By Jason McKeown
Some time after the final whistle had sounded at Valley Parade on Saturday, with the floodlights turned off on the empty stadium, the former Bradford City head of operations, David Baldwin, and the Bantams forward, Billy Clarke, warmly greeted each other at the back of the main stand lower tier.
Two men who had, in their own ways, played a significant part in the revival of Bradford City. Their respective periods at Valley Parade overlapped by just a few short months, but the lengthy chat said much about the strength of their relationship. They probably had much to talk about, but the current state of matters at Bradford City would have inevitably come up.
Both Baldwin and Clarke had left Bradford City with the club in a better position than when they had joined it. Baldwin, who has flourished in the chief executive role at Burnley, is still a semi-regular visitor to Valley Parade, after turning around the Bantams’ commercial fortunes between 2007 and 2014. Clarke has just recently returned to Bradford City, revealing he never wanted to leave in the first place. Saturday’s game with Plymouth Argyle was his first start for City at Valley Parade since the play off semi final victory over Fleetwood Town in May 2017; a game he played really well in, hitting the post during the first half.
For two men who dearly hold the club close to their hearts, they will surely share supporter anguish over the subsequent decline of Bradford City.
The club had been knocking so loudly on the door of the Championship. The supporter base had grown dramatically. The team was lauded as heroes, with players enjoying close relationships with supporters. First Phil Parkinson and then Stuart McCall were hugely popular managers. There was a tremendous atmosphere around the club. A widespread feeling that we were part of something special. Sharing and making memories that would be treasured for decades to come.
Fast forward to the present day, and the heart and soul of Bradford City remains damaged. Its recovery is slow and fragile. No longer looking up, City are scrambling in the quicksand of League One’s relegation zone, staring at the very real prospect of a return to the basement league. It’s incredibly tight, and survival remains very possible. But hope is ebbing away again, after two winnable-looking home games yielded just one point. The upcoming fixtures are starting to get significantly tougher.
As Baldwin and Clarke conversed, I was stood several feet away in the press box with the Pulse’s Jason Thornton, who was reading out a succession of tweets from supporters reacting to the Argyle stalemate. Some were blaming David Hopkin, others were sticking up for the City manager. Individual players were criticised. Many fans said we are doomed to relegation. Others that we live on to fight another day.
The criticism of Hopkin has grown in volume over the past fortnight. It’s harsh, but not without thought. As football supporters, it’s only natural that in difficult times we look for causes and scapegoats. When we invest so much time and money into something that we cannot directly control, there’s something psychologically comforting about the idea of an easy solution, such as the theory that a change of manager or player can herald a turnaround in fortunes.
Yet the difficult and unmovable reality of Bradford City’s current struggles is the ultimate blame for them is not with any present club employee, but someone who is no longer a part of Valley Parade. That person is Edin Rahic, and the troubled legacy he left behind continues to haunt the club.
The cause of Bradford City’s decline was long ago pinpointed and fixed, but the damage Rahic caused is considerable. At Valley Parade on a Saturday afternoon, it’s everywhere you look. Every contributory factor for why Bradford City are a shadow of what they are can be traced back to Rahic.
Just over 15,000 were officially at Valley Parade on Saturday, but the reality is it was likely to have been a much lower attendance. Empty seats have sprung up everywhere, when 18 months ago it was becoming a challenge to find spares on a matchday. Season ticket sales took a sharp dip for this season. And even with the very attractive season ticket offer for next term, it’s going to be a tough ask to better the reduced uptake next season.
It means the atmosphere at Valley Parade has become quieter, and less feverish than before. The Kop made some excellent noise during the second half against Argyle, but it hardly compares to the enthusiasm and vibrancy of a couple of years ago, when Valley Parade was considered to have one of the best atmospheres in the country.
Before the game on Saturday I had bumped into a couple of City fans who told me they weren’t going to the match. A few years ago, they were the type who followed the Bantams home and away. Everywhere we go. Now, they tell me they don’t have the enthusiasm to attend. They’d rather do something else that doesn’t risk ruining their mood for the next seven days. They and others tell me they’ve not felt the same about City since Rahic almost destroyed it. The scars do not heal quickly.
The team responded to the second half noise to produce a strong display that deserved the three points. But they don’t create enough good chances, and ultimately don’t score enough goals. Billy Clarke returns to Valley Parade after 19 months away, only to find there is just one dressing room survivor – Nathaniel Knight-Percival – from when he left. How on earth was that excellent City team of 2016/17 deconstructed so quickly? Why were history makers so readily consigned to history? It was madness.
It was broken up because of Rahic. Bad planning on the out of contract players after the play off final defeat, and then an ill-judged rush to remove anyone with a loyalty to Stuart McCall last summer. Whilst battling with his cancer treatment, Greg Abbott warned Rahic not to let the likes of Nicky Law, Timothee Dieng and Romain Vincelot join Colin Doyle and Tony McMahon in departing. The reason being that whilst these players were starting to decline, they would be very difficult to replace, especially for a similar cost. Not for the first time, Abbott’s judgement proved correct.
Phil Parkinson used to sign players because of their character, which helped to build a clear identity of who Bradford City were and what we stood for. With Rahic at the helm dictating transfers, the criteria for new players has been muddled, expensive and ill-judged. For a time Rahic used to argue that he was not holding the deciding vote on transfers. But that mask somewhat slipped last summer, when in-between head coaches he continued to make signings anyway. And the players he brought in when there was no manager to shape the decisions? The current outcasts, Josh Wright and Joe Riley. Go figure.
The fact City couldn’t get the well-compensated Wright and Riley off the books in January held back recruitment efforts to improve the squad. And Hopkin is largely left with a group of players that were not his choosing, with many on expensive deals that don’t run their course until the end of next season. The results of Rahic’s hands-on approach to transfers are there for all to see. A squad that supporters struggle to identify with, battling grimly to stay in League One, who cost more to assemble than the successful City teams of recent past. Just imagine what Parkinson and McCall could have achieved with a budget the size as this season’s?
Hopkin takes the flak in the dugout, but he walked into a club in chaos, falling apart at the seams. Parkinson had just one meeting with Rahic before realising he had to get away. McCall endured a frosty relationship with Edin, but despite this was able to keep City in the play off positions for 19 months. That he was dismissed with City sixth in the league looked far from clever at the time, but it now ranks as one of the most ill-judged decisions of Bradford City’s modern history.
Rahic’s sacking of a high-performing club legend was a major risk tactic that backfired badly. Simon Grayson, McCall’s replacement, brought a coldness to Valley Parade that never really endeared him to supporters. And then there was the utter farce of Michael Collins, who should never have been put in a position of being the club’s head coach. Hopkin took the reins to find a bloated, badly constructed squad that was ridiculously unfit following a dreadful pre-season. And there’s only so much he can do to change it.
That is not to say Hopkin is blameless. In recent weeks, the team has been found out and opposition managers have proved it is straightforward to stifle our creative players. So far, Hopkin has not been able to counter this with a different, more effective approach, and the team has not scored in three matches. His substitutions on Saturday were effective to a point, but he needed to take more risk to win the game.
When a club gets on a downwards spiral and starts going through managers quickly, it can be a difficult cycle to break. Manager X was sacked for a bad run of form, so surely Manager Y must go in similar circumstances? But at some stage, you have to stick with a manager during a difficult period so they have the necessary time to build foundations for future success. You need only look at the last two Bradford City promotion-winning managers – Paul Jewell and Phil Parkinson – for proof of the virtues of sticking with a manager over the long-term. Both had bad patches before they built successful teams. These lessons in history don’t mean that keeping Hopkin now guarantees he will be a success over time, but by sacking him we’ll certainly never know.
(And that’s before we consider the cost implications of sacking Hopkin, the high likelihood his coaching staff would follow, and the costs of bringing in someone else, which would further hurt the deficit.)
The irony is that appointing Hopkin might ultimately prove to be one of Rahic’s best decisions, but in the short-term the damage was done before it. Hopkin has been dealt an exceptionally poor hand, and truly placing his stamp on the squad will require a proper close season, much like Phil Parkinson was belatedly able to do in the summer of 2012.
In the meantime he makes do with a squad that has quality but lacks balance, performing on a Valley Parade pitch that is cutting up, suggesting the summer investment from Rahic and Stefan Rupp on the playing surface was not carried out as successfully as hoped. WOAP understands that, under Rahic, the club used heat lamps on the pitch 24/7, which quadrupled electricity bills.
Behind the scenes, commercial revenue is said to be down. Some sponsors have quietly let known their displeasure of how they were treated by Rahic. Julian Rhodes is trying to pick up the pieces and restore the club back to what it was. But with many good people from behind the scenes having left the club under Rahic’s tenure, the experience of what made Bradford City tick during the recent good times is understandably lacking.
Rhodes’ return has been vital in providing calm and experienced leadership during troubled times, with staff behind the scenes talking up the way the former chairman has empowered people and made them feel valued. At present, Rhodes is contracted only for the rest of this season, and there may be doubts over whether he would be willing to stay on. If the worst happens and Rhodes does leave, Rupp would do well to somehow attempt to persuade Baldwin to return.
The departure of Rahic was a source of great joy when it was confirmed in early December, and we saw the club embark on a welcome bounce of form, suggesting the dark clouds of his tenure had been lifted. But results have tailed off again. The team’s style has become too predictable. Expectations of January signings were raised too high with supporters, and the club was unable to live up to them. A £2 million deficit hangs over City, while Rupp – who was persuaded to invest into the club on the back of Rahic’s supposed acumen – plugs the gaps. Rupp’s commitment is clear, but you have to wonder if he has the appetite for this over the long-term.
We move on from Rahic, but as the club still struggles we mustn’t forget the destruction he caused, and the size of the task there remains in restoring Bradford City to what it was. The ship might no longer be leaking, but there’s plenty of water damage that threatens its ability to stay afloat.
It’s easy to push the blame onto others who are still at the club, key to the success of the survival mission. But it’s also unfair. Somehow, as a club and a community we have to come together and get through this difficult time. Because the next few months will go a long, long way to determining the long-term future of Bradford City.
If we can get over the line and still be a League One club next season, the rebuilding can truly gather pace from much stronger foundations. And only then can we truly restore Bradford City to the club we so deeply loved – before Edin Rahic did so much to ruin it.