By Jason McKeown
I’ll never forget Kai Bruenker’s debut for Bradford City.
Just over an hour had been played in a vital home game against AFC Wimbledon, last January, when the German forward was summoned from the bench. The Bantams were 2-0 down, staring at a fifth straight defeat. It was no fairytale impact. Bruenker ran around a lot, mistimed his headers and could barely trap the ball. City would lose 4-0, manager Stuart McCall would be sent to the stands and 10 days later would be sacked.
Bruenker walked into a football club stumbling towards an almighty mess, and his arrival from German fifth tier side SC Freiburg II became political. Famously, the-then 23-year-old’s arrival had come a few short weeks after Edin Rahic openly talked of trying to sign Kieffer Moore and that the club could achieve automatic promotion. The sudden collapse in form and struggle to make signings put the club under enormous pressure. For Bruenker to eventually rock up as the much vaunted new striker was met with incredulity.
Rahic claimed upon signing Bruenker that his fellow countryman would be an understudy to Charlie Wyke, easing the City number nine’s workload. Yet Bruenker’s underwhelming debut against Wimbledon saw him look hugely out of his depth. And the immediate pressure to turnaround a spiralling season was hardly the time to blood in a raw striker with a lot to learn.
As McCall was sacked and a backlash grew towards Rahic, Bruenker became a poster boy of all that was going wrong with the failing transfer recruitment strategy. Rahic had previously talked up his contacts in Germany and Bruenker wasn’t the first to be imported to West Yorkshire; but no one was making a good impression. Was this the best Rahic’s contacts could bring to Valley Parade, or was the self proclaimed head of football’s eye for a player this misguided? Either way, the signs were discouraging. Had Bruenker proved successful, Rahic would have held it up as an example of his expertise.
As Simon Grayson arrived at Valley Parade in an ultimately doomed attempt to rescue City’s promotion prospects, Bruenker was initially nudged away from the spotlight. But his enigma status meant there was an involuntary ripple of excitement when he did make a fleeting appearance. It was like a really bad reality TV show. You don’t want to watch, but can’t look away. He was a guilty pleasure.
In Grayson’s first victory, at home to Gillingham, Bruenker was a useful sub in getting City over the line. One particular moment, where a Gillingham player raced over to show Kai, only to bounce off the big man and fall to the floor, prompted a mixture of laughter and admiration from City fans.
As things got bleaker and Grayson lost patience with his underperforming charges, Bruenker was actually brought into the starting line up and given a run in the team. He did okay. Admittedly, he never looked like scoring. But at a time when the standards hit rock bottom, and so many players seemed to down tools, Bruenker’s work rate actually made him an example for others to follow.
The managerial merry-go-round at Valley Parade in 2018 was always going to cause some players to suffer. Bruenker barely got a look-in at the start of this season under Michael Collins, and was a bit-part player under David Hopkin. In early October, there was hope for him as his first start coincided with Hopkin’s first win in charge, away at Wimbledon. He actually scored a goal too, 10 days later, in a CheckaTrade home loss to Oldham. There were only 1,015 present that night to see his moment.
That goal earned him a start in the next game at Accrington, but a wretched personal display saw the knives out for Kai again. He would remain involved in squads, and produced his best game for the club when starting in the vital November victory over Oxford. Nevertheless, there was always a nagging suspicion that the next transfer window would see Bruenker fall down the pecking order, as better strikers came in. That his recent involvement was for pragmatic reasons, rather than a belief from Hopkin in his long-term potential.
Ultimately, we just haven’t seen enough improvement from Bruenker over his 12 months at Valley Parade. He lacks football intelligence. He makes poor runs. He routinely mistimes headers. His shooting ability is lacking. He doesn’t look likely to develop into a player good enough at this level. And as City look upwards, he was always going to be left behind.
Of course his work rate was impressive. He ran himself into the ground. He gave everything he had. These are qualities to admire, and they sort of made him a cult hero. I think all City fans wanted him to do well. If he could have scored a league goal in front of the Kop, the roof would have come off. Personally, I’d have loved to have seen his celebrations. And the look on his face.
The harsh reality is that work rate isn’t enough, and the transformation of the squad over recent weeks means Bruenker’s high effort no longer stands out. He worked so hard. But so does Payne. So does Ball. So does Lewis and Jim O’Brien, Doyle, Miller, Akpan, McGowan, O’Connor, Knight-Percival, Caddis, Chicksen, Wood, O’Donnell, etc etc. We are blessed right now to have a team of grafters.
Bruenker departs with best wishes – his honest endeavour means you’d need a heart of stone not to admire him, and his statement on leaving is classy. Hopefully, he goes onto have a successful career. But at Valley Parade, Bruenker is destined to be remembered as a figurehead of a strange and ultimately dark time for Bradford City. And of being the Barry Conlon for the 2010s.