By Jason McKeown
Year on year improvement gets harder to achieve, the higher up the football ladder you climb. Yet for the fourth successive season, Bradford City are going to finish in a league position that is better than the year before.
In terms of the 92, City’s last five league finishes read 86, 75, 55, 51 and, this time, at least 49. An overall climb of 37 places means the Bantams have scaled more than half of the Football League. Saturday’s hard-fought victory at Southend United has guaranteed a play off spot, and a minimum final placing of 5th.
It is yet another superb Phil Parkinson achievement – one to add to the already considerable list of accomplishments. By every measure you can think of, Parkinson has done an outstanding job at Valley Parade – there surely cannot be anyone, now, who doubts his status amongst the greatest Bradford City managers in the club’s history. And he’s not even done yet.
A play off finishing means City are just three games away from a return to the Championship. In the short-term, there are huge financial benefits from a full house semi final at Valley Parade, two lots of windfalls from Sky, not to mention the tantalising prospect of a rewarding day out to Wembley.
In the long-term, the benefits could be life-changing for the club. A return to the second tier would be a huge moment in history, especially in view of how City dropped to the bottom two tiers in the first place, 12 years ago.
Such talk can wait for another day, as there are still some huge challenges ahead. This will be the fourth play off campaign in the club’s history, and the previous three demonstrated just how tough they are to win – and the level of drama likely to be in front of us. Everything is about to go on the line, and the emotional experience will be intense – whether success or failure lies ahead.
The first matter is just who City will play in the semi finals. Going into the final game, they will hope that a win and a Millwall failure to win at Gillingham, to earn the perceived advantage of playing the second leg at home. In all three of their previous play off campaigns, City were at Valley Parade in the first leg. Should they manage to reverse that order this time, it would certainly make for a special evening. Imagine sealing a trip to Wembley under the Valley Parade floodlights, in front of 20,000 supporters?
The potential opponents are Millwall or Walsall (should Millwall beat Gillingham and Walsall lose at Port Vale). The other play off finishers could include Burton, Barnsley, Scunthorpe, and Gillingham. In the regular season, City defeated all but Barnsley and Gillingham at least once, and there isn’t anyone to especially fear. Nevertheless, some possible opponents look tougher than others.
Indeed it is worth speculating who we would prefer to face as play off semi final opponents. In Rugby League, up until the recently, the play offs included a feature called Club Call, where the highest ranking team (after the first round) got to select their semi final play off opponents. The team’s coach was required to announce their pick live on Sky. The two other play off sides he didn’t select would contest the other semi final.
What made the concept so interesting was the psychological permutations. By picking your opponents, you were basically saying you considered them to be the weakest of the other three teams, and playing them meant you have a better chance of reaching the Old Trafford Grand Final. That would clearly be a huge motivating factor for the side chosen – “This lot think we’re weak, let’s go out there and prove they shouldn’t feel that way”. Even if you pick an opponent and beat them to reach the final, you’re then up against opposition you had chosen to avoid – which would give them a confidence boost.
Unsurprisingly, many coaches put in the position of selecting their opponents did not welcome this opportunity.
Imagine, just for fun, that Bradford City had a Club Call in the League One play offs. Who would you pick and why? The obvious answer is Walsall, who were recently destroyed at Valley Parade. But it shouldn’t be forgotten they beat us at the Bescot Stadium and have the best away record in League One. Was their collapse in West Yorkshire a one-off? Would returning to the scene of their worst moment of the season be a motivating factor?
What about choosing Millwall, the most likely opponents anyway? The two meetings between the Bantams and the Lions were incredibly tight, with a 0-0 draw in London and a 1-0 City win at Valley Parade over Easter, thanks to Steve Davies’ late goal. The subplot of James Hanson – who Millwall badly wanted to sign last summer – would be intriguing. Could he be the difference if such a meeting occurred?
Millwall is the longest trip, assuming Gillingham don’t pull off a miracle on the final day. In contrast a local derby with Barnsley would be a lot of fun. Their huge away end would ensure that there thousands of City fans can get tickets, to roar on the players. Parkinson has previously made a lot of comments about the importance of huge City away followings; and if he had to choose an opponent, he might elect for Barnsley on the basis that 5,000 City fans in Oakwell is better than 2,000 at the New Den.
Scunthorpe United look less desirable, simply because their form is so outstanding of late – the defeat at Valley Parade their only loss in 14 games, and they have picked up 41 of the last 57 points available. Gillingham are doing a very passable impression of Bradford City 2008/09 – Stuart McCall’s second season. They have gone from leading the table to falling outside the play offs. If they somehow end up finishing 6th, their dismal form means they would hold few fears.
(I’d be very interested, valued reader, to know what you would do if Club Call was a part of the Football League and Phil Parkinson asked for your advice on who to select, please share your views in the comment section below.)
One thing is clear, if the other play off finishers had the Club Call facility, they wouldn’t be choosing Bradford City. The form since mid-February – three defeats in 17 games, earning 36 of the last 51 points available – is outstanding. The six consecutive home wins add to the Valley Parade fear factor. With one of the most passionate crowds in the division to play against, a trip to the notorious New Den would be peaceful in comparison.
Then there is Phil Parkinson’s consistent ability to get his players fired up for the big games; the recent experience of dizzying highs against Chelsea, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Arsenal, which means the players are unlikely to freeze on the play off stage; the miserly defence that affords opposition teams such limited chances. No one will relish playing City; that should give the players a lot of confidence.
There will be pressure to deal with, of course. Yet after a season that for so long looked doomed to finish in disappointment, it is in some ways a bonus just to be competing in the play offs. If City lose them, the world will not crumble inwards – they will go again.
It is a different scenario to three years ago, where the club simply had to escape the clutches of League Two and losing to either Burton or Northampton would have been really difficult to have gotten over. That’s not to say it won’t hurt if we lose this time around – it really will hurt – but it would still feel like a season of progress. It really has been.
The prize is huge, the task of winning the play offs is considerable. Yet Parkinson’s track record in such circumstances offers a lot of reasons to be confident. The collective endevours of this committed group of players have taken the club to their highest position in any league since 1999. They’ll give it everything they’ve got, and recent form suggests that will take them a long, long way.
Let’s enjoy this.