Our summer series continues with a look back to October 2010 and the modern day low point for Bradford City. Jason McKeown recalls the story.
Everyone who endured Bradford City’s 12-year, post-millennium decline from the Premier League to League Two will have their own rock bottom moment. But from a statistical point of view, there can be few arguments over when the lowest point occurred: early October 2010, where for a week the Bantams sat second bottom of the entire 92.
Had the club ended the season in that same woeful league position, they would have been relegated to the murky depths of non-league football and – with the Valley Parade and office block rental commitments – possibly have gone under as a business. It was a rude, rude awakening to stare at the league table during that week.
And the symbolism wasn’t lost upon anyone at the time. Exactly 10 years earlier, the Bantams were in the midst of what would be their final season in the Premier League – sowing the seeds of the collapse down the divisions. 10 years earlier, City were fielding Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore and all that. Now, the forward line included Jake Speight – who lied about a pending court case when he signed for the club, and ended up missing the first pre-season friendly due to being imprisoned – and the Nigerian Chib Chilaka. 10 years earlier, City’s opening five fixtures were Liverpool, Chelsea, Leicester, Manchester United and Arsenal. Now, the campaign started with Shrewsbury, Stevenage, Torquay, Southend and Port Vale.
But by this point we were used to that. It was City’s fourth season in League Two, and the focus was all about promotion. Stuart McCall had fallen on his sword the previous February, and the club had seemingly recruited well in appointing Peter Taylor as his successor. The man with five promotions on his CV; famous for giving David Beckham the captain’s armband when he took caretaker charge of England. City had appointed a manager with the experience and know-how to guide the club upwards once more. Fighting a relegation battle was not part of thw plan.
The scale of underachievement in October 2010 was highlighted by the fact City had gone into that 2010/11 season as promotion favourites. But after that tricky pre-season headlined by Speight, things unravelled very quickly. Those opening five fixtures yielded one victory – a victory so unconvincing the team were booed off the pitch – and four defeats. There were signs of a revival when four points were taken in the next two games, but then a 2-0 defeat at Northampton saw just one shot on target and a growing realisation that the tag of promotion favourites was a long way off the mark. Not for the first time, the mood around the club was awful.
The end of September was where it all came to a head. Firstly, shoots of optimism emerged from a Tuesday night tussle with Rotherham at the Don Valley. The Millers were going well and amongst the promotion pace-setters, so a heavy City defeat was expected. But instead, the visitors played well and had the better of the chances, drawing 0-0. Rotherham keeper Andy Warrington made a string of superb saves and earned the man of the match award. At the back, City were particularly outstanding. Zesh Rehman, Shane Duff, Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien kept only the third clean sheet of the season.
It seemed that a corner was being turned, but then the morning after the Rotherham draw it was announced that Taylor had made a double loan signing from Manchester United. Reece Brown – younger brother of the United stalwart Wes – and Oliver Gill: whose father, David, was United’s chief executive. They were both defenders, and there was widespread bemusement amongst supporters. City were largely doing well defensively; the problems lied up front where – in nine games played so far – the Bantams had scored a pathetic four goals. As Richard Wardell summarised for boyfrombrazil.co.uk, “I simply do not understand why Brown and Gill have joined us for one month. Surely, if we are going to sign a couple of loan players, we need some forward players who can score goals.”
And it got worse when – an hour before the next game, at home to Morecambe – the teams were announced and two of the star Don Valley performers had been dropped. No Rehman, and no O’Brien. In came Gill, a centre half, as left back, and in came Brown, as right back. The groans from the stands were audible. A club insider would later tell me just how badly Taylor’s decision to omit his two established players, in favour of two kids on loan, went down in the dressing room, but in truth everyone could quickly see it for themselves.
For the subsequent 1-0 defeat to the Shrimpers ranks as one of the worst Bradford City performances of the 21st century. Forget how close the scoreline makes the game seem, the home side were utterly dreadful, devoid of any spark and creativity, lacking in passion and desire. “No City player created any chances or had the chance to miss any,” reported Omar Eliwi for BfB. “Something is not right. These players are not playing for this manager. We don’t seem to have a clue how to score a goal. Confidence is at an all time low. The fans want Taylor out.”
It almost goes without saying that the team were booed off by their supporters (not that such a reaction was out of the ordinary back then), and much of the anger was directed at Taylor. In the Telegraph & Argus, Simon Parker reported, “It was another dire afternoon for the home faithful and Taylor was targeted for stick after the final whistle.” Also writing in BfB, David Pendleton stated, “Peter Taylor received some fearful abuse. This was not the usual derision following a defeat. This was raw anger. We are staring into the abyss.”
Taylor himself admitted, “If we start nervously, we don’t seem to improve so that to me is where people can’t handle the situation at the moment. There’s no excuses, it wasn’t good enough, again we don’t look like scoring.” The result left City 23rd in the division, or 91st of the 92. Six defeats in the first 10 games. Relegation form.
The Yorkshire Post summed up the gravity of the situation, “No city or town has lost two clubs from the Football League – Bradford is in danger of becoming the first.”
The failings by Taylor were not restricted to disrupting his back four, but the worryingly poor goals for column. With James Hanson injured, Taylor had opted to stick his lanky centre back Luke Oliver up front to play as a targetman, and over the duration of September we endured game after game watching the ball pumped aimlessly towards his head. Oliver tried his best, but he was no centre forward. Meanwhile strikers Speight, Chilaka and Louis Moult were sat on the bench. Taylor defended Oliver’s selection by stating, “We are a team that’s low on confidence and sometimes you need that big target man.”
It may still have been early days, but the panic button was pressed. Promotion favourites to relegation candidates, in just 10 matches. The next game, at Barnet, was a huge one. The Bees were also struggling, sat in 21st and one point ahead of the Bantams.
Adding to the drama was the fact that, with it being international week and no Premier League football to comment on, the national media got in on the act. “Bradford boss Taylor must win this week or else” ran the headline in the Daily Mirror. The report stated, “The Bantams board are ready to take action if the former Leicester and Brighton boss fails to win at Underhill.” From the Bradford City boardroom there was silence. Although chairman Mark Lawn would later reveal that, privately, Taylor’s future was never going to be decided by the outcome from Underhill. “The Thursday before the game Peter came up to me and said that there were rumours in the press that Barnet was his last game and I turned round to Peter and said ‘Peter, you will be in charge for Cheltenham. That is definite, you will be in charge.’ So he knew what he was doing.”
Nevertheless, Taylor took the team down South under mounting pressure. The stakes, even with it being October, seemed awfully high. This was not just about becoming embroiled in a relegation battle, but whether the decade-long decline still had another horrendous chapter of misery waiting to be written. At the home of the famous Barnet slope, City were desperately trying to avoid taking another tumble.
It was a sunny autumn day and we had arrived at Underhill early; taking our place on the terrace an hour before kick off, and watching the four sides fill up. City were very well represented by supporters, including the faces of Southern-based supporters who inevitably make the most of the Bantams appearing in their neck of the woods.
Taylor went partially back on his loan faux pas, removing Reece Brown from the firing line but keeping Oliver Gill at the back (although he at least played in his best position of centre back). Along with a number of national newspaper journalists, looking for a story on a quiet weekend, David Gill was sat in the press box to watch his son. Luke Oliver was still up front, but at least James Hanson was fit enough to make the bench. The cavalry was finally arriving.
The first half was nerve-jangling. Play was disjointed; there was no pattern of dominance from either side. But whenever Barnet – kicking up the hill – came forward you feared that another nail in the coffin was about to be applied. City could make no headway despite the so-called advantage of playing downhill. In the away end, everyone seemed unable to stop themselves from moaning about the performance, the players and – most of all – the manager.
It carried on in that vein during the second half, and the fear grew that a home goal was coming and with it another recruitment drive for a Bradford City manager would be needed. But then, on 65 minutes, midfielder Tommy Doherty brought the ball out of the defence with purpose, played it into the path of young striker Osborne, who cut inside on the edge of the area and fired a low shot into the bottom corner.
The celebrations were amazing. A huge outpouring of joy, with an overriding feeling of relief. After such a tough week for the club and the growing worry of “here we go again” with the never-ending decline, Bradford City, who never seem to win when the pressure is on, were leading in a must-win match. Incredibly, after all the moaning at Taylor, a song broke out, “Peter Taylor’s Bradford Army!”
Just four minutes later, it was 2-0 to City. Doherty again was the architect; delivering a stunning ball to Omar Daley out wide, who then played Tom Adeyemi through on goal to smash the ball past the home keeper. Dreamland! Another few minutes of jumping up and down on each other, and releasing weeks of pent-up Bradford City frustration.
At full time, Adeyemi jumped into the crowd to celebrate with his family, and we supporters stayed back for several minutes cheering the players off the field. It hadn’t been a great performance, and defeating Barnet was hardly earth-shattering. But it was so important to put the brakes on the misery, and to feel good about our football club again.
There would be no sacking of Taylor, for now at least. Instead, victory created a spark and began a run of four wins from five games. On the final victory of that sequence, City defeated high-flying Bury on their own patch, ending that Tuesday evening in 10th place, just three points off the play offs.
Alas, it was not to be and the home meeting with Barnet, the following January, triggered another wretched run of form that would bring an end to Taylor’s reign. He signed off with a drama-fuelled 3-2 victory over Stockport that kept the relegation wolves at the bay; but under replacement manager Peter Jackson, avoiding relegation was a close-run thing. Eventually City finished 18th, a position they matched a year later after another season worrying about relegation. But for how bad things were under Jackson and during Phil Parkinson’s first season, they never actually fell into the bottom two, unlike that long week in October 2010.
Indeed, off the field things were being turned around with the two chairmen tackling the thorny stadium and office block rent issue, managing to reduce the sizeable outgoings by half. Parkinson meanwhile kept the ship steady and began to build a team that long-suffering supporters could finally be proud of. Two years on from travelling to Underhill with City sat 91st in the pyramid, the Bantams were knocking Wigan out of the League Cup en route to the final.
As for Taylor, he is now in charge of Gillingham and – the scars of the past healed – received a good reception when he returned to Valley Parade as an opposition manager in March 2014. Oliver Gill gave up football to go to University. Reece Brown signed for Watford in 2013 but has so far made just one appearance for the Hornets.
With City having moved half way up the league ladder since that October 2010 low point, and with ambitions of going higher over the next two seasons, the arguments and grumbles of today are entirely different. But however bad things might have seemed during difficult moments last season, and whatever bumps may occur along the road in 2014/15, every so often it’s worth reminding ourselves of how far we have come and just how bad things really used to be.