By Jason McKeown
Stuart McCall’s fourth spell at Bradford City looks like it is nearing its end and it’s utterly, utterly heartbreaking.
A fifth defeat on the trot, this one, against Wimbledon, pure humiliation, have ripped up a season of promise and bred a toxic atmosphere not experienced since the bad old days of struggling at the foot of League Two. Incredibly, City remain in the play off spots and undoubtedly still have everything to play for. But the January collapse has exposed cracks in the strategy and – to an outsider – the club appears to be falling apart.
Where do you go from here? A must-win game, where nothing short of 100% effort was supposed to be guaranteed. Yet the players carried on their worrying second half disintergration at Rotherham, going to pieces at the slightest sign of adversity. Wimbledon, struggling near the bottom and far from world beaters, couldn’t believe their luck.
A promising start was halted by conceding in dismal fashion, as City wrongly assumed the ball was out and stopped. The Wimbledon goal was against the run of play, but the response was chaotically pathetic. Players treated the ball like a grenade and did everything they could to hide from it. A mini rally after half time – where Dominic Poleon had an equaliser controversially ruled out – faded all too quickly again.
Wimbledon rattled in three more of the easiest goals they will ever score. The second a result of Callum Guy’s lack of positional awareness, playing in an unfamiliar right back role. The third after some shocking play from Nathaniel Knight-Percival; only for Rouven Sattelmaier to outdo him in the hopeless stakes, by allowing a tame shot to squirm, painfully slowly, over the line. The fourth goal came when City’s offside trap failed. Defensively, City were a disgrace.
Just what is going on? It’s no secret morale in the camp has taken an almighty hit. The catalyst said to be the club’s decision, hours before the FA Cup tie with Yeovil Town, to not complete the signing of promising loanee Luke Hendrie. Whatever happened in the hotel where Hendrie was preparing with the team that day, it hit his team mates hard. A squad that would rarely lack effort was suddenly stripped of character. The losses have stacked up.
But for any injustice the players might feel, about the issues around recruiting new players, the reaction has to be far, far better than this. Where are the leaders? Who is putting their body on the line? Why aren’t they rallying each other? Romain Vincelot, Knight-Percival, Jake Reeves, Matt Kilgallon and Nicky Law have not looked after their own performances, or held others accountable. Paul Taylor and Charlie Wyke have dipped. Sattelmaier has been dreadful.
The problem with City’s approach of having a small amount of senior pros, backed up by youngsters, has been the lack of options to change things. Certain players don’t deserve to be in the team, and haven’t for some time. But who’s pushing them to take their places? And where on earth, for that matter, is Tony McMahon?
Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that, in the first season since the final History Makers departed, the old never-say-die attitude has disappeared. But here’s a message to the current players: you don’t have that history with us, and same bond with the crowd, that allows your mistakes to be readily forgiven. If you think your performance today was acceptable, find another club quickly. Because this isn’t what Bradford City has been rebuilt on.
We celebrate our recent heroes of the past, endlessly replaying the great games and talking about their heroics. No one expects this lot to beat Premier League teams, but you want to see the same basic standards that saw recent City teams soar so high. The current players should relish, rather than fear, playing in front of 20,000 people. Phil Parkinson always prioritised character in his recruitment. Perhaps that valuable lesson has been lost.
Finally, the cavalry has started to arrive in the shape of four new signings. All but Kai Bruenker were probably meeting their new team mates for the first time today. They will surely start next week, and McCall has spoken about more recruits to come.
No one doubts how hard the club has worked to get in new faces, but there is no obvious reason why this week’s new arrivals couldn’t have been recruited sooner. The points lost by City this month, and the sledgehammer effect on momentum, could feel even more costly in May. If City fall short of the play offs by a few points, the inquest will quickly revisit this period.
The midweek statement from the club, where Edin Rahic acknowledged his failure to support McCall with new signings, was welcome. Although it has done little to quash the growing feeling he is on the brink of sacking his manager. He backed McCall, but it wasn’t exactly 100% faith that was expressed. He might feel entitled to feel disappointed by McCall in private, but it helps no one to be anything short of fully supportive in public.
This time four years ago, City were going through an even worse run of form – the infamous one win in 21 under Phil Parkinson. The then-joint chairman, Julian Rhodes, sensed his manager had lost the dressing room. But responded by issuing a public rallying cry via the media in support of Parkinson, which helped to turn the season around. Go back even further and Geoffrey Richmond would forcefully support the likes of Chris Kamara and Paul Jewell in tough times, even though he was angrily questioning them in private.
Speculation undermines a manager. It is within Edin’s control to kill it.
Of course, he might very well want to change his manager – and the expiration of McCall’s contract in the summer offers him the opportunity to do it. But he cannot do it now. Not with the very public mess of this transfer window that he is as accountable as anyone for. I know plenty of City fans who don’t rate McCall as manager and didn’t want him to come back. But even they can see the current situation of having such few options, especially as full back, makes the situation very unfair on the manager.
A sacking of McCall will be quickly followed by an Edin backlash. No one wants to see that. It doesn’t help anyone.
And for all the problems, City’s league position makes it incredibly harsh to make a change. Only three games of McCall’s 19 months in charge have seen City outside the play offs. And that’s with all the change and upheaval to the squad. How would sacking Stuart look to the rest of football? What would it do to City’s prospects of attracting a high calibre replacement?
Especially when you throw in the McCall emotional factor. The club legend. The most popular and iconic player in Bradford City’s history. Worshipped and adored. These factors don’t make him unsackable, but my goodness they play a massive role in how you treat him.
McCall played 395 times for City over two unforgettable spells. He came through the youth ranks. He inspired them to promotions. He gave absolutely everything on the field. He commanded incredible respect and awe from supporters lucky enough to witness these times. One day, there will be a statue of him outside the ground.
McCall’s own father was injured in the Valley Parade fire. He and his teammates visited survivors in hospital. Attended the funerals of those who tragically lost their lives. And each and every year, he makes it to Centenary Square for the annual memorial service.
His connection with Bradford City is huge. The way he conducts himself is exemplary. The bonds he holds with supporters run deep. And anyone who fails to recognise this could face some pretty heavy consequences.
McCall is not beyond question. Criticism for recent results is understandable. But any debate over his future is not for now. Let’s have a sensible and measured discussion in the summer. And if he is not to get a new deal – or if, indeed, he doesn’t want to stay – let’s make sure he leaves with the dignity he deserves. His final public appearance at Valley Parade does not deserve to be a hurried rush up the steps of the Main Stand, after getting sent off by the referee.
And in the meantime let’s get behind him. Speaking before the game to local radio, Rahic explained that he wants the club to be united. “To divide people from the outside is totally rubbish because we have to bring people together.” I completely agree. And that begins with the chairman. This is the moment for our leader to be a true leader.
Let’s get some even better January business completed by Wednesday, let’s give McCall the squad he needs. The players need to show some fight. Stop hiding behind each other, and start playing for their manager.
There is a long long way to go, and anyone who wants to give up should get off the bus. We can do this. We can turn this season around. Back each other. And back Stuart.