Part two of Jason McKeown’s in-depth chat with Stuart McCall about his recent sacking as Bradford City manager. (See part one here)
After the heartbreak of Bradford City’s play off final defeat to Millwall, rumours began to swirl that McCall and City would be parting ways. With key, out of contract players departing, and Billy Clarke sold, from the outside the club appeared to be gripped by crisis. Just what, on earth, was going on behind the scenes?
The answer, McCall reveals, was that a debate was taking place over how best to part ways, which ultimately led to a truce going into this season. “I went away for a few days with the staff, we discussed what had happened the previous season, what we’d like to do better and who we would like to bring in. And then myself, Kenny and Greg came in for a meeting with Edin to look forward at players, and who is staying and who is going.
“Edin said he wanted a one-to-one with me. He had read what I had said after the Millwall game, that this had been my toughest season in football. I think it had been tough for Edin as well, his first year in British football. He told me the budget was probably going to be cut, there would be young players coming in. And then he said we haven’t seen eye to eye on a lot of things, it’s probably time for a parting of ways.
“I listened to him for four or five minutes and I thought ‘I totally get it’. I’m always honest with Edin. So I told him ‘Edin I understand, your dream is to own a football club and to have a big involvement in every part of that football club’. That’s what his dream has been. Head of football is what he is. I totally understood that I wasn’t right for him. But after listening to him, I had to emphasise, I had walked away before – I walked away from Motherwell – I ain’t walking away from this. Because despite everything, we had just come so close to the Championship.
“I told him I won’t be walking away. I was due to go on holiday the next day, so he told me he would speak with Stefan and would have to find a way. It would have been 100% the right decision for Edin to have cut the strings, and I went away from holiday thinking that was it. I didn’t know Billy Clarke had gone, which was good business for the club. In my head, I wasn’t coming back to the club. I would have put my mortgage on not being at the club next season, but I wasn’t walking away.”
Was McCall holding out for a contract pay off? “It wasn’t a financial thing – I’d walked away before, but there was no way I was walking away from this football club, because I loved what I was doing. I got what Edin was saying. We hadn’t seen eye-to-eye on things. It wasn’t a relationship that was working. And he is the owner. He had 100% right to get someone in he could work with.”
Yet despite the rumours reaching fever pitch, McCall’s departure never happened. “After my holiday we met up and Edin told me they weren’t going to sack me because they thought there would be uproar. The only other option was to leave by mutual consent. But again he was concerned that fans would be angry. I would have 100% come out and said it was the right decision; it was just a clash of cultures.
“People say the most important relationship in a club is between the manager and the chairman, although I believe the one between the manager and players runs it close. I struggled to work the way Edin would have liked; but regardless, the bond between the staff and players took us so close to promotion and that filled me with pride.
“They didn’t want to do mutual consent, didn’t want to sack me, I wasn’t resigning – so it was stalemate. We then discussed it again and found a way for how we could work together. We’ve got to find a way to make this work. So we came to an agreement and started to kick on and looking at players to bring in.”
Was this papering over the cracks? “What I will say is that, this season, our relationship has been better. It hasn’t been great, but we’ve found a way to work together better.” Nevertheless, the task of rebuilding the team was considerable.
“I knew it would be a struggle to replicate the previous season. We had one player in the PFA team, (James) Meredith, who leaves. We had two players of the year, (Mark) Marshall and Josh (Cullen), who leave. We lose Rory McArdle, who has been a stalwart for us and scored the goal that took us to Wembley, and then we lose Billy Clarke, who for the first part of last season was key for what we did. Adding to that we lose our top scorer, Jordy Hiwula, and then we lose probably the best professional we have in Stephen Darby. So we’ve lost a really good chunk of the side there.
“We brought a few young lads early on and pay money for them. You’ve got to say the club has paid money, that didn’t happen in the previous regime.”
“I realised that day not a lot was going to change.”
There was one particular gap in recruitment that would quickly show the uneasy truce between manager and chairman might not last indefinitely. With City short of a right-sided centre half to replace Rory McArdle, McCall brought in 36-year-old Gordon Greer on trial. Stuart takes up the story, “The year before, I had been away with Gordon with Scotland, playing against Italy and France, before the Euros, and Greer was really strong. He got man of the match when we drew 2-2 against Poland, up against Lewandowski, 18 months before.
“I knew all about him. We all knew his age, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone, and we offered him a deal at the middle of the wage budget. We had the pre-season tour of Germany with one place left in the squad, and three options to fill it. One of the options refused point blank to come with us on trial, he thought he was better than that. The second option wanted 24 hours to think about coming with us, whereas Gordon straightaway said he would come. All he was coming on trial for was to see his fitness, because he had not played a lot of football at Brighton. The second day of training, he was fifth in the running. His talking and organisation was really strong. He was decent in the air, good on the ball, can bring the ball out.
“We play the game on the Saturday, and he cruises through. So I told him that when he comes in on Monday, the deal will be sorted. But for whatever reason, Edin then wasn’t sure. He asked me if Gordon can play in the next friendly, on Tuesday against Guiseley. I argued that I had told him that he would be signing a deal, now I’ve got to ask him if we can see him in another game.
“Gordon agreed to play the Guiseley game. He wasn’t brilliant, but it’s pre-season, and he scores a goal. Everything is good. He plays the position we want, ticks all the boxes. Edin wasn’t at the game, he was still in Germany. But for whatever reason he doesn’t want to do it, and so I have to ring Gordon and say we can’t give him a deal. That’s tough. We’ve messed him about. I still don’t know to this day the real reason why we didn’t sign him. Did it leave panic and a hole? Yes. Ideally, I would have liked Edin to have trusted me and my entire staff’s judgement, and I realised that day not a lot was going to change.”
Adding to McCall’s frustration was the arrival of a familiar face on the training ground, who Rahic had signed despite his coaching staff declaring he wasn’t good enough. “A week before Gordon came in, Lachlan Barr came in to train. Lachlan is a fantastic lad, really committed, but for our level wasn’t really good enough. We had him on trial the season before for a week – and all the staff thought he was a great lad, great attitude, but not good enough for a team getting out of this league. The next minute he’s turned up for training and he’s signed for six months. And yet we couldn’t get Gordon Greer over the line.”
Whilst City look weaker as a squad this season, they have up until the half way point of the campaign performed just as strongly. Losing more games, especially at home, but picking up more points compared to a year ago. Crucially, they have not fallen out of the top six.
“I still thought we could get to Wembley again. Talk of automatic promotion was unrealistic when you’ve got Wigan and Blackburn’s budgets. Scunthorpe, Charlton, Rotherham have blown us out of the water over everything we looked at. There has to be realism. It’s not negative. Top six is again overachieving.
“Our home record is poor, but we managed to do other things. We then get to New Years Day, win at Fleetwood, and have more points than we had a year ago. Even if you’re not the biggest Stuart McCall fan, we had enjoyed 18 months of progression. That’s a fact.”
And then, it all really unravelled.
“We have been in a poor run, but there were reasons for it.”
For a loanee right back, Luke Hendrie’s on-off transfer to Bradford City certainly caused an almighty fuss. His sudden departure from the team hotel, prior to the FA Cup game at Yeovil, has been cited by many as the trigger point to the team’s collapse in form. McCall was certainly left disappointed the deal never happened.
“It was so difficult because the lad was absolutely desperate to play for Bradford City,” McCall adds. “He had been at Manchester United and Derby County as a kid, but it was his dream to play for Bradford City. The thing with Luke was he was a fantastic professional. The players really warmed to him, they thought he was great.
“It was a bit like last season with the likes of Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle, Filipe Morais and Nathan Clarke – the people who weren’t in the team were pushing the others. They weren’t sulking. Luke wouldn’t have been happy to not be playing, but he would have been pushing others all the way. He had that desire. He wasn’t going to sign for us for financial reasons; the money was irrelevant to him.”
So what happened? “We kept talking about signing him in December. We knew his deal was going to finish, and Tom Field’s was going to finish. Greg is working on the deal and we know how much it’s going to be. To all the staff and to all the players, it’s a no brainer – exactly what we need. Someone who is desperate to play for the football club, who’s not going to touch the budget, and can play a variety of positions.
“But the Friday before travelling to Yeovil, there was a suggestion the club and Burnley couldn’t agree on something. Luke still wanted to travel, because he was desperate to play, confident it would be sorted out. As we are travelling down I spoke to Greg, who told me that the deal was getting sorted. On the Friday evening, we had just finished our dinner and Luke came to see me and said ‘I think the deal is off, something has gone wrong’. He was distraught. I didn’t know why, but it wasn’t finances. Greg was still trying to sort it out.
“The next morning we all met for a pre-match walk, and Luke’s going around the lads hugging them. He can’t play for us, they’ve not agreed a deal with Burnley for whatever reason. He’s going to go to another club on Monday. And that was so sad to see him so disappointed. This is half an hour before we get on the bus to go to Yeovil. He was in the team.
“People say it wasn’t a big thing, but in light of what was happening to Tony McMahon, to let Luke Hendrie go didn’t make sense.”
That afternoon at Huish Park, City suffered a surprise FA Cup exit to League Two strugglers Yeovil, putting the manager under pressure. “I was so disappointed in the first 45 minutes against Yeovil. We didn’t turn up, we were poor. We got in at half time 0-0, and then Kilgallon has to come off. The back five of the first league game of the season, against Blackpool, was now all missing in the second half. People say it is an excuse, but it’s a fact.
“We had the third choice goalkeeper making his debut, young Jacob Hanson making his debut – he might go onto have a great career, but he’s not ready at this moment in time. Tyrell Robinson at left back, who is a winger. We had Romain, who has played at the back, but had played midfield all season. And we had Adam Thompson, who’d not had a lot of football and wasn’t brimming with confidence.”
The fact Yeovil drew Manchester United in the next round only added salt to the wounds, and more issues were piling up. Next there was Tony McMahon. The subject of a transfer bid from promotion rivals Scunthorpe, the saga of whether he would stay or leave cast a further shadow over the squad. “Tony wanted to stay here, but Scunthorpe were offering more money and the security of a longer deal.
“It was the same as with James Hanson the year before. Tony was told by the club there would be no contract offer until the end of the season, but when you’ve seen Romain and Knight-Percival sign new deals, Tony, Doyle, Nicky Law are all obviously thinking…Scunthorpe offer the club decent money, and the player an attractive deal. They were told they need to offer more and all the vibes from the agent suggested they would come back. But Tony’s head is now turned. It was unsettling, and it was unsettling in the dressing room.
“For whatever reason, Scunthorpe never came back with another offer; but that made the Luke Hendrie situation even stranger.
“So there was the Luke Hendrie situation, getting beat by Yeovil, and then Tony McMahon, that was the beginning. It all had an effect on the dressing room. We had a couple of games without a recognised full back. And at the Oldham game, we had no wingers. So yeah we have been in a poor run, but there were reasons for it. Not excuses, genuine reasons.”
“I saw Greg’s comment the other day, the club needs some glue.”
As defeats to Northampton, Bristol Rovers, Rotherham, Wimbledon and then Oldham racked up, McCall would lose his job. “I read Stefan’s piece the other week, and a lot of it was understandable, but a couple of things he said really disappointed me.
“One thing is he said he asked me for the reasons behind the bad run, and I’d not come up with any. But the last time he spoke to me was in November, at the Matter of Heart premiere. He used to text me before every game, wishing me luck, up to December. He used to come to more games, but obviously he has business priorities. I got a text from him after the Yeovil game, which was fine and I understood his frustrations, but I did encourage him to come over more often if he could, and see what was happening at the club.
“So for him to say he asked but didn’t get any answers, well he certainly didn’t ask me. I would have been more than happy to answer his questions, and the opportunity to have explained things to him.
“The other part was saying we didn’t receive a decent income from our cup performances. That’s absolutely true of course, although only four clubs from our level reached the fourth round of the FA Cup this season. And we did get good money for James and Billy, and reached Wembley – which surely made the club some strong income.”
As for the future, Stuart is full of support and belief the players can get to Wembley this season, and that Simon Grayson is a terrific appointment and will do a great job, if allowed to manage his way.
“Can we progress and be successful? I’m so hopeful we can. I saw Greg’s comment the other day, the club needs some glue. We tried to provide that glue last summer.”
…the Matter of Heart film
“Two things angered me. They had clips of the fire, and I said to them I won’t be turning up to the premiere if that’s still in it. You’ve got to understand that that will only bring back horrendous memories. In fairness, they pulled it out.
“The other thing was the way James Hanson was portrayed, because that was totally wrong. Greg got the wrong information. I think Edin misread it.
“James has given me, probably in the last 10 years of supporting City, my best memories. Even just last season, when he scored in the 56th minute in the Bobby game. It soon became clear, through speaking with James’ agent, that he wasn’t getting another deal. That’s fine, so when a club comes in and offers him a contract beyond the rest of the season, it’s a no brainer.
“The truth of the matter, 100%, and I’ve told Edin this, James came in early Friday morning after the agent had told him about Sheffield United, and I spoke to him. He never once suggested he wouldn’t play, but I knew his mental state wouldn’t be right, and I wanted everyone fully focused for the Millwall game. So I told him to go home before the lads come in.
“It was my decision and my decision alone. Never once did he refuse to play. I thought the way the film portrayed him was totally wrong, and I told everyone that. I was disappointed they kept it in. I was so pleased that James got a great reception against Bury on Saturday. He deserved it.
“Of all the other stuff that was in it, it was what it was. The camera crew came along, and were in the dressing room. To be fair, they were good guys. They were very respectful for what I would and what I wouldn’t let them film.”
…his chosen players
“The two players that I pushed for this season were Paul Taylor and Ryan McGowan. Taylor was Peterborough’s best player both times we played them, and I spoke to Paul Jewell about him. He was the one I really wanted.
“The other one I pushed for was Ryan McGowan. The only doubt was he had been playing in Dubai. He was coming as right back, but with an eye because we needed a right-sided centre back. I believe he will go on to be a really good signing. And if that’s the last piece of business I’m involved with, I’m sure it will turn out good.”
“I’d just like to say thank you, Jason, for giving me the chance to thank the fans for all the support I have received since leaving the club. The goodwill messages have been fantastic. And hopefully I will see you all at Wembley.”
Stefan Rupp’s interview with the Telegraph & Argus about the reasons he and Edin Rahic decided to sack Stuart McCall can be found here.
In the immediate wake of McCall’s dismissal, Edin Rahic contacted myself with an offer to do an interview. We spoke on the phone for 10 minutes, but Edin did not want to do the interview over the phone, and instead meet up face-to-face. Unfortunately, due to the fact I live and work in Skipton (and have two young daughters), it has not been possible to meet during the day. However, I am hopeful that we can eventually find an evening to meet and talk, where Edin can share his views on recent events and his future ambitions for the club.