With just ten games to go, WOAP writers Katie Whyatt, Tim Penfold and Jason McKeown look at the five things they’ve learned about Bradford City in 2016.
1) Wes Thomas is the perfect match for Hanson
Tim: If there’s one thing that we’ve learned about James Hanson this season, it’s that he needs a very specific sort of strike partner to play alongside.
Hanson’s partnership with Billy Clarke has failed to spark because Clarke prefers to play in the hole and link up with his partner by quick passes to feet. His partnership with Devante Cole failed because Cole, while pacy, did not make enough runs in behind or work the opposition defences hard enough. What Hanson needs is another Nahki Wells – quick, hard-working, a good finisher and someone who will press and harrass defenders as much as Hanson himself does.
This is where Wes Thomas has come in – he’s only got one goal so far, but has been highly unfortunate not to score more, and he’s immediately clicked quite well with Hanson. He’s not quite as quick as Wells, but he’s strong, and therefore can hold the ball from Hanson’s knock-downs. It seems like this pairing has potential, and this could be vital, as when Hanson clicks with another striker, like he did with Wells, the pairing becomes much more than the sum of its parts, making both players far better.
It’s possible that this partnership may prove to be irrelevant, if the recent form shown by Jamie Proctor and Billy Clarke continues, but even if Thomas and Hanson aren’t first choice, having the options available, even off the bench, could be vital for City’s season.
2) This was a real Jekyll and Hyde team, but they’ve peaked at just the right time
Katie: They were bad, then good, then bad, then good, then bad, then good, then turned into League One Leicester City on Saturday and now sit three points clear in the play-offs. After seven months of fluctuating form that has prevented us from clicking with this team, they’ve peaked at just the right time. With ten games to go, it’s highly probable we could see a repeat of what happened three years ago this year.
To see how this team actually compared to the History Makers, I spent last Friday night (the fact that I’m a student and that is what I do on a Friday night is proof were it needed that I categorically need to get a life) putting together comparative form charts for each of the four teams Phil Parkinson has constructed. The one below compares the last promotion team, the History Makers of 2012/13 (series 1 – blue), with the 2015/16 team (series 2 – orange). As this is a form, not points, graph, note that a draw carries a value of two, compared to one, and losses sit at one, not zero.
I guess the first question is: does this actually tell us anything that we didn’t know already? For me, I was surprised that this team had actually won that many games – I don’t remember coming out of Valley Parade imbued with the feeling I usually leave with after a win as often as that graph tells me I should have (more on this later). The second? Apart from the ‘Perfect Ten’, they’ve never really sustained an unbeaten run – there are really sharp peaks and troughs in that graph that have been twinned with contrasts in the playing style. The win over Blackpool, for instance, was followed by the Colchester game. They can be beautiful and ugly within the same match.
That this team started the season poorly was probably more critical than we gave credit for at the time; it took longer to accumulate a bank of trust that, with the History Makers, was fostered right away owing to the fact they clocked up more wins in the opening few weeks. Even when the 2012/13 team hit the wall a little after the cup run, what we’d seen before suggested they might be able to turn things around. It was a prolonged drop in form that nearly killed the History Makers between games 24 and 31, but, all the while, there was a belief there because of what they’d accomplished in the League Cup and the league thus far – they had a backlog of success already.
Apart from that Perfect Ten, this team have been more erratic, preventing that build of confidence – and they’ve not been stylish amidst such fluctuations, either. Even as the 2015/16 squad enjoyed that run of ten games unbeaten back in November, their limitations were a little more obvious.
I think that also makes us ask, more generally, what makes us click with a specific team. You see the number of wins this team clocked up between 10 and 18 and assume we were laughing – but I don’t ever really remember feeling completely convicted in this team until recently.
The conclusion? There are lies, damned lies: it comes down to what you see on a Saturday. We’ve been uneasy about this team’s playing style even as they’ve got wins on the board. How many times have you read on this site that we loved the 2013 team because they did things in the right way? How many times have you heard people say a promotion under Peter Taylor wouldn’t have tasted good because of the style of football?
In one of our Verdict pieces earlier on in the season, Gareth Walker said of the playing style, “The problems really start when you’re playing the way we do and not getting results. Where is the cut off? I’d say that different people draw the line in different places.” I think that’s the best way to summarise why this season has had a weird tinge to it all year. I remember saying to someone in January that, barring an unbeaten run that generated a really good feel around the club, it wouldn’t feel ‘right’ if this team got promoted. It wouldn’t feel like it did two years ago. At the time, a winless run didn’t look forthcoming – now, it looks more likely than it has all season.
In the context of this division, you just have to be consistent, not particularly ‘good’ – I’ve lost count of the number of sides that I’ve been genuinely unimpressed with this season. It’s probably telling that Burton Albion are top. We knew it wouldn’t be great, but I really didn’t expect it to be so poor this year. Consistency will decide which teams take those four play-off spots. Gillingham and Coventry have probably been the two sides I was most impressed by, but they’re selling themselves down the river right as push comes to shove. The form table at the top of the league reveals a lot – if City can hang on in there, they’ve got a shot.
Anyone who’s read Robert Stephenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde knows which side wins out (I won’t spoil the ending for you). A strong finish like two years ago would propel this team into the play-offs – and we’re running out of reasons to suggest they can’t get there. If they can find what they’ve lacked for most of the year – real consistency – and team that with this new brand of football that they’ve cultivated in recent weeks, you’d put your money on them over many of the teams in that top six.
3) Josh Cullen has usurped Billy Knott
Tim: The arrival of Josh Cullen appears to have sounded the death-knell for quite a promising Bantams career – that of Billy Knott. Knott, signed in the summer of 2014 to replace Gary Jones, has shown plenty of potential in his time at the club, but has never quite managed to turn this potential into a regular run of form.
Knott has a huge amount of talent, and is capable of tremendous bits of play – his range of passing is possibly better than anyone else in the team, with only Lee Evans of his teammates really capable of the sort of ball that set up Greg Leigh against Aldershot or Devante Cole against Oldham.
That said, Knott’s Achilles heel is his inconsistency, shown by his poor display against Rochdale where he repeatedly gave away possesion in his own half, costing the Bantams a goal. This is where Cullen, despite his inexperience, stands head and shoulders above Knott and the rest of the midfielders – his ability to not only keep the ball but use it well.
Cullen doesn’t play the sort of Hollywood balls that Knott or Evans do, but he does the simple passes brilliantly. He doesn’t just pass it sideways for the sake of passing it sideways – every pass has purpose and helps the team. Against Doncaster on Saturday this showed in the build-up to the second goal – he didn’t panic, or try an over-ambitious ball, he just played several quick, skilful combinations to eventually set Reid and Meredith free down the left.
Cullen also stands out for his defensive contributions. He’s not particularly big or strong, but he makes his presence felt in the middle, and is therefore difficult to bully off the ball. This allows City to play without an out-and-out holder such as Gary Liddle, which in turn increases the technical quality of the central midfield and ensures that City keep possession better.
It’s disappointing that Billy Knott has never fulfilled his potential at the club, but Cullen is the superior, albeit less flashy, option and has given us more chance of promotion as a result.
4) Nathan Clarke is the defender City were crying out for
Jason: Andrew Davies was one of the most important signings of the Phil Parkinson era. He dramatically improved the defence, and the performances of those who played next to him. Parkinson built his History Makers’ back four around Davies. He was a Championship-standard player, ready to spearhead the Bantams’ efforts to climb back to the second tier.
But as everyone knows, there was one major issue with Davies – his availability. The injuries kept reoccurring, and City’s fortunes became intrinsically linked to the centre back’s fitness. When Davies was able to play, there were few concerns and results were largely good. When he was out, the replacements just weren’t up to standard. Michael Nelson, Matt Taylor, Matthew Bates, Alan Sheehan, Gary MacKenzie, Chris Routis. The list went on and on. The answer couldn’t be found.
It is hugely ironic that, the season after Davies was let go, City now have the back-up centre back they were so desperate for. Nathan Clarke has shaken off a dreadful start to become a real asset at Valley Parade. On the field he is calm, assured and full of experience. Off it, Parkinson has highlighted the key supportive role Clarke has played in mentoring Andrew Davies’ replacement, Reece Burke.
And a strong back up centre back has once again been needed this season. Burke has had spells out injured, and even Mr Reliable Rory McArdle has spent time on the sidelines. That Clarke has been able to slot in with such assurance has proven a huge factor in the Bantams’ terrific defensive record. That Clarke is content to go back onto the sidelines when Burke or McArdle have returned, rather than kicking up a fuss or demanding a transfer, makes him a manager’s dream.
If only Nathan Clarke had signed for the Bantams in the summer of 2013, rather than leaving Huddersfield for Leyton Orient. Clarke enjoyed an excellent first season at Brisbane Road, playing week in week out, which means he won’t regret his two-year spell in the capital. But after a difficult second season at Orient, he is seemingly grateful just to be at Valley Parade and mindful of his responsibilities as a senior squad member. Had Clarke been here last season, as a back up to Davies, City would have reached the play offs.
With McArdle out for another four weeks, Clarke has an even bigger role to play during the run-in. A year ago City’s FA Cup and play off hopes died when Davies missed most of March and April. Rory McArdle might be the favourite to win this season’s player of the season award, but – thanks to Clarke – there is no reason to believe that his absence will spell the end of the Bantams’ promotion push.
5) Phil Parkinson is still the man
Katie: I don’t get why people are still surprised by stuff like this. After a difficult festive period, culminating in that 3-1 loss at Burton that could have spelled the end for Bradford City’s promotion ambitions, Phil Parkinson has pulled through and turned ailing form around once more to leave his side three points clear in the promotion chase. Some people are talking up automatic promotion, Saturday’s won over Doncaster was that good. And regardless of whether the Bantams can cut it in the Championship, financially or otherwise, things are shaping up down here.
Granted, some of that credit lies with Coventry for completely capitulating (seven losses in ten), but more still lies with Phil Parkinson for daring to make decisive – and divisive – calls. Selling Gary Liddle to Chesterfield at a time when Tony McMahon and Christopher Routis were the only alternative holding midfielders was a bold move, yet it has enabled Parkinson to bring in a midfielder in Josh Cullen who offers clearer balance so that the attacking mantle does not lie solely with Lee Evans.
What’s more, he’s gone from having six strikers who couldn’t muster more than a goal a game between them to having two wildly diverse attacking combinations in Hanson and Thomas, and Billy Clarke and Jamie Proctor. Proctor’s ability to lead a line while bringing the wide men and midfield into play allows a ball player like Clarke to function within a role that doesn’t demand change to Parkinson’s flat midfield four.
It’s the most cohesive his squad has looked in a while. The gambles he made in January was the final throw of the dice in his bid to turn this team into a promotion side. If he hasn’t given up, neither should we.
All of which makes the vitriol of the last few months seem even more disproportionate than it did initially. No manager should ever be beyond the realm of criticism, but it needs to be balanced and realistic. Parkinson is learning all the time – in his excellent Radio Leeds interview last week, for instance, he spoke about leaving Colchester for Hull and the things he took from such a testing period – but, for a manager still at the younger end of the spectrum, the clarity of his vision for this football club is remarkable.
His ethos here – the influence of sports science, the importance attached to mentality, his understanding of what this club means to its supporters – is a manual in how to run a Football League club. I can only think of a handful of managers in the country who are as integral to their football clubs as he is. Everything about the club at the moment is constructed in his image.
Of the 92 Premier League and Football League managers, Phil Parkinson is currently the fifth longest-serving one. Technically, this isn’t hard – of the 92 managers on that list, only 48 have been in the job for more than a year. With respect, there’s not that much competition. Only six have been in the job for over four years. Last January, Parkinson was eighth on that list – even at the top end, you gain ground fairly quickly.
But that’s missing the point a little. As someone who fell into City during the ‘Lost Decade’, I just find it remarkable that our football club has a manager who’s managed to attain that accolade – that, in a season where 46 (!) managers have walked to the guillotine, Parkinson has stood firm, even amidst all the scrutiny of this season.
The decision to renew Parkinson’s contract in October was an important statement of intent from the board, given how the campaign was panning out at the time, and has undoubtedly given Parkinson the confidence to take the risks that have turned this side into potential play-off contenders.