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 José Mourinho got over his defeat at City by winning the Premier League it was – we are told – because he was the best manager. Success – the theory goes – goes to the best manager.

That, at least, is obvious.

The refereeing of “So What?” as City beat MK Dons 2-1

The Team

Jordan Pickford | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, James Meredith | Filipe Morais, Gary Liddle, Billy Knott | Billy Clarke | Jon Stead, James Hanson | Mark Yeates

As Sky TV pushed a camera into his face at the end of Bradford City’s 2-1 victory over Milton Keynes Dons Jon Stead was challenged by the presenter as to if he had committed a handball in the build up to the winning goal and answer succinctly “It hit my hand, but so what?

“So what” indeed?

As he did MK Dons Karl Robinson manager was fuming. Robinson watched the game from the stands for most of it self-imposing another game to a punishment the FA gave him for abusing Christopher Routis. Routis would have been seated not ten yards away and so Robinson remained in the stands.

When charged by the FA Robinson had used the Matthew Simmons defence when accused of mild xenophobia. When attacked by Eric Cantona at a game in 1995 Matthew Simmons had insisted he had incurred the wrath of The Frenchman with the words “Off, Off, Off! Its an early bath for you Cantona!”. The FA heard the defence and dealt with it in absentia of anyone from City. Indeed it seems that no one including Routis seemed to care about Robinson’s offence or punishment.

Robinson was furious about something Routis did that night, and was furious about Referee Paul Tierney‘s decision not to give a handball decision against Stead in the build up to the winning goal in this entertaining 2-1 encounter. The defeat at the boggy Valley Parade cost MK Dons the top position in League One but Robinson was smart enough to admit that – handball or not – his side were second best all game. Handball? Well, so what? MK Dons were not going to win anyway.

That Referee Tierney had not given the decision was typical of the sense of confusion which swirls around football in relation to a subset of the Laws of the Game including those around handball which the authorities seem uninterested in solving. If Tierney was pressed now he would say – no doubt – that Stead’s handball was not a deliberate handball and because the word “deliberate” features so heavily in the Laws of the Game it thus was not a handball offence even if the ball did hit Stead’s hand.

In return the MK Dons defenders might ask if they is supposed to pay the same attention to the hands of opposition players as they do the feet or head if those appendages can be used to control the ball, albeit inadvertently. We might all ask that if the Stead offence was on the goal line (either) then would it be considered to have not been an offence?

The Laws of the Game have created a margins for errors to creep in that is significant, and the game’s attitude to those errors seems to be “so what?” and that mistakes happen and are a part of the rich fabric of football to be debated.

Those debates will probably not have even been at the back of the mind as Stead played a low ball to James Hanson who kept a cool head to slot in a winner completing City’s comeback from a goal down. Stead’s form has given Hanson a new role in Phil Parkinson’s City team and the striker plays wit the relief of not being the only target. The ambition of Hanson slotting between the legs of the keeper suggested a player, and a team, who believed that they could create chances in the game. No need to snap at the first one that comes along and all.

Returning to offences that were not offences, and saying “so what”

Elsewhere Filipe Morais is given offside when walking away from the ball when Referees (and Assistant Referees) are instructed to only give a free kick when a player interferes with play and as such Morais – who had not turned to the ball and so was not interfering with play although certain had the potential to do so – should not have been called offside.

This offence (which is an ill-fitting word) happened in the corner of the field and had virtually (or perhaps actually) no impact on the game. It was the wrong decision but it was an unimportant decision and so the reaction is “so what?”

Players have got used to wrong decisions. Phil Parkinson has said that he has told his City players to not try claim penalties any longer because of the infrequency of their awarding some of which must be justified. A few moments after MK Dons took the lead Billy Clarke slipped through the well organised backline to control a Gary Liddle pass and slot in to equalise. Before he celebrated he looked over his shoulder at the linesman, ready for the wrong decision to be made, and to be told that yes he had scored, but so what? It would not count.

No flag came, and the first of three important home games for The Bantams turned to City’s direction.

Alarmingly frequent

Dele Aili will be joining Spurs for £5m in the Summer and scored when Jordan Pickford and Andrew Davies got in all sorts of trouble as for a moment neither seemed to understand that the least of all mistakes was to clear the ball for an opposition throw in. Later in the game he kicked the ball at Jon Stead while Stead was on the floor.

He did not kick the ball hard, nor did anyone really complain about it, and he accepted his booking with the shrug of the shoulders which suggested that all this would soon be someone else’s problem but everyone saw someone deliberately kick the ball at another player who was on the floor.

The Laws of the game say that this is violent conduct but there is enough grey area that a Referee like Mr Tierney can make up his own rules, if he wants to, and perhaps he is right to want to but should football games be Refereed on the question of “so what? So what if I don’t do what it says in the Laws of the game, I’m doing what I think it is right.”

The regularity of these “so what?” moments is alarmingly frequent.

Pick a random five minutes of a random game and you’ll see a few instances where they grey area of the laws of the game is interpreted by the officials. Some offences will be ignored while some non-offences will be given and the judgement on these will be given to a Referee who – with the best will in the world – is being asked to do impossible things.

Was Jon Stead’s handball deliberate? Tierney is not able to read Stead’s mind, just guess it. Was Morais interfering with play? Tierney is not able to look at a future of the game where he did not blow the whistle, just guess at it. Was Aili trying to hurt a player when he kicked the ball at him and accidentally kicked it too softly or was he trying to kick it to land short and hit the ball to hard?

When faced with questions like this the football authorities seem to believe that getting the decision wrong is not important if it happens in situations which are not important. Most Referees mistakes are not important. Is it bad for Bradford City that Aili has not been suspended? Not especially. Is it bad that Morais’ offside was given? Not even slightly. Is it bad that Stead’s handball was not given as a handball?

For Karl Robinson and Milton Keynes Dons it would seem so, for the player himself his response said much more than the two words he uttered.

It never shimmers but it shines

The Team

Jon McLaughlin | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Andrew Davies, Carl McHugh | Kyle Bennett, Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle, Adam Reach | Aaron McLean, James Hanson | Chris Atkinson, Gary Thompson, Matthew Dolan

Bring me lucky Generals.” Napoleon.
People said I was a lucky golfer but I found the more I practiced the luckier I got.” Gary Player.

If there was the shimmering of a change in luck in Carl McHugh’s last minute winner on Tuesday night then James Hanson’s winner after seventy eight minutes was a shine through the clouds.

Hanson followed in a ball back to Milton Keynes Dons keeper David Martin expecting little but was rewarded as the custodian performed a pratfall leaving the City striker to put the ball into an unguarded goal.

It was lucky. A fluke. Good fortune.

And it came after nearly eighty minutes of football in which both sides committed little forward seemingly for fear of losing. City drove more of the match but not enough of it to apply pressure on the visitors goal.

Other than an enterprising effort from Hanson that came after the striker had got the ball from one of very few crosses and taken it under control well and apart from the visitors getting a great one handed save out of Jon McLaughlin there were few threats at goal. Stephen Darby – brilliant today – cleared a ball off the line which was City’s Martinian mistake.

It was difficult to see where a breakthrough would come for City – or for the Dons – until that error but Parkinson will take credit for the solid rearguard defence. His maxim that games are won by clean sheets and punishing mistakes was never truer.

City’s effort earned the reward but had that misfortune befallen rather than benefited the Bantams the visitors would be able to say the same. It was the shine of luck

Luck though Parkinson’s change to a 433 when Chris Atkinson joined a three in the midfield just before the goal allowed him to seize any initiative that was there. Its hard to know if that has the decisive impact but fortune favoured the brave.

Both Parkinson and opposite number Karl Robinson drilled in the need for application on the field and both will feel that they have got it. As a side note Robinson’s fulsome praise for City in the week is respectful enough to not be an application but does suggest that should they have won the game and Parkinson be “in trouble” then the club might look at the MK Dons boss as a replacement.

That was the case though and Parkinson strengthens his place at Valley Parade with two 1-0 wins going into a third home match on the bounce when struggling Stevenage visit next week.

In the last week Parkinson had returned to his original managerial philosophies of a solid team and a clean sheet above all else – Colin Todd called him “the enemy of football” for it – and today the attack suffered for it. Hanson and Aaron McLean showed signs of an understanding but mostly working from long punts and not often enough in the game.

Adam Reach needs to forget any good things he read about himself this week and start doing what he did to gain those reviews again. Kyle Bennett looks increasingly like a player which too much work needs doing with to make him useful. As soon as Garry Thompson arrived on the field City improved.

Both Bennett and Reach were problems today. Parkinson needed creativity from his wide players and neither offered it. Bennett came short when he should have been looking for passes from Gary Jones behind the full back and when he did get the ball his control let him down. Reach did not do enough right on the left and needs to get back to being harder to play against.

This is a problem and – without creativity from the flanks – Parkinson’s game plan is left looking for luck and misfortune.

Today he got both.

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