Our potted history series continues with a trip back 16 years, where the sacking of a Bradford City manager caused a national storm. Jason McKeown takes up the story.
January 1998 and the FA Cup third round. 5,000 Bradford City supporters are packed into Maine Road, home of Manchester City, to see if the Bantams can progress past their First Division rivals. Just as the match is about to start, manager Chris Kamara runs over to the stand behind the goal where us visiting fans are housed, to applaud the noise that we are making. In response, everyone breaks out into a well-worn chant: “There’s only one Chris Kamara. Walking along, singing a song, walking in a City wonderland.”
Four days later, Chris Kamara was sacked.
When judged against the modern day era of managers being hastily dismissed up and down the land, Kamara’s removal probably wouldn’t raise an eyebrow these days – but it caused quite a stir at the time. Kamara, in his first managerial job, had been in charge for just over two years – and under his stewardship, City had climbed from mid-table in Division Two (now League One) to reach and then win the play offs, before successfully avoiding relegation from Division One (Championship) the season after. In his third campaign in charge – 1997/98 – City flew out of the starting blocks to top the league in September (a feat they have since only repeated once in any division), and remained in play off contention until mid-November. They were still 11th in the division when Kamara was sacked.
Nevertheless, form had deserted the club and a much-quoted statistic laid bare the decline – just four wins in 23 matches. Worse still, Kamara had been relatively well-backed in the transfer market, most notably breaking the club’s transfer record to sign Bolton striker John McGinlay from Bolton Wanderers for £650,000. Chairman Geoffrey Richmond – who had a habit of interfering in team affairs – had arranged a deal to sign Wayne Allison from Swindon Town. Kamara refused and made it clear he wanted McGinlay, but the Scottish striker proved to be a huge flop at Valley Parade. He’d only netted twice in 10 games prior to the Man City cup match – and at Maine Road he would miss two sitters as the Bantams crashed out of the cup. Richmond swung the axe.
Even to Bradford City supporters, the decision came as a huge shock. Whilst there had been grumblings of discontent over recent form and worries about the possibility of slumping into another relegation battle, Kamara was still highly regarded; and the singing of his name prior to the match was a typical example of his popularity. As City Gent editor David Pendleton wrote shortly afterwards, “The vast majority expected Chris Kamara to survive beyond January at the very least, the discontent had yet to become vocal, but it was there, so you could say that the club beat the fans to the draw.”
Wider football was less understanding, with Bradford City as a club criticised for over-ambition and lack of appreciation for the manager who had given them so much. On Sky Sports, then-West Brom manager Denis Smith stated, “What chance do I and all the other managers have when you consider the job Chris did at Bradford in the two years he was there?” The ITV Football League highlights programme ‘Nationwide League Extra’ also produced an in-depth feature about how much of a mystery the sacking seemed to be. But while all of this coverage focused solely on football matters, another leading pundit of the time would raise more sinister concerns.
On the Saturday after Kamara’s sacking, a Bradford City supporter called into BBC Radio 5Live’s 606 show, expressing appreciation for what Kamara did but backing Richmond’s decision. Back then, the show was hosted by David Mellor, a Conservative politician who had been tasked with running the Labour Government’s ‘Football Task Force’ initiative – aimed at addressing some of the rising issues within the sport. Mellor rambled on to the caller about how distressed he had been to hear the news of Kamara’s dismissal, and eventually plumped to put forward a loaded question.
“I just have an uncomfortable taste in my mouth that he (Kamara) has been ditched so readily,” began Mellor. “And as one of the few black managers in the league you have to wonder when a black manager can be dumped as readily as that…you don’t think his colour had anything to do with it?”
The caller quickly refuted such an idea, and the conversation moved on. Yet rather than that prove an end to the matter, Richmond – who had deliberately made time to listen to 606 that evening to see if any City fans would call in – was incensed with rage. And what might have been a quickly forgotten piece of radio would for the next two weeks be the subject of sizeable national media coverage.
Richmond quickly made public his anger at Mellor, telling the T&A, “What Mellor said was scandalous”. He spent much of the subsequent week in talks with the BBC as he threatened to take legal action. In the end this prospect was dropped and an agreement was made – an agreement that would see Mellor have a rather unusual guest on the upcoming edition of 606: Geoffrey Richmond. He was to be given 10 minutes airtime to clarify the club’s position and make it clear that colour had nothing to do with the decision-making process behind removing Kamara. It proved to be an explosive appearance.
“Well David, let’s forget the pleasantries,” were Richmond’s first on-air comments, which set the tone for the slanging match that occurred. The pair argued back and forth for the subsequent 10 minutes, neither giving an inch. Richmond outraged at Mellor posing the original question, Mellor defending his right to have asked it.
In his autobiography, Kamara recalls, “Like thousands of other football fans, I tuned in to hear the much-publicised debate…it was always going to be a lively one. Over the years, Richmond had grown to believe there was only one opinion worth listening to – his. Meanwhile, David Mellor was a barrister and politician who was more than able to handle himself verbally in a scrap. Weirdly, after half an hour of ranting and raving, the debate settled nothing.”
Kamara refuted that race was ever an issue, “A lot of people were genuinely surprised that I was sacked, but it had nothing to do with the colour of my skin. I was black when he hired me and black when he sacked me.”
Whilst fiercely protecting the reputation of the club, Richmond also instigated a campaign to have Mellor removed as Head of the Football Task Force. One of the remits the Government had handed the Task Force was to investigate racism within the game and whether more needed to be done to combat a problem that, although significantly reducing since the 1980s, nevertheless still reared its ugly head every so often. Richmond felt that Mellor’s questioning of the reasons behind Kamara’s dismissal meant he was not fit to lead such an important project.
“I’m not the only one fed up with him and his ill-informed comments,” he stated. “I wrote to every Football League club and have been amazed by the response. Forty-eight chairmen sent me letters of support in two days. One of the jobs of the football task force is to kick racism out of the game and Mellor’s comments could in fact perpetuate it.
“His position is now untenable.”
Later in the week that followed his live radio debate, City revealed a list of the 52 clubs who backed their calls for Mellor to be sacked from the Task Force. Only two clubs – Wimbledon and Chester – supported Mellor. Although a straw poll conducted by the Press Association suggested that some of the clubs named were not in fact calling for him to go. The then-Sports Minister, Tony Banks, waded into the debate by saying, “I am profoundly suspicious of Mr Richmond’s assertion that all these people back him and I believe there is a large element of optimism and wishful thinking in his assessment of who supports him.” City’s Chief Executive Shaun Harvey hit back, “We stand by our sources and the people that the information was collected from in relation to the club’s supporting the removal of David Mellor.”
Momentum for Mellor’s removal continued in Bradford through the efforts of the Bantams’ Supporters Club, City Gent fanzine and the Friends of Bradford City, who arranged for 16,000 red cards to be printed and distributed at the following Saturday’s home game with Swindon Town, with supporters urged to wave them at 2.55pm to illustrate the strength of feeling against Mellor. Mark Neale, then head of the Heaton branch of the supporters club, stated, “We want to see him removed as head of the Task Force and also as presenter of the 606 show. We want the fans to show their feelings on Saturday with the five-minute protest.”
The protest did indeed take place that Saturday, and a delighted Richmond said, “If Mellor claims to speak for supporters I hope the message from City fans gave him something to consider,” before adding that he didn’t plan to keep up leading his campaign. “I am not going to spend the rest of life crusading against David Mellor. I have really said everything I am going to say on the matter. Now it is up to those within the game and all football supporters to carry this forward if they want to do so. I have got to get on with the job of running Bradford City.”
Sure enough, the controversy faded and Mellor retained his role as Head of the Task Force. Meanwhile Richmond set about appointing a manager to replace Kamara – announcing that caretaker manager Paul Jewell was to be handed the reins until at least the end of the season. Although Jewell struggled to impress as Richmond moved players on to balance the books during the final few weeks of the season, he was nevertheless awarded a two-year contract during the summer.
A decision which paid off spectacularly for Richmond, as Jewell delivered promotion to the Premier League and, a year later, top flight survival. In the aftermath of the May 1999 Wolves victory which confirmed promotion, Richmond did mention Mellor in passing and how hard he felt he had to fight for his reputation in light of the damaging claims. If he had kept a recording of the radio fallout, he would no doubt have afforded himself a chuckle listening back on how Mellor brought an end to that January 1998 debate, scoffing that we should all remember to look at where Bradford City would be 18 months from then. Well, 18 months from then Richmond and co would be dancing around Molineux after achieving top flight football.
Looking back on the row now, the whole episode has a touch of the bizarre. Richmond failed to adhere to a basic rule of PR which is to ensure the reaction to a negative coverage doesn’t overshadow the original comment, thereby bringing an issue to the public spotlight when it otherwise wouldn’t have been noticed. Yet part of me wonders if it was all part of a much cleverer plan, aimed at galvanising the people who mattered the most to Richmond – Bradford City fans.
Kamara’s sacking was divisive and had the potential to lose him significant support. Although no one would have rallied against him as such, the decision would certainly have been scrutinised heavily over the subsequent months, as City’s season got worse rather than better. By portraying himself as a victim – particularly against a Southern-based Tory politician – suddenly the issue wasn’t so much whether Richmond was right to sack Kamara, but whether he had the right to sack him. The “four wins in 23 games” soundbite was soon repeated by almost every supporter, and the Swindon red card protest an indirect show of support for the Chairman.
Which is not to suggest that Richmond took advantage of a situation. He had every right to be hurt and upset by the accusation thrown at him by Mellor. He fought passionately to protect his reputation, to shoot down those allegations and remove even the tiniest trace of doubt. It’s just that by doing so, he also won over doubting minds within his club’s support base and ensured that few questioned what was evidently a controversial decision to sack a successful manager.
Richmond won the PR war locally, and the fact it paved the way for Jewell and unbridled success meant that sacking Kamara proved to be one of the most successful decisions he ever made.