Southend United vs Bradford City preview
@Roots Hall on Saturday 30 April, 2016
By Jason McKeown
Roots Hall, Southend-on-Sea, represents a clear marker of just how far Bradford City have come. It was at this stadium, almost exactly five years ago, that the Bantams were thrashed 4-0 by the Shrimpers, as they stumbled precariously on a ledge above the black of hole of non-league football.
And during the closing stages of that utterly dismal evening, a chant was started up in the away end that was damning. “Love the club, hate the team”. City’s long-suffering supporters had simply had enough of yet another dreadful League Two season, and turned upon their players in a hard-hitting manner. At full time and as the players attempted to go over and applaud the fans, Luke Oliver become involved in a heated argument with a section of the crowd.
The team that night was McLaughlin-Threlfall-Bullock-Oliver-O’Brien-Evans-Flynn-Worthington-Adeyemi-Syers-Dobie. The manager was Peter Jackson, and he was hamstrung at the back due to Lewis Hunt reaching a point where, contractually, if he played one more game he was entitled to another deal. The board had told Jackson that Hunt was not to be selected again, but after this horror show were forced to go back on that, allow him to play in the next game with Burton, and award him another contract. Hunt took up the offer, and within six months City – under Phil Parkinson – were paying the defender £50k to get him off the books.
It was a mess, and these were such gloomy times. After that wretched performance at Southend, City limped to a 1-1 draw with Burton before getting hammered 3-0 at Accrington – the cue for more supporter anger that threatened to spill over into something ugly. Relegation was eventually avoided, but the club cancelled the player of the season awards. This was, after all, the Peter Taylor season when City had been favourites to win League Two. They finished in a lowly 18th – the worst league positioning since the 1960s.
The team which represented City at Southend that night did include a number of players who are celebrated for their overall performances in claret and amber. Jon McLaughlin was, of course, a History Maker two years later. Luke Oliver turned around a very tough season and won the player of the season award when it was restored a year later. Michael Flynn and Lee Bullock always gave everything to the cause. David Syers is fondly remembered.
But this was a dismal chapter in the club’s history, and the relationship between supporters and players was at an all-time low. Somewhat shamefully, Peter Jackson made no attempt to rectify this and hung his squad out to dry in a very see-through attempt to curry favour with fans.
At the end of a truly wretched campaign, he put every single player on the transfer list and brought in a new rule that players must wash their own kits as some form of ridiculous punishment (“I bet some of them don’t even know how to use a washing machine” he taunted them by the T&A). It is amazing, really, that Jackson was given the job full time that summer, and I’m sure that few people in the dressing room would have wanted him to have it.
At the time I wrote this:
Instead of building and maintaining a culture of fear of retribution, shouldn’t we try looking at how we can encourage players to perform better in a more positive manner? What is stopping players with proven track records from displaying their ability when they cross the white line at Valley Parade? How can we build their confidence and belief? Instead of wailing about how disgraceful they are when they make mistakes, how can we work as one to achieve our aspirations?
Everyone knows there is a booing culture at Valley Parade. And that fear of failure, that mindset of punishing mistakes – by booing them on Saturday or demanding they wash their own kit during the week – seems to lead to the same result. Players hide away from taking responsibility, hide away from attempting the more difficult things, hide away from the risk of falling into the firing line.
As City go to Southend this weekend, the contrast between then and now could not be greater. A victory at Roots Hall on Saturday, and Bradford City are guaranteed a play off spot and a real chance of promotion to the Championship, 12 years after they fell out of it under the crippling weight of Administration Two.
After last week’s stunning victory over Walsall – and the favourable results elsewhere, City have a five-point cushion inside the play off spots and will hope to complete the job in Essex. A victory means they are uncatchable, but a draw or defeat would leave us checking intently on how Barnsley are faring at home to relegated Colchester, how Gillingham are getting on in their tough trip to Burton, and whether Scunthorpe United can make it five wins in a row as they entertain Port Vale.
Whatever happens on the field on Saturday, the chant “Love the club, hate the team” will not be aired. The relationship between the players and supporters is now a much stronger and very special one, and it has been that way for several years. There are downs as well as ups, but in general both the crowd and the team feed off each other and have collectively achieved great things. There can be few grounds in the country – if any – that consistently generate an atmosphere as good as the one that has prevailed at Valley Parade since 2012.
Parkinson is obviously the key in making all of this happen, but it is through the lieutenants he has assembled that the message has truly spread and stuck. As a manager he talked up the mantra of character right from his early days, and he brought in players who have set the standards in the dressing room and bridged the gap between the different teams that have been built.
These players are the inner circle – as Alan Sheehan put it earlier in the season – and they make sure everyone else buys into the values that have served the club so well under Parkinson.
When I interviewed Phil Parkinson for my new book, Reinventing Bradford City, he explained the importance of the players he brought in during the summer of 2012, “Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary Jones, James Meredith – those type of people were brilliant for us, because they helped us to progress the club. They were winners. They want to give their best every week. And they set the tone for new players coming in for years after.” Of that group mentioned, only Gary Jones has departed and that was due to age rather than attitude.
Not every player subsequently signed by Parkinson has lived up to these values – but they are the ones that have quickly departed or fallen well out of favour. The rest have bought into what the manager and the club’s senior pros have attempted to instill into them, and taken that message forwards. When Filipe Morais talks about how much he is on James Hanson’s back in training – pushing the striker to produce more – you know this is a good dressing full of character. They don’t just look after themselves, they are driving each other on and demanding better.
That’s why players who ability-wise seem limited have soared over this season. Nathan Clarke, Tony McMahon and Ben Williams wouldn’t win many prizes for most talented players in their respective positions, but for heart and endevour they put other footballers to shame. McMahon and Williams especially have played as well as they possibly can this season and achieved great things. Their weaknesses have been compensated for by their determination and desire. They make mistakes, but never because they are giving anything less than everything they have.
You didn’t get that in 2010/11, when the disinterested Scott Dobie was leading the line, Jake Speight was looking out of his depth, and the subs bench included Leon Osborne and Chib Chilaka. Whether this current squad proves good enough to take the club into the Championship remains to be seen; but even if disappointment lies in store, we have moved on so much from the dark days of five years ago. This football club is transformed.
Love the club, love the team.