By Katie Whyatt
In many senses, it was nothing new. The scene is the Kassam Stadium, and the script is a well-worn one: deadly cross, deadly Romain Vincelot header, déjà vu, two tickets to the gun show, nothing else to see here. Yet it was the manner, the context, that made it significant: minute four of stoppage time, 30 seconds left on the clock, Oxford having taken the lead – and, they’d assumed, the spoils – seven minutes earlier.
Adam Thompson, City’s on-loan centre half, couldn’t help but note the resolve, the stoicism, that was on show again as City fought from behind to claim a 2-2 draw against Oxford last month. “That’s credit to Bradford but their teams have always had that mental toughness,” he began. “They’ve always had that steel. There are experienced players here like the skipper. You can see [Vincelot] is the driving force who keeps everyone focused.”
Vincelot isn’t a captain in the Gary Jones mould, dragging less-willing subjects – kicking, screaming, fingers clamped into shredding soil – over the line and to points they otherwise had little business in earning, taking any dip in effort as some kind of personal affront. This is a squad, probably, given to self-regulation, self-policing. The maturity, wisdom and emotional distance of Matt Kilgallon and Nathaniel Knight-Percival sets the tone for a culture that runs counter to rapidly rising expectations: steady as she goes.
It is intriguing, then, that Vincelot’s own career reads as the opposite. There is the country he left behind, at 24, with no guarantee of a job but seduced by the noise of English football. He played for Leyton Orient and Coventry City when the boardroom cacophonies rang loudest. And now, at 31, he finds himself at Bradford, recovering from a play off final loss that is now a dull ache and with a second promotion tilt to orchestrate. Last Thursday’s Wilsden Bantams evening, with Vincelot, Colin Doyle and Rouven Sattelmaier, offered time for him to reflect on the football odyssey that brought him to Yorkshire.
He grew up living the dream of many boys, albeit from 700 miles away, in Poitiers. 1992 arrives and English football turns up the volume; three years later, Vincelot witnesses the moment that confirms to him, once and for all, that he will one day make the journey to England. Eric Cantona leaps into the crowd at Selhurst Park and the kung-fu kick ignites Vincelot’s imagination. He goes on to perfect a leap of his own, powerful, neck muscles pulsing – not an emulation of his Manchester United hero but instead a legacy of a youth of slam dunks on the basketball court. Sixteen years later, he will need it, as he tussles in the League Cup with the best player he will ever face: Luis Suarez.
He is assessed and deemed talented enough for the sport-étude programme, combining traditional school studies with high-level sports training. His timetable is tweaked: he trains at Chamois Niortais, an hour from his hometown, but remains at school until he is 18 – a structure he prefers, he says, because otherwise there is a risk no one at the football club would take the education component seriously. This way, he has a guaranteed education, a fall back beyond a tick-box exercise that other, less grounded boys were too quick to scorn, so blinded by the riches football promised. If he hadn’t become a footballer, he says, he would have been a writer.
He leaves with the baccalaureate in literature and English, akin to A-Levels. Vincelot hits the ground running and begins well, but a testing game triggers a twinge of self-doubt. He spends the week questioning himself, pondering the tough realities of professional football, becoming stronger. Four years on, he moves to Gueugnon, this time four hours from home, but the countryside is not the same. By this point, he is 23, and his feet are beginning to itch.
A contact secures Vincelot a trial at Dagenham and Redbridge. So small is the budget that the club must wait until they have lost several players before they can sign him for real – the following calendar year. Between June and January, he was jobless. Was there ever a temptation to go home? The hardest thing, he says, is explaining his decision to family and friends. Don’t you want to go back to France? Come and play football in France again, they say.
Inevitably, the language is difficult. Vincelot jokes he thought he was good at English. John Still’s pragmatic style is a jolt to the system at first, Still encouraging Vincelot to play down the line when his instincts search for a midfielder; a right back at this stage, Vincelot sees the approach works, and the team win promotion to League One the same season. He does not play at Valley Parade himself that year, but reads a match report in the paper and is startled by the attendance. He turns to the other players: “11,000? In League Two? Bradford is a big club, huh?”
The following season is testing – the club lacks the budget to strengthen and falls back into the basement division. Years later, Vincelot finds himself at Orient, in a high-performing team that will lose in the play offs on penalties to Rotherham. He finds himself at Wembley, again: this place is “the summit”, he says, and gives you a unique type of adrenaline. The following season saw Francesco Becchetti take over, and, brutally, four different managers in the hotseat. Eventually, Vincelot explains, the players formed their own gameplans, came up with their own instructions. It didn’t work – they were relegated on the final day – but at least, he said, they were trying something.
When discussing Bradford City’s pre-season, Vincelot’s affection for Leyton Orient is crystallised. As he reflects on a gruelling training camp in Austria and the German beer festival at which they finished the week – on how Doyle and McMahon ended up on stage (“Beer,” Doyle says, matter-of-factly) – they consider the uniqueness of the weekend. Wondering if that degree of fan-player closeness is more conventional in Germany, I ask Sattelmaier if he has ever seen anything like that before. He says no, he hasn’t – not like that. Vincelot interrupts: “I have – at Leyton Orient,” he begins. It was routine for the players and fans to meet in the club bar after the game, and to drink together. He hopes now, with new owners in place, Orient can begin to climb the leagues again.
So to Coventry. On arrival, Vincelot was aware of the Sky Blues’ off-field issues. He remembered how, as an opposition player, he would visit Sixfields and see the ‘home’ fans camped on he hill in protest at SISU’s ownership. When Vincelot arrived, Coventry had just moved back to the Ricoh. He sees Tony Mowbray, “a good manager”, in place. He meets Joe Cole – who he later selects as the best player he has ever played with – and is surprised at the superstar’s humility: he sees Cole introducing himself to everyone, all handshakes, no ego. He feels, genuinely, that this is a sleeping giant about to awaken, and the team start strongly. Crucially, however, they fail to strengthen in January.
The latest twist in an already nomadic tale, Vincelot finds himself at Bradford, one more big name in the summer of Josh Cullen and Matt Kilgallon, and the rest is history. He begins in a centre half role that he makes his own, marshaling the backline with a nonchalance and flair that embodies his team’s quiet guile. There is something of the same about him this season in his midfield role, an assured head to screen defenders, but also something a little more bruising, thundering into headers on the edge of the box, three goals in three at his most prolific.
As the night closes, Vincelot remarks how, when you become a manager, you make a choice about your demeanour, your relationship with the players – but it has to be authentic, has to be you. He likes Stuart McCall’s closeness and notes it works because the players are professional, and can be trusted on a looser leash. Managers with younger, less disciplined squads might find a more distanced approach equally successful, and their method is just as valid. He believes McCall has created an environment where players have all the tools for success.
Is there anything unique about Bradford, compared to other clubs? Sattelmaier, like many, lists the atmosphere, the fans. Vincelot smiles. “The rain,” he says, half-deadpan, half-chuckling. But he continues, turning to his audience: “you [the Bradford City fans] make up for it. I can put up with the rain for you.”
Romain Vincelot, Colin Doyle and Rouven Sattelmaier were speaking at a Wilsden Bantams event.
The Wilsden Bantams are hosting an evening with Dean Windass and Ellis Hudson at the New Inn, Thornton, on Thursday 5th October. Doors open at 6.30pm and the event begins at 7.30pm. Supporters can pay on the night: there is a £5 admission fee (under 16s free).
Categories: Midweek Player Focus