By Jason McKeown
On the night Bradford City waved goodbye to one legend, another was just getting started. It was 1980, and long-serving goalkeeper Peter Downsborough was enjoying a testimonial match for City against Huddersfield Town. In an office somewhere within the confides of Valley Parade, manager George Mulhall was sealing a contract to sign an unassuming 16-year-old kid with ginger hair. One Stuart McCall.
His signing on fee was unconventional. A shot of Whisky, from George to Stuart’s mum. No cash, but McCall didn’t mind. As a kid he had been playing for Leeds Boys and Farsley Celtic, and had seen eight of his team mates taken on by the likes of Leeds and Arsenal. Overlooked, underrated and with dreams of making it as professional footballer fading fast, McCall resorted to writing to banks and building societies to find a job. Then Bryan Edwards arranged him a trial at Bradford City, and his life changed. “I wanted to be a footballer but I just thought it had passed me by.”
Another City legend, another step forward in the Stuart McCall story. Ces Podd, the long-serving, iconic right back had hurt his eye at the end of the 1981/82 promotion season, and not recovered by the following August. City kicked off life in Division Three with a visit from Reading. The 3-2 win achieved with the help of a promising debut from a young McCall, who filled in for Podd at right back. 5,001 people were there to see it.
It didn’t take long for McCall to be elevated from promising youngster to first team regular. Before that season was over, Stuart had taken ownership of the number 4 shirt that he will forever be associated with. Mulhall had already been sacked. Roy McFarland gave McCall his big chance, before he walked out to take over at Derby. Trevor Cherry and Trevor Yorath maintained the club’s upwards curve, with McCall’s influence growing and growing. “They both really helped me and brought me on. They just picked up the club and took it further.”
Adversity first struck in 1983. Leeds United’s complaints saw City placed into receivership. The collection buckets were out. The club survived, but remained strapped for cash. Still, something special was forming. “We didn’t have a lot of money. We got free transfers in like Greg Abbott, John Hendrie, Dave Evans and Bobby Campbell came back. We had some young players but we also had that little bit of experience.”
1985 should have been one of the finest years in the club’s history. Cherry, McCall and co led City to the Third Division title, playing a wonderful brand of football. “It was a great time. We were a social bunch too and I think in those days the fans and the players mixed much more than they do nowadays. It was just a great atmosphere.”
But then something terrible happened.
Saturday May 11, 1985. A day of celebration. The championship trophy paraded around Valley Parade before kick off. A forgettable first half of football, suddenly overshadowed in the most horrific way possible. Fire broke out. Good people lost their lives. McCall’s own father amongst the hundreds injured. The Bradford City world was turned upside down. McCall and the players were in the middle of unprecedented trauma.
“My dad was seriously burned and was at Pinderfield. I used to go and visit him every day and I got close to a few people who were also recovering with him. I used to go and take the trophy down and our medals. Even though football should be irrelevant, to a lot of people it wasn’t. They just wanted to get back to watching City and especially watching them in the Second Division.”
Life had to go on. City and its community tried their best to rebuild. Home became Elland Road or Leeds Road, and then back into Bradford. As Valley Parade was fixed up, City attempted to thrive in the unfamiliar, non-football surroundings of Odsal. “Our job was to get the football going again, but Odsal was tough. With the pitch, teams would kick it towards a corner and the ball would roll up and then roll back!”
McCall grew up a Leeds United supporter, following them home and away. But injured and sat in the Odsal stand on the September 1986 day that the Bantams beat their neighbours, McCall had a close up view of shocking events that soured his childhood affections. Leeds fans were rioting, and knocked over a chip van that burst into flames. Another fire at a Bradford City game. Thousands of City fans fled in terror. “The panic that was felt in the stand I was in when it happened is something I can’t forget. There was the noise, the smoke and fumes, and it caused panic. It brought it all back for everyone.
“I was born 200 yards away from Elland Road. But that day took a lot away of that love away from me. In years to come I had four opportunities to join Leeds, but out of loyalty I couldn’t do it.”
McCall’s stock continued to rise. And as City made an emotional return to a rebuilt Valley Parade later that year, the scene was set for a crack at promotion to the top flight. Cherry harshly sacked, Terry Dolan an inspired replacement. Decent money spent to strengthen the squad in the summer of 1987, but bigger clubs were after McCall.
Chairman Stafford Heginbotham joined the players on a close season holiday to Magaluf, where he persuaded McCall and John Hendrie to give it one more year. “I had opportunities to go, but my dream was to get to the top flight with Bradford City. I never regretted it for a second and signed another year.
“People outside the club couldn’t understand it, but they didn’t know about the bond we had as players and as a club.”
One more year, one last chance. It all came together at first. The 1987/88 season was terrific, as City pushed hard for promotion. “We had some great games at Valley Parade.” The squad were performing heroics, but were short on numbers. Jack Tordoff and Dolan disagreed over team strengthening, and City fell short with a heart-breaking 3-2 loss to Ipswich on the final day of the season. It denied them automatic promotion. They lost to Middlesbrough in the play offs. A heartbroken McCall would be on his way.
“If I could turn back the clock, certainly the last game at home to Ipswich is one I would have loved to have played again. It was as if we had let everyone down. Losing to Middlesbrough was sickening. I remember there been a lot of tears in the dressing room afterwards, and a lot of tears on the bus journey home too.
“I always said that if Bradford City had have won promotion, I’d have signed a 10-year deal. It wasn’t a lack of ambition, it’s sometimes where your heart wanted to be.”
McCall headed to Everton for £875,000. The nearly season was the peak of the 80s for Bradford City, as the team was broken up, Dolan was sacked, and a tumble to Division Three quickly followed. No such underachievement for McCall. He became the first substitute to score two goals in an FA Cup Final, played over 100 games for Everton, and picked up the first of his 40 caps for Scotland. He even scored for the Tartan Army at the 1990 World Cup.
Then it was off North of the border to Rangers, signed by Walter Smith for £1.2 million. They’d just won three Scottish League titles on the trot. They kept it up, champions in each of McCall’s first six seasons at Ibrox. The famous nine-in-a-row-side. Ally McCoist, Brian Laudrup, Paul Gascoigne, Andy Goram. McCall became a firm favourite at Ibrox, even inducted into the Rangers hall of fame.
By the summer of 1998 McCall decided it was time for a change. Smith had left. The new Rangers manager Dick Advocaat wanted the contracted McCall to stay on, but he was granted a free transfer by chairman David Murray in recognition of his service to the club. Danny Wilson of Barnsley made an offer. McCall drove to South Yorkshire to conclude the deal. On the journey down, he received an unexpected call.
“Someone had tipped off Geoffrey Richmond that I was heading to Barnsley. With no disrespect to Barnsley or any of the other clubs interested in me at the time, I really wanted to come back to Bradford. So I got this call out of the blue and diverted the car to Bradford instead. I rang Danny to tell him and he understood.”
Richmond was the ambitious Bradford City chairman, plotting an unlikely assault on the Premier League. McCall was 34, a year older than the Bantams youthful manager Paul Jewell. “Ultimately it could have been anyone who was manager I just wanted to re-sign for Bradford City.” A decade on from his sad departure, McCall’s return captured the imagination of the Bradford public. Jewell had a new captain, and the inspiration for a truly special season.
City famously started the 1998/99 season badly. But McCall, Wayne Jacobs, Darren Moore, Jamie Lawrence, Peter Beagrie, Lee Mills, Robbie Blake and others would prove their worth. The club charged up the league, playing the best football of the last 40 years. “We had a really good mix of players. We could play football and score goals, but we could also mix it physically when we needed to. The key was we had three forward type players who could score goals. We had lots of little partnerships.”
McCall showed a new generation of fans just what a talented, influential player he was. The cliche rang true: he covered every blade of grass. He chased every lost cause. When other heads dipped, he stepped up even further to lead. And he could play football too. McCall possessed terrific vision to spot passes other couldn’t, and had the ability to execute them. He didn’t score many goals, but had strong shooting ability. A box to box midfielder. One of the fittest around. He defied his age.
The ghosts of ’88 were laid to rest. McCall – the runaway winner of the player of the season award – captained City to promotion on the final day of the season at Wolves. “As much as we were all elated, the real joy was in watching the way our fans celebrated at full time. I saw people that I hadn’t seen for many years – it was such a special day. After all the things we had been through, to get there for the first time in 77 years was so special.”
McCall revelled in the celebrations as much as anyone. Champagne in the Molineux dressing room, more drinks on the bus journey back to West Yorkshire. The party was in full swing back at Valley Parade. McCall climbed on top of a car and a Sky cameraman captured his less-than-graceful fall. “To this day I argue that I wasn’t the amount I had had to drink that made me fall off the car, it was my trainer getting caught on the windscreen wiper causing me to trip!”
The Premier League. The big time. A new experience for us supporters, the manager and for half the team. McCall knew the top flight well. His experience was vital in helping City to adapt. The glare of the national media was harsh at times, but McCall led “dad’s army” to improbable last day survival. They never gave up, and avoided the drop. Next stop was Europe, and the intertoto cup.
It was a crazy ride, but now it was spinning out of control. Jewell walked out. Assistant Chris Hutchings made his replacement. McCall became player-assistant, but had little say in the transfer madness that would cripple the club. No one could stop Richmond from the madness. “I didn’t have the forward vision to question how a Premier League club could afford those wages. It was crazy what they did.
“What had kept us up had been the spirit and scrapping, and there was nothing wrong with looking for more quality, but we were always going to be battling against the odds that season.”
Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore and co were signed on contracts the club couldn’t afford. It was unfair on those who’d taken City to such heights. And it didn’t work. Results nosedived, relegation became a formality. Hutchings lasted only 12 games, with McCall stepping in as caretaker for a fortnight. Jim Jefferies came in, McCall went back to being a player.
The end was coming. December 2001, with City now in the second tier again, Jefferies fell out with his captain, declaring McCall’s legs were gone. It was nonsense. McCall would still be going strong for another four years. Alas it would not be with City, as he was released at the end of the season with the club’s financial woes about to come to light.
He moved over to Sheffield United. He was a big player for the Blades for two seasons, scoring his one and only goal away at Bradford City of all places. “I ended up playing around 80 times for Sheffield United and was involved in one of their most successful seasons, and after games I always used to think back to that [Jefferies] dig and think ‘well there’s another game you’ve done’.”
His playing career ended at Valley Parade – where else? A reserve team game for Sheffield United. He had already started the path into coaching. As the Blades reached the Premier League, McCall was Neil Warnock’s assistant manager. They couldn’t survive like City had seven years earlier. Warnock stepped down, but McCall was overlooked as his replacement.
The third coming beckoned.
The years after McCall left West Yorkshire had not been kind to City. Two spells in administration, two relegations. In 2007 they had been demoted to the bottom tier – a level they had not played at since the days before McCall’s 1982 debut. McCall took up the managerial vacancy and set about reviving rock bottom morale. His return to City was the catalyst for getting affordable season tickets working. The crowds flocked to see if McCall the manager could replicate McCall the player.
It wasn’t to be, this time at least. McCall’s inexperience as manager showed at times. His passion for the job proved to be a hindrance when he took defeats too personally. But the expectations were also not in tune with the ongoing financial restrictions the club was grappling with. “I came in and found that I had only eight players on the books – but that those eight players took up half the budget.
“A lot of people told me when I took the job: don’t let your heart rule your head. But I remember thinking that the club had sunk as low as it could and the only way was upwards.”
Not quite. By October of his first season, little old Accrington Stanley were running riot and winning 3-0 at Valley Parade. The modest surroundings of League Two meant City were the big draw that teams raised their game against. It started off much better in McCall’s second season. An increased playing budget looked set to deliver a promotion back to League One. The wheels fell off on the final lap. A hurting McCall threatened to quit if City didn’t make the play offs. Difficult times.
“We lost Omar Daley and Joe Colbeck for spells through injury which hurt us. And it affected us. We went to Notts County and lost 3-1 and some of our fans chanted at the players ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’. And I think that affected some of our players – even the experienced ones.” The game was up at Dagenham with a 3-0 loss. At 0-0, a City goal was wrongly disallowed. “The referee came afterwards and apologised to me – I could have ripped his head off. That was the defeat that killed it off for us.
“I didn’t think I was going to come back as manager. The last game of the season there were banners of support asking me to stay. I thought it was the right time to go.
“I didn’t want to walk away and have people thinking I’d spent the money and just left. I felt it was the coward’s way out. So although I knew next year was going to be tough I stayed on. I took a 20% wage deduction because I knew that other people’s jobs were getting cut.”
A third season in charge. But City still looked no closer to promotion. By February McCall decided to stand down. “There was no pressure from the club but in early January I said that if we didn’t win three of our next four games I would go.” The final curtain came after a 1-0 defeat at home to Bury. “When the final whistle I walked in the middle of the pitch to thank everyone and I think the fans knew that was it.
“I had come to the stage where it was really affected me. I remember we were supposed to have a home game and it got postponed, and I remember feeling a sigh of relief, because it meant I had not spoiled anyone’s weekend.”
It wasn’t all bad. McCall was not a complete failure as Bradford City manager. “I have so many special memories. There were a lot of good performances. We had spirit, we had some memorable comebacks.
“As much as I look back and remember disappointments, I have some great memories as well.”
City continued to stumble without him. McCall belatedly got to prove his managerial ability at Motherwell, taking over in December 2010. Another claret and amber side, albeit small fish in the small Scotland pond. McCall got Well over-achieving, reaching the Champions League and cup finals. The best of the rest behind the Glasgow clubs. Proof he was a good manager after all.
But then budget cuts at Fir Park resulted in a poor start to the 2014/15 season. McCall resigned. A brief spell as caretaker manager of his other love, Glasgow Rangers, ended with play off disappointment.
By the 2015/16 football season, McCall’s only involvement within football was as Gordon Strachan’s assistant manager at Scotland. I met him that October as part of writing my book. His sense of frustration over his time managing City was palpable. “If I had my time again, I wish I had come in at a different time. I wish it had happened at a different time. But it was what it was.”
But he also didn’t rule out coming back one day.
June 2016. Phil Parkinson caused a shock by walking out of Bradford City. New German owners unexpectedly have to fill a major vacancy. There’s a minor backlash from supporters, worried Parkinson had been pushed away. McCall threw his hat into the ring to take charge. A family holiday was interrupted by a phone call from Edin Rahic. He flew back to Leeds-Bradford airport to meet the new Bradford City chairman. The job interview lasted five hours. He impressed enough to be offered the job.
The fourth coming.
Many fans were fearful. Disappointed. Underwhelmed. McCall had failed once. It was an appointment for sentimental rather than football reasons. The club was going backwards.
Yet McCall has proven himself a different, better manager. A stronger character. Emotion no longer clouds his judgement. Defeat doesn’t cripple his mood. Tactical sophistication has developed massively. The passion was still there. Bradford City are his club. McCall proud as punch to be back.
It has been a dream return. One that has confounded every worst fear. The team, hastily assembled, has retained the character and grit of Parkinson, whilst embracing the attacking philosophy of McCall. They run through brick walls for him. They buy into the manager’s vision. The leadership of McCall 4 on the field is now replicated on the touchline. McCall is a man comfortable in his own skin. Enjoying the pressures. Relishing the challenges.
McCall’s association with Bradford City now goes back 37 years. 395 appearances, two promotions. 189 matches in charge.
The man is the biggest legend of Bradford City legends. The most well-known and celebrated player in the club’s history. Loved, worshipped and hugely respected. His stamp on the modern history of Bradford City is huge. The emotions experienced with us are wide-ranging.
Just as it seemed the McCall Bradford City story was over, he goes and writes another chapter. This next one could be one of the finest yet. On Saturday he has the chance to deliver another unforgettable moment. You wouldn’t bet against this extraordinary man taking this opportunity.
McCall quotes taken from my book Reinventing Bradford City, which is still available to buy and features a range of interviews with City players, managers, chairmen, journalists and supporters from the last 30 years.
Play off final: Width of a Post build-up
Pushing back to where we belong by Jason McKeown
The first era of Bantam Progressivism, 1981-88 by John Dewhirst
Speaking to James Mason by Jason McKeown
The second era of Bantam Progressivism, 1995-00 by Kieran Wilkinson
Bradford City’s 1996 play off final remembered by John Dewhirst
The third era of Bantam Progressivism, 2012- by Nikhil Vekaria
The local media view by Richard Sutcliffe, Simon Parker, Jason Thornton, Tim Steere and Tom Fletcher
Categories: The 2016/17 play offs