By Katie Whyatt
It is a measure of what Bradford City have become in 2018 that no one can really pretend to be shocked by the news that their latest head coach has left the club after a grand total of 77 days. The season is six league games old and Michael Collins, who became the youngest boss in the EFL when he took up the post in pre-season, leaves at a time when, in any other job, he’d still be in his probationary period. The Telegraph and Argus have reported that former City midfielder David Hopkin will take charge, but Collins’ exit does little to mask the network of systemic and fundamental failings that have claimed their latest coach as collateral.
He departs with City 17th in the table, and the only real noteworthy accolade you can bestow on him is that his tenure has likely given us the last Bradford City team who will be able to say they were above Stuart McCall’s Scunthorpe in the table. Level on points, City are one league position higher, though it’s difficult to discern who, exactly, the dizzying height of 17th in League One is supposed to impress.
Not his employers, apparently, with Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp citing an “unsatisfactory start to the season”, with performances described as “not good enough” as grounds for Collins’ dismissal. It will be of scant consolation to anybody that Collins’ tenure lasted 33 days longer than Brian Clough’s ill-fated Leeds United spell, because even by the standards of the current managerial climate, this one is shockingly short. The average lifespan of a football manager in the four English leagues is 456 days: they got rid of Collins with 379 sunrises to spare.
In the 61-day search for Simon Grayson’s predecessor, you could have filled the Yellow Pages with all the names touted. From Paul Heckingbottom, dismissed by Leeds United while on holiday abroad, to Ben Garner, once Tony Pulis’ assistant manager at West Brom, the names came and went and vanished into the ether like a hushed confession dissolving in the wind.
To those on the outside, it would seem bizarre that City – who had finished in the play-offs for two seasons on the bounce before last season saw them hurtle into… whatever this dystopian reality is supposed to be – have struggled to not only hold down anything approaching a long-term relationship but also failed to attract anything like a suitable match. It was like Rahic was poring over the football managers’ equivalent of Tinder, iPhone in hand, mindlessly swiping through a list of suitors who would never, for all the will in the world, be able to bend into his elusive, uncompromising brief. In another life, someone like Heckingbottom probably would have taken this job in a shot: instead, they all watched on as the powers that be contrarily huffed and bleated over porridges that were too hot, too cold and never quite right.
In the event, they went for a man who didn’t even apply for the job, and you find yourself wondering how this came to pass. Was there, like, a staff AGM? Did Edin stand at the front of his employees and fill them in on the current situation? “If you’d like to manage this football club, raise your hand now.” Did Collins yawn, stretching both arms into the air? Did Edin respond with the words: “Michael! Well volunteered!”?
In all seriousness, it’s hard, in truth, to feel anything other than pity for Collins. It looks like he stepped up when seemingly no one else would. It was a brave thing to do at 32 – foolhardy, even. In time – again, in another life – maybe he could have made some sort of fist of this. He had his whole career ahead of him to discover the coach he would like to be, and it’s difficult to wish him anything but success given the problematic circumstances surrounding his first full-time role. The theory, after all, was admirable: you can’t go too far wrong if mental steel is your starting point. There was probably some part of him, in the deepest recesses of his heart, that yearned to emulate the club’s greatest modern-day manager in Phil Parkinson.
After all, Collins had waited all his life for a moment like this: a middling lower-league midfielder, he had started studying for his coaching badges at 25. As it was, he rarely came close to offering a passable imitation of the values – accountability being one – that worked so well for Parkinson. But when a chance like this appears, you take it. How could he have turned this down?
Perhaps the most damning thing about how ill-advised an appointment this was is that, even now, no one could really tell you anything about what the Michael Collins philosophy was. You can pluck terms out of the air but would any of them really fit? A high-press? Total football? Pragmatism? Can I get back to you in a week? More than half of their shots have been from outside the box this season and between the 59th and the 93rd minute against ten-man Fleetwood, they managed a grand total of zero shots. While losing. It’s hard to feel anything other than resignation when this team, inevitably, fall behind. The McCall team of 16/17 were the best side in the division at earning points from losing positions, yet their successors boast neither their mental resolve nor their on-the-ball flair.
This is a club that, on paper, was so attractive, so recently. There was so much for the right manager to make something of. This was a club that, in 2007, landed in the basement division with a thud that could rival all the Portsmouths and Wigans and Sunderlands of the world, still cash-strapped from maxing out every credit card going during their lads’ holiday to the Premier League at the turn of the millennium. There was hardly anything to get behind with any real verve or meaning. They lolled and staggered and stumbled from one plan to its polar opposite, desperately changing tact. It was by some miracle that Phil Parkinson – the club had rejected his first application, plumping instead for Peter Jackson – was unperturbed and came running back for a second shot at the job that will define his career for years.
Now, his handiwork has unravelled so spectacularly that the current situation genuinely satirises and parodies itself. Even the words of Parkinson, plucked from a WOAP interview with him in 2015, feel incongruous: “The day I leave, and Julian [Rhodes] and Mark [Lawn] leave the club, whoever comes in to replace us will see the fantastic structure we can get in place the club.”
One of the most disconcerting things about the head coach situation – and there’s a long list of things – is that Phil Parkinson was at Valley Parade for 4 years and 286 days. We are 246 days into 2018 and they have been through four head coaches this calendar year: McCall, Greg Abbott, Simon Grayson and Collins. And it feels, again, like Collins has become the fall-guy for myriad failings.
How can Collins possibly implement his own philosophy with a stack of players that arrived even before he did? Marcello Bielsa has shown the value of good coaching at Leeds, working wonders with the same unheralded players of last season, but we’re talking there about a manager Pep Guardiola dubbed “one of the best coaches in the world”. Guardiola went to extraordinary lengths to get the goalkeeper he wanted and spoke extensively of how costly not having the right full-backs proved in his first season at Manchester City.
Josh Wright and Joe Riley and Kelvin Mellor and Jack Payne are not made of Play-Doh. There’s only so much sculpting and twisting and pressing them beneath a cookie cutter you can do before you conclude they are not the players for you. It’s not even an endeavour worth undertaking when you don’t have a concrete idea of the shape you want to turn them into. It’s no coincidence that Parkinson’s most successful season at the helm followed a summer in which he had placed such a strong emphasis on recruitment, building a side that reflected his own values in every way.
Collins’ vision lacked similar clarity, but what, really, could he have done? How could he have built his own vision within parameters that look, from the outside, so constraining, so stifling, so predetermined? At some point, something will have to give at this club. There has to be some semblance of a compromise soon. Rupp’s assurances at last season’s Player of the Year Awards – that he and Edin had “learned their lesson” – already ring painfully hollow. The same mistakes are being repeated. It is difficult to remember a time when the Bradford City experience has been so riddled with anger at best and disillusion, apathy and indifference at worst.
Hopkin needs to prove an astute appointment. In the eyes of many, City have already sleepwalked down the path of no return.