The (January) window of opportunity that changed Bradford City’s season

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk) - copyright Bradford City

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk) – copyright Bradford City

By Jason McKeown

It’s a long way back from Gillingham to Bradford, especially when you’ve just been beaten 3-0. Phil Parkinson said plenty in the confines of the away dressing room at full time, and the lengthy journey north in the grim January weather afforded the Bradford City manager time to contemplate where the season was heading.

For at this moment, the exact halfway point of the league campaign, the Bantams had slumped to 12th in League One. 16 points behind the team who had just thumped them, who were 2nd. Six points shy of the play offs, with much work to do.

It had been a tough opening half to the season, yet those dreadful beginnings had been overcome. Autumn had seen a long unbeaten run, and 10 consecutive clean sheets. It had pushed City to the brink of play off contention, but the Christmas period had been sobering. A 3-1 bashing from Sheffield United, and now this – a 3-0 loss in Kent. City were coming up short, and Parkinson had his work cut out. Plenty to ponder on the long bus ride home – how to find more?

The seeds were sown for a six-week period that would change the course of Bradford City’s season.

The January blues

The League One table, 2 January, 2016

 

F

A

PTS

1. Burton

32

19

51

2. Gillingham

24

29

50

3. Walsall

40

22

48

4. Coventry

46

24

47

5. Wigan

35

22

41

6. Peterborough

52

38

40

 
12. Bradford City

24

26 34

The opening of the January transfer window offered Parkinson opportunity for change, but not a lot of scope to strengthen.

When City had started the season so badly, losing three of their opening four games in August, the joint chairmen made extra funds available for the manager to sign loan players. In came Lee Evans, Reece Burke and Devante Cole, with an immediate improvement in form.

September saw another slight dip, with the defence continuing to leak goals at a worrying rate (16 in their first 11 games of the campaign). A really bad injury to Paul Anderson forced Parkinson to dip into the loan market, bringing in Kyel Reid on loan. In November Parkinson had lost James Hanson and Steve Davies to injury, causing him to sign Jordan Bowery as cover for a month.

January came around – and Parkinson had already spent much of the season’s playing budget covering for unforseen circumstances. With the FA Cup third round draw handing a less than glamorous trip to Bury, there was no extra windfall on the immediate horizon.

Parkinson could not improve his squad by spending money. He either had to make do with what he had, or shuffle his pack.

Keeping the rearguard in place

Kyel Reid’s arrival at the start of October, on the back of a four-game winless run, was the cue for Parkinson to drop previous attempts to play more open, attack-minded football, and to prioritise shoring up his still leaky defence. With Reid entrusted responsibility for running forwards with the ball, the rest of the midfield was positioned deeper to provide better protection to the back four. Tony McMahon was entrusted with a right midfield role.

And it worked. City lost only two of their next 14 games over autumn, with the defence conceding only seven times over this period of the season. But there were consequences at the other end. An attack that wasn’t exactly prolific early doors began to score on even fewer occasions.

Parkinson had largely fixed the problems at one end, but then the two Christmas games saw six goals fly past Ben Williams. He knew that the midfield still wasn’t quite right in protecting the back four.

The first January priority though was to keep in place what was definitely working, and that in itself would not be easy. Reece Burke’s loan was up, and he had not been able to complete the match at Gillingham after crashing into an advertising board and hurting his arm. His replacement, the fast-improving Nathan Clarke, got himself sent off in the closing stages. All of this took place without Lee Evans, who was left out due to Wolves wanting the young midfielder back at Molineux.

Burke returned to Upton Park for treatment, and that seemed to be that. His performances at Valley Parade had not gone unnoticed, with a queue of Championship and European clubs approaching West Ham about his services. Parkinson had a huge hole to fill.

But then, unexpectedly, Burke came back. He apparently told West Ham that he wanted to return to Valley Parade, despite seemingly more attractive offers elsewhere. Burke was signed up for the rest of the season; Kenny Jackett allowed Evans to follow suit. The third and final loanee Parkinson wanted to keep was the most straightforward: Kyel Reid was unwanted at Preston and desperate to stay. His loan was extended. At times this season, you forget he’s technically not a Bradford City player.

The foundations of the first half of the season remained fixed in place, now to make changes. Now to address the fact you’re on track to score less than 50 goals over a League One season, as you’re currently the seventh-lowest scorers in the division.

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk) - copyright Bradford City

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk) – copyright Bradford City

A striking transfer move

When you’ve just being knocked out of the FA Cup at home to 10-men Bury, three days after a hugely unconvincing 1-0 win over 10-men Oldham, a week before a 0-0 FA Cup game at Bury where you missed two absolute sitters, the last thing you would expect to hear is that you’ve sold your top scorer.

Yet on Friday 22 January – three days after the dismal Bury cup defeat – that was the news that emerged from Valley Parade. Devante Cole was heading to Fleetwood Town for a £75k fee. Heading the other way in the deal was a targetman who couldn’t even get into the struggling Lancashire team, Jamie Proctor. On social media, the #bcafc hashtag went into meltdown.

Had Parkinson taken leave of his senses? The debate about City’s struggles to score goals had raged for weeks. Neither of the first choice front two, James Hanson and Billy Clarke, had netted a league goal in over two months. Cole had been relegated to a place on the bench, and the calls had been growing for him to be restored into the line up.

Selling Cole would prove to be a masterstroke by Parkinson. He had been an important early season signing, starting life at Valley Parade with a bang and five goals in his first nine games. But even at this high point, there were rumblings from the young striker that he was not exactly loving life at Valley Parade. An interview in the Daily Mail criticising his former employers, Man City, looked ill-judged at the time (and now seems beyond belief).

The October switch to a more defensive-focused, pragmatic team did not suit Cole. Rather than having perfect through balls to run onto, he was asked to run the channels and do a job for his team. This more ugly side to football was not his game. His subsequent demotion to the bench was merited, yet he – and his famous dad – didn’t see it that way.

Cole started in the feeble team performances at Gillingham and at home to Bury, offering nothing. Fleetwood’s £75k was gleefully snapped up.

24 hours later, Jamie Proctor had started his first game for City, at Port Vale, and earned the man of the match award. He was outstanding at Vale Park, netting a priceless equaliser for the 10-men City, and leading the line superbly. A loan deal was very quickly made permanent, even though, for now, Proctor would largely remain on the sidelines.

There was improvement. City played well in the second half at Port Vale, attacking with more purpose. Parkinson continued to face up to criticism about the lack of goals; he argued that his forwards were getting the chances and should be doing more. On the Tuesday after, City welcomed Barnsley and were defeated 1-0. But largely ignored by some in the crowd, it was the best Bantams performance in months. They were desperately unlucky to lose.

Parkinson wasn’t done rotating his strikers. Luke James had been an underused and underwhelming loanee over the first half of the season, looking some way off what was needed for a club with promotion aspirations. On the Friday before a home game with Fleetwood, Wes Thomas was brought in on a 93-day emergency loan.

The Fleetwood game was a massive moment in City’s season, in the context of both the league position and the darkening mood around the club.

They simply had to win this one.

The League One table, 26 January, 2016

 

F A

PTS

1. Burton

36

21

57

2. Gillingham

55

35

54

3. Walsall

45

26

53

4. Wigan

45

29

49

5. Coventry

47

30

48

6. Millwall

43

37

43

 
11. Bradford City

26

28

38

“Your City needs you”

The camera shot was perfect. James Mason, the club’s chief operating officer, to the left. Phil Parkinson to the right. In between them stood the League Two play off trophy that was won in 2013. On the wall behind, a collection of photos from the history makers season.

The underlying message was not subtle.PP and JM

And for 11 minutes, Mason interviewed Parkinson about the season, the importance of the game against Fleetwood the next day, and how much the manager wanted supporters to back the club. The video was titled “Your City needs you” and was a call to arms. Trust in this manager, who has delivered so much to the club, as the pictures behind him clearly illustrated.

I spoke to James Mason about the video a few days later, and he was clear in the club and board’s backing of Parkinson. “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.

“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.”

On the field itself, after the rallying call video, City produced a badly-needed and dramatic victory over Fleetwood. Scoring more than one goal in a league match for the first time since November. James Hanson netted his first league goal in almost three months, and in stoppage time Wes Thomas had ran through and smacked the crossbar, before Steve Davies followed up to net the winner.

Valley Parade erupted.

It hadn’t been convincing, it hadn’t solved all the problems, but it was a major step in the right direction. Early in the second half Fleetwood had taken a 1-0 lead, but the crowd had taken on board the “Your City needs you” video and stayed behind the team.

Mason added in that interview, “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.”

At WOAP we are often amongst the slowest to offer praise to the board, but their record of backing Parkinson this season has been outstanding. When the club started the season badly, they kept contract talks going and gave him extra funds to sign players. When City were having a bad January, they stood up for him and made it clear they were right behind him.

Julian Rhodes, Mark Lawn, James Mason and the rest of the board deserve huge, huge credit for that.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

The remaining piece in the jigsaw

The League One table, 6 February, 2016

 

F A

PTS

1. Burton

40

24

60

2. Walsall

47

30

56

3. Wigan

50

29

55

4. Gillingham

55

36

55

5. Coventry

48

32

48

6. Millwall

47

38

47

 
11. Bradford City

29

32

41

Back in January and that coach ride back from Gillingham, much of Parkinson’s anger centred upon his central midfield. Billy Knott’s had been dreadful defensively, failing to go in brave for challenges and getting knocked off the ball. Gary Liddle was supposed to play the deeper role more effectively, but was disappointing on the day. Lee Evans was a huge miss.

Knott’s 18 months at Valley Parade had featured so many wonderful moments, but he still had a lot to learn. Even at the height of his best form the season before, he had rarely been trusted with starting away games. Since Evans had joined in August, Parkinson had largely rotated Liddle and Knott alongside the Welshman, depending on whether City were at home or away. But it still wasn’t quite working.

Knott would find himself cast onto the sidelines for the majority of the second half of the season. Liddle would find himself in Derbyshire. It had been a strange first half to the season for one of the best performers of the 2014/15 campaign, but Liddle simply hadn’t reached his previous standards. Parkinson decided he could be sacrificed as part of his shuffle.

For a couple of weeks, the offer of a contract at Carlisle hung in the air. Liddle didn’t seem to want to go, and City supporters certainly didn’t want to see him depart. On the final day of the transfer window – the day before the Fleetwood match – Liddle went through the exit door that his manager had seemingly held open for him to walk through. He signed for Chesterfield.

More proof, to some, that Parkinson had lost the plot.

If there was a concrete plan to replace Liddle, it wasn’t an obvious one. In the end, Parkinson gambled. He elected to sign another young player from West Ham – one he hadn’t even seen live before. Josh Cullen headed north to join Burke. The fate of City’s season rested on his teenage shoulders.

After the Fleetwood win, City had lost 3-1 to Burton and seemed to have gone back to square one. A trip to Peterborough looked daunting, but there were two reasons for Parkinson to be hopeful. Lee Evans – sent off at Port Vale, meaning he missed the games against Barnsley, Fleetwood and Burton – was back. And Josh Cullen was about to make his City debut.

And what a start for Josh. City didn’t simply win at the home of a fellow promotion contender, they smashed them. A team that couldn’t score goals suddenly netted four. James Hanson and Wes Thomas led the line superbly. Burke and Rory McArdle were colossal at the back. And there in the middle of the park were Cullen and Evans.

The arrival of Cullen has done much for Evans. A first half to the season full of promising performances, but a few poor games, has been improved upon considerably. Evans took on the Liddle role, rather than going forwards, where he looked less comfortable. Cullen would sit alongside Evans when City don’t have the ball, tigerish in the tackle, and bring it forwards too. He rarely wastes a pass.

The balance was much improved, and City simply haven’t looked back.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

The play offs

Eight of the eleven players Parkinson starts has barely changed since that day. The front two has been swapped about, with the partnership of Hanson and Thomas swapped for Proctor and Clarke, and more recently to Hanson and Filipe Morais. Nathan Clarke had to fill in for an injured McArdle and was outstanding.

Everyone else has kept their roles and performed it superbly. Week in, week out.

Including the Peterborough win, City have lost only two of their last 17 games. They’ve netted 24 goals, and conceded just 8, over that run. They’re more prolific in front of goal compared to their struggles of the first half of the season, and have become even stronger at the back.

After 23 games of the season, City were on track to end the season with 48 goals for and 52 against. After the Southend game, they have scored 53 times and conceded just 40. It is a stark turnaround, one that has lifted the Bantams from mid-table mediocrity to top five finishers.

The January transfer activity was vital in making that happen – and it was achieved by cutting back, rather than splashing out. Keeping Burke, Evans and Reid was vital – they have continued to deliver exceptional performances. Jamie Proctor has been a revelation. (Meanwhile over at Fleetwood, Cole has only just netted his goal for the club.) Thomas has drifted out of the picture but played his part, certainly more so than Luke James. Cullen has been a major improvement on Liddle.

Parkinson’s near five-year reign at Valley Parade has been filled with stories of overcoming difficult moments and turning around the club’s fortunes, but his January/February switch around is as impressive as anything he has achieved at the club.

It was six weeks of brilliance.

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Categories: Opinion, The 2015/16 play offs

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Absolutely spot on! A remarkable turnaround achieved with no money just brilliance (or luck?). Josh Cullen has come from nowhere. No doubt difficult, heart-stopping moments ahead but at least we can enjoy Sunday (so long as no Davies-esque repeat of Cheltenham). Maybe a bridge too far to win playoffs but what a journey to get to them! Thank you PP – and all the staff at VP – IPWT

    • I was at the Cheltenham game. Davies was class for us but a bit dim at times! Absolutely needless fouls in a pointless game. Let’s also not forget the 3 reds he got in his first season for us. Not slating him but he did lose his head at times!

  2. Another forensically excellent review Jason. We are all so emotional about football that we don’t allow a manager to manage. In this spell Parky did exactly that, struck some good deals and was ruthless too as required, an essential trait we often find difficult to accept. Anyone in doubt about Parky and this streak need only to reflect on Gary Jones.

    Go up or stay down its another enjoyable and progressive season and either way, next season will be much more fun again than the countless forgotten seasons (I’ve done 54 years so far).

    Once again Parky will need to be active and successful in the transfer and loan markets, especially with the rule changes for loan players, and we all need to support him in whatever decisions he takes as he has surely by now silenced anyone who doubts his intent to continually improve the club? If not, we should all pack in and go fishing.

  3. Another well constructed and interesting article, well done Jason.

    I confess that I didn’t think that we would make the play offs this season, even up to a few weeks ago.

    It’s going to be another roller coaster month of being a Bradford City supporter, however would we have it any other way?

    IPWT.

  4. Parkinson has been sensational. As Jason points out, many fans (albeit, a minority), thought he had lost the plot when he allowed, first, our top scorer and then, a close contender for the 2015 PoTS award, to leave.

    The cash and swap for Cole was superb, if not surprising. However, he has had a lot of luck too. He allowed Liddle to walk out of the door, leaving us with just Evans, Knott and, dare I say it, Routis. He clearly didn’t have anyone lined up and landed on his feet when West Ham approached him to offer Cullen.

    How things could have been so different. But, as they say, you have to make your own luck and PP has certainly done that.

    • Disagree with that and I remember saying at the time that there is no way he’d have let Liddle go without having someone else in mind – Didn’t he just have to shuffle his pack again in order to get things sorted and wait for the loan window to reopen. I also remember Cullen’s name being linked in some circles prior to Liddle leaving. I might be wrong but if he wasn’t on PP’s radar then for the first time the fans knew something he didn’t!

  5. Another excellent article, with good analysis of what has been a surprising season. City are in with a good shout. The difficult bit will be getting to the Wembley final. We have players with experience of the big stage, and with our support and with confidence high in the team a win is entirely possible.

    I enjoyed last season more (so far), watching the most remarkable game of football I have ever seen and then City topping that off by beating the D M Mackems

  6. An excellent piece Jason. It makes the point about how important a good summer is, giving the club the required stability to start the season strongly. We had a very difficult summer 2015 in a number of areas so to be where we are now is testament to how well we’re run. This was brought into focus even more as just prior to reading this I read about the poor summers of 2010 and 2011 really hampered the club for those seasons leaving a lot of turmoil.
    As for the playoffs, the fact we all feel it will be tough to win them means at least won’t be over confident. If our defence stays strong we have every chance of making it.

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