2014/15 reviewed: Great expectations (part two)

Picture by Thomas Gadd (thomaasgadd.co.uk)

Picture by Thomas Gadd (thomaasgadd.co.uk)

Part two of Jason McKeown’s review of Bradford City’s 2014/15 season (part one is here) looks at the long slog of games, the merits of the diamond formation and the enduring popularity of Phil Parkinson. 

The marathon

In total City played 58 games in 2014/15. They used only 29 players. Nine of whom played in more than 40 matches. Another three were involved in more than 30 games. 12 players started more than half of the games that City played.

There was a huge reliance on a small group of players over the course of the season. And in the end that took its toll. The fixtures, towards the end of the season, came thick and fast. 23 of the overall 58 games occurred between February 7 and May 3 – that’s a 13-week period. There were just two blank midweeks over that run – the second of which was in-between the final two fixtures of the season.

It was a huge, huge ask of City to keep winning matches during the final 13 weeks – especially as they were still battling on two fronts for a while. The FA Cup adventure came to an end on a disappointing Monday night at Reading, yet the players looked dead on their feet. In this and other games during the run-in, they ran out of steam. It’s difficult to judge them harshly.

As City’s play off bid faltered during early April, it was the one time that the heroics of 2012/13 seemed to haunt the current crop. Two years ago, Parkinson’s men had faced a similar fixture backlog and yet found a second-wind to finish the season strongly and in the play offs. This time around, at the crunch moments they fell short.

It all comes back to the lack of depth. In 2012/13, Parkinson was able to rotate his squad in the games after Swansea. He was able to call upon squad players like Ricky Ravenhill to come in and do a job, and the form of Alan Connell enabling Nahki Wells to have a much-needed breather.

The difference this time around was not so much that he lacked back up options, but that those squad players weren’t good enough to make the step up. No one in reserve, with the exception of Christopher Routis, performed to the level needed. Jon Stead’s form dipped, but Francois Zoko was nowhere good enough to take the weight off his shoulders. Billy Knott was not always at his best, but with Andy Halliday sidelined Matty Dolan could not press his claims.

By and large Parkinson had to stick with what he had. On their day, this team looked a match for any side in the division. But the slog of Saturday-Tuesday, Saturday-Tuesday eventually took its toll. There are key matches that everyone agrees cost City over the course of the season – Reading away, Chesterfield home – and though the players gave their all, at times they looked jaded.

Picture by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Picture by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Nahki would have scored that

For the second season in a row, the Bantams defensive record was amongst the best in the division and certainly comparable to the top six. Yet in terms of Goals For, City finished 11 behind the lowest-scoring play off team (Sheffield United). The biggest league win of the season was only 3-0 (vs Doncaster) and in the league they only managed to score three times on two other occasions (Coventry and Leyton Orient home).

Goalscoring was a problem, and certainly the lack of an out-and-out goalscorer was telling at times. Jon Stead was prolific in the FA Cup but only managed six in the league. James Hanson began the campaign in fine form, but in the end would have hoped for more than 11. Billy Clarke, at the tip of the diamond, managed 14 goals to finish top goalscorer. A great effort, with some particularly strong form at the end of the campaign.

Yet 14 goals is still one short of what Nahki Wells achieved for the Bantams over the first half of last season, before he was sold to Huddersfield. Replacing the Bermudian’s goals was the big issue of the second act of 2013/14 and continued throughout this one. The Goals For and Against stats clearly show that the difference between City finishing in the play offs and below is a striker who could have chipped in around 20 goals.

Bristol City (Aaron Wilbraham – 18), MK Dons (Will Grigg – 20), Preston (Joe Garner – 25), Swindon Town (Andy Williams – 21) all had reliable goalscorers. Sheffield United signed Rochdale’s Matt Done from Rochdale in February and were rewarded by seven goals. Chesterfield’s Eion Doyle managed 25 before he was sold mid-season.

It is fantastic to see the goals shared out at Valley Parade. Of those 26 outfield players used, 17 chipped in with at least one goal. But the fact remains that City didn’t score enough over the course of the campaign. This will need to be addressed over the summer, in order for the Bantams to go at least one better.

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

That sparkling diamond

Not only was Phil Parkinson charged with rebuilding the team on a reduced budget, he had to be more entertaining. Public comments from Julian Rhodes suggested this direction came from the top. Increasingly over 2013/14, City’s fast-paced attacking style had become one dimensional and ineffective. A new direction was demanded.

Cue the pre-season introduction of the diamond, and a whole new type of debate. Whereas before some had complained the Bantams were not the greatest on the eye, very quickly a distrust grew of the diamond that led to Mike Bassett-style supporter rants for a return to four four f***ing two.

There is no doubt that the diamond approach endured a few teething problems early doors, especially at home. It was fascinating to watch Parkinson’s tweaks, as he tried to make it work.

Going forwards, it was evident that the tip of the diamond was the crucial position in making the set up effective. Mark Yeates made an early stake for this role and was excellent over September and October. He had a free role, and became the standout performer.

But what worked for Yeates didn’t work for the rest of the team, and overall results were not great. Eventually, Yeates was pushed wide, and then after injury over Christmas he was once again reduced to bit-part status. The team, meanwhile, was soaring.

Billy Clarke was assigned the tip-of-the-diamond role in mid-November, and never looked back. Initially Parkinson went to 4-4-1-1 with Clarke behind Jon Stead. But that meant there was no place for James Hanson, who eventually regained his place in the starting XI over Christmas. It was back to the diamond and Clarke at the tip, only this time it worked better.

Playing Gary Liddle at the base was essential, yet early doors Billy Knott was trialled here by Parkinson – finding Knott’s best role in the diamond arguably eluded the manager all season. Filipe Morais was a revelation on the right side of the diamond, and the Portuguese’s rise and rise was especially beneficial to Stephen Darby behind him.

Hanson continued to lead the line but was pushed to the left hand side. It wasn’t always a success, but City’s longest-serving player let no one down. And there was Christopher Routis. And Jason Kennedy early doors. And Andy Halliday, who was useful for a while. And Tony McMahon, who was a good addition.

The point was that despite the low turnover of players, Parkinson tried all manner of different approaches to get the diamond formation to work. At times it worked really well, at others City struggled. There was no repeat of Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle getting outgunned in midfield, but going forward the diamond didn’t always result in numerous goalscoring chances for the forward line.

Still, at least it wasn’t boring to watch.

One assumes that Parkinson will stick with the diamond next season, and that summer recruitment efforts will be about providing him with greater flexibility to make it work in different situations.

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Phil Parkinson has strengthened his standing

I feared for Parkinson on the eve of the season. The budget cuts, the deficit approach that required a cup run, the demands for more entertaining football, the lack of squad depth, the Mclean factor.

Like the players, beating Leeds early doors provided the manager with a cushion from criticism, and he needed that over September and October. Results weren’t brilliant. Performances were mixed. Some new signings struggled. Mclean’s lack of form was a real concern. There was the four defeats from five that prompted major fears about the prospects for the season.

And there was disgruntlement, but crucially little dissent towards the manager. He was put under more pressure the winter before, when City went on that run of one win in 21 over 2013/14. During those dark moments early in 2014/15, when the club’s form did not look clever, the greater majority of supporters remained relatively calm and in support of Parkinson.

This was crucial. So many times over the past decade and more, such circumstances would have prompted panic and implosion amongst supporters (here was the typical soundtrack). Of loud demands for the manager’s head to roll. Parkinson has had some rocky spells as manager and recovered each and every time. This time around, almost all supporters remembered that fact and kept calm.

How it was to pay off. After Chelsea, Parkinson’s popularity was arguably at its peak since taking charge at Valley Parade. He has continued to be widely loved, and the only question over his future comes from the prospect of new club owners with unknown intentions. “Parkinson is the special one” was first aired at Stamford Bridge and has been sung all season. Every supporter who continued to back the manager last October deserved to feel proud during the good times of the FA Cup adventure and play off push.

Parkinson was backed by fans when it really, really mattered. And he repaid that faith handsomely.

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

This was (nearly) an amazing season

There are so many what ifs about 2014/15. For as credible as a seventh place finish and FA Cup quarter final appearance is, you can’t help but sigh and think what might have been.

If City had only taken one of those great chances created in the first FA Cup tie against Reading. If only Gary MacKenzie hadn’t produced a woeful back header against Chesterfield, which cost his team a vital goal in a vital game. If only Christoper Routis hadn’t been caught out by Joe Garner and rashly brought down League One’s player of the season, resulting in a red card against Preston. If only the five-minute madness against Fleetwood had never occurred.

City ended the season with four strong performances, but four of the five games before that cost them a play off spot. Did they fall short because they weren’t good enough? Yes, ultimately. But they were hardly a million miles away.

The FA Cup adventure had a similarly sour ending. No disrespect to Reading, but it would have been easier to take going out of the competition if defeat had been triggered by Arsenal or Manchester United or Liverpool. The miserable Monday night in Berkshire was an unfitting way to bow out.

So close to Wembley, in the FA Cup semi finals. So close to Wembley, via the play offs. So…nearly.

But despite these disappointments, 2014/15 was an amazing season. The emotions we experienced were wide ranging and so memorable. The achievements might not have been on the scale of 2012/13, but that season aside there isn’t another campaign, since 1999/00, that comes even close to rivalling it.

From going into it with unknown expectations, we end it much more confident about the future. The next step – the Championship – suddenly doesn’t look as big a one to take as it seemed 10 months ago. Whatever happens with the new owners, and whatever happens next season, 2014/15 was a year of exhilarating progress.

Categories: 2014/15 season review

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1 reply

  1. New owners? know something we don’t Jason?

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