By Jason McKeown
With the big kick off now less than a fortnight away, the humble surroundings of Bradford Park Avenue’s Horsfall Stadium was a comfortingly familiar late stop off point ahead of the journey into the unknown. It is also a venue that new Bradford City manager Stuart McCall knows only too well.
As both a player over two periods and after a first spell managing the club, McCall is well versed to the Bantams’ tradition of spending an evening at the home of their non-league neighbours, as part of the new season’s preparations. Last time he was here, some trialist named James Hanson scored his first goal in claret and amber and persuaded McCall to sign him up. Tonight, a Bradford City XI made up of youngsters and mainly foreign trialists were similarly hoping to make a big impression, in order to force their way into the manager’s plans for the season ahead.
Prior to kick off of a game that would end 2-2 – Polish striker Vincent Rabiega netting twice in the first half for City – McCall looked a calm and relaxed figure as he stood in the centre circle watching the players warm up. He left others in charge of the team so he could watch intently from the elevated press box. But before doing so he spoke to WOAP about his reasons for returning, working with the new owners and how his plans for the season are shaping up.
A (much less) unemotional return
Having taken over the club relatively late into the summer and after inheriting a squad lacking in depth, these are very busy times for McCall as he seeks to build a successful team – but he’s clearly enjoying being back at Valley Parade and relishing the task at hand.
“Returning came out of the blue, I’ve got to be honest – but it’s been great and I’m really enjoying it,” McCall explained. “I’m not coming back on the crest of emotion this time. I was waiting to get back into football and I had opportunities both North and South of the border.
“I don’t go shouting about it, but quietly I had some good opportunities. But I was waiting for a club that I thought is really ambitious and has a big support. Not for one second did I think that club would be Bradford, but when the opportunity came I wanted to grasp it with both hands.
“Being back on the training ground for myself and Kenny is what we enjoy doing. I love that part of it. And it’s about us getting our ideas of what we want over to the players and them responding, which you would expect them to do.”
The chance to return to his first football love arose after a summer of transformation at Bradford City, heading up by a change of ownership. Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes have sold the club to German businessmen Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp, with Phil Parkinson’s decision to move to Bolton opening up a managerial vacancy that McCall gratefully accepted.
McCall revealed, “I’ve met Stefan, he has been over once. Edin’s hands on; he is here all the time and I’ve got a really good relationship – as he has with all the staff. He’s good to his word, right from the first meeting we agreed everything would be done as a team.”
That team approach means making huge changes to player recruitment in the long-term. At the supporters club forum a fortnight ago, Rahic outlined his vision to bring through more young players and to widen the net from beyond just the Bradford area and across Europe. Greg Abbott has been brought in as head of recruitment to instigate that, but where does McCall fit in? As manager is he helping to drive these long-term plans, or is he focused purely on the first team here and now?
“It’s a bit of both,” McCall responded. “As owners, 100% they’ve got to be looking at the next three or four years and planning like that. Naturally I’d like to be part of that planning.
“We discuss everything, and that’s not just about players it’s everything to do with the football club. Stuff I wouldn’t normally be involved in Edin wants me to be involved in.
“And likewise when it comes to players and discussing players, Edin’s always got an opinion. It’s a team thing. That part of it is good. Edin’s learning each day and we all are learning. It is different, but different doesn’t mean to say it’s wrong, so that’s good.”
A busy summer
Naturally as supporters the long-term vision is less important right now when the opening League One game of the season is only days away, and the first team squad still looks short in some areas. McCall admitted this is a hectic period, and that there are still some crucial decisions to be made.
McCall said, “We’ve got to strike a balance of not rushing into things but knowing we’ve got to bring people into the club. We’ve brought seven in now and we are looking at bringing in another three or four before the window closes.
“With loans especially it’s always a balance. You can wait and wait and not get the ones you want, and then be in trouble. Or you go and get somebody else in and then two days later you get a call saying ‘the boy you wanted is now available’. Sometimes it’s a bit of a gamble, especially when you’re coming into it slightly late.
“It’s a long season. Everything doesn’t have to be done and dusted for the first game, but everyone is aware that there is a lot of work going on in the background of trying to get the right type of players in.”
Clouding the matter slightly is the short-term issues with defence. A few days on from the heavy pre-season friendly defeat to Burnley that saw large gaps at the back, the absence of Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby for the first month of the season is a concern. For McCall, it leaves a big dilemma over whether to use budget to cover players who – medium-term – will be back in action.
“We’ve been unfortunate to have Rory and Darbs out for the first month,” he stated. “So do you go out and bring in another centre half, on a two-year deal, when Rory’s back in a month’s time, and then you’re left with four centre halves? Or do you try and get through with what you’ve got until Rory and Darbs are back? It’s all about the budget.”
McCall continued, “There’s a lot of that going on right now – making decisions for what you think is best and waiting for maybe the right one. And in the last minute you sometimes don’t get that one. But as I said when we first came in we’ve got a good nucleus of professionals, we’ve added to that and we’re pleased with the people we’ve brought to the club.”
Undoubtedly the most eye-catching summer signing so far is Romain Vincelot, who arrived from Coventry at the weekend for a fee that could rise to six figures. Yet with Vincelot aged 30, such an outlay seems to go against Rahic’s philosophy of targeting younger players. McCall explained that Vincelot’s experience and know-how is vital right now, but added that us fans shouldn’t expect a rush of experienced players in future transfer windows.
McCall explained, “In my first week we talked about bringing younger players in, which I thought was great. But when you actually look at the nuts and bolts of it, the best young players available had already gone at the end of last season. The deals had already been sorted. So you’re playing catch up.
“That won’t happen in other windows because we’ll be more prepared. I’ll be prepared, Greg will be prepared, Kenny (Black) will be prepared and Edin will be prepared. We’re looking at lots of players, we’ve got trailists here tonight. We’re looking at everybody. But the good players that we’ve brought in this time just happen to be an older age.
“This transfer window will be a one-off hopefully in the fact that – when the next transfer window comes up – we’ll have all our targets lined up and will go for them.”
Pre-season has so far seen McCall attempt to play a more attacking, expansive style of football compared to the more dour (but very successful) approach of last season. Yet whilst McCall aims to take this into this season, he added he is not afraid to be pragmatic, explaining, “Everyone’s got philosophies and strategies and structures; at the end of the day, I want to win – that’s first and foremost.
“I want to get the ball in the box, wherever that might be from. If it’s from wide areas, great. If we see a weakness in a team in a certain area of the pitch, we will try to exploit that weakness. I’m not one for saying this is how we’re going to play. If playing one way is successful of course you carry on. But sometimes it’s horses for courses. That’s one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been away – you can change things.”
Which leads us onto discussing how McCall himself has changed over the six-year gap that followed his 2010 departure from the job. Here, the greater McCall steel was evident, “Similar as before, I want to win every game and I want to be successful. I’m more experienced now. I know the game better and what it takes to try and bring success.
“It’s not something that can be done overnight, we know that. Especially after having to bring a lot of new players in, but it’s something that we’re going to work on together and hopefully get success in the time we’re here.”
Does he have targets? “From a manager’s point of view, the job is first to get the right players to your club. And then once you’ve got them you’ve got to get the best out of what you’ve got – that will be my job. If we get young ones in, it’s to get them to a point where they can play for the club as well.
“I think it’s a really competitive league. I’ve seen a couple of other teams of late and I think there’s some really competitive teams out there. There are no guarantees, but we just want to do the best we can. Obviously last season things went well at the back end (for City), but the start wasn’t great and they came good because of a couple of key loan signings. That might be the case for a lot of teams this time. You’ve just got to get the right ones in.”
McCall summarised, “You want to be successful by winning games, but I would imagine if we’re looking at things realistically for this season, I think the majority of clubs will be looking to get into the play offs.
“I want us to be as competitive as we can, and to be in the mix come the end of the season.”