The mark of progress

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Bradford City vs Swindon Town preview

@Valley Parade on Saturday 9 April, 2016

By Jason McKeown

Every successful football manager has to learn the art of undertaking a difficult conversation – and for Phil Parkinson, it is a skill that he will have employed with increasing regularity of late.

For as much as he and assistant Steve Parkin will have spent hours debating and selecting the Bradford City starting XI, they will both have needed to manage those who they ultimately overlooked, by leaving them on the bench. Some very good players have even found that they can’t into the matchday 18.

In fact, such is the embarrassment of riches at Valley Parade at the moment, Parkinson could have fielded a completely different XI against Scunthorpe United last weekend – a team that, the untried Joe Cracknell aside, features players who, a year or two ago, would have walked straight into the Bradford City side of the time. And it doesn’t even include Paul Anderson, who wasn’t fit enough for contention last week, or Wes Thomas, whose loan is set to expire in a few weeks.


That is not a bad side at all. And as Parkinson prepares for the first of six final league matches to seal a play off spot – and possibly three further play off games – it will be a reassuring sight. With the exception of an injury or red card to Ben Williams, there isn’t really a scenario of a first team player being ruled out that would cause sleepless nights. There are some very strong back up options, who are currently chomping at the bit to be involved.

And it is a real measure of City’s progress over the past few years. Especially when you consider that many of these back up players are very unlucky not to be in the first team. They have not done a lot wrong, and yet despite their lack of game time have been absolutely vital in driving the standards.

Take Mark Marshall. A summer signing from Port Vale on a two-year deal, the 28-year-old has started only eight league matches. He made a tentative beginning to life at Valley Parade and wasn’t pulling up any trees over August or September – yet neither, either, was the team as a whole.

Enter Kyel Reid on loan from Preston, a dazzling second debut at Rochdale, and a generally strong run of form up until Christmas. Marshall was cast onto the sidelines, only brought on for late cameos from the bench. His move North was not working out.

Reid’s form dipped slightly in January, and an opening was there. Marshall came on for Reid at half time in a game at Port Vale, and enjoyed his best performance for the club. He was in the team for the next two games, as Reid sat on the sidelines. But that challenge to Reid’s shirt gave him a kick up the backside, and Reid has won his place back. His performances have gone up another notch. In my opinion, Reid’s fourth season at Valley Parade is shaping up to be his best.

So Marshall was back on the bench, and then with Paul Anderson and Filipe Morais’ return to fitness, left out of the 18 altogether. Marshall hasn’t set the world alight, but hasn’t been handed plentiful chances to impress. He is likely to leave in the summer but, in truth, hasn’t done a lot wrong.

Steve Davies has had more success, with his run of goals from the bench over recent months set to be fondly remembered for years to come. Davies has unlucky with injuries at times this season, and only really had a run of starts in October when he took the place of a struggling-for-form James Hanson. His super sub role has become a vital one for the club, but he will be desperate to start against Swindon.

Josh Morris has been similarly unfortunate to pick up injuries. Greg Leigh has impressed and represents genuine competition for James Meredith, which the Aussie has responded well to. Billy Knott has endured a tough campaign but came in over the Easter games and did a very good job. He could have easily kept his place in the team last week. Nathan Clarke is the best example of them all, taking his opportunity when it has been presented and making a huge difference both on and off the pitch.

You compare the current situation to seasons gone by – specifically the ones where City underachieved. The manager of the time would sign a group of players during the summer, and inevitably they would prove a mixed bunch. Some players would get their chance in the team, under-perform, but either keep their place due to a lack of alternatives or be cast onto the sidelines and brought back in later. The bar remained low.

It didn’t take a lot to be a Bradford City player, compared to what it does now.

And other managers, crucially, struggled with those difficult conversations when it came to leaving players out. You’d hear rumours of disgruntled players mouthing off about the manager’s poor judgement. There was the public fall out of Zesh Rehman and Peter Taylor. Lee Crooks allegedly squaring up to Colin Todd. Lee Mills having too much to drink at a Skipton Bantams meeting and revealing too much to the gathering of fans about his relationship with Paul Jewell.

Phil Parkinson’s handling of players probably isn’t perfect either; but right now he seems to be successfully managing a squad of 24 first team players and their egos, and keeping them motivated. The recent run of five wins in six has been achieved through a clear first choice line up, but international commitments have forced him to reshuffle the pack. Those who have come in have not sulked or struggled to take their opportunity. They have impressed too, and they are keeping those who are in the first choice XI honest.

It all leaves Parkinson with an extremely strong hand, going into this weekend’s game with Swindon. On paper it is arguably the easiest of the six remaining games, given the Robins’ season is over and they are not making a convincing job of staying motivated. In their last away game, at Scunthorpe, they were thrashed 6-0. The game before had seen a 4-1 home loss to Wigan. Drawing 1-1 at home to Fleetwood last week has stemmed the tide, but they are hardly going great guns right now.

I watched Swindon’s thumping to Wigan, which was shown live on Sky. Head coach Luke Williams – who was handed a five-year contract on his appointment last month – favours a style of bringing the ball out from the back and keeping it on the floor. A fine principle, but Wigan tore them apart by pressing their centre backs into making mistakes. The goals Swindon conceded were dismal. Parkinson will need to pick a front two who are willing to press Swindon when they bring it out. They can have some real joy here.

The selection dilemmas centre around up front and defence – and continue the theme of a squad of motivated players pushing one another. Rory McArdle completed a reserve game midweek and is back into contention following his shoulder injury picked up at Bury – but can you really leave Nathan Clarke out, given his performances of late?

Meanwhile the other Clarke – Billy – continues to underwhelm this season. He is such a clever, talented player, and you can completely understand Parkinson’s desire to get him in the side. But Clarke has not hit the heights of last season. He has played better of late but is without a goal since November 14. In contrast, Steve Davies has five goals in his last eight substitute appearances.

Whoever Parkinson selects, a good part of his week will be spent talking one-to-one with those he doesn’t pick, to explain his reasoning and keep their spirits high. There could yet be a lot of football to play in this season, and a big squad could prove a telling factor. Every player needs to remain on their guard, whether they start tomorrow on the field, on the bench, or in the stands. They could have a big role to play over these coming weeks.

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3 replies

  1. I would play Davies up front tomorrow as he is better at pressing defenders than Billy Clarke who usually plays a deeper role.

  2. Your comments on Parkie’s handling of the team and those not picked is spot on. Listened to a long Q&A session with Billy Knott at the Recod Cafe this week. He was honest about the frustrations of being left out, but talked passionately about the team ethos. Full of praise for Josh Cullen, who has taken his exemplified the team approach under Parkie’s that I thinks is fundamental to the team success.

  3. An excellent appraisal, Jason. However – the ‘team’ posted is so very weak, in my eyes. YES as individuals they are all capable of doing a job. Thank goodness we don’t have to make wholesale changes, as that would dismantle all we have achieved of late.Swindon are a broken and damaged animal – we should be wary of any natural instinct an animal has to survive.

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