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.

I have in my hand a piece of paper…

…or rather a collection of a pieces of paper stapled together in the top left corner. It was passed to me by Archie Christie – it has his first name under the staple – as part of the day we spent with him as an illustration of the work that get done at City.

I’m not going to tell you what is in the papers for reasons which will become clear, dear reader, but I can tell you what it says on the front. Under a large Bantams’ Badge reads the words “Bradford City Match Assessment” and under that – written in pen (although this is a photocopy) read the names “Macclesfield T” and “Northampton T”.

The date reads “17th of September” which was – according to the inscriptions – a dry and windy day.

For years, decades, I’ve heard about football clubs who “do their homework” on the opposition, who “have them watched” and for the first time I have the information (or a part of it) which Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin will be looking over to plan City’s team.

It is a coincidence that paper I got was between is City’s next two opponents but probably not that scout Nigel Brown who authored the document – it carries his name – took in the match. Nigel Brown and Archie Christie talked about arriving at City and finding a filing cabinet marked scouting reports which had sub-divisions for each league and each letter in that league but absolutely nothing in them. If someone had been doing the homework at Bradford City before Christie and Brown then the dog had almost certainly eaten it.

It struck me in the weeks after embedding with him that Christie’s role at the club split down three lines none of which were having that much attention paid to them before his arrival. The first and most obvious was the player recruitment and development side which is an all encompassing one taking in watching players as well as the activities with the Development Squad. Then, most celebrated, is his deal making as seen in George Green’s move to Everton. Potentially Green’s move is the largest transfer between the fourth tier and the top tier of English football ever. Finally there is the homework side and preparing information for the first team’s manager.

Christie started the operation from an empty cabinet and was taking in a game at Halifax Town when he bumped into Brown – Brown told us that most Scouts know each other – and Christie invited him to come in and help with the network. The pair of them assembled a team of around a half dozen scouts up and down the country. There is a private scouting network which clubs can subscribe to which provides information on any team for a fee which might account for where Peter Taylor was getting his information on visiting teams but Brown is sceptical about the merits of that. It struck me that if the aim of scouting teams is to find weaknesses then a report that is freely purchased by anyone will detail faults that a manager would be a fool not to fix. Christie and Brown’s scouting – if it contains a note on how a team can be got at – is known only to City.

The scouts (including Christie and Brown) go watch League Two games, non-league games, reserve games and fill in the type of form which sits in front of me today. The approach is detailed. Reserve games are important in case of suspensions forcing a change to the starting eleven while non-league games (and higher reserve games) allow information about players who may end up being recruited by the opposition. Christie tells a story of Dagenham being undone by a player who had not featured in the first team but cropped up on a Tuesday night on the south coast to frustrate the Daggers.

There was an obvious question about what Christie’s scouting network had thought about the City teams he had faced. Christie did not say anything against anyone who had stalked the halls of Valley Parade before him but the impression I got was that at Dagenham City’s team under Stuart McCall was considered to be nice to look at but soft in the centre and easy to get at, easy to beat. I loved watching Stuart’s side’s play expansive football but I’d have to agree with that analysis.

The empty cabinet is an interesting idea but we know that in the past managers at City have talked about watching clubs – Stuart McCall’s post-game interviews would often include a reference to having seen the team before – but the image remains. John Hendrie once talked about how City would often see unknown faces around the training ground who turned out to be the opposition scouts finding out the team for Saturday.

So one assumes that there must have been paper in this cabinet at some point, files on teams and players filled by McCall (who took a scouting role for Norwich after he left City), Colin Todd or whoever, but the open space tells a story of its own.

That story involves the recruitment of a scouting network to watch teams 70% of which are based in the South. It involves a network of contacts built up who fulfil Brown demanding criteria. Brown worked with Kenny Dalglish at Blackburn Rovers having a hand in the signing of Alan Shearer for £3.5m and the sale of him for “£16.75m” (which is not the figure widely circulated, but the one Brown told us) after “getting the best years out of him.” After working with Dalglish – “He never watched games, loved his videos” – Brown moved onto Wigan Athletic as Dave Whelan started building his tier three club built to compete at the top level from the ground up. Brown is the sort of man you hope a scout is, quietly spoken but deeply knowledgeable and with a steel in his eye for a player. While Christie believes that desire is the thing to look for in a player Brown wants acceleration over five yards. The two are a great combination – Christie calls Brown “Nigel Green” and Brown smiles back. “I can’t do the negotiations like Archie can” he went on to say.

The scouts who Brown and Christie got to join City were tasked with watching City too – the City they watched being the one which Mark Lawn commented on last week – and gave their opinions. Perhaps these informed Lawn’s comments and Parkinson’s changes since he took over. Certainly there were recurrent themes in the reports which Christie and Brown got back and it seems to me that those have been addressed, or have been attempted to be addressed.

The aim of the opposition scouting networking is to provide the manager with everything he could want. It is then up to the manager and his coaching staff to decide how much notice he wants to take of that information. Not all managers are interested but what I have in front of me makes fascinating reading and I could see no reason why a manager would not welcome this with arms open. The Damned Utd (not an historical source but a cracking read) has Brian Clough refuse to look at Don’s Dodgy Dossiers on the opposition, real life tells us he had Peter Taylor watching every inch of opponents.

Without showing the report it is hard to illustrate what it has in it but the circulated version of a report on Newcastle United written by Andre Villas-Boas when he was scout at Chelsea offers similar (although City use numbers and not pictures of shirts) and is indicative of the level of research which goes into preparing for a game.

There is no Bradford City Official Secrets Act (aside from Christie tell us not to go showing the report around, it has not left my office physically or virtually since) but I think it is best if what we know about them stays under wraps for now but I recall watching City over the past thirty years and seeing the odd event that would have been captured in this document and would not have poised a problem. The Paul Merson/Benito Carbone short corner that unlocked City in the Premier League, the wall of tiny Wigan players who created themselves in front of City’s wall at a free kick in the late eighties only to break off and leave many bemused and little else, Peter Jackson and Chris Branston’s antics from a corner at the McAlpine in the mid part of the decade.

Simple things like the fact that a number three might play in central midfield and not left back to more technical and detailed lore. The experience of watching City play Northampton Town at Valley Parade will, for me, come with a crib sheet and I wonder how that will change the way I see the game. When he was Coventry City manager Gordon Strachan was fond of appearing on Match of the Day saying how he and his players had worked all week on doing one thing and – for reasons of their own – the players had decided to do something else. I wonder if I will see the same.

Northampton Town arrive at Valley Parade on the back of a 3-0 defeat by Port Vale which saw questions asked but in generally rude form. They are seventeenth in the table.

City go into the game on the back of a disappointing result at Hereford United and have before them a familiar set of criticisms. Matt Duke is criticised because he could have been better positioned for the goals that Hereford scored (or so it is said) although the best position is always “in the way” and “not in the way” seldom has any merits. Duke’s single clean sheet was last time out at Valley Parade against Torquay United.

Luke Oliver and Marcel Seip are expected to retain the central defensive positions although Steve Williams is returning to the reckoning. Liam Moore and Robbie Threlfall will be full backs although looking at the report I might be… No, best not.

Michael Flynn’s two game suspension sees him sit out the match and allows Adam Reed and Richie Jones to take the middle positions with Kyel Reid wide left. Phil Parkinson could be tempted to drop Jamie Devitt to wide right, recall Mark Stewart for that position or give Chris Mitchell his place in the side back. City have missed Mitchell’s delivery in recent weeks. David Syers’ injury and Flynn’s suspension open the possibility of Scott Brown getting a place on the bench.

Craig Fagan is starting to be cemented into the forward line up in James Hanson’s absence though injury. Hanson may return and take a place in the starting line up although if he is not fit Parkinson may continue with his policy of having a man lead the line and another feeding off him and deploy Devitt or Stewart behind Fagan. All link men – the position in question – are judged by a standard of Peter Beardsley and Stewart seems most able to find space and move the ball on then make for an attacking position but Devitt’s game could be tweaked to do the same.

Such talk is the talk of scribbles on paper though – attacking diagrams done on beer mats – and football is played on grass and not paper. Some pieces of paper, however, certainly are worth a read before the boot sets foot on turf.

Picking a football manager out of the crowd

There is no footage of Andre Villas-Boas playing football.

The new Chelsea boss did not light up the International stage for Portugal, nor did he play for his favoured club FC Porto. He did not achieve minor success in the shadows of the bigger clubs. Andre Villas-Boas, 33 and the youngest Premier League manager since Paul Jewell, did not play football at all.

That is probably not correct. As one reads the story of the rise of Villas-Boas one doubts that he has never booted a ball in earnest but unlike Arsene Wenger, Sven Goran Eriksson and perhaps Jewell who had minor careers Villas-Boas has no clubs on his CV. He is – for all intents – a football manager who has never played football.

He has some good company too. Carlos Alberto Parreria won the World Cup with Brazil in ’94 but never played the game while Arrigo Sacchi, in the other dug out when Parreria’s side claimed the lump of gold, also never played having come into football via a career selling shoes but on the whole even – if like Monsieur Wenger – the most one amounted to was a few lower league games the vast majority of football managers have played football.

But need they have? Is having played football a requirement for a manager not only at the top level, but at any level?

Villas-Boas has a few Portuguese leagues and a Europa Cup to suggest his name to Stamford Bridge and while his appointment will raise eyebrows he is proven. One wonder what the reaction should a League Two club plump to give their big chair to a man who has never got his boots muddy.

There is precedent. Cambridge United once appointed – in a caretaker role – their marketing manager as gaffer but it seems that either my memory or a gentle airbrushing of history has forgotten his name since the early 1990s. Current Tranmere Rovers manager Les Parry made the increasingly popular move from Magic Sponge man to Manager having never played the game.

The track record is hardly inspiring though and in the annual Bradford City March Manager recruitment no name of non-footballers seem to emerge prompting the question would we accept a Bantams Boss who has never played not just for us, but for anyone?

The key, perhaps, is in the skills each person believes the football manager must have. None of them are exclusive to former players but most of them are best tested within the arena of playing the game. The ability to know a player who will do “the business” for you as a gaffer is helped – perhaps – by twenty years lining up next to ten other case studies while the domain knowledge which comes from 500 games of being the subject to different tactics must help when one starts to form them. While these things come best from a life in football as a player the story of Villas-Boas suggests that immersion in football can come in other forms than just pulling on the shirt.

Chief amongst the issues for the manager who has never played would seem to be commanding the respect of the players and it is oft said that when a manager has “done it all” the players will look up to him. Glenn Hoddle – who became frustrated when his players could not pass as he could – provides the counterpoint but like his colleague with dirty boots the never a footballer manager draws his respect from winning things. The one thing which unites Villas-Boas the never played, Arsene Wenger the might as well not have bothered playing, the decent enough like Sir Alex Ferguson, and Kenny Dalglish the highly decorated player is that they are employed on the basis of what they have won now, not what they did kicking a ball.

Dalglish though was given Liverpool aged 36, Ferguson got to Aberdeen in his early 40s, Wenger took longer still. It seems the better the playing career, the easier the foot in the door. The never playing manager puts his CV on a pile with former internationals, club legends and experienced gaffers. There is little to suggest his name.

Perhaps Villas-Boas, Sacchi, Parreria and in his own way Les Parry show that the manager who can get past that rigour might have something extra to offer. Perhaps if you can outshine names which inspire awe in football boardrooms then you have that extra something which makes a – if one pardons the phrase -a special one.

However Villas-Boas begs an obvious question. If having played football is not needed to be a football manager could any of us be potentially successful? Could the person shouting from the stand behind Peter Jackson be a better choice for Peter Jackson’s job than the manager himself? Could you pull a better football manager out of the crowd?

The horror transfers

Is he worth £35m? To Liverpool, No, to Newcastle he is priceless.

So was the discussion over Andy Carroll’s exit from St James Park to Anfield – one has to wonder if had Peter Taylor joined the Magpies three weeks ago what he would have thought of losing the target man (and if Luke Oliver would have replaced him) – and the impact of the totemic striker’s exit seems set to weigh heavy on the minds of Newcastle United supporters, Liverpool fans having all but forgotten that they have sold their other “World Class Player” to Chelsea this same day.

Until a ball is kicked the winners and losers of transfer deadline day seem to be mostly in the mind and as Geordie supporters beat themselves up over the exit other football supporters with a twinkle of empathy will recognise in their own club’s history when a player exited but seemed to take more with him.

Those are the transfers that hurt. Those are the horror transfers.

As City fans we’ve seen this kind of exit taking emotion a number of times. When Stuart McCall left the club in May 1988 to join Everton it seemed obvious that the years of progress were coming to an end but there was not an unexpected departure. McCall, and team mate John Hendrie, were expected to leave having giving promotion a good try and so when they did there was a grim resignation that the good times – unless the money was reinvested well and it was not – were probably over. They were not horror transfers.

Likewise when dynamite Des Hamilton or Andrew O’Brien left the club to go to St James’ Park few felt the exit in the heart. O’Brien left when City were all but down while Hamilton was iconic for his goal at Wembley but his exit to Newcastle United for £1.5m was considered to be a nice bit of business and – if anything – the Magpies over paid for a young player who had looked good, had potential, but not shown consistency as yet.

The manager who signed him: The same Kenny Dalglish who is spending £35m today.

Those transfers broke banks rather than hearts and for the real horror transfers one must look elsewhere. The exit of the much respected Eddie Youds in 1997 to Charlton Athletic was unfathomable with Chris Kamara obviously still wanting the player but Geoffrey Richmond announcing the that books had to balance. Promotion followed a few years later and so Youds is a footnote rather than a true horror.

A horror transfer leads one to question the direction the club is going and for the answer to echo back: “Nowhere.”

A blow softened by the team reshaping to bigger and better was the double departure of Don Goodman and Martin Singleton to West Brom. Both players had been part of the promotion side of 1985 and their exits seemed to rob City of attacking talent. The arrival of Rocket Ron Futcher with eight goals in ten games healed all wounds.

For the real horror transfers there can be no happy aftermath, no consideration of how the player who has been so cruelly ripped from one’s grasp might have fit into a team that did well, and for that we must go to Christmas 1994.

John Docherty – who seemed to be a football manager so evil as to be picked out of a badly written backstory in Roy of the Rovers – decided that as his team did poorly the entire squad would be put up for sale. Unsurprisingly for a sale entitled “Getting rid players we don’t want” most of the men had few takers however the talented defender Lee Sinnott and heart of the team Lee Duxbury did attract interest, from Huddersfield Town.

Any straw poll of the better member of that squad would have put both players towards the top and a host of lightweights Docherty signed from his previous club towards the bottom yet it seemed – and it came to pass – that the moustached twirling evil Docherty would be selling out players, so he could bring in more of his mates from Millwall.

Both Duxbury and Sinnott ended up celebrating promotion for Huddersfield Town while City simply meandered nowhere robbed of character and watching our players perform for our rivals. The heart sinks to recall it and the money paid – a combined fee of less than was paid for Tony Adcock – was frittered away aimlessly.

Eventually both players came back to Valley Parade, but the horror never faded.

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