By Jason McKeown
There was nothing subtle about Bradford City’s pre-Fleetwood video with Phil Parkinson, under the headline “Your City needs you”. The excellent 11-minute piece was filmed in the 2013 suite inside Valley Parade, which allowed Chief Operating Officer James Mason and Parkinson to talk in front of large photographs of the 2012/13 team celebrating their incredible history-making feats. The underlying message intended was obvious: this is what Parkinson can achieve as manager, and this is why supporters should continue to back him.
And whilst I 100 per cent agree with that message and the sentiment behind it, the decision to highlight the recent past was a double-edged sword. Because it also serves to emphasise just how much the current crop of players are underachieving. Of how high the bar should be placed, and how far below it the Bantams have been so far this season.
The dramatic and much-needed late win over Fleetwood, 24 hours after the video was filmed, means that the rallying call was a success. It became a justified intervention, by the club, to try to influence the mood around the stadium, ahead of and during such a crucial game.
This week I spoke to James Mason about the reasons for producing the video and the board’s view on the season. He was, understandably, not keen to criticise the players and instead praised their level of effort. Mason began, “We are all acutely aware of the performances and results of the last few weeks. Barnsley was a good effort, but I think they were such a good team on a good run of form. Bury was obviously disappointing. Oldham was a funny one because we got the win we were looking for undeniably, yet it still left a disgruntlement amongst fans, which I understand.
“The idea of the interview was mine and Phil’s. We speak and see how we can help each other. We wanted to do an in-depth feature interview, to show the transparency of how the club is run. A cards-on-the-table interview to ask some of the questions that fans are asking themselves and to give them the answers, with the transparency of saying that we are hurting just like the fans are with recent results. And that we are doing everything we can.”
The City crowd were excellent in backing the team during a difficult afternoon, and they played a big part in the come-from-behind victory. It could easily have gone the other way when City went 1-0 behind. Mason added, “It was such a pivotal game. We asked the fans to help and cheer on positive play as opposed to moaning and groaning. When Phil made positive changes, which he did, I think the fans welcomed that and acknowledged he was backing what he had said during the interview on Friday, and the fans kept behind the players.
“We had to wait until right at the end to win, but boy was that worth it. And that might prove to be such an important moment in the season, because the league table looks very different suddenly.”
Although Steve Davies’ late winner could indeed prove a turning point, no one should be getting carried away by the struggle to defeat a team near the bottom. The performance was not great, and it took a long time for it to become an entertaining match. The spirit on show from the players was commendable, but this was hardly on the same level to other Phil Parkinson Bradford City teams.
Of course, no one should expect the amazing heroics of 2012/13 and 2015 to occur every season, but they should serve as ongoing inspiration of the rewards that are possible if you can build, foster and maintain a high performance culture. Mason summarised, “That’s the brand of Bradford City we have built together over the last few years. The We Made History team, the FA Cup run last year, I think we built a club spirit rather than a team spirit, whereby our fans become the extra dimension.”
For whatever reason, the club seems to have lost some of that of late. The standards are not as high. There will always be dips and difficult moments in any season, and I don’t think you can question the effort of the players and management at any point this campaign; but Parkinson himself has described this current squad as his best since taking over the club. So far, they have not shown that. They have played to an okay standard, but at Valley Parade we have become used to seeing less talented teams come together and excel as a unit. It is not unreasonable to be seeking a similar high performance from the current crop.
The team should be aiming for better than ‘okay’, because that is the culture we have had in place since 2012.
Consider the candidates, as it stands, for the player of the season award. Rory McArdle should and probably will walk it for the second year in a row. Reece Burke is the only other real contender, with Ben Williams deserving of an honourable mention. After that, no one has played to their absolute capabilities this season.
James Meredith? Started well, but has tailed off. Stephen Darby? Consistently decent for sure, but less of an influence compared to what we know he can be. James Hanson and Billy Clarke have failed to find their best form. Gary Liddle had not been as good as last season. Tony McMahon and Kyel Reid have done well in patches. There has been a recent clamour to get Billy Knott back in the team, but he has not kicked on this campaign and has been very inconsistent. Other players have had injury problems that have hindered their impact.
Mason stated, “The performances have not been what fans would want, or the manager or any of us, but as long as the effort is there, we can’t criticise the effort.”
Rory McArdle is the shining example, because he has taken last season’s achievements and built upon them. For a player who two years ago was seemingly only comfortable when operating underneath Andrew Davies’ shadow, McArdle has emerged as a true senior player and a leader. The next Bradford City captain, perhaps. The Telegraph & Argus’ Simon Parker has floated the idea that McArdle is Parkinson’s best ever signing and it is hard to disagree. For self-improvement, personal development and a consistent raising of the bar, McArdle has been simply magnificent.
Not enough players have followed his example. They’ve either stood still or gone backwards. Imagine what this team could achieve if they played with the heart of the 2012/13 team? Or if they could produce the same level of intensity of the 2014/15 side, on occasions like Millwall at home in the FA Cup? This is supposed to be a better team than a year ago and the History Makers side of two years before that. They undoubtedly work hard and they care about what they do. But they are struggling to produce convincing performances, they are grinding out results.
They can do better, and they should be aspiring to do just that.
Phil Parkinson gets hammered by many supporters over his team selections. It is part of the job and you will always find fault in the manager’s choices when the team isn’t playing to its potential; but the real problem Parkinson has is that not enough people, on the fringes, have pushed those who are in the side.
If you bring someone into the side when they haven’t merited it, and they don’t perform, it brings the team down. It allows standards to slip even further. Parkinson wants a first XI full of high performers, and he will want a bench full of players who are pushing them hard and are deserving of a chance. That, sadly, has not happened.
Perhaps Steve Davies’ goal can be the moment that the competition for places truly hots up. City went into the game with major striker issues, and Parkinson had to start with Billy Knott in the hole behind James Hanson. They ended it with Hanson boosted by a first league goal in more than two months, Davies finally getting off the mark and a performance of promise from new loan signing Wes Thomas. And next week at Burton, Parkinson will also have Jamie Proctor available again.
Suddenly he has four strikers who can justifiably believe they should start. The two who get the nod will face pressure from the two who begin on the bench. That has to translate into a rising of the standards. Mason agreed, “You couldn’t have written the script better for James Hanson with that equaliser – it was a trademark header. And then deep in stoppage time, a new striker signed on Friday gets the chance, hits the bar, and then Steve Davies scores. A player who has had limited opportunities. You’ve now got strikers in form going to the league leaders Burton, and I wouldn’t put it past us going there and winning.”
Parkinson needs his midfielders to do the same as his strikers. Billy Knott has earned the starting berth, now he must make sure he keeps it. Chris Routis had got back into the team almost by default of others struggling, and has unfortunately blown his chance again. He needs to go again and be pushing those ahead of him. He will not be in the team this Saturday, but his role on the training ground this week is absolutely crucial to the bid to raise the standards.
Perhaps also, the scrappy nature of the Fleetwood win can act in a similar way as the Halifax FA Cup victory of last season. That was an equally unimpressive come-from-behind victory but absolutely vital in City’s campaign. It halted a run of two wins in 13, and proved to be the first of seven wins and two draws in nine. After Halifax, City went to high-flying Preston and upset the form book with a memorable victory. A similar result at Burton this week could inspire greater belief.
That must be the goal. The team can’t settle for their performance on Saturday. They need to build on the fortunate win. The drive, purpose and intensity of this Bradford City side has only been seen in fits and starts – they need to find and produce it on a consistent basis from hereon in. A top six place is not going to happen with the current level of performance.
The important thing is that Parkinson will get the chance to deliver it. The pre-Fleetwood video was a very obvious show of support from the club to Parkinson and rightly so. They have invested their commitment into him with that new contract, and they will stick with the plan.
The board have seen that there is a dip in Bradford City public opinion towards the manager and have rallied behind him. That is strong leadership, and it can filter down and build up the high performance culture that the club should be striving to achieve again. If any player is currently unhappy with the manager and hoping he will be sacked soon, forget it. So either get on the bus or move on.
Mason stated of Parkinson, “We are in this together and we try and solve things together. The bottom line is that we trust Phil implicitly, that’s why he has got this long contract, and he deserves the right to be trusted. If five years ago anyone could have told us what he would achieve, you’d say ‘let’s keep this man at the club for as long as he wants to stay’. What he has achieved is phenomenal.
“Managers do go through difficult periods, and what we have learned with the longevity of his spell is that he does have the ability to turn things around.”
Recent performances have frustrated everyone, but on that matter the board are unmoved. They are backing their manager. They are promoting a mood of calmness and assurance, and that is absolutely the right thing to do.
If City do not make the top six this season, it should not be a disaster – nor should it lead to a radical shake up. It should instead act as prompt to review what went well and what didn’t, and to find ways of delivering the improvement required to produce a stronger challenge next season.
There is no need for a revolution at Valley Parade, it is about looking at the small things and improving on them, which can add up to big overall gains.
Parkinson does not have huge resources, as he bids to take City onto the next level – but he does have the knowledge, expertise and experience to do more with what he has got. There are no easy answers, but there is nobody better qualified than him to find them. Parkinson needs to address the drop in standards in his squad this season, and make sure the high-performing culture of the last few years is maintained. He has proven he can do just that so often over these past four-and-a-half years, and that’s why we should all continue to strongly back him.
On behalf of the WOAP writing team and our readers, I’d like to pass on my sincere condolences to Mark Lawn and his family over their incredibly sad news.