By Katie Whyatt
Given recent events, it feels ludicrous to think there was once a time when Bradford City’s problems were almost exclusively of the “why can’t we fit TWO above average League One left backs in James Meredith AND Greg Leigh at the same time?” nature. A week of PR Battleships began on Monday when The Daily Star delivered the first blow, and, while it’s always necessary to treat the words of anonymous ‘club sources’ with a degree of scepticism, seeing the same refrains that had pockmarked social media for months aired in the national press was always going to cause consternation inside Valley Parade. The Blackpool Gazette followed suit the following day, running an interview with City’s former fitness coach Chris Short titled: ‘I deserved more respect at Bradford’.
It is scarcely believable that City, once well-placed enough to fret over trivialities like whether the last digit on the scoreboard was a three or an eight, spent the earlier part of their week caught in thornier brambles. The days of Phil Parkinson debating the relative merits of Leigh and Meredith, losing about as much sleep over the issue as a man toying between a Ferrero Rocher and a Lindt Truffle after Christmas dinner, have taken on a different quality, pointed and sharp, a fragile memory drifting on a dangerous wind. That selection issue was a welcome dilemma for a team that knew, for the most part, what it was, and was well aware of its limitations. Parkinson was adding extra oil for barely audible creaking compared to the churning, thrashing, squealing juggernaut of bad publicity that has crashed and careered down the tracks this week.
Of course, one always has to temper nostalgia, and that regime had its faults – but it is nothing if not sad for all involved that events of 2018 have culminated in Edin Rahic issuing an apology that has proven typically divisive. Rahic’s second full calendar year at the helm has been defined by a litany of ill-advised decisions (and, I mean, take your pick: from the premature sacking and almost-banning of Stuart McCall to appointing a 32-year-old head coach who didn’t even apply for the post), and last night’s statement, issued three days ahead of a home game against Charlton, was timely.
“I am truly sorry for some of the decisions I have made – which have resulted in a loss of momentum,” Rahic said. “I understand some of our supporters are hurting at the moment and so am I. I feel responsible and accept I am open and perhaps deserving of some of the criticism which has come my way. The appointment of the coaching team – and Michael Collins as head coach – did not work out and I am responsible for this. He received our full backing from day one, as did the playing squad and his fellow staff. But the results did not come on the field.”
It is, to Rahic’s credit, something of a start. For some, the co-chairman’s words felt sincere, and it is likely that Rahic, still relatively new to football ownership, has learned a lot from a bruising second season at the reins.
If he could turn back time, he probably would hesitate before throwing McCall from the ejector seat, or pause before drawing Simon Grayson from the ‘in case of emergency break’ box. After all, not one moment of the tragicomedy that has followed has vindicated that first big call. The tepid, lukewarm football of 2018 has proved particularly thin gruel compared to McCall’s more bounteous harvest. Rahic’s contemptuous treatment of his former head coach – in particular, the alleged attempt to ban McCall from covering the Shrewsbury game for Sky on ‘safety grounds’ (I’m assuming they feared McCall would sink into the quicksands of the Valley Parade pitch) – needlessly stoked fan ire.
There were so many ill-considered missteps, Rahic lumbering from one wrong move to the next like Sideshow Bob thwacking through a yard of rakes, and all of them probably could have been prevented had Rahic consulted more closely with willing, well-placed advisers.
For others, though, Wednesday’s statement was no more than a hollow sticking plaster to a still-gaping wound. We have been here before. Rahic, for what it’s worth, gave an unconvincing performance at last season’s Fans’ Forum. Stefan Rupp, you might recall, used the words “we’ve learned our lesson” at last season’s Player of the Year Awards, and perhaps it would be reasonable to wonder why Rahic’s “full backing” of Collins never extended to vocally supporting his head coach in public when the going got tough.
In any case, both sides of City’s fractured fanbase would probably agree that this needs to inspire concrete change among the powers that be. If Rahic finds himself uttering the same words at any point in 2019, and Hopkin departs parroting the same list of grievances that have soundtracked Rahic’s tenure like an incessant echo, the thought of where that leaves the public reputation of a regime that has already churned its way through five head coaches is unsettling. Because of all the accusations that have plagued the club during this annus horriblis, perhaps the one that will cut Rahic the deepest is that City’s identity, once so well-defined, has been irrecoverably fractured and lost.
The reception to Valley Parade’s 1911 Club was once overlooked by a portrait of Stuart McCall, beaming from the Main Stand beneath that same unchanging haircut, that was emblazoned with the words: “New era, same values”. It no doubt proves an apt symbol for the current state of the club, and its failings up to this point, to learn that glass photo has long been removed. To an extent, you can understand why Rahic, like a disconsolate lover Tippexing their ex out of the family album, Pictures of You blaring in the background, would want a clean break, given how emotive and politicised McCall’s departure ultimately became. But that’s not what this is about. The thing to take from this is that the club have demolished the final permanent reminder of a mission statement they should have clung to for all they were worth.
I mean, that’s genuinely what they said they would do. On the record. I give you: “We are looking forward to working with everyone associated with the club and respect its traditions. We do not have plans to make big changes but to work with the existing structure” (Rahic, May 2016). “We prefer to adopt these things soberly and conservatively” (Rupp, June 2016). “Football is not an industry where innovation is always needed” (Rahic, April 2017). They pledged to be “transparent and open” (Rahic, August 2016). Rahic made known his disdain for clubs who switch managers too quickly and disregard their overall strategy. His mission statement – play attractive football, develop young players – was hardly a secret. And the club’s template was all there for him, gleaming, ready to embrace him with open arms.
Instead, the values Parkinson bequeathed to them have been subject to the same treatment as most of their own principles: played with for a while and discarded. Grayson and David Hopkin are not known for being guardians of breathless, high-octane football. Michael Collins was not known for being a guardian of breathless, high-octane football. Their long-term strategy has seen five different head coaches take charge of games this calendar year. They pulled the plug on McCall after his first bad run. This apparently overarching ethos has tended to far more change than expected.
72 different players have played under them since 2016/17, and it cannot have escaped the owners’ notice that the vast majority of this playing group are viewed with indifference by a public that once filled City Park to welcome home its League Two heroes. This is a squad that, at the moment, lack the obvious spirit to accompany the bravado. As a rule, it is not a good sign when your centre half begins his assessment of the playing group with the words: “I’ve got to call a spade a spade.”
It can’t be encouraging, either, that, seven games into the season, their captain in Josh Wright is yet to exhibit any qualities of any kind of midfield leader: he does not boast the quiet guile or vision of an Andrés Iniesta, nor the relentess visibility of Gary Jones, nor the sheer obduracy of Scott Parker. Their previous ideals remain just that. Untouched, unused and overlooked.
It all means that very few of the conclusions you can draw from their opening games are actually positive. Based off the side’s first seven league games – the emphasis you want to place on those, given six of them came under a different head coach, is up to you – City are on course for 39 points this season. That would be their lowest total since their relegations in 2003/04 and 2001/02. That kind of points haul would have seen them relegated to League Two every season since Division Two was rebranded League One in 2004/05. They’d have finished 24th in three of those seasons.
Survival, then, is the first test Hopkin faces, but the extent to which Rahic can salvage the season hinges on far more than if City finish above the line. Livingston, the club Hopkin steered to the Scottish Premiership via back-to-back promotions, had his stamp all over the paintwork, apparently. Like Parkinson before him, and Chris Wilder at Sheffield United, and Eddie Howe at Bournemouth, and Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, and David Wagner at Huddersfield, and Sean Dyche at Burnley, Hopkin was one of an ever-shrinking cast of managers allowed to set the beat for everyone else to march to. That, of course, is unlikely to happen to the same degree here – to an extent, it’s simply modern football – but one would hope Rahic’s statement is a tacit agreement to curb his level of influence.
Hopkin, after all, likely possesses the force of personality and experience that Collins lacked, and it was a damning indictment of the latter’s City spell to hear Hopkin admit at his press conference on Thursday that he has had to re-introduce ice baths and protein bars to the players’ recovery plans. Ultimately, something must have changed for Hopkin to finally sign a contract for the club with whom he was supposedly in talks during the summer. You have to wonder what the sticking point was back then and what, months down the line, prompted the U-turn from both parties.
We may never know for sure, but the answer, I expect, will be self-evident over the coming weeks and months. Rahic is still very much in this for the long-haul, and he must hope his leadership, even with so much history, is not beyond repair. This is the same public who received Rahic so warmly when, in 2016, he bought the club and promised its best traits would be preserved. He still commands some support: there is nowhere near the universal loathing the chairman of Saturday’s opponents in Charlton, Roland Duchâtelet, has endured for several years.
For all the failings at Newcastle or Leyton Orient probably bear closer resemblance to some of Rahic’s early mistakes, Charlton’s own off-field issues, rightly or otherwise, will make comparisons likely over the weekend. Perhaps welcoming the team that is now home to three of McCall’s brightest stars in Josh Cullen, Billy Clarke and Mark Marshall will provide an opportune moment for Rahic to reflect on all that he, and the club, have lost in the 450 days since the 2017 play-off final. Maybe Rahic will look at Saturday’s opponents and see, as Ebenezer Scrooge did when he looked upon his gravestone, exactly how joyless for all involved the road to that level of discord really is.
In sacking Collins, Rahic interceded just before City fell off the cliff. In hiring Hopkin, he has a man who may, given time, pull them back from the brink and have his players’ thighs screaming with lactic acid in the process. It won’t be easy, it probably won’t be pretty and it definitely wasn’t part of the plan, but only if Rahic’s mea culpa proves genuine do City have a fighting chance of being anything other than what they are.