By Jason McKeown
Nicky Law looked more like your PE teacher than he did the manager of your football club. There was something about the way his clothes didn’t quite seem to fit him properly, and of course his distinctive bald appearance. Modern day bald managers include Russell Slade, Uwe Rosler, Michael Appleton and, erm, that’s about it. Perhaps Law’s trailblazing look inspired Pep Guardiola.
Law’s striking appearance was a reflection of changed times at Bradford City, when he took over on January 1, 2002 following the Christmas Eve resignation of Jim Jefferies. After the fanciful plans of signing your Carbones and Petrescus had gone horribly wrong, and Jefferies’ attempts to clear the decks had left him with a squad of talented underachievers, the scaled back reality of managing through austerity dictated that someone like Law fitted the bill of what was needed.
As a club we had become desperate to see fight within our players. With a few notable exceptions, such as Stuart McCall, in his final season playing for the Bantams, desire and passion was woefully lacking. So instead we wanted to see hungry lower league players be given the opportunity to shine, especially as they were cheap. Ability was low down on the wish list of qualities required. That might seem crazy, but ability in the squad wasn’t the problem. It was application. We’d had enough of the Lee Sharpes.
So Law, a proven lower league manager who had guided Chesterfield to promotion, albeit under highly controversial circumstances, seemed exactly the right man with the right background. He’d served his apprenticeship, he knew how to get the best out of people, and he deserved the opportunity to reverse the slide of a club that had been playing Premier League football just over seven months earlier.
It’s unfortunate that Law’s 22 months at the club are associated with very little movement on the pitch, But given the landscape around him was about to undergo a cataclysmic shift, standing still was actually a very commendable achievement. You can imagine Law setting up his new office inside Valley Parade excitedly believing the days of managing under hardship and minimal budget were over. One of the first players he managed, Carbone, was on £40,000 a week. Yet by the end of his time in charge, Law had been forced to recruit players on weekly wages not totalling more than £750.
That sudden change from moderately well off to paupers was of course due to the unprecedented times of administration, which occurred at the end of Law’s first half-season in charge. A campaign that had ended for City with a disappointing 15th-placed finish in Division One (now the Championship); Law having to continue the squad-dismantling work that saw him lose the likes of Robbie Blake and, at the end of the season, McCall. There was promise to the recruits he was able to bring in – Tom Kearney, Michael Standing and Danny Cadamarteri.
Performances had been mixed with some truly dreadful moments (losing at basket case bottom club Stockport), but also some decent wins (Crewe at home springs to mind). Law had a minor spat with Carbone, got a couple of decent displays out of Sharpe and aided the development of Andy Myers and Claus Jorgenson.
Administration brought a halt to Law’s progressive plans. How could it not, when he was informed that all but five of his squad had been sacked? He targeted new signings despite the obvious drawback that there might not be a club for them to sign a contract to play for. He had to be ready to build a squad at short notice, not knowing how many of the sacked players would be reinstated.
And it meant that 2002/03 was always going to be a monumental struggle. From the club ending 2001/02 disappointed by the lack of promotion push to the Premier League, merely staying in the division was now the one and only target. A challenging one at that. A promising start to the season suggested it would be a nice boring campaign of midtable. But as injuries kicked in and exposed the lack of strength in depth, form nose-dived in the shape of a club record-equalling eight straight defeats during November and December.
With widespread understanding of the difficult plight, there were few, if any, supporter calls for Law to be sacked. I mean what could you say as you observed Graeme Tomlinson arrive on a short-term contract after the former City player had been released by a non-league club? Or when the dreadful Harpal Singh was deployed simply because there were no other options? We just had to pray that the injury situation cleared up quickly and that the club’s big performers came back to give big performances.
Which to their credit they did. A 1-0 win over high-flying Nottingham Forest just before Christmas was the first of five wins in seven games. This run included an impressive victory at the home of Wolves, who were eventually promoted. Claus Jorgenson scored that day and began a run of netting in successive away matches that saw him come within one game of equalling a record set by Dixie Dean.
The width of a post at Gillingham denied him a place in the history books, but by then City were safe at least. The second half of the season seeing some excellent away wins recorded at Burnley, Derby, Coventry and Grimsby. Home form was less impressive, but the emergence of Danny Forrest with a debut goal against Ipswich and stunning overhead kick vs Walsall lived long on in the memory. The future was looking brighter.
Survival was sealed on Easter Saturday following a good 2-1 home victory over Watford. Law – who had spent the season being linked to other clubs who were impressed by his ability to manage on a shoestring – had achieved a difficult objective. So a hero then? Well, sadly not.
For as City ended the season with a 5-0 home thumping to divisional champions Portsmouth, a number of highly paid players said goodbye to the club – their contracts expiring with no chance of another on the same terms – and the expectation grew that their removal from the wagebill would afford Law the resources and opportunity to truly build his own team. When on the eve of the 2003/04 campaign, Ashley Ward and his £18k a week was also offloaded, it appeared to herald the closing to the chapter of over-indulgent buys. Yet the warning signs were there. Rather than have more room in the budget, Law was instructed that he could not sign anyone on more than £750 a week. That was not a lot in second division terms.
If there was one development that summed up the gulf between expectation and reality, it was Chairman Gordon Gibb’s publically-made incentive to the players that they would share a £1.5 million bonus should City be promoted to the Premier League that season. Aiming high is all well and good, but this raising of the bar from being happy to avoid relegation to wanting a top six finish was too much too soon. Sure, Law was no longer operating with both hands tied behind his back, but he was left with a relative pittance to pull a miracle from.
It all unravelled very quickly. The signings brought in – such as Luke Cornwall, Jason Gavin, Robert Wolleaston – were well below what was needed. An early League Cup exit to bottom tier club Darlington saw Gibb publically criticise Law. The Chairman was at it again two weeks later after a woeful 4-0 home loss to Sunderland – City’s third defeat in a week – suggested a season of real struggle. A summit meeting led to the slight loosening of the purse strings, enabling Law to sign Nicky Summerbee. At least City won their next match, but the 2-1 victory over Preston was in truth an embarrassment to watch. We were woeful and should have lost 5-0.
On the drive home from that game an angry Law popped up on my car radio. City had been 1-0 down at half time and struggling badly, with the crowd very hostile towards the players. Law was deeply upset with this reaction and pointed out how little it had helped the team. Valid words and very truthful, but they did not go down well with performances proving so poor. The Gibb-raised expectations had been taken up by us supporters too, and this wasn’t good enough. A few days later we beat Crystal Palace 1-0 but I personally still felt unhappy. It wasn’t shaping up to be the season we’d hoped. The £750 wage ceiling meant little to us.
12 winless games later, Law was gone. By now the reality of a second successive campaign fighting relegation had sunk in and we’d lowered our expectations. There had been some good performances against Sheffield United, Derby and Notts Forest that deserved better than zero points. But a 2-1 loss at Wimbledon in November – the Dons the only club operating on a lower budget than us, and in the midst of their controversial move to Milton Keynes – was the beginning of the end. Two draws later and a two-week gap in fixtures offered Gibb the opportunity to act. Within hours of a 1-1 at home to Walsall, Law was sacked. He apparently only found out after checking the City website.
It didn’t do much for City’s fortunes, with his replacement Bryan Robson unable to reserve the slide. Relegation and another spell in administration following. Law himself quickly reappeared at Grimsby in the division below, but could not save the relegation-threatened Mariners from the drop. Perhaps he jumped into that particular job too quickly. He has not since worked in league management, dropping down to Alferton Town. A long, long way removed from being linked with the position at Sheffield Wednesday.
Over the years since, Law’s son, also named Nicky, has enjoyed two highly successful loan periods at City that were the launch pad for this career. On December 28 2008, Law Junior scored a wonder-goal against Morecambe in a 4-0 Bantams win. Law Senior was present to see it, but was sat in the Morecambe away end. You’d like to think it was his choice to be there and that he would have been made welcome by the club to sit in the posh seats. It’s hard to imagine anyone associated with City having any malice towards him.
Yet the incredibly difficult period for Bradford City that Law’s period as manager coincided with makes it difficult to look back with any warmth. It might retrospectively seem harsh that he was sacked, but at the time you could understand why the club felt they had to try something – the stakes were so high. Ultimately Law’s big achievement as manager – keeping City in Division One – was quickly forgotten because relegation followed the season afterwards anyway.
Like your old PE teacher, he is long-forgotten and a name that only pops up on the rarest of occasions. Neither recalled fondly nor badly, Law has somehow become a mere footnote in our history despite doing a great deal to ensure that we still have a football club to support.
Categories: He managed Bradford City