Preston North End vs Bradford City preview
@Deepdale on Tuesday 22 October, 2013
By Jason McKeown
Phil Parkinson would have to slump a long, long way before Bradford City went the way of their fellow newly promoted club, Gillingham, in sacking the manager. Yet back-to-back league defeats have occurred against a soundtrack of faint criticism from a minority of supporters.
The manager – who takes charge of his 100th Bantams league game at Preston this evening – has been questioned for the approach he has taken to patching up a team without the services of key players. It has also been argued that Parkinson is making tactical errors that are costing City points. Perhaps my favourite – for the wrong reasons – vein of this criticism has come from a handful of supporters who have stated that Parkinson “still has a way to go tactically”. You have to have a very high opinion of yourself to look down on the manager in such a disparaging “he’s-done-well-but-this-is-how-he-could-do-better” style.
Every set of supporters in the land contains a thoughtless and whinging element; but still, there has been a breathtakingly ungrateful attitude displayed by the people who have stuck the boot into Parkinson over the last 10 days. The club has come a long way under the manager in a relatively short space of time, and that should surely allow him greater slack and understanding when City inevitably hit the occasional bump on the road.
Perspective is so crucial. After all, those back-to-back 1-0 defeats have caused City to slump to the depths of, erm, fifth place in League One. Offer me a top six finish this season and I will cheerily bite your hand off. We’ve not had it so good in a long time. Yet on the way back from the Tranmere match, the Pulse read out a Tweet from someone stating that blaming the referee for the defeat was “covering up the cracks”. Unbelievably pathetic.
Have the wheels really come off? Can the club not function without Nahki Wells and Andrew Davies? Is the manager making a series of catastrophic blunders that threaten the future progress? City’s recent history would suggest an emphatic no to all three questions currently being posed by some.
The tactical criticisms have centred upon the reshuffling of the defence against Tranmere last week and the choice of strikeforce in Wells’ absence. On the first point, the moving of Nathan Doyle to centre half against Tranmere did disrupt the centre of midfield, which was significant. But as excellent a player as Doyle is, it should not be forgotten that City’s late promotion charge last season occurred after he had been left out the side altogether. Big player yes, but not irreplaceable. He was excellent at centre half against Tranmere, and it’s unfortunate that Jason Kennedy did not grasp his big opportunity to take Doyle’s usual spot in that game.
As for the strikeforce selection of playing Mark Yeates with James Hanson; well, really you need to ask anyone who is criticising it one simple question: are you a complete idiot? Playing the pair in Wells’ absence led to consecutive victories over Shrewsbury and Walsall, and no one was questioning the logic at that point. For it then to be criticised with such incredulity two games later suggests such people were not paying attention prior or simply want to find something to criticise the manager for, without worrying about irrelevant details such as reality.
Which is perhaps the most depressing aspect of listening to and reading criticism directed at Parkinson in recent days. The thought process seems to be that when we lose a game there must be something to blame the manager for, and so they look for it in the team selection without stopping to consider wider factors. “Parkinson got it wrong today” is the opening gambit, before over-simplifying 90 minutes of football by arguing it was all down to the inclusion of one or two players. Team selection is right when we win and wrong when we lose. If only it were that simple.
I personally did not have a problem with the way Parkinson reshuffled the team against Tranmere, as injuries and fatigue robbed him of all but one of his centre halves. I’d only differ in I would have picked Ricky Ravenhill ahead of Kennedy, but the former Rochdale man can hardly be blamed for the surprise 1-0 defeat. Had the referee Darren Drysdale done his job properly in sending off Ian Goodison and later awarding the Bantams a penalty when Yeates was tripped, the game would have been won. I didn’t go to Crawley on Saturday, but losing narrowly to a fellow play off chasing side is no disgrace.
Parkinson will get things wrong as manager. Every manager in the land does, and certainly every person who has vacated the Valley Parade in my time has made mistakes. When we observe any manager, including Parkinson, making an error of judgement, it is incredibly frustrating and the inevitable criticism will have some merit. But we can’t continue this lowbrow approach of assuming that every dropped City point could have been avoided by Parkinson making a different decision. He deserves better than that.
Losing Wells for so long was always going to be a blow. He was a fantastic League Two striker and has quickly proven himself at this higher level. We have not had a forward like him – effective at least – in many years. When Wells is not available, the team has to adapt and find a different way of playing. Yeates and Hanson may not be everyone’s choice (and it may not be continued this evening) but it had yielded two victories to justify the manager’s continuation of it.
Defence is, for me, less of a concern. Andrew Davies is undoubtedly our finest centre half and the Bantams have long been a better side with him in it, but his two years at Valley Parade have been repeatedly punctured by lengthy periods of him not being available, and we’ve coped just fine. We have some fine centre halves on the books, and we will deal without Davies.
For the majority of fans – the sensible ones – the mood has been dampened by back-to-back defeats, but optimism still thrives. With the Tranmere game moved to a Sunday, results on the Saturday before had offered the Bantams a great incentive to cement their top six position by going eight points clear of seventh place. It wasn’t taken, and now the chasing pack are catching up; yet still, the league table currently makes great reading.
With Preston, tonight, and Wolves, on Saturday, recent form may yet get worse before it gets better. After several seasons struggling to mount a League One promotion push, North End look a strong proposition this time around and on Saturday moved a place above the Bantams following a 2-1 victory at Peter Taylor’s Gillingham. Wolves, meanwhile, are currently unbeaten on their travels. A tough, tough few days, in which City will firmly be underdogs.
Yet that suits the players, whose quiet ascent up the division resulted from some impressive early season victories against highly fancied sides. This time a year ago we undertook away trips to Northampton and Burton. Games like Preston and Wolves, and weeks like this, are what promotion from League Two is all about.
There is an expectation that there will be some shuffling of the pack, with Saturday to consider also. Should Matthew Bates be fit enough to play two games in quick succession, expect the back five to remain unchanged as Parkinson clearly prefers a settled backline. Luke Oliver’s demotion may have been harsh – he did fine against Tranmere – but balance is the key and the right-sidedness of both he and Rory McArdle means they are unlikely to ever form an effective partnership. So if Bates does drop down, the left-sided Carl McHugh is likely to come in instead.
In midfield concerns about Garry Thompson’s form are growing, not helped by a couple of missed opportunities on Saturday. Rafa De Vita is yet to start a league match and may come in, although if Parkinson elects to go with two out-and-out strikers the versatile Yeates could take the right midfield slot. Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle and Kyel Reid are all in form and likely to continue. Parkinson’s weekend comments about being too open and players not doing their jobs when not in possession would appear to be chiefly directed at his midfield.
Up front – and assuming Wells is not fit to return to the starting XI at least – does Parkinson stick or twist? The problem is not so simple as to throw in another conventional striker: they have to be able to play with Hanson. Alan Connell failed to forge a functional partnership with City’s number nine when he was given opportunities last season. Caleb Folan’s arrival is aimed at easing Hanson’s workload, and he could be considered for a full debut alongside him.
Calls for youth striker Oliver McBurnie to get his chance are depressingly over-simplified. Yes, he is doing fantastic in the youth team, but is he ready for first team football? Parkinson will know better than anyone from seeing how he fares in training against first team players, and whether that merits a place ahead of the likes of Folan, Connell and Andy Gray. Trust his judgement for the good of club and player. McBurnie’s time will come if he keeps doing what he is doing.
What was less commented on at the weekend was the size of City’s away support. Over 700 down at Crawley is remarkable and a useful measurement of the optimism around the club at the moment. Expect a massive following at Deepdale, ahead of a packed out Valley Parade on Saturday. These are truly exciting times to be a City fan. So tonight, let’s stand together in our support for what Parkinson and his players are achieving.
See you down the front.