By Jason McKeown
Inside the 1911 Club reception at Valley Parade, a large picture of Stuart McCall adorns the wall with the caption “New era, same values”. It is to Bradford City’s credit that what in most organisations could be dismissed as meaningless corporate waffle has been lived up to throughout this season. And nowhere has that been more evident than from the players.
The 2016/17 season has featured many of the cast of familiar characters who were at the forefront of Phil Parkinson’s time as City manager; but a new manager and transfer philosophy has inevitably resulted in change. Some notable players have left the club over the past 12 months, whilst other Parkinson mainstays have spent significant spells on the sidelines. But the spirit and determination emanating from the dressing room has remained in tact. The standards are only going up.
That says much about McCall but it also speaks volumes of the senior players in the dressing room. At the start of the season Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and James Hanson were the longest-serving members of the squad. They were at the forefront of almost every great moment of the previous five years, and absolutely vital in the club’s rise and rise. Not far behind them in length of service, the likes of Tony McMahon and Billy Clarke had proven themselves worthy foot soldiers of the Parkinson ethos.
Back in League Two Parkinson rebuilt Bradford City by focusing on the character of the players he recruited. He’d inherited some decent players from Peter Jackson, but felt they were mentally weak. Especially when it came to dealing with the unique pressures that come with playing for a club operating below the level befitting its size. In front of a large, demanding and impatient crowd. “The club is fragile in terms of getting beaten too often and I’ve got to change that mentality around,” he said shortly after taking charge.
Parkinson’s success in bringing in strong characters who could deal with the expectations, and set the standards for others to follow, turned around City’s fortunes. The likes of Gary Jones and Andrew Davies are fondly-remembered for their attitude as much as they are for their ability. They reset the switch and pointed the way forwards.
Parkinson was the architect of City’s rise from the depths, but he couldn’t have done it without players who embodied his philosophy. He once told me, “Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary Jones, James Meredith – those type of people were brilliant for us, because they helped us to progress the club. They were winners. They want to give their best every week. And they set the tone for new players coming in for years after.” Andrew Davies said about Parkinson, “You can see in players who left the club where he thought they weren’t giving their all, he was a ruthless manager and he would just get rid of you.”
And it has really mattered to prize character over other qualities. Not simply because of the incredible heights it has taken City to – beating sides like Chelsea and Arsenal – but because of the resilience it gave Parkinson and the club to get over set backs and stay strong in tougher moments. The success of Parkinson’s reign lay in calmly managing losing runs and coming out the other side stronger for going through adversity. Parkinson summed up his recruitment approach with the words, “We want players who want to grow and progress with the club and give the club everything. I do feel we have a good core players who really have the club’s best interests at heart all the time and 95% of the time I think that shows on the pitch.”
The maintaining of this culture meant Stuart McCall inherited a far more mentally strong group of players compared to those who were at the club during his first time as manager. Where Parkinson succeeded and McCall failed, in his first spell, was the ability to arrest losing runs before they became terminal – but it can only happen if the players are brave and mentally strong. After taking over as manager in 2007, McCall said “I want to bring in players who will hopefully develop and grow with the club.” But he only really started to do that in his third season, when patience was wafer thin.
The contrast between then and now was probably best illustrated by McCall’s infamous second season, where play off hopes hit the buffers in March 2009 through a nine-game winless run that cost City dearly. The final nail of the coffin was applied at Dagenham, almost eight years to this day. After a dismal 3-0 defeat, McCall fronted up to us supporters present that day, coming over at full time to apologise. Of the players, only one – Peter Thorne – bothered to come over and applaud the away end. The rest skulked off and let their manager be the fall guy. That Bradford City team’s character – or complete lack of it – was on full show.
Back in the present day, the more senior, experienced players have been crucial in ensuring the transition from Parkinson to McCall has been as smooth as it can be. Like any change of manager, some existing players thrive under a new regime and some fall out of favour; but the character of the squad has remained strong. The new players have found an ingrained culture and clear template to follow. There’s a Bradford City way of doing things now, and that has helped McCall to build on the Parkinson achievements.
A change of manager could have have been the catalyst for slacking standards, but the senior members of the squad didn’t let that happen. “Weaker players look to make excuses. Stronger ones get on with it,” Parkinson once said.
Whatever criticisms can sometimes be labelled at individual players this season, there are no signs of a lack of work-rate and character. Defeats have been infrequent, and only a handful have fallen short of the standards. It has been on only the rarest of occasions that the attitude of the squad has been questioned. The ability to shake-off set backs and to avoid slipping down a dark path towards crisis has been impressive. Parkinson’s City were not brilliant all the time and had days when they folded – lower league footballers are an inconsistent breed – McCall’s City have been no worse.
With the club increasingly implementing a strategy of signing younger players, the retention of the right character will become even more important. Romain Vincelot has been a vital signing in that respect. A well-known, cultured lower league player with celebrated ability; his time at City has been more Nathan Doyle than Tommy Doherty.
That Vincelot has been able to come straight in and captain a side of strong characters is a notable feat. It also shows that McCall and Greg Abbott understand just how important this type of player is in the dressing room. McCall said pre-season, “We’ve got a good nucleus of professionals, we’ve added to that.”
Josh Cullen – brought in for a second loan spell – has increasingly embraced the culture, building on his impressive performances of last season whilst also showing greater leadership skills. Nicky Law – one of the players guilty of slumping off to the Dagenham dressing room eight years ago – has matured as a player and proven influential, saying of the approach, “As players, you have to take responsibility on matchday, and this season, fortunately, in a short space of time we’ve managed to work each other out”. Matthew Kilgallon has been desperately unlucky not to feature more; but like Nathan Clarke a year ago is earning praise for the off-the-field support he gives his team mates.
And it’s in the quieter, younger players where the true value of this spirit can be evidenced. Jordy Hiwula has had a mixed season in front of goal, but the encouragement of the dressing room has stopped his confidence crumbling and his work ethic has been exceptional. Although older, Nathaniel Knight-Percival’s summer arrival hardly set pulses racing, given his background of playing in struggling sides, but he’s made the step up with Vincelot’s help in particular. Timothee Dieng was in a similar boat. Alex Jones and Charlie Wyke have settled in and increasingly look like Bradford City players.
And then there’s Mark Marshall, who has been one of McCall’s biggest success stories. Overlooked and unloved by Parkinson, the player did himself few favours when he was picked last season and could have few complaints about playing second fiddle to Kyel Reid. But he’s responded to McCall’s arm-around-the-shoulder ways, and displayed the type of courage some of his team mates have been demonstrating for several seasons at Valley Parade.
It’s not just that Marshall is a good player: his work-rate is as high as anyone. He tracks back to defend, never shies from receiving possession and rarely seems flustered by making a mistake. The way he kept going in the recent home game against Swindon – ultimately setting up both of City’s late goals – showed the level of ownership and responsibility Marshall is now prepared to take.
He never gave up. A year ago, he would have faltered.
There’s no question the ability of the squad has also improved over the last 12 months. The team are being asked to play in a more technical, expansive way. They have been given greater responsibility on the field, compared to being placed into a rigid (and often defensive) formation like last season. Players have had to be versatile, as they’re switched positions and the formation is regularly tweaked. As Meredith accurately predicted on the eve of the season, “I think we’ll have more freedom to get it down and play, and show how good we are technically.
“But at the same time, we’ll still work hard.”
So far, the results are strikingly similar to last season, and yet it feels like this team has the potential to go further. That no matter which division they find themselves in next season, there’s a much stronger starting base to develop the squad from.
But the revolution in the style of football, not to mention the changing of management, will continue to have its causalities. Stephen Darby, that mainstay of the Parkinson era, is surely reaching the end of his Valley Parade career. James Hanson has already left. Rory McArdle, James Meredith and Tony McMahon are out of contract in the summer.
Since 2012 senior players have been able to embed and continue the new values of Bradford City, and then pass on the baton to others when their time has come to exit the Valley Parade stage. Vincelot, Law and Colin Doyle aside, City’s signings under Rahic/Abbott/McCall have been younger than 25 and all indications are this approach will continue. Age need not be a barrier to a developed character – the swashbuckling, young McCall of the 1980s was a genuine leader even then – but it will be a test to retain the dressing room’s winning mentality if the age of the squad continues to be reduced.
With four games to go, the race to be crowned Bradford City player of the season feels more wide open than it has in years. That is testament to the number of players who have excelled over the course of the season, and is evidence that the standards continue to be raised. As McCall stated mid-season, “The players have taken on new ideas and staff quickly. It’s gone far better than we could have imagined.”
Bradford City have a team spirit and a collective bond that has swept through the club, especially within the stands on a matchday. Whatever lies in store over these final few weeks, the players have done us proud by staying true to City’s modern day core values.
This is the first in a series.
Categories: State of the (Bantams) Nation