By Jason McKeown
As Bradford City supporters, we’ve seen many different chairman and managers come into the club with their own ideas and strategies. And every single one has at the very least shared one common trait: a desire to succeed.
No one has ever assumed these important club positions with anything but the best intentions. We know only too painfully that many don’t succeed, and their approach can in time be proven to be a bad one. Yet although some have been chased out of the door, all were at the very least warmly welcomed upon entering first Valley Parade and beginning their plans.
It means that the early periods of a new manager or new owner are typically harmonious. On and off the field, some have faced challenging starts, typically taking over with the club at a low ebb and with major issues to solve. But patience is afforded towards them as they attempt to put right someone else’s wrongs. Optimism abounds that the new era can be more glorious than the last.
Even when good times have occurred and a change happens, there is a temptation to make unfavourable comparisons between the shiny new and the greying old, and to talk down the recent past. In that most ill-fated summers of 2000, when Geoffrey Richmond lost sight of the club’s values, pushed Paul Jewell away and embarked on six weeks of madness, the talk early into Chris Hutchings was that the club was moving on from being labelled “Boring Bradford”, and the reckless spending would herald wonderful attacking football leading to European finishes. Under Paul Jewell’s “Boring Bradford”, the Bantams had earned promotion to the Premier League and survived in the top flight. We’d all have taken more of that, in exchange for the misery we were about to suffer.
Stuart McCall – back then still a player – had been promoted to one of two assistant managers that summer. When I interviewed him for my book Reinventing Bradford City he told me how a few months later, after Hutchings had been sacked and McCall made caretaker manager, he leafed through a book of players’ wages and discovered with horror just how much some of the summer signings were earning. He questioned how the club could afford it. This was an early warning about the dark path it was heading down.
Flash forward eight years to 2008, and McCall was back in the Valley Parade dugout, in the second season of his first spell as manager. His revamped Bradford City were enjoying a strong start to the campaign, and a 4-1 home victory over Exeter City placed them top of League Two. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” he warned at the time, and was sadly proven right. City looked strong promotion contenders up until March, before it all fell away and they missed out on the play offs.
These and other occasions will have taught McCall the importance of not getting too carried away by a good start, and of not overly heralding a new era until there is true substance behind it. That’s why he will be delighted but grounded by City’s promising start to this season. He will know not to pay too much attention to the praise that he has received of late. Yet he will also prefer to have made such a strong start than to have had a bad one. He of all people wants to succeed for the club.
Whilst we supporters must equally make sure we don’t get carried away, we are allowed to get more excited than McCall about this promising start. Not simply because it is going so well, but because it is the type of direction we want to take. And this is where the temptation to be retrospectively critical of the recent past creeps in.
No one can ever take away Phil Parkinson’s achievements at Bradford City. The rise up the leagues, the promotion, the first cup run, the second cup run. He took the Bantams from the edge of dropping into non-league football to knocking loudly on the door for the Championship. Few managers in the club’s history can boost so much success, and he is an incredibly tough act to follow.
But there were negatives about Parkinson too. He built successful football teams but didn’t leave too much behind when he decamped to Bolton. He didn’t place much faith in the youth set up, and Danny Devine’s remarkable elevation into the team doesn’t especially reflect well on his previous manager, who never even selected him for the bench. And of course, the style of football Parkinson delivered was dour at times, not always leaving you clinging to the edge of your seat.
In the Bolton News’ match report for Wanderers’ recent victory at AFC Wimbledon, journalist Marc Iles began, “Welcome to the Phil Parkinson era: It might not be pretty but it sure as hell is effective.” We Bradford City supporters can smile wryly at that sentence, because it is a familiar sentiment – one that could neatly sum Parkinson’s time at Valley Parade. The great promise of the new McCall era is that – so far – City look effective and pretty. And if there is one way in which the City legend can top the old era, it’s by bringing success whilst playing attractive football.
That’s harsh on Phil Parkinson. His near five-years in charge of the club was not simply about pragmatic football that we hated to watch. When he first took charge, fresh from a spell scouting for Arsenal, Parkinson actually attempted to play attractive attacking football. He quickly learned that the squad he inherited wasn’t good enough to succeed this way, and so turned them into a gritty, dogged team that ultimately survived relegation.
In the famous 2012/13 season, City were more attack-minded albeit conservative. They tended to break a 90-minute game into periods, especially on the road. If the score was 0-0 at half time or after 65-70 minutes, Parkinson would generally be happy and then step up the tempo late on, in a bid to nick a winner. It was an approach not a million miles away from that which Jurgen Klopp is implementing at Liverpool: have a spell in the game where you overpower the opposition.
With a number of attacking players and a strong strike partnership, promotion and a League Cup Final appearance was achieved by Parkinson. But what followed was a difficult first season in League One, where the manager made the mistake of staying too loyal to his History Makers and failed to bring in players who could put the established players’ places under genuine threat. The mid-season slump might have cost Parkinson his job at other clubs, but the board and most City supporters stuck by him. Nevertheless, his position was weakened.
In the summer of 2015 this allowed pressure to be placed upon him, by the board and some supporters, to implement a more attractive style of football. So in 2014/15 we had the diamond and an attack-minded 4-4-1-1 that proved very successful during Jon Stead’s four-month purple patch especially. Chelsea, Sunderland, Leeds, and a play off near miss were the fruits of this approach.
Which brings us onto Parkinson’s final season, at the beginning of which he had signed a new three-year contract. He was stronger again, and even after an average summer recruitment led to a worrying start, Parkinson was backed in the transfer market to rectify the early season issues.
And it’s at this point, and with the blessing of people like me, that Parkinson felt able to do it his way. The football from October onwards yielded much improved results, but it was the most pragmatic approach than at any time under his management. A back four heavily protected, and a front line lacking in support from midfield runners. Not many goals conceded, but not many scored.
Whilst this approach ultimately wasn’t good enough in the heat of the play offs, it delivered the club’s best league finish in 12 years, a first 80-point haul since 1999, and a club record number of clean sheets. It wasn’t a great watch, but the style of football was extremely effective.
And with Parkinson having chosen to leave, what it leaves us with is a slightly distorted reflection of his time in charge. The most recent memories of Parkinson are that of his dourest football. That makes it very easy to not only praise McCall’s early impressions back in charge, but to use the attractive style of football we are now seeing as a stick to beat Parkinson with. The strong start to this season has raised hopes that we can retain Parkinson’s winning mentality and marry it with McCall’s attacking flair. Winning and entertaining is the holy grail, and this could prove a very, very exciting ride.
The ultimate test of McCall’s ways is whether they can match Parkinson’s results over time. Playing patient, intricate passing football is great when things are going well, but it requires greater guts when things start to go against you.
As supporters, I think we will be more tolerate of set backs and disappointing results playing this way, because we’ll still be entertained and thus be more forgiving about the intention. As Peter Taylor found out to his cost – and Parkinson will know from last season – pragmatic football is only accepted if you win matches. Playing more ugly and losing is a dismal cocktail that quickly leads to dissent in the stands. Playing an attacking style and having a genuine go will be judged more sympathetically in moments of defeat. As Edin Rahic said at the summer supporters club forum, he would rather draw 4-4 with Webb-Foster scoring twice than having a scrappy 1-0 win.
Our own histories of being a Bradford City supporter tells us that Parkinson is going to be talked down during conversations this season, and on occasions when Bolton Wanderers lose games we will all chuckle. It sounds ungrateful to disrespect his achievements, but it is a fleeting moment. Parkinson will be fondly remembered around these parts for decades to come, especially once the raw emotion of his shock summer departure fades. Don’t be too upset to hear City fans talk down Parkinson, it suits the current agenda of moving onwards.
Meanwhile we rub our hands with glee at this latest new era for Bradford City. Stuart McCall looks a different animal to his last time in charge, and has clearly learned a great deal. Edin Rahic’s philosophy on developing young players has an early poster boy in Danny Devine’s heroics. The last five years have been utterly wonderful supporting this football club, and right now we can allow ourselves to dream that the best is yet to come.