By Jason McKeown
1) Home defeats
It seems incredible to believe now, but before August’s 1-0 home defeat to Blackburn, Bradford City were unbeaten in 31 Valley Parade league games. They had also gone 23 months without a Saturday afternoon home loss. The ugly, scrappy victory by Blackburn was followed by a further nine City defeats on their own turf, leaving them with the 15th-best home record in League One, down from 5th a year before.
The atmosphere at Valley Parade has been disappointing for so much of the campaign. The place used to be rocking. But there is simply no belief in the team to overcome set backs, with many walking out long before the final whistle on multiple occasions.
Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw with Walsall was the first time all season City have recovered from a losing position to earn something. It’s not been all bad – Bristol Rovers, Rochdale and Oxford were memorable victories – but all too often the form at Valley Parade was pretty dismal.
2) Poor summer recruitment
Every debate about Bradford City’s shortcomings this season has to begin in the summer. But perhaps more accurately, the close season was the point where we realised the damage had been done. After all, every argument about whether the club could have done more to keep James Meredith, Mark Marshall, Rory McArdle and even Stephen Darby overlooks one key lesson that, ironically, the club have actually taken on board this season.
Why were their contracts allowed to be run down in the first place? It left the club in a vulnerable position post-Wembley; where many of their best players departed, with no financial compensation. City were probably never going to keep everybody, but lost too many during the summer. And that left some gaping holes over the 2017/18 season.
Especially because the recruitment activity proved mixed at best. Man for man, it was hard to make a case that City had improved a single area of the team. Worse still, they were worse off in key positions. Money was spent, but the club’s strategy of targeting younger players, with a future resale value, narrowed the options and provided the first sign of conflicting priorities: to build for the future, or to go all out for promotion?
The values changed too. Out was the Phil Parkinson philosophy of character overriding ability, and ensuring City were packed full of players who could cope with a demanding Valley Parade crowd. No one doubts Jake Reeves, Dominic Poleon and Shay McCartan were hungry and full of desire to prove themselves, but signing for Bradford City was a big step up. The pressure clearly got to them, and an investment of around £400k in transfer fees has so far gone to waste.
It all left a squad lacking in depth and experience, leading to a huge reliance on key individuals to deliver. Charlie Wyke was head and shoulders better than any other striker on the books, causing huge problems on occasions he wasn’t available. Romain Vincelot’s experience in the middle of the park offered a calming presence to edgy, younger minds, before his form dropped off. Without a left-sided central defender, Matt Kilgallon’s leadership at the back was vital in supporting Nat Knight-Percival playing on his wrong side. Colin Doyle’s superiority in goal led to regular dashes back from international duty with Republic of Ireland.
Not every summer signing was poor. Paul Taylor was a joy to watch, providing some memorable goals. Adam Chicksen looks a decent player, unfortunate with injuries. Tyrell Robinson – signed just before Wembley at the end of last season – seems a real talent. But ultimately, City just weren’t as strong as the season before.
3) January misjudgements
Edin Rahic’s last proper interview with the T&A hasn’t aged well. In January he talked up the Bantams top-two chances. “It’s about proper recruitment and supporting what Stuart is doing with the team in terms of getting the best out of the players and as a team we all believe in this together.”
Unfortunately, hindsight suggests that January did not see “proper recruitment”. City went into the transfer window in fifth place, comfortably inside the play offs, but very evidently lacking in strength and depth. There was an expectation of serious business from City, stoked up by a public bid for Kieffer Moore. But very little happened for weeks, with the urgency to strengthen heighted by the team’s collapse in form.
Stuart McCall went through January without a senior full back available, and was stuck between two back-up goalkeepers – neither of whom were good enough. Charlie Wyke was injured again, and the lack of alternative options saw Knight-Percival thrust up front. Just before the window closed, some decent signings were belatedly made. But it wasn’t enough for what was needed, especially in attack.
The January talk of competing for the top two suggests a misguided internal belief that the squad was better than it was. Simon Grayson has declared he would have strengthened the squad more had he been in charge at the time, ignoring the reality that the transfer committee was dictating the approach. But certainly an addition of a Luke Hendrie, a Kristian Dennis and a better number two goalkeeper could have made a huge difference.
Finally, there was arguably a misjudgement of what other League One clubs would do. All our promotion rivals strengthened, even the likes of promotion certainties Wigan and Blackburn. City’s window activity wasn’t enough to keep up with their peers, when we all hoped it would give us the edge.
4) Sacking Stuart McCall
There is little more to say about the rights and wrongs of McCall’s dismissal, but even his most ardent critic will struggle to present a credible argument that the decision to sack him worked out. McCall was not perfect, but the frustration at the time – and now – remains that collective failings were behind the club’s slump in form. To single out the manager, and believe swapping him would solve the downturn, has proven misguided.
Worse still is the backlash sacking McCall created. Whilst a minority of fans were calling for McCall to go, most remained right behind him and believed that, at worst, he deserved more time. The January recruitment and injury issues, the fact he had the best managerial win ratio for 30 years, not to mention City still being in the play offs, afforded him the chance to address the first bad run of form since his return, 19 months earlier. A decision was made that the majority of fans disagreed with, and that made it a huge, huge call that you either get right or are heavily criticised for.
“We had to apply the brake” was Stefan Rupp’s justification, adding he and Rahic’s belief was a change would give City a better chance of reaching the play offs. Obviously, that didn’t happen. Even after recruiting their number one target, Grayson, to replace McCall.
McCall’s record earned him the right to fail, and – if needed – to bow out this summer, his contract not renewed. Sacking him put huge pressure on the owners, which they failed to deal with. And it has given momentum to an anti-owner feeling that has grown and grown.
In a city like Bradford, and a club like Bradford City, racism should never be tolerated. The players and non-playing staff have a responsibility to live up to this basic value at all times; anyone who doesn’t should be shown the door. As supporters, we also have a big role to play.
Edin Rahic has merited criticism, but some of the constructive comments directed towards him have been overshadowed by a flurry of racist comments about his German heritage. It has clearly hurt the chairman to receive such mindless abuse, fuelling his own disappointment in all Bradford City supporters.
Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s background should play absolutely no part in how they judged – and shame on anyone who has used it as a reason to attack them. We live in strange times of Brexit and Donald Trump, which is fuelling a Little Englander attitude that sadly seems to extent to Bradford. Whilst, undoubtedly, Rahic and Rupp’s heritage has caused them to go on a steep learning curve in understanding the culture and history of Bradford City, you shouldn’t have to be from Bradford to be considered able to understand the club.
Germans have actually played a key role in Bradford’s history. In the city’s Victorian heyday, it was a leading global economic player due to its wool trade. And around 1,500 Germans settled in the city. They brought with them the contacts, expertise and know-how to sell Bradford’s wool products around the world, helping to make the city rich. They settled in the area now known as Little Germany, and their reluctant departure from the city – when the Great War broke out in 1914 – was a contributory factor in Bradford’s economic decline.
Rahic and Rupp’s German and European background should be a positive, and their different way of thinking, married up with Bradford’s values of hard work, could in theory prove be a potent combination.
Racism is unacceptable. End of. And anyone who attacks the owners in a racist or xenophobic way should be strongly condemned. They are making us all look very bad.
6) The lack of leadership
Not that the above is an excuse for the owners’ absent leadership during these tough times. It’s not just going through a period of not attending games, but Edin Rahic’s lack of public comments in the wake of City’s season collapsing won’t be quickly forgotten. At a time when strong direction and positivity was needed, and a wider understanding of the overall strategy essential, the silence has been deafening.
Rahic’s lack of leadership from the front has left him wide open to huge swathes of criticism. He remains liked and supported by a section of City supporters, which gives him something to build on, but it shouldn’t be solely their job to defend what to others feels like the indefensible. Rahic will be criticised for what he says in public, like his questionable performance at the March fans forum. He cannot control the debate, but he can positively influence the way he is judged.
Be humble. Admit you’re on a learning curve (who wouldn’t be, in his shoes?) and paint a vision of the future that we can buy into. Stefan Rupp’s apology at the player of the season award’s night was a great start, and kudos to him for that. But I think a lot of fans would like one from Rahic too. After all, Rupp is basically a silent partner, not responsible for the day to day running of the club.
The reality for every Bradford City chairman in the club’s history – for every chairman in the land, for that matter – is that you’re going to be criticised for what you do and don’t do. People will have unfair expectations of what you should be doing. You will be blamed for someone else’s mistakes. But strong leadership is about accepting and embracing such pressure. About leading from the front.
7) The players downing tools
Of course, Rahic cannot be solely blamed for the dismal second half to Bradford City’s season, even if he is seemingly the catalyst for much of the disgruntlement expressed by the players.
For three months, a decent-but-limited side seemingly downed tools. They stopped playing for whoever was the manager, which means they ultimately stopped playing for the club. Their grievances may start to come out more publically during the summer, as they move on to pastures new and seek to justify their poor form. But as fans, we were the people who suffered most from their collapse. It hurts to watch players looking like they don’t care.
This is a club that in recent years has been driven by Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, Stephen Darby and James Meredith. Groups of players who gave everything to the cause, who will be long remembered and celebrated for what they achieved. The current lot didn’t wake up until the loud blast of criticism that followed the 5-0 humbling to Blackpool, and even after they did start to recover, seemed a little prematurely pleased with themselves for winning a couple of games. And that has only added to the frustrations we supporters feel.
I’m not a fan of player-bashing. It seems too easy and is often unfair. But this group of players have left us short-changed over the second half of the season. There won’t be much sadness if most of them leave.
8) Dominic Poleon’s misses
19 minutes into the second league match of Bradford City’s season, at Gillingham, Poleon finished smartly from an Alex Jones cross to net what proved to be the winning goal. Just before half time on the same afternoon, Poleon rounded the goalkeeper and yet somehow missed an open goal. A 45-minute personal performance that set the tone for his season.
When on form, Poleon is a good player at this level. He plays with an intensity, harasses defenders, runs at people and causes lots of problems. Poleon’s flaw is that he cannot sustain this level of performance, and too often has looked very ordinary.
And the misses have stacked up, especially one-on-ones. He has netted seven goals this season, but probably should be pushing 15. His one-yard miss at home to Southend on Saturday summed up his failings.
“How did he miss?” A question that has been asked to often of Poleon this season.
9) The anti-Bantams Family movement
Whilst the last few home games have been sparely attended, this was the season of a record number of season ticket holders – and in that respect, the club has never been as big. But progress has its growing pains, and for parts of the season there was an unwelcoming tone directed towards more newly acquired fans, and to those who have become more engaged with following the club.
That has particularly manifested itself during away games where – just like at Valley Parade – the atmosphere amongst City supporters has dipped. The blame for this has been squared at families, who have begun to follow City on the road in larger numbers. Only they don’t want to stand for 90 minutes, complain if the person in front is standing and blocking their view, and they are less likely to join in with chanting.
For those who follow City all over the country, the dampening of the atmosphere – and of having to sit down because they’re blocking other people’s view – has led to a backlash towards the club’s Bantams Family mantra. And vocal demands, on social media, of the “Bantams Family” to not go to away games. For the recent trip to Blackburn, one supporter told me via Twitter that I was not welcome unless I was prepared to stand all game. As it happens, I was more than happy to. But that’s not really the point.
As a supporter of 20 years, I find this whole thing a bit sad. I’ve spent many years travelling to most away games in a season, and love to stand even in seating areas. There is also nothing worse than travelling half way across the country to sit in near silence. But equally, I’m now a dad with a four-year-old who enjoys coming to games, and I find the idea that we are not welcome by some people contrary to the values of the club.
I wish there was a sensible approach taken to away games. If only we as fans could pick where we sit, like at home games, you could have the first few rows of the away end reserved for families and people who don’t want to stand up, and those who do could select seats further back. Of course, clubs and/or authorities won’t ever adopt such an approach. It’s too much effort, and having the hardcore standers placed together could cause issues. But the clashes between City supporters, which are occurring too often at away games, are no fun for anyone. Supporters who have adopted a more positive stance in adversity, and continued to cheer on the team when others feel we should all turn our backs, have also been attacked on social media.
City will never be such a big club that we can afford to be choosy and alienate groups of fans. And the Bantams Family mantra is not new. When I first started following the club under the Geoffrey Richmond years, he often marketed the tagline that Bradford City was “the family club”.
As a community of passionate individuals, we never agree on everything and debate is healthy. But I don’t enjoy seeing some fans openly slating others. It’s never going to end well.
10) The mood
As Bradford City fans we’ve had it bad – a lot worse – than a season missing out on the play offs. Yet in some ways the mood amongst fans is as dark as it has ever been about on the field matters. Even long-time City fans, who have supported the club for decades, tell me they can’t remember this level of negativity.
We see not only more recent, less committed fans turning their backs on the club, but long-time supporters vowing not to go to the final few games or even failing to renew their season tickets. Renewals are down by a third. People feel very strongly about what has happened, and with a tricky summer ahead the mood may get worse.
Hopefully we can all return in August feeling refreshed, reenergised and reassured. And the 2018/19 season will prove a much happier tale than the disappointing way this campaign turned out.
Coming soon on Width of a Post – the five positives of the 2017/18 season