By Jason McKeown
“I hope that he didn’t talk about signings players, his record was awful”. That was what a long-time Manchester United supporter, and former Old Trafford season ticket holder, said to me when I told him I had just finished reading Sir Alex Ferguson’s new book – Leading. My friend’s view is an interesting, and unusual, one to hold on modern football’s most successful manager – and a measure of what all the others are up against.
If Sir Alex Ferguson was indeed awful in the transfer market, over his 27 years at Old Trafford, it demonstrates just how misplaced supporters’ expectations can be over the signing of new players. Here was a man who unearthed Eric Cantona, Ronaldo, Peter Schmeichel and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, and who can list Roy Keane, Gary Pallister, Dwight Yorke, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie amongst seemingly hundreds of successful signings.
But yet of course there were Ferguson transfer failures. And unlike other top Premier League clubs who operate with directors of football and the like, they were solely the Manchester United manager’s fault. Eric Djemba-Djemba, Massimo Taibi, Karel Poborsky, Juan Sebastian Veron, William Prunier, Neil Webb and Bebe are just the tip of the iceberg. Millions of pounds wasted despite meticulous research and careful scouting. It just shows how hard it is to get player recruitment right, even at the very top.
And yet managers up and down the country are routinely under pressure from supporters, or sacked by owners, because they have made some poor signings. When things aren’t working out on the pitch, their recent record in the transfer market comes under intense scrutiny. It makes sense, because at every level the playing budget is a club’s biggest area of spending. But given even the best managers get it wrong, it is sometimes bemusing just how surprised and upset some people can become over the issue of a poor signing.
At Bradford City we are no different and Phil Parkinson’s close season recruitment has come under some scrutiny, particularly earlier this season, when results were poor. Parkinson has had very successful transfer windows, such as the summers of 2012 and 2014, but he has had poor ones too such as the summer of 2013.
The jury has to remain out on the latest close season activity, especially as some of the new signings have been desperately unlucky with injuries. Nevertheless, there are clearly some summer additions who are failing to pull up any trees, or demonstrate that they can improve the team. For now their failings are less of an issue as others are doing the business, especially the three loan signings who would have been unplanned on the eve of the season.
The recent criticism labelled at Parkinson is that his list of poor signings, over his tenure, has grown considerably. You can understand the sentiment, but to me it’s more a sign that he has been in the job for several years now. His job has been to build a team, and then evolve and rebuilt it again, so the club can continue its progress. It’s inevitable there will be mistakes, but even then they are balanced out by the number of successful signings.
The outrage expressed by some – that Parkinson has made a poor signing or two – is difficult to understand when you look at the modern history of Bradford City, as I have been doing whilst researching and writing my forthcoming book, Reinventing Bradford City. Every City manager, it seems, has a patchy record in the transfer market, and you wonder how some people – and long-term supporters in particular – can continue to be surprised that it happens.
After the promotion near-miss of 1988, Terry Dolan had to sell star players Stuart McCall and John Hendrie for more than £1million, and barely six months later he was sacked after failing to reinvest this windfall successfully. Dolan’s successor, Terry Yorath, performed even worse in the transfer market; whilst John Docherty’s recruitment was woeful and a generation of City fans still involuntarily shudder at the words ‘Darren Morgan’.
Moving on a few years, Chris Kamara became the first City manager to try out the Bosman ruling, with decidedly mixed results. Eventually he was sacked for splashing out a club record £625,000 fee on the misfiring John McGinlay. Paul Jewell was a huge success, but still spent double that amount on Arsenal rookie Isaiah Rankin.
Even later managers, who had thinbare resources, are remembered for their poor signings. Jim Jefferies signed Gary Locke; Nicky Law had Luke Cornwall; Colin Todd brought in Bobby Petta. With relatively decent budgets in League Two Stuart McCall signed Scott Phelan and Paul Mullin; Peter Taylor recruited Jake Speight and Scott Dobbie; the story goes Peter Jackson was against bringing in Nahki Wells as he thought Nialle Rodney was a better player.
The point is that we City fans have endured decades of dreadful signings, and yet for some this utopian vision still exists that managers should somehow get every single new signing right.
You could argue, looking at the history of Bradford City, that as a club we have consistently underachieved in the transfer market. That we are never the wisest of buyers. But there’s no obvious reason for this to be the case. We are talking about different managers, scouts, chairmen and chief executives being responsible for signing players over the years; and it covers all four divisions and a variety of different transfer budgets. In reality, I suspect that City are no different to any other club, and that everyone else can reel off their own list of horror signings and worst XIs.
As I have written about before, there are many different factors why a new signing might not work out. They don’t settle in the area, they don’t thrive in the training ground environment, they don’t gel with their new team mates, they don’t respond to the manager.
Some are brought in for minor back up roles, but end up having to play a bigger part than their manager envisaged. Matthew Bates is probably a good example of this. Brought in as cover for Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle in October 2013, he ended up playing nearly half the season and struggled badly at times. If Parkinson had have been looking for someone to play week in week out, and had the budget left over, he would probably have gone for someone better than Bates. Circumstances dictate that Bates played more often, and the manager’s judgement was questioned.
On the more recent close season, it is perhaps not surprising that the picture is so far patchy. City ended the 2014/15 season with the uncertainty over the Gianni Paladini takeover, which for a time meant transfer activity was put on hold. Parkinson himself was subject to an approach from Sheffield United and might have exited the building. At the time there was an impression that the summer recruitment was a little haphazard, and that’s probably no surprise against this backdrop.
In 2012, for example, those close to Parkinson state how ready he was to wield his plan into action – how clear he was on who he wanted to bring in and who to let go. In contrast, this summer saw a lot of uncertainty.
For what it’s worth, I think Parkinson has at the very least attempted to bring in a specific type of player, and that has largely worked. He talked up the importance of character long before Twitter’s Deluded Brendan turned Brendan Rodgers’ management speak into parody. Parkinson has continually brought in players who can cope with the expectations of a demanding crowd, and who can stand up to the physicality of the lower leagues. Under Parkinson, Bradford City lose games but rarely because they are bullied.
There has almost always been an identity to Parkinson’s teams and that has served City well over the past four years. To his great credit, Parkinson has routinely brought in players with apparently questionable pedigree and moulded them into successful Bradford City players. His best signings have been the less obvious ones. Billy Clarke – a journeyman footballer up until joining City, and someone who couldn’t even get into a Crawley Town team – is a great example of this.
Clarke aside, if you were going to pick holes you could make an argument – albeit a limited one – that Parkinson has been more successful in recruiting defensive players than attacking ones. In particular, the struggle to replace Nahki Wells has prompted plenty of questions towards the manager, although replacing such a talent was always going to be a tough challenge. Devante Cole burst onto the scene and has the potential to be that pacy forward City have lacked since Wells left. Nevertheless, the young striker is still learning and will continue to have his ups and downs.
There are other summer signings who have started slowly and failed to fully convince, and unless there is a miraculous change in the fortunes of Mark Marshall, Nathan Clarke and Luke James, they will ultimately leave with the manager criticised for bringing them in. It will be similar when Parkinson eventually leaves – his list of poor signings will be rolled out by his detractors – and yet his replacement will no doubt have an equally patchy record, and then his replacement the same. Every manager makes bad signings, and it is amazing that some people continue to be surprised by this.
For every manager, Parkinson included, their record should ultimately be judged by their ratio of good signings to poor ones. Player turnover is a fact of life at all football clubs, and to keep moving forwards you will always have to look ahead. If the manager is getting more wrong than right, progress is clearly going to stall and then there is a decision for that club to make over their future. If Parkinson had continued recruiting as badly as he did in the summer of 2013, for example, he probably wouldn’t still be at the club.
The bigger picture though is that bad signings shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. They are a fact of life, and a manager who gets every call right simply does not exist. Phil Parkinson has got far more right than wrong. He might not be the greatest manager at recruiting, but he is certainly a lot better than most – especially his recent predecessors.