By Jason McKeown
And so now we step into the unknown. After a summer of such vast change at Valley Parade, it is difficult to know what to expect over the months ahead. The form guide of the last five years means nothing, the play off finish last season counts for little. Almost everything is different about Bradford City, and we don’t know as yet what we have swapped the old regime for.
The summer has been breathless. No quiet reflection or self-pity from the Millwall play off defeat back in May. Less than 48 hours later it was announced that the club had been sold to a pair of Germans. A month hadn’t passed and Phil Parkinson decided his future lay elsewhere. Almost all of his coaching staff went with him to Bolton. The squad left behind featured strong character and ability, but was lacking in numbers. Everything has had to change.
When City walk out in front of a packed out Valley Parade at 2.55pm on Saturday for the visit of Port Vale, another era begins. New owners, new manager, new backroom team and lots of new players. Even the most optimistic City supporter will feel anxious. For a club that has come such a long way forwards over the last four years, no one now wants to turn back.
Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp knew what they were buying. More than two years of research and talks with Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn led them to taking ownership of the Bantams. They have not said much in public but the words they have uttered have felt comforting and reassuring. There’s a sense that they understand the values of the club and an enthusiasm from Rahic to be here. And what’s more, they come with a plan.
Unless Rahic is lying, he and his silent partner Rupp have not come here to make a quick profit. They don’t have sinister motivations, nor unrealistic expectations. Rahic has spoken passionately about youth development and of building something more sustainable. He ultimately wants a team of European flair married with English grit. He wants to sell good young players for a profit, but only after the club has nurtured and made them into saleable assets, through their performances and achievements in the team.
It is a vision that Parkinson never tried to implement in his time in charge, and goes a long way to explaining why he has defected to Bolton Wanderers. Losing the manager and his coaching team was a rocky start for Rahic and Rupp – in the immediate wake of their arrival, the idea of Parkinson leaving was the number one supporter fear. Perhaps in time the clean break will look more logical than it does right now.
We can be rest assured that the fortunes of Bolton Wanderers this season will be keenly followed in this part of the world. How many times will we depart Valley Parade after a game, over-hearing someone muttering the words “Bolton won/drew/lost”? One of the biggest yardsticks this season will be how City are doing in relation to Bolton. The financial strength of the Trotters means it probably isn’t a fair comparison.
There are those who want to paint Parkinson as the villain right now. To re-write history a little, so that his achievements do not seem as impressive as they were. Even I have had a little dig about the immediate legacy he has left behind. It’s a short-term thing to talk him down. A confidence trick. A protective blanket for our sanity. If Parkinson was god and he was the only reason for all the good things that have happened over recent years, we’d be absolutely bricking it right now.
But of course no one can ever diminish Parkinson’s achievements, and he will be remembered and talked about for decades to come. And who is to say that he won’t one day return to the club and have another stint in charge. After all, who would have thought just three months ago that Stuart McCall would ever be Bradford City manager again?
The return of McCall has brought about a mixed reaction for sure. Everyone had their own opinion on who should have been the next Bradford City manager, but some of the names bandied forward were very divisive and sections of supporters would have struggled to get on board. Steve Evans would have won football matches but few friends. To huge relief, he wasn’t ever considered and when you hear Rahic’s plan you can see why.
And that plan will dominate the conversation over the next few years. Because make no mistake, we are seeing the beginnings of a change of mentality at the club and one of Rahic’s first tasks is going to be securing our buy-in.
I think that as Bradford City supporters – and football fans – there is a spectrum of views that is not unlike the political left vs right, in terms of why we follow the club and what we want from a Saturday afternoon.
At the one end of this spectrum we have winning as the all-encompassing factor. It doesn’t really matter how games are won, who is playing for the club and what the manager gets up to in his spare time, such people just want three points every game. At the very opposite end is a desire to see a certain style of football, with young players brought through, and entertainment far more important than results.
It’s obvious that Phil Parkinson was at the high end of one side of the spectrum – winning football matches. His teams did have style and could play entertaining football at times, but it was more reined back and cautious – the justification lying in the results. Parkinson did develop players, but was pragmatic enough to discard those who didn’t deliver quickly enough and was happy to find quick fixes in the transfer market to solve short-term problems. The football last season was incredibly dull at times, but not all the time.
We are now moving away from that. Rahic talked at the supporter club fans forum about preferring a 4-4 draw with young Reece Webb-Foster scoring twice to a scrappy 1-0 win. That is a very different philosophy and it will take a lot of commitment to make it work. It does not mean that results have to tail off, but when other priorities – playing more open, and blooding inconsistent young players – are thrown into the mix, results might suffer at times.
The problem is this: as supporters we want it both ways. The progress of Parkinson was terrific, and his plan going into this one was to target an automatic promotion spot to the Championship. If City go backwards this season, some people are going to find that difficult to take. They are probably those people more to the end of that spectrum of wanting instant results.
For this reason, there isn’t time for a big transitional period. If there was ever a season where a strong start was needed, this is the one. For people to buy into the long-term mantra, they need to be given early reasons to have faith. That doesn’t mean that if City don’t get promoted this season fans will turn; but it does mean the club has to look like it’s capable of getting promoted. If not this year then soon.
So the challenge is two-fold, and that’s where the new coaching team is so vital. Stuart McCall needs to get the team performing in the upper half of the table, ideally playing exciting attacking football that doesn’t leave gaping holes at the other end. Meanwhile Greg Abbott has to get to work building Rahic’s plan. Improving the youth set up, scouting Europe, signing players for the future and making sure they can figure in McCall’s plans sooner rather than later.
McCall is a close to a unifying presence in the dug out as it was possible to have. Even the people against his return or with reservations about his abilities as manager, there is no dislike to the person and no one could possibly want him to fail. If he can start to build something positive, he will very quickly win over doubters and benefit from our strong backing.
Looking back at his last time in charge, it’s hard to think of to many defensive signings he made that were successful. With the exception of Simon Ramsden and Steve Williams, his most successful additions were forward players. It is perhaps good fortune that McCall inherits from Parkinson the spine of a strong defence in Stephen Darby, James Meredith and Rory McArdle – all three with plenty of good years still to come, rather than being on the decline.
If McCall can continue to get the best out of them, and his new defensive and goalkeeper signings settle in well, the foundations remain strong. A lot of his summer signings are somewhat unknown but on paper seem sensible and clever – if Parkinson were still here and had brought them, no one would have batted an eyelid.
It’s obvious that City didn’t score enough goals last season, and ultimately it cost them in the play offs. It’s a balancing act, but if McCall can retain much of the principles of the strong defensive record of last season, and develop a more threatening and successful attack, there is no reason to dismiss City’s promotion hopes.
The proof is in the pudding. So much has been said and debated about the big changes at Valley Parade – now we start to see if it will work or fail. With another tremendous uptake in season tickets, it would be wonderful to think that everyone can come together and drive the club on, so we build on the achievements of the old regime and go to the next level.
It’s time to find out if that will be possible.