By Jason McKeown
There can be little doubt that the early weeks of this season have turned into some of the most difficult of Phil Parkinson’s reign as manager. It is not that recent results have been especially worse than some of his poorest runs from the past four years, but the mood amongst the fanbase has shifted – and that is adding to the pressure. Phil Parkinson’s popularity has taken a hit, and it is going to be a major challenge to turn that around.
Amongst some fans who have prominently backed the manager in the past, there has been a change in their opinion and a growing anger to the tone of the views they are expressing. In the most extreme areas, there have been calls for Parkinson to be sacked. This is a dangerous development for the manager, because it mirrors the pattern that befell many of his predecessors in the Valley Parade hotseat. When the tide begins to turn, it becomes very difficult to swim against it.
The issue is not simply the lack of victories so far this campaign, but the style of football that has come with it. That, more than anything, has worrying echoes of Peter Taylor’s stewardship. Taylor arrived at Valley Parade in February 2010 with a strong reputation for dour football, but there was a willingness to accept it if such a strategy manifested itself into good results on the pitch. When that didn’t happen, City had the worst of both worlds: awful results, awful football. The frustration of losing was heightened by how dreadful it had proven to watch.
Of late, Parkinson is increasingly facing disapproval for his football, with retrospective criticism applied towards the previous four years. Some – disappointingly – have attempted to rewrite history and talk down his past achievements. “But if it wasn’t for the cups…” has been the starting point to many a recent conversation. If it wasn’t for all those Number One singles, the Beatles wouldn’t be known as the world’s most popular band. You can’t separate parts of the whole picture to distort an argument. If you do, you will never have the credibility that you seek.
But of course, you can’t live in the past. Yet the point of Parkinson’s long list of achievements is that they give him a large amount of credit in the bank. They earned him a three-year contract in May 2013, and they merited him signing another three-year contract only a few weeks ago. The credit in the bank also means that, even now, there is a quiet majority of supporters who continue to back the manager. This is absolutely crucial in assessing the current state of affairs. The cushion means that Parkinson is not under pressure and will be given the time to address current problems.
The infamous one win in 21 run of form in the 2013/14 season is testament to this. Under Parkinson, City went five months notching up just one victory, and other managers have been sacked or driven out for less. But Parkinson had the cushion of his 2012/13 history maker achievements, and that afforded him the time to find the answers and to turn it around.
History has since proven just what a crucial decision it was for the club to stick by their manager during that difficult period. There were calls from some fans to make a change back then – but most fans, and the board, kept faith. Subsequent days like Chelsea and Sunderland was the reward.
Parkinson isn’t currently on a run as bad as one win in 21; but even after the recent back to back league wins, long-term form is not great. Four victories in 14 so far this season. Nine wins in 25 since last season’s FA Cup run came to an end in March. 13 wins in 38 since the incredible victory over Chelsea last January.
In the league especially, the team has stagnated over this period. City began this calendar year inside the play off positions and came close to finishing in the top six last May. To date this season, they are nowhere near the promotion spots and all the signs point to a mid-table campaign. They have been producing mid-table results for the majority of this calendar year.
Turning this new-look team into something greater won’t be easy, but not impossible. Study Phil Parkinson’s league results over the past four years, and there is a clear pattern of average runs of results punctuated by strong bursts of form. The late, and successful, League Two play off push of 2012/13; the flying start to the following season in League One; the seven wins in nine at the end of 2014. When Parkinson gets it right he often does so in a big way. He now needs to find such a run of form, if City are going to have any chance of reaching the play offs.
The victories away at Rochdale and Doncaster are a good start in this regard, but Parkinson needs to vastly improve the home form, which was for such a long time so impressive under his tutelage. And beyond all that, he needs to define his style of football and to not be afraid of it. There is a pressure from the boardroom and supporters to play a certain, more entertaining way. But the people making such demands are not accountable for the results that would follow, good or bad.
Parkinson seems to be stuck in a dilemma of what to do to please others; and the result is a team lacking both character and identity. Whatever retrospective criticisms people want to air about previous seasons, they cannot dispute the fact that the team used to have both of these qualities in abundance. That, above everything else, needs to be re-established.
The great History Makers of 2012/13 (and by great, we are talking in relative terms) could play good football and it could also do the ugly things well. It attacked in different ways that included the boot of McArdle to the head of Hanson, or the direct running of Reid and Hines or the drive of Jones and Doyle. Rory McArdle’s unerring accuracy with the ‘hoof’ is a potent weapon, and there is no shame in using it.
What City’s time in League One has shown is that Parkinson cannot be one dimensional, and must have more options. Without a level of unpredictability and adaptability, City will never be amongst the top teams in the division.
But the most important point of all is that Parkinson has to remember what has made him such a successful Bradford City manager in the first place. Whatever lip service people want to pay towards aspiring to play more attractive football, Parkinson’s ways have taken the club a long way forwards. He should not have to change that if he believes it is the right thing to do. He needs to stay true to himself.
Parkinson is the football expert here, and trusting him to do that job has worked out very well so far. His four-year history shows that he has periods where he struggles to get it right, but ultimately he has always found the answers and delivered results.
Right now, he will continue to face the criticism. But there will be no knee-jerk sacking if the season continues in this mid-table vein, and he looks unlikely to resign. He will be given the opportunity to continue the club’s upwards progression. He might not succeed in this job forever, but this slow start to the season need not be the beginning of the end for him.
He has the tools to do better; and his past achievements provide him with the cushion – and time – to do just that.