The basics of football management and how Phil Parkinson might not be able to go back to them

The second half of Bradford City’s win against Halifax Town saw Phil Parkinson move away from his most commonly used tactical approach of 2014.

An hour after the change in the dressing room at The Shay, City fans walked home with a victory, and I tried to summon up a phrase other than the cliche of “back to basics” to describe what had happened.

The discussion over Parkinson’s tactical approach did not last long.

Billy Clarke was lauded by many as if it were him and him alone (rather than the change of approach) that had made the difference, which seemed to lead to a consensus of opinion being framed that Parkinson’s error was in not picking the striker in the first place.

This talk gave way to a discussion on why Bradford City failed to wear Remembrance Poppies during the game, and whatever it was that Parkinson had done seemed to soon be forgotten.

The cliche, however, remained in my mind.

Unpacking the cliche

On any given Saturday afternoon, the losers of any tie will have a section of supporters soon making the case that the manager should leave the club. There is a common set of terms applied: “Taken the club as far as he can” is not unusual, whilst “not good enough” is more blunt.

Criticisms of managers are based on the results of games. The justification for a statement that a manager is “not good enough” almost always being a perception (reasonable or otherwise) that there is an acceptable set of results, and that those results are not being achieved.

This is obviously a judgement which should be subject to some refinement. The results delivered by a football club are the effects of any number of things, some of which are within the manager’s control. When the words “not good enough” are used, they are used as a catch all, but what do they catch all of?

What is a manager “not good enough” at? Our own experience suggests that there are very few situations in which a person has a uniform level of skill across a number of disciplines even if those disciplines are similar to each other. Mark Zuckerberg borrowed Eduardo Saverin’s ranking algorithm for Chess players whilst on the path to creating Facebook because while the Zuck could code like no-one else, that kind of applied Mathematics coding wasn’t something he could do.

Selecting tactics, recruiting players, coaching teams, building motivation… These are (some of) the constituent parts of football management that a manager may do, but all of these things are not done by all managers, and not all at the same level.

On Sunday Phil Parkinson reverted to an approach which was tried and tested in the past – he went “back to basics” – but what basics did he go back to? And since the basics we’re talking about are specific to Parkinson, why are they classed as basics in the first place?

Back to basics

After half-time, Parkinson changed from 4231 to 442 in his tactical approach, and this is regarded as his “basic” because it’s a standard that has has worked for him before. It’s worth noting that this “basic” is contextual. If Pep Guardiola were to send Bayern Munich out playing 442, then it would be a new tactical approach for him, not a basic. The basics of football tactics involve five forwards and a half back.

We can conclude that when we hear about Phil Parkinson going “back to basics” the “basics” we are talking about are in some way specific to Phil Parkinson.

And those who travelled to The Shay will have noted that as Parkinson’s tactical approach changed, so too did the motivation of his players in what my brother and I called “Rear Inserted Rockets.”

It is worth thinking about what Parkinson did not do at half time, and what he could not have done.

He did not sign any players at half-time obviously, nor did he coach the players in set-plays in the way that requires a training pitch. He did not make a decision on who would be in the match day squad because that squad had already been decided. He did not teach the players anything new or at least anything which could not be taught in a few minutes.

These are things which a manager is given the power to do but that are not done at half-time of a game.

The basics that Parkinson went back to are a subset of what makes up his role as a football manager.

This is common sense of course, but how often – when people talk about how good or bad a manager is – do the terms get unpacked? How often when someone says that a manager is “not good enough” are they invited to say what it is he is not good at?

Not good enough

It stands to reason that not all managers are equally as good at all things.

When we look at the meritocratic collection of managers at the top of the Premier League, we can see that the general view of specific managers is that they tend to be good at some parts of the job and less good at others. No one thus far has suggested Louis van Gaal is getting the best out of his players, or that he has a genius for recruitment, but Arsene Wenger, we are told, is good at developing players.

It is difficult to say that Roland Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino’s skills are because both have continued on the paths the clubs were on already. Pochettino’s club Spurs famously employed Harry Redknapp, the beloved “wheeler dealer” of transfer deadline day. Yet when Redknapp wanted to be England manager, the criticism of his skills was that he was more about smart recruitment than he was about tactical game approaches.

Alan Pardew is infamously “not good enough” according to the supporters who created sackpardew.com but seems to be good at creating a good team atmosphere within a squad, whereas supporters taunted Brendan Rodgers with the idea that he was not good at spending the money that the club brought in by selling a player that the previous manager who was not good at spending money bought in.

We get a general idea of what is good and bad about these managers, and we might postulate how good a fit they are for the roles they are in. Some clubs want their managers to be restricted to the training ground, whilst others want them to involve themselves at board level and leave the coaching to the coaches.

When we unpack the cliche of “not good enough” we start to draw out a map of where a manager excels. The cartography of ability can be superimposed onto the needs of a club and an idea of the manager’s suitability found.

Phil Parkinson in 2015

I would suggest, based on my experience as a fan of Bradford City, that the needs of the club which a manager must fill are near all encompassing when he is a manager at Valley Parade. Aside from the retarding requirement that the team plays football a certain way one, suspects that Phil Parkinson has, and is expected to have, full control over football at Valley Parade.

There is no Director of Football at the club, no Chief of Player Recruitment, and at senior level seemingly nothing except Parkinson and the people he wants. This underlines a state of affairs where while Parkinson may have a set of skills with peaks – team building is obviously one – and troughs. Being the manager of our club means there’s a need for him to involve himself in all of these things, and be “good” at them all.

Parkinson’s “basics” are, in the end, all the club has. And this is presents a problem for both club and manager.

In 2015, Phil Parkinson will have two chances to improve his squad. Improving a manager’s squad has been given a common parlance of “having a good transfer window”, and it is a long time since Phil Parkinson could have been said to have done that.

In fact one can probably go back to the summer of recruiting Gary Jones – a player who was on Peter Jackson’s list of midfielders he wanted (but could not get) – and Nathan Doyle – who is a former Bradford City Player of the Season – for the last time Parkinson recruited very well. Since then we have had a mixed bag of the good (I like Billy Knott), the bad (Raffaele De Vita is hardly even spoken about now) and the average. It is here where we get to the subject of Jason Kennedy.

JFK

Kennedy is a useful footballer in that he is wholehearted and obviously has the attitude Parkinson wants in his players, but his confidence in his own passing ability (justified or not) sees him play in a specific way which rarely adds greatly to the team’s creativity. Gary Liddle is a steady performer who – no matter which set of numbers that add up to ten and represent playing positions is deployed – seems to be a six out of ten.

We do not know if these players are the best Parkinson could get, the best Parkinson could get for the money, or what Parkinson perceived to be the best, but we can probably conclude by now that Parkinson’s greatest skills are not in player recruitment.

He is superb at building a team out of the right characters (and he is right to make character a requirement), and anyone who saw the reaction of the players to the comeback on Sunday will note how he can get those characters to play for him.

What he needs to do better – perhaps – is bringing together a group of players who can perform at a higher level. The ability to do that – the Harry Redknapp smart recruitment – is not a basic that Parkinson can go back to.

And so we get a picture of the future of Bradford City under Phil Parkinson. It is of a level performance, and a good team, waiting for the manager to get it right – or maybe just get lucky – when putting together a squad.

BfB watches the play off finals: Part three, Reading v Swansea

Football is regularly referred to as a soap opera and, as Reading and Swansea today battle it out for a place in the Premier League next season, one can take comfort in the fact that, for all the cliff hangers we go through, it apparently will never end.

Aside from the occasional doom monger declaring there are too many teams in the Football League and it should be cut – plus the very real threat at times of some clubs going bust – the ongoing narrative of football, with its up and down snakes and ladders system, keeps us enthralled and keeps us believing in the sentiment “there’s always next season.”

The idea that Bradford City could be one day back in this position, looking to return to the Premier League, seems ludicrous after the season just gone. Yet when we were enjoying our brief spell among England’s elite a decade ago, Reading and Swansea fans would scarcely have expected to be in this position today.

10 seasons ago, the Royals and the Swans were playing each other in England’s third tier. Whereas this afternoon both clubs completely fill Wembley, the attendances for the two league meetings that season were 11,003 at the new Madejski stadium and 5,073 at the old Vetch Field. Reading lost the play off final to Walsall that year, while Swansea dropped into the basement league. In the following two seasons, the Welsh team were almost relegated from the Football League.

Only 3,000 or so fans were turning up at their low point, but in their attractive new stadium they are now looked upon as a big club. Although they’ve gone through a number of managers climbing back up the leagues, they’ve maintained a certain philosophy of always playing attractive passing football which has shaped their management choices. While City seem to change what they’re looking for in a manager every time they get rid of the last one, the Swans have worked out a plan that today sees them on the brink of the Premier League.

Reading too have done superbly. Making it to the Premier League in 2006 and successfully reversing the decline so many clubs can’t get out of when they are relegated from the top flight. The internal appointment of Brian McDermott – ironically replacing now-Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers – has worked wonders and their overturning of Cardiff in the play off semi finals was joyous. Especially given the less than ethical way Cardiff have gone about their business this season.

As the two Premier League hopefuls march out into a deafening Wembley stadium, it’s worth pausing to consider how unlikely this all – City in League Two included – would have seemed a decade ago. And, as motivating as the Reading and Swansea stories should act to us and others now, how much their ascent might have initially been inspired by the manner City had made it from Division Two to the Premier League at the end of the millennium. The soap opera never ends.

Today’s instalment unsurprisingly begins in cagey fashion, and the tension is aided by a certain amount of needle between the two clubs that sees fouls reacted to angrily and referee Phil Dowd routinely surrounded by complaining players. One such incident five minutes in sees Reading’s Zurab Khizanishvili harshly go in the book, following long and loud Swansea protests. It would become an interesting talking point not long after.

Reading start the game better, with winger Jimmy Kebe causing plenty of problems down the right flank and some panicky defending seeing Swansea players uncharacteristically hoofing the ball down the pitch. Reading are clearly more pragmatic and physical in style, and you begin to wonder if they will bully the Welshmen into defeat.

But then a rare Swansea foray forward ends with Khizanishvili flooring Scott Sinclair in the box, leaving Dowd with an easy choice in awarding a penalty. More difficult is what to do about the already booked Reading defender. It could be argued it’s a straight red offence; at the very least it should be a yellow. Dowd elects to take no action; perhaps balancing out the dubious early booking for Khizanishvili. Still Swansea don’t seem to mind as Sinclair converts the penalty to put them in front.

36 seconds after the re-start, it’s 2-0 and might already be game over. Stephen Dobbie bursts down the right, exposes Ian Harte’s lack of pace as he drives into the area and Sinclair is eventually left with a tap in. The club’s record signing, at £1 million, could have – depending on which over-hyped media story you read about the value of this game – earned the Swans between £60 and £90 million with his double strike. Three quarters of the game to go, but it’s a long way back for Reading.

Their reaction is limited, with the occasional attack lacking in purpose and belief. The Swans fans “ole” every pass from their players, who now look in control. The game goes quiet again, but then five minutes before the break Nathan Dyer races past the immobile Harte before pulling the ball back for Dobbie to stroke home. Reading’s misery is compounded by sub Jay Tabb and assistant manager Nigel Gibb being sent off on half time following arguments with the officials about a penalty claim rejected. They might have been second best for 20 minutes, but at the interval it’s difficult to begrudge Swansea their 3-0 lead.

Reading need a response, and immediately pull a goal back in the second half through Noel Hunt’s deflected header. Seven minutes later the always impressive Matt Mills heads home another corner and the game wakes up from its dreamy like state into a nerve-wracking hum-dinger. While Tabb and Gibb argued with Dowd for no obvious reason, McDermott was clearly giving the team talk of his life.

The physical and height advantage Reading enjoy is finally proving a factor, though they can play football too as Kebe and Jodi McAnuff attack down the flanks. Jem Karacan’s shot hits the post, with Hunt’s rebound effort brilliantly blocked Swans defender Gary Monk. Royals corner follows Royals corner as the pressure builds, but in time Swansea’s fluster is replaced by composure and they begin re-gain control.

A daft and unnecessary challenge in the area by the experienced Andy Griffin floors Fabio Borini, leaving Swansea and Sinclair with a second penalty of the afternoon to kill the game off, with 12 minutes to go. Sinclair’s effort is almost kept out by Adam Federici, but ends up in the back of the net to seal a hat trick. Reading pile everyone forward in the final stages, but Swansea’s defence has seemingly sorted itself out and they keep clearing the ball. Reading are defeated by the better side, but have been too much the architects of their own downfall to avoid a summer reflecting on what ifs.

So Swansea will become the 45th different club to play in the Premier League – for which next season will be its 20th following its formation in 1992. For all the justified criticism the top flight receives for keeping all the money and not caring about the rest of English football, that almost half of the 92 league clubs have played in it demonstrates it’s not the closed shop so often portrayed.

That, however, is more due to the enduring competitiveness of the Football League rather than anything Richard Scudamore is responsible for. And for all the glamour and success the Premier League isn’t shy of congratulating itself for, the numerous great stories newly promoted clubs – City included – have provided is still an essential backbone to the top end of this sport.

Whether Swansea can take Blackpool’s place in the heart of neutrals next season remains to be seen; but whatever happens, the majority of the 72 Football League clubs can dream with conviction – rather than delusion – of one day emulating them.

The spotlight falls on Lawn as the short search for new manager should have begun

If one were to believe the rumours heard then Lawn has been keen to replace McCall since the start of the season – certainly McCall’s exit can not have come as a surprise to him although reports in the T&A say the two were not speaking – and so one must assume that the joint chairman has a successor in mind. Indeed the same T&A article suggests that Lawn has been pressuring for a management change for some time.

Reading that article – the talk of a rift between manager and chairman, the talk of a suggestion of bringing in a “senior man” – Lawn sounds no different to the OMB supporters he criticised recently. Indeed for strong leadership to be shown in this situation were the exit of the manager has been brewing for so long Lawn needs to have the successor in place on Saturday, and he needs to select wisely.

Distressingly Lawn is talking about appointing an interim manager until the end of the season which calls into question any idea of the joint chairman having a plan for City’s future post-McCall.

There is no reason why – should Lawn think that Stuart McCall should have been challenging for promotion with this squad of players why supporters should accept anything other than a team that can amass (circa) 37 points or more in the next 19 games.

Without putting too fine a point on events Lawn must have thought about a new manager who he believes is an improvement and a continued spell without that man needlessly exposes the club to risk. Lawn talked about the club’s need for stability in the past yet seems to have decided against continuing that policy now.

A manager who offers obvious improvement is needed and the position Mark Lawn has City in forgoes the idea of any risk in this appointment.

The next City manager should not be a repeat failure so people like Peter Jackson – sacked twice in his career – need not apply and should not be considered if they do. What is the point of replacing a manager who you do not think will succeed with one who is proven to fail?

The list of two and three time failures who would love the chance of eighteen months getting paid at City is long. Everyone on it should be ignored.

Likewise hundreds of players who are approaching the late thirties and fancy a player/manager job will be keen to apply and City have had success down this route in the past with Roy McFarland and Trevor Cherry but the risks of appointing a rookie to a role to gain the experience you have just lost by allowing someone who has been doing that job for years to depart is far too great. The unproven, like the proven failures, should not be considered by Mark Lawn.

Lawn needs to look at the pile of CVs that will arrive on his desk and ask the question what is a good football manager? How does one decide that one is better than the other? How can one guarantee that this manager is better than the last?

Certainly that does not come with someone else’s cast off who has never succeeded nor does it come with a new appointment. It comes from finding a manager who has not only had success – Mike Walker had success at Norwich but had no idea how he had achieved it let alone how to recreate it at Everton – but had multiple successes in disparate situations, perhaps situations which are applicable to the one the Bantams offer.

Again Jackson’s name should be struck off. A manager who once got it right as Jackson could point to in his second spell at Huddersfield Town does not offer the risk free promise of improvement but rather the chance that the success he had may not be repeatable.

There is a great example in City’s own history. Paul Jewell was able to create success at City but he is not alone in coming through the ranks at a club and taking them to glory – Walker followed that route Norwich City – but tellingly Jewell was able to do it again at Wigan Athletic unlike Walker who spend eleven months on Merseyside before getting the boot. Similarly Chris Kamara brought success at Bradford City but failed at Stoke City.

A manager is not a proven success if he has only achieved once and similarly CVs that show single achievements should be put in the bin next to the unproven and the proven failures. Lawn will already no this because he will have already gone through this process in consideration of the manager he would replace McCall with.

Jewell is an outstanding candidate for the job and while he still talks in terms of Premier League he said of City after his departure while on a visit to Valley Parade “This is still my club.” Lawn could do must to restore some faith in the idea that he has an idea on how he will improve City should he state on Monday that Jewell is his number one target and that he wants to speak to him about the job.

Jewell aside very few candidates suggest themselves although another is Peter Taylor who has taken Wycombe Wanderers, Brighton & Hove Albion, Gilligham and Hull City to promotions in the past showing his ability to reproduce success. Both would be good appointments but both have done their best work when funded handsomely and both have patches of failure in their careers.

To be honest if the rumours that Lawn has been keen to replace McCall since the start of the season are the case then he should have already have had that conversation with Jewell or Taylor someone of that ilk and calibre and have him ready to take charge for the game with Grimsby at the weekend.

No unproven, no proven failures, no flash in the pan single success managers if Lawn is to convince anyone that he has a plan to improve the club.

A common phrase heard of late is that football is a results business and should that be the case then the smart football chairman looks for a manager with manifest repeated results to reduce the risk to the club.

That is if the idea in the Bradford City boardroom is about trying to make low risk improvements and not just of appeasement and getting one’s own way

If Lawn is even seen standing next to Dean Windass, Peter Jackson, Peter Beagrie, Simon Davey, Brendan Rodgers, Russell Slade, Martin Allen, Mike Newell, Gareth Southgate, Ian McParland or any of the other managers who fall into these three catagories where risk is attached to the appointment then one has to wonder what the net benefit of this process will be other than the history of the club being bent in a way that simply lets the chairman get his own way.

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