By Jason McKeown
Stuart McCall used the build up to Saturday’s derby victory over Doncaster Rovers to talk down Bradford City’s promotion chances, but there was a section of the Valley Parade support already doing that for him.
The surprise midweek home defeat to Fleetwood Town, four days earlier, sparked an emotional reaction from many fans. But amongst many intelligent and well-constructed criticisms aired, there was some over-the-top disparaging comments directed towards the manager and individual players.
Even though McCall outlined the fitness reasons for why Charlie Wyke was left out the starting line up, from a minority the blame for the defeat continued to be attributed to the manager for leaving out City’s number nine. McCall’s typically warm pre-match comments about a former player, Jordy Hiwula, were held up as demotivating for City’s own strikers – a strange claim based on zero evidence. When you read players singled out for abuse on social media – including 21-year-old Omari Patrick – plus arguments why City cannot possibly be promoted under McCall, you despair at the lost sense of perspective. It was just one game.
And Saturday’s instant response showed that – within the club and amongst most supporters – there is an assurance and composure that can take the Bantams a long way. There was no sign of panic. No traces of fear or apprehension. A routine home victory was delivered, and City climbed back up to third with a formidable 23 points from 11 games. Crisis, what crisis?
The great irony was that City played worse in their victory over Doncaster than they had in defeat to Fleetwood. It underlined that Tuesday had not been as poor or as hopeless as the Fleetwood scoreline suggested, and that the breaks which went against City were narrow. Fleetwood – and their shrewd manager, Uwe Rosler – played a clever game no doubt. But had City scored early in the second half when they began it so well – or had Romain Vincelot made more of a glorious chance at 2-0 – it could have been a different story.
As it was, they paid the price for individual mistakes and from continuing to pour forwards to salvage the situation. Nothing more, nothing less.
There was no need for the alarm that emanated from some quarters. And, encouragingly, the management and players maintained their composure and assurance. For McCall especially, this is a hugely commendable string to add to his bow. One that underlines just what an excellent manager he has become. His first spell in charge was undermined by his poor reaction to defeat and struggle to hide his emotions, which evidently influenced his players. This caused a minor set back to quickly escalate into a full blown crisis. A couple of defeats turned into six or seven. It proved so damaging.
In 60 league games in charge over his second spell, McCall’s City have lot only nine games. And crucially none back-to-back. Every time they’ve had a bump, they’ve picked up and got going again. On Tuesday, McCall was clearly upset and hurting by what he had seen; but he talked in a defiant, measured way that will have transmitted into the dressing room in a positive way. A disappointing night, but we quickly move on.
And McCall has a group of players whose biggest strength so far lies in their mental toughness. Performance wise, there are some obvious holes. City don’t dominate possession like they did last season, and their expected goals for and against record looks more like a relegation-threatened side than a promotion-challenging outfit. On Saturday against Doncaster, the visitors registered several opportunities on goal. Opposition managers will increasingly prepare their players for games with the Bantams by pointing out they will get chances. That there is space to attack.
The lack of a right-footed centre half means Colin Doyle can’t play it out from the back, so City are more direct than they were. Their second half scoring and conceding record is vastly inferior to what they’re achieving over the first 45 minutes, where they’ve not conceded a goal since the opening day of the season. There’s a huge reliance on Alex Gillead and Charlie Wyke – highlighted in the latter’s case midweek – that means an injury or suspension to either could be signficiant.
Performance-wise, the class of 2017/18 look inferior to the 2016/17 – but points-wise the current crop are two points better off, and have won two more games, at this stage of the respective seasons. This, above all else, demonstrates their character and courage.
During a period of high player turnover, and big holes left by the loss of considerable experience and ability, the excuses were there to accept a backwards season. But so far, the new team have shaken off such concerns. They continue to display a streetwise talent to win football matches. It could take them a long way. Imagine what this team is capable of when they actually start playing well?
McCall’s previous biggest weakness has arguably become one of his biggest strengths. The club continues to move forwards, despite growing expectations and an ever-present pressure (where set-backs can be overblown by some supporters). They will have to improve their performances, but they’re right up there in a league table that is increasingly settling down and indicating the pattern for the months ahead.
This is what continues to make Bradford City successful. There is a template to success, devised in 2012, that still serves them well. At a club like City, a big fish in a small pond, the highs and lows are felt that bit sharper. What might be deemed an acceptable drop in standards at other League One sides is treated differently at Valley Parade. But the club has developed a resilience and immunity to set backs that, in the past, would kill seasons before the autumn leaves began to fall from the trees.
With the considerable turnover over this period – new owners, manager, coaching staff and players – it shows the positive culture within the club runs deep. That the Bradford City way of doing things is understood and implemented at all levels. Like icebergs, we only see around 10% of what’s actually going on at Bradford City – the public face of the club on a Saturday. But under the surface, there can be little doubt City employ good staff at all levels, working together for the same cause.
Bradford City probably wasn’t a fun place to work at last Wednesday morning; but everyone has been there before and knew what was required to get going again.
As fans, most of us have learned that too. There will always be silly outbursts from some when things go wrong. But most City supporters were intelligent enough to recognise the shortcomings of Tuesday night, and understand it didn’t require a drastic overhaul of the strategy.
I know several people who, a year ago, weren’t happy about McCall’s return as manager, and who retained doubts for months. But many of these people now recognise he is a much better manager than before, and have got behind what he’s trying to do. In the past, a larger portion of City fans have overreacted to defeats, and this has added to the pressure. But we’ve seen this club recover so many times since 2012. There’s now a greater level of confidence from the stands.
The biggest positive about Saturday was that it wasn’t a surprise to see City bounce back so quickly and positively. It’s ingrained in the club, the idea of winning together and losing together. Everyone continues to pull in the same direction. The knocks – Millwall at Wembley, Walsall a month ago, Fleetwood last week – are absorbed and we quickly move on. Keep doing these right things, and success will continue to snowball.
Beating Doncaster in such ordinary fashion won’t be remembered when the club’s fate is determined next May. But it’s calm afternoons like this which demonstrate just how far Bradford City has come over these past five years.