Pompey should note cautionary Bantams tale

Bantams fans had called for manager Phil Parkinson to get the sack before he led them to play-off glory in League Two
Bantams fans had called for manager Phil Parkinson to get the sack before he led them to play-off glory in League Two

As they scrambled around for the equaliser, a song which has become depressingly familiar was struck up.

‘Premier League and you messed it up’ was the refrain, albeit toned down to suit this family newspaper.

You have now entered League Two – a setting where Macclesfield supporters are mocking your very presence in their playground.

For Bradford City, that August 11, 2007 occasion marked the beginning of a six-season tenancy.

The former top-flight club were meant to be staying for one year only, a whistle-stop tour to gleefully tick off new football grounds before returning from whence they came.

Except it didn’t quite map out like that. After all, there is no golden ticket out of there.

The Bantams represent a cautionary tale to all clubs who believe they don’t belong – and Pompey’s unfolding story has echoes.

The Fratton faithful can certainly empathise as patience continues to wane during this drifting campaign.

During those League Two days, Bradford employed an ex-playing hero as manager, boasted the biggest crowds, sported five-figure season-ticket take-ups and implemented an inflated budget for the second season.

Along the way there were also relegation battles, a procession of managers, disillusionment and anger.

When Bradford finally clambered out of the Football League’s bottom division they did so through the play-offs, defeating Northampton Town at Wembley in May 2013.

That finish of seventh was their highest during those six campaigns, while Phil Parkinson was a fourth manager who at one stage received calls from supporters to be dismissed.

The Valley Parade board displayed patience and were rewarded in a 2012-13 season which also saw them reach the Capital One Cup final against Swansea.

Today they are 10th in League One, lying a point off the play-offs.

Simon Parker has been covering the Bantams for the Bradford Telegraph and Argus since September 2000.

A Pompey fan hailing from Southsea, he spent 11 years as a sports reporter with The News before making the switch to the then-Premier League side.

The Fratton faithful fear a third successive season at this level if Andy Awford’s side cannot buck up their ideas.

Soberingly, Parker has seen it all before – there is no simple way out.

He said: ‘They all used to love singing that song to Bradford.

‘You would hear “Premier League and you messed it up” or “You’re not famous any more”.

‘That didn’t happen in League One, it was only when Bradford had tumbled into League Two, right from the first game against Macclesfield.

‘To start with it’s great ticking off the grounds. In a strange way it is a novelty seeing somewhere different every other week – but when the different becomes the norm it quickly becomes soul destroying.

‘When you know how to get to Dagenham & Redbridge without using the sat nav then you have been there too long.

‘One of the message board favourites was “We should be beating the likes of these, they are tin-pot teams”.

‘Or how about somebody working out how many years to the day since Bradford were beating Arsenal in the Premier League.

‘It is about the bigger picture, though. Football goes in cycles and you have to keep believing that.

‘Driving away from Underhill after a whopping you will be convinced someone up there is having a great, big laugh at this.

‘Yet sooner or later if you keep putting in your dues it has to turn – and it does.

‘In the meantime you have to watch average teams getting to the play-offs year-after-year instead of the club you follow.

‘At the end of 2010-11, the League Two play-off final between Stevenage and Torquay was played at Old Trafford as the Champions League final was to be hosted by Wembley.

‘There were 11,484 there to watch a Torquay side which finished 17th the year before face a bang-average Stevenage side who hit it long.

‘You can stomach people who have thrown money at it being in that position but not that. Bradford had finished 18th that season.’

In terms of managers, local hero Stuart McCall was appointed for the start of the League Two adventure, with another Valley Parade legend in Wayne Jacobs his assistant.

Peter Taylor and Peter Jackson then came and went until Parkinson was appointed in August 2011.

Parker added: ‘I remember writing a vote of confidence article quoting the chairman following a bit of “He has taken us as far as we can”.

‘We played Swansea in the Capital One Cup on the Sunday and then Dagenham & Redbridge at home on the Wednesday, scrambling an equaliser four minutes from time.

‘People were saying “Parkinson will never get us anywhere” and had to go – 10 weeks later they got promotion.

‘Last season they took 21 points from the first 10 games and everyone thought the division was easy.

‘Then they went on a run of one win in the next 21 and it was “Time to go, thanks for the memories”.

‘The board didn’t panic, though.’

Bradford escaped. For Pompey there needs to be a resurgent second half to the campaign to follow.

Parker said: ‘Ahead of the play-off final, I wrote about how it was 278 League Two games gone – one to go.

‘There was the possibility of six years of complete agony evaporating on one Sunday afternoon – and it is the only match I have ever been nervous covering.

‘I couldn’t stand the thought of another League Two press box. It was like being in prison and sat in front of the parole board, a feeling of don’t blow it now, there’s daylight ahead.

‘All I can say to Pompey fans – and I am one of them – is there is an end to it, it’s just a very long tunnel.

‘The size of your ground, number of your support and admirable history has nothing to do with anything in League Two.

‘It can just take time to get out – it took Bradford six seasons.’