By Jason McKeown
The football industry has long been filled with abrupt goodbyes that are lacking in appreciation – but to an outsider, there seems to be something especially cruel about the manner in which Peter Horne has departed Valley Parade after 16 years hard toil, largely behind the scenes.
Two lines of copy at the end of a Telegraph & Argus news story, and as yet no official announcement via the club website. There are rumours and counter-rumours as to what has happened to cause a parting of ways, ranging from he was sacked, resigned or is suffering from ill health. Whatever has taken place and whether his departure is viewed internally by the club as a good or a bad thing, nothing can change his list of achievements since he joined the club back in 1998.
Over a decade and a half, Horne rose up through the youth team coaching ranks to take full control of this area of the club in 2011. When Archie Christie joined the Bantams that summer, his first action was to offer Horne a four-year contract and hand him the additional responsibility of Head of Youth Development (“Peter Horne has done a stunning and magnificent job”). Whatever the front-of-house failings that had caused the club’s decade-long decline, the youth set-up was evidently doing its bit – and Horne was a key reason for that.
It hasn’t always been obvious to us supporters, simply because the club’s brightest youth prospects have been consistently sold on before they reached the age of challenging for first team football. The players discovered and developed by Horne and his team, only to be sold early, would have formed the bedrock for a mightily impressive Bradford City side.
Fabian Delph, Tom Cleverley, Andre Wisdom and George Green. The money raised by selling these players has at times proven vital in supplementing first team budgets and keeping season ticket prices so low – and they have continued to pay. Delph’s 2010 move from Leeds to Aston Villa provided a sell-on windfall, Tom Cleverley’s loan moves to Watford and Leicester produced a five-figure sum of money, and Andre Wisdom’s first team outings for Liverpool generate appearance fees.
As supporters, there will always be a sense of sadness and what might have been, and in an ideal world all of these starlets would have been kept on and appeared in City’s first team. But you can understand the logic behind selling players of potential for what could ultimately prove to be lucrative deals – especially as there are no guarantees they will make it.
Witness Niall Heaton’s return to Valley Parade last summer after Liverpool released him, or goalkeeper Sam Filler, sold to Middlesbrough in 2008 but who ultimately never made it as a professional. In 2011 I interviewed Horne, who told me, “I get a lot of comments along the lines of ‘why aren’t we seeing any young players coming through?’ But it isn’t just about that. Our youth department is working in a different way. Yes we produce some players for the first team, but we’re helping to sustain things for the club.”
Horne and his team have also overseen the development of youth players who have made Bradford City’s first team, and he must have harboured his own personal frustrations that pretty much all of them did not go onto enjoy the sort of career they threatened. The passing of their care into the hands of a first team manager has often seen development stutter or reverse. The likes of Danny Forrest, Joe Colbeck and Luke O’Brien carried so much promise, yet none managed to sustain a career in the Football League.
Perhaps, with all the managerial changes over the years, it is to be expected that youth team graduates have stagnated. Whereas some managers like Stuart McCall showed a clear passion for the youth set up – he made sure he knew the name of every player across all ages ranges – others like Peter Taylor were said to care little. In his programme notes over the years, Horne would often convey his frustrations that previous managers had overlooked the youth team (Colin Todd and Taylor, take a bow), but in their defence they faced very different pressures that understandably caused them to look elsewhere for answers. (And besides, in Todd’s case he handed a lot of first team debuts to youth players.)
In Horne’s last season, 2013/14, the youth set up had never looked so strong. The under 18s won their league at a canter, and went all the way to the Youth Alliance national final before losing to an impressive Colchester United side. Oli McBurnie has become the latest flag-bearer for hopes of a youth team player making it, and his prospects look strong. The class of 2013/14 aren’t all going to make it at City (in fact some have already been released); but if one or two can complete that giant leap, Horne will deserve a share of the credit.
A Bradford lad and a City fan himself, it must have taken something extraordinary to prompt Horne’s sudden exit. But he leaves behind the commendable legacy of a much improved youth set up – and we can only hope that his fantastic work is continued by Alan Nevison and co.