By Mark Douglas
You have to cast your mind back quite a while for the last time Bradford City made such a contentious managerial change.
20 years, in fact – back to the day in January 1998 when Chris Kamara was fired with an over-achieving team nestled safely in mid-table in the second tier. For Geoffrey Richmond, it was not enough – the final straw being a 2-0 defeat in the FA Cup at Manchester City.
Times have changed since then but there are plenty of parallels: Kamara was popular, an ex-player and had achieved promotion and then safety in his first two seasons. It was universally felt to be a harsh call: not least by David Mellor, the host of the BBC’s 6-0-6 talk-in. Larger-than-life Richmond was to appear on the radio a week later to address Mellor’s criticism in one of the more bizarre footnotes in Bradford history.
And yet here is the kicker: Richmond’s call was proved right. The unpopular call was to fire Kamara: the braver decision was to appoint Paul Jewell, whose brief caretaker stint was unremarkable. 18 months later, City were in the Premier League.
Now that the initial anger and outrage has subsided, it is perhaps worth delving a bit deeper into the situation at City. The reflex reaction is to rail against the way a club legend has been cast aside and there are problems and issues that urgently need to be addressed at Valley Parade. But Stuart McCall’s dismissal might also be the necessary end of a particularly enjoyable era at Valley Parade that was – in truth – coming to the end of its sell-by date anyway.
For all the affection for McCall – and for all the feeling that Stefan Rupp and especially the controversial and self-proclaimed Head of Football Edin Rahic have handled this horrendously – this is an opportunity to press reset in the relationship between new owners, supporters and the dressing room. It may also be the shock to the system that the club and new owners need to address some simmering issues.
My first reaction was anger but this is my club rather than the club I cover. I’ve heard the same innuendo about interference that others have and felt the same fury and fear as other fans but 48 hours of calls have convinced me our co-owners aren’t in the model of Francesco Becchetti, who ruined Leyton Orient, or the Oyston family, who are at war with Blackpool fans. Instead there has been a difficult dynamic between an emotional, heart-on-the-sleeve manager and a Head of Football in Rahic who is brash but, perhaps, out of his depth.
The key man in all of this feels to be Rupp, the majority owner who is based in Germany and who cuts an impressive figure to those who have met him. He has the resources and vision but his information comes from his co-investor, who is involved so closely with football matters that it can hardly help him to formulate a true picture of what is going on at City.
The hope would be that Rahic can learn lessons and moderate his approach while Rupp’s involvement becomes more hands-on. They are in it for the long-haul, have the best interests of the club at heart and have been stung by what has happened since the turn of the year. They have a different approach that leaves me feeling uncomfortable, but sometimes the easy thing isn’t always the right thing.
Here’s my seven-step programme to give the owners a chance to reset at City.
1) Repair relationships
Rupp and Rahic have made the right noises in public about the importance of the club to the community and they clearly value the central part that it plays in the city.
But they have to back that up now. It does not pay to be involved in disputes over relatively modest bonuses – as we understand they are – with players and, in particular, our most important striker. These are people the owners and the club need onside. Whatever it is that has caused this needs to be addressed as morale seems to have sunk off the back of it. Trust is easily squandered.
Similarly the Luke Hendrie situation seems to have been badly handled, not least because his father – like Stuart – is a City legend. I know from my professional life covering Newcastle that employing and empowering legends are two very different things. Mike Ashley has given Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan the manager’s job during his time at Newcastle but has alienated both and his popularity has never recovered.
Leaving McCall feeling as if he might be better off out of the club was a terrible error. You can challenge ‘the Bradford Way’ if you want – it might be slightly shambolic or homespun at times, or in need of modernisation in other areas – but these relationships must be handled with care. Similarly, in a community club sponsors must be nurtured. It’s a lesson they must learn.
2) Recruitment has to change
Rahic, infamously, told Richard Sutcliffe of the Yorkshire Post that he “knows football” and his views must be respected by whoever the next manager is. But his record in bringing players over from Germany suggests that he is yet to get to grips with what is required to succeed in League One.
Bradford have seven German players – with 23-year-old Kai Brunker the latest to join. But none have made an impact yet. Goalkeeper Rouven Sattelmaier is utterly out-of-his-depth and has cost City points. Australian Lachlan Barr, signed from a lower league club in Berlin, was unable to make an impact at Harrogate Town. Perhaps individually they were not costly but collectively that is a chunk of City’s wage budget that may be better spent elsewhere.
City’s wage budget is not markedly bigger than it was in the dying days of Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes’ time at the club but it is competitive in League One, there is a transfer warchest there to spend and there is not the need to urgently sell to balance the budget that there was previously if City didn’t progress in the Cup. So they are better off with new owners – but not if the chairman’s say on recruitment is exaggerated and is so hit-and-miss.
A bit of humility, heeding the words of whoever the next manager is and giving Greg Abbott his head would serve City well. Recruitment at our level is key. We have clearly not done it as well as other clubs in the division this season.
3) Edin Rahic must take a step back
Rahic is passionate, determined and desperate to make City a success. We started this piece with a nod to Richmond and it’s worth noticing that others in the boardroom at City have hardly been shrinking violets. Many found Richmond difficult to deal with and others didn’t get on with Lawn, a lifelong fan who lived and breathed for the club.
But Rahic’s approach, at times, seems to have been like a bull in a china shop. It is perhaps time for him to listen as well as lecture. He clearly has an energy and determination to make the club a success but this is a new football culture that he is getting to grips with. Just as we as a supporter base have to accept that him challenging some things at City might be timely, so he needs to understand that Bradford is a club that needs to stay tied to its roots.
4) Sweat the small stuff – and invest in it too
The owners have invested impressively in the Academy and they have impressive, over-arching grand plans for the club. The pitch may be next on the agenda. This is the kind of infrastructure investment required at a club that doesn’t own its stadium and has no training ground.
But if you’re going to do that then you need to pay for little things too. The turnover of staff has been substantial. Those who remain need to be given the tools to do their job, whether that’s a company laptop or whatever. Again, it’s not going to win games but it might make a difference.
5) Get the right manager
McCall might have felt like the perfect candidate when put to Rupp and Rahic but the relationship was obviously not right from the start. For the ex-manager to say he would have walked after two weeks if he was going to quit hinted at the tensions that festered throughout the 18 months.
McCall is a great at City but he himself wouldn’t accept the portrayal of him as flawless. He is a certain kind of manager – a player’s boss and that came out in the way his team reacted to his sacking.
But playing devil’s advocate, they let him down in the way they played when the heat was on. Eight defeats in ten is sacking territory and while he had earned patience in my opinion, there were problems on-the-field. The home record, the way inferior sides were able to roll us over so easily at Valley Parade or the way the team tired were problems.
I don’t think, either, that McCall is really that interested in managing upwards – a skill that many at the League Managers Association now counsel is critically important for a new generation of managers. Rahic is not the only hands-on chairman and there are more difficult places to manage than City. Perhaps another manager might be able to be a bit more detached – or might more readily utilise data analysis and the appliance of science and be able to push back against the chairman’s nagging questions.
It is what works for the owners as well as the manager. There will be some good applicants for the job and it’s my understanding that there’s no desire to bring in an unknown from Germany to act as a puppet for the owners (not that plucking the unknown David Wagner did Huddersfield any harm). That’s a good thing.
6) Address the atmosphere
Valley Parade had a feeling of a stadium where anything was possible during the Phil Parkinson era. But it was inevitable that would fade as expectations rose and results plateaued. We have big numbers filing through the gates but we need to recruit players who thrive in that. Too many of the class of 17/18 don’t seem to.
And as supporters we have a part to play here too. Maybe a reset in the relationship can help.
7) Don’t write cheques you can’t cash
Arguably Rahic’s biggest problem in January came with Rahic’s January 5 interview about Kieffer Moore. Talk of a “substantial offer” for him raised hopes of big signings in January before the club had a chance to properly assess the market.
This was compounded by more statements about finishing in the automatic promotion spots – a tough ask given Wigan and Blackburn have bigger budgets and momentum that seems to clinch them.
Ambition is a positive. We tend to talk down our club at times. But it needs to be grounded in reality. This is a top eight squad that with good management and better additions in January might have made the top six. There is still plenty good about the club – and I’m happy that James Mason and the excellent Greg Abbott (unfairly pilloried after the January just passed) remain at the club.Rahic, too, I believe is well-intentioned.
We all want the same thing: a successful City. It’s not that far away, even if these have been difficult days at the club.
Mark Douglas is the Newcastle United Editor for the Journal, Chronicle and Sunday Sun, covering the Magpies fortunes since 2008. He is also the author of the highly acclaimed book, Inside the Rafalution. Mark is a Bradford City supporter who retains a keen affection for the club.