Three more years as Phil Parkinson signs up but deserves more at Fleetwood

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Mark Marshall, Billy Knott, Gary Liddle, Josh Morris | James Hanson, Devante Cole | Paul Anderson, Luke Evans, Steve Davies

A false premise

Bradford City would have beaten Fleetwood Town with some ease were it not for a mistake by Ben Williams where the keeper fell behind the line trying to catch Jimmy Ryan’s free kick.

Phil Parkinson – who signed a three year contract to carry on as City manager this week – will have been pleased with how his team responded. James Hanson equalised after a great run by Devante Cole fed Josh Morris who crossed to the number nine who finished well.

And Cole hit the post later, and headed wide, and Hanson flashed another wide and with the last action of the game Steven Davies headed in a Lee Evans free kick which was ludicrously flagged offside by a linesman who – frankly – was pretending that the part of the rules that mention “benefit of the doubt” are simply not there…

The three types of mistake

It turns out that there are only really three types of mistake in football.

There is the type of mistake in which a person tries to do a right action and fails. This is the striker missing the open goal, the defender bringing down the player he tries to tackle, the goalkeeper who – in this case – goes behind the line with the ball.

We see this kind of mistake all the time in football. The stray pass is less highlighted than Williams’ mistake but is a version of the same. That Williams made the mistake is more costly than a Billy Knott pass that went past Morris and into touch does not mean the essence of the error is not the same.

A person tries to do something and does not achieve it. Mistake number one.

One is left with the conclusion that to blame Williams for the defeat is to punish him by virtue of the position he plays. It is – in this consideration – no more of a good idea to apportion blame to Williams than it would be to Devante Cole for trying to hit the goal but hitting the post.

Dropping a player for making a mistake is an obvious managerial mistake. It presupposes that the replacement player will never make a mistake – which is not true – and it sets the precedent that all players in the team are one slip away from being out of the team.

A team cannot play with confidence if it is one bad pass, one off target shot, one slip on the line away from the Reserves. A good manager knows this.

The second mistake

The second is the mistakes in which a person thinks he is doing the right action but is not.

This is the kind of mistake which defines how limited a player is. The best example to come to mind is Paul Jewell who – before he was a great manager and a decent centre forward – was a terrible winger who would sprint past a man well enough but never raise his head when crossing the ball.

Every cross randomly shot into the box for no one at all. It did not matter if the actions Jewell took of firing the ball over without looking were taken well or badly they were the wrong actions (or they were only right by chance) and so they were mistakes.

We deal with these mistakes all the time saying things like “that is the sort of player he is.” We do it with James Hanson who scored the kind of finish which he rarely scores because his skills are more battering ram than fox in the box. We did it with Hanson’s former strike-partner Nahki Wells who could sprint past any defender and would have considered the kind of goal which Hanson claimed at Fleetwood to be all in an afternoon’s work but seldom involved himself in the approach play as Devante Cole did all afternoon.

Which is not a criticism of Wells but an acceptance that some players do the wrong things – this second type of mistake – and some do not. Cole’s afternoon in front of goal could have been more fruitful – misses are mistake one – but his all round play promises so much.

Cole involves himself in build up, he moves into position in the box, and he thinks about what he will do on the ball before he gets the ball. Even when these things do not come off – be it hitting the post or blazing over the bar – they have such scope.

Cole does not make this second type of mistake but Ben Williams does when he pushes the defence out further than he can cover when he comes off his line. If you are convinced that this is Williams’ problem then Saturday’s mistake was neither here nor there. I want a goalkeeper who can control the area in front of him and Ben Williams does not do that well enough to be a part of a successful team.

As it is there seems to have been a waiting for Williams to make a mistake – a type one mistake – before he can be dropped which should it happen seems undignified and troubles me. If I make a value judgement on how Williams keeps goal I find myself wanting someone else but that is an honest decision. Parkinson using Saturday as a pretext to make the change he wanted to but could not seems like a decision fudged.

The third mistake

The third type of mistake a person can make in football may not really a mistake at all. It is to follow instructions that bring about the wrong action. It is for a full back to stay back and hold the line rather than attack because those are the manager’s instructions. It is for a midfielder to not chase down the ball but to keep in position. It is for Rory McArdle to play a long pass to James Hanson because that is how Phil Parkinson has instructed the team to play.

One can hear these described as mistakes often. “Just hitting it long” seems to be a bugbear and when Steve Davies came on for Cole late on as Parkinson looked to consolidate what he had rather than go after what he wanted at 1-1 there were noises that the manager had brought the wrong player for the occasion on.

Davies, as it happened, scored with almost the last touch of the game heading in after a free kick but it was ruled out – another type of mistake – but he remit was to come on and hold the ball up front which he did as Parkinson’s game management came to the fore.

Another game without defeat builds confidence within the squad which was Parkinson’s aim from the opening exchanges of the season. Players who were lagging behind the line are coming up to speed – Paul Anderson was his most impressive today – and players like Billy Knott are being given challenges which they rise to.

The premise of Parkinson’s management at City has always been gradual improvement through a squad which stood together. Parkinson’s progress is not about smash and grab raids and it is about not losing, and taking a point even if you did deserve more.

The obvious quality of Phil Parkinson and how he could be the decisive factor in 2015/16 Promotion

The season starts and one thing is obvious: Bradford City will be promoted.

That is obvious. It is obvious because I’ve read it in FourFourTwo and it is obvious because Bradford City beat Champions Chelsea last season and that must mean that Bradford City can win League One.

It is obvious because City have brought in some real quality in the form of Paul Anderson and Mark Marshy Marshall, and while seeing Andrew Davies go is hard seeing Mark Yeates and Andy Halliday go is not.

And it is obvious because City finished a place off the play offs last season, and every season Phil Parkinson has improved Bradford City’s league finish, and as we all know no one ever gets in the play offs and does not win.

It is obvious and because of that it is a thought that has passed the mind of even the most negative Bradford City supporter.

No matter how many layers of cynicism a person might surround themselves with one cannot escape that feeling on a sunning Tuesday morning that this year is the year that City return to the top two divisions for the first time since May 2004.

But wait…

A Barnsley website who had, one assumed, lost Jason McKeown’s email address asked me to preview the coming season. They asked what my realistic view on the Bradford City season was. I chewed my pen (metaphorically speaking) and considered beating Arsenal, beating Aston Villa, late serge and beating Burton, Wembley again, beating Chelsea, getting to Wembley for a major Cup Final.

It struck me that at Valley Parade of late realism is in short supply.

And perhaps in that context it is excusable if all of us go on a little fantasy safari when considering the prospects for the season that starts at Swindon on Saturday.

The counter to those thoughts are the huge gulf that was obvious between Bradford City and Bristol City in the mauling of last season and the general lack of character in the team around that time. Reality comes in wondering if the Bantams have a Marlon Pack/Luke Freeman pairing as Bristol City had or a back line as strong as the one that took Preston North End up? Or a 25 goals a year striker?

At that point obvious stops being the operative word.

The multi-polar world

The temptation is, of course, to take the team one follows in isolation and to consider that if your team has done well in recruitment, or preparation, then it will improve in absolute terms in League One. League structures are always relative.

You can be better than last year (or worse) but your position will on the whole be decided by the strength of the other teams in the League. Was the Benito Carbone team in the second year of the Premier League worse than the one which finished 17th the year before?

It certainly was at the end of the season but after the other win over Chelsea in August 2000 was the team worse or was the problem that there were no Watford, Wednesday and a woeful Wimbledon dropping like a stone to finish beneath them?

Football is a multi-polar world. Your league achievements are necessarily measured against the other teams around you. It might be obvious that City have improved (or not) but have they improved more than the teams around them in League One?

Looking at the teams in League One this season first day opposition Swindon Town lost in the play off final last season which normally denotes a challenger but they seem to have lost a lot of players and are blooding a new team.

Relegated clubs can be strong but few will fear Millwall considering how easily the were brushed aside eight months ago at Valley Parade. Wigan Athletic have a lot to do to end a losing mentality which has come into the club since it got to an FA Cup final three years ago. As for Blackpool it is very possible they will carry on where they left off last season and finish bottom.

The likes of Peterborough United, Doncaster Rovers, and Barnsley would all argue that they have as much of a right to be considered promotion contenders as anyone. Scunthorpe United, Bury and Fleetwood Town have spent money to get where they are but not Bristol City levels of money and even if they had sometimes when you spend money you get Aaron McLean.

I have a belief that Burton Albion are worth considering as having an interest in the play off places. They are a club that seem able to transcend managerial changes and maintain steady progress. Coventry City have potential and in Tony Mowbray they have a pragmatic manager.

All of which leaves Sheffield United as being everyone’s favourite for promotion. They reach semi-finals, they bubble under in League One, they have a strong fan base and get great noisy crowds. They seem to have everything that a club that is trying to get out of League One wants.

Except for the manager.

They have their second choice as manager.

Nigel Atkins manages Sheffield United now but they wanted to take Phil Parkinson to South Yorkshire. It seems that the Blades boardroom came to the same conclusion that echoes around the City manager.

Parkinson: Special One

If all league football is relative then perhaps management is absolute.

Perhaps a manager who improves a team always improves a team. Perhaps when Parkinson is given the chance to manage – a chance Hull City did not give him in his brief time at that club but did at Colchester United – he will always improve a club as he has Bradford City.

It is hard to draw a conclusion but Parkinson’s admirers are many and growing with every achievement.

From the outside when looking at the twenty four teams lining up in League One some teams have spent more, and some teams have more season ticket holders than others, but no team has a better manager in a better position to manage his club than Phil Parkinson at Bradford City.

Parkinson has carved a space out for himself. He arrived at a club where Mark Lawn was accusing the players of not passing to a prospective signing, that had had a manager who (reportedly) felt bullied out of the club, and where the dysfunctions at the club had become endemic.

The success Parkinson earned on the field gave him the scope to create the role he wants off it. Parkinson is as powerful a manager as Bradford City have had but still had challenges to his role. One could worry about how success would be maintained should he exit if one wanted but more important would be ensuring that he is allowed to do his job and shapes the club around that.

We are, perhaps, lucky that the Sheffield United approach and the moment Parkinson had to bend the knee to the boardroom were separated by six months. Imagine starting this season without Parkinson. Where would thoughts of promotion be then?

When looking at which teams will be promoted what is most often the decisive factor? It is not in the quality of players but rather the quality of manager. The thing that unites the clubs that went up was that they had experienced managers who are spoken of in terms of their quality.

What Steve Cotterill, Karl Robinson and Simon Grayson offered last season is the thing that Phil Parkinson offers this. Likewise when Jos̩ Mourinho got over his defeat at City by winning the Premier League it was Рwe are told Рbecause he was the best manager. Success Рthe theory goes Рgoes to the best manager.

That, at least, is obvious.

The continuing problem with Bradford City’s promotion push

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Gary MacKenzie, James Meredith | Christopher Routis, Gary Liddle, Mark Yeates | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Andrew Halliday, Francois Zoko, Matthew Dolan

When Fleetwood Town scored the second of their two late goals to equalise a game that Bradford City were strolling in one could not help but wonder two things: Just how the visitors from the East Coast found an extra two gears after a performance that suggested they had finished playing for the season, and just what Phil Parkinson would be saying to his Bradford City players after the game.

On the first point one has to give credit to Fleetwood and their manager Graeme Alexander for turning the game around. For long periods they looked uninterested in not losing the match, and incapable of doing to stop Bradford City winning without breaking into a run.

Nathan Pond equalised in the last moment capping a very good display from the defender but for long periods of the game the visitors were pedestrians watching the football go by. It speaks to their character that they came back into the game from the position they did, but it should worry Phil Parkinson that they did.

Which moves onto the second point which was the problem with the level of application which the Bantams put into the game and how this differs from Monday night. If Monday night was City exhausted this was City playing without wanting to expend too much energy.

Things started well enough when Billy Clarke slipped down the left and Jon Stead put in the ball from close range and Christopher Routis finished a fine move just after half time to suggest that the game could be won without much of a stiff challenge from Fleetwood but during the afternoon City lacked a level of application which would have won the match with ease.

Which is not to minimise the tiredness of bodies – it was obvious that the players are still suffering the long season – but when that tiredness is allowed to manifest itself with inaccurate and unproductive play then it becomes a problem and that was a problem today.

To win matches players must show character and showing character is a lot of about wanting to take up a position that gives a team mate an option for a pass rather than sitting behind an opposition player. Showing character is about making sure that when one is the only target (or one of few targets) for the pass then one attempts to take up a position where the pass is easier.

City’s midfield two of Routis and Yeates, and Clarke playing off the front man, were all too ready to watch the ball being hit long to James Hanson and Jon Stead from the safety of marked midfield positions. The full backs delivered little and the front two took up few threatening positions to be delivered too.

These issues compounded but would not have been a problem were it not for the late rally that Fleetwood mustered. When the visitors got going they found a City team who were not controlling the game so much has enjoying the remainders of it.

And one could point at Billy Clarke’s last twenty minutes where the ball passed over his head far too often and he engaged in neither attack or defence or François Zoko’s failure to hold the ball and preference for trying to spark a low percentage chance out of every ball rather than high percentage retention but to do so would be to inadvertently make a virtue from a performance which seemed better than it was up until the final moments when it got the result it deserved.

Without putting more on the line City will not win games, and not win promotion.

Which is not to damn City’s chances. In Parkinson we have a manager who has made a small art out of getting a team to believe it is better than it is, and then making the players that as good as he told them they were. Think back to the games before Millwall at Valley Parade and remember how Gary Jones returned with people suggesting that City had not improved the side since the summer.

The FA Cup run has created the idea that City are too good for League One and – on our better days – that is very true but those better days come from levels of application that far exceed what was seen today in the last ten minutes for sure, but in the previous eighty too.

Parkinson knows this of course. His stock in trade is getting overperformance from players. Not for nothing is Jon Stead’s game at Chelsea called the absolute best single player performance of the season.

Which is the continuing problem with Bradford City’s promotion bid. As with the recently finished FA cup run the push for promotion requires City to overperform often and – when things do not favour Phil Parkinson’s side – they are dragged into a plethora of clubs in the middle of League One.

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