Bolton manager Phil Parkinson has a unique claim to fame: he is the only manager to take a side from the English fourth tier to the Wembley final of a major cup competition. He has also won nine Manager of the Month awards and received the LMA Special Merit award in 2013. He also holds the UEFA Pro Licence. Given that record, it is easy to forget he also made almost 600 appearances as a player.
Philip John Parkinson was born in Chorley but moved to Stockton at the age of eight. Despite his northern roots, central midfielder Parkinson spent his football apprenticeship on the south coast with Southampton from the age of 16. He was a discovery of Southampton’s extensive scouting network in the north east, originally set up by legendary boss Lawrie McMenemy, that also enabled Saints to unearth a certain Alan Shearer around the same time. The north east contingent would train at the club’s centre of excellence in Gateshead, and travel to Southampton together during the summer. Shearer later described the experience as the best time of his life.
Signing a professional contract at the age of 17, Parkinson was destined to remain at The Dell for three full seasons without making a first-team appearance. In March 1988 the opportunity arose to return to the north with Third Division Bury, and he made his Football League bow later that week. It would prove a relatively uneventful period of his career, with Bury turning in successive lower mid-table finishes in 1987-88 and 1988-89. That changed in 1989-90 as Bury challenged for promotion to the Second Division. A fifth-place finish took them into the playoffs, which ended with a 2-0 aggregate defeat to Tranmere in the semi-final. They were back in the playoffs again the following season when a final day win at promotion rivals Tranmere enabled them to finish seventh. On this occasion, it was neighbours Bolton who ended their season with a 2-1 aggregate semi-final win. Bury struggled unexpectedly in 1991-92 and were relegated to the Fourth Division with a 2-0 final day defeat at Preston. Parkinson decided to move on at that point and joined Third Division rivals Reading for £37,500 on 10 July 1992.
He made 169 appearances for Bury, scoring 7 goals.
It is his time at Reading that really defined Parkinson’s playing career. The first season of 1992-93 ended in disappointment as the Royals fell just three points short of a play-off place in the newly-renamed Second Division. Reading rose to the top of the table early in 1993-94, losing just two of their first twenty-one games, and became engaged in a four-way battle for promotion with Port Vale, Plymouth and Stockport. This time there would be no disappointment: Reading’s 2-0 win over Brighton in the penultimate game, combined with Stockport’s draw at Bristol Rovers, gave them the Second Division title.
If that had been a good season, Reading almost surpassed themselves in 1994-95. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen: due to yet another restructuring of the Football League, there was only one promotion place available to the Premier League that season. Reading finished second and were forced to battle their way through the playoffs. They failed, losing 4-3 after extra time to Bolton at Wembley. The chance of reaching the top flight for the first time in their long history had gone, and Reading slumped back down the First Division table from then on. Indeed, the 1995-96 season almost saw Reading return to the third tier, and only a win over Wolves with two games remaining ensured survival. The League Cup offered a minor diversion with a trip to the quarter-final where they were beaten 2-1 by Premier League Leeds.
Despite another poor season in 1996-97, there was no real danger with the side finishing eleven points clear of relegated Grimsby. However, things were to go badly wrong in 1997-98. Well into the new year Reading appeared well clear of danger again, but a catastrophic run of two wins and fifteen defeats from their final seventeen games saw them relegated in bottom place. The two solitary wins came over Stoke and Manchester City, the two sides relegated with them. Ironically, it proved a very good season in the cups: Reading reached the fifth round of the FA Cup and again appeared in the quarter-final of the League Cup which included a win at Leeds. Nonetheless, they were back in the third tier. One consolation for Parkinson was his first Player of the Season award, albeit in a relatively poor side.
So Reading were forced to begin life in their new Madejski Stadium – opened in August 1998 – in the lower divisions. The next two seasons saw mediocre mid-table finishes. Parkinson repeated his Player of the Season success for the second season in a row, but things were generally under par. After flirting with the Second Division relegation places early in the new year, an upturn in form over the second half of the 1999-2000 season suggested better times on the horizon, and that is exactly what was about to happen. Reading sat in the second automatic promotion spot with three games of the 2000-01 season remaining, but two points from those final two games saw them finish third. The Royals disposed of Wigan in the play-off semi-final, but went down 3-2 after extra time to Walsall at the Millennium Stadium.
The disappointment was soon forgotten as Reading made another solid bid for automatic promotion in 2001-02. Despite leading the table well into February, Reading went on to win just three of their next twelve games, but drew the other nine. It left them needing to avoid defeat at third-placed Brentford on the final day to secure promotion. A Jamie Cureton goal thirteen minutes from time from a flick-on by captain Parkinson was enough to earn a 1-1 draw, and Reading were back in the First Division.
But at almost 35, it turned out to be his swansong. Parkinson was already thinking of the next stage of his career. He commenced his coaching badges in 2002 at the behest of Reading manager Alan Pardew and played very few games thereafter. Parkinson was offered the position of Reading’s reserve team coach by Pardew, but a new opportunity then arose: out of the blue, he was offered the manager’s position at Second Division strugglers Colchester. Parkinson later expressed surprise that he had been given the job despite his total absence of practical coaching experience. He was appointed by Colchester on 25 February 2003 and announced his retirement from playing.
Parkinson is considered a legend at Reading, racking up 425 appearances over his eleven seasons. In a vote to establish the club’s best ever team held in August 2005, Parkinson took the central midfield place with over 60% of the vote.
In all, he made 594 appearances in a fifteen-year career, scoring a modest 31 goals.
When he arrived at Layer Road, Parkinson found his new club hovering just two points above the relegation zone. Despite his own reservations about his lack of experience, Colchester enjoyed a significant improvement in form, winning six and drawing four of his first eleven games to move well clear of danger. In the same year he obtained his UEFA ‘A’ and ‘B’ Licences as well as completing a degree in sociology through the Open University. His first full season of 2003-04 produced a roller coaster ride for the fans. Despite losing their first three games, Colchester rose to fourth place in November, just three points off the top. However, form began to tail away due to involvement in cup matches and fixture congestion began to bite. The side played no fewer than fifteen cup ties that season, reaching the fifth round of the FA Cup and the southern area final of the Football League Trophy. A run of eight games without a win put paid to a promotion bid, but they ended the season well to finish eleventh.
Entering the rebranded League One in 2004-05, Colchester got off to a flier with four wins from five games carrying them to second place in the table. However, that was as good as it got, with the side slipping steadily down the table thereafter. A revival came in March after Colchester had dropped to within three points of the danger zone, and an eleven-match unbeaten run saw them finish comfortably in fifteenth. The cups provided a distraction once more, reaching the third round of the League Cup and the fourth round of the FA Cup. One notable aspect of the season was that Colchester conceded just 50 league goals despite finishing in the bottom half – only champions Luton Town had a tighter defence.
It was logical to think that an improvement in goals scored would produce a good season for Colchester in 2005-06, but that is not quite what happened. The side got off to a terrible start, winning just once in the first seven games. The season only picked up from the end of October when the side won thirteen and drew one of their next fifteen games to rise to the top of the table above Essex rivals Southend. Despite some inconsistent form thereafter, Colchester went into the final game of the season away to Yeovil needing a point for promotion. In front of a huge following from Essex, a 0-0 draw ensured promotion to the second tier for the first time in Colchester’s history. It was a success based almost entirely on defence: Colchester scored only league 58 goals, but that miserly defence improved even further on the previous season by conceding just 40. Promotion was achieved in spite of another excellent season in the cups, with the club reaching the area final of the Football League Trophy and the fifth round of the FA Cup for the second time in three seasons.
Then things turned a bit sour. Parkinson was linked with the vacant manager’s job at Championship club Hull City in the middle of June and resigned. Colchester took out a temporary injunction to prevent him leaving but relented after Hull agreed to pay £400,000 in compensation. An unusual term of that deal was that Parkinson was precluded from taking any players with him from Colchester.
Appointed on 29 June 2006, the Hull dream died very quickly. Despite spending £2 million on players in order to take Hull into the Premier League, Hull won just two of their first fourteen games including a dismal nine defeats to sink to the bottom of the Championship. An embarrassing 5-1 defeat by former club Colchester at the end of November rubbed salt into the wound and Parkinson parted company with Hull on 4 December after barely five months in the job.
The next stop came a month later when Parkinson was named assistant manager to Alan Pardew at Premier League Charlton Athletic. It appears that it was not his ideal position at the time because he was set to be unveiled as the new manager of Huddersfield on 4 April 2007 when he performed a spectacular u-turn: an hour before the scheduled press conference to announce his departure, he rang Huddersfield to tell them he had changed his mind. Huddersfield went ahead with the press conference anyway, and the newspapers featured some amusing photographs of an empty chair between the chairman and vice-chairman. It emerged that Charlton had made him an increased offer to stay at The Valley and help them stave off relegation. It didn’t work: they were relegated anyway.
Charlton did not make an immediate return to the Premier League, finishing in mid-table in 2007-08. Far from showing the required improvement in 2008-09, Charlton struggled badly. A 5-2 home defeat by Sheffield United left them in the bottom three and Pardew was sacked on 22 November. Parkinson took over as caretaker, but despite picking up just three points from his first eight games, he was appointed permanently on 31 December. It took eleven games for Charlton to win under Parkinson but it proved a rarity. Charlton were relegated in bottom place. Back in League One, Charlton got off to a great start in 2009-10, topping the table with six straight wins. They eventually fell just two points short of an automatic promotion place in fourth, and lost on penalties to Swindon in the play-off semi-final. Things looked set fair for a good season in 2010-11, and Charlton sat in the top three for most of the first half. However, five games without a win left them fifth in the table, three points behind an automatic promotion spot, and the club’s new owners surprisingly sacked Parkinson on 4 January 2011.
Parkinson next turned up at League Two Bradford City on 28 August 2011. Bradford had finished just five points clear of relegated Lincoln the previous season and had started the new season poorly. Ironically, the man he replaced at Valley Parade – Peter Jackson – was also the manager he had been due to replace at Huddersfield in 2007. There was to be no drastic improvement, and Bradford finished 18th for the second season in a row. They got away to a much better start in 2012-13 and remained in and around the play-off places until a poor run of form in January. However, a run of just two defeats from their last fifteen games revived the playoff challenge and a 1-0 home win over Burton in the penultimate game saw the side sneak into the playoffs in seventh place. A 5-4 aggregate win over Burton despite losing the home leg took Bradford to Wembley where they disposed of Northampton 3-0 to win promotion.
But it will be for a breathtaking run to the final of the League Cup that 2012-13 will be remembered. Bradford became the first team from the fourth tier of English football to appear in a major cup final since Rochdale in 1961-62, and the only one to appear in a Wembley final. They are the only team from the fourth tier to appear in a major cup final with the involvement of all 92 clubs: the League Cup did not attract a full entry until 1969-70. The run comprised wins over Notts County (League One), Watford (Championship), Burton (League Two), Wigan (Premier League), Arsenal (Premier League), and Aston Villa (Premier League) in the two-legged semi-final. Unfortunately, they were overwhelmed on the day of the final, losing 5-0 to Premier League Swansea, but it will always stand as one of the greatest cup runs of all time. The achievement earned Parkinson the LMA Special Merit Award.
Parkinson was rewarded with a new contract, and consolidation was the name of the game in 2013-14. After being in the top four after ten games, a run of one win in twenty league games ended any ambitions of another play-off challenge. Bradford made a serious challenge for the playoffs in 2014-15, but a 6-0 thumping at home by leaders Bristol City in April left them with too much to do. The seventh-place finish was surely affected by Bradford’s exciting run to the quarter-final of the FA Cup which included an incredible 4-2 win at Chelsea after being 2-0 down in the first half. It is often forgotten that the run also included a win over Premier League Sunderland before Parkinson’s former club Reading won the sixth round replay. Parkinson was named LMA FA Cup Manager of the Year at the end of the season.
The following season of 2015-16 saw another play-off challenge despite a slow start. A run of seven wins and a draw from their final eight games secured fifth place, but the side went down 4-2 on aggregate to Millwall in the semi-final. By this time, Parkinson was the fifth longest serving manager in the League, but he was also a marked man. On 10 June 2016 he agreed a deal to manage Bolton Wanderers, just relegated to League One.
And so commenced a roller coaster ride that no one could have foreseen. Financial problems continued to beset the club despite previous owner Eddie Davies writing off an incredible £198 million in loans. Bolton started the season under a transfer embargo but still managed four straight wins to lead the table at the end of August. They sustained their promotion challenge for the majority of the season and secured automatic promotion with a 3-0 home win over Peterborough in the final game. Parkinson picked up three Manager of the Month awards to add to an already large collection. Bolton got off to a terrible start in 2017-18, picking up just two points from the first eleven games. They lifted themselves off the bottom of the table at the end of November and finally managed to stay in the Championship by the skin of their teeth: a 3-2 home win over Nottingham Forest on the final day took them out of the bottom three. The 2018-19 season started very well with three wins and a draw, but there were to be just five more wins in a depressing season. Bolton were relegated well before the end of the season, but it was off-field matters that dominated. Still heavily in debt, the club was up for sale and placed into administration at the end of the season. Players and staff went unpaid, and Parkinson said he had seen things he had never witnessed before with food banks in the car park and players walking away from their contracts. The players refused to play the game against Brentford, who were awarded a 1-0 walkover win.
Six players returned for pre-season training in June 2019, but Parkinson remains loyal. A preferred bidder has been named by administrators, and Bolton hope for a better season. They will begin with a twelve-point deduction for administration, but that may be extended for failure to fulfil that Brentford fixture. Bolton face a Herculean task to stay in League One, but they have the right manager to lead them. It is entirely possible that avoiding relegation this season may prove Phil Parkinson’s biggest achievement.
P = Promoted; R = Relegated; SF = Lost in play-off semi-final; F = Lost in play-off final; PO = Won play-off final; D = Demoted.
Figures are league games only; cup matches and playoffs are not included.
League position shown is either the position at the end of the season or the position at the time of departure
* Includes a 1-0 walkover defeat for failing to fulfil the scheduled fixture against Brentford on 27/4/2019.
— Vital Lincoln City (@VitalLincoln) July 13, 2019