By Jason McKeown
Stuart McCall is a big fan of the idiom not to get too high with the highs, and too low with the lows. His first spell in manager, a decade ago, was characterised by his failure to live up to such values. But the ultimate success of his second spell could be defined by this motto.
After back-to-back, rank defeats to the towns of Yeovil and Northampton, the fear that the sky is falling in on Bradford City’s season is the talk amongst supporters. Such difficult moments demand cool and positive leadership, a calm response and a sense of perspective. As fans, we are emotional creatures and burying ourselves in a pit of gloom is an understandable reaction from many. But it won’t win football matches, and it won’t get Bradford City promoted.
Stuart McCall can influence both of these. He can lift his players. He can get them back to winning ways. He can guide City to a play off finish. He can the Bantams back to the Championship after a 14-year absence. “I’m not personally going to let this all crumble now. I’m going to lead from the front,” he tells the Telegraph & Argus’ Simon Parker. Defiance. Determination. Decisive.
In the minutes that followed the final whistle at Valley Parade on Saturday, Stuart McCall sat before me in the press box, answering the questions of Jason Thornton live on Pulse radio. I’ve been privileged to be invited to co-commentate on several City matches this season, and witnessed McCall and his mood after games – sadly, most of them defeats. Sometimes he has looked emotional. On more than one occasion he has been hurt by supporter criticism. But on Saturday, he looked calm, measured and in control.
McCall battered away any invitation to air excuses. He accepted the criticism. He wants to shield the players. Better him than them, he evidently believes. Just before he came up to the press box, a couple of supporters in the main stand came up and told us how fans behind the dugout had been yelling abuse at McCall during the second half, leading to him arguing back. The two fans were shocked and appalled by what they saw from their fellow supporters, and were anxious to wait back and speak to McCall to apologise, and to reassure him that most fans are behind him. “He’s a legend” they both said, in unison.
Yes, he is. And he also needs the support from everyone at Bradford City.
As the post-match debate was filled by McCall and his tactics against Northampton, it’s worth putting ourselves in the managers shoes – really, stopping to think about just what his options were – to appreciate the challenge in front of him.
He won’t make excuses, but McCall went into the game robbed of Charlie Wyke through injury. He was joined on the sidelines Omari Patrick, Adam Thompson and Tony McMahon, who joined long-term absentees Colin Doyle, Adam Chicksen and Alex Jones. Matt Kilgallon and Nathaniel Knight-Percival had just returned to fitness to start – the latter looked rusty all afternoon – whilst Jake Reeves and Dominic Poleon were only fit enough for a place on the bench after spells injured.
In other words, McCall went into battle without a fully fit centre forward, both of his first choice full backs, and his preferred goalkeeper.
All season long, it has been evident that Bradford City have a very good core of 14-15 players, but not a huge amount of first team-ready options behind them. It has meant that injuries to key players have been felt that bit keener than usual, and – in a more slow, corrosive way – a loss of form hasn’t always resulted in a player losing their place in the team. The competition for places isn’t as high as we have seen with other Bradford City squads of recent seasons. You don’t often look at the bench and find a clutch of names desperately unlucky not to be starting.
Without an out and out centre forward on Saturday, McCall had to ditch the 4-3-2-1 system that had worked so well in the victories over Oxford United and Fleetwood, and go with two numbers 10s – Paul Taylor and Shay McCartan – up front. Both players like to come deep for the ball and make things happen outside the box, and in the first half City were badly lacking a focal point. Even when everyone is fit, no other City striker is in the same class as Wyke.
In McCall’s shoes, what would we do differently here? He might have considered starting Dominic Poleon, but he isn’t a target man who can hold up the ball. And his fitness has looked an issue all season. Earlier in the campaign, Poleon was playing with a high intensity and would run himself into the ground, having to be substituted around the 70th minute. Having not started a game for over a month due to injury, it would have been asking a lot for Poleon to begin the game and play in that way. And he certainly wouldn’t have lasted the 90 minutes.
We can agree or disagree with McCall over his choice of front line, but we must all acknowledge that he had a very limited hand to play with.
Northampton followed the Plymouth Argyle blue print of sticking men behind the ball and congesting the midfield. City, who by the stature of their own players against a tall Cobblers side, struggled to play the ball through. Alex Gilliead was double-marked out wide. City tried to go more direct and to get the ball into the final third, where they could start to play football. They began to carve open some opportunities, but without a number nine in the box it was a struggle to finish off moves.
The game swung on two moments involving Romain Vincelot and John-Joe Toole. First, from a City corner, Vincelot got clear of his marker Toole and fired a volley at goal that was brilliantly tipped over by Richard O’Donnell. A few minutes later at the other end, it was Toole who got away from Vincelot at a corner, and he was able to plant a header past Lukas Raeder, who was badly positioned. A poor, poor goal for City to concede. And with Northampton’s defensive set-up, the tempo was only going to be slowed further.
Which brings us onto McCall’s most contentious decision of the day – the half time switch of Knight-Percival up front. Something had to be done. City couldn’t continue with no focal, physical point to their attack. And, as McCall would later explain, moving Vincelot back into defence meant City had a right footer on the right hand side of defence, who can play the ball long more effectively than Knight-Percival, who was demonstrating some value in his alien position.
Madness by McCall? Perhaps, perhaps not. But again we come back to the lack of options. In the dark old days of Peter Taylor adopting Luke Oliver as a centre forward, three and sometimes four strikers were sat on City’s bench, and we all scratched our heads. McCall had only Poleon, who would eventually come on and play up top with Knight-Percival. It wasn’t pretty from City, but at that stage, and in the difficult circumstances, we’d have all taken a point.
What unfortunately happened next was down to another issue – the lack of experience in the full back positions. Jacob Hanson has played right back for the last two games, but evidently isn’t ready yet to play in the first team. He made a mistake, and Northampton were two goals to the good. Without McMahon and with Luke Hendrie having left the building, McCall had little choice but to field Hanson. New signing Callum Guy, a midfielder, can play right back, and was on the bench. But Guy had only been signed less than 24 hours earlier. Saturday may well have been the first time he met his new team mates.
Again, it is a decision we can agree or disagree with McCall on, but opting for Hanson is far from a difficult one to understand.
Every contentious decision McCall took on Saturday could be traced to a lack of options. He had to make some close, difficult choices. Anyone who argues that McCall has lost the plot – as some have – need to take a good hard look at themselves. Faced with these choices and the facts, we might have done things slightly different to McCall. But it wouldn’t have been by much. There simply was little anyone could do.
McCall won’t make excuses, but that doesn’t change the fact he was down to the barest of bones.
All of which has quickly turned the focus and pressure onto Edin Rahic and Greg Abbott. The chairman and head of football recruitment are working hard to bring in players during the transfer window. They can’t happen soon enough.
Even during more peaceful times, the January transfer window is full of supporter angst over whether the club can and should strengthen. But on this occasion, it is clearly absolutely fundamental to City’s season that new signings are made. The squad needs more depth. It needs more quality. Everyone connected with the club needs a lift. The sight of a fresh face, holding aloft a claret and amber scarf in front of the pitch, would provide that boost.
The big lesson of the last two transfer windows is to reserve judgement until the window closes. A year ago James Hanson left and many of us – myself included – were upset. But in time, the owners would be justified in trading in the club’s longest serving player for Charlie Wyke. In the summer we said farewell to a number of key players and panic once again set in, but by the time the season kicked off all had been replaced.
We have to wait and see, and to trust in Rahic and Abbott that moves of careful planning behind the scenes will pay off. The urgency has clearly grown since Saturday, but panic buys rarely work out. It’s not a case of signing just anyone, it has to be the right people. Meanwhile, McCall has to get the team through this sticky patch with depleted numbers, knowing that whatever happens in the three games to be played before the window closes, there is still a long way to go.
It isn’t ideal. Of course it isn’t. But Charlie Wyke is the proof that good things can come to those who wait.
Until the cavalry arrives, the players need to pick themselves up and – to use the cliche – go again. There are noises coming out of the camp that morale has been damaged by the club’s decision not to sign Luke Hendrie, and the fact he mysteriously departed the camp just before the Yeovil game. Certainly, aspects of the last two performances would back this rumour up. Some players don’t fully look themselves.
The Tony McMahon situation is also a curious one. With the player out of contract in the summer and unlikely to be offered new terms, you can understand why his head might be turned by interest from Scunthorpe. McMahon’s performances this season have not been at the same high level as seasons gone by, but his leadership and in-game ability remains crucial to a young team that can at times be naive. City’s dreadful record when he doesn’t play is also a sign of how vital his influence remains.
If a replacement can be found, the temptation to cash in might be understandable for all parties, but Filipe Morais’ resurgence at Bolton last season, after City allowed him to join their promotion rivals, is a cautionary tale. Losing McMahon and strengthening a fellow promotion contender would be a massive blow.
McMahon needs an arm around the shoulder. To be told how much he is loved. To be fired up into re-energising the players around him. However downbeat the camp might be feeling right now – and whatever the reasons behind it – they have to pick themselves up.
It may already be happening. The positive, on Saturday, was just how the players on the field never gave up the ghost. The unedifying and – frankly – embarrassing sight of thousands of City fans filing for the exits long before full time was in contrast to the commitment on the field. They kept going, and were unlucky not to score sooner.
Paul Taylor’s last strike might have come too late, but amazingly City almost snatched an unlikely point in the final minute of injury time. They deserved to have that moment, and so too did the fans who stuck by them by staying until the end.
For all the debate, for all the fall outs, and for all the finger pointing, one fact remains completely and utterly indisputable: the League One table. It feels like we are in a crisis, as though we are fighting relegation or slumped in mid-table. Yet City are fifth in the league, only six points off the automatic promotion spots and six clear of seventh place Portsmouth.
Fifth in the league. Inside the play offs.
It is a strong position to be in. For all the change in the summer, for all the budget reductions, for all the home defeats, for all the injuries, for all the uncertainty over transfers, and – as his contract runs down – for all the questions about McCall’s very future, City are in with a fantastic shout at promotion. They are three points better off than at this stage a year ago.
Whilst Rahic’s enthusiasm is all well and good, talking up City’s automatic promotion prospects isn’t helpful – unless a marquee signing or two is suddenly made to justify it. They are competing with sides in Wigan and Blackburn who are comfortably outspending everyone, and who already have strong squads and massive playing budgets to begin with. To stay in the play offs for the rest of the season would be a great achievement. City’s own budget possibly isn’t even top six, and yet they haven’t been outside the top six all season.
And that is to McCall’s great credit. He has his detractors in the crowd, but his record since returning has been exceptional. He is operating under a recruitment system where he has only limited say in the incomings and outgoings. He has the pressure of working for a chairman who – for all the talk about building the club for the long-term – is clearly fiercely ambitious to get promoted this season. And he has being able to maintain City’s play off position for 18 months.
If, or when, McCall leaves, he will find that his employment prospects elsewhere have been greatly enhanced by his second spell at the club he loves so dearly. And he will be a tough act to follow.
“I’m not personally going to let this all crumble now.” These are words that we should all take on board too. It’s easy to be lost in doom and gloom and to fear the worst. But we are fifth in the league. The transfer window hasn’t closed. And if we all stick together and keep believing, this season can have the glorious ending that was painfully lacking a year ago.
In James Mason’s words, “We’re in this together. Back the owners, back Stuart and back the players who represent us.” Let’s please, not get so low with the lows. There is a long, long way to go in this season. The idea of throwing in the towel now makes no sense.