Like many fans I faced a despondent journey home on Tuesday night, full of feelings of what might have been and most prominently what should have been.
What made it worse was the news that Billy Clarke, who has arguably been our best player since March, would be missing for 10-12 weeks of the season. The only way I can describe this is ‘being kicked while you’re down.’ And hard. With absurdities such as “relegation form” and “Parky out” being bandied around the usual internet sources, I felt a re-evaluation of expectations of where we are and where we have come from was in order.
It is football cliché that being tipped as one of the promotion favourites makes life difficult with expectations weighing down like a tonne of bricks. But it wouldn't be a cliché if it wasn't true. (Don’t forget Wigan have only won 1 in 3.) It was a fair assessment that we should be battling for promotion at the top this year, not only because of our Cup heroics but let’s not forget we only finished one place outside of the play-offs. Furthermore, the fantastic #149 campaign would get any club carried away.
In reality though, aligned with Bradford City’s recent history, Parky has taken average teams further than they should be. In our first year in League One we only avoided a relegation scrap because of our brilliant start with, in essence, a League Two squad. What followed last year was a season with a magnificent Cup run that papered over some cracks, for example the winless November or throwing away countless points at home. The reality is that over his tenure at City, Parky has taken average, cheap, players and got them playing in an organised and not always pretty fashion -- but it guarantees relative success.
Our recent success has been built on the foundations of the underdog. Optimism is a healthy trait to have in a fan base but once it spreads across the league to the media and the bookies,expectation can become a hindrance. Not only because in this case it has put an abundance of pressure on a new squad but also more than ever teams come to Valley Parade with the bit between their teeth and in most cases looking for a point at most. This kind of situation makes life hard in any division as we can see with clubs like Portsmouth in League Two. Even right at the top Liverpool sometimes struggle to play at Anfield as ‘smaller’ clubs treat games there as a cup final.
This though does not excuse what 17,000 Fans were put through on Tuesday night which at some points was glorified hoof ball in tandem with sideways uninspiring and mistake ridden passing. Fitness is not an excuse. Most of the players have had almost full pre-seasons and should be full of energy after a summer break and with a point to prove. As we all know, the final whistle was greeted by a chorus of ‘boos’ which Parky himself afterwards described as justified.
What we all have in common is that we love Bradford City Football Club and we want to see it succeed. Booing will not achieve this. What it will do is create a divide between fans and players, a relationship that has been uniquely built in recent years at City and one which it is paramount to maintain. We all pay our money into the Club and have a right to vent our emotions but success will only be built if we get behind the team, like we all know we can. This is why renewed expectations are in order.
I am very aware that rhetoric about loving the club and ‘pulling together’ won’t necessarily lead to success on the pitch, which is why I will present two solutions/improvements to try and quantify the current situation.
1. Rory needs a partner!
The gaping hole Davo has left in our back four is a worry when you see us propping up the table with a -4 goal difference. Centre back is a position where relationships are key. Davo and McArdle proved this point because when one was out of the team the defence suffered a great deal. In three games Rory has had three different partners – Clarke, Sheehan and Liddle. All three are seasoned pro’s in that position but especially at this point in time our back four needs continuity. After missing out on the so called mystery centre half I still see that position as top priority as opposed to another striker. At this point in time we need a first choice pairing and in my opinion Clarke needs a proper chance even if we bring in another CB. Parky himself has said that his teams are built from a rock of two centre halves.
2. Diamonds aren't forever.
A lot has been said about the infamous diamond formation over the past year but let’s not forget it’s the formation that beat the champions at Stamford Bridge and also gave birth to euphoria in Bradford with the delightful thrashing of a certain noisy neighbour. It is clear that when it works, it works but also Parky’s 4-4-1-1 does also work, as we saw around the New Year last season when Stead and Clarke ran the show up top. The great thing about the diamond though is that when you’re playing at home you can appease the home crowd with two strikers and a number ten – i.e. a formation that personifies attacking intent gaining width from the full backs. Evidently though, the diamond doesn’t always work and hasn’t worked yet this season. For the first time in a while we have out-and-out wingers, and of high quality. Fans want to see these players hugging the touch line and beating their full back. Why have Hanson on the pitch if you don’t whip early crosses into him? On Tuesday night it took until the 94thminute for Marshall to beat his man and cross the ball, which nearly led to the equaliser. We were crying out for that all night, and have been since half time at Swindon on the opening day. Moreover, defensively two lines of four is much more efficient because in a diamond, especially on the counter, you leave three up the pitch instead of two, which can leave players doing extra running and becoming outnumbered. Possibly a reason why we’ve squandered three half-time leads?
I have complete faith in Phil Parkinson to correct the errors that we have seen over the past fortnight and deep down I do believe we can get promoted, but the point of this article is that we need to renew expectations. League One is a tough league with the finest of margins; let’s not forget we beat Brentford 4-0 the year they finished second. In the bigger picture we've only just come out of League Two and been through two administrations in the past decade. We've come so far and slowly the purse strings are loosening, attendances are soaring and our pedigree of player is improving. Top two was always going to be a push with a small squad approach dictated by our board and manager but no team has a divine right to finish in the top six. If we don’t get where we want to be then so be it, but if we do let’s not take it for granted.