Issue The ‘worst squad in the league’, and where the priorities should be

As told by Jason Mckeown

Saturday’s dispiriting defeat to Hereford once again provides cue for a discussion that is, over the last few weeks, increasingly being aired in the national media – could Bradford City become the first former Premier League club to be relegated into non-league?

The current league table certainly suggests that could be the case. With over a quarter of the season played, the lack of points on the board is starting to go beyond being labelled “poor start”. The undoubted potential which has been regularly witnessed is so far going unfulfilled. There had been signs of improvement in the previous three games prior to the loss to Hereford; but unless City quickly recover from this latest set back, uncomfortable fears about the possibility of falling out of the Football League will be difficult to shake off.

Adding fuel to that fire – and with some pretty poor timing in hindsight – were Joint Chairman Mark Lawn’s pre-Hereford comments on BBC Radio Leeds that he thought the squad Peter Jackson had built during the summer was “the worst in the league”. That squad has since been added to by Jackson’s replacement, Phil Parkinson; but still, what sort of a message is Lawn trying to convey with this statement?

For although Guy Branston has been moved out on loan to Rotherham and it’s rumoured Jack Compton’s loan deal is going to be terminated this week, by and large the group of players Lawn called the weakest in the division are still at the club. The comments may or may not be personal to individuals, but it seems harsh and unfair to be so critical of a group of players who are battling hard to gain or keep a place in the team.

Rash judgement

Nor does it seem particularly well-thought out. The team Jackson built during the summer may well have proven to be the worst in the league, but only four league games of football were played before he walked away. Is it really fair to have made a judgement on the squad so soon? And how can anyone at that stage have realistically evaluated the 23 other new-look squads and concluded they were all better than City’s?

No one could of course, and so one is left considering Lawn’s statement as being a veiled attack rather than something he realistically believes. We can reasonably assume that Lawn was criticising Jackson directly – the person handed a transfer budget this summer and who ultimately made the decision on every player it was used to bring in. But there were other people involved in those choices, too.

So some people can view Lawn’s criticism as a partial attack on Archie Christie, the newly-appointed Chief Scout and Head of Football Development who was tasked with finding suitable players for Jackson to consider. It can be judged to be criticism of Colin Cooper, assistant to Jackson – but who well-placed sources suggest had a much more hands-on role in the summer recruiting, team selection and tactics than an assistant manager might usually enjoy. Lawn probably only means to single out Jackson, but Christie, Cooper and a host of players brought in this summer might also have caused to feel miffed upon hearing his viewpoint.

But the poor start to the season was not just about people. When City played Aldershot in the opening game of the season they did so with hardly any knowledge of who the visitors would be. The  empty filing cabinet inherited by the new scouting set up could only be filled by watching matches (a friendly game offering a limited source of information) – and on opening day that cabinet was more or less empty.

If you give any value to the work that Christie and Nigel Brown are doing in filling that filing cabinet at the club – and if you do not you should – then you have to conclude that Jackson’s squad was playing in the dark.

A false start

There is no doubt that Parkinson has sought to do things differently to Jackson. He has strong ideas on the kind of players needed and wasted no time in bringing those in. Parkinson spent his time out of football scouting, Jackson – and this is meant in the nicest possible way – worked in a care home. Jackson wanted to sign Gary Jones on large wages and had never seen of Richie Jones. His contact book was out of date and some of his signings showed that. Nevertheless those brought in who have lost their place under Parkinson can, with some justification, feel aggrieved by the lack of opportunities they have received over recent weeks – sadly for them, that’s football.

When they have been called upon by Parkinson, the players Lawn’s criticism can be viewed to include have let no one down. At Huddersfield, Mark Stewart, Compton and Chris Mitchell made positive contributions. Stewart has started every game that City have won (if you include the two penalty shoot out wins). Nialle Rodney showed his potential against Huddersfield and Torquay. Ross Hannah has scored two important goals from the bench. Branston stepped in for Andrew Davies impressively last week.

City’s captain may have gone for now, and in time some of the other summer signings will exit the club too. But that doesn’t mean they are all bad players and it doesn’t mean that – had Jackson being prepared to show more fight in the job – they wouldn’t have performed well in time. The point of a manager – and the point of setting a plan of progression – is that things improve over time and not that they are good within four games (and this is before we recall the start made in the promotion season of 1998/99, which at the time was a huge lesson for us all).

Jackson’s squad in those opening games of the season featured faces from the Development Squad and in that one must take a cue from the name: Development. There was a decision taken at the start of the season to fund a development project and to stop looking at the first team as the be all and end all of the football club in the way, for example, Peter Taylor had.

When Jackson left the club the Development Squad numbered four or five players and a number of the youth team – and cost less per week than the lowest paid member of the first team squad. It is not that the Development Squad had sucked up resources from the first team, but that the first team was to develop with the addition – in time – of the Development Squad.

Had Jackson not taken bat and ball home then – in a month’s time and just like Parkinson – he would be taking delivery of Terry Dixon (“Championship player in a non-league body”) and have Scott Brown to call on to replace Michael Flynn, or Andrew Burns to bridge any gap between Liam Moore after he returns and Simon Ramsden before he does.

One might – in time – ask questions about how good the players who come out of the Development Squad are, but the policy at the start of the season supported a squad which was designed to improve and not just over the course of this season, but over the next one too.

The plan for promotion is a two-year one. The results four games – or even twelve games – into that, when the onus is on the club to perform in games 47 to 92 of those two years are hardly worth commenting on when the plan is to spend 1 to 46 improving. It is like criticising the kid on his first day of school for not knowing the things he has come to school to be taught.

Re-visiting pre-season’s objectives

City began this season with everyone talking of it being a building one. A sensible strategy, considering how far from the goal of promotion the Bantams had been in the previous two campaigns. It was also a strategy that allowed Jackson to sign players with the potential to grow with the club, it enabled Christie to launch the Development Squad initiative without the pressure that it would be binned nine months later if it hadn’t produced enough first team players.

Most importantly it suggested an end to the season-after-season-cycle of signing a load of players and releasing a host of others, which has meant such a constant high turnover. The club has a four-year plan of getting into the Championship, and one assumes budgets and transfer policies have been agreed on the basis that no promotion this season would not be a disaster and will not spell cut backs.

As City sit third from bottom of the Football League, a revisit of these pre-season aims is more timely than ever. Promotion would be welcomed this season – but not expected or demanded. Therefore the objectives are surely to shape a squad of players who can be good enough for at least a top seven finish at the end of the 2012/13 season.

There is no reason to believe these aims have changed by appointing Parkinson – in fact it would be ludicrous, given the fact he wasn’t around to build in the close summer, to demand more of the City manager than was expected of Jackson. When BfB spoke to Parkinson at the training ground last month we asked what his aims for the season are and he replied that the initial one is “to be in the top half of the table around Christmas”. A reasonable objective and one that deserves questioning at that point if it is not achieved.

In the meantime, more short-term pain might be unavoidable as he tries to find the right team. In the wake of the Hereford defeat, the usual hysterical message board reaction occurred with anyone and everyone blamed. There will be further murmurings from people outside the club that a relegation battle is on the cards. This is unavoidable of course, but the club itself has to rise above it and present a calm, rationale and positive front. Lawn himself probably knows this better than anyone, but his radio comments help no one and undermine those efforts.

That said though when Lawn talks on the radio he speaks his mind as any fan does (as if he to prove this, he also commented that he was about to become a granddad again but had travelled to Hereford because he is a fan). Perhaps that is the difference unperceived in this radio interview and previous ones. When Lawn ran the club seemingly from top to bottom these were the thoughts of the Chairman. Now the chairman has more help around him then he is more of the fan than he has been allowed to be. His exasperation is matched by many supporters, because it is spoken as a supporter.

Beating the drop

Ultimately, the first objective for this season has to be to avoid relegation. It may be lacking ambition to say that and it certainly feels like setting the bar low; but the idea of it actually occurring is difficult to contemplate. We need to get to around 45 points as soon as possible. And, if and when we do, we can then talk about revised targets for however many games are left.

The club badly needs a season of stability, so that the squad can be developed in a way that can spark momentum needed to succeed in realising Christie’s vision of Championship football by August 2015. Jackson’s departure was a dreadful start in that respect, but the future is more important than raking over the past.

Time is more important than timing. The league table looks bad now for sure, but the true importance of this season is not how we begin it but the shape the squad and club when it ends it.