Two years of stunning progress leaves few regrets

Picture by Mike Holdsworth

Picture by Mike Holdsworth

Hartlepool United vs Bradford City preview

@Victoria Park on Tuesday 2 September, 2013

By Jason McKeown

Two years to the day since first taking charge of a Bradford City match – a 1-1 draw at Morecambe with Ross Hannah’s late equaliser – Phil Parkinson revisits a competition that did much to help him during those difficult first few months.

Parkinson’s first ever look at his Bantams charges had involved sitting in the stand for a JPT 1st round penalty shootout victory over Sheffield Wednesday, after which he guided the club past Huddersfield Town and Sheffield United to reach the last eight of the competition. A deserved 2-0 defeat at Oldham on a bitterly cold night (what else would the temperature be at Boundary Park?) saw City eventually bow out, but the confidence taken from that cup run helped the players deliver improved league form thereafter, to ultimately keep the club in the Football League. The rest, as they say, is history.

Reflecting back on the state of things two years ago has proven a popular past time this past week, after extracts of an autobiography by Parkinson’s predecessor, Peter Jackson, were published in the T&A. Undoubtedly, it is welcome that the former City captain has finally broken his silence to share his side of a story over the mysterious departure. The picture he paints of life under Mark Lawn and Archie Christie is not a pretty one for sure, and we supporters can feel a sense of sympathy in the way that Jackson’s self-confessed ‘dream job’ seemingly turned into a nightmare.

That said, Jackson’s side of the story is simply that – his side – and over the past two years there has been no public comment from Lawn, Christie or anyone else employed by the club with their version of events. Privately, the club is said to be unimpressed with Jackson’s comments, but have decided not to enter into a slanging match. The Bradford City Supporters Board’s July meeting notes reveal that the book publisher had approached the club about hosting a book launch, which David Baldwin declared they were willing to do “dependent upon the detail relating to his departure from the Club the previous year and how it was reported.” It looks unlikely such an event will happen now, and it is indeed a shame if such an iconic figure in City’s history was to no longer have a positive relationship with the people who run it.

To Jackson’s credit, he has probably delayed talking in public about his departure until such a time as his revelations wouldn’t destabilise the club. But the result of waiting so long is that empathy towards him is generally in short supply. The way that City have progressed during the past two years under Parkinson means that no one would consider it a bad thing that Jackson offered his resignation as manager in August 2011. Meanwhile Lawn’s resurgence in popularity means he has been left un-bruised by Jackson’s revelations. However he and Christie might have behaved towards him – and we haven’t heard their version of events – it has led to a rather spectacular outcome.

When I met Julian Rhodes two weeks ago he was reluctant to criticise Jackson’s performance as manager, but left it very clear what he thought of his summer recruitment, “Unfortunately, I think perhaps he had spent a bit too much time away from the game and he wasn’t as up-to-date on player situations as he could have been. So that summer was a difficult one.” Infamously, Jackson was reluctant to sign trialist Nahki Wells, and the Bermudian was only taken on as part of Christie’s Development Squad. Jackson preferred a potential opponent tonight, Nialle Rodney.

There was also that nonsense with three first team players – Robbie Threlfall, Michael Flynn and Luke Oliver – lining up in a Development Squad friendly at Silsden and being made available for transfer. Goodness knows where the club would be now if it had let Oliver walk out the door that summer.

Whispers – and they are just that, whispers – suggest Jackson was not in the right frame of mind to manage the club after spending some 18 months out of the game, very laudably working in a care home. The challenges of dealing with Lawn might be a difficult one that few of us would relish, but fortunately Parkinson seems to have no problem doing it.

In-between Jackson and Parkinson – and in the dugout that night against Sheffield Wednesday – was caretaker manager Colin Cooper. An impressive 4-2 victory over Barnet and toppling of the Owls meant Cooper’s two-game reign was a highly commendable one and there was some disappointment, at the time, that he wasn’t offered the job permanently. Cooper, assistant to Jackson, didn’t stick around long after being overlooked and took up a youth coaching role at his beloved Middlesbrough. During this summer he became manager at Hartlepool, and it will be interesting to observe how he gets on in his first such role.

Like with Parkinson two years ago at City, it has proven a slow start for Cooper. Hartlepool – relegated from League One last season – have begun life in the bottom tier by scoring only one goal in six matches and picking up just two points. Rodney has regularly appeared from the bench but has yet to start. Jack Compton – another player Parkinson inherited but choose not to keep on, to some debate at the time – has appeared more regularly. Both may have a point to prove tonight, if selected. More importantly, they need to step up for a club that badly needs a shot in the arm.

While operating within the strict rules of the competition, Parkinson will make changes tonight. He must either start at least six players who started on Saturday, or at least six players out of 11 who have made the most starting appearances in league and cup matches this season. So expect Nathan Doyle, Stephen Darby, Garry Thompson and Kyel Reid to play, with Jon McLaughlin, Gary Jones, Nahki Wells and James Hanson almost certain to be rested.

Parkinson will give on-loan Boro stopper Connor Ripley – someone Cooper will know well – a debut after extending his loan spell until January. Carl McHugh, Matt Taylor and, hopefully, Luke Oliver will be looking for game time, and Ricky Ravenhill may get a run out in midfield. The overlooking of Jason Kennedy, so far, even for bench duty is a talking point. Speculation will inevitably surface if he is left out again tonight. Parkinson has stressed there is nothing in his non-inclusions, but one assumes the summer signing must be hugely frustrated.

As must Alan Connell, who will start up front presumably alongside Thompson. I must admit I expected Connell to depart during the summer as it seemed illogical he can improve his status as third choice striker following the step up to League One. Connell’s performance in his only start, against Huddersfield, attracted plenty of debate. Personally I was disappointed with him that night. While I understand we as a team did not play to his strengths, that’s probably never going to change and it would have been nice to have seen him go looking for the ball rather than performing so anonymously. The excellent form of youth striker Oli McBurnie may be rewarded  with a place on the bench. Jack Stockdill – impressive pre-season – could join him.

City’s recent record in the JPT is good – three quarter final appearances in the past four years – suggesting a liking for this competition. With no League Cup run this year, and a more spaced out fixture list which features just two midweek fixtures before Christmas, it surely makes sense to have another go at this competition, whilst not risking too many first choice players ahead of back-to-back home games.

Tonight is a winnable-fixture, and many of those in the starting line up have much to prove to their anniversary-celebrating manager.

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