By Jason McKeown
Stuart McCall is no longer the Bradford City manager but he remains every inch a Bradford City fan. As we meet at a hotel bar just outside Baildon, on the evening the Bantams are playing against Charlton Athletic, he is full of talk about the evening’s fixture and his plans to follow the action intently. “I’m going to be really brief with my answers,” he chuckles, as we sit down in the deserted bar to do the interview. “I want to get home and listen to the game.”
We are meeting as part of a pre-arranged interview for a Bradford City book I am writing, with McCall’s new-found spare time meaning we could bring the meeting forward. It is only eight days on since his sacking as Bradford City boss, after he paid the price for a run of six successive defeats. The dismissal has, to say the least, stirred up controversy. So we’ve agreed that part of the evening will be taken up discussing recent events, and his 19-month tenure back in charge of his beloved Bantams.
“I’m probably still as disappointed now as I was last week, if I’m honest,” he admits when I ask him how he is feeling about the sacking. “I think last time I got over it quite quickly, it was a relief in a way. It was the right call to leave, and Julian (Rhodes) handled it fantastically well. But this time, there is still a bit of regret in thinking about what we could have done. I still believed we could have a good season.”
McCall’s dismissal was the culmination of a dreadful January for the club, with time called on his reign less than 48 hours after a defeat at Oldham. McCall was not at all surprised to get the bullet, following a conversation with his chairman the Thursday before. “It was an hour after I’d done the press, where I’d said we need to be looking to get four points from the next two games. Edin and Stefan had spoken, and he told me we needed six points from the next two games. So the writing was on the wall then.
“I thought it was a bit unfair, because we could have gone to Oldham – the first time we had the new players, Doyle was back, McMahon was back, a couple of other players to come back in. And if we go and put in a really strong performance, and only drew, like we did many times last season, I would still have thought that was progress. We were still going to Oldham without seven first teamers who were injured. I knew it was going to be a tough game, a bad pitch, and Oldham were fighting for their lives. But I thought we needed to stop the rot, and then really kick on against Bury.”
The 2-1 loss at Boundary Park was the final straw for Rahic, as City’s form had fallen off a cliff. Yet Stuart believes there were positive signs the corner was starting to be turned. He belatedly had new signings, and the return of important first teamers was huge in terms of their influence on and off the field. “I think the worst part of the season for me was Rotherham,” McCall grimaces, referring to a dismal 2-0 defeat in South Yorkshire 11 days before the Oldham game. “The last half an hour of that game, you could see there was no fight. And I couldn’t accept that.”
After Rotherham, the pain went on with a 4-0 thrashing at home to Wimbledon, “We weren’t unlucky, we deserved to get beat – but they had four attempts on goal and scored each time. The goals that we lost were just awful. But it wasn’t a lack of quality or a lack of fight. We just gave away soft goals. You can’t legislate for them.
“So we went to Oldham. The boy smashes one in from 30 yards, and that rocks us a bit. But I saw enough and listened to enough in the dressing room to suggest the fight was there. It was chalk and cheese to the Rotherham dressing room, when no one said a word. So after the Oldham game, I thought that we could turn it around, because there was enough quality there and characters and desire. And I was so hoping we would have got the game against Bury.”
Instead, an early Monday morning meeting between Rahic and McCall resulted in the manager’s sacking. It was, understandably, an emotional moment. McCall spent all day at the training ground saying goodbyes. His only disappointment was reserved for the club releasing the news of his departure before he had informed the players. “That angered me,” he admits. “I had not had chance to tell my staff yet. I went to make a cup of tea before sitting down to tell the players ‘I’ve gone, but your season starts now’. And then it comes up on the TV.
“I was still in the training ground at 5pm. I had an open door. Of the 30 odd players we had, the only three lads who didn’t come to see me were the ones who were ill at home. Everyone came to see me. Staff, players, ground staff from the school. It was a difficult day, but that’s football. I’m big enough to know that when you’re on the run that we’re on, when you’ve lost six on the bounce, that can happen.”
Did he feel that he deserved the sack, in light of 18 months of progress, and having achieved the club’s highest manager win ratio in 36 years? “At the end of the day, owners are owners. They make the decisions and they are 100% entitled to make that decision. I hoped I could turn it round, but it didn’t surprise me.
“I think we’ve had 18 months of overachievement, with what we’ve had, and one terrible month of underachievement. And that’s not an excuse, that’s fact. So I’m still feeling – not bitter at all – but sad and disappointed. Even through the bad run, and with everything else going outside, the desire inside the dressing room was to get back to Wembley, and the belief was still there we could do it.”
But as McCall was saying his goodbyes, a storm was brewing around the Bradford City community. And across wider football, outrage was expressed over such a cut-throat sacking. At the first post-McCall game, Saturday’s home draw with Bury, the home fans amongst the crowd of 19,476 marked the fourth minute – Stuart’s player number – with applause and chants expressing appreciation to the departing manager.
McCall was following the game from home, and was quickly made aware of what had happened, “I’m not a social media person, but my kids see things and they tell me. I listened to the first half of the Bury game on the radio, and someone sent me a link to what the fans did. I did feel quite emotional. I think my wife and kids felt emotional too.
“The club means so much to me. I’m so disappointed not to be manager anymore.”
“Edin’s been a successful businessman, but running a football club is different.”
It was a memorable 19 months for all concerned. Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s May 2016 takeover of Bradford City saw the introduction of a new strategy and way of doing things – an approach everyone is still getting used to. Phil Parkinson, the mastermind of the 2013 promotion and League Cup final appearance, straightaway decided it was not a model that he could work under, and departed for Bolton Wanderers. The club turned to McCall.
McCall recalls the story of how his fourth coming to Valley Parade came about, “I’d just landed in Tenerife and got a message from Edin, so flew back to meet him the next morning. We had a three-hour chat. I could tell it was going to be different. He told me about his plans for the club, and of bringing youth players through, and signing foreign players. I said this was not a problem to me. But in every other time where I’ve been a manager, I’ve known what my budget is so I can work towards it, and what players I can bring in. So I asked Edin about the budget, and he said ‘oh you don’t need to know about budgets, British managers always want to know about budgets’.
“I went back to Tenerife and spoke to my missus, and the first thing she asks me is ‘what’s your budget?’ And the reason she asked me that was that, a few years earlier, I had knocked back the Sheffield United job (in the summer of 2014), because of the budget, and she was gutted because she wanted me to go there. I had had my time at Motherwell, and she wanted me to go back to Sheffield United. But when I had spoken to them, they were honest and told me the budget had been cut, and the first season was going to be a building block, as part of a three-five year plan. I knew the budget was going to be bottom half, but Sheffield United fans wouldn’t have accepted that. In the end, I knocked them back.
“So when I told my missus, who was gutted about Sheffield United, that I didn’t know what my budget at Bradford City was going to be, she replied ‘well you can’t sign then; if you couldn’t sign for Sheffield United you can’t sign for Bradford’.
Initially McCall was going to reject Rahic’s offer, “At first it was going to be a one-year deal. But when I’m trying to bring players in, I can’t get them in on two-year deals when they know you are on a one-year deal. So there were two things I went back to Edin with. I wanted to bring in my own assistant – I think Edin wanted to bring in his own – and I wanted to have a two-year deal. I said to my agent, I don’t think I’m going to take it for these two reasons.
“In the end, these points got agreed. So I thought, well Edin’s agreed to that, let’s move on. My heart didn’t rule my head about coming back, but it was too strong a pull. I thought I could get it going.”
It didn’t take long for McCall to discover that Rahic’s approach would lead to a clash of styles. “One of my first meetings was with Ben Williams (the out of contract City goalkeeper). I didn’t know him, but we’d lost a lot of players, and Bradford City had just had a record number of clean sheets. I know the defence had been good, but obviously the goalkeeper must have played a part. So I met Ben. And we agreed with him another year’s deal, same money.
“I left him with Edin for five minutes, and the next day Ben came in and decided to sign for Bury.”
Was McCall concerned this wouldn’t work? “It wasn’t right or wrong, but it was a completely different way for me to work. I used to have a budget, I brought the players in. I spoke to agents. The game has changed. So I’m not saying this way is wrong.
“I’ve had 30-odd years in the game, and you build up certain experiences. Edin wanted to bring in different things, and that’s fine. We had to find a way, find common ground. Give and take. But Edin’s not been in football. He’s certainly not been in the football business. Edin’s been a successful businessman, but running a football club is different.”
Williams’ exit to Bury further exposed the huge gaps in the playing squad left in the wake of Parkinson’s departure, and the club had to work with urgency to bring in new players. Yet the summer of 2016 was arguably City’s best transfer window under Rahic and McCall, as the newly assembled coaching staff and transfer committee came together.
“We had to assemble a squad quickly. I brought Nicky Law down because I knew him. That was a no-brainer for me. John Dreyer gave us Nat Knight-Percival. We got Timothee Dieng in on a week’s trial. Once we got Steve Banks in, we got Colin Doyle. When Greg came in, he brought Romain Vincelot. So everyone played a part in little bits. It was a different way of working. But you’ve got to find a way to work.”
“They were prepared to spend money on players, which was great.”
McCall’s first season back at the helm was largely a success. City flew out of the traps and remained in the top six all season, not losing a single game at home. It was, as McCall explains, above the expectations of his new employer, and would quickly lead to a revising of targets, especially during the January transfer window.
“Certainly Edin’s philosophy changed as the season went on. I don’t think he expected for one minute we would be near the top of the table. I think he expected us to be mid-table and able to bring in your Danny Devines.
“But I advised Edin on numerous occasions that that strategy is all well and good at a Crewe or a Rochdale, who are brilliant at it, because there is no expectation there. Taking over a football club who last season got to the play offs, with 20,000 season ticket holders – you’ve got expectations. The expectation is not to be 12th bringing young kids in. It won’t mean anything to supporters at the club if you have two 19-year-olds playing in the team, if we’re sat there in 12th. Fans want success. They want to see their team win. We have just been in the play offs. We want to be up there.
“So I think we surprised the owners by how well we were doing, and then I think they could see there was a chance to be in the play offs, let’s go for it. So we did. They were prepared to spend money on players, which was great.”
It all culminated in City reaching the play off final at Wembley, where they faced Millwall. McCall’s lingering pain over the cruel defeat, thanks to a late Steve Morison winner, is evident. “Millwall had scored four goals at Bristol Rovers, who were a good side, in their last game to get to the play offs. They then go and score three at Scunthorpe in the second leg of the play offs to get to Wembley. So their front two (Morison and Lee Gregory) were in my thoughts. Those two were the best partnership in the league.
“I played a back three to combat that, and to give us three in the middle of the park and give us domination on a good surface. On Sky at half time, Kenny Jackett and Phil Parkinson were saying that Millwall had to change something, because Bradford were controlling the game. We played (Mark) Marshall with Charlie (Wyke), and Billy (Clarke) behind, because they had two big centre halves. Marshall’s role was to get around the sides of them, and Billy to play off them.
“We controlled the game. Millwall didn’t have an attempt on goal in the first half. People talk about Billy’s miss, but he won the ball on the edge of his box, gave it to Marshall and ran through. Now when you watch it again, the keeper is down and it’s an outstanding save. For me it wasn’t a horrendous miss, it was a top class save.
“We said to the players at half time – confidence is high, but Millwall are a good side. They will have a period where they get on top. Rory has two free headers, which he should have done better with. And then they score. And regardless of it is marginal or not, it’s offside. It still hurts, although I get why they didn’t flag it. It was heart-breaking to lose like we did, and to have all the crap with Millwall fans coming on, goading you.”
Whilst some fans still blame McCall for the Wembley defeat, he rightly points out that it was a season of over-achievement. “Bearing in mind the top two sides, Sheffield United and Bolton, had the biggest budgets, Millwall top four. I think last season we were 11th, when it comes down on the list. So we had a mid-table budget. I don’t always like going on budgets, because for every budget there’s a Leicester, but we were punching above our weight. We got the best out of that squad. Yeah we had a lot of draws, but we won our last six home games. The pitch was difficult, but we found a way to win.”
Yet for McCall it had a tough, tough season personally, as he continued to feel the strain of working with owners who he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with. “I said at the end of last season, it was my toughest year in football, without a doubt. In that dressing room, in that coaching room, and on the training pitch, it was brilliant. But the other side of football – which you’ve got to deal with – it was tough. The difficulties were tough. Regardless of how difficult at times I found it, we got the club to being on the brink of being in the Championship. That for me, when I look back, was a great achievement.
“Speaking to the media after the Millwall game, it was a genuine thing that I said if we can take a leaf out of Millwall’s book – because they’ve lost only one player (after their play off final defeat the year before), they kept the nucleus of the team – we had a chance next season. Just two minutes away from me, Stefan was telling reporters ‘next year we’re going for automatic promotion’. So for me I thought ‘brilliant’. It was music to my ears. We must be keeping the squad together, Stefan is talking about automatics next season.”
The strain was beginning to tell.
In part two (coming soon), McCall talks about what happened last summer, the problems in January and his thoughts on the club’s future.