By Paul Marshall
28th August 2011, the day Phil Parkinson became the fourth City manager that calendar year. Parkinson joined the Bantams who were 17th with only four points from five games. On the back of an extremely poor season under Peter Taylor and Peter Jackson, he inherited a squad low on confidence, playing very negative football who were unable to score or defend.
But ultimately City survived relegation from League Two by five points. The football improved slightly, but the goals again were hard to come by. Parkinson brought in experienced heads like Andrew Davies, Ricky Ravenhill, Craig Fagan and later in the season Rob Kozluk to join current players Luke Oliver, Michael Flynn and Richie Jones. The team started to become difficult to break down and survival in League Two was secured for another season.
As well as a fantastic team work ethic, a solid backroom was installed with a focus on fitness and a way of playing, often belittled by opposition managers and certain sections of fans, that was solid at the back, diligent but creative in midfield. And in James Hanson and Nahki Wells, City had a partnership upfront that developed together and would become one of the best in the league.
The comparison between David Hopkin and Parkinson could very easily be similar, but at the moment seems poles apart. The new manager syndrome unfortunately hasn’t happened. Due to the haphazard summer, Hopkin was instantly faced with picking up the pieces that had been broken down piece by piece over the last six months. I’m not sure he realised the scale of the job.
The lift the players desperately needed didn’t seem to happen; and although performances and urgency within the team improved, the results didn’t. With only four points from a possible 33, the fiery Scotsman is still looking to implement his style of play on the under-performing, injury hit squad.
Due to the change in the loan system that Parkinson used so well, Hopkin has so far only been able to delve into the non-contract market, and quickly brought in fellow Scot Jim O’Brien. O’Brien instantly brought some steel and energy into a shambolic lightweight central midfield position, but unfortunately suffered a hamstring injury that has kept him out for around six weeks. No further players have been brought in. The experience that could have been brought in from the non contract market could have stabilised the team in certain key positions.
Similar to the 2011/12 season, goals are in short supply – 12 in 17 league games of which a quarter are from the penalty spot. The need for a target man, due to the direct nature of play, is obvious for all to see. A player akin to a James Hanson would be an obvious option, but the luxury of being able to pick and choose are extremely limited at the moment. Partnerships have not been formed, and whilst tinkering with various tactics and formations, the goals are few and far between – three of the 12 goals have come from defender and stand-in skipper Anthony O’Connor.
Despite various rallying cries from numerous players it has been two of the younger players that have brought a glimmer of hope to the squad. Left back Connor Wood has taken full advantage of Adam Chicksen getting injured. After a slow start Wood has improved week in week out and dramatically improved the left side of the defence. Another shining light has been on loan midfielder Lewis O’Brien. O’Brien is a full bloodied midfielder who gives his all, shows experience beyond his years and despite partnering various central midfielders in his time here seems to thrive on being the man that breaks up play, keeps the ball moving and protects the back four or five. It’s a shame that the pairing of the O’Briens was disrupted as this has looked by far the best central midfield partnership we have.
Richard O’Donnell, who despite conceding 31 goals, looks a very assured keeper; very vocal and commanding and seems to feel the same pain and frustration as the fans. Top scorer Jack Payne is another that can walk with his head held higher than most. Some see him as a luxury that in times of trouble when you need to dig deep. He may flirt on the edge of the game but his talent and ability cannot be questioned, especially at this level.
Injuries have definitely taken its toll on the squad and the options available. Long term absentees Alex Jones and Jake Reeves look no closer to a return to action than they did six months ago. Luca Colville was starting to look like a real find, scoring on his debut and impressing in the games he played. Kelvin Mellor, Joe Riley, Hope Akpan, Josh Wright, Jordan Gibson and Sean Scannell all picked up injuries and, along with Danny Devine, added to the already depleted squad – significantly reducing the options available, especially in midfield.
Thankfully the injury list is starting to reduce and players are returning to the training ground and the match day squad. With so many injuries, competition for places has been non-existent. With more players fighting for a shirt this should bring a competitive edge to the squad. Competition for places can only be a good thing.
Julian Rhodes’ return is a positive move by the club. The experience of running a football is massively needed. The gulf between fans and the chairmen is becoming wider by the week, with the proposed fly over planned now for the £1 Oxford home game, rectifying the disconnect between fans and the club has already been started by Rhodes.
Seemingly having a more hands on role rather than just a consultancy role, communication between with fans looks high on the list for Rhodes to improve, and working closely with Hopkin is really important. Whether the freshening up of the backroom staff was planned or whether Rhodes has had a role in pushing this forward it looks like a sports science coach and new goalkeeper coach is on the way in with Steve Banks leaving.
The problem with looking towards the January transfer window is that its eight league games off yet. And in those eight games we play Peterborough, Luton and Sunderland away, plus the return of Stuart McCall’s Scunthorpe to Valley Parade on Saturday 22 December.
Hopkin’s record doesn’t make pleasant reading now with just one win in 15 games. But belief that he can turn it round, for some bizarre reason, is still there. Maybe it’s the performances of Wood, O’Brien, O’Donnell and Payne or that the team looks like they have a direction and a level of fitness that wasn’t there at the beginning of the season under Michael Collins. Maybe it’s the return of Rhodes that has slightly lifted our spirits. Or maybe it’s just the blind faith that you have when your clinging on to the hope that we can get out of the relegation dog fight and somehow secure another year in League One.
During these tough times as football fan you sometimes get sucked into the murky world of social media and start to get drawn into the negativity that can go with it. I’m as guilty as any for falling into this trap. I began to forget my own opinion and beliefs. I also decided that dependent on the result, but more so the performance of the Portsmouth game, I was considering whether I still wanted and enjoyed going to match anymore. All week leading up to the game I was still contemplating going to game or not. But I did, and off I went – on my own.
It wasn’t until I was walking along Midland Road and heard the Pompey fans in full voice, waiting to get inside the ground, and listened to the chatter from fellow City fans, that I realised it would be me that would be losing out, and nobody else, by not going. I decided that this is what I love and this what I want to carry on doing on a Saturday afternoon. Plus I doubt the club would coming looking for me, as I’d not been scanned in through the turnstiles for half a season!
I’d watched worse, I’ve seen worse players in my 35 years as a City fan and we’ve also been lower. I remembered going to Highfield Road to watch us in Jim Jefferies last game, a truly horrendous manager albeit in tough times, I thought back to the terrible football under Peter Taylor and the safe but sure Colin Todd days. I had a quick look at some of our ex players – I don’t even remember certain names and I definitely can’t remember any of their games.
Happy clapper? No, I don’t think so, although I guess some will regard me as one. Am I happy with our current league position and events associated with the club off the field? Definitely not. But I live in hope that we can turn this round. It’s going to tough and it’s going to be very close, should we do it.
Happy clapper? No. Glass half full? Always.