By Jason McKeown
Peter Taylor’s resignation as Bradford City manager in February 2011 was the beginning of the end to Leon Osborne’s career as a professional footballer. A bright young prodigy who made his debut at 16 in 2007, Osborne struggled to develop until Taylor took the reins three years later, where he became something of a regular for 12 months.
25 of Osborne’s 42 appearances for City came under Taylor, and he played only four more times after the manager stepped down. Now he plays for Bradford Park Avenue, aged only 26.
Not much of what Peter Taylor did at Bradford City made a positive impression, but to Osborne the former England manager was clearly an important figure who trusted and got the best out of what the young winger/forward had to offer. Had Taylor lived up to his billing and produced a successful football team, Osborne’s career might just have panned out very differently.
But that’s a modern trend with footballers. 20 and certainly 30 years ago, clubs changed managers far less frequently and players operated in a more settled environment. Now the average managerial tenure is down to 1.23 years and a high proportion fail to last for the duration of the contracts they award to players. So a footballer might sign for one manager and thrive under their tutelage, only to struggle when the next gaffer comes in, ending up as a reserve and often leaving the club.
And clearly this has a major effect on their careers. Paul Scholes played his entire career under Sir Alex Ferguson and knows of no other club manager. He was a permanent fixture in the team for years, only moving slowly onto the sidelines as he aged. Scholes’ former team mate, Lee Sharpe, went through several different clubs and managers. Within his excellent autobiography he details the difficulties he had playing for certain managers, but also highlights those he thrived under. From his time at Valley Parade Jim Jefferies doesn’t score highly, but a loan move from City to Portsmouth in 2001 saw Sharpe play for Graham Rix and relish it, performing really well on the South Coast.
Whilst a City player Sharpe crossed paths with Stan Collymore, whose own autobiography is even more stark on the impact different managers had on him. He admits that at Liverpool he didn’t respect Roy Evans enough and the decline in his career could be arguably traced to this point. With some frustration, he recalls a later move to Leicester City and how much he relished playing for Martin O’Neill. But his resurgence was halted by O’Neill leaving Filbert Street for Celtic, and it all goes wrong for him again under his next Leicester manager. One Peter Taylor.
That Taylor could demotivate Stan Collymore but inspire Leon Osborne lies at the heart of man management. Footballers are human beings, and human beings are complex creatures. There’s no set formula over how to motivate a group of people.
Some managers put the fear of god into players, and they soar. Some put their arms around players. Some are great at instilling passion. Some are better dealing with older players, others see senior pros as a threat to their own job and get rid. Some employ tactics that play into the strengths of a player, but others set up their teams in a way that doesn’t suit them at all.
There is no magic wand, and good managers can succeed in one environment and fail badly in another. In this corner of the world we have a negative view of Taylor but other clubs achieved notable success from his approach. Chris Kamara is fondly remembered as a real motivator, but Stoke City fans probably don’t recall him in such glowing terms. The key for a manager, it seems, is to find a way to get the best out of individuals, or move them on and bring in people who will respond to their methods.
And of all the different ways that Stuart McCall is impressing early doors into his second spell as manager of Bradford City, it is the performances he is getting from players brought in or inherited that stands out.
Nicky Law is a classic example. Law has played for six different clubs and his career has clearly featured a lot of downs as well as ups. He returned to Valley Parade this summer after a year failing to get into a Rangers side that were playing in Scotland’s second tier. It was a signing greeted with a mixed response from City fans and understandably so.
Yet if you include Law’s time developing as a youngster at Valley Parade, this is the sixth time that he has worked with McCall. It’s also the fourth time that McCall has signed the player. No one knows Law’s strengths and weaknesses better than McCall, and no other manager has managed to get the best out of him. Law’s early season performances are testament to how well he responds to McCall’s approach. Those supporter fears are fading. Law has been terrific.
On the opposite side to Law in the team so far is Mark Marshall, a player who McCall had never worked with before. There has been a lot said about how Marshall has turned around a City career that was seemingly over, and how McCall talked him out of a move down South by giving him the confidence and support to shine. Marshall – whose own career has been chequered – was in danger of drifting down the leagues. He now looks like a player reborn.
Whilst McCall deserves a lot of plaudits for this, some have been using it as a stick to beat Phil Parkinson with, suggesting that the Jamaican’s resurgence shows the former City manager didn’t know how to manage players. When Edin Rahic first met Phil Parkinson after buying the club, it’s rumoured the German questioned why three players – Paul Anderson, Josh Morris and Marshall – were uninvolved on the sidelines, given the wages they were commanding. To an outsider, it looked like a waste and suggested a manager not using his budget efficiently.
Yet whilst the German had a point, I think it’s wrong for others to retrospectively criticise Parkinson over Marshall. History is conveniently re-written to suggest Marshall was never given a chance last year, but that completely ignores the fact he was given an early season run in the side and failed to impress. The team was struggling, and it was only after Parkinson signed Kyel Reid – who replaced Marshall – that form began to pick up.
Admittedly Marshall was a tad unfortunate that a couple of promising appearances in January weren’t rewarded with a longer spell in the team, but what Marshall succeeded in doing at that point was to give Reid a kick up the backside and the on-loan Preston winger instantly improved his own performances. And City won a lot of games from that point on, and they made the play offs with a first 80-points haul since 1999. He found a system and the players who bought into it, and it worked. So it’s very unfair to go back and suggest Parkinson got this wrong.
As it is to cite the Marshall rejuvenation as an example that Parkinson’s man-management skills were lacking. I don’t think we have seen a better man-manager that Parkinson, who secured an incredible level of buy-in from a core group of players that have taken the club forwards. Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and James Hanson are the most high profile examples of players who completely bought into Parkinson’s ways and developed along the way. They set the tone for a strong dressing room and are a really positive part of what McCall has inherited.
The famous cup heroics of 2012/13 and 2014/15 are further evidence of Parkinson’s ability to deliver superhuman performances out of his footballers. To take a team to Chelsea instilled with belief they could win the match – even when 2-0 down – is staggering.
There are plenty of examples of players who didn’t buy into Parkinson’s ways and left quickly. Perhaps, unlike other managers, his ways are more polarising and this causes a certain level of turnover. You don’t have to look far to find a player who was evidently not a fan of Parkinson’s approach. And when it comes to developing a football club in a more long-term manner – like Rahic wants – perhaps he was never going to remain the right fit.
McCall appears to be more of an arm-around-your-shoulder kind of manager. The sort who can get players feeling 10-foot tall as they walk out onto the pitch, and take confidence from knowing they are going to be backed to take greater risks. Part of Marshall’s early season success stems from understanding he is allowed to make mistakes, and that a poor cross or losing the ball isn’t going to lead to the substitutes board displaying his number. “We’re playing with more freedom” was how he put it on BBC Radio Leeds last week.
And that’s great, and McCall deserves all the credit in the world for the performances he is getting from players across the pitch. But there will also be others along the way who don’t respond to this approach and develop a poor impression of him. For example Paul Anderson has left, and probably won’t hold McCall in the highest of esteem. (WOAP understands that Bolton showed some interest before he left City and Anderson was keen to work with Parkinson again, which underlines the point that different players respond to different managers.)
Peter Taylor’s problem at Bradford City was that there were too few members of his squad who bought into his ways, meaning they underachieved. Clearly, a manager succeeds or fails by getting man management right and finding ways to motivate a group of people.
McCall’s had a brilliant start in this regard, and Law and Marshall are the early season beacons of this. One fascinating subplot – for me – going into this season was seeing what McCall does with Parkinson’s infamous ‘inner circle’ of players who ran through brick walls for their former manager. Whilst it’s difficult to judge Darby and McArdle at this stage, the early signs from Tony McMahon, James Meredith, Josh Cullen and Billy Clarke are really promising.
Some managers come into a club and almost try to make an example of players loyal to the previous manager. Parkinson himself did it to his predecessor, Peter Jackson, when after taking over he quickly pushed Guy Branston out of the side and made him train with the youth team. At Manchester United right now, Jose Mourinho is doing the same to Bastian Schweinsteiger.
McCall has embraced what was good about the Parkinson era, and so far is keeping an important group of players happy rather than causing them to look enviously on at the Macron stadium, in the hope of moving on. That, along with the solid start from new signings and rejuvenation of Marshall, has enabled McCall to hit the ground running and demonstrate why the club are backing him as the man to craft the new Bradford City long-term philosophy.
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