By Katie Whyatt
Welcome to the Width of a Post Review of the Year, and congratulations on surviving the annus horriblis that was 2016. As incredulous as the news has left us at times, Bradford City, at least, have come out on the other side unscathed enough, despite their most drastic metamorphosis for decades.
From the dizzying heights of thumping Walsall 4-0 to honouring Bobby Campbell in fitting fashion, from the break-up to the make-up, from Stoke City’s Under 23s to Boys Don’t Cry blaring out over the VP tanoy, from the renaissance of Billy Clarke to a shiny new scoreboard via a £1 goalkeeper, there’s a lot of ground to cover. So much has happened down here that you almost forget Leicester City did what they did. And in keeping with the spirit of a year in which nothing has made sense, we’re eschewing any kind of order and logic in favour of a slightly more manic way of plotting the year. Bear with.
1) Are we comfortable talking about Parkinson yet?
As willingly as City fans have heaped the plaudits on McCall thus far, one of the most curious – and, perhaps, inevitable – aspects of those early effusions was how they were consistently bookended by words of comparison to the preceding style of Phil Parkinson. Again, that was probably unavoidable – the easiest way to measure success is to look at what you used to be. But the undeniably marked contrast in styles and set-up has almost become exaggerated in our minds, painted as Parkinson with his team of wind-up-and-go toys against McCall with his hands-in-the-cake-mix approach. As wonderful as hindsight is, you always run the danger of rewriting history.
At times, it almost felt like people were gauging the success of this season by how far removed it is from last – as though Parkinson’s methods didn’t work, which is wrong, and like this season cannot represent anything outside that sphere, which is also wrong. That Bolton’s form dipped early doors and their supporters seemed initially uncomfortable with Parkinson’s methods was amusing, and, mentally, the points-scoring started, people searching for an early winner with an almost fierce intensity, trying to lock Parkinson and McCall in some kind of war. 0-0 was an apt scoreline from a day on which, for all the build-up, there was nothing to separate either side: two outwardly different teams fired blanks until the sun set. For all the talk of difference and divergence, perhaps both sides were more alike than they realised.
You can’t really situate the McCall present alongside the Parkinson past in any comfortable way. “Bradford City fans are following events at Bolton closely at the moment, but only because it adds even more to Stuart McCall’s achievements,” observed Jason McKeown, in October; but even then, doesn’t that feel reductive? Or, at least, constraining? That Bolton are flying doesn’t take anything away from what McCall is building here. Whatever McCall does doesn’t exist to undermine what Parkinson did, to diminish everything we enjoyed in his near five years here.
I don’t suddenly care less about Gary Jones. That 2-0 win over Chesterfield on the final game of last season and the ensuing lap of honour is still one of my favourite City moments of all time. Daniel Devine can be celebrated for being Daniel Devine. Not everything McCall does well has to morph into a stick to beat Parkinson with. The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement, and the consensus is that the playing style is better under McCall, that there is a clearer path for younger players to first team involvement. We can celebrate that for what it is. The need to venomously compare the two bordered on the obsessive at times.
Parkinson’s men have since racked up a run of nine wins in ten matches and dismantled Gillingham live on Sky and the whole thing has become something we just don’t seem to talk about anymore. Which, in a way, is how it should be. If anything, Parkinson laid the foundations for McCall: “new era, same values” is an apt a tagline for this era as you’ll come by. It’s far easier to sit them in harmony, not in opposition.
If Parkinson’s September reticence dampened interest, it will be interesting to see whether his return, in February, piques it again. You can’t imagine Parkinson’s return to Valley Parade going unacknowledged, or passing without comment. The distance is healthy now, but whether or not the passion will be stoked again come February will provide an intriguing early twist to 2017.
2) Nicky Law is heading up one of the best City midfields for years
Jeremy Wilson declared in the Telegraph this week that the current Chelsea team might just be the best one ever. Reading the piece, and thinking about the Conte approach against Morinho’s last season – in a piece in which Hazard talks about playing with freedom, for crying out loud – my mind kept pinging back to us. The best way to reconcile any ‘McCall vs Parkinson’ kind of narrative is to accept and embrace both for what they are and what they have been; but the contrast in playing style is still so noticeable, and this side’s intelligence and verve, even halfway into the season, remain consistently thrilling.
Against the backdrop of the most breathless Premier League for years, with its super managers and exhausting tempo, City’s expansive approach fits seamlessly into the landscape – and Nicky Law, even in a midfield brimming with unrivalled quality, deserves so much of the praise. His incisive movements and spatial awareness would place him streets ahead of those around him if they didn’t all manage to rival his intelligence – that they remain so cohesive and dangerous as a unit is testament to the intensity and detail that underlines McCall’s methods, and that there’s very little to separate the talents of Cullen, Law and Dieng is almost as riveting as the football they play.
What’s more, the intelligence of the midfield enables the whole system to function as it does, and slots in seamlessly with the make-up of these men as players. The way Meredith creates the overload on the left, the way Clarke hounds out the pockets of space and peels off and around, the way Dieng *just knows* to marshal the space Law leaves behind – it all fits so coherently. Again and again, their confidence to try the moves they do blows you away. You’ll never, ever tire of seeing Cullen writhing and contorting his way out of trouble to send Law off into the wormhole. That they have restored the Billy Clarke we know and love is no surprise.
As a midfield, the balance between coaching and instinct is just right. McCall’s men go for broke and though the viewing is nail-biting at times, it will never, ever be dull.
3) The goalscoring issue remains striking
This team’s New Year’s Resolution is an obvious one: convert your chances. The familiar refrains of ‘sign a striker’ and ‘don’t score enough’ ring true, but are so well-worn at this point – and, truthfully, have been for some time – that they need extrapolating into something wider. It’s impossible to navigate that territory without running over old ground. They look far deadlier with Billy Clarke in the side, that much is obvious; though Hanson and Hiwula have their obvious merits, you can’t help but feel they’re treading water a little without Clarke as one of the team’s focal points.
Do they need to bring someone in? Ideally, yes, but every single team in the land is searching for the same thing, and, in practice, the gulf between ‘Beckford-Leeds circa 2009/10’ and a white elephant really isn’t that cavernous. People talk about this mythical striker as though he’s simply waiting in the wings, immovably set on signing here; as though he’ll come in and provide some Herculean cure for all the squad’s ills. The reality is that whoever City bring in has to be good enough to warrant the potential disruption building a team around him might entail, or be readily accommodative of Clarke, or slot into an existing bind better than the four already here. There are a lot of conditionals there, and, realistically, what are the odds of checking even one of those, never mind all three?
Which is not to say it won’t happen, or that it’s not important, or that it won’t work, or that the side’s shortcomings in front of goal don’t remain concerning. I don’t know what January will bring, and, for what it’s worth, that this squad remain so inventive and dynamic augurs well for incorporating someone new. But the debate runs like a broken record sometimes. The whole tone of the discourse has shifted drastically from what followed City’s swift play off exit, and the margins of the striker debate have moved in that McCall has found a way to make Clarke and Hanson flourish as a pair. But that central part feels locked in a time loop: they don’t score enough goals.
All the while, it’s worth bearing in mind that you can actually make the top six without being prolific. It’s not ideal, but it’s alternative strand to this insistence that City are doomed otherwise. City made the top six last season with 55 goals for and the second best defence in the league. Burton went up in second with 57 goals for the best defence in the league. In 2012/13 Sheffield United made the top six with 56 goals and the second best defence in the league. For all the anxiety, you can do it. Probably tellingly, though, Barnsley ran out the ultimate play off winners that year and they netted 15 times more than City did. And increasingly, it looks a tall order for anyone to catch the top three this year.
To go back to the lessons of the Millwall play off semi-final defeat is to return to a side who had two off days and who were beaten over 180 minutes by a team that were just better. The ruthlessness with which Millwall (repeatedly) carved and scythed City open was on another pane. Would this present side have been better equipped for such a challenge, given their less pragmatic, less rigid, tilt? Potentially. But have they failed to convert patches of dominance, like last year’s? Yes.
Over a season, you can get away with not being clinical. A stoic defence will get you through. Entertaining play will keep the fans happy. Easily, the fanbase have fewer qualms over this side than they did over Parkinson’s final one. But relying on a stern defence brings chance into play more than, ideally, you’d like. We’ve seen that happen once already this season, when Vincelot slipped against Bristol Rovers. And in the play offs, those Sliding Doors moments become more frequent, the margins finer. That’s where you risk being undone.
For all I’ve given you 344 words on why ‘sign a striker’ feels like a reductive solution, the bottom line is that City have to get firing again. All this huff and puff, this toil, cannot go unrewarded as it did last season. They’ve come too long a way in their build-up play (that rhyme there – call me Eminem) to allow that to happen. Whichever angle you take, whichever lens you look at this through, whichever part of the labyrinth you navigate, you arrive at a similar enough conclusion. Ironically, like the entirety of City’s campaign last season, it becomes about degrees.
4) City’s players have upped their social media game
And now we come to the most important part of this review: the tweet of the year. We’ve come a long way since the days of players tweeting about Nando’s. Even in the face of some truly stiff competition from players and fans alike – this Tony McMahon moment and this moment of utter musical genius – there was only one winner, and one player in particular outdid himself.
I’ll just leave this here.