By Jason McKeown
As the feel-good factor continues to swirl around Valley Parade, you don’t have to look too far for a Northern League One club with a very different outlook.
45 miles to the west of Bradford, Bolton Wanderers are currently enduring a difficult spell, with an initially promising start to the season turning into a long winless run only ended on Saturday with the help of a bizarre own goal. The Trotters – only relegated to League One last season and a Premier League club four years ago – are struggling to adapt to their new surroundings. And the man in charge is copping much of the blame.
And that is of great interest to Bradford City fans, given the background. Phil Parkinson’s shock decision to switch from Valley Parade to the Macron Stadium over the summer so far isn’t working out brilliantly for the Wanderers manager. Reading Bolton news websites offers a flavour of Parkinson’s struggle to impress, and suggests he is likely to come under increasing pressure. In June 2006 he quit Colchester United for Hull City but only lasted six months before he was sacked. His first challenge is to avoid history repeating itself.
Some City fans are gleefully enjoying his struggles, others have sympathy, but few of us are ignoring what is happening. The fortunes of Parkinson is a key narrative of our own season simply because of the huge impression he made at Bradford City over nearly five years in charge. One of the benchmarks of Bradford City’s success is how it compares to Bolton.
And on that front, it’s so far so very good. Stuart McCall’s return to Valley Parade has started out better than anyone could have dared hope. And whilst there is a long, long way to go and an ongoing need to keep feet on the ground, his appointment increasingly looks like an inspired move by the new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp.
Make no mistake, it wasn’t the obvious decision. There was a clear danger that recruiting Uwe Rosler to replace Parkinson would have look convoluted and left the German owners open to accusations they pushed a popular manager away to employ their own man. Steve Evans was also mooted and made clear his interest, but it would have divided the fanbase and eroded the spirit of the club. Neil Redfearn was the other main candidate, yet has a patchy track record at best.
Still, McCall risked being accused as a populist vote to appease fans who could have very easily turned on the unknown new owners if it didn’t work out. But despite some fans having misgivings initially, McCall has successfully united the football club and is building on Parkinson’s legacy. He has kept so much good of what Parkinson left behind, such as a rock solid defence and universal work ethic. And he has added to it with shrewd signings and a more attractive style of football.
It has so far been seriously impressive stuff from McCall. The contrast between what he has instilled this time around compared to his troubled first spell in charge is vast. He is a manager who has gone away and learned so much, built on his expertise, and developed a level of confidence that was lacking nine years ago. Watching the movement and interchanging of the players in the latter stages of the first half against Shrewsbury last week highlighted what an excellent technical coach he has become. We are playing football on another level to the past.
What it could lead to – it’s almost too exciting and emotional to want to talk about. Imagine if McCall could achieve the success that alluded him last time? He will always be a legend for what his heroics as a player, but his first period as manager hardly enhanced that standing. To come back and have another go – and this time deliver glory – would have you in tears of joy. We are so far off realising that reality and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to discuss it, but imagine what could lie in store…
The early success of McCall has been so important. It’s allowed the new owners time to settle in and put the wheels in motion of their long-term strategy, and for us supporters it has enabled us to quickly move on. No one will ever be able to take away what Phil Parkinson achieved at Bradford City, but waving goodbye to that era has been far easier than we’d have dared hope. Within a group of City-supporting friends of mine, someone recently posed the question – would you rather have Parkinson back? “No” was the majority response.
Whatever the rights and wrongs about the way Parkinson left City in the summer – not to mention his strangely unemotional behaviour during the recent league meeting – it increasingly looks obvious that it was the right time for him to have moved on. I’ve met Rahic only briefly but it’s very obvious that his approach and outlook is very different to Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes, and it is one that Parkinson would have struggled to work under.
Chiefly it is about taking some of the control away from the manager over player recruitment. Rahic likes to have a say (so too did Lawn and Rhodes) but he has also built up a structure where other people influence who is signed. Parkinson would never have welcomed a Greg Abbott type of appointment. He had full control of transfers and the playing direction of the club, including in his last season having the strength to move away from calls to play attractive football.
Abbott had a big role in the summer’s transfer business and can share credit in the way almost everyone has enjoyed such a fast start to life at Valley Parade. In 2015, Parkinson’s incomings were largely disappointing and the season was rescued by more money being made available late on for the likes of Reece Burke, Lee Evans and Kyel Reid. Abbott will continue to have an increasingly important role at the club, and in theory will out-last McCall.
With Rahic’s desire for more young players to come through the ranks too, and the upfront playing budget being slightly lower than it was last season, you could understand why Parkinson decided the new direction wasn’t for him. And that clean break was ultimately right for Bradford City too. We should always be thankful for what Parkinson did for us; and, increasingly, the list of reasons of why we are grateful looks sets to include the timing of his departure.
The big issue for Parkinson is that there’s a risk he chose the wrong club. The sideways step to Bolton always seemed a strange one – you’d have thought he could have got a better job if he’d have held out – and the pressure he has been under recently suggests an unhappy ending could ultimately lie in store.
Bolton are at an earlier point in the cycle than Bradford City were when Parkinson took charge. They think they’re too big for their new surroundings, that their squad of players should dominate the league, and that their stay in the third tier should be a short one. Recent examples of Wolves and Wigan dropping only temporarily into League One before instantly winning promotion add weight to this outlook. They should be pushing on and – for Parkinson’s sake – will need to do so quickly.
Coincidentally McCall’s first period as manager came with City in similar circumstances – a first drop to League Two in a quarter of a century, and a widespread expectation we would walk the league. It didn’t work out that way, and McCall’s legendary status bought him more time than other managers would have enjoyed. But it was only after further years of League Two disappointment – and the failures of Peter Taylor and Peter Jackson – that it was accepted it was going to take time to turn the club around.
Which is what Parkinson got. In his first season at City he hardly pulled up any trees, but it enabled him to change the culture and embed his values, laying on the platform for the staggering History Makers success. If Bolton are patient with Parkinson, his track record shows they will be rewarded. But Bolton have no past history with Parkinson, and very little patience for a long-term building plan, and that could be his undoing.
That’s why it is so interesting to City fans. Whilst some supporters are currently staring intently at Bolton whilst munching popcorn, waiting for our old manager to fail, most of us are merely enjoying the comparison between the two clubs and the fact that – so far – we got the best of the deal.
Parkinson’s success at Bradford City meant the world because of the 12 years of misery that came before it. But as brilliant as the ride was 2011 to this summer, there was always a fear of what would happen to the club after Parkinson left. How dependant were we on him to move forwards? Would we go back to bad old ways as soon as he departed?
We know now that there is life after Parkinson – and in fact it could be even more wonderful. McCall is taking the club forwards and on this journey back up the leagues it feels like we’ve reached a new level. It might not last forever, and nothing is decided in October, but there is a real joy to be had about the way Bradford City are performing this season.
We’ve moved on, whereas the architect of the club’s revival is the one in danger of being left behind.
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