It does seem slightly mad that a defence of Phil Parkinson is even warranted. Bolton Wanderers sit in second place, two points clear with two games left, and do remain in the driving seat - promotion is in their hands. Considering the utter shambles the club was in 12 months a go it is a small wonder that the ownership, management and players have been able to turn things around so quickly and so drastically. I imagine many supporters feared our stay in League One might be a long one, and I also imagine had they been offered the position the Whites currently sit in in August, they’d have gladly accepted.
However, there is a need to defence and I do understand why many Bolton fans are getting frustrated, and I imagine they are feelings more formed from nerves and fear, rather than actual, fully dislike for Parkinson. But, it must be said, the frustration is warranted all the same.
April 4th, around 9:40 pm, the Super Whites have just won away at Southend United via a 92nd minute Mark Beevers goal. It’s their 9th game unbeaten and fifth away win on the spin. The victory sent the Wanderers ten points clear of Fleetwood Town in third place and promotion seemed all but a certainty. Sadly, however, the match would also see the catalyst for a rough and sudden down turn in form.
Fast forward a mere three games later and things are no longer looking as rosy. Two 1-0 away defeats on the bounce, to Scunthorpe (fair enough, they’re not bad) and Oldham (pretty bloody awful), and a 0-0 draw at home to Bury. Well, since the night of April 4th, slightly more than two weeks later, the gap between Bolton and Fleetwood has narrowed from ten points to a frighteningly close two.
The catalyst for that down turn was, as we all are so painstakingly aware, was that Gary Madine suffered a shoulder injury and appears to be out for the rest of the season. We can, and by god we have, discuss at great length Madine’s importance to the team and whether or not he should fight through the pain to play in the last two games (he defo should) but this article isn’t about big Gaz.
It’s about Phil Parkinson and how he has coped, or not coped, with the target man’s absence.
I, along with many others, have noted all season how Parkinson’s lack of adaptability to not having Gary Madine available has been poor. It was a cause for concern earlier in the season, and now it is undoubtedly costing us. Because, for whatever reason, we just can not win without Madine. No matter how the team line up and intend to play, the plan will always revert back to long hoof balls forward and when Madine isn’t there to aim at they sail aimlessly into pointlessness.
But, as the title of this article would suggest, I am going to defend Parkinson. Now, I still think not being able to adapt to a player of Madine’s ‘quality’ is very poor form and, despite the difficult predicament he’s working under, he still should have prepared better for his inevitable absence (shipping out Proctor, however bad, sure does seem like a bad call now).
I do, however, have a bone to pick with the many, many, many people who’ve come out to say that Parkinson is “clueless”, “tactically inept”, “limited” and so on. I won’t lie, he does seem at the current moment in time, but I beleive he’s proved this season that he is actually capable of smart tactical changes - they just take time.
If you take a glance at our fixture list for the season and pay particularly close attention to the pattern of the greens and reds in the result column, our good runs of form - and when they end - become pretty clear.
The season began with the Whites winning four consecutive league games, our best start to a season since god knows when. The first time Bolton dropped points came in a 1-1 draw away at Charlton Athletic on August 27th, and they didn’t earn another three points for seven games until a 1-0 victory at Swindon Town on October 8th.
That win against Swindon then kicked off a spectacular run of form which, the odd blip aside, lasted until January 2nd. In that span of 13 league games Bolton lost only two, odd 1-0 away defeats to Peterborough and Chesterfield.
The run came to an end in a 2-2 draw against Coventry City. The Whites didn’t win again for five weeks - two victories in a week, against Walsall and Rochdale, were a blip in reverse this time - and then another three draws and that meek loss to Sheffield United followed.
Then we got our last great run of form together, winning six out of seven games, and now we get to where we at present: shitting ourselves the day before a must win game at relegation threatened Port Vale.
Our season is very easily split into runs of good form and runs of bad form, with only the result acting as an anomaly, and you can quite easily mark the ends of each good run of form when important players have become unavailable and that has forced Parkinson to change his system.
The game in which we dropped our first points, away at Charlton, was the game that Mark Davies was ruled out for the season in. Our early season set up was a diamond with Davies being at the tip, and he set up most of our goals and everything that was good went through him. The team was built around him.
The following weeks, when the wins did not flow, were weeks of flux. Parkinson was constantly chopping and changing his team, trying to work out what his best team was. In the second victory of the next good run, 2-0 against Oldham, he finally settled on a 4-2-3-1, with a front three of Clough - Vela - Ameobi supporting Madine.
Parkinson had struck gold, remember how good the football was then? Remember how many awesome goals we were scoring? How easily we were sweeping teams aside?
This front four started every single league game together until, you guessed it, the 2-2 draw at Coventry where Clough started on the bench. That game also proved to be Ameobi’s last game at the club, as he was recalled by Newcastle the very same night. The next league game we played, against Swindon Town, ended in 2-1 defeat at the Macron.
In the next match, another 2-1 home loss, Zach Clough played, and scored in, his last ever game for the Wanderers before his transfer to Nottingham Forest.
So the formation and system that had served Parkinson so well was now decimated and he had to change things up once again. It took a lot of time. He settled on his new formation of the 3-5-2 against Walsall, which saw an immediate impact of a 4-1 victory. But still the players weren’t set in stone. It wasn’t until the scintillating 4-2 win against Fleetwood did Parkinson settle on his team. With Morais and Andy Taylor as wing backs, Darren Pratley in the middle of the park and Josh Vela supporting a striking duo of Adam Le Fondre and Gary Madine.
The last run of good form looked set to get us over finishing line, but since Madine’s injury the system has been sent into disarray and everything has gone to shit.
Now, you could say that every system Parkinson has used as revolved around Madine and you’d be right, to a point, but what I’m saying is that Parkinson is not tactically inept, he isn’t clueless and certainly does know what he’s doing. He’s a manager constantly working under taxing strain and adapting to new formations and tactics takes time for him to figure out and for the players to learn.
Sadly, Madine’s injury has come as a challenge that Parkinson hasn’t had to face for such a sustained number of games before and it has come far too late in the day for anything to be effectively done about it.
So while I do understand nerves and frustrations leading to people verbally lashing out at Parkinson, it is important that we all take a step back, breath, and consider the great job he has done this season.
We have two games left, a win and a draw should see us out of this godforsaken league and away form Bradford City fans forever, but I think we’d all sleep a little safer if we sealed the deal with two victories.
We can only hope now that Parkinson finds a way to cope with Madine’s loss in the little time we all have left.