By Katie Whyatt
It has happened. Bradford City confirmed this morning that they have terminated Stuart McCall’s contract, and if there is any scrap of consolation it can only be that it did not end in the ignominy – as, at one point, it looked like it might – of McCall galloping up the Valley Parade steps two at a time, still with a spring in his step – or looking for quick refuge, however you want to read it – as Wimbledon slotted four past City’s generous defence and left his career hanging by a thread. Instead, it ends at defeat 13 of the season, five days ahead of a home game against Bury – the team against whom McCall famously walked in 2010. This time, he vowed not to. But at least then he got to say a proper goodbye.
It is difficult to know where to start unpacking the litany of issues that have resulted in McCall – the club’s greatest-ever player, for one, and the Bradford City manager with the best win ratio in 36 years – arriving on Monday morning to find his contract terminated, perhaps not even with goodbye handshakes all round. It is difficult, at this stage at least, to even begin to envisage an obvious replacement – Uwe Rösler’s name will always be touted, but it is hard to imagine who could have possibly wrung more out of this squad, in the present structure, than McCall ultimately managed. This is a squad that, at least publicly, always backed their man, right until the end. They have spent a *grand total* of 4/96 games outside the top six. Their play-off position looked more precarious week-by-week, but was the answer outside the camp?
It is harder, still, to work out what this means for the rest of the season. City’s play-off destiny is out of their immediate control, Charlton and Peterborough each with two games in hand, yet the chasing pack had missed chances to capitalise over the weekend. The owners had publicly talked up their top two aspirations, but as the weeks wore on it felt increasingly like McCall had lugged his side to a position they had no real right to sit in. Is this it, now? Chalk off the play-offs with 15 games to go, and the top six race wide open?
McCall knew how lucky he was to manage his beloved Bradford City twice. He hasn’t done anything wrong – in truth, he probably deserves a third crack. Even this season, with five league defeats on the bounce, no blame has ever landed at his door. For a while – for eight glorious months, no less – it worked, almost from the get-go, despite the snags and snares that would have spelled bigger trouble sooner for a relationship founded on less love than this one.
At first McCall made it look comically easy. He began his first season with eight permanent, experienced players. You can picture the scene. He looks at Greg Abbott look and the pair roll their eyes. Pur-lease. Give us, like, an actual challenge. It is intriguing the first summer window – the focus on simply having something they could field on the opening day, and thus banking on experience – was more successful than the second, the one billed, from the inside, as a window of youth, the realisation of the broader vision.
It was not merely the quality of the players recruited that first summer – the likes of Law, Vincelot, Knight-Percival, Kilgallon, Doyle, and the best of them all in Josh Cullen – but the verve with which McCall polished the old diamonds, revisiting all the old hits. He found concealed in some sequestered corner of Valley Parade Mark Marshall, disillusioned, long-forgotten, searching for a swift exit, and by the end of the season presents his winger with a slew of individual awards, a fitting symbol for a transformation brought about, in part, by the human touch of McCall’s personality. It is a mark of McCall that former City striker Billy Clarke took to Twitter: “Disappointing to see my old gaffer has been sacked. Very good manager and man..always had best interests of his players and the club at heart” [sic]. Marc McNulty was quick to follow: “Stuart Mccall sacked? Shocking. Run of bad games yes but still sitting in a good position! Great manager and great Asistant in kenny to” [sic].
He spoke with something verging on bemusement at times, when confronted with the praise, the stats, the numbers, like a man who didn’t quite recognise the force of what he’d done. “I think if you try to stifle them or play them like robots, you won’t get the best out of them,” he said nonchalantly, almost blithely unaware of precisely how good his football looked. Meredith – member of five (eminently successful) City squads – went as far as to dub McCall’s his favourite one. Billy Clarke found a new level. Even this season, as barren as the latest run has been, McCall has brought through Tyrell Robinson and developed Charlie Wyke. His strengths as a coach have always been obvious.
Within nine months he had them walking out at Wembley, barely stifling his delight on what was one header away from being the finest hour of his managerial career. Then he uttered the words that defined the following season: “It would be nice if we could keep the majority of the group together. I wouldn’t be over-confident of doing that, but we will see.”
They kept six of that Wembley starting XI. You might argue keeping them wasn’t necessarily the problem, but the quality of their replacements. You’ll give them Meredith and Cullen, whose paths were set the minute that Steve Morison header careered past Colin Doyle. Marshall’s departure was probably inevitable. Rory McArdle’s felt preventable. Even Tony McMahon, the only out of contract play-off finalist to stay, spent his summer fluttering his eyelids at Blackburn Rovers. Of all the players recruited over the summer, how many can say they have genuinely fulfilled expectations, let alone matched their predecessors? Only Adam Chicksen has really come close to rivaling Meredith. Paul Taylor – the oldest – has been the pick of the bunch.
McCall went through January without any bona fide full backs. Bafflingly, there simply wasn’t the squad depth for adequate injury cover, let alone to facilitate the squad rotation that was a hallmark of McCall’s first season. For all the talk otherwise – and it wasn’t their fault they didn’t get Blackpool’s Kelvin Mellor, after all – it did look like the club were caught cold in the January window. There were strange moves: why discuss a bid for Kieffer Moore while simultaneously stressing the importance of the retaining the wage structure? There are concerns the wage structure delayed recruitment, and, if this is the case, does this explain why McArdle was so reluctant to sign again last summer? The young players model is commendable in theory but does it make City less competitive?
The much-discussed transfer committee – a model gaining popularity throughout football – is not an inherently bad thing, but the concern for City is that so much of the accountability for signings has been obscured. Edin Rahic has stressed publicly that “Stuart was all the time involved”, that “we are all responsible”. “It’s not about, ‘Stuart doesn’t know anything about transfers,'” he told BBC radio Leeds. “He’s aware. If he doesn’t agree on a player, we will not sign him.” Yet McCall went on the record to say he had never seen certain players. ‘I don’t know much about him’ became a quasi-catchphrase for a coach whose remit, it felt at times, was exactly that – to coach. Someone was not on company message. “We must all accept responsibility,” the club said. But the ambiguity and mixed messages never really helped, and warranted a clarification that never really came.
Whatever happened, it didn’t work, and it now lends a chilling irony to McCall’s words from that first press conference, back in June: “This is the perfect fit for me. Last time certainly wasn’t the perfect fit – but it is now.” And it is such broken hope that, in part, makes this such a painfully bitter pill to swallow.
“We would like to place on record our sincere thanks to Stuart, who joined the club at a difficult time and restored the fans’ belief when the odds were much against us,” read this morning’s statement, and it could have been from McCall’s first managerial exit, eight years ago.
In 2007, McCall came to City when, frankly, they needed him more than he needed them. It wasn’t even the best thing for him. It was a heart over head move, the club legend returning to his spiritual home to find his old love had careered off the snaking slide from the top-flight, hit every fold and corner on the way down and had since landed in League Two, nursing the mother of all hangovers from that heady Premier League overspend, punch-drunk and terrified of checking their bank balance. Back then, he was too inexperienced to fulfill the prophecy that had been written in the stars. It is so typically McCall that his fatal flaw was something as innocent as being too wholehearted. This time, he was ready. Circumstance had other ideas.
Wherever the recent slump began, it is hard to stomach how suddenly and drastically City have fallen. In one sense, they haven’t – they’re only two points shy of their return from 30 games last season – but their Wimbledon capitulation meant they had conceded more goals by February than they had over the whole of last season, gave them a negative goal difference (last season they finished with + 19) and left them with more troubling questions besides. Depleted, the joint-second best defence in the league subsided into some bizarre parody of that Keegan team: you score two and we’ll— let you’ll get three. McCall talked at length about shaking his principles but it was hard to genuinely believe the galling ease with which the ball trickled under Rouven Sattelmaier two weeks ago could really be attributed to the manager’s sense of gung-ho endeavour. It was hard to see what else he – any manager, for that matter – could have done with the hand he was dealt. The Oldham performance was far from wretched: the desire was there. They were turning a corner.
Many managers have paid with their jobs after six defeats from six: the problem here is it disguises a vaster collection of issues. There have now been 28 managerial changes in the top four English leagues this season: eight in the Premier League, seven in the Championship and four in League Two, and McCall this morning became League One’s ninth casualty.
For a time, City were defined by just how far removed they were from that world. Now, after McCall’s first real bad run, they have twisted, and the cards are falling, and Stuart McCall – the one person this decision will hurt more than anybody – has been the collateral. It is hard to think of a recent Bradford City decision that has ever been as universally condemned as this one. The same ending comes to pass, and there is a widespread, almost unequivocal, feeling that McCall deserved better. It is that sentiment – expressed by Jason Thornton on Twitter this morning – that wounds and worries so deeply.