By Jason McKeown
Mark Lawn was the last member of the Bradford City board to make his mind up about Peter Taylor. Halfway through a three month trial period at the back end of the 2009/10 season, Lawn contrasted Taylor’s workmanlike 2-1 home victory over Aldershot Town with Stuart McCall’s free-flowing 5-0 demolition of the same side 12 months earlier.
It was different football for sure, but two-and-a-half-years’ experience of the rough and tumble of League Two suggested it could be more successful. That it could win football matches. And that, at the time, was all that mattered.
Bradford City’s recruitment of managers has often followed a narrative of seeking a quality in the next guy that was allusive in the departing boss. Take Colin Todd and the belief that he lacked passion for the job. In came club legend Stuart McCall, only for many people to later conclude that he had too much passion and not enough experience. A street-smart manager with proven ability was needed instead. So the club turned to Peter Taylor.
The CV was impressive for sure. Five previous promotions demonstrated that Taylor knew what it takes. He even had a caretaker stint in charge of the senior England team, where he made the bold and visionary decision to make David Beckham captain. Knowledgeable, professional, proven. Taylor ticked all the boxes of that time.
There was, however, a But. From each club he managed, a loud warning in red letters: it won’t be pretty. At its best, Taylor’s football was effective rather than entertaining. Expect defensive tactics, a long ball approach, and of 10 outfield players held back to defend corners. No one was left in any doubt that we were going to witness anything but slightly dull football. But after McCall’s more gung ho approach had failed, the overriding mood was that we could accept it. As long as we won matches, that was all that mattered.
The romanticism of McCall was long dead.
So it was that Taylor was signed up on a 12-month contract with the hope that his expertise would succeed where the naivety of McCall had failed. He wasn’t the cheap option, demanding a hefty wage (WOAP has been told figures, but there’s a danger speculating such matters; let’s just say it was apparently multiple times Phil Parkinson’s basic salary of last season).
Taylor also had off-the-field requests: new training facilities were urgently needed, a vastly improved Valley Parade surface required, and, infamously, suits for players to wear on matchdays. The Board were happy to agree to Taylor’s demands. This was the promotion expert speaking, after all.
The reasons behind why it would go so, so wrong left many people flummoxed, not least Taylor himself. But there were clues within that impressive track record. Littered in between the successes of Gillingham, Brighton, Hull (two promotions) and Wycombe were some significant failures. Leicester City in the Premier League; Crystal Place in the Championship; even non-league Stevenage. At the clubs he succeeded at, the grumbles over dour football were secondary; but at the others it was first and foremost the issue. All football managers are only popular if they are successful, but for Taylor the margin between liked and despised appeared especially thin.
Taylor wasn’t helped by that training ground he requested failing to materialise in circumstances that were hugely embarrassing for the club. Having apparently secured facilities in Leeds, Lawn publically slated Bradford Council for lack of support before the players emerged back at Appleby Bridge on day one of pre-season, the Leeds deal having fallen through.
It meant a continuation of the arrangement where players would have to change at Valley Parade before driving to Appleby Bridge in their kit, training and then driving back to Valley Parade all muddy and wet, for a shower. Taylor identified this arrangement as a big weakness and demanded it be addressed before agreeing his contract. The club did their best but failed to deliver, forcing Taylor to use facilities he had felt were to the detriment of promotion hopes.
Nevertheless, his own player recruitment approach failed to convince from the off. A quantity over quality approach – two players for every position – the polar opposite to Parkinson’s 2012/13 promotion-winning strategy. Taylor had a lower budget than Parkinson too, and with stella summer signing Tommy Doherty rumoured to be on huge wages, the budget for other positions was stretched too thinly due to volume of bodies wanted.
Nowhere was it more evident than up front. James Hanson and Gareth Evans – recruited by McCall a year earlier – were good, but unlikely to deliver too many goals. Jake Speight was bought, for £25k, from non-league Mansfield with a good goalscoring record the season before, but on closer inspection the majority of his appearances had come from the bench. The fourth striker was Louis Moult, on loan from Stoke. He would net only once and generally struggle. Chib Chilaka rocked up a few weeks into the campaign, but was raw at best.
On the back of the training ground fiasco, Speight continued the downbeat tone of pre-season by attempting to keep secret a court case that he had upcoming, only to miss the first pre-season friendly because he was sentenced to prison. Although winning his appeal later and released, the details of what he had been accused of did not sit well with right-thinking City fans. Taylor, who like everyone else had no idea Speight had this case hanging over him as he signed, could have sacked the striker but choose not to. He therefore needed Speight to justify such faith, but that never happened.
So a team that looked suspiciously weak on paper began the season with a disappointing 3-1 defeat at Shrewsbury. And although back-to-back home wins followed – the first over Championship Notts Forest in the League Cup, with the introduction of Taylor’s best signing, David Syers – the second of those victories was greeted by boos. City defeated newly-promoted Stevenage unconvincingly, playing all out defence for the entire second half in dismal fashion. The final whistle was met with jeers and, with it, the first emergence of what would become a huge problem.
Taylor, the pragmatist, was surely entitled to feel upset by this reaction. He was doing what we had welcomed him to the club to do – win matches. We knew it wasn’t going to be pretty, but as long as we won matches it didn’t matter, apparently. Taylor was behaving how we expected him to, yet we were unhappy and making it known. The first cracks in the philosophy.
The Stevenage win was one of just two in City’s opening 10 matches. A dreadful, dreadful start that saw the Bantams plummet to second bottom of the table by October, with Taylor under pressure to keep his job. Tommy Doherty – who missed pre-season through injury – made a slow start and was booed after a mistake in a 2-0 loss to Port Vale. The grumpy-looking midfielder seemingly made his mind up there and then on City supporters, and for the rest of his unsuccessful spell completely ignored us.
October saw a strong recovery – four wins from five catapulting us to the edge of the play offs. Doherty belatedly impressing, new signing Lee Hendrie making a difference, Omar Daley and Steve Williams excelling and Syers blossoming. It all looked like it might come together, even if the six weeks before Christmas saw some mixed results. But when the calendar year ended with a 4-0 thrashing to Cheltenham the miserable outlook returned.
The pendulum swung back and forth almost violently. First back-to-back wins in the New Year not only placed City back into play off contention, they triggered a shock job offer for Taylor. Newcastle’s newly installed manager Alan Pardew wanted him to be his assistant. Seemingly, everyone wanted Taylor to stay at BD8, so he did – and then proceeded to lose seven of his next nine games.
And that’s where it all fell apart. The breaking point, for me, was a 2-1 loss to Oxford less than two weeks after Taylor’s Newcastle rebuttal. Taking an early lead through Syers, City defended for the rest of the match, desperately trying to cling on to a 1-0 lead despite the opposition being fairly mediocre in League Two terms. It was embarrassing, and it prompted me to realise that – even if Taylor could deliver success to City – I didn’t want it this way.
Watching City had become a joyless, disengaging experience. The regimented football tedious. When a few weeks after Oxford, Taylor instigated a loan swap deal for Daley with the workmanlike Kevin Ellison, it felt like the final squeezing out of any individuality or flair. Scott Dobie, Tom Adeyemi, Lewis Hunt, Ellison, Jon Worthington, Richard Eckersley – these were not players you felt proud to represent us.
In fact, you feared the long-term consequences of such short-termism being allowed to reign. Taylor’s treatment of players such as Luke O’Brien, Zesh Rehman and Daley – bringing in inferior loan players to take their places, rather than trust in their development – was difficult to watch. For the first time ever watching Bradford City, I genuinely couldn’t understand the manager’s thinking.
After a 1-0 home defeat to runaway leaders and eventual champions, Chesterfield, in February, Taylor announced that he would step down following the weekend’s home game with bottom-of-the-table Stockport County. It was an unusual situation, but with the wretched run of form seeing promotion hopes replaced by relegation fears, the relative stability staying for one game offered was probably the right thing. A rollercoaster 90 minutes, unusually for Taylor packed full of entertainment, saw Gareth Evans’ last minute winner defeat nine-men Stockport 3-2.
A happy ending to an unhappy time. For the football club there was a degree of soul searching required. A year earlier the hounding out of the legendary McCall, by many supporters and elements of the Board, was far from our finest hour. It led to an environment where Taylor was talked up in over-the-top and, at times, aggressive terms. The smallest of actions on his part held up as visionary and used as a stick to beat McCall with.
The Board themselves seemed to instigate this mood. A strange era of PR, where the players’ suits bought by director Roger Owen’s wife was the subject of an in-depth self-congratulatory article on the club’s website. And where City Gent editor Mike Harrison was threatened with being banned from selling the fanzine inside the ground after predicting City would only finish 8th just before the season started. Time would show that this apparently pessimistic forecast was, in fact, wildly optimistic.
The lessons were there to be learned. McCall’s last season had been aimed at longer-term building that was greeted with impatient anguish. Taylor was apparently a short-cut to success and, because of his expertise, we were prepared to overlook the shortcomings of playing boring football. A few months after Taylor’s departure, the training ground facilities he had demanded were finally delivered. The club began to be built upon more concrete foundations, with the rewards finally earned.
As for Taylor, the mystery of why his methods succeed at some clubs but fail at others remains. The fact that, at City, he would apparently spent half of the working week at his Southend home – rather than on the training ground with players – is an obvious area to question. But wouldn’t Taylor have had the same arrangement when he was managing Hull? It was suggested that the number of Southern-based players recruited caused dressing room problems, not least as the players wouldn’t travel to Southern away games as one group.
In time he would probably have delivered success, but not in a way we could fully identify and feel proud of. The pride in Parkinson’s 2012/13 charges and the strong relationship between supporters and the players looked unlikely to have ever materialised under Taylor. A Taylor promotion would have been celebrated, of course, but Centenary Square would not have been packed out for the Open Top bus parade in the manner it was just over a month ago.
Taylor’s failure provided Bradford City with a number of lessons about ourselves. Lessons that, quietly, we have taken on board and are all the better for learning. At least he left us with something, I guess.
Categories: He managed Bradford City