By Jason McKeown
Forget talk of the Fourth Coming, reject the Messiah tag. Stuart McCall is back at Bradford City for a second spell as manager, but it does no one any favours to talk wistfully about fairytales and happy endings – least of all the returning legend.
Bradford City as a club might have witnessed more than its fair share of miracles over recent years, but those achievements were very much grounded in the gritty reality of hard work and collective endevour. They were no accidents or flukes. They didn’t happen just because the manager was passionate, cared about the club and worked really hard. Every piece of success was earned, and through all of this close season change at Valley Parade that magic formula must somehow be retained.
McCall will give everything to the cause as manager, but that doesn’t guarantee success. It didn’t last time, when after two-and-a-half-years at the helm he fell on his sword, unable to do more than halt the club’s near-decade long decline. He got close, but couldn’t deliver the promotion that was not so much hoped for as assumed.
The expectations were too high. John Hendrie recently stated in the Telegraph & Argus that, “It was almost as if he was the club’s savour who was going to lead Bradford City all the way back to the Premier League. Everyone was convinced that Stuart could not fail.” That’s a slightly over-the-top statement, but the sentiment is exactly right. Almost everything Stuart McCall the Player touched turned to gold, and back in 2007 we supporters believed that Stuart McCall the Manager was going to be similarly successful.
And that, as much as anything else, was the problem. Last November, when writing my book Reinventing Bradford City, I spent an afternoon in McCall’s company, going through his three spells at the club. On his time as manager between 2007-2010, Stuart was open and honest about what went right and what went wrong.
It was very clear that one of the major issues he struggled with was the positive pressure that many of us supporters heaped upon his shoulders. We believed in him more than he believed in himself, and that created a huge amount of pressure to not disappoint his public – a type of pressure that most managers simply don’t face.
He even admitted that, in his second season in charge, he almost resigned following a memorable October encounter with Accrington Stanley. City were 2-0 down and playing awfully, and McCall told me, “There were more City fans than Accrington fans there, and at half time I said to Wayne Jacobs ‘this is my last game in charge’ because we were letting too many people down.” On the day McCall’s subs made a huge difference and the Bantams came roaring back to win 3-2 in dramatic, hedonistic fashion.
McCall carried on, but the strain he felt then was a clear sign that the pressure of the high expectations was getting to him.
It all leaves McCall with a lot to prove. If you are one of the many supporters who has registered their disappointment over his return to the hot seat – if you believe this is a step back – good on for you saying it. Carry on with this mantra, for me. Let’s not kid ourselves into believing again McCall walks on water. Let’s not get carried away into assuming that this is guaranteed to be a period of glorious success, just because of who he is. Let’s stay grounded, sensible and cautious.
It will help McCall no end.
“Bradford City is a very different club to the one Stuart first managed and clearly he is a different, far more experienced manager today.” James Mason, statement announcing McCall’s return, 20 June
Had Phil Parkinson decided to depart from Valley Parade in the summer of 2014, rather than last month, it would have been interesting to observe the reaction to the idea of McCall coming in as his replacement.
For in the summer of 2014, McCall had just completed a third full season as Motherwell manager, finishing runners up in the Scottish Premier League for the second season in a row. A joint club record finish, and the highest ever points total in the history of the Steelmen.
Over 2011/12, 2012/13 and 2014/15, McCall steered Motherwell to a best of the rest placing behind Celtic and Rangers (who were expelled to the fourth division in the summer of 2012). McCall brought Champions League and Europa League football to Fir Park, and they also reached the Scottish Cup Final. All of this on a limited playing budget that caused him to have to sell his best players season upon season. When in November 2013 Sheffield United sacked David Weir, McCall was approached but turned down the vacancy at Bramall Lane.
His managerial star was at its peak in the summer of 2014, before a difficult 2014/15 left him out of club management. Motherwell had to cut the budget once more, and a bad start left them second bottom of the SPL. McCall resigned in November, and resurfaced as caretaker manager of his other major love – Rangers – in March 2015. With the Ibrox club in the second tier but struggling in the race for promotion, McCall could only guide them into the play offs where they were soundly beaten by Motherwell of all teams. McCall was overlooked for the job on a permanent basis, despite having only had 17 games in charge.
If McCall had only left Motherwell the summer before, his record would have been unblemished. Even now, he is the 3rd most successful manager in their history, and they have not repeated his 2nd place feats since. McCall was also unlucky to be associated with Rangers’ only pause in their rise back up the Scottish leagues. He spent last season as the Scotland number 3 and doing scouting work; he wanted to get back into club football.
There is no doubt that McCall’s managerial standing has taken a hit over the past two years, but that shouldn’t detract from his achievements and the wealth of experience he has picked up. Crucially, McCall has demonstrated that he can operate in pressured environments. He is returning to Valley Parade a much wiser person.
“If you don’t learn from past experiences, then you’re a very naive person in whatever walk of life you are in” – Stuart McCall, managerial unveiling press conference, 21 June
I remember vividly the moment I found out Stuart McCall was stepping down as Bradford City manager in February 2010. The Bantams had just been beaten 1-0 at home by Bury despite dominating the contest, and as the players trooped off and we began walking towards the exits in the Midland Road stand, McCall suddenly came over and began to applaud us.
He was embarking on a lap around the pitch. He was saying goodbye to us.
Whilst we’ve seen so many managers over the years disappear into the night, McCall was fronting up to the discontent felt in the stands and bowing out with his head held high.
It was an incredible moment, one that was full of sadness. I believed strongly in Stuart the manager. I was one of those supporters who backed him to the hilt, not fully realising that by doing so I wasn’t necessarily contributing positively to his health and wellbeing. Writing for BfB in those days, I produced countless passionate articles supporting the man, and spent hours arguing with anyone and everyone that we needed to stick by him.
Stuart McCall’s first spell in charge of Bradford City was the subject of intense debate that has lingered on in the interim years. Did he do a good job as manager? Was he a complete failure? The truth, as ever, lied somewhere in between.
Back in 2007 when he took over, there was a real Year Zero feel to the club that had just been relegated to League Two, only six years on from playing Premier League football. Colin Todd’s dispassionate time at the helm was viewed as a negative, David Wetherall was a gamble that backfired, and so the services of McCall were achingly desired. We needed a massive lift.
He took over with the club seemingly at rock bottom, meaning the only way was up. He talked big in his opening interview – “I’ll see myself as a failure if we don’t get promoted” – but despite the more competitive budget the club could afford thanks to Mark Lawn’s arrival, the task at hand was still huge and underestimated.
In our November chat McCall revealed to me that he inherited only eight players, but their high wages took up half of the overall playing budget. He was left to hunt the bargain bins to bulk up the numbers, but didn’t know the division well enough. It should have been billed and treated as a transitional first season, but in the end the 10th place finish was considered disappointing.
As was his second season. A bigger budget, clever looking signings, and a top three push for two thirds of the campaign. McCall reflected to me, “The worst thing that happened that season was we got off to such a good start…when you look at City’s promotions in 1996 and 2013, the team made strong ends to the season and had everyone behind them. We went the other way in this season.”
It was indeed a horrendous ending. In March they went to Rochdale in the top four, but lost 3-0 (one Rory McArdle opening the scoring) to begin a dismal nine-game winless run that cost them not only automatic promotion but a place in the play offs. The off the field problems with Matt Clarke and Barry Conlon affected morale, although the team were desperately unlucky at times. A bad referee decision at Morecambe on Good Friday was especially costly in the final shake up.
City ended the season on 67 points – two short of the play offs. It is quite amazing to consider that Parkinson’s promotion winning 2012/13 team achieved 69 points. The difference between success and failure was minimal. The consequences of 2009’s failure were painful, with wage cuts and redundancies that summer. McCall had threatened to quit, but was persuaded to keep going by supporters holding up signs at the final home game.
I think it is to his great credit that he did stay on to manage the cuts and rebuild the team. Had he left in the summer of 2009, he’d have left behind a poor legacy that would have tainted his standing amongst fans (think Harry Redknapp at Portsmouth). His signings for his final season were arguably his best, showing he had truly grasped what was needed at that level. But despite threatening a play off push they remained off the pace and McCall eventually quit.
Yet the bigger picture is really important here. McCall’s time in charge was book-ended by periods of huge disappointment. The relegation to League Two before he took over, and the failures of Peter Taylor and Peter Jackson after he left. City finished in much worse positions in the years that followed. It took three and a half seasons to finally get out of League Two.
McCall was not the first or last manager to fail to bring success to the club. He did not do a bad job.
“I think if anything Stuart was too near to the job and it hurt him too much, if that’s possible” Mark Lawn, speaking to Boyfrombrazil.co.uk, January 2011
The lessons of McCall’s first spell in charge are obvious. In each of his three seasons the club went on losing runs, and on each occasion he struggled to handle the downturn and to be the positive leader his players needed him to be. I still recall him at Dagenham in April 2009, the day that City’s play off dream died, McCall coming up to us away fans – looking and sounding like a broken man.
He was, as Lawn said, too close to the job. He took defeat too personally. That pressure of coping with the positive expectations of fans – of being held in the highest esteem – was too overwhelming. The slides in form were not reversed quickly enough.
Parkinson, as I wrote endlessly over the years, was brilliant at this. When City had bad days – and they had plenty under his charge – he was calm, composed and positive in turning it around. He managed Bradford City wonderfully during the downturns.
That, more than anything else, is what McCall needs to have learned from his time away from West Yorkshire. He has to be more inspirational, more confident and more full of energy in defeat. He has to make sure his players keep their self-confidence, and that comes from knowing that he – their manager – fully believes in them.
If McCall can crack that, we really could be onto something. There was much that he got right as manager, and his added experience makes him a potentially brilliant choice to replace Parkinson. He knows now how to build a winning team, he understands what is needed and of the character required from players to thrive at this club. He is going to make mistakes and he must not be afraid to do that.
His press conference this week sent out all the right messages. There was a steely resolve about his words, a calm authority to his tone. He knows he is not guaranteed to be a success, and he knows that this time not everyone believes in his magic. But that doesn’t seem to worry or bother him.
He is ready to prove himself.
“I am going to put my heart and soul into this job so that everything works out well.” Zinedine Zidane, managerial unveiling press conference, 4 January
Some City fans have argued that McCall would not have got near the job if it wasn’t for his legendary status, but that’s football and there are countless examples of such managerial appointments all over the world. Some say that great players don’t make great managers, but again plenty have bucked that trend.
Zinedine Zidane is an example of how both of these criticisms can prove misguided. He took over at Real Madrid in January, and they won the Champions League in May. Such an inexperienced manager would not have got near the job were it not for his background and close links with the club.
Zidane and Real Madrid are in a different bracket to McCall and City, but the comparison is apt. McCall is a legend at Bradford City for what he has done, and he shouldn’t have to apologise for that – or feel sheepish that he has got the job over Uwe Rosler and Steve Evans.
McCall is someone to root for. He is an incredibly inspirational guy, a wonderful human being. Those qualities won’t win football matches, but they will make any success that occurs feel all that more warm and special. The truth is that no one out there compared to Parkinson, but we have to move on. This is as close to uniting a football club as we could. Some of us grumble now, but when McCall walks down the touchline on August 6 for the home game with Port Vale, that will be put to one side.
I’m absolutely thrilled that McCall is back in charge. He is my hero, my idol and a constant inspiration. The greatest player I have ever seen in claret and amber, someone you want to always be a part of the club.
This time he needed us more than we needed him, and there is of course a major danger this will end badly again. But we’re all more grown up and wiser about the situation. We’ve seen it go as badly as it can possibly go, and whilst it wouldn’t be nice to revisit such pain, just imagine how special it would be were the club to take that next step forwards under McCall’s tutelage?
It would make one hell of a story for McCall to come back and be a success, but whatever is in store we won’t get carried away. I hope we can all come around to backing him, I hope that we give him the time he will need, but I know too that fairytales only exist in the books I read to my daughter at night. It’s going to be a really interesting ride, and I can’t wait to see how McCall goes about building on Parkinson’s accomplishments.
Welcome home Stuart.