By Jason McKeown
Expectation is a moving beast. In a football club environment where the mood and outlook can change from game to game, managing expectation levels is a never-ending issue.
And changing expectations proved to be the soundtrack to Bradford City’s 2014/15 season. It was a year of extreme emotions, which continually raised and lowered the bar in what we supporters expected from the Bantams. On occasions some of us feared a return to League Two, yet there was also a period where one, two if not three trips to Wembley could be forecasted.
It could have been a glorious, glorious campaign, but in the end it fell short. And dealing with the resultant disappointment from failing to realise heightened expectations was evidently a huge challenge for the club, as the season ran out of steam.
There is a narrative that some people subscribe to that goes like this: the 2014/15 season was a major success simply because it was beyond the realistic expectations we shared last summer. That in view of close season budget cuts, and a late scramble for signings, few of us expected a play off push – never mind those FA Cup exploits – and so the campaign has been a big success.
It’s not that such an outlook is totally wrong: but it is misleading and revisionary. The simple fact is that, going into the 2014/15 season, no one – the club included – really knew what to expect. There were fears that the budget cuts would lead to struggle, but comfort in the apparent quality of many of the summer recruits. There was no real emphasis on pushing for promotion and the pressure that comes with it, but no one was ruling it out either.
It was a bit of a wait-and-see moment. Dip your toe in the water and then judge the temperature. Pessimism was felt, but no one was writing off the team until they kicked a ball.
In the end, the team achieved their highest Football League placing in 11 years, finishing in the ‘best of the rest’ position of seventh. One place, and four points shy of the play offs. Major progress on the season before, but was it also an opportunity missed?
Factor in sixth-placed Chesterfield’s superior goal difference, and City would have needed five more points to finish in the top six. We can easily think of five points that were chucked away over the course of the campaign. The if onlys could eat away at you all summer.
The margins were so thin.
The cup effect
2014/15 undoubtedly proved that 2012/13 was no fluke. Once again it was a season of Bradford City cup surprises, as four higher league teams were defeated and the last eight of the FA Cup was reached. It seems increasingly like that the Bantams will go into the summer boasting of being the only team in England to defeat Chelsea on their own patch.
Rewind back to the start of the season, and a first victory for nearly 30 years over neighbours and rivals Leeds United. In previous, dismal Bantams campaigns, such a moment would have been the standout highlight rather than the reality that it was an evening we quickly moved on from and forgot.
Yet it was some night. City toiled well against a Leeds side led by the misfit that was David Hockaday and reduced to 10 men early doors for two stupid Luke Murphy challenges. With extra time beckoning, Matt Smith headed home what looked to be a late, late Leeds winner. A Midland Road stand packed full over 4,000 Leeds fans went crazy.
Cue one of the greatest four-minute periods of my time supporting City. The Bantams kicked off the game again, Billy Clarke had a belting long range shot saved. From the resultant corner, Billy Knott volleyed home the goal of the season to equalise. And then, two minutes later, James Hanson headed home the winner. The celebrations in the Kop were phenomenal.
Three days later City beat Rochdale 2-0 to cap off a brilliant first month, but what followed was just two wins from 13 games and a dropping of those expectations. During such miserable times, I’m sure I wasn’t the only City fan who took comfort from repeatedly loading up my Sky planner and replaying those four magical minutes against Leeds.
The legacy of the Leeds victory was that it provided the team – and manager – with a cushion from the early autumn struggles. After a summer of major player changes that had seen several widely loved history maker players depart, beating Leeds was an early shot in the arm for the new arrivals. An opportunity taken to show their mettle and prove they could take on the 2012/13 team baton of playing with passion and spirit.
Sure, the Leeds game was ultimately put to the back of the mind, but only because it was eventually overshadowed by even bigger achievements. That FA Cup replay against Millwall, for instance, when the majority of a five-figure Valley Parade crowd thrilled over a thumping Bantams victory over Championship opposition. On that night, City were so focused and full of intensity. It was Phil Parkinson’s management at its best.
And what more can be said of beating Chelsea at Stamford Bridge? 2-0 down, they played their illustrious hosts off the park, executed the gameplan to perfection and fully merited the 4-2 victory. For many, it was the greatest moment in their time supporting Bradford City.
Sunderland were also battered in round five. The League One outfit made it look so simple. The atmosphere was stunning. It was such a special afternoon to support the Bantams.
Leeds, Millwall, Chelsea, Sunderland. What a season for cup performances.
The legacy of 2012/13’s League Cup miracle was not just a huge financial windfall that helped to put the club on a more stable footing, it made men out of the players. It turned them into heroes. In 2012, Stephen Darby had made a slow start to life at Valley Parade – but his performance at Wigan changed everything. And though the run past Arsenal and Aston Villa had an adverse impact on the league form at the time, in the long run it was pivotal in City earning promotion.
You can’t separate the two. Without playing Swansea at Wembley, the Bantams wouldn’t have played Northampton at Wembley.
It was a similar story this time around. Again, the impact of extra cup matches and the distraction of being in the national spotlight proved damaging to the bread and butter stuff. But if City hadn’t beaten Leeds early doors, or come from behind at Halifax in round one of the FA Cup – well, the play off push would never have occurred.
The confidence gained from the Chelsea and Sunderland cup exploits was put to good use in the league. Not as well as in 2012/13 of course, but it still made a difference.
Phil Parkinson is without question the best cup manager that City have employed since Peter O’Rourke (you could argue he is even better than the 1911 FA Cup winning boss). Parkinson had needed to deliver in the knock out competitions in view of the budget strategy, but he has also understood just what a difference success in cup matches can have on his players.
The Mclean factor
It’s fair to say that Aaron Mclean was never a favourite of this parish. WOAP judged him negatively last season and the criticism from us continued early doors in 2014/15. We received harsh words from some readers for blaming City’s goalscoring struggles on the former Hull City striker (especially as we stuck up for James Hanson), but in the end Aaron has little-to-no support in BD8.
Parkinson made a major mistake signing him last January. Mclean could not come close to filling Nahki Wells’ boots, and efforts to integrate him into the team proved wholly unsuccessful. The fact Mclean was such a disappointment on loan at Peterborough underlines that it was not a matter of City failing to get the best out of him.
Mclean is not the force he was. The parallels with John McGinlay are striking. McGinlay signed for City in 1997 on big money, he was woeful and his career never recovered.
There is no doubt Parkinson deserved criticism for Mclean, but he deserves credit also for addressing the situation head on and taking action. After a poor run of October form, the manager acted and shipped Mclean out on loan. Rumours of a training ground bust up added to a desperate situation. Finding someone who would take on a chunk of Mclean’s high wages was not easy, but necessary.
It is amazing that Mclean’s departure coincided with City’s season turning around. Without Aaron in the starting line up or on the bench, the Bantams flourished. Jon Stead made a huge impact. Billy Clarke revelled in the greater opportunities. Mclean ended the season a player coach at London Road. His future at Valley Parade is an interesting situation going into the summer.
And whilst Mclean has been a stick to beat the manager with, Parkinson’s achievements in 2014/15 became all the more impressive because of his misfiring striker. For in a season of budget cuts and making do with a thinbare squad, the manager has also had to cope with a huge chunk of that reduced budget being committed to Mclean. In effect, the budget Parkinson operated on was even lower.
Peterborough took on some of Aaron’s wages, but it was rumoured to be only a small percentage. Out of sight, Mclean certainly fell out of most supporter’s minds. But the season could have turned out very differently if Parkinson could have somehow got Mclean permanently away from Valley Parade during January and freed up more of his thinly spread budget.
In part two, we analyse the impact of playing so many games and the success of the diamond formation.
Categories: 2014/15 season review