What is the aim here: to build a club or to get promoted?

Image by Thomas Gadd

By Jason McKeown

At Bradford City there remains a credibility problem. A summer of rumour and innuendo has continued into the new season, with stories swirling of a disconnect between manager and owner. Then there’s a transfer strategy that – whatever happens between now and the closing of the August window – has thrown up issues and exposed gaps. To us regular supporters, the situation appears chaotic and confusing. Half truths are given credence, and the Chinese whispers have a platform to develop.

It is still incredibly early days into the new season, but a lack of calmness amongst supporters fuels the fears of a club lurching towards crisis. A photo of Edin Rahic looking glum at Walsall flies around social media, and 2+2 = Stuart McCall is on the brink of the sack. The team’s unconvincing performances to date hint at a summer of transfer business that has left behind a weaker squad than the one which came so close to promotion last season. Everything feels disjointed, and there’s a fear that the new foundations could fall apart before they have time to settle.

As supporters, we can all take our own readings from the situation on and off the field, and we each have our own strong views on the manager and the way the players have performed so far. But perhaps what needs to bring us altogether – fans, management, players and owners – is to discuss and debate one fundamental question: what, exactly, are we trying to achieve this season?

And that comes down to whether our objectives are short or long-term. In other words, is this season meant to be an all-out assault on promotion, or about building a squad with the capability of taking the club forwards in a slower but more sustainable way? Are we as a group prepared to take a step back in pursuit of ultimately moving forwards? Or should we just look to keep pushing on, focusing on today rather than tomorrow? Is it possible to do both?

It’s not an easy question to answer. For the last 13 years we as a fanbase have harboured an ambition to get back to the Championship. Even during some dark times over the last decade we clung onto that dream. We were so close to achieving this goal last season. We could allow ourselves to believe we were on the cusp of second tier football. It was a genuine challenge for all to come to terms with another year of League One this season, never mind accepting an even longer stay.

And it also comes on the back of considerable progress on the field, with the club’s strong rise since 2012 not something anyone wants to see reversed. The scars of the past remain vivid. We learned the hard way it is easier to dip than to keep raising the bar. It is a hard sell to accept inferior results and performances this season on the premise we are building for the future. Because in the short-termism of football and poor results like at Walsall, it is very difficult to keep sight of that.

What if the new collection of players aren’t good enough to lift the club forward over the coming years? I think we’d all accept Bradford City being promoted in 2018/19 if it could be guaranteed, but blowing a 3-0 lead at Walsall underlines that nothing is ever assured in football. A well-thought out strategy is still only a strategy, rather than surefire success.

So does that mean we should be going all out for promotion? Both Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp have at separate points over the summer gone on record stating that is the aim. League One is arguably weaker than a year ago, decent sums of money have been spent in terms of transfer fees, and the arrivals of Jake Reeves, Dominic Poleon and Shay McCartan point to a continuation of last season’s recruitment approach of targeting high-performing players from other lower division clubs.

This is not a repeat of the infamous close seasons of 2003 and 2011, when City’s public desire to target young players led to them bringing in people with no Football League experience – and a subsequent struggle. Whatever the merits of Reeves, Poleon, McCartan, Adam Chicksen and Paul Taylor, they all have proven ability at this level. It is not unrealistic to expect them to settle in quickly and deliver strong performances, rather than needing half a season to get up to speed. On this basis, another play off push shouldn’t be out of the question.

During the summer, Edin Rahic told a German website that he has a goal to bring Premier League football to Valley Parade in 10 years, and that “I’ll stay until we’re first in the league”. He admitted heavy disappointment at the way the team performed at Wembley in last season’s play off final, but was positive about the campaign as whole. “We’ve brought the club legend Stuart McCall as a new coach and found players with whom we’ve played the best football in 20 years. Attractive, attacking football, not the terrible kick and rush as before.”

Such comments seem to be geared at the long-term, and Edin has very rarely said anything that other than building over years in a sustainable manner. “We do not want to grow millions, but grow organically. With young players, who see Bradford as a jumpboard”, is a typical comment from the joint-chairmen. Assuming he really does believe in what he says, it seems he should be the last person panicking about the indifferent start to the season. They certainly aren’t the words of someone who would consider sacking McCall after a handful of games.

Put simply, you cannot allow lots of experienced, high-performing players to leave in the summer, replace them with younger players, talk about long-term sustainability, and then demand instant promotion. That doesn’t mean the club shouldn’t be trying, and it will be natural to feel disappointed if City struggle to replicate or better last season. But everyone can see that the squad isn’t as strong as a year ago, in the short-term at least. It seems grossly unfair for any of us to expect McCall to instantly make more out of less.

It matters to consider if we’re thinking short or long-term, because it should help to define how we judge this season. The aftermath of the Walsall draw saw a succession of social media posts criticising McCall, and we’ve all been down this path before. Once the window shuts especially, there will inevitably be shorter patience afforded to poor results. It could get bumpy for McCall, and that seems unfair. If the short-term outlook prevails yet the manager is working with a group of players constructed for the long-term, McCall will be unfairly judged and any push for him to leave would be unreasonable.

Because everyone knows that this is not McCall’s squad of players. He has a say in all the incomings but he’s not making decisions on his own. The Gordon Greer episode underlines this. There are no signs the wage budget has been increased on last season; yet with the welcome return of the Development Squad there are a lot more players in the building. The budget has been stretched further to accommodate all the incomings. McCall clearly has to be okay with this approach – it has been made clear from day one the route the new owners wanted to take – but in other circumstances he would probably do things very differently.

Image by Thomas Gadd

The Walsall comeback underlines this point. At 3-0 up City should have course seen out the game, and McCall’s substitutions have been blamed for the collapse. There might be truth in that, but the bench itself was very weak with very little experience and game management know-how for McCall to call upon in such a situation. So was the loss of a three-goal advantage the fault of the manager or the transfer committee?

Some fans have begun calling for McCall to go now, but by and large these are the same people who didn’t support him last season. I have no issue with anyone retaining this viewpoint, but I do question the merits of anyone turning on McCall now, based on events over the summer and at the start of this season.

McCall is a Bradford City legend, and any parting of ways this season would reflect really badly on the owners, who made an inspired decision appointing him 14 months ago. Even taking away all the emotion of what McCall means to Bradford City supporters, for a manager to leave after taking the club so close to promotion (and then after half of his team subsequently left) would be brutal. Rahic’s public comments suggests he would understand that too, and so we can only hope rumours remain rumours.

In the summer of 2016 it felt like the third era of Bantams Progressivism was at a crossroads, with the departures of Mark Lawn, Julian Rhodes and Phil Parkinson throwing doubt into the club’s ability to keep moving forwards. Edin Rahic, Stefan Rupp, Greg Abbott and Stuart McCall more than filled the void, and should be proud of what they achieved last season. But now it feels as though we have reached another crossroads. The Rahic strategy is now heavily ingrained, but the unexpectedly high number of summer departures is clearly causing disruption. Every one of the high profile departures was a Phil Parkinson signing who had contributed to the club’s rise. Only one Parkinson signing, Tony McMahon, remains. This is truly a Rahic/Rupp/Abbott/McCall Bradford City now. The transition is firmly over.

Had the club been able to retain Rory McArdle, Mark Marshall and James Meredith, coupled with the summer arrivals, a promotion push might be a more realistic expectation. But with all the upheaval, Bradford City look caught in-between trying to build a successful football team and trying to build a successful football club. That has muddied the priorities, and means strong leadership is required to prevent the new era prematurely falling apart.

If this season is about trying for promotion, but with a clear policy in place that building for the long-term is the priority, that could be a vision we can all buy into. If such an approach was to prove successful, Bradford City could ultimately make it to the Championship with a much stronger structure that can lead to further progress. After all, Bolton and Millwall – the two sides who pipped City to promotion last season – have struggled to make the step up in the Championship so far. If we’re going to get promoted just to get feebly relegated straightaway, we’ll end up in a worse position compared to getting those foundations much firmer now.

Bradford City can be a strong Championship club, and last season suggests they have the right key personnel off the field to make it happen. Edin Rahic’s vision for the future is something to be applauded, and we all need to work together to make it successful. Even if it takes longer to come to fruition than we’d like.

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Categories: Opinion

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17 replies

  1. Good thought provoking article Jason. I’ll state now i’ve never been wholly convinced by McCall as a Coach/Manager and i feel he gets cut a lot of slack due to his standing as a club legend which is fair enough but he isn’t above criticism. That said, although from day one Rahic & Rupp have said they have a long term strategy, we get mixed and contradictory messages at times from them. Last year James Mason was very vocal on their behalf but this season he has been silent to the point of non existence. I certainly agree with the policy on the Greer situation, that was strong management and despite all the rumour mongers and those supposedly ‘in the know’ how accurately is the transfer policy and how it works really known to us supporters? If McCall doesn’t like how it works, why did he take the job apart from sentiment? Surely he or his agent asked questions in his interview and surely it was stated by Rahic how he wanted the policy to work. Its no good bleating to the press when you’ve agreed to work under the said conditions. Again, this is a policy that works for thousands of clubs the world over and its only in Britain where it is fairly alien to both supporters and managers etc.

    I’d like a clear and concise statement showing a united front from all concerned as it appears a lot of good faith is being withered away by rumour and innuendo. Rahic & Mason have said they will only speak when there is something solid to say or announce which leaves McCall slightly hung out to dry at times but its basic PR to keep your customers/supporters informed and in this era of social media, its even more vital to keep people informed of even the most minute snippet of news about the club. I understand Rahic when he says this is the ‘German’ way and they have bought the club hopefully with the best intentions but we need educating as to the ‘German’ way, we’ve been doing things the ‘English’ way for over 100 years!.

  2. Great article as always Jason. The problem we have as a club is self inflicted. We are repeatedly told what a big club we are, huge fan base, how we should be in the Championship etc etc. but to be honest this season have lost out to Bury & Scunthorpe on signings.

    If the overall aim is, as reported to make a profit on these young players, then why can’t we do that by getting into the Championship first, having a more attractive proposal to a better standard of talent to come to City and make millions instead of £100,000s? The alternative is the long standing business model of Crewe, which lets face it has lead them to be marooned in League 2 for years now. The chairmen need to understand that they need to invest in players that will get us to that required standard first otherwise, I feel this season has the echoes of Jacko’s final season, the Archie Christie “Development Squad” and a squad of players no whee ready for the step up to League 1/challenging for the Championship. Let’s hope I’m wrong.

  3. Maybe we should believe what our owners say. They say, I think, that they are building for the long-term. This is alien to English football fans like me, because we have always expected owners to have deep pockets, and to fork out money on short-term signings and loan players, then sack the manager when the so-called policy fails. Possibly, Rupp and Rahic are different. Obviously, Saturday was a shock, and the lack of McArdle and certainly Vincelot cost us dearly.
    I remember at this stage last season Sheffield United and Bolton fans were very unhappy at the poor starts they made.
    I have no idea how City will fare this season. I suspect not as well as last or the year before, but none of us yet knows.

  4. Great article Jason; extremely thought provoking. I think there are a number of issues that can be resolved that would calm the fans down. Your right we need to know what the plan is for this season, we have had conflicting messages from the board about where we are going, after Wembley we were going for automatic promotion, but our recruitment looks like it is going to take time for progression to happen. Communication is extremely important in these days of instant social media, rumours can quickly spread in a matter of minutes. James Mason needs to impress on Edin that our overall strategy for this year needs to be out there.

    Recruitment Strategy, I personally don’t have a problem with more heads being involved in a collegiate approach. It would appear that Stuart was not impressed with letting our more experienced players leave and young players with less experience coming in. Whatever the strategy it needs to be communicated to the fans, and more importantly everyone must speak from the same hymn sheet.

    We can live with being in league 1 for a couple of years, but I think as a long supporter of City since 1967 we need to know what we are trying to achieve both in the short term and long term.

    At the moment there is considerable confusion and anxiety about what is happening, silence is not an option.

  5. I think promotion this year is already beyond us. No, Jason – I’m not a doomsday merchant, but guardedly realistic. From our performances thus far, I can’t see any lightening quick change of fortunes in the immediate future – Certainly not September. I’ve seen little if any evidence to suggest an alternative viewpoint.
    I know things can change, but with each passing game of under performing, so only too goes another opportunity to catch or keep up.
    Looking ahead toward the bigger picture of planning for the future …… OK ! I will be more convinced if next years recruitment starts in January, with superior youngsters who granted may cost a fair wedge. A failure to adopt that coupled with what may yet be a disappointing season – Then I can only see more of the same for 2018/19. That is not a sign of a club in transition, but one which is static, and going nowhere.
    But still, until our current activity ceases on 31st of August, we’ll continue as supporters, on an equal footing – in that not one of us knows exactly where we are going or how long it will take to get there. I fear too that some may view your article as you sitting on the fence, whereas the rest of us fully understand you’re merely trying to cover all bases. Whether you play the Devils Advocate or not – any evidence will reveal itself in the fullness of time. In the mean time, Supporters must remain both patient and true, even if ‘the plan’ is more laboured than we had hoped or expected.

  6. We are in Aug. Give them to Oct before we pull the knifes out….

    • Hi Harry, I vaguely alluded to that somewhere in my post immediately above. The major concern for me is after 10 / 11 games, will we have enough time to impose ourselves, or even be equipped to do so ? 🙂

  7. When Rahic and Rupp bought the club, I remember Rahic stating that he’d rather see a 4-4 draw with our young players scoring than a scrappy 1-0 win. Well, that’s not too far from what he got on Saturday, so he can’t complain. That’s the thing when you bring young players in – they are going to make mistakes, be less consistent, occasionally throw 3-0 leads away. I’d hope that the younger players, especially the three that came on as subs, learnt a lot from what happened at Walsall and longer term it might benefit them. A bit of solidarity from the chairmen with the players and management when these results inevitably happen as a result of their strategy wouldn’t go amiss either.

    Of course, short term, Saturday evening, it just left fans feeling pig-sick.

    If the longer term is more important to the club, then the club need to not only unequivocally state it but also convince the fans to tolerate results like Saturday’s, to allow the younger players chance to become the players we hope they will be. And that’s a hard sell.

  8. There are more questions than answers as Jimmy Cliff famously sang!
    Mixed messages too it would seem.

    It’s true that the new owners have made statements about their intent, and even if the cerebral activity in some fans heads is still calling for them to spend millions on players, which was never going to happen, but unless clarity is there, then some fans just don’t seem to grasp it.

    Presumably the new owners sanctioned the season ticket campaign and an attempt to get 20k supporters.
    By inference at least many fans took this as an indication that there would be an attempt to improve on last seasons play off ‘success’ by gaining automatic.

    Previously they had stated their strategy was slow sustainable growth.

    Unfortunately a season that falls short will make season ticket sales more difficult next summer.

    Have we been duped or are they just not very good at club- supporter communication.
    Have they misunderstood lots about English football.

    Do they not understand that momentum plays a major part in taking a team forward.

    More questions. Few answers.
    It seem that the days of forums are a thing of the past at Valley Parade.
    Even the much maligned Geoffrey Richmond understood that communicating with the fans was important.
    In conclusion supporters would accept slow sustainable growth if they were told that was the way forward. If they were told. Not mixed messages. not rumour and not Chinese whispers.
    There are more questions than answers.

  9. I’ll start with the negatives and hopefully end on the positives.

    For me the problem started last season with us not tying down McArdle, Meredith and Marshall in January.

    Marshall might not have signed but Meredith in the T+A said he would be happy to sign a contract and im sure McArdle would have.

    As mentioned above the chairman’s comments are quite contradictory but I think they have done well so far especially since he’s now in a new country.

    I love Stuart as manager but his record of singing layers isn’t that great as we would be another dads army. The transfer committee is a great idea especially with Greg on it.

    This team will finish top half but not in the play-offs in my opinion but in 2 seasons time we will be a great team if we can keep them together. 2 seasons is a long time and a lot of people cant wait that long but im willing to have patience for the bigger picture.

    Im a bit concerned James Mason has gone quiet as last season he was very vocal when all was well but nothing this season so far.

    All in all im happy at the moment and if we need to take a step back to go forward then so be it.

    As long as everyone is on the same page we should be good.

    • Just want to add. What a loan signing we have made. This signing will strengthen our defence up 10 fold. Excellent defender and an international too.

      He could be the difference of top half finish to play-offs. I know Bury fans are gutted he is leaving so could be a real coup for us just like the time we signed Vincelot near the deadline.

      Well done to the board and Greg and Stuart on this signing as well as Bury for letting him leave

  10. “Had the club been able to retain Rory McArdle, Mark Marshall and James Meredith, coupled with the summer arrivals, a promotion push might be a more realistic expectation. But with all the upheaval, Bradford City look caught in-between trying to build a successful football team and trying to build a successful football club.”

    Two sentences that capture the present situation perfectly for me, Jason. On the first one, I think the transfer committee is an excellent idea, drawing upon the European model, and should help to eliminate the individual mistakes of manager/scout by crowding decision-making.

    It is a separate issue about the senior players who have been allowed to leave, as this would seem to have come up against a different set of principles – i.e. not paying good money / offering any more than 12 months to 30+ year old players. I don’t think Greer was the answer – he was cumbersome at Guiseley pre-season, got turned far too easily and didn’t appear to be all that vocal – but McCall’s instinct to recruit experience was absolutely correct.

    Allowing McArdle and Meredith to leave (along with Darby) without proven and experienced replacements already in the building was a key mistake this summer. No club hoping for promotion should allow two such senior players to leave without securing solid cover. It was a gamble and it hasn’t paid off. As Wayne says above, it should have been sorted in January.

    Taking one gamble is obviously a risk. But it sits alongside another significant gamble that points to part two of the above sentence. In trying to shape a new kind of football club, we have taken another gamble on younger players shouldering the responsibility of expectation at VP.

    Yes we know they are going to be ‘hit and miss’ – and Jason’s point about all but Omari Patrick having considerable lower league experience is of course spot on – but we are now asking six or seven new players to bed in to a new team, a new style of football, and a new ethos in the relative vacuum of experience in the dressing room and out on the pitch.

    Vincelot’s absence hasn’t helped here, but with one of the division’s meanest defences broken-up in the summer, we are left asking these “pacy, exciting yet inconsistent” new additions to try to play open, free-flowing football without a solid foundation at the back to protect them.

    It’s looks like a gamble on top of a gamble.

    I personally think the midfield, and certainly the attack, is far stronger now than last year. I have every faith in Greg to unearth real talents for us. We might miss Marshall’s pace and Clarke’s know-how, but – even allowing for our frustrating ‘sidewards’ tendencies – we are far more freely-attacking and scoring already, even before strike partnerships have had genuine time to develop.

    Sadly, the defence seems to have been neglected, perhaps assumed to be a lesser priority because all the focus following last season has been on producing the “attack, attack, attack” football that Rahic wants to help deliver more goals… but we are very, very shaky as a consequence and Stuart knew early in pre-season that we would be.

    With Vincelot returning and Chicksen to throw back in there too, we can already be stronger. But unless two experienced centre halves somehow emerge before this week’s window closes, I think we already have our answers to all of Mark Neale’s questions above.

    It’s time to be patient, embrace the inevitable ups and downs of youth, and hope that the Chairmen’s longer-term vision does produce that stable and competitive Championship club we all want to be when we finally escape the darkness of the third floor in search of the light of the premier penthouse…

  11. If it’s a long term project why did Edin look so dejected after the game on Saturday?
    I’m sure hardcore fans will be patient but more recent fans will not renew their season tickets unless we have a good season.

  12. I believe the chairman has said they want to build a team that can play and develop together for 2-3 years; and that is what they’re doing with the signing of young players.

    They’ve obviously also said that promotion is their goal this season, but of course it should be.

    The two aren’t mutually exclusive, but having younger players can also cause issues.

    After all, you can never win anything with kids…..

  13. Fantastic article along with some relevant points by the readers.

    I agree with the point about why weren’t Meredith, McArdle and Marshall offered extensions to their contracts last season?

    A lot successful teams contain a combination of youth and experience.

    Before a football was kicked this season, I predicted to friends that I believe that we will finish mid-table come May 2018.

    It takes time for new partnerships to develop on the pitch but unfortunately too many of our season ticket holders will expect another top six finish this season.

    A lot of the WOAP readers are probably more far sighted than many other Bradford City supporters so if you’re reading these words, I think that like me, you’re more likely to accept a mid-table finish this season, renew your season ticket and give your support for years to come whatever division we are playing in.

    Let’s hope Devine, Hudson, Pybus, Patrick and others are given the time and opportunities to develop in a claret and amber shirt like McCall was in the early 1980s.

  14. If we are planning long term, we also need to learn from the contract situation this time. We have a number of senior players out of contract the end of this season (Doyle, Knight Percival, Vincelot, Dieng, McMahon, Law). We could very well be having the same discussions this time next year, if all those were to leave and be replaced with youngsters too.

  15. You make some interesting points Jason about this apparent inconsistency between building a club for the future and keeping fans onside with short term results. There are mixed messages floating around and one of them (and a significant one in my opinion) was what Stefan Rupp said just after the play-off disappointment. He said at the time that for the coming season, an automatic promotion slot should be the aim.

    For me, this created an expectation in many fans’ minds that the aim would indeed be building on last season’s squad in order to create one which could indeed make that final step. Unfortunately, the recruitment over the summer doesn’t appear to have matched that expectation. I’m as sad as the next person to have seen Marshall and McCardle leave VP but they shouldn’t have been irreplaceable. I wasn’t surprised to have seen Cullen go out on loan to a Championship club but I was expecting somebody of his calibre to have replaced him. But to date, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that the current squad is that much better than last year’s or that our team preparation has taken a step forward or that our tactics have improved somewhat or that our game management and substitutions are providing a better edge. In short, I’ve seen nothing to warrant any more than a mid table finish.

    Returning to Rupp’s post play-off statement, that may well have been said in the heat of the moment and may have been a genuine heart felt reaction to the Wembley disappointment. But it has never been corrected publicly as far as I’m aware and it therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that it is now what some fans expect. If however, that is no longer what the owners and the management team are anticipating then it would help to build bridges for the fans to see some acknowledgement of that from the owners.

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