-0 defeat at home followed by a 3-1 win away. We never do it easy!

  7. I think it is predestined and have thought so for some time, that City’s 2 seasons as the penalty kings will culminate in one last rather important shoot out. Will we stay as the world penalty champions or lose out right at the end (semi or final)?

  8. Spot on this – I agree with every word.

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