By Jason McKeown
There are 21 games left for Bradford City this season, but increasingly thoughts need to begin turning towards the long-term. The sale of Nahki Wells has split opinion amongst support, but one of the main threads has been the damage to the credibility of the joint Chairmen, Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes.
There were six weeks before the January transfer window was due to open when Lawn first spoke to the local media about the possibility Nahki being sold. The noises that consistently came out of Valley Parade, throughout December and early January, were that there was a queue of suitors ready to take the striker off our hands. We couldn’t keep hold of our hot property, because the offers set to come in would be too tempting for us and for him.
The deal that was eventually concluded will continue to be debated. But whatever your view, it is now done and dusted – and cannot be changed. We move on, but by moving on that means getting to the end of a season that is increasingly about consolidation. If there were any lingering hopes of mounting a play off charge, they all but disappeared with the sale of Wells. City remain seven points off the top six and eight above the bottom four. A mid-table finish – something everyone would have settled for prior to a ball being kicked this season – looks to be the Bantams’ final destination.
And then what? For Lawn and Rhodes, the priority must be to restore the goodwill they built up last season and to convince supporters that they have a plan for taking the club forwards. City have made huge strides during the last 18-month period, but ultimate ambition continues to exceed the present circumstances.
No one wants to see us become comfortable at merely being a League One outfit forever, especially when both chairmen are on record in the past talking about the club’s aim to get the club back into the Championship. That is a worthy goal that, whilst not easy to achieve, is realistic. But just stating that you want something isn’t enough, there has to be a strategy behind it.
Prior to this January transfer window, there was a general consensus that selling Wells for a big fee had the potential to aid the long-term objectives of the club. A necessary evil. That belief has caused a fragmented reaction to recent events. The harsh reality is that the Wells’ deal isn’t the life-changing sum of money which many people were rightly or wrongly expecting.
The wage bill for this season, as high as it is, has not been enough for City to be competing amongst the promotion front runners, just past the half way stage of the season. If that is all the club can afford next season also, so be it. City have tried the speculate-to-accumulate approach with decidedly bad results – especially under Geoffrey Richmond in 2000. David Baldwin has talked of the Board having made calculated risks over the previous 18 months, with sources of revenue to fall back upon. The current playing budget overspend is probably the furthest that most of us would want to see the boat pushed out.
But if the club’s financial strength means that a promotion push next season is something to strive towards rather than assume, expectations need to be managed accordingly. That is the task of Lawn and Rhodes. They cannot raise supporters’ hopes beyond what is realistic, because the club, manager and players will subsequently be judged unfairly.
If results for the rest of this season and next aren’t fantastic – when measured up to some belief City should be mounting a promotion push – Parkinson will come under increased criticism. In many ways it will be like returning to the days of Colin Todd, where the financial realities and expectations were on completely different pages. Parkinson’s playing budget is probably somewhere in the top half of League One (particularly next season, if Wolves are promoted), which gives us the chance to challenge for promotion.
The challenge for Parkinson is considerable. He goes into the summer with all but Andrew Davies, James Hanson, Jason Kennedy, Mark Yeates, Matt Taylor, Oliver McBurnie and Lewis Clarkson out of contract. That’s potentially just seven players left in the building; and of the current squad whose deals expire at the end of the season, only Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and Nathan Doyle would be almost certain to be retained.
Last summer, Parkinson’s budget was said to have been increased from £1.9 million to £2.5 million. He used much of that to retain the likes of Davies, Gary Jones, Kyel Reid and Garry Thompson – some of whom probably benefited from increased wages as reward for their achievements – and the majority of the rest of the budget seemingly went on Yeates. There is a suspicion – and it’s purely my view – that the likes of Rafa De Vita, Taylor and Kennedy came in relatively cheaply. The proportion of that overall £2.5 million spend attributed to summer signings (minus Yeates) is probably fairly low.
The decision to retain the bulk of last season’s squad looked a good one initially – heck, it still seems like it was the right thing to do with the benefit of hindsight. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the squad will need to be revamped for next season. For now, this team should be good enough to steer clear of relegation and ensure City retain their League One status. But to go forwards, Parkinson will need to use his £2.5 million playing budget on better players.
That won’t be easy, but it’s not beyond the man who did such a good rebuilding job in the summer of 2012. Over the coming months, he will need to have one eye on who he wants to retain and who he wishes to bring in. It will be a big, big close season for the manager.
If Parkinson subsequently under-performs as manager relative to his actual budget, he will deserve to come under scrutiny. But his two bosses have a responsibility to ensure that he is judged upon the tools they are able to provide him. Not on the sole basis that a club of City’s size ‘should’ be in the Championship.
Parkinson was given a three-year contract by the two chairmen last summer. I think it is absolutely right and fair that – to get another deal – he must have City within touching distance of another promotion by 2016, even if that promotion has yet to occur. The danger is that he isn’t afforded the right level of patience befitting that contract – and the goodwill built up from 2012/13. He deserves the support of everyone, and that extends right up to the Boardroom.
21 games to play, and it all seems to be about tredding water for the remainder of this season. After the stunning progress of the past 18 months, we can’t afford to stand still for too long. Yet the next step forward has to be a realistic one; miracles like last season don’t occur too often. And if, this season and next, a full on promotion bid is more aspirational than entitlement, we have to accept our reality rather than living another one.