By Jason McKeown
They are smiling again at Bradford City, everywhere you look.
Smiles from supporters, especially those who packed out Spotland to loudly cheer on the Bantams’ third win in four games. The atmosphere and enthusiasm levels were so high, it was as if City were closing in on promotion rather than the reality of fighting to avoid the drop.
Smiles from the players, who performed with astonishing gusto and confidence, utterly dominating a Rochdale side who had begun the afternoon nine points clear of their guests. Pretty much every Bradford City player is on top of their game, and are playing with wonderful freedom. The shackles are off, and boy do they look like they’re having fun.
Smiles from the manager, David Hopkin, who has come through the other side of a really difficult start to life in the Valley Parade dugout. For weeks he struggled to get a tune out of the poorly built squad he inherited. He tried in vain to swim against the tide of negativity engulfing the club, none of which had been his making. At one stage, it appeared he was about to walk away. But Hopkin stuck it out, and has ultimately been able to construct a team who believes in what he is trying to do, and who are embracing the responsibility he gives them.
Smiles from the coaching staff behind Hopkin. It took a curiously long time for Hopkin to be able to make the backroom changes he desired, but now his coaching team is more of his choosing and everyone is reaping the benefits. Assistant coach Anton McElhone only joined the club at the start of this month, but the experienced former Tottenham, Hibs and New England Revolution coach has brought fresh ideas and impetus to aid Hopkin and Martin Drury. And Ben Nicholson’s efforts as performance coach, joining City under the radar at the end of August, are now evidently bearing fruit too.
Smiles from the boardroom, where Julian Rhodes’ calm, assured supervision has brought confidence that has spread throughout the club. Chairman Stefan Rupp is able to leave his considerable investment in the day-to-day hands of someone he can genuinely trust.
Smiles from non-playing staff at the club, who have a greater spring in their step and talk with relish at being given the power and freedom to undertake their role with support and belief from those higher up.
Infectious. Warranted. Instrumental.
The turnaround in Bradford City’s fortunes is just astonishing. It is only 10 short weeks ago that Rochdale defeated the Bantams 2-0 at Valley Parade, aided by the home side gifting them two late penalties and spurning gilt-edged opportunities. The sheer ineptitude of Bradford City that day was maddening, but it was only the prelude to a week that continued with a dismal 4-2 home loss to Coventry, before concluding with a 4-0 collapse at Gillingham. History will show that horror week – three defeats, 10 conceded – to be the low point of the Edin Rahic era. The tipping point, which the former chairman would never recover from.
And though there was still more pain to follow, over these subsequent 10 weeks we saw the crucial handing over of control from Rahic to Rhodes, and eventually Rahic’s dishonourable exit from Valley Parade. It truly is remarkable just how much Rahic’s departure has lifted the mood of everyone. A dark cloud removed, giving way to the bluest of skies. Many of us predicted tough times in the aftermath of Rahic’s demise, given the scale of the mess he had created. But the positive effects of his exit have given everyone greater zest in tackling the clear-up, and allowed us to come together to move forwards.
Rahic was known for his over-bearing, aggressive and authoritarian approach. Without him, positive leadership has been allowed to emerge, and it is flourishing on and off the field. It has allowed City to make a genuine fist of this relegation battle, and is fuelling rising confidence that this is a fight the club will ultimately win handsomely.
Certainly the way the players performed at Spotland was far removed from that you would associate with a side struggling at the bottom. They were utterly dominant from the first whistle to the last. Not just by scrapping for their lives, but by producing terrific, attack-minded football that the demoralised hosts simply couldn’t live with. The Hopkin press has been hugely effective during recent home games, but this was some statement to go to someone’s else backyard and basically play like the home team.
The City players owned the place. I’ve been to every single City away trip to Spotland since relegation to League Two in 2007, and over the years I’ve witnessed some fine Bantams victories here. But this was on another level. Every single player, even the much-maligned Adam Chicksen, was on top of their game. They easily won their individual battles. They linked up together with buoyancy, producing a vibrant and bold display that few teams in League One would be able to live with.
It was City’s day for sure. They played on the front foot and kept the home side’s American stopper Brendan Moore busy from the off, taking a deserved lead at the midway point of the first half; when a Jack Payne corner saw Eoin Doyle’s header brilliantly saved, but a statuesque home defence left Nathaniel Knight-Percival to slam home the loose ball.
City didn’t let up all half, but went in at the break somehow only a goal up. There were fears in the bustling away end that we could be left to rue missed opportunities, but only three minutes after the restart, Payne picked out Anthony O’Connor to make it 2-0. On the hour mark, Ryan Delaney brought down Doyle in the area, and the City number nine dusted himself down to convert from the spot.
That third goal had come a minute after Rochdale finally managed to muster a shot towards Richard O’Donnell’s goal. In the 63rd minute, Dale achieved a first shot on target. The final stats would show City had four times as many attempts at goal, and on target, than the home side. Ultimately, Rochdale couldn’t lay a glove on the Bantams.
The fourth and final goal came from a wonderful dipping volley by substitute George Miller. The last time City won so convincingly on the road was the 4-0 demolition of Peterborough in February 2016, when Josh Cullen made his debut. That makes this City’s joint-biggest away win since September 2005, when they won a League Cup tie 5-0. The opponents? Rochdale. Dean Windass got a hat trick at Spotland that night.
You can go through every player and sing their praises here. At the back, the decision by Hopkin to revert to three centre halves paid off. Ryan McGowan came into the team for the Scunthorpe match and has taken his chance superbly. He looks back to the player we first signed in the final days of Stuart McCall last January. Alongside him Nathaniel Knight-Percival has found his best form, and Anthony O’Connor is settling into an excellent centre half, well worth that three-year deal he signed in the summer.
Of the wing backs, Paul Caddis has been a revelation since arriving, and brings a street-wise edge combined with tremendous energy levels; whilst Chicksen reminded everyone what he can offer if he can get his form right. Protecting the defence, Jim O’Brien was outstanding in the middle of the park. He won everything and pressed superbly. Lewis O’Brien was his usual excellent self.
In attack, David Ball continues to play with a swagger. Doyle belatedly looks like a true number nine, and did especially well given in the past he has struggled as a lone striker. And though O’Donnell was relatively quiet, his distribution caught the eye today. He played several long kicks right to where Doyle could cause problems.
That all leaves us to talk about one man. Jack Payne. What else is there to say? Early doors this season, under Michael Collins’ muddled-management, I feared that Payne would ultimately be viewed as a luxury player who might be pushed onto the fringes. But Hopkin has built his attack around Payne, with superb results. The 24-year-old has revelled in the responsibility and produced a series of breathtaking displays. He was the best player on the pitch once again. Everything good about City goes through him.
In a December where City have scored 19 goals in seven games, Payne is surely nailed on to be shortlisted for League One player of the month, and it is hard to imagine anyone beating him to the prize. At his absolute best, there are flashes of Robbie Blake in his City pomp about Payne. You are genuinely excited to turn up and watch him play. Keeping him beyond January is by no means a given – though surely crucial for City’s chances of avoiding the drop – but whatever the future holds, it is a privilege to watch him play. On current form, Payne would walk into any City team we’ve had since our return to this level, six seasons ago.
With other teams around City finding some form, this relegation battle still has many twists and turns to go. City remain just inside the bottom four, with a clutch of clubs including Rochdale getting dragged back into the swamp. But if City can keep performing in this manner, they should have nothing to worry about.
Ultimately, though, there is a bittersweet feeling to all of this. The scars of 2018 are still visible, and the problems Rahic’s dreadful leadership caused leaves a challenging legacy to repair. Whilst the bond that ties us all together is back in place, and supporter-player relations are getting back towards the levels seen in the recent past, it cannot be forgotten that this is the most expensively assembled squad since 2002.
To avoid relegation, when at one stage City were seven points adrift, would be a tremendous achievement. But for us to end 2018 merely hopeful of staying in League One is an almighty revision of expectations compared to how we started the year. It isn’t a great return on investment.
The 2018/19 season will go down as many things, but first and foremost it will be viewed as a missed opportunity. In the summer the club had the resources to really push for promotion. But exceptionally poor leadership led to us slumping to the bottom of the league. The pain of the autumn was in some ways worth going through, given it made Rahic’s position untenable. But imagine what could have been achieved this season, had we gone through last summer with a competent chairman and a proper manager?
Thank goodness, then, that Julian Rhodes has returned to pick up the pieces. That in David Hopkin we now have a manager who can not only salvage a desperate situation, but who can genuinely build something special over the next couple of years. That within a squad who made a dismal early impression on their Bradford public, there has emerged 16 or so players with the right character and mentality to play like Bradford City players.
The first half of 2019 will probably be a bumpy ride, but the long-term future is looking bright. And that’s why everyone’s smiling.