Phil Parkinson and the team of tautology

The Team

Ben Williams | Stepgen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Lee Evans, Josh Cullen, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Filipe Morais | Billy Clarke, Jamie Proctor, Nathan Clarke

It seemed odd twenty minutes later but at half time I waxed lyrical about how good Walsall were.

Walsall were, after all, the first team to put the ball past Ben Williams in over eight games when they scored in what would be their manager Dean Smith’s final game in charge at the Bescot Stadium back in November and they had won that game.

At half time – defending City’s noisy North End – they had gnarled their way through the opening forty five minutes with the type of performance that City’s Phil Parkinson would have been proud of from his players.

Indeed Walsall’s James O’Connor typified the Saddlers approach to gutsy determination to not allow goalkeeper Neil Etheridge’s clean sheet to be dirtied. Away from Valley Parade during the transition period between City’s early season floundering and that eight games without concession it was exactly the sort of determination that O’Connor showed that Rory McArdle was dragging out every game.

But that was then, and this is now.

Transition

Turning this Bradford City team around this season ranks alongside Chelsea, Arsenal and Wembley twice in Phil Parkinson’s achievements as Bradford City manager.

So meek in surrender earlier in the season, and so aimless at times, this was to be a fallow year for Bradford City.

It was a season where signings did not work out – Paul Anderson watches from the bench, Mark Marshall nowhere, Brad Jones elsewhere – and where even the signings that did work didn’t work. How strange does Devante Cole’s decision to join a relegation battle in preference to staying at City look now?

Which is impressive is not just that Parkinson has spun this season into something when it threatened so often to be nothing but how he has done it.

Parkinson has created the team of tautology: A committed group of loan players.

Shut up Wesley!

Josh Cullen, Lee Evans, Reece Burke were a good chunk of the spine of Bradford City in the 4-0 win over Walsall and have been crucial in the transformation of the team. Indeed Cullen’s arrival allowed the much loved Gary Liddle to exit for Chesterfield and another relegation scrap and while one doubts Cullen (or Burke) will be starting next season in the Olympic Stadium with West Ham neither of them are committed to City in the long term.

But in the short term they are? And why is this? Loan players are as Wes Thomas has been. Oddly out of sorts perhaps, and stuck in their ways. Thomas was to the Bradford City support what Jamie Proctor became: The alternative to James Hanson;

Nevertheless Thomas’s unwillingness or inability to play a high pressing game – which resulted in opposition side’s getting an easy route out away from their own goal – has seen the player confronted with two choices: Parkinson’s way or no way at all. Being a loanee and able to ride out the rest of his deal Thomas seemingly did not care for the former and ended up with the latter.

Which has been City’s experience with loan players since their presence went from odd novelty to (apparently) a necessity in the last two decades of the game. If one includes Kyel Reid and Jamie Proctor as loan players (as they initially were) then half of City’s team could not be around next season.

So how are they not a team of Wes Thomas’s?

The fault is not with the stars

The answer to that question probably resides in Rory McArdle and James Hanson, who both returned to the side for the Walsall game, and with other long time servers like Stephen Darby, James Meredith and perhaps the aforementioned Reid.

There is an adage in football – which is attributed to Brian Clough but I’m sure pre-dates him – that a club is as good as its senior players. It seems that Parkinson believes that to be the case. There is a circle of players like Hanson, McArdle, Darby, Meredith, Reid, and perhaps extended to Ben Williams and Tony McMahon who create a tone and an atmosphere at the club which has in its way become a repeatable pattern of success.

To that circle – an inner circle perhaps – Parkinson trust everything. It is to those players who the manager turns when defeat to Coventry City and a draw at Shrewsbury Town has questioned the club’s play off credentials. And with rich reward too. Hanson scores his first professional hat-trick and remains the club’s top goalscorer while McArdle returns the club to clean sheets. The 24th of the season.

For younger players who arrive on loan at the club the message is obvious. Take your cue from that inner circle in how you play, and how you train, and learn the lesson about how far that sort of attitude will take you in football.

What do you learn

One wonders what a young player gets from League One football. Dele Alli – named PFA Young Player of the Year – started last year scoring against City for MK Dons. The intelligentsia have it that it is his blooding as a child in the lower leagues that maketh the man. As if the sort of cold Tuesday night in Crewe that the football media so often sneer at is actually of crucial importance in some way or other.

If it is then Cullen, Evans and Burke have those lessons which are attributed to Alli, and to his partner Harry Kane who wandered the lower leagues as a part of the loan system. Parkinson’s approach to the game involves making sure you are never out of a game – never cast adrift two or three goals behind – and keeping the competitiveness for ninety minutes.

To not lose easily perhaps sums it up best and contrasts with a Walsall side who saw the tide turn away from them on Saturday and did not want to get their feet wet in it. From dogs of war to puppies in the space of fifteen minutes and incapable of stopping the game from going away from them. Parkinson’s approach would have been to close the game down at 0-1, and he has been criticised for that, but only once or twice have City been out of matches all season.

That approach has become the season and there is something about Parkinson’s approach – about following Parkinson’s approach – that is instructive to young footballers. Certainly they show the trappings of players who understand the nature of league football. Burke is committed against Walsall ensuring nothing goes past him. Evans has a poor first half but Cullen carries his team mate through a bad forty five minutes and the pair emerge imperious at the end.

Cullen carries his team mate. A 20 year old loan player prepared to put some of his performance into making sure his team mate’s performance can recover. If that does not tell you the scale of Parkinson’s achievement with this group of players nothing will.

And the achievement is in the approach and the approach relies on the inner circle of players who maintain an attitude throughout the club.

After all these years City have finally got good at loans.

Do you remember the last time?

Just as City start to master loan signings then loan signings disappear. The loan system as we are used to it in the Football League is changing and next season loans are restricted to transfer windows. No emergency bringing in Kyel Reid after an injury to Paul Anderson, no drafting in Lee Evans because things are not going how you want them.

Next season’s summer recruitment has to be more fruitful than this year or the club face a long slog to Christmas but the same was true this season and when Hanson wandered off with the match ball – two headed goals and a powerful right foot finish – one might have wondered if Parkinson were forced to work with the players he had would he have been able to get them to the play-offs this season? If Paul Anderson had not had his leg broken would he be doing what Kyel Reid is now?

In this case retrospect does not have to provide an answer.

Getting back to a better bad as City lose 2-1 to Walsall

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Lee Evans, Kyel Reid | James Hanson, Billy Clarke | Devante Cole, Mark Marshall, Jordan Bowery

Football, in the end, is a zero sum game. If a game if going to have a winner then – in a very real sense – it has to have a loser.

Between that starkness lays an admission that performance in football match can be anything other than zero sum. It is possible, and not uncommon, for both sides to have played well in a game one lost. Players can put in good performances against other players who put in good performances.

And so when Bradford City surrendered the seemingly endless clean sheet that had meant not conceding a goal in the previous two months it seemed hard to accept that the Bantams might have – in a first half which many grumbled through – that City had played well.

Played well but not as well as the host Walsall.

Walsall are an interesting team managed by the very impressive Dean Smith. Half beautifier/half pragmatist Smith sends a team which likes to pass the ball but does not marry themselves to passing football. That plays an open game but closes matches off with (frankly shocking) time wasting. That has room for flair players but takes care to take care of the oppositions.

So it was that when Rory McArdle would get the ball he would have the nuisance Tom Bradshaw closing him down in a way that central defenders seldom get closed down. That the midfield allowed Billy Clarke to drop back as far as he wanted and effectively ensnared the striker into the middle and pushed the Bantams pair of Lee Evans and Billy Knott deep. That the home side played the ball across the back to pull City one way when attacking having compressed them when defending.

Bradshaw took the first goal well after a long range shot got caught in McArdle’s feet and the striker enjoyed the spoils. A good finish but without the type of long range effort that Ben Williams has been gathering with ease for the last half a dozen games taking a ricochet it was hard to see how Walsall were going to score.

Which perhaps speaks to the general improvement that has been seen in City since the last defeat. After the loss at Colchester the idea of the first half at Walsall representing a low tide mark of form would have been considered surprising.

A bad half at Swindon saw City ship four goals and a summer of confidence. If the first forty five minutes against Walsall represent bad then one can reflect that it was only 1-0, and that Walsall had not dominated possession, nor squandered chances, nor had City not been in the game.

City cold have scored through a James Hanson lunging header, and lived with the home side who were fourth at kick off to such an extent that for Phil Parkinson’s side to come back into the game after half time there was little in the way of wholesale changes needed.

Evans and Knott pushed forward pushing Clarke forward and it was the Irish striker who headed on for Evans to hit a well placed drive across the Walsall keeper Neil Etheridge which nestled delicately into the low corner.

Tony McMahon – ineffective for a large part today – lashed a chance over. James Hanson had a mobile and burly game and saw one header pushed away by Etheridge. City looked secure in at least a draw but a poor exchange between Evans and Kyel Reid saw Romaine Sawyers quickly pass to Milan Lalkovic who beat Williams with a low, hard drive past him.

The speed from the ball being given away to it nestling in the goal was reminiscent of the early season woes but the character of the game – and of the players – could hardly be more different.

A bad – if you want to call it that – first half recovered from and in the end Parkinson’s side would have been left believing they could have had more even if they did not. Contrast that to the aforementioned season opener at Swindon when a good first half was so quickly undone and players so quickly surrendered.

If this is the new bad, it is better than before.

But football performance, to the wider world, is that zero sum game and the display gets little credit. Had Referee Mark Brown – who gave a handball decision against Bradshaw for jumping at Williams and having a flailing arm redirect the ball, and one against Hanson when the striker missed with a leap and saw his trailing arm carry the ball – decided that Devante Cole’s injury time effort that was blocked with two raised hands was of the same nature as those offences then we may well have been looking at today as a hard battled for draw.

As it is it is a hard battled for defeat. Which is zero. In the zero sum game.

If Parkinson is the Special One if City only get one point?

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary McKenzie, James Meredith | Andy Halliday, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott, Mark Yeates | Jon Stead, Billy Clarke | Francois Zoko, Alan Sheehan

As time ticked out on Bradford City’s 1-1 draw with Walsall at Valley Parade Andy Halliday – playing right wing – stood defensively containing the visitors left back preventing him from playing the ball forward.

Play the ball forward – or beat Halliday with the ball – and the Saddlers would have a chance to create a chance. And from a chance they could turn the point time would give them into three. And that could not happen.

Likewise had Halliday tried to win the ball then City could have fashioned a chance to do the same but to do so risked losing position on the field.

As it was Halliday kept his man on the flank and the clock ran down.

Is Parkinson a special one?

Have no doubt, dear reader, that Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City side against Walsall will not have returned to the dressing room to an angry manager. Parkinson will not have blistered the walls with shouting nor will he have been furious at chances missed. In fact the 1-1 with Walsall is exactly how Parkinson would want his Bradford City team to play.

Of course he would have wanted more goals to be scored and fewer conceded. He would have wanted Francois Zoko to make more of the chance that fell his way in the second half, would have wanted Billy Knott to have confidence with his right foot when given the option to shoot with that, would have wanted Rory McArdle to not lose his location and head the ball cleanly seven yards the wrong side of the goal post. He would have wanted all those things.

And he would have wanted Billy Clarke to have run back to replace Andy Halliday when Halliday gave the left hand side of the Walsall attack too much space that allowed Anthony Forde to cross and Jordy Hiwula-Mayifuila to head in after slipping away from the otherwise excellent Gary McKenzie on his d├ębut. We all wanted those things.

But we have learnt Parkinson’s method over the last 3 years, 177 days of his time at Bradford City and nothing suggests that he would unbalance his team to try take all three points when he had one. The failures that prevented City winning were in execution for Parkinson, but not in the planning.

Which raises an interesting question for City fans to consider.

At 2-1 down to Chelsea Phil Parkinson did not send his Bradford City team to play an all-out attack, nor did he at 1-0 down to Leeds, but those wins came from a combination of maintaining City’s position in the game (which is to say, not conceding more) and taking chances that presented themselves.

One can – and I have – criticise that approach as not doing enough to commit to winning a game against opposition who aimed to draw at Valley Parade but one cannot deny that the overall approach for games does not differ between matches.

Stuart McCall – for example – was fond of changing his team with the ebb and flow of the game. Chris Kamara was too. I would suggest that both McCall and Kamara would have looked at the Walsall equaliser as a signal to make attacking moves, bring on strikers and generally try to create a win.

And I found both managers created very exciting teams to watch. One recalls McCall’s City 2-0 down at Accrington Stanley only to win 3-2 following the introduction of Barry Conlon. Barry came on and caused chaos on the pitch that City benefited from massively.

One recalls the game at Addams Park Wycombe under Kamara were City went two down early on and Kamara brought on Carl Shutt to create a 253 which made for a massively unbalanced game which ended up as a cricket score in favour of Wycombe. At two down, Kamara thought, City were not going to win the game anyway so why not throw in some chaos and see what happens.

Parkinson is not a manager who enjoys adding chaos into games.

McCall or Kamara might have thrown another striker on at Chelsea, or today, and it might have worked. For Parkinson though staying in the game and working hard has worked.

But it has only worked at Bradford City and Colchester United. Supporters of Hull City and Charlton Athletic found Parkinson intractable and unadventurous and were largely glad when he left their clubs because of his tactics and approaches. At Valley Parade today he defended a 1-1 draw, and one doubts he would apologise for it.

If one is happy with Parkinson’s games at Chelsea, and at home to Leeds and Sunderland, then one is happy with the approach that created it then perhaps one just has curse bad luck today and regret that ill-fortune did not favour City today while accepting that other days it does.

Parkinson’s football is the application of pressure towards steady progress. To want him to be different is to want another manager.

Seven

The frustrations of the afternoon were obvious to all. With injuries to James Hanson, Filipe Morais, and Andrew Davies Phil Parkinson reverted to his 442 deploying Halliday on the right, Mark Yeates on the left and Billy Knott with Gary Liddle in midfield behind Jon Stead with Clarke playing removed from the front man. The result was a less pressing midfield that contained the game more.

Indeed Walsall seldom attacked through the middle and Liddle and Knott will reflect on a successful afternoon but Yeates was out of sorts on the flank and not involved enough to pick up the tempo of the game. Halliday was manful on the right. He was seven out of ten. Again.

The result was not so much a lack of creativity – chances came – as it was a misshape on the creativity. Stead held the ball up by fewer players ran past the forward line from midfield than had in previous games leaving him to pop the ball out from between his feet to anyone who might be near.

The supply from the flanks was sporadic. At one point Stephen Darby beat six men on a mazy dribble which was impressive but underlined the problem the players were finding. Without the reliable diagonal ball to to Hanson from McArdle City were less predictable but by virtue of that easier to play against. The paths to goal were improvised and Walsall’s backline stopped what they could. Dean Smith is a good manager and had his side well drilled.

But Smith, like Parkinson, hoped that what was created would tip the game his way but would rather not have lost. Walsall have not lost in eight away games and have their own trip to Wembley to plan for. City take up sixth place in League One.

It should have been a good day all round, but we have got used to better days than this. They are not long the days of milk and honey.

Parkinson has his thoughts on the bread and butter.

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