By Jason McKeown
I will be honest with you, I feared the worst when it came to this season – and the chief reason for that was Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn.
The Joint Chairmen’s five-year dual stewardship of Bradford City can be characterised by the hurried implementation and quick demolition of structures and strategies; whilst quickly distancing themselves from any responsibility. Take Rhodes’ blaming of the 2011/12 underperformance on Peter Jackson, at the end of last season. Jackson may not have been up to it as manager, but the 14-game interim period he was employed for, after Peter Taylor quit in February 2011, offered the Chairmen plenty of time to make a considered decision on appointing him permanently.
Then there was the asking of Archie Christie to devise and implement a plan to improve the club, which was seemingly abandoned in the wake of the Scot’s departure. And it all left City going into this season with the pair going back to their Plan A of throwing all available resources at the first team in the hope of a promotion-winning side being instantly assembled – a Plan A that did not work when tried under Stuart McCall or Peter Taylor.
So I looked at this season, not so much fearing that the plan of overspending on the budget wouldn’t work – but worrying what the consequences of failure would be if it didn’t. More cut backs, another manager change – and then what? This season was Rhodes and Lawn’s last chance to prove to me that they do know what is required to produce a successful football club.
And so the news that Phil Parkinson has agreed a new contract to remain in charge of City – which will be formally signed next week – has me on my feet applauding Rhodes and Lawn. And I’m really excited about what this decision to stick rather than twist means for the club, and the position it leaves us going into next season.
Regardless of what happens on Saturday, we approach the summer in a position that we have yet to achieve under Rhodes and Lawn – having a consistently strong playing budget. McCall was afforded a contract beyond failing to take City into League One, after spending big in 2008/09; but rather than build on the positives, he had no choice but to rip it all down and start again due to huge cutbacks from overspending. Get rid of four high earners was the mission; but when two could not be pushed out the door, the resources left over, after paying the remaining pair, were too thinly spread for rebuilding a team. McCall could not make more from less.
This time around – and thanks largely to that cup run – Parkinson does not need to bulldozer his squad. He does not need to release half of the players who are out of contract. He does not need to make 10+ summer signings. Whatever the failings of this season’s team, they are relatively small compared to the sides of the three previous seasons. There is certainly nothing to suggest that this group of players would not be good enough for League One. Strengthen rather than rebuild.
The huge improvement Parkinson has delivered this time around, in relation to last year, offers encouragement that he can continue the upwards momentum.
To the joint Chairmen’s credit, talks did not stall even during that relatively rocky patch of form after Wembley, where a mid-table finished looked inevitable. Width of a Post was fortunate to have a close ear to the situation via a couple of well-placed sources, who continued to assure us that things would be okay and the deal would be agreed. Last week, I was invited to the Player of the Year awards by the Bradford City Supporters Trust, where I was privileged to spend the evening on Parkinson’s table and quizzed the manager on anything and everything. It would be unfair to make public the details of what was in essence a private chat, but Phil assured me the contract was close to being formalised and of his strong desire to stay.
Today’s confirmation that a two-year deal will be signed represents an all-too-rare victory for us long-term advocates. For years now – and beyond the full blame of Rhodes and Lawn – the latest form guide has been allowed to dictate major decisions. As I shake my head in despair at Manchester City and Chelsea, I feel a sense of pride that the owners of my football club have seen the bigger picture and were arranging a deal with Parkinson even before this late promotion surge – looking to retain him regardless of which division we are in. There may have been an air of uncertainty for us supporters over the last few weeks – but, importantly, that was not the case behind the scenes. This can only have helped during the run-in.
Whatever happens at Wembley, the positives of this season outweigh any potential Northampton disappointment by a long, long way. Parkinson has built a team we can proud of and identify with. It isn’t perfect, and some of us might swap a player or two; but it is a heck of a lot more enjoyable to support these players than the dismal side built by Taylor in 2010/11, or even the one McCall constructed 2008/09. I still remember, with bitterness, travelling to Dagenham in 2009, with three games to go, and seeing our play offs hopes end with a tame 3-0 defeat – and then only Peter Thorne and McCall bothering to acknowledge us supporters at full time.
Once Parkinson formally signs up next week, the focus will move on to those players he wishes to retain. I personally don’t think we’ll have any problems keeping hold of anyone, other than perhaps Nahki Wells (he will not want to be a League Two player next season and who can blame him, so promotion is surely a must). And for those who do leave, it will be our choice to let them go. Let go not because we couldn’t afford them (the cup run means we can), not because they let us down (not a single player can be accused of that), but because we are a club finally moving in the right direction – and sometimes that means leaving good people behind.
Rhodes and Lawn went back to Plan A and it has worked well enough to be continued. More crucially, they have acted before waiting to see if the ultimate aim of promotion would be achieved. Retaining Parkinson might have been the only decision to make; but given the recent history of the club, they still deserve a well done for actually making it.