By Jason McKeown
Just 10 weeks have passed since the gut-wrenching agony of Bradford City’s play off final defeat to Millwall. The pain and misery experienced at Wembley on that rainy afternoon ranks as the most disappointing moment following the club since the dark days of pre-2012. It has taken some getting over.
A terrific season was on the brink of a glorious ending, in the shape of second tier football for the first time in 13 years. Instead, Steve Morison’s late winner ripped up the romance, and the chances spurned on the day by Billy Clarke, Rory McArdle, James Meredith and Tony McMahon ensured enough what-ifs to torture ourselves with over the summer. Everyone connected with Bradford City was hurting in the wake of losing to Millwall.
And as we prepare to start all over in the quest for promotion out of League One, the manner in which that despair is channelled will go a long way to determining the chances of success this season. Millwall – defeated in the play off final themselves a year earlier – showed it is possible to pick up and come back stronger. But the two play off finalists in seasons before that – Swindon and Leyton Orient – have fallen considerably in the aftermath of their own Wembley heartache. Hangovers must be swiftly shaken off, or the damage can prove considerable.
It’s a long season, and signs of lingering football trauma won’t necessarily be evident from the start. Swindon and Leyton Orient began their post-play off final seasons reasonably well before falling apart. Conversely, Millwall had a dreadful start to last season and were near the bottom four in September, before getting their act together. Whatever happens at Valley Parade over the opening months of the season, calm heads are needed in good times and bad. Only strong leadership and a collective spirit from top to the bottom will get Bradford City into the Championship.
Making the situation more difficult has been the unexpectedly high player turnover at Valley Parade. The stated objective of keeping the 2016/17 squad in tact ultimately failed, with the departures of Mark Marshall, Rory McArdle and James Meredith adding to the club choosing to allow Stephen Darby and Billy Clarke to leave. Josh Cullen – so influential over the past 18 months – won’t be returning for a third spell on loan. Six of the Wembley starting XI are gone.
City have only ever won promotion nine times in their history. Each team who achieved this glory in living memory – the sides of 1984/85, 1995/96, 1998/99 and 2012/13 – have assumed immortality status. They are continually invited back for supporter events and the like. The class of 2016/17 so nearly joined this illustrious company. They fell just short of greatness. Becoming a modern day Nearly Season team instead.
But despite the rhetoric from some quarters that the outgoing players are no great losses, some major holes have been left behind. James Meredith was widely considered to be the best left back in League One, taking his place in the PFA team of the year. Josh Cullen looks destined for a career in the higher divisions, and was such a driving force last season. Mark Marshall proved a match winner on several occasions, and such influence should never be taken for granted. Rory McArdle did miss half of last season and the defence performed just fine, but the centre back’s contribution over the past five years was immense.
Some really big characters, and high-performing players, have left the building.
In their place, we have seen the momentum of the owners’ recruitment strategy grow in pace. Tried, tested, but ageing is largely out. Young and hungry is in. Significant sums of money have been spent buying players – more than at any time since those six weeks of madness in 2000. The frustrations of seeing popular players leave meant some unkind things were said by some towards Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp earlier in the summer, but no one can accuse the pair of of austerity.
Yet the incomings have been curious. They are not obvious signings, where the club seemingly faced significant competition from others to secure the signatures. There seems to be a clear approach of looking for gaps in the market, of bringing in players seemingly undervalued or ignored by everyone else. It could prove to be incredibly inspired pieces of business – the type that would force other clubs to revaluate their own transfer policies – or it could be fraught with short-term issues.
Of the pre-season games I’ve seen, Jake Reeves is by far the pick of the incomings. Others have so far looked short and prompted questions over if their quality matches those they replace. Friendlies can be misleading though – Nathaniel Knight-Percival looked dreadful pre-season a year ago, and got on fine – and we must all reserve judgement.
Just as much of City’s progress last season was judged against Phil Parkinson’s Bolton side, this year there will be extra interest paid towards Scunthorpe United and Charlton Athletic. Rightly or wrongly, the feeling remains that City could have kept McArdle and Marshall with a bit more willingness. If City struggle to repeat last season’s promotion push, and Scunthorpe and Charlton are leading the way, the Tweets and message board grumbles will write themselves.
Football fans don’t do long-term well. Our moods can swing wildly on individual matches. Even if City’s recruitment approach means the club takes a short-term step backwards, to be stronger in the long run, it would be a hard sell to ask supporters to tolerate a mid-table season. The club has just successfully sold a record number of season tickets. If they get it right this year, massive things could happen. But if they get it wrong, there could be negative consequences too.
So there is pressure on the new signings to hit the ground running, and to live up to the incredibly high standards set by their predecessors. There is pressure on the owners to lead change and to provide a calm front, especially if there are moments where supporters struggle to buy into their vision. There is pressure on Greg Abbott to be proven that his judgement in the transfer market is as strong as it has been for the past 12 months.
There is always pressure on a football manager, but it is a curious case for Stuart McCall this season. He was clear in his position of wanting to keep players who subsequently left. Although he has been given the right to veto any signing made this summer, the collective transfer committee approach dilutes his responsibility over whether new players prove to have been good or bad pieces of businesses.
If City were to struggle and the new signings fail to impress, it will be difficult for supporters to make McCall culpable in the manner other City managers in the recent past were criticised for bad transfer business. In a way it is a strength of the committee approach that it becomes difficult to unravel things and pin the blame on one person. They succeed and fail together. Reality might not play out that way – sometimes the only option on the table for owners to tackle a poor situation is to change the manager – but McCall has a strong hand and a clear backing from supporters.
Right now, his popularity levels amongst fans match – if not exceed – peak moments of Parkinson’s time at the club.
McCall goes into this season with less than a year on his contract left. Earning another deal may depend on his ability to fashion a promotion-winning side from the revamped squad, or at the very least show he can develop his new-look charges. McCall has always looked strongest as a coach, successfully getting exceptional performances out of players who buy into his ways, many finding a new level of performance (see file name: Marshall, Mark). He gets people running through brick walls for him, and he’ll need to sprinkle that magic dust once again.
If anyone is feeling apprehensive about this season, it cannot be McCall. He looks every inch a man who buys into the philosophy and who looks excited about the challenges ahead. Whatever the rumours of the summer about his own future, there’s no doubt a line was drawn and everything seems more harmonious as a result.
To succeed McCall will need his dressing room to be as strong as it was before. The old guard has largely moved on, placing a greater reliance on the likes of Romain Vincelot, Nicky Law, Matt Kilgallon, Colin Doyle and Tony McMahon to set the standards and to ensure the incredible team spirit of the last few years is retained.
McMahon is particularly vital here. Now the club’s longest-serving player, he first arrived at Valley Parade just weeks after the FA Cup adventure of 2015. He just missed out on the party. But he’s been around the scene long enough to soak up and embrace the Bradford City way that led to such incredible endevours against Chelsea, Arsenal and co. He has clearly added to the collective spirit on and off the field. And now he has to be one of its leaders, if it is to survive the latest transition.
Because that is what makes this season so interesting and potentially defining. Since the summer of 2012, this club has been on an incredible ride back up the leagues. But now, every single person who was the initial catalyst for such a change in fortunes has left the building. The chairmen, the manager, the coaching staff and now every single player. First hand experience of initially turning around this club is no longer there to draw upon.
If Bradford City can continue to embrace change and keep this era of Bantams Progressivism going, it will look even stronger than we dared imagine. Because it means the infrastructure and culture of the club is robust enough to survive the loss of the forebears. That its rise and rise is way bigger than any individual, no matter how important they are at certain stages of the journey.
A successful season will ratify Rahic and Rupp’s approach. It will prove that you don’t have to just do the same things better than others, you can succeed through being bold and different. And if the young players can blossom and lift City to new heights, the club has a stronger playing squad than ever. People who can continue to grow and take the club with them, or at the very least be sold for a profit that is reinvested into the next crop of promising young talent.
This season is exciting, scary, intriguing and concerning all at the same time. We dive into uncertainty, with no one really knowing how it will go. But if we keep sticking together and embrace change, and if we retain sight of what has made this club so special to be a part of these last five years, big, big things can happen.
10 weeks ago we felt as low about football as it is possible to feel. But now it’s time to get back on the rollercoaster and dream big about how high we can go – and how much we could enjoy this ride.
Categories: Season Preview