“Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” George S Patton, American Solider
By Jason McKeown
The year is 1938. The setting is Harvard University, Massachusetts in the USA. The character is Albert Einstein. A hall full of students are sat at desks in silence, waiting to sit their final exams in physics. Einstein signals that they can all turn over their papers, look at the questions and begin the exam. The sound of dozens of pieces of paper being rustled can be heard, before a sense of nervousness suddenly fills the air. People look very confused by the questions that are lying in front of them. There has been a mistake, surely? One student plucks up the courage to break the silence, and speaks on behalf of the room. “Dr. Einstein, the questions in this year’s exam are the same as last year’s exam.”
“Don’t worry”, replies Einstein. “The answers are different this year.”
There are plenty of people within football who will be able to relate to this story. The Football League might be the oldest organised league in world football, but the primary objectives for every single club who is a part of it hasn’t changed in the 130-year history of the competition. Score more goals than the opposition. Win more matches than everybody else. Rise up the league ladder until you reach the top, and then try to stay there.
To achieve this, you need to have the best tactics and the best footballers. That means recruiting the best manager, coaches and players. To attract them you need to have the financial capability. To have the financial capability means developing a supporter base of people willing to pay to watch the team, and the business acumen to attract commercial and sponsorship revenue.
And as such, the questions are the same as they always have been. How do you outscore your opponents? How do you win more matches than you lose? How do you sign the best players? How do you develop a healthy budget? What has shifted is the landscape around these questions, which is why the answers change. The fierce competition that drives football has always led to a fast pace of change. Just as someone finds a strategy that outfoxes the competition, others eventually develop ways to copy or counteract it.
It is that drive to find new answers that leaves us to Bradford City’s strategy for the 2018/19 season. Two years on from Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s purchase of the club, we go into the new campaign with the Bantams now very much in the model the joint-owners talked about from day one. There has been a huge amount of change on and off the field, and the club seems very different now to eight months ago – never mind two years. Now, we find out if all the disruption has been worth it.
The answers Edin wants to put forward to take Bradford City forward include the introduction of a true head coach. A position Stuart McCall had held, but which had led to friction and argument. Rahic wants a head coach who will accept input of others, and to be part of – rather than leading – matters of recruitment. The chairman wants young players to be given an opportunity – more than McCall, and certainly Grayson, have provided over the past two seasons. He wants to win football matches of course, and for City to push for promotion. But he wants the club to grow through nurturing and selling youth. Through making wise and calculated moves in the transfer market. And through playing open and attacking football.
Which brings us on to Michael Collins. The new head coach, and the youngest manager in the Football League. The recruitment process was clearly fraught, with the very specific criteria for a head coach narrowing the focus to less conventional areas. It seems ludicrous, now, that Gary Megson expressed an interest in the vacancy. The disappointment lies in the fact a number of exciting candidates, who did fit the bill, couldn’t be persuaded to take up the reins. A Ben Garner or Robbie Stockdale would have been a great prospect to have. A coach who has learned the ropes and appears ready for this type of opportunity.
There can be no doubt that Collins represents a high risk. He might prove to be a very good head coach in time, but what if this opportunity has come too soon? Still playing for Halifax Town last season, and coaching City’s under 18s on a part-time basis (he wasn’t able to be present at every youth game he was overseeing due to playing commitments), his career path has been accelerated forwards a few steps. Collins talks about years of extensive study to prepare for this moment, which will no doubt stand him in good stead. But no one can say if he will or won’t be a success – the simple fact is he has not been part of this environment before.
The big test of Collins will come during the season, and in handling the bumps along the way. At some point, inevitably, City will lose a home game. In the stands, opinion will be split over whether the players were unlucky or under-performed. Perhaps some in the crowd will boo the players off, or Collins for a contentious sub decision.
How, in such raw and high pressure circumstances, will Collins react? What will he say to the players in the dressing room to get them to respond in the right way? How will he handle having to speak to the local press within minutes? And in dealing with a chairman who might have some tough questions? Collins has never been in this type of position before, or worked directly alongside anyone who has. Yet these are the moments that often define a manager.
The comparison has been made between Collins and Paul Jewell, Chris Kamara and Terry Dolan. City bosses of the recent past, who had never been a manager before, but who were very successful. But all these people spent time as assistant manager, learning about the role by working with someone else. Paul Jewell, for example, already knew the dressing room – and how to handle Geoffrey Richmond.
Ben Garner has spent the past year working closely with Tony Pulis as assistant head coach. Robbie Stockdale was first team coach under Sam Allardyce and then Chris Coleman. Both have been in the midst of the cauldron of football management pressures. Collins, in comparison, simply hasn’t.
Not that Collins is the only rookie boss in this situation. The 2018/19 season will see the football manager debuts of Joey Barton at Fleetwood, Frank Lampard at Derby County and Steven Gerrard at Rangers. None of this trio have more coaching experience than Collins, and will face the same alien challenges.
But that leads us on to a second, important point that might count against Collins – his stature. As a player, Collins spent the vast majority of his career playing in Leagues One and Two, save for one season in the Championship. His achievements are completely dwarfed by Barton, Lampard and Gerrard. This has absolutely no bearing on Collins’ head coach ability – as the old adage goes, great players do not make great managers – but it does affect how they are perceived. Fans of Fleetwood, Derby and Rangers will look up to their new managers. At City – as wholly unfair as it is to say – we will look down on ours.
What it means is Collins won’t get much of a honeymoon period with fans. We’ll need to be convinced that he is capable of doing the job, quickly, as it will be all too easy to dismiss him as out of his depth. Some supporters have already written him off and are waiting to see failure confirmed. Compare how you would be feeling now if Craig Bellamy had been given the head coach nod. Coaching experience-wise, very similar (although Collins hasn’t been coaching young players for as long), but how Bellamy would have been accepted is very different. I write this knowing full well it is completely unfair on Collins, and wrong he should be treated in that way. But the harsh reality is that is what’s going to happen. Football management, including head coaching, is a brutal profession.
It was similar when Paul Jewell got the job all those years ago. A lower league clogger, whose long service playing for Bradford City was hardly sparkling with distinction. Fans looked down on him at the time, with many failing to renew their season tickets. Jewell had to convince his public that he was the right man for the job. And that is what Collins must now do.
The final angle of doubts Collins must overcome is the conspiracy theory he is a puppet for Rahic. A head coach avatar for the chairman, to allow him to ultimately call the shots. Jewell was accused of it when Geoffrey Richmond gave him the job, and had to prove he wasn’t. Collins will need to do the same.
Mistakes are inevitable, but how quickly Collins adapts to the job and the way he leads during the ups and downs of the season will determine his fate. Rahic has a duty to really support his man. He has stuck his neck on the line by giving Collins the job – and if it doesn’t work it will be the chairman, rather than head coach, who receives the brunt of the criticism. If Rahic wants Collins to play young players, he must allow his head coach to do so without fear of the inevitable mixed results. Greg Abbott, too, is also vital. He at least has experience of management. Collins will really need his help and advice.
It will be a masterstroke if Collins works out. It is certainly a different answer to the old question, and one that might make sense. Ultimately, City need to have a head coach who can work with Rahic. McCall couldn’t. And though Grayson displayed no signs of antagonistic relations with the chairman, he ultimately chose to step away from working for him.
Rahic could have gone for another tried and tested manager and fans would have had an easier time accepting the choice. But if doing so just leads to the same outcome of strained chairman/manager relations, it probably wasn’t the right move.
At least Collins knows Rahic. And Rahic knows Collins. There should be no surprises. No false expectations.
The squad available to Collins looks stronger – much stronger – than last season. The transfer committee wasn’t on the back foot like it was last time, where it struggled and ultimately failed to recover from losing the services of key players. Even with the players they did recruit a year ago, there appeared to be obvious flaws in the records of Dominic Poleon, Paul Taylor and Shay McCartan. That when the chips were down, their past history didn’t suggest they would stand strong. And so it proved.
There are some clever, eye-catching bits of business to City’s summer recruitment. Several incomings have been of the calibre to make other clubs sit up and take note. In midfield especially, City look very well stocked. Up front, there remain some question marks – especially if Charlie Wyke is sold. But on paper the squad looks like top six material. It’s all down to the coaching and bringing it together.
And of course, the big challenge across the board is uniting this disunited football club. 2018 has been a rotten year for the Bantams, and it has taken its toll. City will play in front of lower crowds due to thousands not renewing. Others are still here, but sceptical about the direction of the club. It’s been a civil war at times between supporters. If that continues, the club is unlikely to succeed.
It is in no one’s interests to fail. Not any single Bradford City supporter. Not Rahic. Not Rupp. Not Collins. Not Abbott. Not Martin Drury. Not the players. Some fans are disillusioned and expecting failure – how great would it be to be proven wrong? Because if the negativity proves to be misplaced, that means the club is successful. Which is what we all want.
If Edin Rahic is parading around Wembley stadium in 10 months’ time, having helped to mastermind City’s promotion to the Championship, each and every one of us who questioned him will be celebrating alongside him.
That doesn’t mean it is wrong to apply a critical eye to the decisions of the last few months, or to be fearful – right now – about the future. Make no mistake, Rahic has a lot to prove. This is a defining season for Bradford City, where you have to hope all the turbulence of the last few months is shown to be worth it. That the answers Rahic has come up with to the age-old questions prove to be the right ones. Because if it goes wrong here, it could be very difficult to recover.
Rahic’s belief is that – by doing things differently to everyone else in the division – City can have a competitive advantage. That by merely replicating what Sunderland and other clubs with larger budgets do, you will always finish behind them. Has he got this approach right? And have others have got it wrong?
It’s time to find out.
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