By Katie Whyatt
In a season of wholesale change, from top to bottom, on the field is where the differences are most keenly felt. Nicky Law heads up a City midfield that are smarter, industrious but clever, one beat ahead of the rest, persistently ambitious and intricate. Law embodies their trademark guile: he’s there, on the left; you blink and he emerges from the wormhole, on the other side of the field, unruffled as he dips the ball to Billy Clarke. Josh Cullen writhes himself out of trouble with almost comedic ease. Tim Dieng works quietly but his vision is instrumental. Five, six months into the season and it remains so impressive. Law is flourishing under Stuart McCall’s expansive, high-tempo, breathless style.
If there is something romantic about the way this season’s exploits come at the hands of someone as universally loved as McCall, there is something equally compelling about the fact the McCall and Law have shared six spells together, McCall in various roles: Sheffield United, Bradford City twice, Motherwell, Rangers, Bradford City again. “From leaving school at 16 to now, I think I’ve only had two years where I’ve not been with Stuart,” Law jokes. The shared backstory stretches from 2002. Nicky was 14 when his dad, Nicky Sr., took over Bradford City in January of that year, following Jim Jefferies’ Christmas Eve resignation. The heady days of Premier League overspending had given way to a landscape of austerity, Law handed a talented, but arguably underachieving, squad. Still, one player in particular made an impression on the teenaged Nicky.
“That was probably the first time I’d come into contact with Stuart,” Nicky recalls. “I was never in the dressing room but I was always at the training ground whenever I could get out of school. I was always going up to Bradford with my dad to watch training – in the first season my dad was there, Stuart was there. Great players like Lee Sharpe, Benito Carbone and Ashley Ward were at the club. It was a difficult time for the club but it was fantastic to be around the place.
“I just always remember [McCall] being such a nice guy – he always came across as being great. I think more so when I moved to Sheffield United. He left [City] and went there as a player, and that’s where I came through in the academy. I think I was 17 when I used to go and train up with the first team, and he was a midfielder like me, and he gave me great advice. He was a different style of midfield player to me – he was a far better player than I’ll ever be – but he was all action.
“We used to play reserve games together and he used to play centre back in those games when he was a little bit older – but he was fantastic to just listen to, to just listen to his experiences as a player. I’m a lot more experienced now from what I was back in the day. I was probably a kid the last time I came to Bradford – I was 19 years old. He’s been a huge part of my career. I think a great deal of him.”
Law played 43 games for McCall over two seasons at Bradford, in two loan spells between 2007 and 2009. McCall’s first summer in charge of Motherwell, in 2011, saw him call on Law again. In the 2011/12 season, they finished third in the SPL, qualifying for the Champions League as Rangers’ money woes began in earnest. The following season, they would finish second behind Celtic; Law was named in the PFA Scotland Team of the Year, but interest from Rangers was impossible to ignore. “A difficult club to play for, huge expectations,” Law reflects. “There was a lot going on at the club when I was there. It was probably the right club at the wrong time for me. It was a difficult spell, the three years that I had there, but great experience, a fantastic fanbase. They helped me grow.” McCall arrived at the Ibrox as manager in March 2015, on a short-term contract.
“First and foremost, he’s a brilliant guy,” Law begins. “I don’t think you’ll speak to anybody who has a bad word to say about the manager as a person, and I think that’s a big thing. The freedom that he gives me, the confidence that he gives me as well – he always seems to get the best out of me as a football player. We know each other well and he knows my strengths and my negatives, and he tends to concentrate more on what I can do and what I can bring to the team.
“Even boys who are not playing as much as they would like this season – another strength of the manager’s has always been his ability to keep people who aren’t playing happy. He’s kept the squad close. He’s in every day, he takes the training, he’s always bright and joking around, keeps spirits up. He doesn’t like to work with a huge squad – I think he likes to work with a close knit group and I think he likes people to not be too far away from the first team. But he’s fair with everybody. If you’re not playing, he’ll tell you and give you an honest opinion, tell you what you need to do to get in the team. That’s the most difficult part of any manager’s job but he does that well.”
History remembers McCall’s first managerial spell at Bradford through the lens of heart ruling head, and the City boss has since been open about his struggles to mentally separate himself from the task at hand as he blamed himself ruthlessly for the team’s shortfalls – he later admitted he was relieved when games were rained off, so consuming were the anxieties of that era. The first half of the season has served to demonstrate just how far removed McCall is from that mindset, how he has become a steelier head in the intervening seven years.
“[But] he’s always been Stuart,” Law says. “The training is the same, and a little difference this time is he has Kenny [Black] with him, who he’s worked with before. He’s a huge help to the manager, is brilliant around the training ground. They’ve always worked well together as a team and Kenny’s had a big influence on the gaffer as well.
“The first time – everybody knows the toll it took on him, not being able to be as successful as he wanted for a club he loves so dearly. I think he found it difficult, and this time around, maybe he’s been able to separate himself from that a little. He still cares deeply about the club and is as passionate as ever, but I think the experiences he’s had have helped him in a huge way. He was Rangers manager for a while as well and I don’t think there’s many as pressured jobs as that one.
“All these things are helping, but in terms of himself and the way he is around the lads – that will never change. He’s always positive and he’s never really, really down and moping around. Even when we’ve had a bad result, he’s always honest, and I think the lads appreciate that.”
“The manager gives us a licence, but that’s kind of where it ends. As players, you have to take responsibility.”
Law speaks the night before City’s home game with Bury, on New Year’s Eve – a game in which he would net the second-half equaliser that secured City their fourth draw in as many games. The Bantams are without a win in five having failed to convert dominance into results, but, equally, have only been beaten three times in the league.
“The mood’s good – it’s been good all season,” Law says. “We’re not too down at the moment – we’re hopeful with the way we’re playing. We’re obviously a bit disappointed with the last month – not in terms of performance, but more in terms of the results and not scoring as much as we would like.
“We’re creating chances in games and it’s just a matter of putting those away, to keep training hard and keep trying to do the right thing. I think we’re quite relaxed at the minute – if it was later on in the season we’d probably be a little bit more worried about it. Earlier on in the season, goals weren’t as much of a problem – we beat Rochdale 4-0 playing similarly as we are now in our performances. We’re still creating chances, dominating matches and doing the right things. It’s just unfortunate at the minute that we’re not putting the goals away, but that’s not just the strikers – that’s everybody. It’s ourselves in midfield as well. We know we should be scoring more and even the lads at the back – we get a lot of set pieces and things and they’re desperate to score. Nobody means to miss – we’re all desperate to get among the goals again.
“I think we’ve missed Billy [Clarke] of late. He did a fantastic job for us earlier in the season playing in the hole and does a lot of work that maybe people don’t notice defensively for the team. But I think most importantly, going forward, he is a huge part of what we do.”
That Clarke has become so instrumental to a team that fuse intelligence and freedom is unsurprising, and a incisively mobile midfield is run with an intensity that fuels, rather than compromises, their fluidity. Matt Killgallon told BBC Radio Leeds this season that “you look up and everyone wants the ball”. Law and Cullen in particular keep the side running like clockwork.
“We have good movement,” Law acknowledges. “Marshy [Mark Marshall] is more the one who’s asked to stay wider and he gives us our width. I play a lot wider under the manager now than I have done up in Scotland – up in Scotland I was predominantly more of a central midfield player, but the manager uses me more on the left, gives me that freedom to try and make things happen for the team. Then the manager gives me freedom to help the two boys in the middle, and Tim and Josh get through a hell of a lot of the work for us – they’re huge to our style of play. Performance wise, we’re pleased with how we’re doing.
“[The link-up play] I think that’s more of natural thing. Every game is different, but we try and play in a similar way every week, be entertaining – we never play for a draw. We always go for the victory. The way we play – the manager gives us that licence, but that’s kind of where it ends. As players, you have to take responsibility on matchday, and this season, fortunately, in a short space of time we’ve managed to work each other out. As much as you can, you have to know what your team mates are going to do. We’ve managed to work that out quickly, and I’m hopeful it will only get better. We work on it a lot but there’s some intelligent players, some intelligent football players. We all enjoy playing with each other.
“I think the first six or seven games this season, I played a different position in every single one of those games. It’s what the manager likes – he likes players that can play different positions and that are flexible, and I think that you need that in a squad of players. I don’t think we have the biggest squad in the league but we have a lot of players that can cover different positions. And I think if you’re comfortable in those positions, it’s not too hard if the manager asks you from week to week to do a little bit of a different role to what you’re used to. It’s something that the manager’s always done, even previously, from different clubs that I’ve been at with him. He’s always asked players to do different roles and he always gives you deep analysis on the teams that you’re about to play. I think he likes to cause the opposition problems and sometimes surprise them when they look at a team sheet. He likes to catch teams out as well.
“I remember when I signed – the manager said I’m 28 now, so I should be going into my peak years as a professional football player. I’m hopeful that’s what I’m heading into and I’m hoping it will be here, with Bradford. I want to stay and hopefully the club feel the same way. I just need to keep doing well and performing on the pitch and, in time, hopefully, that will come.”
At 28, Law now turns mentor himself. Daniel Devine was 18 on the opening day of the season and ran the midfield with an assured nonchalance, unfazed and unflappable despite his tender years. “There’s little things I see in myself in his game,” Law says. “I try and help Danny wherever I can. All the lads will. If he needs anything, I’d like to think he knows he can come to me.
“He’s so quiet. If he wasn’t as good as football as he is you probably wouldn’t know he was there half the time. He is a man of few words but fantastic – the fans see his performances, for someone so young… No one probably maybe knew too much about Danny but we knew what he was doing in training. He had a fantastic pre season – he was a right or a left back at times [then], but wherever he went, he did a great job for the team in the quiet and efficient way he does.
“The lads here are brilliant with the young boys and I don’t think any young lad – whether it’s Danny, Ellis [Hudson], any others – fear coming up and training with the first team, because they’re all great guys. We’re delighted with Danny.
“We’re very confident in ourselves and we’re hopeful we’ll be there,” Law says, of the top six. “That was the aim at the start of the season and we have the confidence in each other that we can do that. There’s no guarantees and teams are pushing us at the moment. Teams are on great runs. We know there will be ups and downs all the way to the end. But we’re very confident and have huge belief in each other. Taking the last five or six results out of it – overall, we’re delighted with the progress we’ve made. And we have 22 league games to give it a right good go.”