Bradford City seasons re-reviewed: 2011/12

By Jason McKeown 

Final league position: 18th (W12, D14, L20)
Manager: Peter Jackson/Phil Parkinson
Top scorer: James Hanson (14)
Player of the season: Luke Oliver

Even by Bradford City’s post-Premier League standards, the club was at a real low ebb in the summer of 2011.

Under the experienced management of Peter Taylor, the Bantams had begun the previous season favourites to win promotion out of League Two. But a dismal campaign saw them end up in 18th – the club’s lowest league finish since 1966. As they crawled into the close season, everywhere you looked it seemed a mess.

The players were deeply unpopular with supporters, with the end of the season player of the year awards cancelled and angry fans chanting “love the club, hate the team” during a 4-0 thrashing at Southend. Peter Jackson – who took over as interim manager in February – struck a populist tone, publically ordering the players to wash their own kit as punishment for such a poor season, and placing every single player on the transfer list.

Jackson himself seemingly continued in the job by default. He had struggled to improve performances, and the board interviewed and offered the role to Dagenham’s John Still, only for him to turn it down as he felt City were in too much trouble. So Jackson carried on, with tensions between manager and the owners building.

Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn were arguably more preoccupied with addressing the club’s financial difficulties. The rental commitments of playing at Valley Parade – including the adjoining office blocks – were proving a real millstone around the club’s neck. They attempted to renegotiate the terms of the Valley Parade lease with the Gordon Gibb pension fund, but it fell on deaf ears. The players were paid late in April, as publically Lawn threatened to relocate City to Odsal – ripping up and taking the Valley Parade seats with them.

Yet from such darkness, chinks of light began to emerge. 2011/12 would prove to be another troubled, volatile season, but steps began to be taken that a year later would deliver spectacular rewards. In the summer of 2011, the club began to move away from short-term, quick-fix thinking of spending significantly (2008/09) or expecting miracles from a proven manager (2010/11) to escape League Two.

In the summer of 2011, there was an acceptance promotion was unlikely over the season ahead, but that a more patient approach could ultimately deliver success. The finances were addressed with Lawn, Rhodes and Roger Owen buying the club shop and offices from Prupim (removing half the rent commitment). The poor training facilities – which Taylor had been vocal about – were significantly improved thanks to a new partnership with the Woodhouse Grove school.

When it came to rebuilding the squad, a different – more long-term philosophy – emerged. When Lawn and Rhodes had interviewed Still for the manager role, he brought with him his chief scout, Archie Christie. The City owners were so impressed with Christie, they asked him to write a blueprint of how to revive the Bantams and asked him to come on board to implement it. Amongst Christie’s recommendations was to set up a Development Squad.

That long-term mantra was severely tested over the 2011/12 season, and there were some very dark days. But by the end of the campaign, many of the key elements of the History Makers was in place. It was a year of laying down roots for bigger and better things.

The story of the season:

No one knew what to expect from City going into 2011/12, but it didn’t take long for the club to once again be engulfed in crisis.

They kicked off the campaign with a home game against relative minnows Aldershot, but produced a dreadful stuttering performance that saw them easily beaten. Alarm bells were ringing very quickly.

City actually followed it up with a performance of genuine hope. They travelled to fierce local rivals Leeds United in the League Cup, and gave their Championship hosts an almighty scare. After Jack Compton’s first half strike was cancelled out just after half time, Michael Flynn struck a wonder goal in front of a packed out away end. The most glorious of shocks was on the cards.

Alas, a bad injury to David Syers – City’s best player on the night – changed the game. Leeds ultimately scraped through 3-2 in a game shown live on Sky. It was tough to take, but suggested City could be a force in League Two.

That promise was never fulfilled. City drew their next game at Oxford, but in reality were played off the park. They lost a midweek game at Accrington and then on the Saturday lost dismally at home to Dagenham. Panic was setting in.

Early days it may have been, but Jackson’s tetchy relationship with the board left him vulnerable. Jackson was also regularly clashing with Christie, deeply unhappy about the level of influence he had. On the Thursday after the Dagenham game, Jackson attended a fraught board meeting and was unhappy about the criticism he received. He offered his resignation, and was disappointed when it was duly accepted.

Just five games into a season billed as one of long-term thinking, and already there was a change of manager. How typically Bradford City.

Yet history shows this was a necessary and vital step forwards. Christie recommended Phil Parkinson as the next manager, and the owners went along with it. Parkinson was scouting for Arsenal after leaving Charlton the season before. A bright start to his managerial career was fading. And the job at City probably represented his last chance. It proved to be a marriage made in heaven.

Just before Parkinson took over, Jackson’s assistant Colin Cooper enjoyed a two-game spell as caretaker where he impressed greatly. Cooper oversaw the first win of the season – a 4-2 win over Barnet – before City defeated League One Sheffield Wednesday on penalties in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Another game shown live on Sky.

Parkinson watched on from the stands that night. His first game in charge was a 1-1 draw at Morecambe, with Ross Hannah netting a stoppage time equaliser for the Bantams. There was real promise about the style of football in Parkinson’s first few games, but results fell away again. After a 2-1 home defeat to newly promoted AFC Wimbledon, Parkinson famously said there was a losing mentality at the club. It would be a culture he would eventually change.

Parkinson finally earned a first league win as manager in early October, as Craig Fagan’s first half goal earned a 1-0 win over Torquay. Struggling Northampton were also defeated at Valley Parade in October, whilst bitter rivals Huddersfield Town were knocked out of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy on penalties. Parkinson was starting to find favour with fans.

But turning around the ship was proving really difficult. On the road especially, City were poor – falling to defeats at Port Vale, Crawley, Hereford and Macclesfield. At the start of November, Christie departed Valley Parade under a cloud. A 1-0 home defeat to Cheltenham, two days later, was one of the worst performances of the club’s post-Millennium decline.

In mid-November, City were deservedly trailing 3-1 at home to Rotherham, when deep in stoppage time they won a penalty. Flynn scored it for 3-2. And then amazingly, a minute later City earned another penalty. Valley Parade held its breath at the prospect of an unlikely point, only for Flynn to miss his second spot kick. It summed up the season.

Not for the last time, Parkinson found joy and relief in the cup competitions. The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy run continued with an extraordinary third penalty shootout victory in a row, this time knocking out Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in another Sky game. They also defeated League One Rochdale in the FA Cup first round, thanks to a wonder strike from Development Squad player Nahki Wells. In the second round, they dispatched Wimbledon. The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy run ended in the quarter finals with a 2-0 defeat at Oldham, but it had been quite the ride.

Yet the league form was still a big concern. Approaching Christmas, they’d still only won three League Two matches all season and none away. A trip to leaders Southend therefore looked a write off. Only for City to upset the form book by earning a 1-0 win through Luke Oliver’s late goal.

It was a turning point, as City followed it up with back-to-back home wins over Crewe and Shrewsbury during Christmas. The partnering of James Hanson with Wells offered a route forward. Parkinson even won the December manager of the month award.

Celebrations at full time

January was a step back, as no wins were achieved. City also bowed out of the FA Cup in round three, losing 4-2 at Championship Watford. But there were green shoots over February, with important away wins earned at Torquay (2-1) and Barnet (4-0). They were also in the midst of a near four-month unbeaten run at home.

It was all about surviving relegation, with the cushion above the bottom two sides far from comfortable. And a bad March of just one point from a possible 18 kept them perilously close to falling through the non league trap door.

Most memorably of all during that awful run was a Tuesday night home defeat to Steve Evans’ Crawley. It was a horrible evening, as Crawley – heavily backed financially and with players too good for this level – resorted to dark age tactics that really wound up City players and the crowd.

At the full time whistle, tensions spilled over with a fierce brawl involving nearly every player. Several punches were thrown. On the field the referee, Ian Williamson, focused on calming the situation down, but once the dust settled he visited both dressing rooms and gave out five red cards. City were subject to three of them, and they were given to arguably their three most important players – Oliver, Andrew Davies and Jon McLauglin.

It was a night that sparked national headlines and left City in real trouble. They were without three key players for at least half of their remaining fixtures. But as we’ve come to learn and love about Parkinson, in adversity he thrives. They lost the next game, at Plymouth. But with Parkinson’s own position starting to come under doubt, he masterminded three wins from the next four games that sealed survival.

They included a Good Friday 2-0 win over play off chasing Southend, and a thrilling 3-1 victory at relegation rivals Northampton Town – courtesy of a Wells hat trick.

City ended a difficult season in the same league position as a year before, 18th. They made hard work of avoiding the drop, but that was partly because Parkinson was trying to revamp the squad and instill a much stronger mentality. In goal, defence and attack, many of the components of the History Makers were established.

The ship was turning, and a brighter future lay ahead.

The team:

Any season featuring a change of manager inevitably also includes a high turnover of players. Add in the pre-season power struggle between Jackson and Christie, and this was a year that saw 40 different players wear City colours. So strap yourselves in…

The goalkeeper position was a good example of the Jackson/Christie clashes. With big doubts about Jon McLaughlin following a patchy 2010/11 season, Jackson swooped to sign Liverpool’s Danish prospect Martin Hansen on loan, who began the season in the team. Hansen had a debut to forget, at home to Aldershot, and only lasted the four league games before Jackson was sacked.

With Liverpool refusing to let Hansen play in the cups, Christie tapped up his old friend Harry Redknapp to bring in Oscar Jansson on loan from Spurs. He actually looked decent and played well against Leeds and Sheffield Wednesday in the cups, and his only league appearance was the August 4-2 win over Barnet.

It all changed around when Parkinson came in. One of his first acts was to sign an out of contract Matt Duke, who a couple of years earlier was playing Premier League football for Hull. Alas, Duke struggled badly at first, with a particular weakness for conceding from long range shots. His confidence just wasn’t there, and Parkinson had no choice but to drop him after a costly mistake in the early November home defeat to Cheltenham.

Image by Mike Holdsworth

So finally McLaughlin got his chance, making an instant impact by helping City to a penalty shootout victory over Sheffield United. In 2010/11, McLaughlin had shown he wasn’t ready to be first choice week in week out, but he was now in a much better place and had an outstanding remainder of the season.

Duke was loaned out to Northampton to restore his confidence. But there was of course that late season twist. After McLaughlin’s red card in the Crawley brawl, Duke was hurriedly recalled and played an important role in preserving City’s Football League status. It would earn him a redemption at City, which he made good use of the following season.

The right back situation was equally inconsistent. City still had the services of the superb Simon Ramsden, but his injury record remained poor. Jackson signed a young Liam Moore on loan from Leicester, and he became a regular until losing his place to a belatedly Ramsden in November. Moore’s gone onto have a good career playing for Leicester, Brentford and Reading. He was probably a bit too raw when he turned out at Valley Parade.

After his delayed start, Ramsden was able to have an extended run in the team before getting injured at the end of December. Amazingly, City didn’t lose a game for several weeks as soon as Ramsden was fit to play. In fact, over the 20 total appearances Ramsden made that season, City only lost five times. What might have been, had Ramsden been able to stay injury-free.

Ramsden’s unavailability in January led to the arrival of Rob Kozluk, who had been released by Port Vale. The veteran defender filled in at both right and left back slots over the remainder of the season, in what would prove his last year as a full time footballer.

The left back slot began with the familiar battle between Luke O’Brien and Robbie Threlfall, but this was a bad season for both players. O’Brien’s absence at the start of the season sparked a few conspiracy theories, especially as Threlfall looked all over the place. Parkinson did not particularly take to either player, with Threlfall banished to the sidelines after early January. O’Brien, who did get more game time in the end, was transferred to League One Exeter in January.

Parkinson ultimately preferred to play centre back Marcel Seip – a September free transfer signing from Plymouth – ahead of Threlfall and O’Brien at left back. West Ham youngster Matt Fry – a February signing – also had a couple of games at full back. As did Kozluk. This was also the season where the unloved Lewis Hunt departed. Parkinson gave him a go at Crawley September, bringing him on as sub for the injured Threfall in the 34th minute. By the 77th minute, Parkinson had seen enough and subbed the sub! Hunt never played in the Football League again.

It was even more eventful at centre back. One of Jackson’s bigger summer signings was Guy Branston, who had impressed greatly for Torquay the season before. Christie had warned Jackson against signing the ageing centre half, arguing Branston was a liability who would get him the sack. Branston had a very bad start that suggested Christie was right.

When Parkinson came in, he quickly pushed Branston out of the picture. He was not the sort of character who would tolerate languishing in the reserves, so Parkinson sent him out on loan to Rotherham for three months (where he was sent off on his debut). When Branston returned, he was forced to train with the youth team. There seemed no way back.

Of course, the Crawley brawl meant Parkinson had to bring him in from the cold. Branston returned with a point to prove, and was outstanding in those final few games. There was clearly no going back on the broken relationship between manager and player, and Branston was moved on in the summer. But he earned a lot of respect for the way he came back and helped the club.

City began the season with a centre back pairing of Branston and Lee Bullock. Then Branston and Steve Williams in the cup at Leeds. And then, the unpopular Luke Oliver was given a chance and he did much better. Oliver quickly nailed down a regular place in the team. He had struggled under Taylor but thrived under both Jackson and Parkinson. Oliver would prove to the club’s player of the season in 2011/12.

Jackson was probably initially planning to partner Branston with Williams, but the former Bamber Bridge defender had a season to forget. He played just three times and Parkinson quickly moved him onto Inverness.

Image by Mike Holdsworth

Parkinson pulled off a masterstroke when it came to Oliver’s partner, signing Andrew Davies on loan from Stoke. He was on big money with the Premier League club, and it seem impossible to imagine City ever being able to keep him. But over 2011/12, Davies found a home at Valley Parade – which persuaded him to drop four levels and stay that summer.

Davies was sent off three times over 2011/12, which had a disruptive effect. But when in the team he was exceptional. The spine of McLaughlin-Oliver-Davies was vital in keeping City in League Two. In the wake of Davies’ third red card – the Crawley brawl, which earned him a five-game ban – Parkinson had to go back to the Branston-Bullock partnership. City had come full circle from the opening day!

This would prove to be Bullock’s final season in a City shirt. The midfielder picked up an injury after the opening day defeat to Aldershot that left him out of action until New Year’s Eve. He was a regular for most of the remainder of the season, but lost his place right at the end after initially being moved back into defence following brawl-gate – a prelude to his summer release. Away at Dagenham, in March, Parkinson even resorted to deploying Bullock as a targetman.

In the centre of midfield there was plenty of competition for places. Flynn was a regular in what also proved to be his final season at Valley Parade, chipping in with six goals along the way. David Syers – the unofficial 2010/11 player of the season – had a season disrupted by injury, after he was forced off at Elland Road in August. He returned on Boxing Day but never got a consistent run of starts under Parkinson, who evidently didn’t rate him as highly as Peter Taylor and Jackson had.

Syers wasn’t helped by the fact Parkinson had brought in Ricky Ravenhill on loan from Notts County in November. He made a real difference, and it was no surprise the deal was made permanent during the January transfer window.

Ritchie Jones – a summer signing recommended by Christie – was also ahead of Syers in the queue. He was a decent player and started 36 times – a year later, Jones would be stuck underneath a Gary Jones-Doyle shadow and he was rarely seen again. Adam Reed had a short loan spell from Sunderland but didn’t look up to it.

The wide midfield positions were generally a tale of high turnover with little success. Chris Mitchell – signed by Christie from Falkirk – offered some promise when he set up three goals in the August 4-2 win over Barnet. He also netted the winning penalty in the Sheffield United shootout victory in November. But for how good his technical ability was, Mitchell just seemed a yard too slow to make it at this level.

Mitchell played 17 times, mainly on the right of midfield, but also occasionally as right back. He returned to Scotland and tragically took his own life in May 2016.

Jackson began the season with another Falkirk recruit on the left wing – Jack Compton, who came in on loan for half a season. Compton was a tricky winger with a decent cross. Similar to Mitchell, he lacked a bit of pace. He was in and out of the team under Parkinson, but did make a valuable contribution and there was a minor uproar when he left. Compton signed for League One Portsmouth the summer after.

Other loanee wingers came and went without barely registering. Michael Bryan – a Watford youngster – made five starts before being sent back mid-season. Jamie Devitt – a late August arrival from Hull – started really well but faded. He spent the second half of the season on loan at Accrington. Andy Haworth – a January arrival from Bury – played just three times, making no impact.

Leeds’ Charlie Taylor – who has gone onto have a very good career – was just a bit too young, although he did show some quality. A young kid from Hull called Will Atkinson had a horrendous debut away at Bristol Rovers. He became something of a joke figure with the Bantams crowd. Atkinson would of course be signed that summer and win everyone around.

Dismal stuff, but there was one huge source of positivity in the wide areas – Kyel Reid. The former Charlton winger was without a club and snapped up by Parkinson within hours of taking charge. Reid settled very quickly and proved to be an excellent signing. Over the second half of 2011/12 especially, Parkinson seemed to operate with a flat midfield and a gameplan of getting the ball to Reid to run at people. He was the obvious threat for the opposition to target, but that didn’t prevent Reid from causing havoc in several games.

Reid was a big part in City’s survival that season, beginning his journey of becoming a huge fans’ favourite over the years that followed.

Image by Thomas Gadd (thomasgadd.co.uk)

With Reid on the left, Parkinson opted to regularly deploy striker Craig Fagan as his right-sided midfielder, taking on the tucked-in winger role that Garry Thompson would do with such aplomb the season after. Fagan did a job for the team, but was unpopular with fans. He was certainly better when picked up top, and over the course of the season scored eight goals.

Up front, success was ultimately found from the James Hanson and Nahki Wells partnership. Wells was a RIASA student who David Baldwin had recommended to Taylor, only for the former City manager to pass up the opportunity. Carlisle manager Greg Abbott was the next person to be offered a look, but couldn’t find a place for the Bermudian and released him. On trial at Valley Parade in the summer of 2011, the story goes that Jackson didn’t fancy him, but Christie felt there was potential and signed him to the Development Squad.

Wells initially started slowly, with international commitments for Bermuda interrupting his first team chances. He did score in the August 4-2 win over Barnet, and really announced his arrival with the wonder goal against Rochdale in the FA Cup. By December, Parkinson found huge joy from partnering Wells with Hanson.

Wells scored 12 times over 2011/12, but Parkinson resisted the calls to start him every week. In fact, Wells only started 20 times all season – coming on as sub 17 times. But he really delivered when it mattered, not least a superb hat trick in the late April win at relegation rivals Northampton.

For his part, Hanson had a decent season, with 14 goals from 41 starts. One of Jackson’s last acts as manager was to sub Hanson during the Dagenham defeat, in what seemed like a move to appease the crowd. It certainly didn’t help the team. Parkinson was a big fan of Hanson, and made him the key focus of the attack.

Many other forwards were tried alongside Hanson, with limited success. In the summer, Christie had signed Mark Stewart from Falkirk, where he had been prolific. But he struggled badly in West Yorkshire, failing to score a single goal. Mistakes made by Christie with the paperwork would come back to bite City financially, as Falkirk contested and ultimately won a battle for compensation for the transfer.

Ross Hannah also arrived that summer, in what was billed as a coup by Jackson. Hannah was hot property after scoring 102 goals in 130 games for Matlock Town. He did net a couple of important goals for City – not least that stoppage time equaliser at Morecambe in Parkinson’s first game. But the step up proved beyond him. Hannah returned to non-league circles in the summer of 2013, where he was once again prolific.

Parkinson brought in Deane Smalley on loan from Oxford for half a season. He did okay, but didn’t find the net during his time at City. Chris Dagnall also had a loan spell where he scored once, but generally was used as back up to Hanson and Wells.

Nialle Rodney – a Jackson summer signing – had scored a wonder goal against Premier League Bolton in pre-season. He came off the bench seven times – including for Hanson that fateful day against Dagenham – but he had no impact, and was released in January.

Aside from Wells, the Development Squad was unable to provide any players who made a first team impression. Young full back Andrew Burns was an unused sub early doors. Scott Brown – billed by Jackson as the most talented 16-year-old he’d ever seen – stayed on the fringes. He would figure three times in the History Makers season.

Terry Dixon was loaned out to AFC Halifax and did well, but the serious injury problems from his West Ham and Spurs days was still a real hindrance.

Chris Mitchell talks to Archie Christie at the training ground, September 2011

Elsewhere:

This was the season where Manchester City lifted their first ever Premier League title in thrilling style. Bitter rivals Manchester United had led the table by eight points, but fell away. Even so, on the final day it seemed Man City had blown it when they trailed QPR 2-1 at home, going into stoppage time. Sergio Aguero struck an incredible 93rd-minute winner to earn his team the title.

Chelsea also had a year to remember, winning the Champions League for the first time in their history – plus beating Liverpool at Wembley to lift the FA Cup. Liverpool had to console themselves with winning the League Cup – it remains their last domestic honour. And who knows if that’ll change this year?

Swindon Town won League Two under the wild management of Paulo Di Canio. They were promoted alongside Shrewsbury Town and Crawley, the latter going up despite Steve Evans resigning just before the end of the campaign. Memorably, a Crawley player posted a video of the full squad celebrating the exit of their manager.

Hereford and Macclesfield Town were relegated to non-league, with York City and Fleetwood coming up the other way. The summer of 2012 saw the Euros held in Ukraine and Poland, where Spain continued their international dominance – smashing Italy 4-0.

Five 2011/12 league gems:

  • Parkinson’s first league win was a while coming, but the October 1-0 victory over Torquay was especially memorable given City had 10 men for most of the contest after Davies was red-carded.
  • A Boxing Day 3-0 victory over Crewe was made extra enjoyable when, at 1-0 up, Crewe’s Nick Powell dived to win a penalty and sparked outrage – but Lee Bell struck the spot kick against the crossbar.
  • In the middle of a bang average run of form, City went to Barnet on a Tuesday night and recorded a sparkling 4-0 victory. Even Will Atkinson scored!
  • An early March 2-1 win over Oxford was a brilliant game of football to watch, with second half goals from Fagan and Hanson edging out their play off chasing visitors.
  • Beating Northampton 3-1 away to all but seal survival was a great occasion, as Wells’ hat trick prompted wild scenes of celebration.

And finally…

This was the season where, at Shrewsbury on Easter Monday, Guy Branston reacted to abuse from home fans by sticking his middle finger up at them. Cue City fans spending the rest of the game jokingly singing ‘Let’s all do the Branston’, with our middle fingers stuck up in the air.



Categories: Seasons re-reviewed

Tags:

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: