By Jason McKeown
In the wake of Simon Grayson failing to agree to stay on as Bradford City manager, the angle of criticism towards Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp writes itself. In two years at the helm, the German owners have managed to drive away arguably the second most successful manager in the club’s history, sacked the biggest City legend of all time, and now have failed to convince League One’s record promotion achiever.
Phil Parkinson, Stuart McCall and Simon Grayson is some managerial graveyard. There’s no getting away from the fact this turnover is hurting Rahic’s credibility. It’s a very bad look for the self-appointed head of football. And it all means the managerial vacancy that he and Rupp must fill, for a third time, is no longer as attractive an opportunity as it used to be. Just who will take it now?
But if you don’t mind, I won’t be picking up a pitchfork to go at Rahic on this matter myself. The truth is I find it hard to feel upset about Grayson walking away from Valley Parade. I am, naturally, concerned about the future and where this leaves the club. I just didn’t really view Grayson as the answer. And if, as the narrative suggests, talks over his future were a matter of whether Rahic and Rupp were willing to cede to Grayson’s demands, I’ve got some respect to them for not throwing away their own principles.
First of all, judging Grayson’s short time in charge of Bradford City doesn’t exactly encourage positive conclusions. He was brought in as a promotion specialist, handed the task of reviving the Bantams’ flagging season and getting them over the play off line. Just 15 points from a possible 42 wasn’t a particularly inspiring return, and ultimately City have finished eight points short of the top six.
Of course there were huge mitigating circumstances. The depths that the squad’s morale had sunk to, the negative atmosphere amongst supporters, and the absence for a time of Rahic, all meant that Grayson walked into something of a storm that was anything but his making. The spate of postponed matches, shortly after he took charge, was another momentum-stalling factor. You can argue, with conviction, that no manager could have turned the tide. And that it is unfair to judge Grayson harshly.
I get that view, I really do. But I still have concerns about the way he went managing the club. For a start, Grayson’s somewhat bold and borderline arrogant statements made him difficult to warm to. During his press conference unveiling he stated, “To get someone like myself is a coup for the club.” He was absolutely right, but should he have been the one saying it? It is strange to hear any manager speak so conceited.
Secondly, the way he went about trying to change the team’s style of play, mid-season, was perhaps ill-advised. Whilst Stuart McCall was not getting everything right, and could have benefited from being more pragmatic at times, Grayson moved the team away from their gung-ho attacking style into a defensive, conservative-minded side. Instead of going to win, it became about not losing. A huge pendulum swing.
The March home game with champions Wigan sticks in the mind, where Grayson and City tried to claim a 0-0 draw, losing to a last minute goal. There was logic to playing for a point – Wigan were the best team in the league, and the Bantams needed to stop the rut. But City had beaten Wigan on their own turf earlier in the season, by going all out to win at the DW Stadium. The attack-minded approach left some big holes, but it had kept City in the play offs for more than half a season. Clearly, it was working to a point. Did it have to be completely torn down?
The bottom line is that it is very, very difficult to change a team philosophy mid-season, in the midst of games (just ask David Wetherall and Peter Jackson from their stints taking over City mid-season). Pre-season – where there are weeks of training, and a clutch of pre-season friendlies to embed new things – is a more effective time to implement big changes. Grayson didn’t have that luxury. But perhaps by making more subtle alterations to City’s approach, he might have found greater success quicker. Certainly the players did not appear bought into his way of thinking until it was too late. In the meantime, Grayson publicly berated his players on too many occasions.
Thirdly, there is the style of football that ultimately emerged. After the Blackpool thrashing, Grayson got it tactically spot on in the 0-0 draw with high-flying Shrewsbury that followed – a game City could easily have won – and they followed it up with a commendable 3-1 victory over Portsmouth. But as results continued to improve, the approach remained direct, defensive and difficult to watch. Some strange line-ups – such as the persistence of Matty Lund on the left – added to the frustration.
There is very little, if anything, about what Grayson has done that you can’t understand. He was right to tackle the soft core in the Bradford City team, and with the players downing tools who can blame him for criticising them. It can also be argued Grayson would have improved the playing style after a close season of bringing in his own players.
I don’t doubt that with the right backing Grayson’s approach could bring success to Valley Parade. He is clearly a very intelligent manager, with an enviable track record. Had he decided to stay on, I would have been right behind him. But equally, I just found it hard to really warm to him. And struggled to believe his own motivations matched the club’s vision.
As for the talks with the owners, and the sticking points that couldn’t be resolved, it’s about balancing the club’s immediate pressures with the long-term strategy. When Grayson talks about how the owners need to learn to focus on the first team, rather than other attributes, alarm bells begin to ring. Whatever valid criticisms there is to be made about Rahic’s treatment of managers and players, he and Rupp have invested notably into the youth set up and funded a development squad. They want to bring through younger players, and either sell them for a profit or watch them grow playing for the club.
It’s not a perfect model and it is certainly not one that will deliver overnight success, but it can make Bradford City more self-sustainable in the long run. And that has to be a good thing.
Grayson words strongly a hint at a belief the club’s resources should be directed at the first team next season. Again that’s understandable given City’s ambition to get promotion to the Championship. But out-spending your rivals to gain success will only take you so far. It might earn a promotion out of League One, but what then? In the Championship, City would complete lack the resources to compete with clubs receiving millions of pounds revenue.
This weekend’s relegation of Burton and Barnsley from the Championship – the pair were promoted from League One in 2016 – underlines that point. We don’t want to get to the second tier just to fall back down within a couple of years. City need a better, more thought out plan to compete, the higher they get. They have to sign players in a different way, target areas of the transfer market undervalued by others. Bring through youngsters. Develop stars, rather than always buy them.
Stephen Warnock’s comments about the owners needing to dig deep help to frame the debate in a way that suggests Grayson not staying is because the owners won’t fund a larger budget. That may be true, and I’m as concerned as anyone that we might not have a budget to compete next season – especially to mount a play off push. But the financial lessons of 2002 and 2004 remain a vivid warning against speculating to accumulating. I don’t personally agree with the idea of throwing all resources into a promotion push next season. If it doesn’t work out – and getting promotion is a huge ask – you’ve got a problem. In 2008/09, City went for it in League Two, failed, were left short of money, and then struggled over the subsequent three seasons.
Like everyone else, I wish our owners were richer than they appear to be. That Stefan Rupp would chuck in more of his wealth. But we have to be realistic. I’ve been very critical of the way Rahic has operated over the past 12 months, and big concerns remain in place about the future. But I actually agree with many of his ideals and principles. He just needs to actually live up to them. Rupp too, with his statement about going for automatic promotion a year ago – only for the club to operate on a mid-table budget last season – also needs to start living up to reality.
Way back at his first fans forum, two years ago, Rahic underlined his belief that the long-term progression of the club that is important. He explained that he would rather draw 4-4, with Reece Webb-Foster scoring twice, than having a scrappy 1-0 win. The clips from Matter of Heart, of Rahic looking angry when City can “only” draw with Port Vale and Millwall, make it questionable whether he has truly lived up to those values. But if that remains his outlook, I can’t see him judging Grayson’s approach to be the right one.
Clearly, Grayson’s record makes him an expert that deserves huge respect. His four promotions at Blackpool, Leeds, Huddersfield and Preston have helped him to develop a significant level of knowledge and confidence. He knows the tools he needs to bring success, and is clear in asking for those tools (WOAP understands the hiring of a full time match analyst was a key sticking point). You wouldn’t call him a chequebook manager. But Grayson’s approach requires a certain level of investment in the here and now, and ultimately Rahic and Rupp have not been able to agree to it.
Grayson will get another job. And if he is successful, it will be another stick to beat Rahic and Rupp with. But we’ve seen how this can go wrong, with Peter Taylor in 2010 in almost the exact same situation. Taylor came in for a short-term period, laid out a set of demands, and agreed to stay on. He couldn’t deliver success, stepping down before the season was over, with fans fed up by his dour football. If Grayson is going to remain pragmatic, he better win football matches. And even the best laid plans can’t guarantee that.
So City are left looking for another manager, and Rahic and Rupp will do well to target someone who better fits their model. A coach who can bring through players, a motivator who will get the best out of the hand he has. Someone who cares about the club and the role they can play in taking it forward. A Stuart McCall then, although obviously someone else given the personality clash issues. And while they’re at it, a proper director of football, to work with the coach, would be welcome. As much as anything, the club needs a buffer between manager and owner.
Whatever route City go down, this is another test of Rahic’s leadership – and let’s hope the lessons are finally sinking in. He is going to get a lot of criticism for not keeping hold of Grayson, but he cannot hide. People in football will question his high turnover of good managers, so he’s going to have to be persuasive in order to bring in a high calibre replacement. He has ultimately rejected the short-term pragmatic approach of Grayson, which `means he needs to re-affirm and re-sell the vision he and Rupp have to take Bradford City all the way to the top.