Issue #126 The Neville Southall problem returns to Bury as City draw a blank in the FA Cup third round

As told by Michael Wood

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Christopher Routis, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Gary Liddle, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Luke James, John Morris, Mark Marshall

Bradford City fans saw the end of Neville Southall’s career, Bury fans saw the start. Southall – who many regard the best goalkeeper of his era – played 39 games at Gigg Lane and presented manager Jim Iley with a problem.

Southall’s predecessor John Forrest had kept goal for the Shakers for twenty four years but such was the new goalkeepers nascent ability was such that that Iley’s strikers – who included future PFA chairman Gordon Taylor – were struggling to beat the him in training.

So much so that Taylor and his team mates got used to spending training sessions putting their best efforts at Southall and seeing them saved.

They got used to not scoring. And they lost confidence.

The Phil Parkinson era

Southall had been gone seven years, Iley four, when Phil Parkinson made his debut for Bury. City manager Parkinson played 145 games at Gigg Lane most of them as the position of midfield spoiler that he would make his hallmark at Reading.

There is an adage that one can trust a manager to know his own position. The suspension of Nathan Clarke following a sending off at Gillingham that also saw Reece Burke injured and then returned to West Ham United had given Parkinson a problem in the middle of his back four. Rory McArdle needed a partner and while Christopher Routis had returned to fitness Parkinson had previously dropped Gary Liddle back from the holding midfield berth to he him in the role.

And that approach had failed. It had failed at the end of last season and failed at the start of this and – to my estimation – it had failed not because Liddle can not play the position (he spent a season in central defence at Notts County before arriving at Valley Parade) but rather because he was missing from the middle of midfield.

Phil Parkinson decided he would not be without his Phil Parkinson.

The best from the worst

Liddle in central midfield presented the problem of using Christopher Routis in the heart of the defence – a role he has not played since Joe Garner spent fourteen minutes ripping him apart before he was sent off – in front of a keeper in Ben Williams with whom there is a direct correlation between McArdle and Burke being in front of him and him keeping a clean sheet.

One recalls with horror Williams struggling to set the defensive line at the start of the season and the number and type of goals conceded as a result.

Looking over the field and almost half the City players: Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Kyel Ried, James Hanson and James Meredith; had joined the club as it struggled in the bottom half of League Two. Bury are a peer at of City in the top half of League One and all those five players are worth their places a league and a half above where they were when they first got on a training pitch with Parkinson.

Which is something to describe in assessing the skills of Phil Parkinson. He picked up the players signed when CIty were (arguably) at their worst and got the best out of them.

And so it proved with Routis, and so it proved with Williams, who both performed superbly. I would have written off Williams as not worth the work to improve but when Andrew Tutte got behind McArdle in the first half and was in a one on one situation with the City keeper my heart was not in my mouth as Williams narrowed angles, made himself large, and ended up pushing the ball away.

Likewise Routis kept le coeur from la bouche most of the afternoon matching McArdle for vigour and showing the physical strength that was missing from his game previously. He went too far and one two footed tackle in the second half should have seen him sent off.

Parkinson had decided that the way to battle Bury was to battle Bury and City were physically robust bullying the Shakers into the playing the game as the away team in the own stadium a fact made easier by the decision to put Bantams fans behind both goals. They do not like it when you suggest away fans outnumbered the home around these parts but that seemed to be the case from my corner of Gigg Lane.

What did John Iley do about that problem?

Having been bullied onto the back foot by a City team pressing high Bury struggled to create a tempo to their play and while they had two chance to snatch a lead it would have been snatched. The Shakers best moment ended with Darby and McArdle taking control of the ball between them in a six yard box scrum and wandering away with it as if it were a training game.

But at the other end of the field the Bantams struggled to convert chances. Tony McMahon hit the post with a free kick, Liddle headed wide when everyone expected him to score, and Hanson scooped over from inside the six yard box in the last minutes of stoppage time. Confidence is obviously low and shows with all City’s players.

Difficult to score against but labouring at the other end with strikers. What did John Iley do about that problem?

The Iley way

Iley effectively banned Southall from training – albeit with a smile – and in doing so allowed the 1981 vintage Bury strikers to get used to scoring in practice again. Southall’s rise was inexorably unaffected.

The Shakers ended the season blasting in fours and sixes, clearly with confidence recovered, and finished above City in the 1981 Division Four table. Southall left for Everton and glory at the end of the 1981 season and so the problem solved itself the next season having been fixed on the training pitch before.

And one suspect that it is on the training pitch that Parkinson will solve his team’s goalscoring problems. The team are defending well, are creating chances, are controlling games. The ball will not go in and confidence has suffered as a result but Parkinson (and I) believe that it is easier to add goals to a team that defends well that stop a free scoring team conceding.

This is Parkinson’s way. He builds teams that are hard to beat and capitalises on what can build the confidence. Sixth choice striker off the bench against Rochdale blasts it in and he becomes Nahki Wells. Middling League Two team beats Arsenal and Parkinson galvanises the club around it. City bob along in League One, beat Chelsea, and end up a a place outside the play-offs.

Parkinson takes a clink of the light of confidence and bathes the players in it. How that is done will probably not become a part of football folklore like Iley and Southall have but everything we have seen from Parkinson in the last five years suggests it will.