By Jason McKeown
Phil Parkinson was in defiant mood in the minutes that followed Bradford City’s aggregate play off semi final defeat to Millwall, telling assembled reporters, “Now our challenge is to look to bridge the gap between the play offs and the top two. We can do it.” He said these words knowing privately that the club had been sold a few days earlier. With his track record of year-on-year progress there was no reason to doubt him.
Yet as the Bantams reach the summer landmark moment of beginning the pre-season friendlies, the strength of the club is in doubt and the future prospects far from certain. It took less than three weeks from the final whistle at the New Den for Parkinson to quit Valley Parade for Bolton, and the legacy he has left behind is a surprisingly weak one.
Any manager who looked with interest at the Bradford City vacancy that cropped up in June would have naturally assumed that the club’s remarkable progress over the previous four years would mean they’d be taking over a well-oiled machine, but Parkinson’s successor Stuart McCall will have found alarming gaps and a huge rebuilding job on and off the pitch. The target of automatic promotion looks out of the window. Steadying the ship is the first priority.
The first issue is the almost complete decamping of the Bradford City coaching staff to Bolton. In some ways it was no surprise to see Steve Parkin and Nick Allamby move across with Parkinson. Back in 2013 when the City boss was negotiating a new contract at Valley Parade, the talks moved slowly due to his insistence that Parkin and Allamby be offered their own deals at exactly the same time. It was Parkinson’s way of showing this was a team effort, and he made sure it was his team who switched with him to Bolton.
Only more coaching staff have moved with them than just Parkin and Allamby. The chief scout Tim Breacker, goalkeeping coach Lee Butler and physio Matt Barrass have defected to Bolton too. Only Chris Royston and Graham Duckworth – both City fans – have remained. It has left McCall with a considerable task of bringing in a brand new set of backroom staff, and losing a lot of vital background knowledge that could have caused a smoother transition back into the role.
And then there is the playing side. Parkinson did very well last season to build a successful, albeit deeply pragmatic, team that achieved 80 points and finished 5th in League One – a highest placing in 12 years. Yet the heavy reliance on loan players has really hit home, with McCall inheriting just a small band of senior players.
Of the 18 who started or were on the bench for the second leg play off game against Millwall, only nine are still on the books. Whilst Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and James Hanson offer long-term continuity and are players McCall can continue to build the club around, there are considerable gaps elsewhere and a real challenge to rebuild.
Ben Williams and Jamie Proctor were out of contract and opted not to stay, the latter rocking up at Bolton of course. Williams has criticised Parkinson over the contract offer he was given and rejected in favour of a longer deal at Bury.
The point is that McCall has not inherited the team that performed so well last season, making the play offs. His task is not so straightforward to build upon that success, but to begin from a few steps further back. After nearly five years in charge of the club and after all the impressive progress, we might have expected Parkinson to have left behind a stronger squad than he has. It demonstrated that his final season in particular featured a shift towards short-term thinking, which doesn’t exactly leave behind the strongest of foundations.
Parkinson built very successful teams at Bradford City, but he failed to build a football club.
With Parkinson pipping McCall in the race to sign Mark Beevers also – the out of contract Millwall defender had talks about a move to West Yorkshire – there is a growing sense of frustration amongst supporters. Yet as manager of a fellow League One club, ultimately Parkinson is operating in the same pool and is always going to be interested in similar standard of players and coaches. Still, it’s a good job his Bolton side don’t come to Valley Parade early season, as the reception he’d receive would not be as warm as his record at City deserves.
Adding to the problems for the Bantams is the change of ownership, with Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp tasked with getting to grips with English football and their new investment. Whilst Julian Rhodes continues to offer a steady hand behind the scenes for now, the loss of so much knowledge of Bradford City in the boardroom, amongst the coaching staff and on the field is worrying. Thank goodness, at least, the commercial staff – led by the increasingly vital James Mason – is still in place.
Nevertheless, Bradford City will start the 2016/17 season with new owners, a new manager, new coaching staff and a new team. There is so much change that it is going to be really difficult to find continuity and it will be a real achievement if the upwards progression can be continued, at least next season. A repeat of a play off finish would be an outstanding achievement in these circumstances.
This wasn’t the plan when Parkinson spoke with such resolve at the Den. Right now the club is plagued by uncertainty and the excitement over a new era is tempered by what we have lost. There was never going to be a good time for Parkinson to leave, but what is sad about the situation is he has departed with the club in a weaker position than we could ever have imagined.
All of which makes it even more important for us supporters to rally behind the club and the new regime. We’ve had such a good, mainly untroubled four years that it would be very difficult to take going backwards on the tantilisingly close dream of Championship football. But rather than allow negativity to reign or worse walk away from the club, this is a time when we really need to stick together and be supportive.
And that’s why, despite the reservations many hold, Stuart McCall is the right man for this moment. No one could unite the club post-Parkinson – indeed, Parkinson himself was not universally popular – but a Bradford City legend who is infinitely likeable, with a point to prove, is someone to root for. If he can get it right here, the success would feel even more special. It is hard to think of any reason why you wouldn’t want him to succeed.
In Parkinson we trusted, only for us to feel let down by the manner of his exit. In Stuart we must believe. Especially if the immediate road ahead is as bumpy as we fear it might prove.