Bradford City seasons re-reviewed: 2014/15

Picture by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

By Jason McKeown

Final league position: 7th (W17 D14 L15)
Manager: Phil Parkinson
Top scorer: Billy Clarke (14 goals)
Player of the season: Rory McArdle

The background:

Phil Parkinson had a bit of repaying to do. City’s first season in League One after the 2013 promotion had started well enough, but a mid-season slump of just one win in 21 games saw the Bantams drop down the league over 2013/14.

Many clubs would sack their manager on that run of form, but the joint chairmen – and majority of City supporters – stood by Parkinson. He came out the other side, but there were still some disappointing performances at the end of the season. It became clear the squad had gone stale, and needed to be rebuilt.

During the summer of 2014, Parkinson allowed many of the 2012/13 heroes to leave – Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle, Garry Thompson, Kyel Reid, Carl McHugh and Jon McLaughlin. James Meredith also operated under a cloud, after rejecting a new deal and looking elsewhere for other offers, only to find nothing especially attractive and returning to Valley Parade with his tail between his legs. He found that he was now considered second choice to summer arrival Alan Sheehan. Nahki Wells had left midway through 2013/14.

“I think it’s a big season for Phil,” declared Mark Lawn on the eve of 2014/15. The manager had to evolve the squad, as the History Makers were largely consigned to history. And there were legitimate doubts he could do that, with a patchy record in the transfer market over the previous 18 months. That included the expensive replacement of Wells – Aaron Mclean – who had signed in January 2014 but struggled for goals. “Over the last few years, we have had players in the building that have not come in on cheap wages, and yet their game contribution has been sporadic to say the least,” noted David Baldwin.

So Parkinson had plenty to prove. The challenge of signing better players added to by the fact his playing budget had been reduced to what Lawn stated was around the 14th highest in the division. And he was also expected to get City playing better football, after the indifferent results of the second half of 2013/14 suggested his direct 4-4-2 approach had been figured out.

Parkinson was into the second year of a three-year contract, signed after winning the League Two play off final in 2013. No-one was expecting him to be sacked anytime soon, but if the downwards trajectory continued over 2014/15, legitimate questions would start to be asked.

A big season indeed.

The story of the season

There was real promise to the season early doors. City began with a thrilling 3-2 victory over Coventry City, thanks to a 90th minute winner from James Hanson. The Bantams won five of their first seven league and cup matches, suggesting that – just like a year earlier – a promotion push was on.

Parkinson got a huge shot in the arm early doors, as City recorded a first Valley Parade victory over bitter rivals Leeds United for over 80 years. City had been drawn to play Leeds in the second round of the League Cup, and were seemingly heading for defeat when Matt Smith struck in the 82nd minute.

But a wonder goal from summer signing Billy Knott and a Hanson header turned around the game in the space of four minutes. It was another famous cup win under Parkinson – and he wasn’t done for the season just yet.

But over September and October, form faded away badly. City were beaten at home on consecutive Saturdays, at the start of a run of just two wins in 13 games. They really struggled without an injured Hanson, with Mclean quickly using up the last remaining crumbs of goodwill and a young Oli McBurnie looking lost in attack. Parkinson had begun the season with the sparkling diamond formation, which initially worked well, but the approach was no longer proving effective.

There was pressure starting to build on Parkinson, and a November FA Cup first round tie away to non-league Halifax was a pivotal moment. At half time in a game screened live on BT Sport, City were 1-0 down to their neighbours and it felt like the club was facing a difficult decision about Parkinson.

But as is so often the case over Parkinson’s managerial career, he got a result when he really needed it. City recovered in the second half to defeat Halifax 2-1. Filipe Morais’ winner turned the season around.

It was the start of a seriously impressive run. Over the next 10 games, City won seven and drew three, including notable victories at high-flying Preston, at home to Leyton Orient and at Fleetwood. A late December 1-0 home win over Notts County pushed them to fifth in the league.

Their FA Cup run continued past Dartford and then came a 3-3 draw away to Championship Millwall. That kept them in the hat for the fourth round draw, where the incentive for winning the replay was revealed to be a trip to Stamford Bridge. Aided by a clever marketing campaign by new COO James Mason – who replaced a Burnley-bound Baldwin – a large City crowd roared the team on to a remarkable 4-0 demolition of Millwall in the replay.

No one needs a reminder of what happened at Chelsea. 2-0 behind, goals from Jon Stead, Morais, Andy Halliday and Mark Yeates sealed one of the most astonishing wins in Bradford City’s history. Arguably the biggest FA Cup shock of all time, delivered in front of 6,000 ecstatic City away supporters. They chanted “Parkinson is the special one.” From the growing pressure he was under back in November, Parkinson’s popularity was higher than it had ever been. It was a day to savour forever.

The FA Cup run didn’t stop there, as in round five Premier League Sunderland were wonderfully beaten 2-0 in front of a sold out Valley Parade. It led to a first FA Cup quarter final appearance since 1976, as Championship Reading travelled to West Yorkshire. Another sell out, with the game broadcast live on BT Sport. It was some occasion, but the game proved a war of attrition, finishing 0-0. A week later Reading easily won the replay 3-0, live on BBC One. City were 2-0 down by the 10th minute.

The fixture pile up hadn’t helped City’s cause, as they looked jaded in Berkshire. With all the FA Cup attention, league form was mixed over January and February. But in the wake of the Reading defeat, City were ninth and only three points off the play offs, with a game in hand. They had 11 to play.

Alas, the players were running out of steam. They beat Oldham and Doncaster, but endured costly home defeats to fellow promotion contenders Chesterfield (0-1), Preston (0-3) and Bristol City (0-6). A run of five games without a win killed off play off hopes.

City ended the campaign with back to back 1-0 wins, and it left them with a seventh-place finish – just one spot, and four points behind Chesterfield. If only they hadn’t lost 1-0 to the Spireites at the end of March. Failing to win that night proved to be the decisive margin.

Still, it had been a really enjoyable season. The FA Cup run was fantastic, and to improve the final league position by four places on 2013/14 represented progress.

Importantly, Parkinson had proven himself once again to be a brilliant manager. The squad and style of football was notably better than the year before, and the cup success ensured he would be given a stronger transfer budget to further develop the squad during the summer.

That said, the season ended with the slight cloud of potential new ownership, after former QPR director of football Gianni Paladini launched a bid to buy the club, apparently with a string of wealthy backers ready to fund it. If he had come in, it appeared Parkinson would have left to manage Sheffield United. In the end, Paladini couldn’t get the money together to complete the deal.

City – and Parkinson – carried on as they were, although by now they were also on the radar of a certain Edin Rahic.

The team:

Parkinson went a long way to answering his critics about poor transfers by having a largely strong summer transfer window.

He made a big call letting long-serving Jon McLaughlin leave, especially given he replaced the Scot with the loan signing of 20-year-old Sunderland goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.

It didn’t initially look such a clever move when Pickford had a poor debut, but he soon settled down and began to prove what a top goalkeeper he would become. Still inexperienced, there was a mistake or two along the way – but Pickford was a great addition. His loan was curiously ended by Sunderland just after their FA Cup exit to the Bantams. Sour grapes?

Picture by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

With Pickford not allowed by Sunderland to play in the League Cup or FA Cup, a decent back up was essential. Ben Williams was brought in, initially on a short-term deal, after his release from Hibs the season before. Williams played in all the season’s famous cup games – Leeds, Millwall, Chelsea, Sunderland and Reading. And when Pickford was recalled, Williams became first choice for the rest of the campaign.

Jan Alnwick was signed on loan from Newcastle after Pickford left, playing one game. Matt Urwin – a summer trialist, offered a third choice contract – was on the bench occasionally but never played.

At right back, the 2013/14 player of the season Stephen Darby continued to operate almost unchallenged. The diamond formation Parkinson introduced relied on full backs to get forward and also left them without cover. This did not suit Darby, who struggled for the first few months of the season and he even earned a red card in a home defeat to Sheffield United. He improved when Parkinson went to a 4-4-1-1 after November, ending the season in strong form.

On the opposite side, summer signing Alan Sheehan, from Notts County, began as first choice after Meredith’s contract dispute. Sheehan came with a decent reputation but didn’t really impress – he actually looked better when he filled in as centre half.

Meredith very quickly won back his place and didn’t look back. Over the previous two seasons, the Aussie had endured significant injury problems but there were no issues in this campaign. Sheehan would depart early doors in 2015/16, complaining about a Parkinson ‘inner circle’ that he couldn’t breach.

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk) – copyright Bradford City

The centre halves continued to have a History Makers feel, but times were changing. Rory McArdle had received criticism over 2013/14, particularly when Andrew Davies was injured. It felt like he couldn’t be the back four leader, and was only able to perform at his best when Davies was there to guide him. Davies had another typical season of niggling injuries, but this time McArdle emerged from underneath his shadow and was outstanding. He was deservedly crowned player of the season for his performances.

Davies made 34 appearances – the most he’d achieved in a season for City – and was typically excellent when he played. But the ongoing fitness issues were beginning to grate. With McArdle now showing leadership qualities, Parkinson opted to let Davies leave in the summer of 2015. For a player who missed all the cup glory in 2012/13 because of injury, it was great that Davies was at least able to play a big part in the victories over Chelsea and Sunderland.

Behind the pair, the usual issue of a lack of good enough cover caused problems when Davies was not fit. Aside from Sheehan, Parkinson was able to call on the Frenchman Chris Routis – a summer trialist who earned a deal. Routis could play in the centre of midfield or defence. He produced a superb display in an October 2-2 draw away at Bristol City, but four days later had a nightmare afternoon at Oldham and had to be subbed before half time. He also played centre half in an Easter Monday game with Preston, getting sent off after only 14 minutes.

Routis was better in central midfield, but ultimately wasn’t good enough to be first choice.

Picture by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk) – copyright Bradford City

In February, Parkinson signed Gary MacKenzie on loan from Blackpool to cover for Davies. The Scot played 12 times and scored an important goal in a Good Friday win at Doncaster, but he was no Davies. Another loan signing from Blackpool over the second half of the season was Tony McMahon. He was billed as a utility player and mainly played in midfield at the end of 2014/15. McMahon seemed to be decent with set pieces…

Midfield saw the biggest changes from 2013/14. Gary Liddle joined Sheehan in making the move from Notts County to City during the summer. He was hugely influential – one of only four players to start at least 50 games that season. Billy Knott (signed from Sunderland) was another big signing – his first season at Valley Parade was a real success, with seven goals making him the fourth highest scorer. Knott had a sensational game against Leeds, capped by that wonder goal.

Elsewhere, two players who had signed in the summer of 2013 – but failed to impress in their first season – began to prove their worth. Jason Kennedy had a run in the team early doors and looked a different player compared to the pedestrian midfielder of the year before. However he lost his place just as City’s form improved, and he was loaned out to Carlisle in February.

Mark Yeates also started well – the diamond formation seemed to suit him – and for a time Parkinson tried to build the team around him. In the end, the team was more effective without him starting. But there still the odd moment of brilliance from Yeates – not least coming off the bench to score the fourth goal at Stamford Bridge.

A player who initially signed with no fanfare grew into a key man. Filipe Morais was given a short-term deal after being released by relegated Stevenage during the summer. As Yeates faded, Morais soared and proved hugely effective running at people. He also scored six goals. Andy Halliday – who signed from Middlesbrough in October – was another hit. He was great running with the ball and winning tackles. And who can forget his wonder goal at Stamford Bridge?

Other midfielders played bit-part roles. Matty Dolan had signed during the summer after an indifferent loan spell. He started just five games and was quickly moved on. A young winger called Oliver Burke rocked up on loan from Notts Forest in February – playing twice. He has since gone onto play abroad and was signed by West Brom for £15 million in 2017.

In the forward positions, summer signing Billy Clarke proved a great signing. He had been playing for Crawley Town but wasn’t even a regular for the Red Devils. In his first season at Valley Parade, Clarke netted an impressive 14 goals. The more adventurous style of play Parkinson adopted really suited him.

Hanson had another good year, delivering 11 goals – although he didn’t score after February, and was asked to play out wide. Jon Stead came back for a second loan spell and made a real difference. He famously scored in every round of City’s FA Cup run, until they lost in the quarter finals.

Strangely, Stead’s form evaporated over the final few weeks of the season. Given his high wages, there were few complaints when Parkinson elected against signing him that summer. But when Stead was on form for City, boy was he fantastic.

As Stead and Clarke prospered, Mclean was quietly allowed to leave the club – loaned back to his former club Peterborough, where he scored just once. Mason Bennett – a summer loan signing from Derby – started okay but was quickly sent back. He’s since made it into Derby’s first team. The excellently named Mo Shariff made a couple of cameos off the bench. McBurnie had a tough time of things and was loaned out to Chester, where he won rave reviews.

Finally, who can forget Francois Zoko? The Ivory Coast forward came in on loan from Blackpool and was a bit of a joke figure at Valley Parade. He did manage one goal, at home to Crawley, which produced epic scenes of celebration.

Elsewhere:

Phil Parkinson might have been able to stop Jose Mourinho in his tracks, but the rest of English football found it a lot more difficult. Chelsea sealed a Premier League and League Cup double, winning the league by eight points.

At the other end of the table, Leicester City had seemingly looked doomed to relegation but pulled off an unlikely great escape. You might say they went from strength to strength the following season.

Closer to home in League One, Bristol City led a triumphant march to the title with an impressive 99 points. MK Dons sealed the second automatic promotion spot after Preston lost on the final day. But Simon Grayson’s men recovered to win the play offs, hammering Swindon 4-0 in the Wembley final.

A Notts County squad that included Gary Jones and Garry Thompson were relegated on the final day, despite being third in October. The Magpies went down with Crawley, Yeovil and Leyton Orient – amazingly, only Crawley have subsequently avoided falling into non league.

Five 2014/15 league gems:

– An early season victory at Rochdale, with goals by Kennedy and Hanson, suggested a strong promotion push lay ahead. Form fell away after that.

– November’s 2-1 victory at a Preston North End side unbeaten at home for nearly a year. City were 1-0 ahead, when Joe Garner equalised in the 85th minute. Yet Yeates went straight up the other end and curled home a beauty to win it.

– A 1-0 victory at Chesterfield just before Christmas, secured by a Billy Clarke wonder strike.

– Beating MK Dons 2-1 in February live on Sky. Deli Alli had put the Dons in front, Clarke equalised before Hanson got the winner. Cut to the Sky TV interviewer asking Stead if he handled the ball in the build up to City’s second. “So what?” was Stead’s immortal reply.

– An end of season derby victory over Barnsley, to mark the 30th anniversary of the Valley Parade fire disaster. The England manager Roy Hodgson joined a bumper crowd in paying their respects.



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