AHEAD of Bradford City’s second visit of the season to Wembley, Phil Parkinson has scoffed at the suggestion that the pressure is on.
The Bantams are tomorrow hoping to bring to an end to their six-year stay in League Two when they take on Northampton Town in the play-off final.
Around 24,000 fans are expected to head south from Yorkshire but Parkinson insists the challenge of leading City to promotion tomorrow will be nothing compared to last season’s fight for Football League survival.
“The real pressure was last year,” the 45-year-old told the Yorkshire Post as the countdown continued to Bradford’s 64th and final game of an extraordinary season. “A play-off final is enjoyable compared to that.
“My job now is to make sure the lads relish the opportunity that we have in front of us. Last season was very different, because if Bradford City had gone out of the Football League then there would have been ramifications. The club might not have still been in existence.
“To me, that is pressure. Secondly, if we had gone down and survived as a club then once you go down to the Conference, everyone knows how hard it can be to come back.
“People say a club of Bradford’s size shouldn’t be down there. Well, a stadium doesn’t win football games. Players do. That is why I said to my two chairmen (Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn) that the one way to alleviate the pressure and nervousness is by getting a good side. I believe we now have that good side.”
The transformation in City’s fortunes has been a remarkable one. A quick glance back 13 months to, ironically, the visit to Northampton’s Sixfields vividly illustrates that.
Four games of the 2011-12 campaign remained and Bradford were sitting fourth bottom. Defeat to Aidy Boothroyd’s in-form side would have left the Bantams, who were due to face bottom club Macclesfield Town in their next fixture, deep in the mire.
Much to the relief of everyone at Valley Parade, a Nahki Wells hat-trick banished those fears of being dragged into relegation trouble and City went on to finish 18th for a second consecutive season.
For Parkinson, the over-riding feeling was one of relief. Soon, though, he was busy planning for a summer that would eventually see the number of new arrivals stretch into double figures.
“We had to change the mindset,” explains Parkinson when asked what his priority was during that rebuilding process. “Key to that was getting the right players into the club. I needed winners and players who wanted to achieve something in their careers.
“The more potential captains you have in the team and the more on-field leaders then the better chance you have of achieving something. I am often told that finding leaders in football is difficult.
“Well, I feel we have quite a few here. If you go through this squad, I think there are eight or nine who could be captains. If I picked a team, I honestly feel I could look at that many potential players to give the armband to. That is always a good sign.
“We also have a never-say-die attitude about us and we will be taking that into the final game.”
The play-off final will be Bradford’s 64th game of the season, comfortably the busiest in the club’s history. Only Chelsea, whose Europa League triumph over Benfica on Wednesday night was their 68th outing of 2012-13, have played more this term in English football.
Considering the contrasting resources at the disposal of Parkinson and the two managers who have been in charge at Stamford Bridge, Bradford being able to maintain a promotion challenge is nothing short of remarkable.
“The season has gone on for a long time,” said the Bantams manager after training yesterday. “We came in for pre-season just before the start of July. That is almost 11 months ago but the main thing is it has been enjoyable.
“Last summer was like piecing together a jigsaw, trying to fit everything together. But we have certainly had our rewards from that work.
“We have had some bumpy moments travelling down the road, as every team does in a season. A few serious injuries at one point caused us big problems.
“That derailed us slightly but, in the main, the attitude of the players has been outstanding. Even today, I had to drag them off the training pitch and tell them they had done enough.
“For it to be like that at this stage of such a long season is testament to them all. The environment we have created is one of great work ethic and whatever happens on Saturday, that will stand the club in good stead for next season.”
Whether Bradford will kick off 2013-14 in League One or Two will be decided tomorrow at Wembley.
The play-off final promises to be a tight encounter, with the result of all four previous games between the two clubs this season having been in the balance until the final whistle. City won both league meetings, and they also prevailed in the FA Cup on penalties after a dramatic replay that saw the two teams denied an outright win by stoppage time equalisers at the end of normal time and then extra-time.
Parkinson said: “The only thing we can say with any confidence is that this is the last act.
“After 63 games and four extra-times, the season will be over after Saturday.
“We have to make sure the extra few weeks are worthwhile. The way we do that is by playing to the best of our ability. We have to do what we have done all season – play to our strengths and keep our structure.
“You always look at the opposition and the key players in their side. That means slight adjustments are made. But, in the main, it is about what we do and play to our strengths.
“Northampton are a good side and they have been very tight games that could have gone either way. Psychologically, it gives us a slight advantage that we beat them but, equally, we are realists and know that this game will be just as tight as the previous ones have been.
“Two good teams will be playing and there is very little to choose between us. If you go through the individual players, it is very close. It is all to play for.”
Since beating Burton Albion in the semi-finals, Parkinson’s intention has been to treat the Wembley encounter with Northampton no different from any other league game.
It is a contrasting approach to February’s Capital One Cup final against Swansea City, when the squad spent two nights away and undertook the customary eve-of-final visit to the national stadium.
This time around, Bradford will travel south today and stop off at St George’s Park in Burton to train. They will then carry on to their hotel base near London.
“We are going down to do a job,” said Parkinson when asked about Northampton having visited Wembley earlier this week to familiarise themselves with the venue.
“If we’d have needed to go to Wembley, we would have gone. But we were there just a few months ago so don’t need to.”
On tomorrow’s final, Parkinson added: “Both Northampton and ourselves want promotion as much as each other. Speaking from a Bradford perspective, a lot of things will fall into place at the club if we do achieve it.
“I see we have been made favourites by the bookmakers. Well, we were favourites against Burton (in the semi-finals) and we got through that.
“That is what we are looking to do against Northampton. Equally, though, if things don’t work out, we do have a strong base for next season.
“Regardless of what happens in the final, we have a squad full of talented players. Many of them are also at a good age and can only get better. So, if we do miss out then it won’t be the end of the world.
“That won’t, though, detract from how determined we are to get the job done. We have worked so hard to get to this stage and now we have to finish the job off.”