By Katie Whyatt
It started with the table, after the Oldham game. First and second. Or maybe it began even before then. You can’t leave in those kind of circumstances, after what we’d seen together, amidst everything that was going on back then, without making a rod for your own back, rightly or otherwise. We all know this weekend was the first date anyone looked for when the fixtures came out. It is impossible not to chalk this up. And for the next six days, as Bradford City prepare to meet Phil Parkinson for the first time since he left the club in May, expect everything to intensify into some kind of social media mutant that’s going to be more horrifying than what we’re used to dealing with. Phil Parkinson VS Stuart McCall. Seconds out, round one.
However you want to bill it – and, I mean, really don’t underestimate how much we love symbolism and rivalries and billing stuff in sport in this country – you’re going to keep coming back to those two. Phil Parkinson, synonymous with Bradford City for nearly five years; Stuart McCall, synonymous with Bradford City for almost four times that, cumulatively. Second VS fourth. Old VS new. Style VS style. It’s tempting to look at this game and read the result as the barometer of whether we’ve moved forwards or backwards. And that’s a lie – we all know it’s not that simple. There are so many bigger pictures. But that narrative is there, if you want it, as are a host of others. And whichever one you choose is going to decide how you feel about the game this weekend.
That this game was going to have a tinge to it was inevitable. Regardless of how well McCall’s side started the season, and regardless of how well Parkinson’s did, the debate was always going to engorge itself to the point that Parkinson VS McCall isn’t even an attractive subplot anymore so much as the event itself.
What’s more, it’s comparatively rare for us to have this kind of thing to deal with. League One has never really reached the ‘peak Premier League press conference mind games’ level of ten, fifteen years ago. I can think of only a handful of instances in the past ten years involving us. Ronnie Moore, Steven Pressley, done. We don’t have Ferguson and Mourinho making an art form of the media interview, staring fixedly down the lens with the gazes of well-trained poker players and reducing the steeliest managers of the noughties and nineties to bumbling YouTube sensations. Seagulls don’t really follow the trawler down here. So to be in this position is weird. Parkinson’s offhand comment about point-scoring stood out for its peculiarity, more than anything. I didn’t really view the Cullen and Beevers stuff as ‘McCall one, Parkinson one’. You just get on with the job, don’t you?
We all know Parkinson and McCall will come out in their press conferences this week and play that weight of history down, insist Saturday is just another game – for 90 minutes, at least. So will their players. And it will have to be. That’s absolutely the right attitude to take. But for us, in the stands, Saturday is seemingly about to thrust us back into the debate that has waged on and off ever since Parkinson upped sticks in May. And the wisdom of running over that ground again at this point is questionable. What’s done is done. We really should draw the line in the sand.
It’s difficult to gauge the depth and breadth of any ill-feeling towards Phil Parkinson right now. The argument is, with an outlook so decidedly short-term, Parkinson didn’t leave the club in as strong a state as originally anticipated. The line ‘only eight permanent players’ is churned out with increasing frequency. He took almost all the backroom staff and all the scouting records, City potentially losing the West Ham link that served them so well the year previously. He ran a YouTube interview about his plans for the club when his mind, conceivably, was already in Bolton. Maybe that shaped the contract talks with Ben Williams, Jamie Proctor. City were up the creek and Parkinson had the paddles, James Mason frantically swishing water, clinging to the life raft. Four years of dreamland came to a jarring halt, the rug pulled out from underneath.
That resentment burns so strongly in some quarters that there’s potential for Parkinson’s reception in September to be colder than Peter Taylor’s was when he returned with Gillingham almost three years ago. Peter Taylor is regarded with a fondness people are willingly deeming beyond Parkinson’s reach. How does that make sense for anyone?
There has suddenly been an invidious rewriting of history. It is startling how quickly, starkly and unfairly public opinion has swung against Parkinson.
How have we come to this point?
Maybe people thought it was Parkinson’s job to ensure a greater level of continuity. He was there that long that maybe it was reasonable to expect some sort of contingency plan. But the Parkinson approach was inescapably short-term focused, relative to McCall’s. Parkinson wanted to overhaul the club’s approach. He changed the training ground, the mentality, pulled a dying club from its knees. The value of that can never be underestimated. But outlook-wise, Stuart and Rahic are different beasts. It’s understandable for Parkinson to have overlooked the youth team. That’s not a bad thing. City improved year on year. It wasn’t a weakness, necessarily – it was just the way he did things.
How you evaluate Parkinson’s legacy comes down to how you measure the success of a managerial spell. Broadly speaking, he left the club in a far healthier position than when he inherited it – in a healthier position than many of the managers who walk into jobs over the next few years will find their workplaces. In the short-term, things were a little more mismatched. He dismantled much of what made his approach work, but those core principles remain and have been revised to fit with Stuart’s style. The Phil Parkinson transformation was completely foundational for what is taking place now. Few other managers could have revived this club in the way he did, giving us some of the best nights of our lives in the process.
But over the summer, we saw some of that expectation manipulated slightly. It is not Parkinson’s job to look after us anymore. Once he signed for Bolton, Parkinson’s responsibilities to Bradford City ended. Over the summer, it wasn’t his job to be altruistic and benevolent and act in our best interests – you’re going to take your team, your winning formula, across the way with you. Why are we so aware of football’s overarching dearth of sentimentality yet so keen to chastise people when they fall in line with it?
Maybe where we wanted to be, where we expected to be, post-Parkinson – maybe the reality fell short of the hyperbole. But I think there’s something questionable – at least misplaced – in blaming Parkinson for that. He was building for 2015/16 last year in that team, in every single way. No more, no less. If we praised his resourcefulness in the loan market back then, it’s now revisionist to deem that a weakness, the reason the squad was so shallow over the summer. It worked at the time. For Parkinson to have planned beyond that was probably beyond the initial remit.
(To be completely honest, I thought leaving the defence was generous of him. If I was Parkinson, I’d have dragged that back four right along to some dingy restaurant in a shady part of Bolton and tapped them all up, illegal approach or otherwise. I’m not proud.)
I had visions, clear as day, of us struggling at the foot of the league at Christmas, lumbered with some well-intentioned (if nothing else, at least) manager who just didn’t understand us, casting envious eyes at Bolton, yearning for the way we used to be. I’m not ashamed to say that was 100% my expectation in the day or so following Parkinson’s departure. Even Uwe Rosler, who was the favourite for a couple of hours on the Friday, was someone I knew it would take time to get on board with to the level I backed Parkinson. In that climate of uncertainty, I was terrified. We all were – there’s no point in trying to rewrite that period.
The players Parkinson left behind were his strongest, and his core principles remain in place now. The Phil Parkinson chapter is not entirely closed. He and McCall dovetail, interlink, press into each other, because the club move forwards apace under Parkinson and many of the present ideals find their origins in him. “New era, same values”. Any achievements this season will unmistakably be McCall’s – this team has his stamp all over it – but would we be here without Parkinson? Have people really forgotten how bad things were before he came? He taught me what I love and value and treasure in football teams and football players. He gave us some of the best things any of us will ever see.
This constant need in some quarters to overwrite that suggests the wounds are still rawer than they need to be right now. McCall, Rahic, Abbott and Black accepted the City challenge with alacrity. Everyone is so happy. There is no need to be bitter anymore.
One day, history will look back on Phil Parkinson favourably. Because he deserves that. And deep down, as awkwardly as you might feel his legacy sits in the aftermath of everything that happened, everyone knows that he is up there as one of the greatest Bradford City managers of all time. There is a 2013 Suite, for crying out loud. If things had nosedived now, and City were in freefall, and managers were falling like bowling pins, I could understand the malice, the resentment. But we’re not. If anything, we look even stronger than before. Any handicaps or impediments that arose in the wake of Parkinson’s departure, City tumbling out the transfer market blocks weeks after the rest of the world, have been well and truly hurdled now.
If that wasn’t the case, maybe we would reserve the right to be angry, to feel betrayed. But Parkinson, like all of us, reserves that right to choose his own field of work. I’m not defending the indefensible here – just the reality of the football world.
I don’t see the point in trying to second guess his motives and question when he mentally began to leave Bradford City. Was he thinking about Bolton when he gave that interview to James Mason? What does it matter? If he wasn’t on board with Rahic and Rupp, it was best to cut the ties then. His reasons are personal to him, end of. It’s not inconceivable to think that maybe he just genuinely wanted a clean break. Maybe he really felt he’d taken the club as far as he could. Maybe he didn’t feel like he could work within their vision. They bring in Stuart, and we move on. There doesn’t have to be an ulterior motive. Are you happy with Stuart? Yes? Then, what’s the issue?
You can torture yourself, but what do you gain?
Phil Parkinson will one day be remembered as one of the most important people in the entire history of Bradford City. For four years, we were him and he was us. On Saturday, as he walks out at the Macron, and he wears that Bolton jacket, and he dishes instructions to Jay Spearing, there will be little room for sentimentality. This is business, and this is just another stop off on the journey to wherever this season takes us. He has to be ‘just another manager’ this weekend. But you can’t erase everything that passed between us.
This isn’t about moralising. Everyone will have their own responses, their own opinions – that’s what makes football. But it’s about being reasonable, respectful, dignified, and talking about things in light of what really happened – not what a bunch of iniquitous revisions suggest could, should have happened. One day, we will talk about him without anger, or ambivalence, or disproval, and just see things for how they actually were. Four years of unparalleled progress, eventually giving way to McCall’s era.
Phil Parkinson deserves to be remembered for saving Bradford City. He deserves that just as much as anyone. But he’s not ours anymore and we’re not his. That is what everyone needs to remember this weekend – but perhaps there is a manner in which you do so.
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