By Katie Whyatt
There would probably never be a good time to receive the news that Stuart McCall has, for want of a better term, moved on. But reading that the former Bradford City boss has agreed to become Scunthorpe United’s new manager less than 48 hours after a showing almost unequivocally dubbed “one of the most inept Bradford City performances ever” feels comically cruel.
As tragicomedies go, this has all the grim tropes. Seeing the one you love materialise abruptly across a crowded bar, catching you unawares, is never easy – but it’s infinitely harder when you’re in a bit of a state, probably not that much of a catch at the moment and are already recovering from a humbling at the hands of League One rock star Gareth Ainsworth. Seeing McCall out with someone else, wearing claret twinned with a colour that’s plainly not amber, was a moment that was probably always going to come – but the forewarning doesn’t make it any easier to take. Mentally, you already begin steeling yourself for the next reunion. That’s 22/12/18, for those wondering, and at Valley Parade. It’s another cliched mark of a derailed love life that these encounters always seem to occur around Christmas.
Perhaps the sight is made a little harder to stomach with the realisation that this all comes on August bank holiday: the day when, in 2011, City announced the appointment of Phil Parkinson. In the aftermath of Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s takeover, two summers ago, it is hard to think of a person whose reputation took more of a battering than Parkinson’s. Almost overnight, he was branded a traitor, a turncoat, the love letters torn to shreds and his mug shot sellotaped instead to a pockmarked Valley Parade dartboard. The free-flowing zipping and gliding of McCall’s era could never be applauded without reference, with a cynical sort of glee, to what City used to be. Here was McCall, steadfastly refusing to play his team like robots, where once Parkinson had hunkered over a set of wind-up-and-go toys, all square edges and straight lines and join-the-dots while McCall’s charges freehanded on the walls.
Perhaps the surest sign of turning public sentiment, then, is Parkinson’s final restoration to his rightful place in Bradford City history. He is no longer the ex who bled City dry during the bitter divorce, running off with the backroom staff while muttering something about a pre-nup. Instead, he saw all of this coming: he got out at the first whiff of trouble.
All of which renders the Scunthorpe news a time to reflect on where, exactly, Bradford City have ended up two seasons on from Parkinson’s switch to Bolton. And it’s very difficult to do that without running over old ground. The stats are staggering but ultimately unsurprising. For instance, City never lost back-to-back league games during McCall’s first season of his second spell at the helm. They only did it once under him last season before the five defeats that saw him sacked. Yet they’ve never won back-to-back league games since his departure. Not once. It’s like McCall cursed them on his way out or something: the Oxford-Fleetwood header over December 2017 and January 2018 was the last time City did so.
Even the run of six successive defeats that spelled the end for McCall looks almost encouraging compared to the side’s current form. In McCall’s final 20 games, they managed eight wins. In the 21 games since sacking him, they’ve managed… five. They might even get bonus points for managing to somehow break Simon Grayson in the process, who left Valley Parade so jaded that he summarised his brief tenure with the words: “three months that felt like years”. Using that kind of maths, Michael Collins, 32, will have caught up to everyone else – the average age of Premier League managers in this country is 50 – by about February.
It rankles all the more given the knowledge of where City could have been had that fateful close season of 2016/17 worked out differently. Who could have imagined, as McCall stepped out under the Wembley arch, that less than two years later City would be hearing former captain Gary Jones boom: “forget about passing, shooting and all that – the first thing you have to do as a professional footballer is run around” into a radio microphone? James Meredith featured in all 46 of Millwall’s Championship games last season in his first campaign in the second tier, and it feels increasingly unlikely City will see a full-back of such natural finesse and nerve gracing their squad ever again. It is baffling that McCall, with football so indulgently easy on the eye they should ration it, was traded for… this.
I don’t think anyone even knows what ‘this’ is, or is supposed to be. You have to admire Collins for stepping up when seemingly no one else would – but six games in, the reality of appointing an unproven coach with no EFL managerial experience looks like exactly what you’d expect the reality of appointing an unproven coach with no EFL managerial experience to look like.
There is probably a good coach in Collins somewhere, given time. The theory is admirable: he has spoken at length of making every player feel valued, of the importance of a mentally strong squad that can block out distractions. He started his coaching badges at 25 and secured an audience with Mauricio Pochettino as he morphed from a middling lower-league midfielder to devoted football student. But it feels already like this moment, this pressure, this leadership structure, has come too early in his coaching journey for him. Eddie Howe, of course, was 31 when he hauled a desperate Bournemouth team out of the League Two relegation zone – but the effusive praise of former City and Cherries striker Alan Connell suggests Howe had a dressing room presence and tactical understanding that, at a similar age, was probably a few steps ahead of Collins’.
Collins’ post-match remarks about supporter negativity following Tuesday’s win over Burton were ill-advised in the extreme: they were made far worse by Saturday’s tepid offering. The concerns about a lack of identity have descended into accusations of a lack of commitment. All the while, all of this feels like it could have been so preventable. How were relationships between McCall and Rahic ever allowed to fracture to the point that a parting of the ways grew inevitable?
Which is not to suggest that Collins needs to go, but something, somewhere, either has to change or has to give. During the downturn of last season, as the defeats piled up for McCall, there was a widespread feeling that Rahic and Rupp never backed their manager as vocally or as publicly as they should have done. Will they make the same mistake here? No one could really argue McCall or Grayson were the head coaches Rahic, in an ideal world, would have gone for. McCall, truthfully, was an appointment made in haste, the rookie owners latching onto his legend status and vision at a time when supporter unrest was growing given Parkinson’s tumultuous departure. Grayson was stirred from an in-case-of-emergency-break box when promotion looked to be slipping into the distance, a final frantic throw of the dice in City’s halting play-off charge. Collins, then, is the first appointment Rahic has to live and die by, but at the moment the fanbase is sapped of morale.
At which point Rahic must remember that his Valley Parade crowd is, largely, a public willing to wipe the slate clean and move on. The anxieties about player recruitment were laid bare last season amid a maelstrom of rumour about infighting and micromanagement: McCall, it seemed, became the fall guy for a wider blend of failings. Yet over the close season, as the likes of Jack Payne and Sean Scannell and Hope Akpan and Eoin Doyle and Kelvin Mellor rocked up to the club with unusual regularity, the line “Edin knows football” was uttered with genuine sincerity. Now, with City looking miles away from the play-off-chasing side defender Ryan McGowan was utterly convinced they could be, those fateful words – “I know football” – risk adorning the epitaph of a season that risks being over before it’s even begun.