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.