Lessons in history as Bradford City go to Coventry

Picture by Claire Epton

Picture by Claire Epton

Coventry City vs Bradford City preview

@Sixfields (Northampton) on Tuesday 1 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

In the 20 years that the Sixfields stadium, Northampton, has stood, it has never been so overused and yet so sparsely populated as it has this season. Former Premier League outfit Coventry City moved in last summer, 70 miles away from their home city, with average crowds of 2,222 indirectly bolstered by protesting Coventry supporters on that large hill outside. Not since Wimbledon saw out their final days at Selhurst Park in front of one man and his dog, before relocating to Milton Keynes, have Bradford City embarked on such an unusual away fixture as tonight’s.

Yet it is the permanent proprietors of Sixfields who offer the more fitting perspective to the Bantams current struggles. Northampton Town lie second bottom of League Two, fighting for their lives to avoid relegation. The Cobblers were, of course, City’s play off final opponents 10-and-a-half months ago, crushed 3-0 at Wembley. After another 3-0 loss – to Bury at home, on Saturday – they are in deep trouble.

Only one of the previous 17 fourth tier beaten play off finalists have gone on to be promoted the following season – yet Northampton’s bouncebackability has been especially poor. They have gone from being disappointed not to leave League Two, to now desperate simply to remain in it. Sixfields is in serious danger of becoming a non-league stadium.

There but for the grace of God, and all that.

In the 30 years that the City Gent fanzine has existed, they can scarcely have published a more bizarre reader letter than one which appears in the latest edition, comparing Phil Parkinson to Hitler. Oddly bemoaning that Parkinson is too good-looking and that “if he had a face like a bag of turds and dressed like a tramp waiting for chips, would we have given him this much leeway?”, the letter-writing supporter goes onto state, “He is eloquent I will give you that, but so too was Hitler, and we all know how that turned out.” If I were Mark Lawn, I’d be carefully searching Phil’s desk to check that those opposition scout reports aren’t really secret plans to invade Poland.

Such stupidity represents the far extreme of negative views aired about Parkinson by an increasing number of City supporters, in the wake of some of the worst performances of the season against Shrewsbury and Walsall. There is undoubtedly a growing thought that the manager has taken the club as far as he can, with calls for a change growing in volume, if quietened by Saturday.

Writing as someone still very much in the pro-Parkinson camp (although please don’t mistake my personal views as WOAP editorial policy, we welcome contrary views and articles), the tone of the criticism directed his way continues to sadden me. Read the Bradford City Facebook page, Twitter and the Telegraph & Argus boards – and, in so many cases, what you see is abuse and hatred. It should be easy to put together a constructive argument for why the manager should, at the very least, currently be having his future questioned; but those people who are attempting to do just that are largely being drowned out by outright abuse from others.

It is completely unfair that any manager of Bradford City be the subject of such nasty and vile anger. You think of everything Parkinson has given to the club, of the loyalty he has shown, and you wonder how there could such little respect afforded to him by some people. There is a big difference between no longer believing in a manager and hating him, or at least there should be.

In the 111 years that Bradford City Football Club has toiled, rarely has there been a season as memorable as 2012/13. The 64 game marathon featured a rollercoaster of emotions. The drama, the excitement, the joy, the pride. What a happy ending: a first promotion in 14 years. It meant so much.

As City celebrated reaching Wembley for a second time in three months with victory in the play off semi final at Burton, the 1,600 visiting supporters that packed out the Perelli Stadium serenaded the players with the words “We’re proud of you” and responded to Parkinson’s clenched fist celebrations with a round of “Parkinson’s Bradford Army”. The pride indeed. The glow of which only increased further after the Northampton play off final victory.

As form has fallen off a cliff over the winter months of this season, not unreasonably, several people declared that last season is now irrelevant, and how we all needed to stop talking about it. As Parkinson came under his first genuine spell of pressure in February, the early advocates for change went further, arguing that his 2012/13 achievements should not count in any debates about his future. But of course, that is impossible to do. When evaluating the ability of someone to lead the club forwards, his past record has to come into consideration.

And so, the new, recent theme from some has been to talk down the past. ‘We made history’ has now become ‘Let’s re-write history’. Suddenly, promotion last season is being dubbed a fluke by many people. One that was only achieved because of Exeter’s late collapse in their form; one that was only achieved due to the Bantams scraping a seventh-place finish. A decent manager would not have luckily taken City up last season, they say, but won the league.

Words fail me at such a miserable outlook. That all those warm memories of last season’s run-in are retrospectively downgraded by some as ‘lucky’ and, by association, the success achieved viewed as unmerited. Did people really feel that way at the time? Did they not enjoy those late season victories? That afternoon at Burton? That second trip to Wembley?

Only seventh? Not since 1999 have City finished higher in the division they are in. Only through the play offs? In the five previous League Two seasons, only once did we come close to achieving that basic expectation (and in that year, 2008/09, we did an Exeter and fell away at the end). And we haven’t even mentioned that first trip to Wembley. You could talk down Parkinson’s achievements if they were happening all the time to the club, but years and years of struggle and underperformance should serve to highlight just how incredible last season’s success was.

Yet equally – and let’s be honest – 2012/13’s late run-in featured more than our fair share of luck. Exeter did indeed collapse when they (or other challengers ahead of us in mid-March) should have sealed that last play off spot. But still, that doesn’t change City’s achievement of only losing three of their final 15 games post-Swansea; of picking up 15 points from a possible 24 to steal into seventh, when others dithered. They made the most of the luck that came their way, capitalising in clinical fashion.

Parkinson’s influence on that never-say-die run-in does not deserve to be downgraded 12 months on, simply to suit the debate of today. There is nothing wrong with arguing he deserves to go in spite of last season if that is what you believe, but please don’t attempt to say he deserves to go because of last season. After all, if you’re not happy about last season…well why bother supporting this club?

Not since 1996 have City enjoyed such a spectacular late run of form. Year after year we have either been nowhere near or choked. Last season should always be remembered with fondness – not twisted and distorted.

In the first two years that Phil Parkinson managed Bradford City, he impressed not only those inside Valley Parade but the outside world. Blackpool looked to him as the answer to their struggles, and other clubs would be linked with his services. Parkinson was one of the hottest properties in management, and City did very well to keep him.

“Three years? What were they thinking!” has been a recent grumble, in light of the contract that Parkinson was offered by the club – and signed – last May. It makes debates about his future seem somewhat worthless, given it will likely cost a six-figure sum of money to dispense with his services. We are stuck with him.

Which suits me just fine. I have long believed in long-term thinking. By plotting a future in terms of years and not months, the club has a much greater chance of being rebuilt on firmer foundations. The three-year contract is a three-year plan, one that needs to conclude with City knocking on the door of the Championship, for it to be extended further.

Year one’s objective of staying in League One is a fair and realistic goal. It has not yet been achieved, and crossing that 50-point mark is proving to be an unnecessarily laboured task, but it is progress. We can question the route to get here – the edge of survival – but not the destination. It is vital that City remain a League One club, and that target is within touching distance after Saturday’s impressive away win at Leyton Orient.

As for the three-year debate; whilst there is no doubt that some did question the wisdom when the contract was agreed last year, they were very much in the minority. Very few people were against it, in fact the majority were for it.

That’s why I find those who are now questioning the logic of the contract difficult to take seriously. If we, as supporters, believe we deserve a say in how this club is run, you have to share in responsibility for the decisions you previously backed. If you wanted Parkinson to remain as manager 12 months ago, only for the club to go and make sure that was the case, it is unfair to now pretend you didn’t agree with that decision. And let’s be clear, had Parkinson walked away from Valley Parade last summer, the chairmen would have copped it big style.

In the 11 years that Phil Parkinson has been a football manager, he has made mistakes but also enjoyed notable success. He is a smarter, wiser and cleverer manager for going through those bad times. And what he will have learned over the past 12 months will undoubtedly make him an even better manager. We should be confident that he can apply this greater experience next season.

When looking back on Parkinson’s achievements at Valley Parade, his success in steering the club away from relegation to non-league, during his first season in charge, seems especially relevant at the moment. Today is two years and five days since that horrendous evening against Crawley, where you really feared for the future. Parkinson was able to lift the club from such dark times, and the rest is history.

His first season seems especially relevant at the moment, given the task facing the manager this summer – rebuilding the squad. In September 2011 he took charge of a Bantams squad that was woefully lacking in quality and, in 18 months, had turned them into League Cup finalists. I have no fears that he can deliver the improvements that are needed for next season.

Yet the problem of the here and now is that the sweeping changes needed cannot be implemented until this season is over. Parkinson has made major mistakes in the transfer market which he is in no position to rectify in the short-term. He must continue to make do with a squad that has over recent months let him down on several occasions, and who over the final seven games will continue to deliver inconsistent performances. And poor results will continue to make Parkinson look bad, adding to the pressure now placed on his shoulders.

The short-term outlook is not great. Parkinson must get us over that 50+ point line, even if it’s an undignified stumble – and then he must prove that he can take the club forwards in line with our long-term ambitions.

I have confidence he can do just that, although there are no guarantees he will succeed. The bottom line, however, is that he has earned the right to get that opportunity. After everything he has done for this football club and all the wonderful memories he has provided, Parkinson deserves our support and backing during these more difficult times.

In the 39 matches that Bradford City have played this season, they sit right in the middle of the table. Currently eight points clear of the drop zone but 10 away from the play offs, this looks set to be a season where both promotion and relegation was never seriously on the table.

And all things considered – not least our recent history – that will do just fine.


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17 replies

  1. Very good article Jason, i’m firmly in agreement with you!

  2. Excellent article. I read the City message boards and to be fair there is also a sizeable portion of fans in the Parky In camp. Unfortunately, there are always a few who criticise the manager who have absolutely no idea of the bigger picture. A defeat and they’re calling for his head, a victory and they’re nowhere to be seen. They don’t appear to offer support and enthusiasm when 3 points are in the bag.

    Parky will know he’s signed some players who have not been up to scratch for whatever reason, and now that he’s more familiar with League One than he was last year, then I’m sure he’ll do exactly what’s required for next season.

  3. Another impressive, balanced article – but there is no doubt that PP has earned the right to our support. I too am in the PP camp, however can appreciate that others may think differently, but the abuse beggars belief. One stat says it all – 72 clubs in the Football League – we have progressed approx 20 places since last season.

  4. Agreed Jason.

    Every. Single. Word.

    I have total faith in Parkinson and his team to learn from the ‘mistakes’ of this season and to make us stronger and more competitive at the top end of the table next year. I just hope they get that chance and the emotions of those who would compare Parky to a fascist regime (for a laugh?) are recognized for what they are – at best, utterly disrespectful of Parkinson; at worst, utterly disrespectful of modern history.

    I say ‘mistakes’ too because I’m not sure the cap fits. Had Parky taken obvious gambles on his signings last summer – unproven, untested, youth, prone to injuries – then I think calling into question his judgement makes sense.

    But Parky did not do that. He signed proven L1 or Championship quality players with a point to prove to reignite their careers. For me, it is these players who have badly let Parkinson, and therefore us, down. Parkinson made considered choices to improve the squad and I think has had to rely upon ‘the class of 2013’ far more than he intended. Gary Jones revealed as much in the T&A this week when noting how often he’s played this year. Reeling off that often seen list of Yeates, Taylor, de Vita, Kennedy, and so on, should not be a damning indictment of Parkinson – but of these individuals who have failed to perform anywhere near what their track record indicated.

    Do we trust Parky to make ‘better’ signings this summer? Personally I would rather the lessons he has learned this year are applied to improving our squad next season, and not at another club.

    In Parky We Trust? Absolutely! In some of our 2014 squad? Not yet, no. Every manager signs players that don’t work out. Successful clubs – as Luke pointed out in his 27 March article – allow their managers to rectify that situation. Those at the bottom fire their managers before they can achieve that.

    Let’s not become one of those clubs (again).

  5. Thanks Jason for a balanced piece on our manager.

    Following last season’s successes and the extension of his contract, I believed most supporters, and I count myself amongst them, saw his reappointment as a major step forward and an opportunity to introduce some long needed stability into the club. It’s undeniable that we were helped in our promotion quest by clubs around us and had Exeter’s results gone their way, we might well be having a different conversation about a different manager. But that’s history and we are in Division 1 with the manager of the squad who achieved that. Personally speaking, I am confident that we will be in Div 1 next season and hopefully still being managed by PP. This first season has been like the curate’s egg and only good in parts. But I suspect that most supporters who thought objectively about our promotion prospects at the start of the current campaign would have accepted a mid table finish if they’d been offered it in August.

    I have to admit that the first 10 games or so were unexpected and it was only when the other teams sussed out our style of play that the initial successes turned into something else. And for me that was a major learning exercise. I have been surprised that the step up in style and quality form Div 2 to Div 1 has been so marked and having learned that I would now expect PP to change the balance in the squad in the summer to reflect a greater flexibility in playing styles. Having assembled a squad which plays a rigid and static formation, we have found it difficult to play in any other way. And of course, that means that other teams who have more options than us, have set themselves up to counteract our playing style. I trust PP in avoiding this particular trap when he brings in new players over the summer.

    With two seasons left of his contract and if ML’s expectation of reaching the Championship in that period is justified, I hope that PP is once again backed by the owners and is provided with the funds to build a new squad capable of making a promotion push this coming season with a genuine expectation that he will be successful in 2015/16.

  6. Every season we have progressed under Phil Parkinson, yes he has made mistakes, but show me a manager who hasn’t and for all those in the Parky out brigade – who out there would do a better job?

  7. Jason – excellent article – couldn’t agree more with your comments. PP has to be given the chance -and I feel confidant in his abilities to take us forward again in the next 2 years.

  8. Excellent piece, I really couldn’t agree more.
    It gives me really conflicting emotions, I think it’s great that last year’s unbelievable season has given people unreasonable expectations, but I cannot possibly understand how anyone who was a regular 3 or 4 years ago couldn’t be overjoyed with the thought of a mid table finish in the 3rd division.
    I trust Parkinson because he has earned our trust.

  9. People who want to complain put pen to paper (fingers to keyboard), people who want to praise generally don’t bother. I must admit I do look at the T&A but generally just to see the volume of comments. 90+ if we lose, 30 this week with a terrific away win at promotion hopefuls. That sums it up.

    Re Exeter’s collapse and our late gallop, that always happens, one team falls away and one finishes strong. I don’t regard that as luck. In fact, I’m pretty sure the year Stuart McCall’s team collapsed at the end of the season, it was Exeter who finished like a train and went up.

    With regard to sacking Parkinson, it’s unthinkable – it’s just not even a debate. If, god forbid, we went down, who would you want in charge to get us back up. I’d want the bloke with the history of doing that personally. If we stay still (we’re in the top half after all I think) then Parky deserves the chance to develop the squad.

    I just wanted a quiet season and if we win tonight or Saturday (preferably both) I’ve got it.

    Sacking managers doesn’t work. Tottenham – two managers a season – they’re still also rans like they have been all my life. Cardiff, Sunderland, Fulham, West Brom – all I believe lower in the table than when they sacked their manager. Norwich – I hope their loyalty is rewarded, I suspect it will be.

    One last point – it would be financial suicide to spend next year’s budget and more on sacking Parky.

    Excellent stuff Jason – please continue the good work.

  10. Excellent article and summary of the state of things as we approach the end of the season. I also find it interesting that the comments are, as usual, also reasoned and offer critical appraisal of affairs rather than the usual, instant knee-jerk reaction which, sadly, the social media sites tend to lend themselves to.

    For me, the personal abuse which sometimes comes through towards PP, the players, the chairmen and basically anyone who has the gall to delve deeper than ‘the last couple of results’ when discussing the club epitomises why I appreciate having a platform like WOAP (and certain other eminently worthy blog/podcast sites) to follow sensible debate.

    One comment with regard to the players and squad generally – there have been a number of this season’s signings who have not come anywhere near fulfilling expectations. However none of them when the signing was announced made me think ‘Oh, no. Why him?’ Quite the opposite. The point has been made in the article and some of the comments following it, the players have, in some cases, been found to be severely wanting in terms of establishing themselves as indispensable to the team. Some may overcome that, some may not – but the situation with a relatively small squad is that there is no hiding place. Players not producing the goods are more obvious as there may be no obvious replacement like for like. That doesn’t mean PP is a poor manager. In fact I consider the fact he can get performances like Orient after the two previous ones show exactly how good he is.

  11. I am in the Parky camp, mid table this season would be a terrific achievement, just think where we would have been if we had not had the dreadful run we had, something, by the way, that happens to all other teams at one time or another, Exeter last season being a prime example.

    The question I always ask myself when I see the loonies on the message boards(thankfully still a minority)is who would they want as a replacement, it’s all well and good sacking someone, but they never seem to come up with, or mention, a reasonable replacement, constructive, not destructive criticism is required, a fact that most of them seem not to appreciate.

  12. Fantastic article Jason, agree completely and it’s nice to see do many
    people backing PP / acknowledging the need for long-term planning. My problem with the Parky Outers is that none of them have put forward a decent outline of who they’d rather have or how sacking Parkinson would work – I personally don’t think it would help us stay up at all! Keep up the good work Jason and I hope we’ve got three points to read about tomorrow!

    • As Warren Buffett says it takes years to build a reputation though five minutes to ruin it. Arguably this can be applied to City insofar that the winter of discontent, which happens to City virtually every year, ruined any capital that Parky had accrued. We will always have fans that are only concerned about the now but hopefully they will be outnumbered by the pragmatists and realists. At the end of the day let us finish this season, I’ll measure progress against whether we can beat Rovrum, and look forward to Parky building another promotion team over the next 24 months.

  13. Another excellent article. We were spoilt last season, and then again early this season, which raised a lot of peoples’ expectations.
    On the coach back last May, I said to my dad, “I’ll take 16th to 18th place next season, and kick on from there”.
    Parky needs to be given time, and our patience, I agree that some of his decisions look a bit odd at times, especially his habit of late, ineffective substitutions. But it’s not as though we’re rock bottom of League One, we’re putting in a good account of ourselves after far too long in the football league basement, so let’s just get behind Parky and look up, rather than down.
    The Parky Outers need to be careful that they don’t eventually force him out, we could end up with another Todd or Taylor, and then they’d really have something to moan about!!

    • Exactly, couldn’t agree more. I think the comments on here are more representative of the fan base. The lesson in all this is that the board, management and players need to steer clear of social media and message boards, paying any heed to them gives a completely distorted impression of the mood amongst the supporters.

  14. Great article. It is a 3 year process for promotion and this year is a success because we have been no where near relegation,but only a few wins from the playoffs. If next year we stagnate then we need to start asking questions,otherwise we ignore the ignorant who have no idea.

    • Simply want to add my voice, on a forum of rationale and sensible opinion, to those who are fully behind Mr Parkinson. It’s not just the context of the past 12 months or 6 years that we had in L2, but the longer term context. The last time I felt the waves of optimism that I feel now were back in the early 80s; I really feel our club is on an upward curve and I feel Mr Parkinson is exactly the manager to take us on that journey.

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