By Katie Whyatt
There is a breed – already rare, now essentially endangered following the birth of social media and stuff like this – of football fan somehow capable of switching off over the summer. The curtain falls and they mentally enter their cryonic chamber, waving goodbye to #bcafc, re-emerging over two months later in varying states of disorientation, ignorance and – possibly as a partial consequence – bliss.
They will find, with those first hesitant steps into the sun, that City look a little different. Could be weight loss, could be hair loss, could be centre back loss – but they will clock soon enough. It is a talent beyond the rest of us, so insatiable is the appetite for information, but, as far as the results element of pre-season goes, is probably not that drastically misplaced a strategy.
Alex Scott asked the question after City’s 3-0 loss to Park Avenue this month: is there actually any correlation between results in pre-season and your first five games? As I’ve been nicking Alex’s ideas for the last five years, I didn’t really see the point in stopping now, and made a (ridiculously long so I hope you don’t mind scrolling) table to examine at his point further.
In the ‘pre-season record’ column are City’s results from their last ten pre-seasons. In the third column is how City fared in their first ten games of those seasons. The final column is the least – or perhaps most, depending on how you look at it – illuminating number: where they finished that season. The results are below:
|Season:||Pre-season record:||First 10 games:||Final league finish:|
|2007/08||Harrogate Town 0-1 City
Farsley Celtic 2-1 City
North Ferriby United 0-2 City
City 1-1 Burnley
York City 1-0 City
City 1-2 Blackpool
TOTAL: P6, W2, D1, L3;
|W3, D1, L6
|10th in League Two|
|2008/09||Farsley Celtic 3-1 City
Park Avenue 1-3 City
Guiseley 2-1 City
Dundee United 0-1 City
Motherwell 4-0 City
City 1-2 Burnley
City 1-0 Oldham
Lost 2-0 to Sheffield Wednesday
TOTAL: P8, W3, D0, L5;
|W6, D0, L3
|9th in League Two|
|2009/10||Someone update this Wikipedia page and I’ll get back to you in due course.||N/A||14th (McCall departs, Taylor enters)|
|2010/11||As above.||N/A||18th (Taylor departs, Jackson enters)|
|2011/12||Guiseley 1-7 City
Matlock Town 1-1 City
Guiseley 2-3 City
Park Avenue 3-2 City
City 1-4 Bolton
Hull City 3-1 City
City 1-3 Carlisle United
TOTAL: P7, W2, D1, L4;
|W1, D3, L6
|18th (Jackson departs, Parkinson enters)|
|2012/13||Tadcaster Albion 1-7 City
Wexford Youths 0-4 City
Bray Wanderers 1-2 City
Guiseley 0-4 City
City 0-4 Bury
Park Avenue 3-1 City
TOTAL: P6, W4, L2, D0;
|W5, D2, L3
|7th (promoted via League Two play offs)|
|2013/14||Guiseley 0-4 City
Athlone Town 1-4 City
Bohemian 1-4 City
Grimsby Town 0-2 City
City 1-2 Doncaster Rovers
Harrogate Town 1-2 City
Park Avenue 0-1 City
TOTAL: P7, W5, D0, L2;
|W6, D3, L1
|11th in League One|
|2014/15||Guiseley 0-3 City
UCD 3-2 City
Shelbourne 0-4 City
Blackburn Rovers 0-0 City
Hartlepool United 1-1 City
TOTAL: P6, W2, D2, L1;
|W4, D3, L3
|7th in League One|
|2015/16||Farsley Celtic 0-3 City
Motherwell 0-3 City
St. Mirren 0-1 City
Guiseley 2-1 City
City 2-0 Carlisle United
Whitby Town 1-0 City
Burnley 1-0 City
TOTAL: P7, W4, D0, L3;
|W2, D4, L3
|5th in League One (play off semi-finals)|
|2016/17||Guiseley 1-1 City
Gateshead 1-2 City
St Johnstone 2-0 City
City 1-4 Burnley
Park Avenue 2-2 City
City 2-0 Carlisle United
TOTAL: P2, W2, D2, L2;
|W4, D6, L0
|5th in League One (play off finals)|
However you slice it, it is difficult to discern a meaningful correlation between results – or even opposition – in pre-season and then how well City start the subsequent campaign. You could make a case for 2011/12 and 2015/16. Beyond those? Certainly not for 2008/09. The calibre of opposition in 2012/13 was questionable but you hardly could have called that side ill-prepared, clearly. City, even in their play off-finishing seasons, have come unstuck in pre-season against both higher league and non-league opposition – just as they have done this time, and just as they will probably continue to do until the end of time. The picture is sketchy at best.
It goes without saying that this isn’t an exact (or even particularly helpful) science: how many trialists featured, and when? Who were they? What were City trying to do, formation-wise? Did Mark Lawn’s son and Stuart McCall make cameos? Ultimately, there are often too many mitigating factors to draw definite conclusions about the validity of those results alone. City’s best start, for example, came in 2013/14, still riding the momentum of their promotion the season prior – hardly an uncommon narrative – and with Nahki Wells as good as he ever was.
But to define pre-season in terms of results alone is to dilute and over-simplify the picture. Even if it is reasonable to wonder whether the summer of 2012 provided a rigorous enough on-field examination, there can be no doubt that it was one of the most critical and identity-defining periods in City’s recent history. The tour of Ireland marked their first trip off the mainland since 2001 and now, knowing what would transpire, it is clear more than ever that there was nothing hollow or misplaced about Parkinson’s words that July: “The lads get to know each other so much better. We know how important that is because we’re going to have to rely on each other.”
As if to re-emphasise the point, Alan Connell this year cited the trip as the moment it “just felt like something special was building”. He continued: “We had quite a few fans out there – I obviously knew when I signed Bradford was a big club, but I quickly realised how much it meant to people.” Parkinson eulogised, “A week with the lads here is probably worth a month back at the training ground.”
In the club’s most recent tour of Austria and Germany, there were certainly echoes of that trip to Ireland, and it is not too far-fetched to imagine Dominic Poleon, gleefully documenting the weekend on Snapchat, having his own Connell-esque moment of awakening as bodies swayed in Echterdingen’s packed town square in the early hours. Steve Morison believes to be successful at Millwall is to be a specific type of player, and, in a different way, such logic persists at City: teams have fared best when their players have genuinely taken the fabric of the club to their hearts, like Connell and like Gary Jones. The images of Tony McMahon and Colin Doyle grappling over a microphone, beer tankards in hand, desperate to share their renditions of Everywhere We Go and Don’t Take Me Home, were enough to assuage any concerns about morale, even if other anxieties have persisted.
In McCall’s preparations this season, there is probably something akin to what Gareth Southgate has been attempting with England: picking difficult opponents to try and improve his side’s problem-solving skills. It’s easy to be critical and say the only real thing anyone learned from that France game in June is that Ousmane Dembélé is really, really good; likewise, City’s 4-0 dismantling at the hands of Newcastle was so one-sided that you could argue the only real thing anyone learned was that Jonjo Shelvey, Matt Ritchie and Ayoze Perez are all, um, really good. McCall ultimately termed last year’s 4-1 chastening pre-season defeat to Burnley a “valuable one” and it is expected he has gleaned something from the North-East double header that otherwise dented the morale of those in the stands.
In actuality, this pre-season – the 3-0 loss to Park Avenue aside – hasn’t been drastically out of kilter with previous ones as far as results, nature of opponents and goal return go. Last year’s pre-season would hardly have yielded glowing reviews, judging by those stats – yet, by August 16th, City had entered a top six they would never once cease to be a part of for the next 9 months.
But the concerns are a little different this time. Even allowing for the marked gap in quality between City and Newcastle, McCall’s defence have, at times, looked remarkably prone to being scissored open at the back, in a manner they barely hinted at last season. Losing all but one of the out-of-contract players McCall was so desperate to keep – and not necessarily replacing Rory McArdle – was a questionable start, and the manner of the defeats to Newcastle and Sunderland have, rightly or wrongly, heightened concerns.
For what it’s worth, you cannot imagine Adam Chicksen chasing shadows in League One as fruitlessly as he did during those games, but, for all his pleasing offensive endeavours, he has lacked James Meredith’s positional astuteness. Granted, he is four years younger than Meredith, and the evidence base is a handful of games – but how well City fare in the absence of their departing defenders could go some way in defining both their ceiling and floor this season.
On the surface, this window is a substantial gamble. There is a bigger picture at work here, of course, and City might have to go backwards, like a taut slingshot, before they shoot off again – but they have lost who they have lost will rankle further if things goes south early on.
Jason McKeown noted on Monday that a successful season “will prove that you don’t have to just do the same things better than others, you can succeed through being bold and different. And if the young players can blossom and lift City to new heights, the club has a stronger playing squad than ever.” Ultimately, that’s right – Charlie Wyke and Alex Jones, for instance, look, already, to be upgrades on James Hanson. It’s worth noting, too, that an unorthodox recruitment strategy isn’t necessarily a bad one: last summer, City went for players who had been the standout performers of middling teams, and found themselves with a perfectly fine centre back partnership in Nat Knight-Percival and Romain Vincelot. For someone whose strengths lie in coaching, like McCall, the emphasis rests, too, with more than just recruitment – the once-sequestered Mark Marshall being the obvious poster-boy.
Eyebrows were raised over some of the signings for the 2012/13 team, City’s last successful promotion side: Gary Jones, most galling of all, was too old. Yet that team’s quality was obvious: three of them are now playing Championship football, one – depending on the outcome of a summer, as his always are, filled with speculation – is a Premier League player, the baby of the group is now the captain of Motherwell and eight* of them had played in the Premier League at some point in their careers before rocking up at Valley Parade. That final statistic is striking – not only because Parkinson managed to lure them to the club in the first place, but because that team were often painted as a group of outcasts who had fallen through the cracks to varying degrees but who, at Bradford, became something greater than the sum of their parts. They were at once broken toys and ‘too good for this level’; here, they belonged.
The current charges, at this moment, exist in a similarly contradictory bind. They’re young and hungry, but potentially inexperienced – this is despite Jake Reeves, Dominic Poleon and Shay McCartan having each made more than 100 league appearances. They might have a higher sell-on value within two years, but there might also be teething problems along the way that are of a different nature to the ones you would have faced with your tried and tested. You can paint the current approach in any number of ways, but it is far too soon to condemn or praise it outright.
They have made bold moves in the market this year, granted. This plan could be a masterstroke that fortifies City for years to come. It could go belly up. It might do neither – they might just exist. Genuinely, no one can even begin to say – not for a strategy as unprecedented and untested as this one. And not from as narrow and lopsided an evidence base as pre-season, anyway.
Which is not to say the last few weeks have been pointless – far from it. They were worth it alone for the moment, halfway through the first half of the Newcastle game, when the ball careered into Rafa Benitez’s vicinity and he extended a lone palm to stop it, dead, and looked like summat outta Dragon Ball Z. But the truth is, until the curtain rises on August 5th, we’re searching for meaning in a picture that might not necessarily be the most comprehensive or helpful. And recent history – last year’s pre-season, as much as any other – makes obvious the perils of doing so.
*Those eight were: Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies, Kyel Reid, Andy Gray, Matt Duke, Will Atkinson, Zavon Hines and Nathan Doyle.
Interesting article Katie, thank you.
I usually agree with most of what you write on WOAP, however I would still prefer to have Hanson in the team than Wyke or Jones. This is not to say that I don’t rate Wyke or Jones, just that Hanson is proven.
Roll on 05 August for more football and different views.
I realise that for many fans it’s fun to discuss and debate surrounding the ‘ might be’ and the ‘maybes’ of a new season but in actuality it rarely pans out the way we expect.
For example Charlton may have thought they had the answer to all their plans with Marshall. He is already missing for three months at least!
Some of the new signings will be a success, and some won’t. That’s fact because it always has happened and always will happen that way.
In short although we can all sit there being armchair managers the fact is anything can happen and always does!
As regards pre season results, they mean nothing.
Over 52 seasons I have learned not to take any notice of them, good or bad. I dont even attend pre season games anymore.
But come Saturday I will be buzzing for a new season and all that it brings.
Btw don’t look at a league table until ten games have elapsed. Look at Sheffield United and Millwall last season.
Good comments Mark Neale. You can tell that you are an experienced Bradford City supporter.