By Jason McKeown
In the 15 years I have been writing about Bradford City, I’ve always tried to preach the values of long-term thinking and patience. Of giving managers, players and owners time. Of not making rash judgements on just a handful of games. But I’m finding it very difficult to apply that logic right now.
It is early days in the season, and the six games so far have seen some glimpses of promise, most notably the opening day victory at Shrewsbury. But with the vision and strategy adopted by the club over the summer already difficult to buy into, it feels as though the four defeats so far are evidence of impending failure.
Yes, of course, in the famous Premier League promotion season of 1998/99, City got off to a woeful start before it came together gloriously. And had the club given into early season panic back then, it would have been the wrong call. But that was 20 years ago now, and it has never been repeated. Instead, bad starts of 2003/04, 2010/11 and 2011/12 have been preludes to dismal seasons. All too often, early impressions are reliable indicators of what lies in store.
So where does this season’s slow start leave Bradford City? First and foremost, it shows the hangover of last season stubbornly lingers on, and with it the mood in and around the club is bleak. It is unfair to write off new signings so quickly, and to turn on the team so readily, but as fans we’ve endured five months of poor football at the back end of last season, and our patience levels are exhausted. This is the legacy of 2017/18 that the new players must deal with.
Sadly, this is no longer the club of Gary Jones and Stephen Darby. The incredible bond between supporters and players, which took the club to such amazing heights between 2012 and 2017, is broken. It is going to take time to build it back. Ability is not everything to us supporters. We will generally always value dedication and bravery. As players hid from the ball against Wycombe Wanderers, they need to learn quickly that this simply won’t be tolerated. Give everything for the club, and mistakes will be more readily forgiven.
Michael Collins likes to talk about understanding the club, and both he and especially Greg Abbott would do well to teach the players what Bradford City is really all about – and about the players who have succeeded. Get Gary Jones in to do a talk. Invite supporters to speak to the team. Hold it in the 2013 suite. Let the team understand and start to embrace our history. If they can appreciate our values, they can hopefully start to play like Bradford City players. Our history should inspire them, not weigh them down – but it needs to be understood.
On Collins I have some sympathy. Quite frankly, he should not have been given the job. At 32, and just starting out in coaching, he needed to learn the ropes – not be thrust into this role and effectively hung out to dry. He can often talk in cliches, he needs media training, and he would do well to be a little more humble. But in reality, Edin Rahic’s confidence and belief in Collins’ coaching ability should have been developed behind the scenes for a few more years.
During the World Cup, several fans tried to draw comparisons between the bright way Gareth Southgate was managing England and what Collins could offer. It was grasping at straws – Southgate has over a decade worth of experience in coaching, he was never a novice – and crucially missed an important point. Until Southgate was thrust into the England role following a newspaper sting on Sam Allardyce, the FA was letting him develop by looking after England youth teams and learning behind the scenes.
This type of approach would have aided Collins. He might ultimately prove to be a good head coach at Bradford City, but thrown into the job now with such little experience, he has to make his inevitable mistakes out in public, and operates under the cloud of suspicion that he is a puppet of the chairman. He is facing a hard time simply because his public has no faith in his ability to do the job – or in the process that led to his appointment.
Collins embodies much of the problems holding back the club. Clever theory, but a lack of substance. Good ideas, but a huge struggle to bring them to life practically. A belief that being bold will bring high rewards, without fully grasping the risks.
At times City look very badly set up. We have yet to see a true style and identity in the way Collins wants them to play. The players – who call him Mickey, rather than boss or gaffer – seem to like him, but does he really inspire them? Is he good enough, yet, to lead the club? Was he the best pick or the most malleable choice?
Which brings us onto Edin Rahic. The central figure in the supporter unrest, and the increasing target of fans’ ire. Confidence in the direction that he is taking the club continues to dwindle. Anger levels are rising. It could start to get nasty very soon.
Rahic is here to stay it seems, save for the unlikely prospect of Stefan Rupp deciding to unseat his business partner. Any supporter campaign to drive Rahic out of the club will probably fail on account of the owners’ steadfast resolution to stay the course, and the uncertainty over whether anyone else could buy the club from them. It is counter-productive.
But clearly, there is a huge problem. The decisions taken over 2018 have been bad ones. The sacking of Stuart McCall in February was hugely controversial at the time. It now looks like one of the worst decisions in modern times. The 2017/18 collapse also saw the players roundly condemned and many departures over the summer that were cheered by many fans, but is it more to do with the environment and culture of the club? The treatment of Matt Kilgallon looks suspiciously troubling. It is hard to believe it is being taken purely for football reasons.
To look at it another way, in January 2018 a season collapsed. Since that point the manager has been sacked, and almost every member of the squad has been moved on. Yet the downturn has continued. The root cause of the collapse has yet to be addressed, it seems.
With Rahic reportedly a regular at training sessions, and the image that swirled around social media of him leaning over the director’s box at Southend to speak to his manager, it doesn’t look clever. The narrative that is prevailing right now is that the chairman is getting too involved in the footballing side of things, aided perhaps by an inexperienced young head coach who would find it difficult to tell his boss to mind his own business. And with more non-playing staff leaving the club in recent weeks, the impression from the outside is one of turmoil. Impressions can be wrong, but City have a big credibility problem and that stems from Rahic’s approach.
It leaves City facing three paths. They either continue on with this strategy, even though the direction of travel looks dark and downwards. Rahic and Rupp sell the club – not on the agenda. Or Rahic modifies his leadership approach to be less hands on. It would be wrong to blame everything bad on the chairman; but in just over two years at the helm, he has overseen and instigated massive change – and that makes him accountable.
I’d like to see change myself. Bring in a director of football with proven expertise. Appoint a new COO, or at least tap up James Mason for his experience and expertise before his notice period comes to an end. Rahic is in really deep now. If he sacks Collins, his credibility is further shot as the man who appointed him in the first place. And just how attractive will the Bradford City job look anyway? City are already on their third different manager/head coach this calendar year. It badly needs stability in the hotseat.
Rahic needs to support Collins, giving him all the help he needs. There is nothing wrong with not having all the answers. Get the support you need to make this work. It is not nice to see how unpopular Rahic has become, but football is increasingly full of owners who are disliked by their fans. This isn’t a time for egos. Start doing the right things and acting as a custodian of the club – rather than the perception of a dictator – and opinions will in time change. Ultimately, only success on the field can cure the current problems. That should be the focus.
To us supporters, Bradford City looks a mess. And it is going to turn really ugly very quickly, if things carry on as they are. If Edin Rahic wants to be successful, he has to start appreciating what the club is good at – or at least what it was good at. A storm is brewing, and he is going to find himself right in the eye of it unless things change very quickly.
Right now, the mood is as dark as I have known it – and the contrast feels especially sharp, given how only recently this club felt so together and powerful. I have heard fans wanting the club to lose games so that anti-Rahic protests will move closer. Others have become disengaged, and stopped attending games or caring. That is incredibly bleak. “It doesn’t feel like my club anymore” is repeated too often. It is heart-breaking to hear.
Who owns Bradford City: Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic, or 18,000 Bradford City supporters? The answer should be everyone. Instead, a power struggle lies ahead that come become horrible and self-destructive.
Long-term thinking is important, but it only works if you believe in the vision and have confidence it can work. Right now, as supporters we simply don’t have that.