By Katie Whyatt
Expectations. They’re the new elephant in the room. No one wants to talk about them, and can we? They’re a thorny enough issue anyway, without the spanner of an incomplete squad to wrestle with – you can’t judge the unfinished article. So don’t say anything, please – not now. We can’t talk about expectations yet.
Then, there’s that other thing: the budget. That infamous, obtrusive budget, engulfing the conversation, consuming the debate, dominating the discourse. And the expectations and the budget are so intricately linked. What we can hope for, what we’re allowed to predict, tied so intimately with the £500,000 cutback. For now, rightly or wrongly, these expectations go unuttered and unspoken, but, in the coming weeks, they will most likely form the lens through which this season will be judged. Undoubtedly, there is more than one way to measure success, but early expectations often become a barometer with which to gauge progress.
Setting out to define what’s reasonable to expect seems like a bit of a fruitless and difficult endeavour, given both the ambiguous noises from the club and the fact there are still gaps left to plug. Nonetheless, there are fundamentals to deal with, and what is OK to expect is dictated not only by the budget, but also by our wider position as a football club and where we see ourselves within the medium term. Within that, we have to maintain a culture of realism. Negativity can’t intrude here, but neither can fantasy. It’s about being balanced, sensible and realistic.
At the end of the 2012/13 campaign, Phil Parkinson and his backroom staff sat down, together, to sign three year deals, tying them to Valley Parade until the end of the 2015/16 season. This has been widely interpreted as a plan to be in the Championship, or at least knocking on its door, by the end of the three years – with, crucially, Phil Parkinson at the helm.
Year one was about consolidation, discovery and cementation. The team endured/enjoyed (delete as appropriate) the standard mixed bag of results inevitable for a newly promoted side, and were both hampered by injuries and helped by loanees in their quest to cross the line. Parkinson observed the way the division worked, concluded a new formation was needed and has subsequently tweaked his team accordingly this summer. Say what you like about the initial playing style or the one win in 21, but this objective was ultimately achieved with relative comfort. Phase one of the plan – survive, acclimatise and start to adapt – can now be checked off. Thus far, City are progressing in-line with, perhaps even beyond, the terms of the 3 year forecast.
Which moves us on to phase two, and the question of what this year entails as a part of the wider plan. With year three painted as the promotion season and City having already spent a year transitioning, year two becomes the bridge. At the end of this season, the strength and the position of the bridge will dictate how the Bantams approach next year. Year two will define whether initial aspirations remain feasible by the turn of the 2015/16 campaign. This might not be the promotion year, but this coming season has the scope to become the most important of the lot.
2014/15 is all about further progress. By the start of the 2015/16 season, City need to be in a position to look to seriously challenge for promotion. The foundations must have been laid by this point. The diamond has to work, but there also need to be alternative fallback formations that are just as strong and effective for when Plan A is nullified. The new signings must have not only adapted to League One, but have done so in a manner more convincing than their history-making predecessors. Because year two is about building up to year three sustainably.
The budget, although not ideal, is a necessary constraint to keep the Bantams above water – something that should resonate with our supporters more than most. The six weeks of madness might have been a completely different kettle of fish, but they still stand as a harrowing cautionary tale of what happens when a club spends drastically beyond its means.
To put City’s behemothic financial woes into perspective, I was three when the Bradford were relegated from the Premier League; fast forward eleven years, and the club were still grimacing from the scars of such profligacy, sinking in the basement division having just survived 3 relegations in seven years. The story of that decade of decline serves as a staggering recent reminder of what happens when a club enters the red, with the Bantams saddled with debts of £36 million.
Now, with the debts cleared completely, Lawn’s loan paid back and the finances stabilised thanks to the cup run and the sale of Nahki Wells, the focus turns towards making sure City remain in the black.
It’s fine to suggest increasing investment, but the bottom line is that Parkinson’s playing pot is determined by the tangibles and what’s salvageable. A larger speculative budget only works if you have fallbacks in place or the resources to avoid the darker side of the boom and bust cycle. The club have overspent again this year, but only by what can be recuperated before the start of the 2015/16 season through what David Baldwin termed “extraordinary income.” The reason, in Baldwin’s words, is “so we are not carrying debt into next year.”
It’s probably premature to deem this squad unequivocally better than the one before it, especially due to the relative unproven nature of this forward line in comparison to the prolificacy of the Wells-Hanson era, but there seems to be greater technical quality, man for man, within this latest version, plus the emergence of a style that should prosper in a league where much of the work is done in midfield. The lack of wingers and back-ups is worrying with less than a week to go, but Parkinson deserves to be applauded for how he has juggled the finances so far. He is recuriting a stronger core of players, but has managed to do so with £500,000 less to negotiate with.
That’s positive, but fundamentally this year’s warchest is, though competitive, probably not a promotion budget – and even if it was, there would always be the overriding danger of City running before they could walk. Regardless of whatever funds the club had at its disposal, I’d be wary if they were seeking promotion just a year after consolidation, especially while bedding a new team and a new style. The circumstances are different to 2012/13. The emphasis must stay on the words gradual progression.
The aim of the 2014/15 season is to lock down half the promotion team, ready for a convincing stab the following year. From the outside, it seems there wouldn’t be the scope for the club to head one make or break charge for the Championship – but would you want one?
I’m wary of clubs that pummel all their resources into one crack at promotion, because, if it doesn’t work out, where are they then left? Look at some of the budgets City boasted in League Two as managers failed to achieve the stated objective. ‘THE promotion season’ became ‘the nearly season’: a big budget had been set aside but, for whatever reason, the success we’d envisaged didn’t materialise. The consequences of that overspend stretched beyond end of season disappointment: bigger names had to be released and City finished 15th the following season, with a squad that, realistically, were never going to challenge. We need to be prudent.
Within this latest crop of players, the core of the ‘next generation’ is being assembled:
Rory McArdle – 3 years
Alan Sheehan – 2 years
Gary Liddle – 1 year, plus 1 year extension option
Billy Clarke – 2 years
Billy Knott – 2 years
Aaron McLean – 3 years
Stephen Darby – 3 years
James Hanson – 3 more years to run
The majority of those contracts stand for use within, or beyond, the allotted timeframe to be in the Championship. Lament the lack of a permanent goalkeeper, but it’s difficult to dislodge the above players’ places within the three year strategy. This window has been about gathering 50% of the promotion team, and then a supporting cast that will perform in a Bradford City shirt.
But even this raises wider questions about the three year plan: two years of consolidation and development, building up to that third season, places an awful amount of pressure on year three, doesn’t it? Undoubtedly true, but, because of how the plan is structured, much of that pressure has been alleviated.
The board haven’t released details about the budget for year three yet, obviously, but one would imagine the newer attitude to finances means that, while who dares wins, there has to be an element of conservatism and restraint in there, too. Julian Rhodes’ quote about using the League Cup windfall to run the club “like a business, not a hobby” springs to mind. The stakes will probably be raised, but not to such a degree that the following season is rendered futile as City recover. The board are finally in a position to allow City to grow in a financially safe way, but that requires discipline and dedication on their part. 2015/16 is huge, but it shouldn’t, and can’t, make or break Bradford City.
What all this means is that we are about to enter a season different to all the ones of recent history. With new aims and a wider plan to consider, the onus is on supporters to keep the season in context for the whole of the campaign, and not just the first few weeks. Last year almost had a feel of anti-climax to it because people interpreted the opening few games as ‘the norm’ and assumed the team just took a nosedive over Christmas, which is an over-simplification against a backdrop of other factors. The season’s ultimate significance was overlooked amidst the nadir of the one win in 21. Which is not to suggest the team and the manager were ever immune from criticism – far from it – but they arguably should have received more slack than some afforded them.
The diamond will work, but, as with any formation, it has its weaknesses. The new playing style means success will be measured not just in terms of the points haul, but how closely contested the league games are, and what glares out as the marked difference in matches. If City equal their 11th placed finish, and have dominated most games but just lacked that cutting edge, this is success of sorts, and the new weaknesses to address over the close season have therein been pinpointed.
This season will not be easy. For Phil Parkinson, this presents his biggest personal challenge yet. Tasked with delivering more from less, he will have to call on all his nous and experience to make sure not a penny is wasted.
He has to be shrewd in the loan market, bolstering the squad where necessary with footballers that will make a genuine impact – but leaving some of the recruitment until the eleventh hour has not rested well with sections of the support, and may herald problems as the season progresses. He has to get the best out of those players whose time at Valley Parade has, so far, been staggered – McLean, possibly the player who needed a full pre-season most, has spent the bulk of the prologue sat in the treatment room. The diamond needs time to be polished fully, and there will be times over the next nine months when that formation is rightfully shelved.
Most importantly of all, though, he has to make sure the club finish the 2014/15 season with a platform from which they can challenge for promotion the following year. And he has to do that within the confines of the budget. Accomplishing everything will be no mean feat.
Yet the perception of the season is dictated by our expectations. We will generate our own success criteria and will measure the campaign against this. It is likely these expectations will shift as the season develops, but we have a duty to make sure we are flexible and manage our expectations against what we already know. We cannot lose perspective like some did last season. Context becomes the new buzzword.
2014/15 is the frame for the bigger picture. New faces, new style, new hopes, new dreams. A promotion might not be on the cards, but that doesn’t mean we’re in for a bland ride. Depending on how you plan to assess the season, 2014/15 could still very much be our year.
Categories: Season Preview