By Jason McKeown
Even though he was already one of the most popular players in the club’s history, when it was announced that Stuart McCall was returning as a Bradford City player in 1998, the reaction from supporters was mixed.
Whilst some were excited to see the return of a player who began his career at Valley Parade in the early 80s, was part of so many magical moments, and who had a huge emotional bond with the club and its supporters following the Fire, others were fearful.
They worried that McCall, a year older than the club’s manager Paul Jewell, risked tarnishing his legacy if he wasn’t the player of old. That he was coming not so much to play but to take over from Jagger if and when it all went wrong. After all, McCall’s former team mate Peter Jackson had once made a seemingly triumphant return to City, yet his second spell was a bitter disappointment and for a time tarnished his standing amongst supporters.
So whilst in the summer of 1998, the return of McCall the player boosted season ticket sales and was cue for a wide range of Stuart merchandise to appear in the club shop, there were loud concerns that this was not going to be a happy reunion. McCall was 34, and had just departed Rangers having ended the 1997/98 season in and out the Gers’ side. He’d also just been left out of Craig Brown’s Scotland squad for the World Cup in France. To some, it looked like McCall was a player in the decline.
We all know, of course, that the reality proved to be different. McCall’s second coming was a major success, with the club promoted to the Premier League in glorious fashion. McCall – who was voted player of the season by supporters – was inspirational. He’d left in 1988 after City failed to get promoted to the top flight, but now here he was celebrating promotion to the promised land at Molineux, declaring it the “best moment of my career” and a few hours later falling off a car.
McCall was similarly outstanding throughout the two-year stay in the Premier League, and when City were relegated he turned down a chance to rejoin Everton and remain a top flight player.
And what was really striking, when comparing McCall’s first and second spells playing for the Bantams, was the difference in Stuart McCall the player. As a 20-something in the 80s rising to prominence, McCall was an all action midfielder who roamed from box-to-box. In 238 appearances he netted 37 goals, with 12 in his final season. He ran his heart out, and his moments of rawness were compensated for by his boundless energy and determination.
Yet between 1998-2003, McCall’s 179 appearances featured only 9 goals. At 34 he was still fit as a fiddle and gave absolutely everything to the cause, but he was a more composed, intelligent player. His 10 years at Everton and Rangers, plus long record playing for Scotland, had clearly made him a better footballer, and his contribution was a very different one.
McCall was not a defensive midfielder as such but spent more time in front of his back four, instigating attacking moves rather than being the person to get on the end of it. In a 1998/99 midfield of Gareth Whalley, Peter Beagrie and Jame Lawrence, his intelligence and know-how allowed the trio to be so attack-minded, knowing their captain would be providing protection behind him. It was a rare sight to see McCall in the box, he was further back pulling the strings in midfield. A touch of class.
McCall remained deeply relevant and the focal point right up until he departed. The team around him declined and his ageing body was beginning to catch up with him, but he left because of the club’s financial mess rather than because he was no longer good enough; enjoying a memorable two seasons at Sheffield United where the Blades reached two cup semi finals and lost the play off final in 2002/03. McCall played 46 times that year.
As McCall gets used to the surroundings of Valley Parade once again this summer, in his fourth stint at the club and his second as manager, there are similarly mixed feelings amongst supporters about his return. The circumstances of McCall’s first spell as player and first stint as manager are very different, but the sentiment towards him coming back and having another go is similarly diverse now to what it was that summer 18 years ago.
Yet the early signs are evident that, like the first and second spells of McCall the player, a different person has re-entered the building. It took a lot of courage for McCall to take up the challenge again, given how painfully it ended in 2010, but he is not looking to play on his popularity or hiding away from the negative views some have expressed. There’s an air of defiance that was missing last time.
The Telegraph & Argus reported on McCall’s comments about supporters in the crowd at Guiseley asking him about rumoured new signings, where he replied, “Don’t go on Twitter. You’ll know once you see the players in a City shirt, that’s when they’ve signed.” At his initial press conference last month he declared about coming back, “It’s not an emotional decision, it’s a professional one, and coming here was a no-brainer…This is the perfect fit for me. Last time certainly wasn’t the perfect fit but it is now.
“In hindsight, I let my heart rule my head because it was a place I wanted to come to. But it was a totally different football club then to what it is now and I was a totally different manager.”
There’s a steel about such comments. A gritty realism mixed with a sense of pragmatism. Words are words of course, and the true test of McCall’s managerial temperament, character and resolve will come after the first home defeat or losing run, but this is a good start. The noises and the body language seem more serious. (Unlike the last time McCall took a Bradford City team to play Guiseley in a pre-season friendly, on Saturday he didn’t bring himself, Wayne Jacobs and Mark Lawn’s son on as sub.)
There were some harsh lessons learned from his first stint in charge – his inaugural managerial role. He arrived a hero, but that didn’t stop him from receiving criticism and anger from fans, who adored him as a player, when results were poor. His legend status counted for little in the long run, and he will know that’s true again now.
More importantly, he has gone away and gained more experiences at other clubs. Great success at Motherwell, the pressure of managing a crestfallen Rangers, and once more heavy involvement in the Scotland set up. McCall has learned how to build winning football teams, and to unearth hidden gems. He has faced up to more difficult moments and failure, and from a distance appeared to handle it much better. He has managed a team backed by more than 50,000 fans, tasted Champions League Football and reached a major cup final.
In 2007, McCall answered our SOS call to attempt to revive a club that was struggling so badly. We needed him more than he needed us, and he managed us more for our benefit than his career’s (he could have got a job higher up the pyramid). This time, it feels like he is doing it for himself and more power to him for that. Of course that emotional connection with the club, which goes back three decades, is a big deal – but that sentimentality won’t be to the detriment of his judgement.
This time, McCall looks prepared to be unpopular, and all managers have to experience that. Phil Parkinson was not afraid to make tough decisions and be criticised by City fans, however unjustified it often was, and his ability to manage the downturns was one of the key reasons for the remarkable level of success he delivered. McCall’s thicker layer of skin will be needed for the battles ahead, and it makes him far more likely to succeed than last time around.
We are seeing a different Stuart McCall this time around; and just like the greater success of McCall the Player Part Two, this could be a happy and successful chapter. Imagine if, like after all the 1988 disappointment and ghosts that he laid to rest in 1999, McCall could put right the failures of last time.
We’d all join him in falling off that car roof.