By Jason McKeown
Shell shocked, bewildered, confused, gloomy, miserable, angry. The range of emotions that each of us Bradford City supporters have felt over the past few days have been vast and fast-changing. The number of questions we want to ask grows and grows.
Phil Parkinson is no longer the Bradford City manager. His unveiling at the Macron Stadium on Friday was hurtful and strange. The moment where it really began to sink in. And now all that’s left to do is pick up the pieces and try to move on. It will not be easy.
The range of reactions to the last few days has been really interesting. There are outpourings of grief akin to losing a family member, there is a sense of frustration that one of the best managers in the club’s history has been allowed to leave so cheaply, and there is betrayal that it hasn’t exactly taken Phil Parkinson a lot to walk away from what he has built.
Bolton looks such a strange fit. If Parkinson really wanted to leave the club, you’d think he could have done better than that. You’d think he would have valued himself higher.
What’s interesting is that he has been here before, exactly a decade ago in fact. After the outstanding achievement of taking Colchester into the Championship for the first time in their history, Parkinson upped sticks and took the Hull City job. Better paid, better prospects, but he was sacked in six months. It was the wrong club, it was a bad career move.
Those who know Parkinson very well told me he would never make such a mistake again: putting money above stability, and not risking a hard-earned reputation. You hope that the same mistake hasn’t been made here. Time will tell, but he will do very well to stay at Bolton for as long as he has remained here.
As I have wrote about several times over his reign in charge, the Parkinson story is not just about the glory nights and the mind-boggling cup achievements, it was about guiding Bradford City through slumps and long winless runs, knowing his job was just about safe. It is hard to imagine Parkinson surviving a run of one win in 21, for example, like he did at Valley Parade in 2013/14. History showed that Bradford City were absolutely right to stick by him then, as they were during that difficult first season, when he was struggling to impress and making hard work of keeping the Bantams in the Football League.
Bolton come down to League One with fans undoubtedly – and justifiably – expecting a promotion push. Yet they are still in debt and with two transfer embargos that mean Parkinson can’t make any new signings, even free transfers. Last season, Shola Ameobi was willing to play for Bolton for free and the club still weren’t allowed to sign him. The likes of Ben Amos, Darren Pratley, Jay Spearing and Mark Davies are said to be on wages of around £20k per week. It is rumoured that Bolton’s new joint owners do not see eye to eye on everything.
Parkinson will need time to turn that around, but he is not guaranteed to get it.
Why Parkinson would want to choose that over what he has built here is unclear. He will, of course, have his reasons and they might be wholly understandable. At the press conference he stated, “Very tough call to leave Bradford. I just felt that I wanted a fresh challenge and this came about and really excited me.”
The rumour is he was not happy about the City playing budget for next season, and that certain demands from new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp do not sit comfortably with how he wants to build a football club. Rumours are rumours; you believe what you want to hear. But right now, the facts aren’t available.
And that’s a challenge for the new owners. So far they have being interviewed once by the T&A and as interesting as that piece was, it hasn’t done a lot to quench the thirst for knowledge from us supporters. Since 2012, Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes operated a more low key approach and didn’t speak as much publicly, but that was after many years with their feet firmly under the table. We knew their plans.
The statement from the club today – approved by the pair no doubt – fills in some of the blanks. They did want Parkinson to stay, they tried to persuade him his future should remain in West Yorkshire, and the lower compensation Bolton paid was probably due to the pair ultimately agreeing not to stand in Parkinson’s way when he was mind was so made up.
This statement is a step in the right direction. There was frustration by many fans over the delay making it, and the club have said, “We understand the fans’ frustration on the lack of communication over the release of any news in recent days, but as a club we have a proud tradition of only making official comment when it is right to do so. When contracts are signed and terms agreed. Please understand that is the right way to operate and we will continue to do so.”
All of which is fine and very professional (and better than how Bolton have acted). Yet the bottom line is Rahic and Rupp need to be more forthcoming with their views on the future. They need to be leaders. James Mason does a fantastic job front of house and long may that continue, but as fans we want – and deserve – to know what the big plan is here.
It was jumping to conclusions to blame Rahic and Rupp for what has happened, but it didn’t look good. In the space of a few weeks we have gone from a settled, progressive football club that had just achieved a best league finish in 12 years, making the play offs. The owners left, and now the manager has gone too. If Lawn and Rhodes were still in charge, Parkinson would most likely be the manager still. Something or someone has pushed or lured him away.
If Rahic and Rupp believe in a different vision for the club, great, but they need to share it. If they really are disappointed that Parkinson has left and it was not their choice, they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Parkinson is not the hero in this story, for sure. But then again no one is, and that is the problem for us City fans, wondering where this all leaves us.
In a sense there are parallels between the situation at City and the EU Referendum. The Remain viewpoint is that whilst not everything is perfect, the positives outweigh the negatives and remaining in Europe can drive improvement. The Leave campaign is full of unknowns and a major shake-up of the country’s future. It might solve many problems and disgruntlements, but it might also throw up completely new issues. It is a gamble.
Parkinson has made his own Brexit. And with Lawn and Rhodes gone, we simply don’t know what future lies in store. Whoever gets the job, we have no idea how they will fare. The old regime offered guarantees of steady progress and no implosions. That’s now being lost and we don’t have a clue what we’ve swapped it for.
There are, amazingly, some City fans glad to see the back of Parkinson. They tell you his achievements were flukes, and that the last five years have been awful. They think that Parkinson failed/underachieved and that the club will now move forwards.
Whilst I couldn’t disagree more, it’s not my place to criticise these people. The fact is we have reached a major crossroads in our history. Only time is going to prove whether this departure is a good or a bad thing. We need the context of knowing what happens next before we can conclude that Parkinson leaving is a catastrophe, a minor bump in the road, or a platform for bigger and better things.
Take Paul Jewell’s departure as manager in 2000. Everyone agrees he was a brilliant manager, now. At the time, there wasn’t universal approval over the job he was doing and a feeling from many that we could do better without him. To my shame, I was one of the many City fans at Hillsborough in January 2000 who chanted at him “you don’t know what you’re doing”, and I remember feeling disgruntled over the final few weeks about his increasingly poor tactics and poor treatment of Lee Mills.
I was wrong, but I only truly realised this after he had left and the club sunk.
Interestingly, Jewell – who left partly due to unfair interference from Geoffrey Richmond – went to Sheffield Wednesday, who were just relegated from the Premier League, in lots of debt, and with high expectations to go straight back up. It was a bad move and Jewell was soon sacked. The parallels between Sheffield Wednesday then and Bolton now are very evident.
In some ways Parkinson is in a win-win position in terms of his Bradford City legacy. If City continue to progress he can take credit for getting the club so far in the first place. If it goes the other way, the job he performed at Valley Parade will seem even better. And those punching the air in celebration right now will look incredibly foolish.
Ultimately Parkinson’s achievements will keep him in the highest of regard. Nights like Arsenal, Villa, Leeds and Millwall will never be forgotten. The occasions like Swansea, Burton, Northampton, Chelsea and Sunderland will be talked about for decades. The highs experienced under his watch were some of the biggest we have ever seen. The stories will be told and retold to our children and our grandchildren.
Phil, it’s difficult to say “thank you” right now, but of course we will be forever grateful for what you did for the club. Leaving as you have taints it slightly, but that bitterness will fade much quicker than the memories you gave us. I hope Bolton treat you well. I hope the move works out. But more than anything I hope that we don’t suffer because of this.
In Parkinson we trusted. And now it’s time for Rahic and Rupp to earn themselves that same level of confidence.