By Jason McKeown
In the end it all unravelled very quickly. Prior to Bradford City’s home game with Fleetwood Town, the general supporter sentiment towards David Hopkin was favourable, and optimism levels of avoiding relegation felt reasonable.
But these are hugely volatile, high pressure times. Three hugely disappointing results later, and public opinion has significantly shifted. As hopes of survival have taken a major nosedive, Hopkin has come in for huge criticism. Calls for him to be sacked had suddenly appeared, growing in volume and intensity. Bradford City had faced a major choice this week over whether to stick or twist, but Hopkin’s decision to resign saved them from having to make it.
There’s no question the sudden desperation of City’s plight has led to supporter panic. Emotions are clearly running very high, as the club’s painful decline from the 2017 play off final defeat hits bump after bump. City are now three points off survival, but with a daunting-looking March fixture list, there’s a painful realisation that these last three games were costly missed opportunities. City will have to do it the hard way to stay up, by beating teams at the top. But all season long they have only beaten one side in the current top 14 – Burton Albion at home, back in August. As the threat of a return to League Two looms large, the removal Hopkin is the last available throw of the dice.
So much of what has gone wrong at Valley Parade can be traced back to short-term thinking. So it seems very hard to believe that the departure of yet another manager will bring a different result. Clubs who have three managers in a season tend to get relegated. Ole Gunnar Solskjaers don’t grow on trees, and you probably have to go back over 20 years, and the mid-season switch of Lennie Lawrence for Chris Kamara, to find the last example of a new City manager heralding an instant upturn in results. Usually, a Valley Parade manager change sees no improvement and in some cases a sharper decline. The new manager bounce is a phenomenon observed elsewhere in football. Hopefully, Bradford City can go against its own history.
That’s not to say those who advocated this change were unjustified in their criticisms. City are on collision course for League Two. Maybe a new manager can shift the trajectory, or maybe it won’t. But after a strong end to 2018, Hopkin had stopped getting excellent performances from his players. He steadfastly stuck to a gameplan that opponents had clearly gotten wise to, and has failed to adequately adapt that approach. The recent overloading of the team with creative players has inadvertently taken the dynamism out of their play. And defensively, they’ve gone backwards again. Hopkin has every right to feel let down by his players, especially after Saturday’s horrendous defeat to 10-men Walsall, but there are pertinent questions over whether he was getting everything he could out of them.
In some ways, Hopkin was the right man at the wrong time. His record at Livingston shows that he is someone who can turn around a club on the decline, but he’s no overnight fixer. He took over Livingston half way through the 2015/16 season and could not save Livi from relegation to Scottish League One, yet the club stuck by him and were repaid for that faith with back-to-back promotions. Ultimately, Hopkin left Livingston in a much, much stronger position than when he joined, but they did have to go through the downwards part of the curve first.
I think in time Hopkin could have been a successful Bradford City manager. This is my 16th season writing about Bradford City matters and Hopkin’s departure is the 12th managerial change I’ve covered. Over that time, we’ve seen good, average and bad managers, but the overall picture has fuelled my belief that managers can only ultimately be successful if you’re prepared to stick with them through the bad times. Phil Parkinson was the epitome of this. A huge, huge success at Bradford City, but only because the club supported him during that difficult first season where he struggled to impress.
For me, Hopkin shared similar qualities that Parkinson instilled. I know some people don’t want to hear that, especially when his results at the end were so disappointing. But behind the scenes, Hopkin was doing a lot to raise the standards and challenge the culture of the squad. Only last week, he arranged for someone to deliver a presentation to the squad about the Valley Parade fire, so they can gain a greater understanding and appreciation about the bond between City and supporters, and why playing for Bradford City is different to other clubs. He introduced a rule that the squad met early at Valley Parade on match day to share a pre-match meal. He removed the pool table from the training ground, reasoning this was a place of work. He introduced a rule that all players must walk from the changing rooms to the training pitch together, so cliques couldn’t be formed.
Many of these, and other Hopkin initiatives, won’t instantly bring three points on a Saturday. But in time they would have borne fruit. Parkinson’s first season at Valley Parade saw him challenge and revamp the way things were done, and recruiting players for the strength of their character. And just as Hopkin has shunned Josh Wright and Joe Riley, Parkinson forced Guy Branston to train with the youth team. There were notable similarities in how both managers challenged a difficult situation they inherited. And when you compare this to the way people like Peter Jackson and Simon Grayson managed the club, you realise that it’s not common for managers to put the club’s long-term needs ahead of their own reputation.
Of course, there is no guarantee Hopkin would have been a success in the long-term like Parkinson. But going back to my personal view that a manager should be allowed to take a long-term approach in order to build sustainable success, much of what Hopkin was trying to do was pleasing to me.
But as we know, it’s a results industry, and Hopkin wasn’t achieving them. He inherited a desperately difficult situation last September, with the club’s supporters on the brink of civil war with Edin Rahic, and the playing squad at his disposal was woefully lacking in fitness and heart. The 3-2 loss at Blackpool in his first game summed up the mess that he walked into. City were 2-0 up with six minutes to go, before hitting the wall, legs-wise and completely collapsing. It took Hopkin another month to register a win, but that was prelude to seven straight defeats that sent the Bantams to the foot of League One, the plight looking desperate by early November.
Hopkin appeared set to walk after a 4-0 loss to Gillingham, only to be talked out of it over that troubled weekend. It was clearly not working, reporting in to Rahic, but the arrival of Rhodes saw improvement to results and in the manager’s ability to sign players, and the early December departure of Rahic saw a terrific run of form. It’s hard to believe now, but some fans ended 2018 talking about making the play offs and claiming that Hopkin’s football was some of the best seen in years. The 3-0 victory over Accrington on New Year’s Day lifted City out of the bottom four.
From there, it went very wrong. They never got going again after a 10-day break in fixtures, with the 3-0 thumping of Barnsley denting their confidence and knocking them out of their stride. The next seven fixtures looked kind on paper, but yielded only six points. And as the spectre of basement league football looms large, the panic and anger is understandable. Hopkin can be accused of many things, but deserves respect for falling on his sword. He is a good man, and I really hope he can go on and revive his promising managerial career.
If City can bring in a replacement who can keep the Bantams in League One, the ends justify the means. At some point, we have to rebuild this football club from the destruction Edin Rahic caused – and, in that respect, Hopkin’s resignation might be akin to kicking the can down the road. But we are in a really critical period, and it’s all about the short-term of these final 12 games. Rebuilding will have to wait for now.
It goes without saying that this next appointment is critical. If I were Julian Rhodes and Stefan Rupp, I’d be moving heaven and earth to get Michael Flynn from Newport County. The former City midfielder has done an astonishing job, coming in mid-season and saving County from certain relegation two years ago, and he has taken the Welsh club forwards since. If Flynn can’t be afforded or persuaded, I’d go against my own beliefs and values by thinking short-term. Appoint someone on a deal until the end of the season, and find someone who has a record of delivering a managerial bounce.
This is probably not the time for a Gary Jones-type person. The kind of passion that Jones exhibits is inspirational, and the club simply must find a role for him in time. But right now we need proven experience and an ability to set the team up successfully. See Wetherall, David for a reminder of how easy it is to chew up and spit out a club legend by appointing them at the wrong time. Imagine how you would feel getting relegated with Gary Jones as manager? He doesn’t deserve that.
As a split amongst supporters formed over the last fortnight, and passions have been running high, perhaps the positive is that this moment could act as a catalyst to bring us all together. I’ll be honest, I deplore this group of players and the pathetic performances they’ve delivered for most of the season. I can’t wait to see the back of some of them. But we have no choice other than to trust in them to save Bradford City from relegation.
In previous City seasons where relegation has been avoided – 1999/00, 2002/03 and 2011/12, for example – there’s been a collective spirit that has helped the club over the line. And in relegation seasons like 2000/01, 2003/04 and 2006/07, that spirit was lacking. Sometimes, adversity can bring a siege mentality that refocuses minds. Think of 2011/12, and the Crawley Town brawl. Hopefully, this change of manager can allow us all to come together and bring new energy to what is the fight for our lives. We’ve worked too hard as a football club to throw away our League One status – these next 12 games need us to find a united front.
The new manager should be able to count on our backing. And if he can somehow mastermind League One survival, he’ll be forever a Bradford City hero.