By Jason McKeown
It is almost exactly eight years to the day that a home defeat to Bury prompted Stuart McCall to walk away as manager of Bradford City. History might be about to repeat itself. If McCall isn’t sacked this week, following another disappointing defeat, it seems highly unlikely he will survive a home defeat to the bottom club Bury without receiving his P45.
And if, and when, that does happen, it will be a wholly unfair way to treat the City manager. Because in a season of so many mistakes from those charged with running the club, and those on the field representing it, the idea that one man – and one man only – should carry the can for everyone’s failure is unjust. And, ultimately, it would do very little to fix the fundamental problems that are painfully prevalent at Valley Parade.
Of course there is massive, massive disappointment right now. Six straight defeats, and counting, is hugely damaging to the season. Everyone associated with the club, from the chairman down to supporters, has every right to be hurt and angry by what has taken place. But to recover, we’ve got to get to the heart of the problems. And when you look closely at just what is going wrong, it becomes more and more difficult to understand how the manager – any manager, indeed – can be singled out.
There are three core problems. Firstly, the morale within the dressing room, which has nosedived following the events in and around the Yeovil Town FA Cup game, where Luke Hendrie was forced to leave the hotel hours before kick off, with the club opting out of making his loan deal a permanent one. Hendrie, for all his qualities, was no world beater. Ordinarily, such a player departure would have barely raised an eyebrow. But the way it was handled was evidently wrong, as it left the squad demoralised and upset.
Fixing that has not been easy. For a period, it seemed, the players stopped playing for the club. In a sense the Wimbledon performance was a step too far. Whatever injustice the players felt, a line now has to be drawn. Against Oldham on Saturday, the performance wasn’t great but there was undoubtedly more desire and workrate there. It might sound like a low bar to find consolation in the fact at least the players were trying. But the five defeats before that saw a dip in effort and commitment that reached an unacceptable limit.
At least the players seem to care again. That is something to build on. After the Charlton game next Tuesday, City have an 11-day break from action. Find some cash, and send the team on a training camp abroad to build up team spirit. It could be the best investment the club makes this season.
The second core issue is the threadbare squad. Hendrie’s absence was felt too keenly by having no senior right back options – and the belated signing of Callum Guy, a young midfielder who had played a few games at right back, was not a good enough solution. We’ve talked to death about Colin Doyle’s absence, the lack of full backs in general and other key injuries. At Oldham on Saturday, McCall had no senior wide players. A few injuries shouldn’t have such a telling effect on the squad, but they do.
Yet the real cost of the threadbare squad has been the poor form of those who have been fit, which hasn’t cost them their place in the team. When the chips are down and big characters are needed, several players just haven’t stepped up to the mark. Nathaniel Knight-Percival, Romain Vincelot, Matt Kilgallon, Nicky Law, Jake Reeves, Paul Taylor and even Charlie Wyke. Shay McCartan showed what he could do over Christmas but has faded away again. Dominic Poleon works hard but keeps missing sitters, such as the wretched stoppage time effort at goal against Oldham that could have stopped the rot.
When players have needed a kick up the backside or a rest, there aren’t the options elsewhere to allow it to happen. McCall could and should have turned to Jordan Gibson sooner, and at this point there’s nothing to suggest City are gaining anything from letting Callum Guy start ahead of Danny Devine. But relying on youth to fix squad performance issues is a risky strategy.
Again, the positive is that some new, experienced players are now in the building, and they can raise the bar for competition for places. But no one would pretend enough was done in January. And that the squad has been strengthened enough.
And that brings us to core problem three, the transfer recruitment strategy. This season, and in January especially, City seemed to have failed to move with the times on using the transfer windows. The closure of the short-term loan market, outside of the summer and January, has had a significant effect on football at this level.
City weren’t, for example, able to make a short-term loan move to replace Doyle and Hendrie over January, when a month-long arrival of someone would have made such a difference. But beyond that, the reality is that the January window is less about getting ahead of the game, and more about keeping up. In previous years, not all clubs would recruit in January, and any club with money to spend could reshape their season. This time, everyone was busy bringing in new players.
Wigan Athletic sum up this change of approach best. They’ve been far and away the best team in League One for half a season, and are highly likely to be promoted. But even with such a strong hand, Wigan strengthened further in January. They spent good money, to leave nothing to chance. Blackburn Rovers, too, were notable spenders. Everyone, it seems, signed players. The Bradford City transfer committee, who had talked of how ready they were for January, were caught cold. Instead of getting ahead, City have been left behind over January.
Just before Oldham Athletic scored their second goal on Saturday, the guy behind me was angrily questioning why McCall didn’t sign the Lactics’ impressive Ben Pringle. Well, the answer is simple: it wasn’t up to him. The transfer committee approach shares the praise and must share the blame. McCall hasn’t been given the tools he needs, and others are responsible for that. It’s their job, after all. Or, in the case of Rahic, they have made it their job, at least.
The saddest part of the Oldham defeat was the painful reminder of just how much things have changed. It was just over a year to the day we were last shivering our way through 90 minutes at Boundary Park, with a 2-1 victory our reward. City were brilliant, standing up to the elements and Oldham’s physicality, whilst playing some superb football. Just three players from the City starting XI that day lined up for the Bantams again this weekend. Six are no longer at the club. After the play off final, McCall urged City to keep the squad intact. That didn’t happen, and the consequences are there for all to see.
City have made big mistakes, and they’ve got to share accountability for them. Stuart McCall is not perfect. He has made mistakes, he has got decisions wrong. But sacking him doesn’t correct the transfer policy mistakes. It doesn’t improve the morale of the players, who publicly and privately state unequivocally they are right behind him. It doesn’t change the gaps in the squad, and the lack of quality.
For everything that has gone wrong, City are still in the play offs. To reach a typical play off-qualifying points total of 75 they need to win at least eight of their last 15 matches. Of course, that’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either. Long losing runs can feel endless, but they can also change very quickly too. For how bad City have been since January, the challengers haven’t taken advantage. 7th place-Charlton might have games in hand, but they’ve just lost at home to Oxford and City travel to the Valley a week on Tuesday.
It’s all in City’s hands. There is everything to play for.
For Edin Rahic, clearly there is a big decision that he will be contemplating right now. Stuart McCall is not going to resign as manager. It’s not going to happen. He said he 100% wouldn’t resign back in the summer. He told Jason Thornton of the Pulse that he won’t quit, after the Oldham game – “I won’t be walking away, that’s for sure”. So if there is going to be a change of manager, it will have to be carried out by Rahic. And with the chairman’s popularity sinking dramatically over these past few weeks, is that a decision that he really wants to make?
I’ve already written about the huge emotional bond that fans have with McCall – and let it be on record, the majority of City fans at Oldham on Saturday were chanting Stuart’s name. Many supporters will turn on the chairman if he fires McCall. In the last few days, I’ve been approached by supporters prepping to organise protests if and when McCall is sacked. The chairman will face a storm, partly fuelled by the depth of feeling fans have towards the City legend.
But even without the emotional factor of who McCall is, the arguments for change are weak.
18 months ago, the new broom at Bradford City was presented as a new, united team. The chairman, the manager, the assistant manager the head of football recruitment, the goalkeeping coach – the head of operations, James Mason, the only senior figure to stay on, as the German revolution began. Edin Rahic came in with new ideas and a new approach, and talked of long-term thinking. He looked every inch a leader, a visionary, and a man of authority. In crunch times like this, he will be judged.
On that first evening he spoke to fans, Rahic expressed bemusement at the short-term mentality of English football. In the Matter of Heart film, his partner, Stefan Rupp, took it further by saying, “I read that the half life of a manager in League One just 10 months – how are you supposed to have long-term goals? A medium-sized company develops strategies over 10, 15, 20 years…That’s what makes us stand out from the rest.” If that really is their mentality, they have to see beyond a run of six defeats and demonstrate their calmness. They should be giving their under-pressure manager support. Looking at the bigger picture. The team approach they introduced should stand up right now. We’re all in this together, as the song goes.
Because statistically, the sacking of the manager, has only short-term benefits rather than long-term. It can of course bring the bounce of a few more wins, but more often than not performance returns to the level it was. In 2013 Dutch economist Dr Bas ter Weel, who carried out a study into the effects of manager turnover over 18 seasons, comparing those who sacked managers with those who stuck with an under-pressure boss, concluded, “Changing a manager during a crisis in the season does improve the results in the short term. But this is a misleading statistic because not changing the manager would have had the same result.”
This is an important point. Stick with McCall, and he will turn results around – he’s done it before, several times this season and last. Sack him, and you risk undermining your long-term strategy for a short-term bounce that probably would have happened anyway. And you do it with no guarantee over the calibre of manager you can attract to replace him – a McCall dismissal will look bad to the rest of football – and a whole range of costs that the club doesn’t need to incur. Because when all’s said and done, McCall’s contract expires in the summer anyway.
If City turn this situation around – and their record over the 31 games this season strongly suggests they will – it will be due to everyone coming and working together. That should include the manager. The club has been on a steep learning curve this season. Painful lessons need to be accepted and applied. McCall’s job is to work with the players and get the best out of them. Let him get on with doing just that.
It’s a result-based business, and McCall’s results over his 96 games back at the helm have kept City in the top six for a year-and-a-half. His 45.8% win ratio, over his second spell, is the best City managerial record since Roy McFarland in 1981-82. That’s quite a managerial record to toss aside. And it shows why Stuart McCall still deserves time.