CAPITAL ONE WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR THIS FINALBy CHRISTOPHER DAVIES
SIMON PARKER, the football writer closest to Bradford City, on the rise and rise of the Bantams
"In the future everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes" – Andy Warhol, 1968.
BRADFORD CITY are one win away from securing a place in the Europa League. Old sages may say nothing in football surprises them, but the rise and rise of the Bantams is up there with all the tales of the unexpected the occasionally beautiful game can offer.
Victory over Swansea City in the Capital Cup final at Wembley on February 24 will ensure English football’s most unlikely European qualifiers of their 15 minutes plus Fergie time.
Bradford’s success has changed the lives of the players, manager Phil Parkinson and everyone associated with the club. This true football fairy tale just keeps on going and the reporter closest to Bradford living the dream is Simon Parker, who covers the club for the Telegraph & Argus.
Parker started with the T&A in September 2000. “I had to wait until December to see my first win,” Parker told footballwriters.co.uk. “It’s been not so much a roller-coaster ride as a downhill ride, with two administrations and three relegations. There haven’t been too many high points.”
Bradford’s passage to Wembley has thrust the club into the national spotlight and has given Parker a work-load he never dreamed of, not that he’s complaining.
He said: “As you can imagine, we have pullouts and supplements coming out of our ears. In fact, we have had for the last couple of rounds because we all looked at the Arsenal and Aston Villa ties as our big cup final. No one thought we’d still be going...we have plans for a special supplement the week before the final. I’ve already started work on this, speaking to some former players and trying to find every connection possible. Everything’s gone a bit manic, but it makes a change from covering League Two.”
Despite being England’s 11th biggest city, Bradford is not a hotbed of football, rugby league’s Bradford Bulls the only sporting cause for celebration in the new millennium.
Parker said: “In financial terms, Bradford has been on its uppers for a few years. It’s really struggled and needed a boost like this. Most of the headlines have been negative, for instance there were plans to build a big Westfield shopping centre, but it’s still a big hole in the ground. That typified the feeling that the city centre was going to rack and ruin.
“Now, you talk to people and there’s a real buzz about the place. What City have done is to get people talking about Bradford and the profile has been raised in a very good way. Bradford’s a big city with a large potential fan base. They still get huge crowds by League Two standards. The club have always been pretty good to deal with, though obviously it’s not the Geoffrey Richmond era [when Bradford rubbed shoulders with English football’s elite for two seasons].”
Parker has seen the usual procession of managers coming and going during his time covering the club - Chris Hutchings, Jim Jefferies, Steve Smith (caretaker for two games), Nicky Law, Bryan Robson, Colin Todd, David Wetherall (caretaker for 13 games), Stuart McCall, Wayne Jacobs (caretaker, one game), Peter Taylor, Peter Jackson, Colin Cooper (caretaker for two games) and Parkinson – plus one match in 2003 when senior players Jacobs, Wetherall, Peter Atherton and Dean Windass were in charge of team matters.
The men at the top are Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn, who have been joint-chairmen since 2007. Parker said: “They are chalk and cheese, complete opposites. Mark is very brash, he says what he thinks and will talk to anyone while Julian is very reserved. When you get to know him he’s a very funny guy, but he’s happy for Mark to have the spotlight.
“Mark’s always good for a quote and doesn’t worry too much if he upsets people. He had a pop at the local council after Bradford beat Arsenal because only one councillor had bothered to say ‘well done.’ He joked about inviting the one councillor on the team bus if they made Wembley.”
The more reserved Parkinson is one of football deep thinkers, as you might expect from a man who has a BSc degree in social sciences from the Open University.
Parker said: “Phil isn’t someone for the cheap sound-bite. He doesn’t ‘lash out’ or anything, but few can analyse a game better. He watches every match two or three times and goes through everything to the nth degree.
“The first time I spoke to him was a couple of days before he got the job [in 2011] and he was fine. He told me: ‘One thing I’ll promise you is that I’ll always ring you back.’ He’s been as good as his word even during recent weeks when the world and his brother were chasing him.”
For all the national interest, the local newspaper remains at the heart of a club like Bradford. The T&A will be there long after Bradford’s Andy Warhol moment has gone and Parker said: “I remember when I covered Southampton and Dave Jones said how important it was to get on with your local paper, joking that it gives you six months longer in the job.”
For all the excitement of reaching Wembley and the financial windfall that will stabilise the club, Parker has two major worries – whether the cup run will affect promotion and if Parkinson will sign a new contract. He said: “We won’t really know until May, but it’s what might happen to the league form. They’ll play 61 games this season and the squad is not accustomed to playing that many.”
Bradford’s League Two match against Wycombe last Saturday was postponed and they have other games to re-arrange. “Minds inevitably wander and they have done already, they’ve won only one point from the last four league games. They haven’t played particularly badly, but you can tell they’ve been distracted.”
Parkinson’s contract ends this summer and though he turned down the chance to speak with Blackpool, reports claim he earns £1,000 per week, which could be trebled in the Championship.
“It’s not just Parkinson, it’s all the coaching staff and quite a few players, too. Most League Two clubs offer short contracts because it’s not viable to have someone tied down for years. If the club can keep the manager the players will stay because they all want to play for him.
“The chairmen seem confident of keeping Parkinson and unless a big club comes in I can see him carrying on because he wants to see the job through here. Bradford is the type of club where if you do get it right, you’ll be remembered forever. They’ve made history by reaching the final, but if they could win promotion as well, Parkinson will be spoken of in the same way that Paul Jewell [who led Bradford into the top division] still is.”
There is a belief in some quarters that sensational back page stories sell newspapers when in fact good news is far more likely to boost circulation figures. Parker said: “Newspaper sales have fallen through the floor in recent years, but Bradford’s cup run has had a huge impact on the T&A. Phil Parkinson made the point that everyone will want a souvenir newspaper so that in years to come they still have that memory. It is something the internet can never give you.
“While I remain a Portsmouth fan, there is an inevitable attachment when you cover a club for 13 years, especially when you have lived through grim times for so long...you start to enjoy the high rides.”
One of the great things about football is that there are times when the game remains inexplicable, even to the most experienced managers and coaches. How on earth can the team ranked 78th in the 92-club English football pyramid beat three Barclays Premier League sides – Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa plus Watford who are pushing for promotion from the Championship - to reach the Capital One Cup final?
Parker said: “There are some very good players here, quite a few are Championship standard. For example, Nathan Doyle, a strong centre midfielder who was at Barnsley...the captain, Gary Jones, who was Mr Rochdale and if you watch League Two he is the midfielder every lower division team wants, he makes them tick and never wastes a pass.”
Can they do it again? Can they add Swansea to their already impressive list of scalps? Parker said: “I’ve written them off time after time. They were one goal down at Watford with five minutes left and won 2-1. At Burton, they were two down with seven minutes remaining – in every round they’ve looked to be out and Parkinson told me: ‘we are like a boxer being punched on the ropes, but we’ve got a hell of a chin.’ They have taken their punishment, but don’t get put down, they just keep digging away.”
The heavyweights of the English leagues will be absent from Wembley where Swansea v Bradford will be a breath of fresh air in the inaugural Capital One Cup final. Parker said: “Those who don’t support the top four or five clubs probably get a bit bored with seeing them dominate just about everything. Here you have two teams away from the mainstream who cannot say ‘oh, another trip to Wembley, but I’d rather get in the Champions League.’ It’s all or nothing for Swansea and Bradford on the day and that’s what makes it such a special event.
“Capital One must be delighted. They will always be remembered for having this final.”