The 2015/16 Bradford City season review

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WOAP writers Katie Whyatt, Alex Scott, Tim Penfold and Jason McKeown reflect on an eventful Bradford City season and what the close season might have in store.

Was this season a success or a failure?

Tim: Success. Our aim was to challenge for promotion and improve on last year. We got in the playoffs, were 6 points off going up automatically and got 15 more points than last year. The club is also in a much stronger position than it was last year in terms of financial backing and off-field strength. The only thing I’m disappointed about is the lack of a decent cup run.

Alex: Not to come across all Russell Crowe, but are you not entertained?! Is this not why you are here?! I had loads of fun this season. Being able to support a likeable, hard working team which comes together to be more than the sum of their parts, and does so with a smile on their face, is rare. I don’t really get how someone could be a fan this season and not have had fun. And that’s my main success measure. So yeah, success!

Jason: I think in view of the difficult moments in August, September and January, it has to go down as a successful season. It was a tougher division than people gave it credit for, and certainly just to get into the top six required exceptional form.

Ultimately you want to see out and out improvement each season, and as Tim says we got that. There is disappointment over the performances in the play offs and that will linger, but it shouldn’t detract from what a great achievement it was to be in the play offs in the first place.

As Alex alludes to it was a team that gave their all and as a supporter you can’t ask for more than that. We came up short on quality, ultimately, but there was no lack of effort.

Katie: I think it has to be a success, doesn’t it? I think the point is that we’ve really grown as a team – and a club – this season and we’ve watched this side change and develop into something we’re really proud of.  

As Jason said, you had really testing times in August and January, yet Parkinson overcame those challenges and resolved them in really sensible ways – that’s been the most pleasing thing for me.

We’ve been so many different things this year and I think we’ve ultimately seen evidence that Parkinson learned things as a manager and put those lessons into practice this year. Devante Cole, Alan Sheehan – relationships presumably fractured, but things weren’t dragged out like they were with McLean. He bit the bullet, got rid early and City were stronger for it.

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Which very nicely brings us onto the transfer activity by Phil Parkinson over the last 12 months. It has been hinted the club was operating on a top four budget but some argue the manager didn’t use it wisely. What’s your view?

Tim: I think he’s been a little bit unlucky really. The summer was badly disrupted by the Paladini non-takeover, which meant that we ended up with a lot of quite late recruitment and missed targets, and some of his bigger signings have been injured – admittedly, that was always likely with Davies, but Morris’ injury stopped a promising start and meant he fell behind Reid, and Anderson’s broken leg took out the biggest signing of the summer.

Out of his permanent signings, I’d only really class Brad Jones and probably Mark Marshall as failures – Cole had his issues but scored some key (if fortunate) goals in the autumn – and we got money for him!  Nathan Clarke’s been a good backup centre back (and we all know about the issues we’ve had there!), McMahon’s set pieces have set up plenty of goals, Proctor’s been impressive and Leigh deputised very well for Meredith when needed.

His use of the loan market has been excellent, with the exception of Luke James – Burke, Evans and Cullen have been brilliant, Reid got some momentum back in the team when we really needed it, Thorpe provided reasonable cover and Wes Thomas, despite fading from view, played a role in getting us going again in February.

Jason: During the summer there was definitely a feeling that City were lagging behind other clubs in strengthening certain areas of the team. Certainly in terms of defence and keeper, at times it felt like a scattergun approach

Undoubtedly that told early doors, but what was impressive was the way Parkinson – supported by the chairmen making extra funds available – fixed it so quickly. It was a similar case in January, and there’s an argument to make that Burke, Evans and Cullen are amongst the most successful signings of Parkinson’s near five-year reign

There is no doubt that Parkinson faced some tough selection calls and had to move away from some underperforming players, but they weren’t just summer signings who weren’t working out. It was a brutal campaign for the likes of Billy Knott and Gary Liddle. Even James Hanson and James Meredith were no longer as assured of their starting places.

Ultimately Parkinson built a high-performing team that felt very moved on from last season, and that wouldn’t have been the case without several clever signings along the way.

Alex: Tim’s right in that he did get unlucky with injuries. But in hindsight, there’s a really strong argument that those injuries were a blessing as it allowed McMahon and Reid to come into the side, and the team was a lot better for it.

That’s the main strength of the manager I think, and has been for a while. He’s a pragmatist who puts the team’s success ahead of his own ego again and again. Not every signing is going to work out; that is true for everyone. But Parkinson’s strength is that he knows that, and is willing to change to a back up plan when he can see something isn’t working.

I don’t think Cole, Davies, Anderson, Morris, Jones or Marshall were bad signings in themselves, indeed I think there is some now-embarrassing content on the site from me lauding the Cole deal in particular. In hindsight clearly that money could have been more effectively redistributed, but at the time each move made sense.

But regardless of the judgment at the time, for reasons sometimes out of his control, it wasn’t working and he needed to change it up. Maybe that comes across as scattergun, but I think that’s harsh. He could have stuck with his signings and finished 9th, but that’s not his game and he tried his hardest to maximise the team. And this approach led to the recruitment of Burke, Cullen, Evans, Reid and Proctor during the season. There’s a strong argument they were our best five players over the last few months.

The only missing link has been the goalscorer he’s been trying to replace since Nahki Wells left. But they are really hard to find! They only found Wells by accident, really. The last prolific striker before him at City was who, mid-2000s Windass? It’s hard to find those guys, and it’s not like he’s not trying. Not sure you can mark him down for that.

Image by Thomas Gadd - copyright Bradford City FC

Image by Thomas Gadd – copyright Bradford City FC

As we know well at WOAP, due to Roger Owen sharing his insight, City were very much a defensive-focused team. What were your thoughts on the strategy and style of football?

Tim: I think a solid defence is always going to be the foundation of what Parky tries to build, and he’s right to do so.

I’ve just been re-reading this book  – and it has some interesting points on how defensive football is undervalued.

The most relevant of these is that a clean sheet is worth almost 2.5 points on average to a team, which is about the same as scoring two goals, and conceding only one goal still gets you, on average, 1.5 points per game, which is more valuable than scoring one. If you want a successful team, it needs to be built on a solid defence, and, particularly when you take into account the relative cheapness of defenders compared to strikers, it’s also a fairly cost-effective way of doing things.

What we did need to improve on was not so much being more attacking as being more clinical.  In terms of number and quality of chances created last season we were around the middle of the division. In terms of goals scored, only five teams scored fewer than us. This suggests that the issue is not so much with chance creation as it is with finishing.

In terms of how it is to watch, it could be more entertaining but I enjoy the feeling that comes after winning games, and we do win.  It can be quite defensive, direct and physical at times (though nowhere near as much as people say), but I can watch that. What I would object to, and why I’m maybe not as big a fan of Tony McMahon as some are, is Steve Evans-style cynical football.

Jason: You have to go back to Parkinson’s first season in charge for a more pragmatic style of football – but ultimately the manager was playing to his team’s strengths. For one reason or another, none of City’s strikers found their best form over the season and we simply weren’t going to outscore opposition teams by playing attacking football.

Parkinson was well in his rights to be this way. For the best part of a year he was under pressure by some fans and the board to play a more open, attractive style of football, but his attempts to do just that brought about mixed results. Some fans claimed they would tolerate bad results if the football was more entertaining, but clearly this wasn’t the case and after poor runs Parkinson was placed under pressure.

I think he had every right to play how he feels best – especially with the security of a newly signed contract – and you can’t argue with the positive results from going back to being more pragmatic.

When City play well in this way, it’s a great watch. When they don’t, it can at times be tedious. Nevertheless, it got City into the play offs this season, and you can see from the success of Burton that being defensive-minded needn’t put automatic promotion beyond City.

I do, however, suspect that Parkinson will spend much of the summer looking for a striker or two who can find the net more often, and if he succeeds it might lead to a different approach next season.  

Katie: Going back to what Tim was saying – I get where you’re coming from, and I think I’d agree on the whole, but I think what we saw in the play-offs was the limits of that approach. You can’t overlook that this side were hampered by injuries to key men in the semis, and that Evans and Cullen had off-days in the first leg, but City did not have the firepower to come back. They didn’t have enough about them. McMahon was swinging crosses in, but they were short of bodies in the final third and, as Tim says, just not clinical enough.

When you have that fragility, you become a bit of a Sliding Doors team, relying on chance, sudden moments of individual brilliant and leave smaller margins for error – see Nathan Clarke’s worldie assist against Scunthorpe, Evans’ world-class volley against Southend and Filipe Morais’ miss in the first leg respectively. When you come up against a team with forwards of the calibre of Millwall’s – against whom City, realistically, were never going to be able to keep a clean sheet – you need players to compensate for that by bagging more at the other end.

That City only had two outlets in McMahon and Reid, as Cullen and Evans necessarily sit deep, meant they never really had a concrete way of threatening the Lions. Having on a solid defence is commendable, but it’s the term reliance that causes the issues.

In League One, players will make errors – the defensive organisation for Millwall’s second was just appalling. Where a prolific strike partnership comes in, you can counterbalance those mistakes and start on the front foot.

Alex: I think y’all are being a bit negative. City didn’t score enough goals throughout the season – and in an obvious plot development, during the playoffs that was always going to catch up to them – but I don’t think that failing was structural; it was individual. City conceded four goals in the playoffs, three of them were instinctive strikers finishes.

Not one player on the books for City all season would have scored any of those chances. That’s the issue.

City didn’t get knocked out by a more fluent attacking team; they got knocked out by a better version of themselves. Millwall were big, strong and tough, just like City (and moreso), but most importantly, they had a centre forward who scored 27 goals this year (and another who has scored 19, and another who has scored 13!). City’s entire starting eleven in that second leg had scored 28 goals all season, combined!

There’s no shame losing to a team who is better than you, and it shouldn’t cause a revamp of the approach. Seemingly every time they come up against a tippy tappy adventurous team, their approach wins out, and they win or at least don’t lose. And I, for one, am looking forward to the six points City will take off the MK Dons next year. The system has worked, it does work. They just got a rough draw in the playoffs.

I mean, they managed to amass 80 points, with only one player scoring more than five goals! And that player was Hanson who was crocked in the playoffs. To do as well as they did with such a personnel deficit is a fantastic achievement. What they need is someone who can score when the chance arises. But those players are really hard to find, and even harder to keep.

A lot of the budget this year was tied up in injured wide midfielders (who, if fit, would have created more, better chances) and the player they brought in to score 20 goals didn’t work out. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. Next year, with an increase in the budget, and maybe a bit more luck, they can find their goal scorer, and there will be no question in the approach.

And I should probably point out, unlike Tim I am a fan of cynical football. Long live the long diagonal to Hanson!

An aside, my play of the season award has to go to Sergio Ramos in injury time the other night, wiping out Carcasso to stop a 3 on 1! Most valuable yellow card ever? 

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

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

What do you think Parkinson’s biggest learnings are that he will have taken from this season, and how busy is he going to be over this transfer window?

Jason: I think he will have learned the true value of having a squad full of different options, which has enabled him to make quick, sometimes radical and usually very effective changes.

We saw a matchday squad with a bench packed full of talent, and then other players who couldn’t even get into the 18, when they would have walked into the side a couple of years earlier. Amongst these reserves there were some genuine hard luck tales and people who could feel aggrieved over their lack of opportunities, but unlike in previous seasons Parkinson was able to move on from them when he saw they weren’t working out. The results largely speak for themselves.

Next season, I’ve no doubt he will want a similar size squad and a repeat of the cutthroat environment, where people who don’t contribute enough are quickly overlooked. Just like this season, some of the summer signings will probably look like duds. As long as Parkinson finds a winning formula, that won’t really matter. If it goes the other way, he can expect a challenging campaign. A busy close season is inevitable.

Tim: I think the first thing he’ll have learned is to trust his instincts. When things went wrong he went back to basics, a solid defence and a very hardworking team, and they came through for him.  Secondly, as you’ve said, he’s learned the value of a big squad – you compare the bench he had towards the end of this season to the one he had at the start of 2014/15 for example, and there’s a world of difference.

I think he’ll be busy transfer-wise – assuming we keep Williams, Cracknell, N Clarke, Leigh and Proctor, that still leaves a whole new central midfield to sign, as well as a centre back, a striker and maybe a keeper. He’ll want to get this done early – the last couple of seasons he’s been scrambling around with a couple of weeks to go and it’s led to a disrupted start to the season. Hopefully he’ll have the funding in place to do this.

Alex: Certainly he will be busy. Whilst the core of the side will likely remain as it is, as Tim says there is a whole new midfield to recruit, as well as the long-standing issue of a centre forward to find. One learning point could be the value that young players can bring, which is a slight shift from his traditional policy of recruiting those in their prime.

Last season, he had a mix of young players to add energy to the team (Cole, Burke, Evans, Cullen), and more experienced types to add guile and knowhow to drag the team forwards (Nathan Clarke, Anderson, Davies, Marshall). Whilst Clarke had his moments toward the end of the season, it was the young players who grasped their opportunity and almost got the team promoted, whilst the more experienced players struggled for impact. This reflects a little of the season previous too, where Jordan Pickford was one of the star recruits.

Given there will be no possibility to bring in loanees outside of the transfer window next season, Parkinson will need to retain (at least) the same size squad he had last season, and to do that in a cost-effective way, young loanee players at reduced rates would seem to be a logical approach. Especially given the success seen last season.

How Parkinson manages this recruitment, and then the morale of the squad (including those deep in the reserves) will go a long way to determining the team’s success next season. That so few of the second year scholars have been retained today would indicate a significant amount of recruitment is about to be done to fill out the squad.

Given the successes and failures of last season, it can be expected that Parkinson will once again go back to the well of the young loanee.

Katie: As I kind of alluded to earlier, I don’t know if Parkinson will have learned anything specific as much as applied very concretely lessons he learned in the previous years. He’s said before that no one can ‘tell’ you how to manage – you have to find out for yourself and your experiences teach you who you want to be. The problems we’ve faced this year haven’t been unfamiliar ones: a dip around Christmas, a struggle in the league in January, presumably high-earning players underperforming. In how he’s dealt with things this year, we’ve seen the application of the man-management skills he’s picked up in the last four years. That he’s managed to keep Greg Leigh and Nathan Clarke content when he can’t guarantee them game time probably reflects on the atmosphere he manages to cultivate around the training ground.

I did anticipate Parkinson ripping up the central midfield anyway, regardless of loanees coming in and out. Like Tim and Alex, I think the abolition of the emergency loan system will be ‘the thing’. It’s never been the Parkinson way to stockpile, but the bigger budget the new owners might be able to provide here could come into play in light of this.

With this in mind, I think the one thing he did really learn this year was the true value of a loan player when there’s an agreement and progression plan in place with the parent club. One of the things I noticed in League One, during our barren one win in 21 run, was the number of Championship and Premier League loanees that could bolstered an opposition side and became the difference – Burke and Cullen were just head and shoulders above everyone else on the pitch at times this season. Pickford was almost the precursor to that, and Stead was just as vital as anyone last season. I think that willingness to just trust loan players completely as long as they have the right mentality is something that’s been borne out increasingly during his time with us, and probably stems from the agreements he had in place with West Ham – unlike with Pickford, Cullen and Burke were never going to be recalled. He’s been able to hand them more responsibility and they’ve reaped the benefits of that.

 

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

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