The summer of unexpected change

Image by Thomas Gadd

By Jason McKeown

“It would be nice if we could keep the majority of the group together. I wouldn’t be over-confident of doing that but we’ll see. We need strong leadership now, from myself as a manager and from the owners. We can’t let the club just fall back into a lull. We need to kick on.” Stuart McCall, 22 May 2017

Stephen Darby has been released by Bradford City. James Meredith has turned down a Bantams contract offer to sign for Millwall. Billy Clarke is on the brink of signing for Charlton Athletic for a sizeable fee. Rory McArdle is heading to Scunthorpe United. Mark Marshall is a wanted man and rumoured to be contemplating joining Meredith at Millwall. Tony McMahon is said to be attracting the interest of Wigan.

If last summer felt like a monumental task rebuilding Bradford City, this close season isn’t going to be much easier. Highly experienced, successful City players are leaving the building, potentially leaving behind only seven senior professionals. Just five of the 11 players who started the play off final against Millwall are likely to still be at the club in August.

So far, Stuart McCall’s stated aim of keeping the squad in tact isn’t coming to fruition. As Neil Harris celebrated Millwall’s promotion a few yards away from a dejected McCall at Wembley, the secret to his success wasn’t lost on the City boss. “Neil was in this position last year. But the thing for him was he kept the squad together.”

What makes the situation difficult to understand is that City don’t appear to be fighting very hard to keep hold of their out of contract players. It has become an open secret that the new deals offered were not exactly enticing. Particularly to players with a relatively strong market value who – thanks to their efforts in claret and amber over recent years – have attracted the interest of other clubs.

McArdle’s imminent move to Scunthorpe is a case in point. The T&A reports that the Iron have been able to offer the long-serving City defender terms that are 50% better than what’s on the table from the Bantams. Less than two years ago City were gazumping Scunthorpe to capture the services of Paul Anderson – now it seems the tables have turned.

Of course there is a cautionary tale here – Anderson sat on big money at Valley Parade and contributed little – but City know what they are getting with McArdle. How important he is. To allow him to leave to a promotion rival is really disappointing.

Billy Clarke’s switch to Charlton makes more sense. The Irish striker enjoyed a terrific first season at the club but never fully rediscovered his form after a lengthy injury lay off in 2015/16. Unfortunately, that absence out the side coincided with him signing a new contract that he subsequently struggled to justify. Just 11 goals in two seasons doesn’t tell the full story of what Clarke gave to the club, but certainly underlines his flaws. Getting a near six-figure sum out of Charlton is pretty sensible business.

But if McMahon and Marshall join him in leaving the door, and if Matt Kilgallon and Rouven Sattelmaier turn down their contract offers, there is a huge summer ahead for Edin Rahic, Stuart McCall, Greg Abbott and James Mason. The transfer committee have their work cut out not simply replacing some very good players, but finding the improvement needed to achieve promotion next season.

Is the money there to do it? It would be puzzling if there wasn’t. Over their first year in charge the German owners Rahic and Stefan Rupp showed they were prepared to splash out, capturing Romain Vincelot, Alex Jones, Charlie Wyke and Jacob Hanson on transfer fees. They did recuperate some money from the sale of James Hanson, but it was still a net spend level that hasn’t been seen at Valley Parade since the Premier League days.

Going into this summer, the club’s coffers will have been boosted by the TV money and gate receipt share from appearing in the play offs and going to Wembley. Huddersfield Town’s promotion to the Premier League has triggered a £250k windfall from the Nahki Wells deal. The club has sold 19,000 season tickets. Former City youth player Andre Wisdom is on the brink of leaving Liverpool, with the Bantams rumoured to have a 20% sell on clause.

These and other factors don’t make City flush with money. Stefan Rupp’s pockets only go so deep. But to rational Bradford City fans, there is every reason to believe the club should have a good transfer budget for next season. It has been suggested City had the 10th biggest budget in League One last season – making the 5th place finish an over-achievement – and the opportunity is seemingly there to build on that.

Which brings us onto the club’s strategy. At WOAP we have written extensively here and here about Rahic’s philosophy of signing younger players with the potential to grow and either deliver success or have a resale value. Darby (28), Meredith (29), McMahon (31), Marshall (30) and Clarke (29) do not fit this profile. I understand the club is willing to spend bigger money when it is required, but it would appear that offering decent contracts to older players doesn’t fit the strategy.

There is of course a logic to this. Meredith, Clarke and co aren’t going to get better than they are – if anything their abilities will diminish over the next couple of years. And if the club has aspirations of staying in the Championship, these players would likely have to be replaced very quickly.

As Edin told the T&A today, “It’s a long-term plan. We’ve just signed young players, Omari Patrick, Tyrell Robinson, Callum Gunner and Dan Pybus, and why should we rush now?”

There are, clearly, some big risks to this approach. Firstly, it threatens to drive McCall away from the club. He made his views clear post-Wembley that he believed it was important to keep the squad in tact. That is now looking a remote possibility.

We’ve all heard the countless rumours that McCall has left City. The club denied this was the case to me the day after the play off final, and only today repeated to me that McCall has not resigned. He is on holiday at the moment, recharging his batteries. Nevertheless McCall’s limited say over recruitment will be a difficult situation to manage at times. We are reluctantly left watching this space in terms of the manager’s future, until stronger assurances are made in public.

The other risk is that by waving goodbye to some really experienced players, the club is losing a really big part of what has made it successful. This was a strong dressing room with a clear culture and set of values. It was originally instilled in 2012 by people like Meredith, McArdle and Darby, and has been embraced and developed further through McMahon, Clarke and Marshall.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that there are still some very strong characters at the club, and their leadership is going to be absolutely crucial over the months ahead.

Finally for Rahic and Rupp, there is the risk of the club going backwards. Having come so close to restoring Championship football to Bradford, a season of transition developing younger players will be a hard sell. The pair have an ideology for building a football team that is very noble and worthy. But to supporters what will always matter above everything is a winning team.

Those who know Rahic tell me he is a winner who struggles to tolerate failure. So it would be inaccurate to suggest he would be happy with a mid-table campaign from City next season. At this, still relatively early stage in the close season, it’s unfair to make judgements or reach conclusions. A long-term plan, if done right, would go a long way to reducing this close season panic about transfers that seems to take hold of this fanbase every year. “We have a certain budget and we want to do it properly, so we have to find the right ones,” Rahic added in the T&A.

Time will tell, but continuing the club’s wonderful progress over the last five years is vital. They have to get these moves right, or face a rough ride. The transfer philosophy is a very noble one that, when you look at the rest of English football, has a massive chance of succeeding. But it needs to be gradual to truly work. As the club changes who it is, we must not lose sight of what has made it strong over these past five years. Yes, signing kids is a great idea. But please don’t overlook the value of experience.

Ultimately the mood of the club has to stay positive for success to be achieved, and winning football matches is the only surefire way to deliver that. Having 19,000 supporters cheering City on next season is a wonderful proposition that could make a massive difference. But having 19,000 supporters booing the team and directing anger at the boardroom would be quite the opposite.

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Categories: Opinion

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8 replies

  1. In the short term I worry about the coming season but I ‘get ‘ and understand we have to look at the 5 & 7 yr plan . . . The UK is in crisis because we bought into a culture of ‘ I want it all – I want it now’ from Maggie et al (I personally lost £200k of my pension pot in 2007/8 😳) so I support our new owners – let’s plan long term

  2. The other interesting question relates to season ticket sales. Is it coincidence that season tickets went on sale when things were looking very positive. Imagine if they were going on sale at the moment with so much negativity and so much uncertainty. Stuart’s comments are sometimes surprising and his comments this week particularly worrying. If the comments were linked to a season ticket sales campaign they would have done little to encourage such sales.

  3. If a lot of the rumours are true at the moment, it’s worrying times at Valley Parade. Whilst no one person is bigger than the club, the owners should be working with Stuart McCall and allowing him some say on transfers.

    Whilst we don’t want to be spending money that we don’t have, I can’t understand why Scunthorpe United are offering a better deal to Rory McArdle.

    Do WOAP know if the club offered players such as Meredith a new contract at any point during the 2016/2017 season?

    Successful teams usually have a mixture of youth and experience so whilst it’s good to hear the owners wanting to buy and develop younger players, we also need players like Rory McArdle and Tony McMahon.

  4. “But it needs to be gradual to truly work. As the club changes who it is, we must not lose sight of what has made it strong over these past five years. Yes, signing kids is a great idea. But please don’t overlook the value of experience”.

    This captures it perfectly for me, Jason. I work in a field where building cultures within organisations is paramount to success, so maybe I’m more sensitive to what’s happening at VP just now.

    Indeed, I’m less worried about the surface level finances of this – without knowing for sure, my assumption is that the owners do have money (not least from the various windfalls you mention) and could match contract offers elsewhere in L1 if they wanted to – but I am more concerned about the disruption of the culture at the club, especially in the dressing room.

    It has taken 5 years to slowly build up a mentality at the club that set very high standards and professionalism across several campaigns. The total absence of these standards on and off the field – and the lack of backbone that so often went with it – is what characterises the Administration periods for me.

    Yes, clearly the financial side was hugely significant. But you can’t ‘buy back’ a culture of high-standards, you have to let it grow organically and nourish it. By all means trim off some of the more tired looking branches, but keep the roots strong! That was the essence of McCall’s plea at 5.30pm on 20 May and I wonder how attractive it is to start from scratch in building up that culture with a bunch of players he’s (allegedly) had little say in bringing to the club.

    With a core of strong and experienced characters now leaving the club, the dream is surely to have a pacy, creative and youthful team surrounding Vincelot in the middle of the park, barking his orders and dictating play in a way that maintains these standards. If that works, it could be exhilarating!

    The nightmare scenario is that we have an inexperienced, inconsistent and youthful team who – through no fault of their own – lack the character to cope with bad runs of form / results and the rot sets in. The crowd turn, McCall struggles, and we all hurtle over the cliff edge… taking 5 months to undo 5 years of culture building.

    I’m not one to leap to conclusions and I continue to trust in our Chairmen and the good people at the club they have around them (especially Abbo and Mason). Never reach a conclusion with imperfect information. We wait and see.

    But I am concerned that in seeing players solely as assets to be traded, rather than personalities that create and sustain a certain culture that others can then adopt, we may be losing more than we realise the “root and branch” approach this summer.

  5. The rebuilding policy of our owners may bear fruit, but at the moment I am sure that the majority of supporters fail to understand why our most influential players (Marshall, McMahon, McCardle & Meredith) are apparently being allowed to leave “en bloc”. As others point out we seem to be losing character, experience and personality essential elements of team culture, not to say players of considerable ability.

  6. If what you say is true Jason and we are receiving nearly 100k for Billy Clarke WOW. Either Charlton have more money than sense or we are great negotiators.

    I would have thought if there was a transfer fee it would be between 10k – 25k but more realistically go on a free to free up the wage bill further.

    Gutted if McArdle goes because I think he has one good season left and at his time of life, signing a 1 year contract doesn’t make sense so thanks for all you’ve done and good look for the future.

    Not too bothered about McMahon or Kilgallon to be honest but would love Rouven and Marshall to re-sign with us but regarding Marshall was that his career defining season or has he more left at 30 years old?

    Im genuinely excited to see what the future brings and with a lot of the big earners gone that frees up a lot of space for some quality signings.

    I trust the chairman but am sad that In Stuart’s interviews it seems like he is constantly in a battle with them regarding contracts and keeping players etc so hopefully it all sorts itself out in time and we have another great season.

    I believe bringing on younger pros 22-25 but we need a couple of more experienced players who are in their prime 27-29 too.

    Im not worried even though losing players is unsettling but genuinely excited by what is happening and what will happen

  7. There seems to be a lot of doom and gloom, but based upon the chairman’s track record (albeit short) I remain very optimistic. Its just the nature of the game now that short contracts are the norm in the lower divisions, so the cycle of rebuilding seems a revolving door. I suspect several of the players we’ve offered new contracts to, would have left even if we got promoted. If it means they can secure larger incomes and longer contracts wouldn’t you do the same.

    There is a hell of a lot of talented players who have been released/out of contract and potentially fringe players in the top leagues who are still up for grabs (the next Cullen/Burke etc). The silly season has only just begun. I am sure come Aug we’ll have a starting 11 we can be proud of. Keep the faith!

  8. I agree with you regarding the youngsters I’m in some people’s words an old nurse I have years of experience if you set up a service with newly qualified nurses the service would struggle the same applies to the city team I understand that giving further long contracts to older players probably isn’t the way but surely we need to keep this experience to mould and teach our youngsters. The more mature players did a sterling job for us this last season I can’t see their abilities faltering anytime soon. All we had to do was tweak the team some what. We are risking a lot of pressure on these young players. I can’t help worrying a little and hope that our owners won’t turn out like a few of the foreign owners. Written by an experienced hopefully retiring in the next 5yrs nurse

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