By Jason McKeown
This time 10 years ago, a rookie football manager had just overseen five consecutive defeats that emotionally ranked as one of the lowest points of his career. That man was Stuart McCall, whose fledgling days managing his beloved Bradford City had quickly turned into a nightmare that was really hurting him.
A particularly gut-wrenching, last gasp Friday night defeat in Morecambe meant a 9th loss in the first 13 games of his reign in the dugout. It would get better, but his first foray into management would ultimately end in heartbreak.
How far McCall has come. A decade on and with a world of experience later, the 53-year-old has grown into an accomplished manager. His ability to coach and develop a football team – his tactical acumen and level of self-confidence – have come on leaps and bounds. Managers come and go in football so quickly. A high proportion never get more than one job. Relativity few get to do it for more than a decade. Stuart McCall is a more than capable hand. He is amongst the best managers in League One.
And it is that mental toughness and greater grip of perspective which continues to make such a difference. Those five straight losses of a decade ago set the pattern of long winless runs during his first spell in charge. McCall struggled not to take set backs personally, and found it difficult to lift a dressing room. He felt defeats too hard, casting a shadow of gloom over his players that inadvertently chipped away their confidence. Tough lessons were absorbed and put into practice at Motherwell, Rangers and Scotland. McCall walked back into Valley Parade 16 months ago a different, tougher manager. His considerable strengths – which were often evident the first time around – now carry even greater influence.
There have been no losing runs this time around. And here against Oldham, Saturday’s disappointing loss to Bury was quickly put to bed with a decent point. 63 league games back at the helm, and just 10 losses. To McCall’s great credit, so far there haven’t been any back-to-back defeats over his second spell as manager.
In the press box on Saturday, I got to see first hand McCall’s post-defeat demeanour. He was frustrated but not flustered. Disappointed but not downhearted. The game was gone, we move on, was the message. The sky hasn’t fallen in. The opportunity to put it right was quickly available and that was his focus. If he was anything like as measured and positive in the dressing room to his players, it’s little wonder they quickly bounced back tonight with a hardworking, committed performance.
Paul Taylor personified that fearless approach with a wonder goal just three minutes in. He picked up the ball from deep, and arrowed a powerful shot into the roof of the net at the Kop end to settle any anxieties. Now beginning to build his fitness, Taylor is showing what an effective and dangerous player he can be. A chequered career of blowing hot and cold always suggested he had goals and performances like this in him. McCall has form of getting consistency from the inconsistent. It is going to be fascinating to observe what he can get out of Taylor over the coming months.
Oldham were never going to roll over. They rocked up at Valley Parade with four wins on the bounce that included Saturday’s late win over the pre-season title favourites, Blackburn Rovers, and were loudly backed by an outstanding travelling support. Midway through the first half, an incisive Oldham attacking move left Eion Doyle clear on goal and he finished smartly. Oldham might still be in a lowly position, but with a streetwise front two of Eion Doyle and Craig Davies they will surely keep climbing the table.
Indeed this ranked as the best Valley Parade away performance of the season so far, as Oldham attacked in equally bold manner to the home side. It was end to end stuff at times, but City continued to give as good as they got. McCall elected to play a 4-3-3 formation with Omari Patrick and Taylor brought into the side to flank Charlie Wyke. Nicky Law and Jake Reeves were better than on Saturday, but still short of their best.
With Adam Thompson slotting in as right-sided centre half in place of the rested Matt Kilgallon, City were able to find more joy from playing it out from the back. In the final third they looked a real threat, if somewhat lacking a clinical edge. 19 shots on goal over the 90 minutes, but criminally only two on target. Bad habits from last season are creeping back in.
But still, this was a brilliant game to watch. A blood and thunder spectacle, with neither wide giving an inch and playing with an edge. It threatened to boil over in the second half with a string of bad challenges testing the temperament of players. Romain Vincelot failed in that regard, albeit in the face of heavy provocation. The Frenchman lost his head and had to be substituted for his own safety. Though no one lost the plot like the referee, Chris Sarginson. After the players embarked on a mini brawl and some overstepped the mark, Sarginson completely confused himself and wandered from player to player, trying to decide who to book. The crowd mocked him mercilessly. Astonishing scenes. Pure comedy gold.
Both teams could have won it, with Nathaniel Knight-Percival going close for City late on. But a draw was the right result. City’s first home tie of the season, but a credible one given Oldham’s strong form.
Ahead of Saturday’s visit of Charlton there is clearly still work to be done for McCall and his players. If Bury last Saturday was a 6/10 performance, this was probably pushing a 7. The midfield isn’t as dominant as it has been looking, and the quality of Tony McMahon’s set pieces continues to be missed. Up front, Taylor has surely bagged himself a starting spot alongside Wyke, but recent form from the other strikers is patchy. It is over a month since Poleon, Patrick or Alex Jones scored.
But in McCall, there deserves to be widespread confidence in his ability to find the answers. And that he will continue to drive the club forwards in the positive, attack-minded manner witnessed since the start of last season.
Despite the rumours that circulate from time-to-time, McCall is highly regarded by the owners. He has had to adapt to a different working environment that many other British managers would struggle to accept, such as the transfer committee approach that impacts on the players coming and going. But he has ultimately bought into the approach. Most of the players signed since the summer of 2016 have fitted the aims and pressures of the club, and McCall’s work on the training ground and in picking the team and tactics is getting the best out of them.
Financially City do not have the biggest budget in League One, but so far they’re competing at the top. Third in the league, averaging nearly two points a game. This is an exciting time to be a Bradford City supporter.
McCall is my biggest footballing hero. The most passionate, committed and driven footballer I’ve ever seen – and ability wise amongst the best of the best. He gets what this club means to us supporters. I wish he could have played for us forever, but having him managing us successfully is the next best thing.
I was in the away end on that dreadful night at Morecambe 10 years ago. It hurt like hell as a supporter, but that was nothing on how McCall felt. For him to go so many ups and downs at City, and to now be able to enjoy success at the club he gave so much to, is as special as it gets. Long may it continue.