The FA Cup is gone for this season but now we face our other knock-out competition. There are no additional freak contests – no Setanta Shields or Scottish Cups – but the FA Trophy always offers an interesting dilemma to managers.
It’s a competition which, financially, brings little reward and attracts small crowds. A competition which leads to fixture disruption if you get to the latter stages and have to rearrange a series of Saturday games, especially for the overkill of a two-legged semi-final. A competition, though, which also speaks to the best things about football for exactly the same reasons. It’s about taking part and winning something, not money; about the glory of a run to Wembley, not hoping for a defeat at a big club in front of a full stadium.
So what will Parkinson make of his first tilt at the FA Trophy? His career record in knock-out competitions is nothing short of magnificent. Of course, we all know what he achieved at Bradford City, leading a fourth tier side to the final of the League Cup. Nobody else has taken a club of that stature to a domestic cup final.
When it comes to the art of managing a cup run, judging Parkinson’s expertise is an interesting exercise. At the end of Bradford’s famous cup run, Parkinson’s career record in response to the particular demands of cup football was frighteningly good. His sides had been taken to extra time 7 times and emerged victorious on 5 occasions; they’d taken part in 10 penalty shoot-outs and won 8!
With that sort of record, you’d assume there was an element of his shrewd cup football preparation coming to fruition. However, since that point in his career, the stats have turned. He’s taken part in two further games that went into extra time, losing both, and has been beaten in 4 shoot-out on the spin. Does he know the secrets of knock-out football, or are his stats simply reverting to the mean after a superb start?
The answer probably lies in the confidence of the players. A team enjoying a run like Bradford are on a roll which surely makes coming through in tight situations more likely. That’s why Parkinson might be tempted to select a stronger side than you might expect for the FA Trophy: if he can get into a habit across all competitions, that can only be a good thing. York City, Cambridge United and Harrogate Town have done exactly that since we joined the National League, going up and winning the FA Trophy in the same season.
On the other hand, there are plenty of players in the squad who would benefit from a start, both to keep them match-sharp and to keep them feeling involved with the first team. Christian Dibble has history as a cup keeper, of course, and the likes of Shaun Brisley, Cameron Green, Jamie Reckord, and Charlie Trafford will be keen to play.
Then, most intriguingly, comes the argument for giving young players some first team experience. Max Cleworth was excellent last Saturday, while Jake Bickerstaff will be champing at the bit.
Beyond them, five of our youth players have just been given professional contracts, and will hope for a chance to show what they can do. In some ways, those contracts are the most exciting thing which the owners have done for us: at last we’re moving towards building a robust youth system again and being able to retain the talent we develop.
Since dropping out of the Football League, with the commensurate hit the youth set-up took, we’ve had lots of talent both on and off the pitch, but it’s incredibly difficult to hang onto them. Now, with an under-23 team in the pipeline and the money to give youngsters their first contracts, a crucial piece of infrastructure is being put in place for the future aspirations of the club.
These are exciting times, even if some of the work being done isn’t yet affecting the first team. When Dan Jones scores the winner against Gloucester City, I’ll take the second part of that sentence back!