01 Jun 2013
PHIL PARKINSON: THE GIANT SLAYER
When Bradford City knocked out three Barclays Premier League sides to reach the final of the Capital One Cup, manager Phil Parkinson became the first ever manager to take a club from the fourth tier of English football to the final of a major cup tournament. Shortly after receiving a Special Merit award at the LMA Annual Awards, Parkinson shared his experience of this remarkable cup run.
You beat Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa to reach the final against Swansea at Wembley – how did you instil the belief in your players that you could overcome such opposition?
When you play a Premier League side in a cup competition you can’t predict who they will field, but you can prepare your players for the system they are likely to play. You have to equip your players with the belief and self-confidence to play like they belong there. Our players certainly did that. Whatever level we’re playing at, I can only sit comfortably if we play well, whether we win or lose. If we haven’t performed at our best or put what we’ve worked on into practice it hurts a lot more. Part of being a manager is getting the right state of mind in the dressing room. If you are playing Torquay away on a cold Tuesday night, your team talk will have a completely different tone to it than if it is a home game against Arsenal. Players shouldn’t need to be motivated for the latter but they might need to be relaxed and reminded to focus on the game plan. It’s important to gauge the mood in the dressing room before you decide what you are going to say in your team talk. It’s about ensuring the players are still able to perform at their best when the spotlight is on them.
Did sports psychology play much of a role during the cup run?
I have always worked with a sports psychologist – a friend of mine called Sam Kotaidis. Now, at Bradford, I also work with a businessman and leadership expert called John Muranka. He’s a Bradford fan and offered to help work with the players. At this level, there aren’t always the resources to appoint a full-time psychologist, so you have to be resourceful and rely on people to help you out. John has been a fantastic support to me and the club. I explain the benefits of sports psychology to the players and then let them have one-on-one meetings with the psychologist on a weekly basis. The players understand the importance of addressing the mental side of football and every player that I have thought would benefit from this approach has done so. I am very conscious that the way a manager and his coaches speak to the players – whether in team meetings or on an individual basis – is also very significant. We have a sports psychology role ourselves.
In fact, as a manager you can spend as much time thinking about what you are going to say to the players as you can about the content of the training sessions. That’s important because the players are always looking to you and watching how you react. I try to be very process-orientated in meetings, so instead of saying ‘we’ve got to win today’, I’ll phrase it ‘this is how we are going to win today’. The minute you start saying ‘this is a must win game’, ‘we have to do this’, ‘we have to score’ it creates an unwelcome tension.
A small business would need a unique selling point to take on a multinational. What was Bradford’s USP this season?
We had a tough 2011-2012 season trying to keep the club in the division and I wasn’t happy with the mentality in the training ground. As soon as the season ended, my assistant, Steve Parkin, and I agreed that anyone coming to the club would need to show a real desire to succeed and a winning mentality, rather than just be financially motivated. I spent the whole summer meeting players from all over the country, because we needed a major overhaul. We identified players who shared our desire to succeed, were looking for a fresh challenge and who we believed would help take the club forward. It has been very rewarding to be on the touchline and see that recruitment strategy bear fruit. As in any business, bringing on board the right people is going to be a major factor in how well you do and it has certainly been crucial to this season’s progress.
While you didn't win the Capital One cup, getting to the final was an incredible achievement. How did you stop the players from dwelling on the disappointment and get them focused on the remaining League Two campaign?
Our preparation for the final was exactly the same as it had been throughout the competition - we gave the players the same self-belief and the same detailed game plan. However, sometimes you just come up against something that is better than you on the day or things don’t go your way, like our goalkeeper being sent off. Our priority then was to get into the play-offs and we still had a lot of work to do to achieve that. Going from the cup final back to the reality of life in League Two could have been a problem. We were unbeaten for five games after Wembley before being beaten at Exeter. At that point, we called the players together and we watched the Exeter game. We explained that they were still playing as if they were playing Premier League teams. We needed to get used to playing in our division again, taking into account the style of play, state of the pitches, etc. The players understood and responded well. So well that we were soon back at Wembley earning promotion to League One.
Your Capital One Cup run earned you a Special Merit Award at the LMA’s Annual Awards dinner. What did that recognition mean to you?
It was a great honour for me to win the award from the LMA and I was very honoured to receive it at the Annual Awards dinner. While I collected it as the manager of Bradford City, I share the recognition with all of my staff – from the players to the people behind the scenes – because it was a team effort that got us to Wembley.