By Jason McKeown
To an outsider, the Bradford City squad of 12 months ago must have seemed like an exercise in inefficiency. In the summer of 2015, Phil Parkinson’s transfer budget had been bolstered by the proceeds of the remarkable FA Cup run to the quarter finals, but such fruits were wasted on a number of ineffective signings. It was not a good summer of transfer business.
And when it led to City making a wretched start to the 2015/16 campaign, more money was made available by joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes; allowing Parkinson to sign Lee Evans and Reece Burke on loan, plus the Manchester City striker Devante Cole and Liverpool stopper Brad Jones. Evans and Burke in particular proved to be vital players in turning around the campaign, and the further loan additions of Kyel Reid and Josh Cullen ultimately inspired Bradford City to a play off finish. But as the borrowed players soared, a bunch of others sat on the sidelines overlooked, commanding not-inconsiderable wages.
12 months ago there was an outsider: Edin Rahic. As he and his partner Stefan Rupp brought a two-year, in-depth search for an English football club to an end, by finalising a takeover of Bradford City, the finer details of the squad of players would have understandably prompted some questions. Some of the best-paid City players were peripheral figures. Whilst Paul Anderson’s lack of game time was down to a bad injury, there was less obvious reasons for why the likes of Josh Morris and Mark Marshall were at the club, given they were receiving good wages but were ignored.
No one – least of all Rahic and Rupp – could argue with the short-term results of Parkinson’s 2015/16 squad. A highest league placing in 12 years, the best points’ total since 1999, and a play off finish. The excellence of Evans, Burke and Cullen helped to bat away any criticisms that Parkinson had been wasteful in the transfer market. The ends justified the means.
Yet it was hardly the most solid of long-term transfer strategies, and it wasn’t the strongest of legacies. The committing of sizeable wages on players who played very little part on the field, and instead a reliance on other clubs’ unwanted players to deliver success, was an imbalanced approach that left plenty of holes. Rahic clearly saw room for improvement. “We have a strategy in our mind and a concept. We have to see if it’s possible to have success in England,” he said upon taking charge.
The details of the conversations that took place between Parkinson and Rahic, following the takeover, will be known only to the pair. But it’s clear that something Rahic said to the long-serving manager was not well received. Within a matter of weeks, Parkinson decided to accept the new challenge of managing Bolton Wanderers.
And as Rahic’s intended transfer strategy emerged into the public eye, it became obvious why Parkinson – who had full control over transfers under Lawn and Rhodes – might have concluded he didn’t want to work in such a way. At a July fans’ forum Rahic spoke about wanting to improve youth development, of his own ideas and experience from his time on the board at Stuttgart Kickers (where he gained coaching qualifications), and his intentions to target European players who could mix it with British.
This was not a chairman who was going to sit back and give the manager – even someone as popular and successful as Parkinson – free reign.
Rahic was speaking at that fans’ forum with former City favourite Greg Abbott sat four places along on the stage. The installing of a Head of Recruitment has been the catalyst of the change in transfer strategy Rahic and Rupp have overseen. Two transfer windows later, and the current Bradford City squad has Abbott and Rahic’s stamp running through it. The new direction has become evident.
Abbott, who had held a similar role at Cambridge United last season, and who began his post-playing career working at Leeds United’s academy, has proven to be a masterstroke of an appointment. Returning to Valley Parade a few weeks after Stuart McCall was appointed manager, it was easy to dismiss Abbott’s employment as some form of old pals’ act; but his in-depth knowledge of the lower leagues has been vital. As James Mason put it on the eve of the season, “Along with Stuart McCall as manager, Greg Abbott might well prove to be the most astute signing this club have made this summer.”
The quality of the signings made over the past 12 months has been highly impressive. Many of the players brought in went under the radar. They were not well-known League One and Two players; not obvious targets with a long list of suitors chasing their signatures. But that’s proven to be significant. In the summer, City were heavily rumoured to have chased the signatures of Mark Beevers, Leon Clarke and Kieran Agard. Wage-wise they could not or would not compete with Bolton, Sheffield United and MK Dons, who secured these players.
Whilst hardly paupers, City are far from the division’s big spenders. They’ve had to shop around in less obvious places, and by doing so recruited some real gems. Rahic stated last summer, “We will sign a mix of good, established professionals coupled with some exciting young talent in the game… if the right talent becomes available to fit Stuart’s profile and our philosophy as a club, we will not only look to sign them, but at the right price we will be looking to buy them.”
There are two big strands to the Rahic/Abbott transfer strategy. Firstly, there is the age of the players brought in. Aside from Romain Vincelot, Matt Kilgallon, Nicky Law, Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Colin Doyle, recruits have been under the age of 25. Rahic believes in signing younger players that have the potential to develop with the club, and have a resale value. Profit from their on-the-field ability, and then profit again in the transfer market. Reinvest incoming transfer fees with more young replacements, and watch the cycle go around again. Rahic explained, “Perhaps what we are able to do what the club haven’t been able to do in recent years is buy players who will only benefit the club in the mid and long term.”
We see that in the likes of Timothee Dieng (25), Alex Jones (22) and Charlie Wyke (24). Loanee Alex Gilliead (21) is someone City are reportedly keen to sign on a permanent deal. And beyond the immediate first team there is a younger group of players who have been brought in with an eye on the future.
Jacob Hanson (19, signed for a fee), Matthew Penney (18, a loanee from Sheffield Wednesday) and Daniel Pybus (19, brought in from Sunderland) are unlikely to figure this season, but presumably are seen as part of next year’s plans. In 12 months’ time some of them could be first team regulars, with another batch of young academy players from other clubs waiting in the wings. Abbott declared, “In the next few windows, we want to develop that side of the club…I will be able to back my judgement by paying money for young players.”
Rahic sees Bradford City’s West Yorkshire location as vital for this. The Bantams are a 90-minute drive away from Liverpool and Everton, and an hour away from Manchester City, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday, Burnley and Hull City. Many of these big clubs have large academies stocked with too many players to provide a first team path for everybody.
City can offer that opportunity, and the player wouldn’t have to travel far from their home to grab it. That’s probably why Rahic and James Mason were spotted at Anfield earlier in the season. Building relationships with these clubs is an important part of getting to the front of the queue for their unwanted players. Rahic told the German media, “Our philosophy must be to get the second line of the Manchester City and United junior players…we want to be known to take young professionals to the first team, which is a great opportunity for us.”
There are perils to this path. It is not going to be a fool proof strategy. Some of the best 17 and 18-year-olds have faded badly by their early 20s, unable to cope with the physical rigours and pressures of first team English football. We’ve seen it before several times at Valley Parade. City need to have something in place to bridge the gap from a Premier League academy to League One or Championship football. There will still be natural wastage.
Whilst the reserve team’s reintroduction two years ago means some form of competitive football is available, City could do worse than study Brentford’s B team model and look at what the Bees are trying to achieve. Brentford did away with its academy, believing the rewards didn’t match the risks of huge outlays, and have a B team made up of players discarded by others domestically and around Europe, built with the help of a data analytics model. They’ve spent the season sharpening their tactical abilities by playing friendlies against the second string sides of clubs like Man City and Bayern Munich.
Robert Rowan, Brentford’s Head of Football Operations, told the Guardian, “There isn’t much point in us going to scout young talent in lower league clubs as every Premier League club can out-spend and out-resource us. It’s actually a waste of resources/time for us, so instead we want to have in-depth knowledge on the ones who may be released from the big clubs.”
The second strand to the new transfer strategy has been the theory of the wisdom of crowds. City have some form of transfer committee in place, which definitely includes Abbott and Rahic. Over in France, Lyon have been the flag bearers for the group approach of deciding which players to buy and sell, helping them to rise from mediocrity to dominating the French league for several years. Led by the technical director, a group of Lyon coaches and the manager will sit down together and debate which players to buy and sell. The theory is that is if you aggregate different opinions from a diverse group of people, you are more likely to arrive at the best opinion compared to relying on one specialist.
Rahic’s background is a strength in City’s own committee approach. He is experienced at scouting players for Stuttgart, so has his own technical knowledge and perspective. He might not have known who Knight-Percival and Wyke were, but that didn’t stop him from being able to offer a qualified opinion. Abbott, of course, has an encyclopedic knowledge of Football League players, but less so footballers beyond these shores. The two are clearly working well together in identifying, studying and selecting targets. We’ve not yet seen great success from abroad yet, although Vincent Rabiega and Rouven Sattelmaier have played in the first team this season.
It is very different to how Bradford City have ever operated. The closest we’ve seen to this type of strategy was the short-lived Archie Christie strategy of 2011, where then-manager Peter Jackson was still in charge of signing first team players, often ignoring and dismissing the late Christie’s advice. The two clearly did not get on, and that made it difficult for the wisdom-of-crowds mantra to ever work. Jackson eventually left, later declaring, “Day by day I felt my authority was being undermined… My standing as manager would have been terminally weakened if I’d rolled over and let other people run the football club.”
Rahic is a keen student of other styles. He will be aware of the Brentford model and also has his own European knowledge of other strategies. He said last month, “There are different blueprints in football and Huddersfield, of course, is a good one. Like ourselves, they will never have the biggest budget in the league but they have a very strong bond and team spirit…Barnsley are another top example in Yorkshire. Their transfer logic is not to buy players over 24. Red Bull Leipzig are the best example of this approach in Europe, Southampton is another. They have the top Academy in the country.
“Clubs like these show that football is not an industry where innovation is always needed. If you copy the good things from clubs like that, you can build success with your own model.”
Watching the way Rahic and Abbott has gone about things this season has been educating for all of us. We’ve only seen one way of successfully signing players – the manager – even though that approach has failed far more often than it worked. When James Hanson was sold in January, many of us were unhappy. But Rahic was ultimately following one of Lyon’s guiding principles – sell any player if another club offers more than he is worth.
On reflection, Hanson’s departure and Wyke’s arrival is a sensible, long-term piece of trading. Already we are seeing the logic play out. Hanson will probably never be worth more than he was in January, whilst Wyke’s stock can continue to rise. Younger legs replacing an older head. That said, experience should still be viewed as an important quality to have in the dressing room. As McCall said last summer, “You can be old and hungry”.
McCall has less of a say on transfers than Abbott and Rhic, though he must surely have some influence. He openly admitted in January that he had not seen Jones and Wyke play before, and seemed to be openly against any pursuit of Ched Evans that sources in Chesterfield claim led to the Bantams tabling an offer. So far we have seen a united front on transfer approach. McCall knew from day one how Rahic wanted to play transfers. He told me last summer, “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.”
As long as his boss does listen to, and value, McCall’s opinion, this strategy can work. The benefits that McCall can focus on coaching the team, rather than spending time scouting transfer targets, could be huge. And if and when McCall leaves as manager, his replacement won’t be able to come in with a wrecking ball and spend a fortune revamping the squad.
The transfer committee/head of recruitment approach is increasingly visible at the top of English football. Clubs like Liverpool are criticised because it seems their committee often gets it wrong, but others like Tottenham and West Brom are more positive examples of how the model can succeed. That old pals’ reunion of Abbott and McCall has been vital for City’s early success with this strategy. They are not strangers who are going to clash; they can be open and honest with each other. One day, Abbott may have a say in picking McCall’s replacement. This is a model that must work beyond key changes at the top.
This summer we will probably see the transfer strategy evolution speed up further. Hundreds of players across the country will be out of contract. At Valley Parade some older members of the squad have their contracts up, and it will be telling to see who is kept on and who is let go.
Rahic and Rupp have probably spent around £400k in transfer fees this season, and a year older and wiser they may start to invest bigger amounts towards their ultimate goal of taking City to the Premier League. Younger players will be the key still, as McCall noted a year ago, “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.”
Whether this summer or next, City want to be in a position of planning for a Championship campaign. The finances in England’s second tier are mind-bogglingly out of control. Just as City struggled to pay the top wages in League One this season, they’d find it incredibly difficult to compete in the Championship without successfully finding a different way of doing things to the big spenders. As Abbott is fond of saying to agents, “We’re Bradford, not Barcelona.”
The template of Brentford, plus the excellent recruiting methods of Preston and Barnsley, show you can prosper in the Championship without the biggest of warchests. Rahic, Abbott and McCall are creating a stronger Bradford City infrastructure built on recruiting younger players, giving opportunities to academy talents (six have made their debut for City this season), and – presumably soon – casting the net around Europe for talented players who can thrive in West Yorkshire.
The higher the club climb, the more important this approach is going to prove in giving the Bantams a competitive advantage. Right now, Bradford City are still one of the biggest fish in the relatively small League One pond – get to the Championship, and they could be minnows financially. They’ll need to keep recruiting better in order to make it through the next level.
Categories: State of the (Bantams) Nation