It’s been a fantastic start for Bradford City, but there’s a long way to go

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

By Jason McKeown

It must rank as one of the worst articles I have written for this website.

This time three years ago, Bradford City recorded an impressive away win at Walsall and I went giddy. At the time it was a sixth victory in the opening 10 matches of the Bantams’ return to League One, leaving them fourth in the division. We’d only lost once in the league, and all evidence up to that point suggested a second successive promotion could be achieved.

And so under the headline “The hat has been thrown into the ring” I misguidedly attempted to crystalise a promising start to the season by arguing the Walsall victory was proof City were the real deal, and that we could allow ourselves to believe a promotion push was on.

I wrote:

“This is not merely a great start to the season, it is a statement of intent. This is not a side here to make up the numbers, they are here to challenge for a second successive promotion. To date such lofty aspirations have been played down to the point it seems no one connected to the club dares suggest it could be possible. But great result is following great result. Superb performance is following superb performance. And we are running out of reasons to argue that it cannot last.”

Cringe. As the Queens of the Stone Age sang, “It’s all downhill from here”.

What happened next…

A week later, City faced a routine home game against a side struggling in the bottom four (Tranmere) and they lost. They were beaten the week after that too, and then they kept either drawing or losing. Aside from those who travelled to see the Bantams spring a surprise victory at MK Dons in November, we didn’t see our team win again until the middle of February.

If the hat really had been thrown into the ring after the Walsall victory, it was quickly tossed back out. This was the famous sequence of one win in 21. Indeed, City would only win eight of their remaining 36 league games after Walsall. They finished the season in the top half – but without that fast start, Phil Parkinson’s men might well have been relegated.

And this painful lesson in history underlines why no one should be getting ahead of themselves over the superb start Stuart McCall’s charges have made to this season. They have been absolutely terrific for sure and – still unbeaten in the league – go into this weekend’s home game with struggling Shrewsbury Town looking odds-on favourites to continue that sequence. But the complexion can change so quickly. As can be seen with other clubs up and down the land right now, form can suddenly go off in a very different direction.

I’ve used this quote before, but I love it because I think it sums up the mood around football clubs very well: economic expert Stephanie Flanders said of the UK economy, “In the lead-up to recessions, we always make the mistake of thinking the good times will last forever. And then, when things turn nasty, we usually make the same mistake all over again – thinking the bad times will last forever as well.” Right now, with City unbeaten and looking invincible, it’s very easy to kid ourselves into believing that world domination awaits (see Walsall three years ago). And yet equally a defeat on Saturday and another at Oxford the week after could trigger the complete opposite outlook.

The biggest tests are to come

McCall’s post Chesterfield comments about staying grounded were absolutely spot on and typical of a man who has always kept a lid on expectations during good periods. And we know that the biggest test of the season – and of McCall the manager – will occur in defeat.

His downfall in his first spell in charge was his reaction to setbacks, where his passion for the club and for the role proved a hindrance. He took defeats personally, and this transmitted into the confidence and self-belief of the players. They looked to him for leadership and calm assurance through rocky moments, and found that it was lacking.

The great strength of Phil Parkinson – as Bolton players might be realising right now – was that he was the opposite. Parkinson would be honest in defeat but also dispassionate enough to prevent it turning into a crisis. He managed the set backs well, which at a club like Bradford City – with a fanbase they often doesn’t need much prompting to be gloomy and to crank up the pressure on the team – helped enormously.

The early signs of McCall’s fourth spell is that he has developed that inner steel also. He was not widely welcomed back this summer, and faced some major issues rebuilding the squad and recruiting a new backroom team. His public responses and outlook were that of someone not concerned by what others thought. He was not seeking, or requiring, the instant confidence of his public. The lower expectations this time around were an opportunity to prove himself.

So far, so very good.

The proof in the pudding will lie in how McCall reacts to a defeat, or a run of winless games, and if he can continue to inspire courage rather than fear into his players. Until that first defeat happens – and let’s be honest, going unbeaten all season is very far-fetched – we won’t really be able to tell if Bradford City are true promotion contenders. We need to observe them in the downturns as well as the ups.

The longer City stay unbeaten, the less of a negative impact the eventual defeat should have on the atmosphere around the club. Right now, Bradford City are completely defying our expectations and performing at a level many of us feared wouldn’t be possible during the dark days of the summer. But it’s right now. Nothing is decided in October, and anyone who believes otherwise can quickly experience a rude awakening. I learned this three years ago.

So for me, I’m just enjoying it for what it is. I’m encouraged by results, I’m excited about the months ahead, and I’m hopeful these good feelings can continue. But back in the summer when asked to predict where we will finish for When Saturday Comes magazine, I stated somewhere between 1st and 24th. I’m enjoying sticking by that vague forecast for the moment, rather than narrowing it down and creating expectation.

This season is too much fun to spoil it by doing something silly like get carried away.

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8 replies

  1. In term of what we need for safety and promotion

    If this turns out to be an average season City need 65 more points for automatic promotion: 53 points for the play-off’s and 27 just more points for safety. In other words: if we do remain unbeaten we are guaranteed to stay up.

    I like this article. I am much happier talking or reading about how we are good, but unproven; rather than that there is just one piece missing. Jig-saws are a poor analogy for a sports team. The right piece now could be useless in a few weeks when the picture has changed completely.

    We could give some team the paggering that some seem to expect, and go on to dominate the division.

    But on the other hand there is just as much chance of; getting 2 more injuries and discovering the cover does not fit very well; or losing defensive certainty; or not get another penalty for months. Like the article says, that’s when we find out what we are made of.

  2. How did Parkinson survive? If that happens @ Bolton, he won’t!

    • He survived because the year before he did want countless others tried and failed to do promotion. On top of something no other lower league manager has ever achieved a major cup final at Wembley.
      There wasn’t a cat in Hells chance of Parky’s being sacked.
      Great article again Jason

      • Paul, I was at Wigan, Villa and Wembley both times. The first time was an embarassment; I took my 3 daughters who’d followed Stuart and John Hendrie in the 80s. They couldn’t believe the lack of any fight in the City players during in what was a major final!

  3. To add to your financial analogy, anyone who’s ever made a financial investment will know its mandatory for sellers to state “past performance is not an indicator to future returns”. However anyone who’s ever made a financial investment would retort “what else do you have to go on?”. You’re being too harsh on your old self. You’re right to revel in the great form & think it’s reasonable to assume that it should continue, but to be cautious about betting on the outcome of the next 35 league matches. The biggest risk factor I guess, for any club, is injuries.

    I agree with your view on Parkinson. I’d understood he came close to being sacked at the time of that run of results ( I think he got a public vote of confidence from the Board? Always an alarm bell….). The problem he and all managers now have is that they’ve lost one of the key levers to change course ie the in-season loan system….

  4. A missing point though is that in the season of 1 victory in 21; and for most of the 21, Wells was injured, affected, or gone! We may not have got promoted if he had stayed (and he stayed happy), but we would not have gone 21 games with just 1 win!

    The point about Wells is a good one. Parkinson (rightly) built a team around him; but he never managed to replace him; and did not really create an alternative way. That makes what he did last year in the League more credible, but the limits were shown in the cups and play-off.

  5. Jason, YOU are top of my list for you constructural, logical, poaitive and, objective reporting. Love IT!

  6. I was there at Walsall too and came to exactly the same conclusion.

    The difference this year is that we have strength in depth. Three years ago we didn’t recruit well enough to push the History Makers for a starting berth. When injuries took their toil, or when opposition managers started to work us out, there was no plan B or anyone we could look to bring on to change things. Just look at our win ratio with and without Andrew Davies.

    This year the depth is there. We could almost play two different sides each saturday without any loss in quality. My ‘greiving’ period following Parky’s departure lasted longer than most – certainly judging by the comment on here over the summer – but I’m the first to admit I’m blown away by the start we’ve made. My dad used to say “win at home and draw away and you’ll win the league”. That was back in the day when it was 2 point for a win but the axiom still holds, and here we are on 24 points after 12 games.

    Maybe the lesson of Walsall is not “don’t get carried away” but “enjoy, and rejoice, while it lasts!”

    My ticket for Oxford arrived in Friday – and I can’t wait. See you there!!!

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