Nahki / Armstrong

And so the rumours continued.

Greg Abbott announced that Bradford City were interested in signing Adam Armstrong from Newcastle United while The Times are reporting that Armstrong’s parent club are now interested in Nahki Wells who, should he move to St James’ Park, would trigger a percentage clause in the transfer deal that took Wells from Bradford City to Huddersfield Town and give Bradford City the cash to spend on a striker.

The breathlessness of the above is indicative of a change in football over my eighteen years writing this website.

It used to be that football supporters lived for the football matches. Now the matches are a frequently ignored data point in the continuing narrative of squad gathering. Hull City’s victory in the first two games of the Premier League season is a quirk in the story of a team with too few players.

Bradford City beat Coventry City, Milton Keynes Dons and Peterborough United in eight days but this has not stopped the conversation around the club being entirely about who should be brought into – or moved out of – the squad.

Improving the squad may or may not be something that is needed this season – that would be a retroactive judgement made in May 2017 and speculation before that – but it is hard to imagine what football supporters would do in August if they were not talking about squad gathering.

Football supporting is now Pokemon Go with young men filling in for Pikachu.

Two

Nevertheless there are two things to note about the current cycle of rumour around Adam Armstrong arriving on loan from Newcastle United.

Notice how it is Chief Scout Greg Abbott and not Manager Stuart McCall who is talking about Armstrong. In fact it is Abbott who leads much of the conversation about recruitment to the club.

This in itself is in keeping with Abbott’s remit at Valley Parade and no bad thing but it is as stark a contrast with Bradford City up to the Summer of 2016 as one could see.

When Archie Christie had Abbott’s role he was geographically abused for having taken too high profile a role in transfer dealings and taking control away from the flailing Peter Jackson.

It is almost impossible to imagine Phil Parkinson’s Chief Scout Tim Breaker fronting a discussion on a target as Abbott does. In fact the first time most City fans heard Breaker’s name was in the revelation that he had left the club with Parkinson to join Bolton.

Abbott’s increased profile is a good thing. For football clubs to get better at transfers there needs to be a group-think approach to recruitment. Too often deals are done by managers to best serve the aims of that manager rather than the club.

The £250,000 that Phil Parkinson was able to reuse from the deal that took Oliver McBurnie to Swansea City was reused in the manager’s budget that season but as McBurnie starts to impress in Wales it is worth wondering if the long term aims of the club have been best served in that deal. I’m not the only one to have worried that after Parkinson, Lawn and Rhodes there is little left behind at Valley Parade.

Transfer group think is not popular in the English game – Liverpool’s transfer committee is seen as a problem – where any control taken from the manager is seen as a bad thing inherently.

my years of football have convinced me of it.

So Abbott speaking for the club is a change but and so it what Abbott is saying.

Should Armstrong join City on loan – perhaps as a result of Wells joining Newcastle United and freeing up the younger forward to move on – then City will be able to play Armstrong and Jordy Hiwula up front. Obviously this are two loan players.

City’s bid for Matt Green and the reported – or perhaps that is hopeful – interest in Adam le Fondre suggest that the alternative to a young loan signing not is an older permanent deal.

Which is a contrast to Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s stated aims when the new owners arrived.

Much was made of the fact that City could find value in signing released players from Premier League Academy football, turning their careers around, and developing them. That was how Bradford City would scale from being a League One club to being a club able to get into – and stay in – The Championship.

Hiwula or Armstrong or Josh Cullen might play well for City but the value for that will go elsewhere. City might get promoted because of their contributions but – we are told – when they are gone City will not have a Championship quality team.

Which suggests that either the plan has changed – let us hope not – or the plan was never there – let us very hope not – or that City are caught up in the Pokemon Go of squad gathering as much as the supporters are and that a deep breath would be best for all.

What are we trying to achieve and is signing Armstrong the way to achieve it?

On the day that Wells was to join to Newcastle United then City will be richer than they were. How is that money to be spent? Is it a scatter-signing for a player in August 2016? If it is how is it going to work better than when Stuart McCall scrambled for signings in his first spell as manager when the budget fluctuated wildly?

Which returns us to the central question of 2016 which is how are City without Parkinson, Mark Lawn, and Julian Rhodes going to be better? Indeed are they going to get better? There is no reason to assume an era of success will be followed by another and every reason to assume it will not be.

Is The Rahic Development Plan still being followed? Is it being followed by everyone at the club? If it does then it would make more sense rather than bringing in Armstrong to find a promising teenage striker we own or can own – such as Reece Webb-Foster – and give him the development time.

And while doing that take any money that comes from a resale of Nakhi Wells and use it to fund infrastructural additions which will make the club able to stand up in the Championship.

Club / Preview

It will become obvious, dear reader, how little new Bradford City owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp are like former Bradford City owners Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes and how that difference is going to change the club over the coming years.

It was noticeable when talking on Radio Leeds that City’s James Mason told a story about how Stuart McCall – when he was approached for the City job in 2007 – was told by Julian Rhodes that had he not accepted the role then the club may fold. Indeed we might recall that the weekend after McCall’s final game Rhodes was faced with the same existential question over the club.

As Lawn and Rhodes recede into City’s history – where they will enjoy a luxurious place no doubt – one can expect lips like Mason’s to continue to loosen and the stories to tell themselves. When they do Bradford City will have moved on.

And moved on with Rahic and Rupp who are starting to generate warmth amongst City fans. Rahic took to a flat cap in Wednesday night and impressed people. His plan is to prepare a club for The Championship and allow football osmosis have its effect.

Having kept the season ticket prices “low” – of in German terms “high” – there was a move towards lower match day prices to £20. One wonders how far into a German model the pair will go and one assumes not to giving 50%+1 of the club away to supporters.

Rahic and Rupp’s changes to the club are glacial. There is much talk about improving the infrastructure around the club which had been previously underfunded with what seemed to be an effort from previous manager Phil Parkinson ensuring that as much of the budget was spent on the first team as it could be. It was noticeable that the new Bolton Wanderers manager has noted that he was not wandering around his new place of work in awe of the facilities he now had at his disposal.

A stark contrast to Benito Carbone’s statement that when he arrived at Bradford City he could find “Nothing that resembled a football club.”

City’s trusty facilities in Apperley Bridge have been subject to improvements but one wonders how much of Rahic and Rupp’s planning might include a move away to somewhere bigger, better, and more well suited. Peter Taylor had agreed a move to Weetwood in Leeds and Geoffrey Richmond was keen to build new facilities at the top of the M606.

City’s scouting structures have never been especially well stocked but in Greg Abbott Rahic and Rupp – and Stuart McCall – have appointed the highest profile person in that position the club have ever had signalling an increase in importance of the role. Forget Abbott as a former player City have never had a former manager in the role.

The importance of Abbott will become more obvious in time but from Rahic’s statements it seems that something of a transfer committee – or at least a transfer group think – has been build up where manager, chairman and Chief Scout get heads around a table to discuss not only the current transfer hunt but the plans for the future.

Assuming that Abbott’s future is not tied directly to McCall’s this gives City a possibility of institutional retained knowledge. Also it summons up the image of Parkinson and his Chief Scout Tim Breaker sitting down with Mark Lawn to talk over – rather than tell – which players they should be signing.

When do these changes manifest themselves? Slowly, one suspects, but in a determined way the fabric of the club around Bradford City is going to be different from this point on and different in a way which builds into place structures which have long been needed.

Unfamiliar / Preview

Matthew Kilgallon joined Bradford City on a one year deal from Blackburn Rovers bringing a level of excitement to some supporters at the end of a summer where things at Bradford City fell apart and were put back together again.

The usefulness of Kilgallon’s recruitment will be seen in time. He and Nathaniel Knight-Percival joi in the central defensive position and Nathan Clarke and Rory McArdle remain. This gives Stuart McCall’s Bradford City three or four – depending on your view on Clarke – strong choices to start in the middle of the defence.

At the other end of the pitch things are different and attacking options are thin on the ground. McCall arrived in June to find James Hanson still at the club he had left five years ago but one could argue that Hanson and his colleagues players in attacking positions: Mark Marshall, Paul Anderson, Billy Clarke; need improvements on last season’s performances to be significant.

Teams score goals, not players and while four of those mentioned above could be more creative than converting – the flick down from McArdle’s diagonal ball is an act of creation – none could be said to have created enough.

Tony McMahon’s withdrawal to right back form the right wing – where he spent a season under Phil Parkinson – is a curious move from McCall exactly because it removes the one player in the Bradford City team who excelled in creation last season.

Drop

His name dropped into the preview it is worth acknowledging that Phil Parkinson is going to have more of of an impact on Bradford City 2016/2017 than Stuart McCall will. Parkinson – who of course exited for Bolton Wanderers in June – built as much of a monolith as football allows a manager to create in the modern game at Valley Parade.

Parkinson took his backroom team with him to Bolton and his backroom team – it is reported – took everything they had worked on with them. Once again – just as with the situation a few months prior to Parkinson’s arrival at Valley Parade – the file cabinets that contained scout reports were empty and the structures around a football club were scant.

And it is this way because Parkinson wanted it this way. The former Bradford City manager had had experiences sharing out the power at a football club previously – most notability at Hull City – and found it wanting. Parkinson fought a hard fight against unspecified directors with unspecified roles to make sure that he had some control in every aspect of the footballing side of Valley Parade and he won those fights.

There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop young players and so Stuart McCall arrived to find no young players with first team experience. There was no pressure on Parkinson to create a squad which was sustainable from one season to the next. There was no pressure on Parkinson to develop a squad with resale value until new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp arrived at the club and – within a few weeks – Parkinson was gone.

Rahic and Rupp arrived to replace Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes as Bradford City owners and began to talk about a future in which the squad was shaped around recycling the waste product of Premier League academies.

That last statement sounds needlessly dismissive and should not. If one looks at the example of The Chelsea Academy of the last fifteen years one can only think of a single player – John Terry – who was not waste. Millions are spent on players who are discarded for not reaching and elite standard but are able to be turned around and made into useful footballers.

A production line of turnaround players is as close to a business model as the game at lower levels has ever had and one which Rahic and Rupp believe they can benefit from. Clearly the club they bought was an ill fit to achieve that.

Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes freely admitted that they could see no other way of the club going forward than someone arriving and injecting more money and, as the ultimate result of that paucity of thinking, they were prepared to give Parkinson total control of all football matters.

Which is not to say that Parkinson should not have enjoyed carte blanche to do any or all these things as he sees fit. Parkinson’s methods showed constant year-on-year improvement and perhaps would have continued to do so but without the manager ceding some control they would not have aligned with the owners.

Parkinson used many short term contracts, and Parkinson used many loan signings, and Parkinson was not entirely interested in developing young players, and if the club are now interested in long term permanent signings of young players then it starts from a negative position.

Which is a long way of saying that the 2016/17 season – the first post-Parkinson season – is defined by the decision taken by Rhodes and Lawn to allow Parkinson to be the entire centre of the footballing side of Bradford City. There was no institutional retention of knowledge – the scouting cupboard was bare – and that is the result of choices made before June 2016, not after.

Five

Phil Parkinson’s final finish for Bradford City was fifth in League One and it is that which – rightly or wrongly – Stuart McCall will be measured against in the next twelve months as will Parkinson at Bolton Wanderers.

Both measurements could be unfair. For Parkinson his record of first season success is thin and the Trotters would be better to be prepared to wait.

For McCall he is a manager who started late and without structures which are necessary. McCall has not walked into a Southampton where the manager is an appendage to a well run system. He is at a club which – both rightly and wrongly – allowed itself to be defined by its manager and who has now gone.

There is much work to do to replace Parkinson and while Rahic has an idea of the shape that he would like the club to take in the long term there is no reason at all to believe that any of the work ahead of McCall, Chief Scout Greg Abbott, James Mason or Edin Rahic can be achieved without any negative effect on performance.

That Bradford City that finished fifth last season is gone and progress must now be judged anew.

These are unfamiliar times.

Timeline / Reboot

There is a difference between you and me. We both looked into the abyss, but when it looked back at us, you blinked – Bruce Wayne, Crisis

There was a point in the history of Bradford City where the club took one turn, and could have taken another.

To be more accurate these points happen all the time but watching Stuart McCall take a Bradford City through pre-season at Guiseley I ended up thinking back to the days of January and February 2007 when Dean Windass was allowed to leave City and join Hull, and Colin Todd was sacked.

Todd’s contract was up at the end of the season and it was an open secret that Julian Rhodes wanted McCall to replace him. The need for totemic best player Windass seemed to be over with Rhodes convinced that the Bantams had enough points that David Wetherall could not possibly get them relegated in his time as manager (which he did) and had he not Rhodes might have used – not certainly not needed – an investment from then supporter Mark Lawn.

And had Rhodes excersized restraint and kept Todd, or Windass, or both, or taken another option then McCall may well have arrived in June 2007 to the very type of situation he found himself in some nine years later.

But these things happen all the time. Had Notts County’s one yarder in the first round of the League Cup 2011/2012 gone a foot lower then there would not be a Phil Parkinson legacy – such as it is – for McCall to adopt.

That legacy is not to be understated either. Parkinson has left City in rude health. The leanness of the squad in summer which caused so much consternation is purposeful and a feature of the majority of clubs outside the higher reaches of the game where lengthy deals on players are more often liabilities than assets. Only the foundations are secured in League One football these days.

And the foundations off the field are secured.

Parkinson – as far as the story is told – never walked into the boardroom and demanded money the club could not afford for players and given how easily led the boardroom seemed to be that is a good thing. That the squad last season was patched with loan players rather than panic purchases says a lot.

List the players from last season who City owned to still be at the club this season and names like Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby – both absent today and for the start of the season following operations – would be iterated through. Ben Williams and Jamie Proctor would not.

“The owl of Athena spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” – as Hegel should have said – and it seems that dusk has not come yet for Parkinson.

Rather than a reboot of 2007/2008 and McCall’s first time as Bradford City manager in League Two it seemed that the manager was on the road not travelled, and playing in what could have been.

What was was an entertaining encounter. It would be wrong to talk about Guiseley as more than an extended and expensive training session and so to pick out specifics rather than trends seems to miss the point of the exercise.

Those trends though seemed positive.

The young players who stepped up from the lower ranks which Parkinson ignored and played with the élan of The Lisbon Girls allowed out to party for the first time. Daniel Devine’s name suggests itself.

The trialists looked lively in a way that seemed different to those Parkinson brought in. All looked capable and some looked impressive. The wheat from the chaff comes in spending time with the characters and seeing how they fit into a unit which is what games like this are all about.

It was good to see George Green make a long awaited debut. George Green and the subject of paths not taken is interesting assuming you remember the name.

And of the new signings Nathaniel Knight-Percival did not have much to do while Nicky Law Jnr set up an equalising goal for Tom Hateley (trialist) to score from. That moment when Hateley equalised revealed the game for what it was. The Bantams were happy to kick the ball around but would not go home in a defeat. The gears shifted up after falling behind showed a team working fitness rather than working to win.

And all seemed new. Parkinson has left something good at Bradford City but his exit seems to have taken with it some of the stolid tenancies which mired City’s thinking. All that was good seems good and all that was not seems new.

Which is not something that one would have expected.

Incommensurable / McCall

Officially announced new Bradford City manager Stuart McCall needs no introduction at Valley Parade and so let us not waste words with them.

And let us waste no time heaping praise on his playing career at City, at the FA Cup Final, at the World Cup, at Rangers. We know it was good, and he knows that we know it was good. We’ve been here before. Stuart McCall does not start his time at Bradford City ab ovo.

By appointing McCall Edin Rahic has joined a story en media res. The new City manager is the old City manager and in some ways he begins exactly at the point where he left the field having lost 1-0 to Bury in February 2010. The League Cup final, promotion at Wembley, Chelsea, Sunderland et al become a separate timeline that ended at Millwall and Phil Parkinson’s last game.

Rather than nothing being known about the new manager, everything is, and that brings with it a collection of nervousness about known quantities. Uwe Rösler would have brought with him questions, not so McCall.

With McCall we have answers on past behaviour, or at least we think we do, and the gnarling feeling in one’s stomach is the acceptance of that. It is the feeling of knowing what your birthday presents are.

McCall has been at Rangers, has been at Motherwell, and has been at Scotland and those qualifications need to disavow the most embarrassing of the criticism of him in the past – that he was “not a proper manager” – but from those experiences McCall needs to have learnt much to correct that course that he was on when he walked off the pitch after the Bury game five years ago.

Things that went wrong have to be put right in order that McCall be successful and some successful things need to be retained.

Ethic

McCall’s predecessor Phil Parkinson created teams which – through a peerless team ethic – dragged out results playing a direct game centred around not conceding goals. McCall’s Bradford City teams were in many ways the opposite of that. His teams worst characteristic was (and I exaggerate for effect) their ability to turn a poor decision about a throw in into a eight game winless run.

This is the greatest difference between the two managers. Parkinson build his team with an internal belief based on a spirit within the dressing room. There were times when this did not work and it was obvious that this did not work and times when it spectacularly did. It is impossible to imagine the McCall’s teams of 2007-2010 slowly grinding themselves back into a game at Chelsea when 2-0 down.

McCall’s teams, when they worked, were belief bubbles that players floated on. Remembering perhaps McCall’s best game – the 4-1 win over Exeter City – it was a projection of what Joe Colbeck could be to Colbeck and to the rest of the team that spurred the performance. This approach was not open to Parkinson who told the players that their achievements are the sum of their inputs rather than the fulfilment of their buoyancy.

Likewise ten minutes after Barry Conlon came on 2-0 down at Accrington Stanley the game was won 3-2 after the Irish striker caused mayhem in the penalty area. McCall cast the game plan at The Crown Ground aside in a way that Parkinson never did. When 2-0 at Chelsea (admittedly a different proposition) Parkinson’s team did not change how it played other than to play better. McCall’s ability to add a randomness to proceedings is a strength at times but was a weakness too.

Not only a weakness but a cause of weakness. When the belief is not in the dressing room and the player’s belief in each other’s abilities it is always subject to being assailed by external pressures. When Parkinson’s teams lost they looked at themselves and saw how they were good, and that how they would come good over time, but when McCall’s teams lost the looked at themselves to see all the ways they were bad.

Needless to say one hopes that the lessons McCall has learnt include an understanding of this and built it into his management philosophy.

Hope

Which leads onto a worry about losing the capacity that Bradford City under Parkinson had of being able to maintain a position within games. The term “game management” has become overused to the point of de-definition but recalling McCall’s celebrated 3-2 win at Accrington is to forget the times when games went beyond his side and they had little character to bring them back.

This is not uncommon but was uncommon under Parkinson who only rarely saw his City team more than a goal down. The ability to keep a game with grasp, even if it could not be grasped, is something that encouraged belief in the dressing room. City under Parkinson never lacked hope.

Yet so much of McCall’s managerial style was based around hopefulness (which is to say that his teams were never to be described as negative) that the nature of defeats like the 3-0 reversals to Rochdale and Accrington at Valley Parade came at a huge cost. To chase games at 1-0 down defensive responsibilities would be abandoned which would bring defeat, not victory, closer.

Those games were painful to watch in the stands and did damage to the squad. They were the counter to the sensational comeback but seemed to do more damage than those comebacks did good.

Another term used to the extent of de-defined is “stability”. It is not just manager retention, or squad retention, it is an environment in which lessons taught are understood and worked on, and improved, rather than one where behaviour patterns are random or seem to be random. McCall needs to have understood how to take the lessons from defeat but to not dwell on defeat and he needs to ensure that practise continues at City.

McCall the coach wins the praise of players for his ability to work with them but what is the point of having a coach to improve players if – as was the case – every twelve months the squad is changed drastically? Edin Rahic’s hopes of bringing in post-Academy players from top clubs seems to tie in with McCall’s skills but it will only work if there is a lengthy commitment to a stable development environment.

McCall can do this – arguably he can do it better than Parkinson – but the whole club has to be aware of the necessity of stability beyond the idea of just having the same manager standing in the middle of chaos.

Environment

Chaos perhaps being an apt description of 2007-2010 at times.

Stuart McCall created three teams at Bradford City and they can be summerised thus: The first one, the one that had a load of money thrown at it, the one that had a load of money ripped out of it; One might want to pretend against evidence that money is the governing factor in football but experience tells us otherwise.

It is rare that one finds a disharmony and successful football club. There are exceptions to this rule but more often it is accurate as it seemed to be in McCall’s first period as manager of the club.

Because there is a telling of history that is entirely manager-centric that is applied to Bradford City over the last decade. That Phil Parkinson arrived and – by virtue of his being a better manager than all who proceeded him – the club turned around.

This empowerment of the manager to the auteur of success is very common in football as it is “>in history. It speaks to something romantic in us all – that a single person can create wonders – and that romance is the hope that one such person might come and turn the fortunes around.

And the counter to that is that anyone who is a manager at a club that does not succeed has failed, rather than the failure being common or shared, as seems most often to be the case.

The reason Liverpool have not won the league since Kenny Dalglish left is because Kenny Dalglish Great Man theory says obviously untrue.

There is another view of history which would have it that Bradford City in Stuart McCall’s first time at the club was – to be frank – a mess.

This is an unpopular view and one that people are criticised for voicing. The perceived wisdom is that the club was making purposeful and direct steps back to the rude health as early as 2007 and that left it in good condition when Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp bought it. That wisdom does not correlate with what we know of the times.

You can pick your own example of this. What was going at Valley Parade when a deal was done with Royal Montegnée that brought Willy Topp to City as the first in a partnership? Did McCall want (W/B)illy and if not why did he get him? What was going on when Phil Parkinson – in the glow of the greatest FA Cup shock of all time – was seemingly forced to onto bended knee to apologise to two directors for pointing out the obvious problem with the pitch at Valley Parade?

What happened to the link up with RIASA? Was it a success or not? Why did the club employ Archie Christie to do one job and the manager Peter Jackson to do another when it would be generous to say that the two men did not work well together? Who wanted Christie at the club? Who didn’t? Why was Paddy Lacey signed on sixteen times the wage of Nahki Wells? Why did City end up paying £250,000 for a player that no one seemed to want at the club? Why was one of the chairmen serving up a spiteful fish course?

Only the most fanciful retrofit of history can call this a club pulling in the same direction.

Return, mentally, to the idea of the Bradford City squad being called in on a Sunday to play a game for a South African player that Mark Lawn had “discovered” and then having the game called off half way though and to be accused – according to then manager Peter Jackson – that they would not pass to the new “star player”.

That Jackson even let it happen, that Rhodes let it happen, that the architect of it Lawn let it happen, says so much about the state of the club at the time.

It all changed – for regrettable reasons – when Lawn took a step back and Phil Parkinson was able to take a team to Wembley. This consolidated Parkinson’s power at the club and all other directions were ignored, and retroactive considered ignored, because the idea of upsetting Parky by making him bring his team in to try out the South African lad risked too much.

And so the club had a single direction and benefited from it.

Which is what Stuart McCall needs to have learnt from his first stay at Valley Parade. When he was given a budget that required one squad to be ripped up and another build McCall should have said “no, that is not what I’m doing here. It will not bring us closer to what we want.”

If McCall is a different manager now this is how he needs to be different. He is a “legend” but that is an honourific afforded by the supporters and not the boardroom. He needs to use his legend status rightly rather than have it used to mask any number of curious goings on.

Fr example When one of the chairmen stopped talking to Stuart McCall in 2009 he should have asked supporters – publicly if he had to – just how the eight month sulk helped move Bradford City in the direction they wanted?

If a legend is not on the side of the fans he is not a legend.

A football club needs to have a single direction and everyone is adjunct to that. If the direction comes from the manager – as it did under Parkinson – then everyone at the club needs to stand behind him and anyone who does not needs to get out of the way.

If the direction comes from Edin Rahic then McCall needs to either understand that and be able to agree and support Rahic’s direction or he needed to have not taken the job.

But he has taken the job and while at the moment it is unclear as to what the shape of this new era Bradford City will be McCall, Rahic, Rupp et al need to be of one mind in this.

There is a view of the history of Stuart McCall as Bradford City manager that paints him as a capable manager in what was an increasingly dysfunctional situation. It is a view that writing BfB during the course of the years, and talking to the people involved, I subscribe to.

His capabilities are shown at Motherwell getting them into the Champions League qualifiers, the dysfunction at City was seen by Peter Taylor, and by Peter Jackson, and all the many messes which made the rise under Phil Parkinson so remarkable.

It is hard to say if that is the case and if McCall was a good manager in a bad situation, or if McCall is the failure in the Great Man theory that some say, or if it is some other history as yet untold about to shape the course of our club.

As Stuart McCall is welcomed back to Bradford City for a fourth coming we might be about to find out.

Selection / Manager

First this then what? While the history of BfB remains unwritten if I were to follow our friends at A Post in doing so there would be a large chunk of that about the process of recruiting managers.

Because while Bradford City have not had to appoint a replacement manager for some five years in the five years before the practice was becoming so common as to have started to be tedious.

The transition from Peter Jackson to Parkinson was something of a disorganised fumble with the candidates being interviewed not understanding the remit of the role they were applying for. Colin Cooper is believed to have told Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes that were he to get the job he would sack Chief Scout Archie Christie and Rhodes reply – as reported by Christie – was that Christie’s input on the manager would weigh heavily on the process.

At the time Rhodes and Lawn had wanted John Still the then Dagenham and Redbridge manager (who is now manager of Dagenham and Redbridge again) to take the position but were turned towards Parkinson as a better option.

Jackson’s appointment was a Sunday afternoon nonsense where it seemed that the club had decided that as a former player Jackson could skip an interview process for who would replace Peter Taylor and go straight to the manager’s chair,

Jackson had been working in a care home when he got the call to become a football manager once more. In my view he was barely adequate in his performance and the problems of his appointment were those of his departure. No matter how Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp go about recruiting the new manager for Bradford City one doubts it can be worse than that period of the club’s history.

Peter Taylor had been an outstanding appointment to replace Stuart McCall bringing to the table a seniority which McCall lacked and a proven track record of success. Taylor’s time at the club is rightly not fondly remembered but it is his professionalism rather than the lack of material which stopped him from sticking a few boots in on the way out.

The Shane Duff fish story speaks volumes.

Taylor’s appointment is perhaps the model that Rahic and Rupp – and any other chairman looking – would best follow when looking for a new manager. Selecting a candidate who had achieved success is important but much more important are multiple successes across different situations.

This adaptability is probably what attracted Bolton to Parkinson. Parkinson has worked on a budget at City at first, and at Colchester United, and he has shown an ability to take on big occasions at Chelsea, Arsenal et al.

There is an element of confirmation bias in Parkinson’s appointment.

The news that Chief Scout Tim Breacker is leaving with Parkinson comes as music to the ears as the club badly need to readdress that area. Parkinson’s recruitment was becoming an problem at Bradford City. Of the players he was happy with Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and Kyel Reid were all picked up a long time ago and if there was a faultline between Rahic and Parkinson along the idea of recruitment then one would struggle to suggest that the manager should have been allowed to carry on doing things the same way.

Likewise following the defeat to Millwall I expressed a concern that Parkinson had created a kind of Oakland Athletics in League One (The Oakland A’s being the subject of the book Moneyball) which was able win in the grind of week to week football but were found wanting at the sharp end of the season.

That concern was just that – a minor concern, rather than a fully stated question – and of course is denied by memories of Aston Villa away and Stamford Bridge but while the strength of Parkinson was his team’s ability to grind out results and sneak 1-0 wins that was a weakness when overplayed.

One should never be critical the the days of milk and honey ended but Millwall game illustrates this concern. In one of the forty five minute periods – the first – the Londoners dominated City and in the others the Bantams were arguably the better team but did not repair the damage done.

Perhaps more significantly to the concern is that in those three forty-five minute periods that followed Parkinson’s side did not seem as if it could repair the damage of being 3-1 down. Keeping game’s tight and nicking goals works over a longer period, less so in a two legged tie.

But would overplays this at one’s peril. Parkinson was an exceptional Bradford City manager and as Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp look for his replacement they must hope to keep the best of Parkinson.

Parkinson’s teams were seldom out of games. Rarely were the side over a goal down and always did it look capable of getting something out of an encounter. One of the more compelling reasons to follow Parkinson’s City on the road was the fullness of the ninety minutes of football. Never being out of a game was a watchword of the previous manager, and hopefully will be one of the next.

This was in no small part down to the spirit Parkinson’s side had which was second to none seen at Valley Parade. One could write books about how the players aided each other through bad moments that stopped bad games and probably still not understand exactly how that team spirit worked. Suffice to say whatever it is needs to remain, as to Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle the chief proponents of it.

Finally Parkinson’s pragmatism needs to be a factor in the new manager especially when confronted with the stated iconoclasm of Rahic and Rupp who have a clear idea of how they want the Bantams to play (“High pressing, exciting”) but may have to accept as Parkinson had that tactics are created to suit players and situations. Parkinson’s final season at City was defensive by necessity. The new manager, whomsoever he may be, should hope to make sure that he understands this.

Wandering / Parkinson

If Phil Parkinson is going to Bolton Wanderers – and at the moment it seems that he is not – then Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp would be confronted by the perennial problems of Bradford City which dominated their predecessors tenure.

How does a football club give the manager total control while retaining institutional knowledge of how to bring success?

If Parkinson and his team were to leave, and it seems that he will not, then what at Bradford City is there to carry on the good work he has done? There is no Director of Football, no powerful Chief Scout, no Youth set-up turning out talent, no facilities that guarantee quality. It seems that the whole of the footballing side of Bradford City is Phil Parkinson.

Which is no bad thing.

Parkinson is the start and end of the football side of Bradford City because – one suspects – he wants it that way. His experience sharing power in a structure at Hull City that worked out very poorly. The club is shaped the way Parkinson wants it and that is probably why Parkinson is not looking to leave Valley Parade any time soon.

The manager as “club builder” is a massively out of fashion thing in football at the moment. Even the word “manager” is often not used to describe the man who picks the team who is often described as a “Head Coach” or “Chief Person Selection Architect” or similar. The structures to support the man who picks the team have long since bled over the lines that a person like Bill Shankly or Sir Alex Ferguson would have considered the remit of the manager.

And this may be no bad thing – too often clubs give a former player with no business, scouting, or planning experience the final say on everything at the club and a remit of a few months to start to show progress. Sharing the responsibility around a football club is a very good idea from the club’s point of view. The manager does not always agree.

Take, for example, the story of Rafa Benitez at Newcastle United. People all over Europe are scratching their heads as to why the Spaniard would go from The Champions League and Real Madrid to Tyneside and the Championship in the space of twelve months. The answer seems to lay in the responsibility Benitez has been promised by Newcastle United. He has been told he will have the final say on everything. That he can have the club builder at a club which (considering Leicester City are reigning champions) has genuine potential in European football.

No club of the size of Newcastle United in the rest of Europe wants a club builder manager. The offer is too tempting to refuse. Benitez could turn it down and find a club who want him to pick the team and sit on a transfer committee – and that might be a club that wins a league – but to control everything is to be the sole author of any success.

One assume that the same offers come into Parkinson – albeit under the radar – and are met with a response that unless control is near total then the City boss will stay where he is. Leicester City’s Claudio Ranieri is praised for how little of the set up he found at Not Filbert Street he changed. Winning the Premier League is massively impressive but it is a shared success.

Any success Parkinson has – and a promotion and a cup final is pretty impressive – he is the sole author of. The difficulties Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes had – and Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic now face – is how best to support Parkinson’s efforts without bleeding over the lines of his responsibilities.

Buy / Bye

Bradford City have been sold to German company ER Sportsgroup for £6m with current joint-chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes being replaced by Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp.

Rahic and Rupp will arrive on Tuesday and will continue to work with some of the current Bradford City staff but – troublingly – are attached to unsavoury noises about preferring Uwe Rösler to Phil Parkinson as manager.

This choice on manager is an early the acid test of Rahic and Rupp. I have said before that there is nothing about the playing side of Bradford City other than the things Phil Parkinson brings and to remove Parkinson would be to buy the club and throw away one of its defining features. To do that is just not the mark of sensible men.

However on Tuesday when Rahic and Rupp outline their plans for the club – and the newly formed ER Sportsgroup is called “group” indicating that the pair might have bigger plans than owning one League One team – should those plans include any form of youth development then one can see where problems with Parkinson’s methodology would arise.

Rahic and Rupp would do well to focus on improving recruitment at Bradford City in the short and medium term and recognising that Parkinson best serves most medium term aims. The club works better in The Championship and with better recruitment – and one notes Rahic has worked in scouting at Stuttgart – it would get there in short order.

However should the long term vision differ from Parkinson’s then – ultimately – they would replace the manager but in doing so without something very impressive to replace Parkinson with in terms of a structure and a pattern of success they would be damaging what they have bought.

If Rösler is arriving to serve that aim of assisting Parkinson then he is very welcome. There will be more on this, one suspects, in the weeks and months to come.

On Lawn and Rhodes one gets into matters of hagiography. One can read no end of appraisals of how they have saved the club in one way or another and the most nauseating of these are those with claim to speak for all Bradford City fans.

My views differ and if that is something which will hurt your sensibilities then return to the streams of praise and glory elsewhere, otherwise progress duly warned.

While he is a crashingly superb chap Julian Rhodes has proved himself dubiously effective at Bradford City in the tasks that he most often credited with.

Rhodes and Lawn are talked about as, indeed talk about themselves as, custodians and stewards of the club but Rhodes was there when £8.5m was paid out in dividends from the club which would spend a decade or more riddled with debts. Rhodes was there when the club went into administration with huge debts having received some of those dividends.

Rhodes was there when the club’s main assets (Valley Parade) was sold to one of its own board members in a deal which benefits that board member but will financially hamper Rahic and Rupp and has been a millstone for the club ever since. Rhodes was there when the club went into administration again in 2004 and watched as £500,000 from supporters pockets was what kept Bradford City going.

Rhodes was there when the club took a 9% above base rate loan from a new director which – were it not for Parkinson’s team’s historic League Cup final appearance – would still be outstanding and costly now.

I know Rhodes has done good things for the club and I appreciate the efforts he has put in and will be sorry to see him leave for reasons that – when I read the above litany – I cannot fathom. The impression seems to be that Julian Rhodes has always wanted to do well and perhaps, had he not ended up with the characters in the boardroom he did, he would have.

But that is not the case, at least not when one considers the club were in the Premier League and ended up at the foot of League Two via two spells in administration.

Perhaps the most honest history on Rhodes’ time at the club is that he represented rationality amongst irrational men and without him the forces of irrationality that allowed a football club to sell its home, to give its money to its directors, to come so close to non-existence, would have been more damaging that they have been.

As it is history named Rhodes the man who took City to promotion twice, and not the man at the club that went into administration twice, and that is nice for him.

History is set to lavish praise on Mark Lawn too, although one wonders for how long.

Lawn is a strange character to meet. Myself and Jason McKeown (mentioned again, like some forgiven child of mine) had a stand up argument with Mark Lawn where the joint-chairman had a tantrum at us for not having painting him in a better light in an interview that painted him in a good light.

Because the tantrum fell in the middle of an interview we were conducting with someone else it was recorded on Dictaphone and made for a curious listen later. Lawn’s main gripe seemed to be that we had been accurate in our reporting of what he had said and that were we more professional – Jason is, I’m not – then we would have changed what was said to something that was not said, but that he wished he had said, because it would have been better to have said that and not what he did.

I mention this because a lot of what I read about Mark Lawn seems to be from people who have had not had the pleasure of meeting him but judge him and his contribution entirely on the progress of the club.

Lawn gets credit because the last few seasons at Bradford City have been very good to watch and there is a reflection from that. How much impact he had on that, how much he created that, is something that will come out in time no doubt.

Lawn was – before Phil Parkinson’s arrival – the joint-chairman who took it upon himself to organise a training match to give a trial a South African player who – according to a ludicrous scene described in former manager Peter Jackson’s book – was not good enough to be a footballer. Lawn then abandoned the game because the players in the other Bradford City squad would not pass to the inferior newbie. That the City squad were involved in the charade Jackson details goes a long way to describing Valley Parade at the time just before Jackson left to be replaced by Parkinson.

He may also be the joint-chairman who – according to former player Shane Duff – used to insult the players performances as he served them lunch in the (admittedly excellent) 1911 Suite at Valley Parade. Imagine being at your work and hearing something like “here is your fish, and by the way you are garbage at your job”. Imagine being the manager trying to build a successful team in that environment. Imagine believing that doing that was a way to bring success. The mind should boggle.

These are two examples, many more come through grapevine. Many who encountered Lawn had a story of curious behaviour but vested interests and the desire to stay on the right side of the club are powerful motivators. With the need to stay in his good graces no longer important you might start to hear a second side to the story of Mark Lawn’s seven years at Bradford City and his role in the progress under Phil Parkinson.

You can choose to believe – Dear Reader – that Lawn went from failed scout (and, perhaps, demotivational chef) to architect of football success in the space of a few months if you wish but I would suggest that if you do then you convict yourself of naivety.

Your choice.

What should not be accepted though is the suggestion that Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn saved Bradford City.

Lawn’s claim to this has always been a mystery to me. Lawn invested in the club and a good deal of the investment – a loan and some funds – was spent on a promotion campaign with an increased playing budget. There was no promotion but the club did not go out of business as a result.

Had Bradford City not spent that money then the club would have achieved at least the same outcome but – considering later it would get to the League Cup Final with a smaller budget – there was no reason to suggest it would be endangered without it. Just that City wanted to spend more money to get promoted. The only danger of a bust was, not for the first time in City’s history, the result of trying to get a boom.

If Mark Lawn never offered his money to City then City would have just had to make do with (in one season in L2) a £1m smaller wage budget and still not have been League Two’s lowest spenders.

Mark Lawn as the saviour of City is a myth.

Julian Rhodes’ credentials to the honourific are a little better.

Rhodes and his family have invested into the club as well as taking out of it but given an appreciation of the comprehensive view of his time one might be tempted to suggest that Julian Rhodes saved the club from himself, or at least from situations in which he was involved.

It would be wrong to minimise the efforts Rhodes (or Lawn’s for that matter) has put in to Bradford City but equally wrong to overstate them. If he is to be credited as saving the club then he must also be attributed as being there when the club was put in danger.

Which is the crux of the matter.

When Bradford City was put in danger in 2004 following a schism between Julian Rhodes and Gordon Gibb it was not Rhodes who saved the club. It was you.

You and other supporters.

The supporters of Bradford City, and the community of Bradford and football at large, found around £300,000 in the space of a few weeks which was used to fund the club over the summer where football clubs have no income.

This ensured that when Rhodes wanted to return, and for that matter later when Lawn wanted to invest, there was a Bradford City at all.

Without that £300,000 – £300,000 raised by you and people like you and added to by Rhodes (see below) – Bradford City would have not been saved. Neither joint-chairmen at the time (Gibb and Rhodes) would fund a summer without income. When August and paying customers came round again Julian Rhodes was able to launch a CVA that gave him ownership and control of the club without Gibb and – according to the Kroll administrators at the time – with no debt.

That there was a Bradford City to sell for £6m in 2016 is because of the money you gave in 2004. Money you did not give as a loan at nine per cent, or in exchange for shares, or with any expectation of being paid back.

Julian Rhodes as the saviour of City is a myth.

It was not Julian Rhodes who saved Bradford City, nor was it Mark Lawn.

It was you.

If you want to give that credit away then again, your choice, but be very wary of anyone who wants to give it away for you or to take it from you.

As the club changes hands to new owners then it is worth remembering that the reason there is a Bradford City is not because of Rhodes and Lawn, or Richmond, or Gibb, or Rahic and Rupp.

It is because over the years supporters decided it would not let the club die despite the decisions in the boardroom by people who come and go.

Lawn and Rhodes are not the custodians of the club, nor are they saviours of the club. You are.

We are.

People can name stands after Rhodes if they like or build statues of Lawn if they have that much metal but never let anyone say that those people saved the club.

You did that.

Not the boardroom, the fans.

They messed up, you fixed it. You always do. You have the power, not them. Owners, directors, chairmen and all will come and go at Bradford City but you will remain.

You saved the bloody club. You are the bloody club.

Mr Rupp and Mr Rahic need to know that as they arrive at Valley Parade tomorrow.

End / End

All good things, it is often said, must come to an end and so it was that on the 48th game of a season that started with an unsettlingly easy 4-1 defeat at Swindon Town Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City acquiesced to remaining in League One for another season.

City lost a two legged game 4-2 to Millwall and while there was plenty to be said about those games: why was that wall lined up like that? Why was a handball to deny a goalscoring opportunity not the cause of a red card?; more needs to be said about how City got to the play-offs.

Parkinson’s team had been built to win promotion, but struggled badly, and what was built was rebuilt. 2015/2016 was the year of two the Bradford City teams. The first was a team with flying wingers – even in the inside midfielders were wingers at heart – and had a name goalkeeper and a pacey forward. The second was a nailed together collection of talented loan players, short term signings and making the best of what was there.

And to that extent the success of this Parkinson this season – his ability to forge a team from scraps – is also his failure in that the summer recruitment of 2015 has more than anything shaped the campaign. That failure is shared – very little at a modern football club is down to one man – but the lessons from it need to be understood for the club to make progress.

The success of this season was the return of Kyel Reid as Parkinson attempted in a reboot of his team. Lee Evans and Josh Cullen were better than anyone can expect a pair of loan players to be and Reece Burke showed no little ability but each of those successes is a retrofit to a mistake in the summer. Jamie Proctor, who others adore but I have reservations over, arrived a swap for Devante Cole.

Paul Anderson and Mark Marshall had campaigns which neither would like to remember. That Anderson’s was hampered by a broken leg was unfortunate but neither before or after did he look like he was going to prove as useful to the side as Reid has. Likewise Tony McMahon’s season leading number of assists is impressive but his place on the right hand side of midfield was a result of his failure in the holding midfield role Cullen would take.

It is impressive that Parkinson found a way to make McMahon work – he is certainly the City manager’s type of character – but had McMahon, Anderson, Marshall et al started the season as well the likes of Evans, Burke and Cullen finished it then the play-offs would have been a consolation in a failed promotion bid rather than a richly deserved reward after playing catch-up.

The failure to recruit a goalkeeper – remember Jussi Jääskeläinen in a City shirt – which concluding with a disinterested Brad Jones wandering away led to Ben Williams which in turn led to a team necessarily stacked towards defending. Williams deserves some credit for a record number of clean sheets this season but never had a City team been so committed to not allowing the opposition to cross the ball and that commitment to defence and mutated the team into a glass-jawed pugilist able to take nine our of ten blows but incapable of landing a knock-out blow and on the canvas when something gets through the guard.

The credit for Parkinson is that he recognised that he had to shape his team in this way and – after doing so – shaped that team superbly. The fix worked, and some, and the fact that City were in the play-offs at all is a success far outweighs the problems in the first half of the first leg, and the second half of the second, and for that matter in the summer of poor recruitment.

Without Parkinson everything that is good about Bradford City would be lost.

Change

Next season everything about Bradford City changes.

The game that Bradford City play is changing. The next time you watch Bradford City a player making a foul while trying to play the ball in the penalty area that denies a goalscoring opportunity will not be sent off with the penalty and a yellow card being punishment enough.

That player would be sent off were the foul outside the penalty area leading to the potential for a situation where a player in the first minute of a game might beg the referee to place the offence in the box, not outside it, thinking that one down with eleven is better than level with ten.

Also a dog can head the ball into the net now, and it can still be a goal.

The players Bradford City play the game with is changing. Obviously a large number of the current squad are either out of contract or were on loan. A retained list will come out which will probably reduce the squad by four or five – we may have seen the last of Billy Knott, and that is a shame – while Lee Evans has already bid farewell to be followed by the other loan players. We will miss you Reece Burke. We will not miss Wes Thomas.

Loans in the style of Wes Thomas will not be replaced. The FIFA laws of the game have long been out of sync with how loans work in the Football League and the Football League have finally had to comply. Loans will be made in transfer windows. The team at the end of August will be the team at the start of January – Paul Anderson broken leg or not – and so more pressure is put on clubs to get their summer recruitment right.

We will never see another Kevin Wilson month loan cameo at Valley Parade again.

The club or Bradford City is changing. You do not need me, dear reader, to tell you the rumours around the ownership of the club or how much credibility those rumours have gained. The Rhodes family – who own 66% of the club – have long since said they are prepared to sell.

Whatever the reasons why the sale has suddenly become motivated, and whomever the new owners are, the challenges for the club remain and were unconquered in the co-chairmanship of Juliand Rhodes and Mark Lawn. The story that Bradford City missed out on Leicester City’s en vogue Jamie Vardy caused some amusement earlier this season but City seem to spend the summer months missing out on targets. Andy Williams ended up at Doncaster Rovers when Parkinson wanted him, Mark Beevers reached the play-off final with Millwall having sat around a table with City.

This is not a new problem. Chris Brandon once stunned his manager Stuart McCall by revealing how much he had been able to negotiate as a weekly salary. The club missed out on the chance to sign Gary Jones 12 months before he actually arrived having shown him around Valley Parade. Just after that Parkinson told me and Jason (The WOAP man, when he was still of this Parish) than every club needed someone who could get a deal over the line.

Recruitment is identifying targets and acquiring them in the most efficient way. If it were Lawn and Rhodes, of Mr Palidini, or the Germans, or the contacts George Galloway had (who never seemed to materialise, like all of Galloway’s promises) the task would be the same. Find more players to choose from and then the choice is made, sign them for the right price.

And this is the final headline of length, and with sub clauses, about how change will happen

That Parkinson was able to make a superb season out of the wreckage of the Summer 2015 recruitment is testament to his abilities as a manager. He got it wrong, and then got it right, and his right was bigger than his wrong.

But as Bradford City as a whole woke up with a sad heart after play-off defeat its worth noting that any failures done did not happen on the field against Millwall but in the summer before.

Bradford City need to be better at recruitment or this season will happen again, which might be no bad thing because it has been a blast, but were we to get recruitment right then we have a manager peerless to get the best out of them.

Parkinson’s best ever Bantams keep their eyes on a further prize beating Aldershot 2-0 in the FA Cup First Round

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Nathan Clarke, Greg Leigh | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Gary Liddle, Mark Marshall | James Hanson, Devante Cole | Billy Clarke, Luke James, Christopher Routis

Phil Parkinson ventured the opinion that the current Bradford City team who progressed to the Second Round of the FA Cup with a 2-0 victory over Aldershot Town was the best the manager has assembled in his time at Valley Parade.

Indeed many of the statistics which jump out from the game support Parkinson’s supposition. Ben Williams connected a fifth clean-sheet in a row on a night where he was never seriously tested and Rory McArdle looked comfortable alongside Nathan Clarke at the heart of the defence in a way that one could only have dreamed of after the opening day defeat to Swindon Town.

Indeed Billy Knott who was a passenger on the road to nowhere at at The County Ground on the first day has taken massive strides to where he should be as the type of take responsibility midfielder which is needed in League One promotion teams. It was Knott who flighted a fine long pass wide to Greg Leigh who burst into the box and deftly finished to end the game and three quarters deadlock between these two sides.

The quality of Leigh’s goal was something to observe but while Parkinson talks in glowing terms about his team that idea – of quality – is not often heard connected to the Bantams. It is interesting that while supporters may talk about City as necessarily hard working at best the manager is prepared to be proud and state that this win – a 2-0 over Aldershot – was the result of the best team he has put together.

Move back some five years or so and Peter Taylor’s Bradford City were beating Aldershot – then a league side – by a similar score and not pleasing chairman Mark Lawn. Lawn had recalled how Taylor’s side were less entertaining in only dispatching The Shots by this score rather than the more entertaining 5-0 that Stuart McCall’s side beat them. Indeed the City co-chairman said tellingly about the McCall side that “it was a different type of football but I believed it was a type of football which would get us out of this league.”

Now it would seem that the manager is confident enough in his positions – and why should he not be – that he is able to declare that it is this team, and this style, that will bring promotion again rather than bowing to the idea that his City side would be more atheistically pleasing.

More power to Parkinson’s elbow. Who knows what the viewer at home thought of the FA Cup tie that was featured on BT Sport but in the lashing rain of Valley Parade one could not help but admire the determination which the team put to the cause.

Determination in staying with a game plan and the game plan was to edge this game as it is all games. Keeping chances at a premium one end costs them at the other. Injury to James Hanson is a worry – Aldershot were given a Refereeing pass by man in the middle Keith Hill for some rustic tackling – but Tony McMahon’s penalty after Luke James was felled in the box put that worry back to being Saturday’s problem.

The next round promises Chesham United at Valley Parade – a team lower in the pyramid than Aldershot but equally deserving of the respect that Parkinson paid his first round opponents that manifests itself in taking the same approach to Cup games against the non-league as League games against rivals – and the hint of more to follow.

Last year Parkinson’s team beat Chelsea on its way to a quarter final. Parkinson thinks this team is better.

Bury, Wigan Athletic, styles of play and the reductionism coming to Bradford City

The Team

Ben Williams | Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Reece Burke, James Meredith | Tony McMahon, Billy Knott, Lee Evans, Kyel Reid | (James Hanson || Steve Davies), Devante Cole | James Hanson, Mark Marshall, Luke James

Constructionism

Three ways of playing football in a week on show at Valley Parade, and three different outcomes.

Foremost was Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City who – revitalised after a poor start to the season – play a direct game and press high looking to force mistakes from an opposition.

Parkinson’s side look to make the most of set plays and do. Both goals against Bury and the single strike against Wigan Athletic were the result of corners. That this will be the case was obvious as Wigan put eleven men into the penalty area every time Tony McMahon or Lee Evans crossed. It worked on fourteen occasions. On the other James Hanson headed past Jussi Jääskeläinen for an equaliser.

Wigan’s response to City’s strengths was to try counter them – naturally enough – while trying to play to what they believe are their own better qualities. Gary Caldwell’s Wigan side are quixotic in a belief that every move must be built from the goalkeeper to defender and forward and Jääskeläinen never once kicks from his hands. The try pull the compressed Bradford City side forward because Caldwell – as well as Parkinson – knows the need to counter the opposition.

David Flitcroft at Bury falls somewhere between. As the second goal – a deflection from former City man Reece Brown – bounces into the Bury goal Flitcroft forgoes his attempt to pass the ball and ends up with four players across the forward line. They will score in the dying seconds of the game when a long punt from the keeper is flicked on and then over shoulder volleyed past Ben Williams without having touched the floor from keeper’s hands to the back of the goal.

Flitcroft’s five man midfield met Parkinson’s strong banks of four in a first half in which both teams tried to make sure that there would not concede. Rory McArdle headed in just before half time from another well delivered corner. Bury hope to control games, to shut down games, away from home and as with Wigan they successfully identified Parkinson’s plan and looked to counter it. Bury are a burly side – more so than City – and at the end of the game Steve Davies run in the side would be ended as he begins three months on the sidelines.

This physical approach is also seen when Wigan Athletic score having felled the oak of James Hanson with a high tackle. This was not illegal – at least not illegal today for this referee – but City always seem much worse at dishing out this kind of physical play than they are at receiving it. The likes of Billy Knott might put in the odd sliding tackle and deserve the odd card (although not Knott today who is booked for being pushed over) but City seem incapable of making a tactic out of this.

The strategic physical approach is all over Wigan’s play. They are beasts one minute brittle the next and Chris McCann earns the ire of the crowd for faking a foul every time a striker goes near him. McCann is not injured, he will not miss three months, but he successfully stops City from pressing high as they fear more bookings.

This behaviour is effective and not isolated to the left back. You will not read about it in the morning papers when you read that Wigan Athletic try play the game in a better way than Bradford City but Gary Caldwell’s Latics gamify the Referee’s decision making process. Any Referee will book a player for persistent misconduct after five fouls and most players commit at most four in a game. An act of fabrication – be it in foul or reaction – adds to the natural attrition of discipline and scares back players pressing high.

To their credit Flitcroft’s Bury do not react in the same way and battle man for man with a City team which is getting used to hunting in packs. Knott starts to look capable as he did before his dalliance with the footballing graveyard of the “Attacking Midfielder”. He runs down players alongside Evans who provides a more than useful pass. Bury’s struggle to contain City as they leave defensive duties in search of two goals and Mark Marshall is criminally profligate in front of goal.

City miss enough chances to win the game against a Bury team which is aptly described as free-spending by four or five goals ending instead with a seemingly slim 2-1 victory. The response to the game is muted – the late goal took a gloss off the match – and needlessly so.

The draw with Wigan results in Tony McMahon punching the air as if in victory. McMahon was persona non gratis at City a month ago but having come into the bolstering right wing role his delivery and attitude have found a place and a balance with Kyel Reid on the wing opposite. McMahon is the spirit of the new City that emerged four games ago and has not lost since. His energy allows for a high pressing game and his delivery is useful. More over though what he does is working, and often that is all that is needed.

Neither Wigan nor Bury will adapt their games to exploit City’s most significant weakness of the season. Wigan artfully try to pass through Rory McArdle and Reece Burke while Bury look to play into a single striker. Neither cross to exploit the gap between Ben Williams and his defensive line and the goalkeeper has two good games to build confidence right up until Michael Jacobs hits a shot from the edge of the area that the keeper gets to but does not keep out.

For Caldwell it seems to be a matter of principal that players like Yanic Wildschut – too expensive for Bury who tried to bring him in from Middlesbrough – be able to dribble through the opposition. Later in the game Grant Holt is on the field but the service to him is not apt and he struggles. Caldwell can be proud of how rarely his team resorted to playing crosses directly to strikers if that was his aim but his aim counter-acted what often works against Bradford City.

And so City win and Wigan draw and Bury lose. The approaches to the game are different in many ways. Bury want to stop the home side playing but fail to do so and then become more direct than any team could imagine. City look to maximise set-plays and deliver the ball early and direct while Wigan Athletic want to play on the floor and take as long as they can about it. If Wigan cannot play how they want they will not play – simulating imagined offences – while Bury will be burly and too much so as they try claw back into the game.

Reductionism

The increasing level coverage of football has not increased the depth of that coverage and unnecessarily there is a reduction of the complex to try to be more digestible than it is. Ockum’s razor asks you to make things simpler but not more simple than they should be.

And so the way a team plays football is reduced from the multitude of variables to a single almost aesthetic consideration. How the ball arrives in the final third of the field. Is it lofted in from a defender, played from a winger, passed from a midfielder. Pick a variable and label a team forgetting anything else that most obviously is involved. Colin Todd called Phil Parkinson “the enemy of football” on the basis of such a reduction.

That reductionism has started a train of thought amongst Bradford City supporters which normally one could ignore – this is about the football and not about supporting the football – were it not to do more than form a significant part of the discussion around the pitch and start to impact what is on it.

With Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes already declaring that for City to prosper in football it would be necessary (in their opinion) for an injection of funds and perhaps their exit there is little prospect of City taking the approach that either Wigan or Bury have of trying to spend more than the rest of League One to escape it. It is possible – and I would say preferable – to be promoted without this sort of financial investment but as most teams are attempting the same that becomes hard to ensure. Would City with – as was wanted – the odd Doncaster Rovers player here and Jussi Jääskeläinen there be guaranteed promotion. No.

So without success – or perhaps guaranteed success – the questions become not about if something will be achieved then how it will be. It is not if City will finish in the upper-middle of League One it is how will that happen.

And so the suggestion is that without guaranteed success then the way that the status quo is maintained becomes important. If we are not going to be promoted then – the thought goes – can we at least be entertained? Do we deserve what oft sacked Steven Pressley described as “dark ages football

And of course this assumes one is not entertained already.

There is a school of thought – one that I subscribe to – that entertainment in football is not synonymous with passing football and that how the ball is delivered into the final third is but one of a number of things all of which can be entertaining. I have long since recognised in myself that I do not go to Bradford City games to watch Barcelona’s passing style. Indeed if I wanted to see that I would go to Barcelona – or at least watch the disturbing last bastion of acceptable nationalism on Sky TV – which I do not and will not do.

I would consider this to be symptom of a footballing culture which has allowed television to reshape it and is currently in the process of letting new media complete the mutilation. Highlight TV shows like Match of the Day sold the public the idea that one did not have to watch a full game to understand it, one could just watch a slice of it. It is garnished with a uncritical critical media who for largely commercial reasons repeat this same trope that watching football matches is of the waste of time that is the difference between ninety minutes and the highlight clips. To hear Robbie Savage blindly reading out appearance, league position and goal statistics to support his idea that a single incident can be extrapolated into the entire make up of a player is to commit suicide of the intellect.

This of highlight slice is further shrunk into clips of the highlights of the highlights which are distributed on YouTube creating a contextless football which is all about a series of ten seconds slowed down and repeated until one is convinced. One has never really appreciated the difference between the types of football supporter if one has not had to break up a work conversation with someone else who ventured to a Millwall, or a Walsall, or a Torquay to hear the progress of YouTube scouting on the latest player linked to a high up Premier League team.

At that point one can almost certainly guarantee that what you enjoy as a regular watching a League One team is not the same as what someone who has the mediated top flight football experience enjoys. It really matters to those people what pace EA Sports assign a player in FIFA 16. Really matters.

And it is for those people that football has contorted itself and continues to do so. The mindset that is rife in football – the middle ground – is one which suggests that only the things which make a good highlight reel are of value.

One is tempted to suggest that every person in a stadium has a set of elements they enjoy in the context of a football game and that while it will be true for some of them that they have haphazardly wandered into Valley Parade having mistaken it for Nou Camp BD8 for many, if not most others it will not be. For one person football might be about community, another it might be about victory and nothing else, and another might want to watch wingers beating men (one of the most exciting sights the game has to offer) and very little else.

It became obvious to me that I watched football to watch the narratives created around a set of players. To watch a boy become a man and a man accept – or not – the responsibility for how he plays his own games and then for his team’s performance. This arc is – to me – endlessly fascinating in its differences. Some players thrive, others do not, and watching a team over a series of weeks and seasons is watching the progression of that narrative. That Stephen Darby went from skinning kid to captain was a thing to be seen and to be enjoyed, that James Hanson went from the man who worked at the Co-op to a League Cup final was enjoyable in itself and that enjoyment had little to do with the type of football played.

(This contrasts sharply with the Mercenary team of Colin Todd where the likes of Bobby Petta, or Steven Schumacher, or Marc Bridge-Wilkinson were lauded for failing to take responsibility for the general performance of the team field and singled out for praise for individual displays. There was no need – under Todd – to make sure all your team mates played well, just yourself, and that attitude which Todd allowed was – to me – the enemy of football. Likewise at the moment Phil Parkinson’s neglect of the youth set up and disinterest in bringing through players is not something I enjoy.)

Yet the mix of reductionism and a belief that there is a single criteria of enjoyment is pervasive in discussions on the game to a point where it starts to be a metric to criticise a manager as if he had failed. The less one plays in this way which is perceived as what everybody wants the more a manager should be called to account. And at Bradford City we talk often about how we have “fans as chairmen” (I would argue we abuse that phrase) but by virtue of Mark Lawn/Julian Rhodes being fans they can be assumed to be vulnerable to the same moods as fans.

There is a constant background noise against Phil Parkinson for his way of player (“bilge“) but will anyone be critical of Gary Caldwell for trying to pass through the middle of a team who are so obviously vulnerable to crosses? Will anyone – other than the odd City fan – be critical of him for ostensibly allowing his players to fake fouls and injury to avoid having to cope with Phil Parkinson’s high pressing team?

One doubts it. Aside from not winning the reductionism in football criticism has it that only the way the ball arrives into the final third of the field is a subject of debate and criticism. Were I to watch City players behaving as Wigan’s were yesterday – “tactical simulation” might cover the charge very well – I would enjoy the game less regardless of result but factors like Parkinson’s unwillingness (for whatever reason) to “tactically simulate” are not brought into the discussion about the aesthetics of managers performances.

All other factors are filtered out until one returns to this idea that if the team is not to be successful it should play the game in a specific way regardless of the issue that maintaining a way of playing as dogma can be – and was in the case of Wigan – counter-productive.

Assuming Parkinson does not continue his trend of upward movement at City – and that is not a safe assumption to make – then he will increasingly be called to account for his approach to the game. Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce, Charlton Athletic under Alan Curbishley, Manchester City under Peter Reid, West Ham United every other manager it seems that football is littered with clubs that believed that they should be playing the reduced, different, “better” type of football and slumped as a result.

This will be the discussion at Bradford City – if not in League One now then in The Championship later over the course of the manager’s three year deal – and the people who assume that all share their view that Parkinson’s approach to the game which is direct but is also honest is inherently worse than (for example) Caldwell’s passing and faking or Flitcroft’s controlled midfield and less controlled aggression. They will assume it is commonly held that a team that passes the ball into a striker’s feet is inherently better than a team of character, or a team of players who test and surpass their limitations, and they will demand it.

And you may agree with that, dear reader, but if you do not and if you believe that there are many thing about Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City you would not change then you had better prepare to take a corner and argue for what you want.

The reductionists are shaping the middle ground of football to be a bland nausea of highlights and YouTube clips. They want to take Bradford City and shrink it to the three clips that will look good on Football League Tonight.

If you do not want that you had better get used to tools of opposition against this reductionist mindset and get good at making your arguments.

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.

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