With City’s Boxing Day visit from Burton Albion postponed due to the rain and no match report to go live tonight, please enjoy our interview with Bantams chief Phil Parkinson.
By Katie Whyatt
It’s December 23rd, at the final press conference before Bradford City play the league leaders, Burton Albion, at Valley Parade. We’re at the Bantams’ training ground, where, an hour earlier, before the press arrived, the players lined up in banks of four for a practice game. Parkinson is calling from the sidelines, brandishing a set of cones and drilling his charges on what to expect in two days’ time. The howling wind and biting cold feels like a hark back to the torture of GCSE PE, but there’s no shortage of enthusiasm in the Bantams camp.
Later, as the players trickle from the changing room and drive home for Christmas, the scene provides a stark reminder of the quality Parkinson has lured to Valley Parade. Billy Knott follows Josh Morris out the car park. Gary Liddle stands on the kerb for forty minutes as he speaks to the press, later wandering inside to see the Telegraph and Argus’ Simon Parker. All the while, Parkinson stands in the bracing chill, speaking to journalist after journalist. I’m last in the queue, long after the rest of the press pack have departed.
“Sorry for making you wait in the wind,” Parkinson smiles.
The time we spend together provides a fascinating insight into how the City chief operates. As he talks of his ethos for the club, he reminds me of Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe. You think back to the Cherries’ win over Manchester United, two weeks ago, when Howe vowed to the Sky Sports cameras any January arrivals would not compromise the unity in his ranks – and Parkinson, as you might expect, displays similar traits.
Mentality lies at the forefront of everything he does; he has a clear vision, a “project”, working with the broad to restructure the club at all levels; he speaks highly of the players at his disposal and the squad he has assembled. Later, when we talk of the cup upsets that have defined his tenure, the virtues underpinning his methodologies come to the fore. He’s staunch in his principles, but pragmatic, too. Quietly, Bradford City have begun to display the hallmarks of a promotion team, and there is renewed optimism and belief in the fanbase in view of the challenges ahead.
“I’m pleased we’re challenging,” he begins, as he reflects on the season so far. “We’ve had a very unfortunate spell of serious injuries, but if you take that into consideration, to be in the mix is good. I’m expecting us to get better, but it’s a tight division. We’re one of a lot of teams who are in and around it. I think there’s been some surprise packages like Burton and Walsall who are up there, [but] in terms of the tightness, that’s exactly what we expected. We need to keep improving, keep demanding high standards from the players on the training ground. We’ll take that into matches and we’ll give it everything we’ve got.”
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for a side that, in August, looked miles off the pace. In the 17 games since that 2-1 summer defeat to Gillingham, Bradford City have lost just three times, and clocked up ten clean sheets on the bounce. The opening month travails endured by the likes of Nathan Clarke, Ben Williams and Tony McMahon would have beaten lesser players and condemned them to seasons of oblivion – but it’s testament to the culture Parkinson has implemented and steeliness of the squad that they turned ailing form around in such drastic fashion.
After his Chesterfield goal, Tony McMahon spoke extensively of visits to Parkinson’s office to discuss how he handles himself in front of goal. Parkinson has always sought quality over quantity, but this season has brought with it unprecedented strength in depth. January looms, but the squad is in healthy shape.
“We’re probably about where we want to be,” Parkinson says. “Five strikers, six strikers probably is a little too many, but we’ve needed them this year because of the injuries. We don’t want any more players. If people come in, someone will have to go, because we enjoy working with a smaller, tight knit group – you can spend more time individually with the players on the training ground, and that’s what we want. I don’t want to increase the numbers.
“With Tony, we’ve been concentrating on the technique in training. I feel that with the right technique, you take it into the games and then when the moment comes to take the chance, you’re more likely to. I just felt that a couple of weeks prior, he was too frustrated with himself when he hadn’t scored. He’s just got to be calmer, cooler and trust his technique, like he did against Chesterfield. That was a great finish.
“We’ve got issues with the three loan players, which we need to address. The strength of the squad will improve from within with Morris and Davies coming back, so that’s a lot of players to choose from. The only way we’ll bring someone in is if we felt that player will improve the starting eleven and someone else goes. That’s the only way we’ll change it round. The standards in training are getting better all the time and, at the moment, it’s as good as it’s been since I’ve been here.”
“When we’re losing, everyone knows more than the manager. But you’ve got to stand by your own beliefs and convictions, do what you think’s right.”
Parkinson says Mark Lawn is “speaking to people” about retaining Kyel Reid, whose services are guaranteed at least until January 2nd, but acknowledges “a lot of teams just want to get through this Christmas period and then see where they stand with their squad – we’re the same, and so are Preston.” Nonetheless, he admits it’s a constant process of evaluation – “every day, you’re assessing things” – to work out what’s best for the squad. Never one to stand still, Parkinson has made big calls throughout his tenure, dismantling the two greatest City sides of the last decade in search of further progress. With that, several favourites were left behind – including the club’s talismanic centre half, Andrew Davies, and second greatest modern-day midfielder: Gary Jones.
“With Andrew Davies, we were talking about offering him a deal, and he wanted a longer-term contract,” Parkinson says. “We were still in negotiations and Ross County gave him a contact that was way above what we could afford to pay him. It was purely financial.
“With Gary – that was a tough call. You know, of all the signings we’ve made since I’ve been here, he’s got to be right up there – a fantastic character. But you’ve got to keep on trying to improve. If you look at managers who’ve been at clubs a while – if you go back to Sir Alex at Man United, he continually changed the team and the personnel and had to make decisions at the right time. That’s ultimately what you’re paid for. I feel this year, we’ve got some young players, some assets in this squad, and one of the things myself and the chairmen spoke about last season was trying to get some young players – like Greg Leigh, Billy Knott and Josh Morris, for instance –who maybe can grow with the team and become assets with us.”
It was questionable initially, however, whether such calls would pay dividends. The side tumbled out the blocks at the start of the season, conceding four to Swindon on the opening day and sinking to the very bottom of the table after losing at home to Gillingham. Up top, they were short of options. They looked devoid of gut, resilience, spirit, character – the very tenets Jones and Davies had consistently underpinned. Parkinson’s playing style came under heavy scrutiny, with supporters condemning the diamond. This season’s switch to a flat midfield four has been a welcome one, but Parkinson explains a prescriptive approach to management is overly simplistic.
“We bought Billy Clarke and Billy Knott in to give us an extra dimension and went for the diamond,” he says. “That worked last season, but this year, I just wanted to get more width in the team, and that’s why we signed Morris and Mark Marshall – and we already had Morais. But those players have got injured. With formations, it really frustrates me when managers go out and say, ‘This is my philosophy,’ because you’ve always got look at what will get the best out of the players at your disposal. When you’ve got a lot of players out with injuries, we have to pick the formation and the way we play from the players we’ve got. Still, we’ve done what we set out to do. Maybe not quite in terms of the form or terms of the personnel, but I think, as a team, we’ve got to keep freshening things up and keep the players stimulated.
“I think we had a lot of changes in the summer. A lot of players came in late and we had this run of injuries, so we were disjointed,” he explains. “When you get a lot of new players, it takes time to get them to understand what’s expected to play for Bradford, but I feel we’re getting there – we’re definitely getting there.
“You’ve just got to keep working hard, but sometimes you’ve just got to take a step back as well, and maybe take yourself away from the training ground for a day or two, make sure you’re thinking clearly. When we’re losing, everyone wants to tell you which team to pick. Everyone knows more than the manager. But you’ve got to stand by your own beliefs and convictions, do what you think’s right. I’m fortunate here because I’ve got a strong board behind me and we always sit and talk though the points in a calm way.”
‘Sensational, staggering, historic – flying in the face of all football logic’
Just over three years ago, Phil Parkinson pulled off the first of a series of cup giant-killings that have seen Bradford City lauded as one of the most formidable cup teams in the contests’ histories. No matter how hard I try, there’s one thing I can never comprehend: in our lifetime, Bradford City reached a League Cup final. Ever the moving beast, football offers little time to reflect – Parkinson is firmly focused on the next game and admits the club have “got so much going on at this stage” – but the magnitude of the Bantams’ cup exploits will define his era. Next month will mark a year since Phil Parkinson pulled off the greatest FA Cup upset of all time, dumping Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea out on the champions’ own turf. What’s the secret behind pulling off a big cup shock?
“Giving the players belief,” he says, simply. “Concentrating on key factors in your performance, rather than going into the game and everyone thinking, well, what if we win? What is it going to be like if we win? You start thinking about getting through, rather than what you’ve got to do to get through. I think that’s key. I think [also] in the Premiership at the moment, defences are struggling against two up top – against teams like Watford and Leicester. We’ve always tried to be as positive as we can and teams have found it difficult to play against us.
“[I’ve learned about] getting the balance right during the build up to games. I’ve certainly had more high profile games since I’ve been here than I’ve had at any other club. I remember when we played Arsenal, we did about 15 minutes team play. We didn’t have an overkill on how Arsenal were going to play. We were nice and calm about it in our preparation, because I think if you big up the opposition too much, then the lads can go into the game almost fearing them. As much as we want to respect them, you can’t fear the opposition. I just think it’s getting that balance right – being detailed in the preparation, but not creating an overkill situation.”
But what about when his side were 2-0 down, away from home, to the Champions elect, with 50 minutes still to play?
“I was pretty relaxed, really, because we were playing alright,” he smiles. “I thought the two goals were avoidable from our point of view, and we were really in the game and then obviously the goal before half time gave us a huge lift. The players grew in confidence from thereon in, but ultimately it didn’t matter if it was 2-0 or 2-1 when it came to the team talk at half time. We just wanted to reiterate what we’d done in training and what we’d set out to do: concentrate on the process. That’s what we did at half time, just went through the key points, and looked at the key things we need to do to improve. It was basically, ‘Let’s keep doing what we set out to do and let’s see where it takes us.’”
It’s an attitude that translates to Parkinson’s wider, longer-term plan for the club. His reign has been characterised by an emphasis on sustainable, gradual progression – an approach that’s paying off. The win over Spirites was the 200th Bradford City game over which Parkinson has presided, another notable milestone in a glittering Bantams career. Parkinson’s 2013 success finds its legacy, quite comfortably, all around us – in 149, in Chelsea, and in every single game this team play. This season particularly, he has overseen a comfortable marriage between long and short-term approaches, recruiting a core of young players who should enter their peaks with the Bantams. As Parkinson outlines, this extends behind the scenes.
“I don’t like making predictions of where we’ve got to get to, but we just want to keep improving. The day I leave, and Julian and Mark leave the club, whoever comes in to replace us will see the fantastic structure we can get in place the club. That’s really the aim.
“If you look at Bradford over the years – the two administrations and the turmoil the club has had – we set out to build strong foundations for the club. The school of excellence is getting better all the time. The standard of players within the squad is improving every day. Everything behind the scenes, which James Mason has taken over – so many people who come to the games now speak to me about how good it is to come and watch Bradford and how they’re treated behind the scenes. In every department, we’re trying to improve.”
Parkinson’s press call is coming to an end. As soon as we’re finished, he’ll dart inside to speak to Bantams Player, before driving home for Christmas. A visit from the league leaders loom large, but he is ready.
The last time I met Parkinson here, it was at a press conference, shadowing Radio Leeds journalists for work experience. It was a day after the Leeds draw, and in the week after the opening day Coventry win – when Jason Kennedy delivered the cross of the season to pick out James Hanson. It was just over a year ago, yet, in some ways, it feels longer – as a club, we’ve grown so much in such a short space of time. As Devante Cole’s car weaves off into the distance, Parkinson must feel immense pride in what he’s constructing here: a journey that has given us some of the best days of our lives, and given us faces that we’ve loved as much as family.
“Each year, you get more experience [but] I don’t think I’ve changed, really,” Parkinson says. “I’ve always been the same, from the first week I took over at Colchester to what I do now. I want players who pull on the shirt to give everything. That’s a minimum requirement. Sometimes, you go watch games and think, whoa – are those players really giving it everything? I’m very proud to say it’s very rare that can be levelled at us. If you get good quality players – like your Billy Knotts and Billy Clarkes – players like that, who really run hard and get back into position and want to play with desire, and add that to the ability they’ve been blessed with, then you’ve got good players.”
And with that, he is off, walking towards another three years of making history.