Gillingham vs Bradford City preview
@The Priestfield stadium on Saturday 11 April, 2015
By Jason McKeown
If Easter Monday’s defeat to Preston is ultimately judged as the day that Bradford City’s play off bid failed, the lack of pain felt when filing out of Valley Parade was fitting of a season where much of it was spent not believing a promotion push was even going to be on the cards.
Forget the emphatic 3-0 scoreline, the game was one of wafer-thin margins and defining moments that all went against the Bantams. Sometimes it just isn’t your day. There can be a valid argument made that coming out on the wrong side of those margins – Chris Routis’ red card, Jon Stead’s woeful miss and Stephen Darby’s penalty concession – was self-inflicted. But to apportion blame is to ignore the qualities that this Bradford City team possess. Qualities that its vociferous fan base recognise and love.
Whatever failings you want to level at individual players or the team as a whole – uncaring, superficial and characterless would not be amongst them. They give absolutely everything to the cause. They play with pride and passion. They are so honest in everything they do. And for that, we supporters can forgive them a lot.
We’ve always said we would back players who give 100% for the cause and that is exactly what this side produces. It might not be good enough in the final reckoning, but it has been hugely commendable nonetheless.
And as thoughts start to turn towards the summer, it is a wonderful starting point when planning for the 2015/16 season. The best-performing Bradford City players – the ones you’d want to keep – have their futures tied up at Valley Parade. If you had to pick a list of players to retain and a list to have the option of letting go, pretty much to a man the players’ current contract statuses would fall in line with this (I know we’ve still got this problem, but let’s hope for a (m)clean break during the summer). The club are in a real position of strength here. If, as seems likely now, this team fail to make the play offs this season, it need not be their peak moment.
They will only get better.
And with the money generated from the FA Cup exploits coming into play this summer – it is claimed City will have a relatively large transfer budget – there is a great opportunity to add to what is already within the ranks by making some quality signings.
There have been doubts expressed by some supporters as to whether Phil Parkinson can be trusted with a large playing budget; but after the exploits of the past few seasons, he certainly deserves the opportunity to splash cash that he has generated the club. Whatever money is available; he has earned it and as such earned the right to spend it how he sees fit.
Importantly, Parkinson must not repeat the transfer mistakes of two summers ago. After the promotion to League One in 2013, the City manager allowed fringe players to leave the club but crucially replaced them with back-up players. The new faces failed to push the established first teamers, and when City’s form began to dip Parkinson was forced to stick with his increasingly struggling History Makers.
It was small wonder many of us spent much of last season pining for the likes of Zavon Hines and Will Atkinson. For all their failings, these players made a greater impact than Mark Yeates, Jason Kennedy, Rafa De Vita and co. managed in 2013/14.
Parkinson will doubtlessly allow current players on the fringes to leave during this summer; but if money is indeed available, they must replaced by players better than those currently in the first team. It’s not wholesale changes needed, but at the very least a new goalkeeper, striker and winger are required. Depending on the Andrew Davies situation, a new centre half could also be needed. A central midfielder too, perhaps.
If, next season, some of the current first team players are struggling to get in the side, Parkinson will probably be on target in taking City to the next level. For a club with ambitions to climb into the next division, we have to keep raising the bar.
Parkinson won’t have millions to spend in the summer, and any budget has to be set with the club’s financial longevity in mind, but there is no obvious reason why he won’t be backed well by Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn. There is no loan to repay this time around, no other debts that are in the public eye at least. The budget deficit is more than covered for this season and hopefully next. 2015/16 is all about pushing on.
It’s not just player contracts that will be in the spotlight though. As it stands, Parkinson is 13 months away from his Bradford City deal expiring. Mark Lawn has already spoken of offering him another contract this summer, and we wait with baited breath to see this happen.
Without the FA Cup exploits of this season, it’s fair to say the club would probably have risked allowing Parkinson’s contract to run down with the pressure on him to prove his value by instigating a strong promotion push in 2015/16. But since January, things have changed. Perhaps Parkinson’s stock isn’t as high as it could have been had City got past Reading in the FA Cup quarter finals, but anyone who doubts his value and worth to the club is playing a dangerous game. Get this man tied down on a longer deal. Remove any uncertainty going into next season.
Last summer I wrote that Parkinson’s current three-year deal – signed after promotion was achieved in 2012/13 – had rightly provided him with a cushion from the difficult moments that occurred in 2013/14. As the one win in 21 was played out, doubts over Parkinson’s future were raised but there was never really a question he might be sacked. Time has emphatically proven that this was exactly right, and the progress of this season means that the manager again deserves security going into next season.
Lawn and Rhodes have both gone on record stating their admiration for the manager. The working relationship between the three is clearly very strong. Width of a Post understands that some harsh words were spoken over Parkinson’s public pitch outburst in January, but it’s all water under the bridge now. The chairmen have a manager who has delivered stunning in progress over the past three years. They must not allow him out the building, at least not unless a big club makes an offer that he can’t refuse and which leaves City with a nice compensation package.
It should not be a difficult negotiation. Parkinson is clearly very happy at Valley Parade. By and large he has the tools he needs to succeed, and he has the support of the board. Once the season is over, it should be tied up neatly and quickly.
The third and more immediate challenge for Lawn and Rhodes is to maintain and build upon the supporter engagement. The atmosphere against Preston on Monday – it was simply incredible. The backing the players received took your breath away. The adversity of being down to 10 men helped, but even when the game went away from the Bantams there was no let up in the support. It made you feel so proud. A rare – if not the first – time that a 3-0 home defeat has received an emphatic thumbs up.
It’s not really a surprise. The way in which City fans have backed the players since 2012 is sensational. There aren’t many grounds in the country – indeed perhaps only Crystal Palace – where the players are supported so loudly and passionately. We see it week in week out at Valley Parade, which for years has been either quiet as a library or filled with boos.
It is just so special, and the chairmen need to keep it going. They both deserve massive – massive – pats on the back for their role in this. The continuation of the cheap season ticket initiative – when it was easy to have abandoned it – is so impressive. They have made Valley Parade accessible to everyone, and being rewarded by above average crowds that this season have grown.
It’s not just within the four sides of Valley Parade that you appreciate the scale of engagement. Witness outside the ground on match days, as Manningham Lane, Midland Road and other areas are filled with vendors selling scarves and food trailers which weren’t there a few years ago. Go down to North Parade and see how many bars have popped up of late, all heavily reliant upon matchday customers, all tapping into Bradford City.
This is suddenly a city that feeds into its football club, and vice-versa. Bradford City has never looked as significant and such a flag-bearer for its local community as it is right now.
Curiously, we are yet to have an announcement over next year’s season ticket prices. With just two home games to go, it must be imminent. Perhaps the club are waiting to see what division City are in next season – promotion to the Championship would perhaps trigger a price increase – but there is a responsibility not to mess this up. Despite some season ticket holders complaining that prices are too cheap, this is not the time to close the doors on Bradford and to push away all but the committed supporters.
What a great message it would be to freeze season ticket prices, with the aim of increasing the number of people who purchase one. Because after this season, with the cup exploits and the ongoing amazing atmosphere, who wouldn’t want to sign up for 23 games next year? Get the price right, and marketing the 2015/16 season tickets will be a doddle. Pictures and videos of City supporters singing loudly and passionately. For all the great football we have seen this season, it is the atmosphere and matchday experience that attaches people to this club.
The next generation of City supporters have taken the bait – now let’s reel them in.
For the players and management, it is still too soon to talk seriously about the 2015/16 season. Making the play offs now looks a tall order, but we know they won’t give up until mathematics rule them out. What they need – and need immediately – are back-to-back wins. Get six points on the board quickly, and it could really change the picture.
Gillingham on Saturday won’t be easy but is winnable. Bristol City, under the Valley Parade lights on Tuesday, will be given a tough examination as they close in on the Championship. The Robins could be promoted this weekend or complete the job in West Yorkshire; but with the Valley Parade crowd firmly behind the home team, who knows?
You feel like there should be another twist, another flicker of hope. But if not, to quote Jon Stead, “so what?” This is going to go down as an excellent season, and crucially it will leave behind a huge legacy to take into the next one. A really strong squad of players, a high-performing and talented manager, and a captivated crowd who back the club to the hilt.
The onus shortly falls on Rhodes and Lawn to ensure this momentum continues. This summer is their time to shine, and to prove that they can take the club forwards. Succeed, and they will be given huge, huge credit.