By Katie Whyatt
Midway through the first half against Bristol Rovers, Bradford City defender Ryan McGowan had decided enough was quite enough. This probably wasn’t the dream he was sold when he moved halfway around the world, leaping from Australia to Scotland to China to the United Arab Emirates and finally landing in Yorkshire, the week before a club teetering on the brink of crisis jammed their nuclear button and plummeted head-first into a litany of mistakes that they are now scrabbling hastily to undo.
McGowan watched the ball looping and swooping from forehead to forehead to patch of unclaimed land, watching it trickle lamely to the feet of nobody and no one before somebody would reluctantly claim it, restarting the cycle. Head, head, head, floor, half-hearted rallies and exchanges of possession that never lasted long. If the ball had spent much longer in the air it would have been eligible to apply for citizenship there, living out the rest of its life levitating 16 feet above the Valley Parade turf while men in claret shirts moved beneath it like figures in a model village.
McGowan took matters into his own hands. He collected the ball without much effort. He swerved past one man. He danced past another. He sat on the halfway line, and his pass to Eoin Doyle, all of three yards ahead of him, arrowed out for a throw-in on the right flank. It was as fitting a symbol as any for City’s afternoon: rare flashes of accountability were undermined by a lack of communication and technical failings.
The first point of David Hopkin’s reign, obtained at the fourth time of asking, was largely a difficult watch. This wasn’t what the Sky pundits would term ‘a great advert for the Football League’. The first half in particular was particularly tepid, the kind of thing you could have watched absent-mindedly while clicking your knitting needles together, or doing your ironing, or swiping through Tinder, or whatever other tasks and pastimes you might devote yourself to on an evening. It was, rather, probably how the uninitiated always imagine League One to be. It literally needed Adebayo Akinfenwa trying to flog you a t-shirt and you could have called house on your League One bingo card. Even the fourth official, in keeping with the mediocrity of the day, held up the wrong numbers for Eoin Doyle’s substitution. At that point, you could quite reasonably wonder where it was going to end.
There were, to be fair to City, a few positives. They hit the post twice – George Miller on the 25th minute and Sean Scannell on the 65th – Miller had a goal disallowed for offside and they should have had a penalty when Eoin Doyle’s shot was handled on the line by Tony Craig. In the second half, the effort was certainly there, and despite a smattering of death-defying moments as the game ticked to its conclusion they defended manfully, clung on and probably could – should - have nicked it. There were times in that second half when you wondered exactly what they’d have to do to get the ball across the line. The final 45 minutes, in fairness, was probably the best they have played for some time. The problem, though, is that the bar is so low.
For all the jinking runs of Sean Scannell, the toil of Jim O’Brien and Miller, the diligence of Richard O’Donnell, this was still pretty thin gruel. The days of Charlie Wyke plundering an August hat-trick against Bristol Rovers, the last time these two sides met in the league at Valley Parade, suddenly feel very distant indeed. It is hard to believe a centre back pairing of Matt Kilgallon and Nathaniel Knight-Percival spent that day blunting Billy Bodin last season when this game was a clash of 22nd against 17th. It has been… quite a year, in which much has been sacrificed and so much lost for very little, if any, gain.
Minutes before McGowan’s date with destiny, his centre back partner Anthony O’Connor played a pass behind Scannell, and as the Huddersfield Town winger twisted to make up the lost ground, O’Connor turned, tutted, threw his arms in the air in disgust and began arguing with thin air. Over his own error.
At that stage, as two below-par teams chugged through a largely unimpressive string of moves, it said a great deal. Perhaps O’Connor was angry at himself – in which case, fine. Every player should be their own biggest critic. Otherwise, it speaks volumes about the lack of accountability that has haunted this team – and the club – like a curse in 2018.
Five years ago, in November 2013, Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City side lost 3-0 to Rotherham, managed back then by Steve Evans, in the first round of the FA Cup. The History Makers were so ashamed at whatever they served up that day that they donated their wages to a children’s hospital. You’d think that was probably orchestrated at Gary Jones’ behest – he and Stephen Darby were two of the handful of players filling the back pages bearing an oversized comic cheque – but, really, it could have been the brainchild of any number of them. Rory McArdle, maybe. Jon McLaughlin. Andrew Davies. In any case, they all agreed to it, and they did it. They fronted up and they put things right. That was the standard right the way through the side.
Jones, of course, spent much of that season as one man holding back the tide. It’s easy to forget, five years on, that the 13/14 team, who once went 13 games without a win, may have tumbled back into League Two had it not been for the scintillating early form of Nahki Wells. But they wouldn’t have gone quietly. They didn’t do anything quietly, after all. Who that bore witnessed to Jones’ final few months in a Bradford City shirt could ever forget the sight of Jones, at 36 (!) years old, dragging, by sheer obduracy, the entire team to a 2-2 draw at Sheffield United during the nadir of that winless run, or doing the same again nearly a month later against Crewe, all while the words “his legs have gone” rang incessantly in his ears? That team were not going down – not on his watch.
Granted, few men are like Gary Jones or Stephen Darby. But during Jones’ all too brief stint at Valley Parade, enough of them were willing to try to be, and they followed him eagerly. Carl McHugh was 19, two years younger than yours truly, the night he lined up alongside Rory McArdle to face Arsenal in the League Cup. It was his twelfth game of senior football. The baby of the group, who’d had to cope with all the self-doubt and hand-wringing his release by Reading six months earlier could have triggered, was now raising the bar. It says something when 25-year-old O’Connor, for all he and McGowan steered their defence to their third clean sheet of the season today, could take some lessons in accountability from a teenager.
Not that anyone needs to really ram any point about Gary Jones’ leadership style home – there’s a five-foot canvas print of his face in the 2013 Suite that could do it for you – but perhaps the words of his former team mates hint at what may be lacking in this current City side. Striker Alan Connell simply said: “If Jonah said we were going to do something, we were doing it.” Goalkeeper Matt Duke told WOAP that Jones “led by example”, and “got onto the lads if things weren’t going right”, and it is hard to think of many players in this side – Jim O’Brien, Scannell and McGowan would probably be the obvious three – that could really claim with any sincerity to be doing any of those things.
David Hopkin revealed in one of his first press conferences that he had had to reintroduce ice baths and protein bars to the players’ recovery plans, and, while the efficacy of ice baths is contested, they are par for the course in football, and it is a damning indictment of the players’ own standards if none of them questioned the absence of them under Collins. I mean, what happened there? Did no one want to break rank, like how secondary school pupils can never be the one to remind the teacher they’d set homework?
Jim O’Brien insisted post-match “it’s turning”, but you do not expect a player to mutter the words “we’re gelling OK” almost a quarter of the way through the season, on September 29th. But this is the reality of a side that have started so far behind the eight ball, in a club that has churned already through so many plans and identities in the past year, like an indecisive teenager cycling through imperfect prom dresses, or Goldilocks huffing contrarily over porridges were somehow too hot, too cold and never just right, never near enough to what they had once had. The lack of accountability is not just confined to a squad hankering for an on-field leader; its origin lies off the field, in an owner who was, until recently, so reluctant to gaze upon his own reflection that he trapped Stuart McCall and Michael Collins behind the mirror instead, watching them gaze back at him, obscuring his vision of his own shortcomings as two different head coaches became the fall guys for a broader list of failings.
If nothing else, City are at least inching on from whatever they were supposed to be under Collins. They have, for now, stopped the rot, and there were genuinely patches today in which someone – usually Scannell – wrested control and exerted their will on proceedings, however briefly. They have gone from men drunkenly building Ikea furniture without instructions to at least having a head coach who brings a plan, a toolbox and screws to work with. The worry is that it has come too late – and might not be enough.