By Jason McKeown
On paper, this has the makings of being a brilliant season for Bradford City. The record season ticket sales uptake will guarantee a highest seasonal average attendance since the Premier League days. The upwards momentum of the last three seasons means a promotion push is now a realistic objective. The move to resolve Phil Parkinson’s future, long before his contract runs down, provides ongoing stability. Make no mistake, these are exciting times.
A strong end to 2014/15 meant the Bantams finished best of the rest in seventh position. They were just four points short of a play off placing, suggesting that only marginal improvements are needed to go at least one place better and finish in the top six. In last season’s League One, the top five teams were clearly a level above everyone else in the division. Three of those five were promoted – and of the three relegated Championship teams replacing them, only Wigan and their financial might should be feared. Blackpool continue to look a shambles. Millwall will compete at the top end, but City hold one crucial advantage over them.
Indeed, perhaps not enough has been made about what James Hanson remaining at Valley Parade symbolises for City. The team that produced heroics last season largely remains in tact. Whereas in years gone by radical overhauls of the squad were an annual event, there continues to be a familiarity about the spine of the team that offers reassurance in knowing what to expect.
Stephen Darby, James Meredith, Rory McArdle, Billy Knott, Gary Liddle, Billy Clarke, James Hanson – these are not just proven League One players, but proven high-performing League One players. With the right signings to complement them, and a greater level of strength in depth, this team can continue its upwards trajectory. 2014/15 need not be anyone’s peak.
Not for the first time in recent close seasons, there has been some supporter disquiet about the quality of the summer signings, but people should trust in Phil Parkinson’s judgement. He will not get every signing right and has made mistakes in the past; but his ability to identify the right characters and players with the mindset to flourish at Valley Parade has been proven time and time again.
Back in 2012, joint-chairmen Mark Lawn hit out at supporters unhappy about signings with the blunt retort: “Do they expect us to go out and sign Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo?” That was the summer during which McArdle, Andrew Davies, Meredith, Darby, Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle, Garry Thompson and others were recruited – with spectacular results. Three years on, Lawn’s cutting words are just as relevant. Parkinson’s past form of unearthing unknowns, or unpromising-sounding players, means no one should write off any new signing before they have kicked a ball.
Last year proved that more than ever. A winger released by a relegated club? Filipe Morais was a revelation. A journeyman striker who couldn’t get into the Crawley team? Billy Clarke ended a fantastic campaign as top scorer. So many of Phil Parkinson’s lack the X-Factor when they are initially paraded on the field holding up a claret and amber scarf, yet go on to produce great things when they put on a claret and amber shirt.
Of the summer signings, Josh Morris initially looks the pick. An up-and-coming winger from Blackburn who has spent 18 months learning about lower league football with Fleetwood, Morris has impressed greatly over pre-season and can shine on the Valley Parade stage. Mark Marshall can fill the hole left by Kyel Reid in 2013 by providing pace in the wide areas that can stretch opposition defences. Steve Davies has bags of experience and higher league pedigree. Luke James had a terrible year at Peterborough as he found the culture shock of moving away from his North East home difficult. Back up North, James has a point to prove. Tony McMahon just looks every inch a Parkinson type of player. Nathan Clarke had a poor 2014/15 at Leyton Orient but has enjoyed a decent overall career. Paul Anderson has a great pedigree and could run this division ragged.
All of these players can add to what is at the club, and will aim to deliver better than those who left during the summer. But the biggest question mark of all is at the centre of defence.
Andrew Davies’ summer departure was a shock, with Parkinson and City apparently not making enough of a push to keep him around. The positives and negatives of Davies have been discussed to death, but he has always represented an insurance blanket in terms of the difference he made when fit. One of the successes of 2014/15 was the defence and, in particular, Rory McArdle’s improvement in coping without Davies – but it’s still a gamble to let him go. Like Gary Jones’ departure last summer, it was probably easier to have kept Davies than to find out if he can be replaced. It will be very interesting to see how City cope without their inspirational centre back.
As it will be dealing with rising expectations. Rewind a year ago and there were credible fears that 2014/15 would involve a relegation battle. City confounded those doubts; but even without Messi and Ronaldo on board, there are now strong hopes of a promotion push this season. That is the target for everyone, and it brings with it a level of pressure from day one. Add those inflated home crowds into the equation, and the mood could easily turn ugly if the path forwards proves rocky.
It all comes back to that character. A club source told WOAP about City’s attempts to sign Andy Williams during the close season. Terms were apparently agreed that matched what Doncaster offered him, but it is said that the prospect of playing in front of 18,000 fans was off-putting rather than inspirational. So Williams chose Doncaster, whose 6,829 average attendance last season is just over a third the total number of season tickets that have been sold by the Bantams during the summer.
To succeed, City will need players of the right mental strength and character. Darby, McArdle, Hanson and co have proven they can deal with the greater expectations of a passionate Valley Parade crowd, and the summer arrivals must do the same for City. There will always be tough days and Parkinson has consistently proven adept at getting the club through them, and he will know that the players he has brought in over the summer must reach the same standard as his tried and trusted.
The other key factor will be the players signed last season and their ability to build on promising starts. This is a big year for Billy Knott, who has looked a stronger and more authoritative player over pre-season. Knott produced some fantastic performances last season; but he needs to learn to keep things simple at times, rather than giving the ball away so often.
Chris Routis came from back up centre half to utility player. He wouldn’t start in most people’s strongest XI –can he change games from the bench and further grow in influence? Billy Clarke’s terrific second half to last season needs to be built upon. The journeyman tag is applied to players who regularly produce strong bursts of form at clubs but struggle to keep it going. Clarke needs to shake off that journeyman tag.
If these players and others can continue to develop and prosper – and if the new signings can settle in and contribute positively – City should be in for another memorable campaign. Success doesn’t need to be defined by whether City are promoted; but as a minimum, the ambition must be to take another step closer to the Championship. That means another push for the play offs. It means a season of winning more often that losing. And it requires a season of even louder noise bellowing from one of the division’s biggest crowds.
Strap in and get perched onto the edge of your Valley Parade seat; 2015/16 looks set to be another exhilarating ride.