By Jason McKeown
Football management has become too brutal and cut-throat of a profession to have room for sentimentalism. And yet if Bradford City prove to be successful in winning promotion this season, it will be laced with romance and symbolism.
No one is ever bigger than the club, but Stuart McCall is as close as they come. The bond that binds Bradford City and McCall together runs deeper than your typical football club legend. The mutual love and respect between supporters and the player is enduring and crosses over generations.
At Valley Parade, McCall turned from boy to man. He played a starring role in the highest of the highs, and alongside supporters felt the lowest of low moments. His own father was injured during the Fire disaster. He shows up every year for the memorial service. In the 80s he outgrew the club in terms of his on-the-field ability, but in the 90s returned to lead City to top flight football for the first time in 77 years.
10 years service as a player, 395 appearances, two promotions. He saw tragedy and triumph. Always giving everything to the cause. Never giving up. A class act, who represented the club with great courage, skill and dignity. Stuart McCall was the best of the Bradford City best.
And now McCall is tantalisingly close to further increasing his legend status, and writing a glorious new chapter in his 37-year association with Bradford City. A third McCall-Bradford City promotion would be even more special, given it would bring an end to the club’s 13-year sentence in the bottom two divisions. Over the next month, McCall could restore Bradford City back to what we supporters widely consider to be our natural level. A full recovery from the financial abyss of 2002-2004.
It would come at a time when loyalty and sentimentality is firmly dying in football management. 2017 is already the year that Claudio Ranieri was harshly booted out of the Premier League’s most unlikely champions, Leicester City, and where Arsene Wenger’s 20-year reign as Arsenal manager increasingly heads towards a bitter ending. 49 managers have lost their jobs this season, 66 departed the year before.
Football managers are expendable, replaceable and quickly forgotten. At clubs up and down the land, legends are increasingly employed to entertain corporate guests on matchdays – not take the team.
Stuart McCall and City are bucking that trend. When he first accepted the chance to manage the Bantams a decade ago, it was almost a marketing ploy to sell cheap season tickets. Geared more towards improving the morale around Valley Parade than winning football matches. McCall typically gave it his all, but inexperienced, over-emotional and drained, he was unable to deliver success and fell on his sword.
The sadness he felt upon resigning in February 2010 was reflected in the stands. McCall was the last person in the world we wanted to fail. As Julian Rhodes summed up in 2013, “He left in such a dignified way that he is still loved here. He has been to a few games since, sat with me in the box, and everybody comes up to him and people still love him. He will always be a legend here.” McCall told me in November 2015, about his first spell managing City, “If I had my time again, I wish I had come into this job at a different time. I wish it had happened at a different time. But it was what it was.”
Amazingly that opportunity arose last summer to have another crack. This time around, McCall has been a vital part in reaffirming the heart of Bradford City at a time of huge change. New owners from another country, who unexpectedly found they had to replace a hugely successful manager and his coaching staff. McCall represented a clear link to Bradford City’s heritage. A man who understood the fabric of the club better than anyone.
Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp didn’t know him, but a three-hour meeting at Leeds-Bradford airport convinced them he was the man to lead the team in this new era. McCall said at his press conference unveiling, “It’s a perfect fit for me. The last time I was here, it certainly wasn’t a perfect fit. But it is now. I don’t like to keep looking back, but the last time I was here, the club had just dropped into the bottom division.
“In hindsight, I let my heart rule my head as it was a place I always wanted to come to.”
It helped that the club is so different this time around. In his first spell McCall inherited just eight players, but found their wages accounted for 50% of his entire playing budget. He was backed well in the transfer market during his second season, but voluntarily took a pay cut when success wasn’t immediate, and was left having to recruit players on lower wages than they paid in the Co-op. As James Mason reflected on the club’s subsequent transformation, “Bradford City is a very different club to the one Stuart first managed and clearly he is a different, far more experienced manager today.
“The platform and professionalism we can now offer his team has changed for the better. It’s a platform for success.”
Returning once again could have failed miserably. It still might not have the Hollywood-style ending. But there’s no doubt the owners have been vindicated for their choice of manager. Under Parkinson, City were a largely united football club with a fanbase largely bought into what the manager was trying to achieve. And though the managerial merry-go-round within English football was turning at an ever-increasing pace, at Valley Parade the virtues of sticking with someone had been proven repeatedly through Parkinson’s success.
Rahic and Rupp valued this long-term thinking, saying when they were looking for Parkinson’s replacement, “We want to be successful but we have long-term plans of sustainability and our new manager will want to buy into this as well.”
They had different options last summer, other directions they could have taken. Uwe Rosler, who has gone onto achieve amazing success with Fleetwood this season, was said to be in the frame and had acted as an advisor to the pair during the takeover talks. However it would have looked contrived and spawn endless conspiracy theories had Rosler been given the job.
Steve Evans threw his hat into the ring, and Neil Redfearn was also interviewed. In contrast to McCall, Evans was at the opposite end to the spectrum. A widely disliked, ultra-pragmatic manager; hated with good reason around Valley Parade, but a proven winner with a strong track record. Evans looked far more likely to deliver success than McCall, but it’s how you go about things that matters too.
Evans would have split the City fanbase without doubt, and risked corroding the collective spirit that has developed since 2012. McCall offered unity and excitement. His return was not universally welcomed – there was plenty of opposition – but that long-standing bond and affection he commands meant no one was going to turn on him from day one. Either warmly or grudgingly, he was going to be given a chance. McCall himself admitted, “The fans were sort of split about me coming back. Those who remembered what happened last time and felt for me really didn’t want to see us go through that again. But I haven’t come back in any sentimental way this time.”
McCall’s greatest strength since taking charge has been the vision he has presented of doing things in a better way than even Parkinson managed. The 2015/16 season was on paper City’s most successful season since McCall himself was captaining the Bantams to promotion to the Premier League; but the extreme brand of pragmatism that Parkinson employed tempered the enjoyment. Winning should never feel boring, yet there were plenty of games last season where City won but you still went home feeling flat.
The destination was more important than the journey. That ultimately hasn’t really changed this time around, but McCall has successfully been able to instil a far more attractive way of playing football. He’s tried to marry up the Parkinson grit and spirit with a more adventurous, brave approach. It has proven to be a terrific watch, with the players embracing their greater freedom whilst retaining the high work-rate and commitment that Parkinson brought to Valley Parade.
Back in McCall’s first spell, there wasn’t any great revolutionary tactics. He liked to have his team playing open, attacking football, but for the first two years stuck with a rigid 4-4-2. Innovation was limited to moving to a 4-3-3 at the start of year three.
This time around, McCall tried out more different systems in his first four games than during the whole of his first tenure. His time away from Valley Parade, managing Motherwell, Rangers and assisting with the Scotland team, furthered both his education and his confidence.
McCall has become a manager not afraid to try new things and to keep opponents guessing by changing the formation mid-game and often on a weekly basis. He hinted this would be the case when speaking to me last summer, “If playing one way is successful of course you carry on. But sometimes it’s horses for courses. That’s one thing I’ve learned since I’ve been away – you can change things.”
There is an argument that he can overdo it. That sometimes it might have paid to have kept things more simple. But the level of sophistication and flexibility demonstrates just what an excellent coach McCall has become. It would have been easy to envisage the players going out onto the field struggling to understand the way in which they are being asked to play; yet by and large they have looked well organised and bought into what their manager wants them to do.
McCall has made them look better footballers.
The early flag bearers for this new outlook were Billy Clarke, Nicky Law, Romain Vincelot and James Meredith, who embraced McCall’s methods and led others. Josh Cullen, Mark Marshall and Tony McMahon have grown into the changing culture too. These seven players in particular have proven they can adapt to different roles even mid-game. That has been really important.
What’s particularly striking is to compare the results of this season’s approach with last season’s record under Parkinson. With one game of the 46 to go, McCall’s side are going to have won fewer matches (20 vs 23) than Parkinson’s charges, but lost less often (7 vs 12). Their Goals For record is six better (61 vs 55) and their Goals Against only slightly worse (42 vs 40). Goal difference is remarkably similar (19 vs 15), as is the points tally – a win over Rochdale on Sunday will mean McCall’s side finish on 81 points, one above Parkinson’s 80.
The methods are completely different, but the results are largely the same. Yet there’s a theory – which most of us, the coaching staff included, subscribe to – that City have slightly underachieved this season. That if only three of those 18 draws had been converted into wins, a top two finish could have been realised. If anything, it should be a compliment to McCall. Whatever happens in the play offs, this team has further to go. The glass ceiling is yet to be hit on what can ultimately be achieved.
If McCall had been handed Parkinson’s entire team, this league performance would be respectable. The fact he, Greg Abbott and Rahic had to rebuild in very little time heightens the sense of achievement. McCall is the first to admit he inherited some excellent professionals who have set the standards for others; but he’s very quickly built on these strengths and firmly put his own stamp on the side.
Even though some of Parkinson’s loyalist foot soldiers remain relevant, the landscape has shifted significantly. This is a Stuart McCall team, playing the Stuart McCall way.
Which is not to say it is perfect. Some of McCall’s failings from his first spell in charge remain. Most notably is his reluctance to shut up shop and to reduce the level of risk taken in away games especially. Back in the 2008/09 season, when a promotion push went south during the final lap, there was an infamous game at a struggling Notts County where the Bantams were too gung ho, and the home side’s counter attack tactics saw them 3-0 up by half time. Watching this season’s Easter Monday hiding at Sheffield United, those failings were back again.
Not that this is complete naivety on McCall’s part. His bosses, Rahic and Rupp, have talked plenty of times about wanting McCall and City to go on the attack. To take more risks and to not be afraid to lose games. Last month Rahic declared, “As long as we have a very good chance to reach automatic promotion, we have to go into every game to win – even if that means we risk losing.”
The TV losses to Scunthorpe and Sheffield United – crucial games in the run-in, where victories would have put City into strong automatic promotion contention – were a clear case of McCall following that rallying cry. Parkinson would never have played in such an open, attack-minded manner – he’d have stuck men behind the ball, looked to counter and ultimately would have accepted a point. McCall is bold, he’s taking risks, and he has his owners’ backing to play in such a way.
The major weakness of McCall last time around was channelling his huge passion for the club. He took defeats too personally, and his downbeat demeanour clearly transmitted to the players. A defeat would turn into two losses in a row, then three, and before long it was getting to seven or eight without a win. Seasons were wrecked when a calmer, greater sense of perspective from the manager could have diffused bumps in the road before they got too serious.
Mark Lawn told me in 2011, “When Stuart left he was an ill man…It wasn’t nice seeing what Stuart had to go through. And I think if anything Stuart was too near to the job and it hurt him too much, if that’s possible.”
On that front, it has been a huge improvement from McCall. It helps that City have only lost seven league games all season, but each time McCall has put a lid on his emotions, acted defiant and reiterated his confidence in the players. In the wake of last week’s defeat to Sheffield United he declared, “We haven’t lost many this season and when we have, we’ve always bounced back.” Rory McArdle summed up the tone set by McCall from the dressing room perspective, “Everyone is quite relaxed and that comes from the manager.”
Of course you want a football manager to be hurting when they lose. That McCall cares so much should be a positive, but it needs to be channelled in the right manner. “We don’t get too high with the highs, or too low with the lows,” he is fond of saying. This time around he is living up to those words. He explained, “I’m a different person. I’m not going to get weighed down by expectations…Forget what happened at the weekend. It’s smiles on the faces out there again.”
McCall’s greater experience – not least the time spent away from Valley Parade, managing Motherwell as something of an outsider – has helped him to develop this side of his managerial skills. It has allowed him to build on his strengths, like the way his players always seem to buy in and respect what he does. The likes of Mark Marshall talk positively about McCall’s arm-around-the-shoulder style and of how he fills the players with confidence. Marshall said, “The manager’s saying ‘go and enjoy yourself on the ball’ and it takes the pressure off and if you make one mistake it’s like, ‘fine, go again’, and I think that’s been a big factor that’s helped us.”
Nicky Law, a player with a long association with McCall, backed up this view on how much the players enjoy working for him. Law told us in January, “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.”
One year ago, Parkinson failed to make the most of an excellent play off finish. His charges were beaten before the half time whistle of the first leg. They paid the price for an uncharacteristic set of defensive lapses, and went onto demonstrate their limitations when chasing a game.
It’s going to be really interesting to see how McCall manages the club through the upcoming play off games. He has experience of managing them with Rangers – both winning and losing crucial games. His positive personality will have the players geared up in the dressing room, and his bold, adventurous approach will pose a threat to whoever City end up playing.
We’re set for a thrilling, emotional finale to the season. If McCall can lead his club back to the Championship, it would prompt tears from grown men and women (or this writer at least). It would make for an incredible story if McCall can recover from his first spell in charge and mastermind an achievement to rival the glories he managed as a player.
And if he doesn’t succeed this season, he’ll be capable of giving it another shot next year. McCall’s proven himself to be a worthy successor to Phil Parkinson. The club has not backwards in the way we feared when Parkinson jumped ship to Bolton, or struggled like some fans predicted upon the news McCall was coming home. This has been a terrifically exciting season; a small but not insignificant step forwards on what came before it. McCall and his coaching team deserve huge credit for hitting the ground running and providing the leadership that was needed to continue this adventure. They had big shoes to fill, but have relished the challenge.
There have been rumours Rahic/Rupp and McCall don’t see eye to eye and suggestions of a change of manager in the summer, but it’s hard to see why – beyond your everyday heat-of-the-moment disagreements passionate owners and managers have – there would be any rift. Changing manager would go against the Germans’ long-term philosophy and risk making them unpopular when they have built up trust for their ways.
McCall might have been viewed as a sentimental appointment last summer, but this season he’s proved why he deserved another crack at managing this club. Providing the owners continue to believe he is the right man, there is no reason why he can’t enjoy a term in charge to rival Parkinson in length. So far, he is demonstrating that he could be the figurehead Rahic and Rupp need to take the club forward and towards turning their long-term Premier League dream into reality.
Categories: State of the (Bantams) Nation