By Jason McKeown
When faced with the challenge of cutting back financially in any walk of life, the typical starting point is to eliminate all non-essential spends. Yet as Phil Parkinson grapples with the task of improving the Bradford City squad on a playing budget that has been reduced by £500k, he is hampered somewhat by the financial commitments to players that, last season, were barely part of his plans.
Matt Taylor, Jason Kennedy and Mark Yeates present a very difficult dilemma for the City manager. All three players, who were signed last summer, have failed to impress for differing reasons. And we can reasonably assume that – had they signed on one-year contracts – all three would have appeared on the club’s released list when it was announced last month. But instead, they are tied to the club until July 2015. The manager must either try to move them on to other clubs, or find a role for them in his new-look squad.
And given that, as an aggregate total, the trio started just 16 games last season, it seems highly debatable that they would be called upon more next year, in view of the target to raise the bar on what was achieved last season.
Taylor – who experienced significant injury problems that will cause him to even miss the start of next season, can argue mitigating circumstances for his poor season – although even when fit during the first half of the season, he was constantly overlooked in preference for Andrew Davies, Rory McArdle and Matthew Bates. During the infamous sequence of one win in 21 games, it was telling that Parkinson steered away from entrusting Kennedy and Yeates. Following a particularly poor performance by the pair at Sheffield United in January, Kennedy was loaned to Rochdale for the rest of the season and Yeates was banished from even appearing from the bench for over six weeks.
The issue is not so much whether Yeates, Kennedy and Taylor would be happy to continue to be back up players, but if the manager can believe and trust in them to even perform that role, when he didn’t appear able to last season. Perhaps in an ideal world of revamping the central midfield, Parkinson would have preferred to keep Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle as back up players for next season, behind the new arrivals. But the pair were rumoured to be paid well and had their contracts up for renewal, whereas Yeates (also rumoured to command a good wage) and Kennedy would cost a fortune to release.
If Parkinson feels he needed to improve on Jones and Doyle – he clearly does – and succeeds in doing so with Billy Knott, Gary Liddle and Matty Dolan, then there may be even bigger gap between the first teamers he trusts and the reserve players. A gap that would distort the competition for places.
Of course, with talk of changing the playing style, there may yet be a more prominent role for Yeates and Kennedy next season. Certainly the direct style of football favoured by Parkinson was less suited to Yeates’ qualities – he frequently slowed down the build up play unnecessarily. Kennedy too might find that he can emerge from the shadows of Jones and Doyle and take on more of a leadership role in the team. Both players seem suited to playing in a side that keeps the ball on the ground and builds up the play slower (which may or may not be an approach Parkinson tries to install next season). Either way, by the time friendlies are in full swing, expect to read the standard T&A story from one or both players about how they are much fitter and more prepared to do better this time.
They will either need to do that or find another club as soon as possible. The lessons of last season, about being over-reliant on the class of 2012/13 and then – after January – loan players, are damning on the pair. The opportunities to stake a claim for first team football at Valley Parade were evidently available over the course of the campaign, but neither could take it. For Taylor, with two excellent centre backs set to continue their partnership next season, the way forward is more difficult. But Davies’ susceptibility to injury and McArdle’s occasional international commitments will mean that back up centre halves will be needed along the way.
Elsewhere in reserve, you wonder if Parkinson will continue to gently push younger players forward. The youth team’s league and cup successes of last season would suggest that there are some excellent teenagers at the club, capable of making the considerable step up to senior football. Oli McBurnie is the trailblazer in this respect, earning first team opportunities mid-way through the season and being awarded a two-and-a-half-year professional contract. He has only just turned 18-years-old, and the fact he has already featured eight times in the first team underlines how highly he is thought of.
With Andy Gray having left and Jon Stead’s commendable loan spell over, McBurnie is currently the only back up striker to first choice pairing James Hanson and Aaron Mclean. We can reasonable assume that another, more experienced forward will be recruited before the season begins, but McBurnie may still be able to go into the campaign as fourth choice. If he can make somewhere between 15 and 20 appearances (mainly as sub) and get a goal or two, Oli would be able to look back on a season of progress. 2014/15 is not his make or break year, given he has two years of his contract to go, but he will still be targeting more game time than 2013/14.
Meanwhile Niall Heaton has signed his first professional contract and has been talked up by youth coach Steve Thornber as someone who could break into the first team next season. James Pollard was also awarded a spot on the bench during the away game at Wolves last February. Not everyone on this list will make it at the club, but the heroics of the youth team in 2013/14 has raised expectations that at least a couple will break through.
Wherever they come from, Parkinson needs to have stronger back up options than he could call upon in 2013/14. When things weren’t going well between October and January, there simply weren’t enough alternative options available to the first teamers who were struggling. The season was effectively rescued by dipping into the loan market in January. And whilst Parkinson has already indicated that he will again be prepared to make loan signings next season, the £500k budget reduction will restrict such movements.
Cutting back on the budget means maximising every penny that is spent and making the most of every available resource. That didn’t happen under a larger budget last season – but for greater success to occur in 2014/15, Parkinson needs to make sure there is no room for passengers.