By Jason McKeown
One week after David Hopkin’s surprise resignation, Gary Bowyer has been appointed Bradford City manager until the end of the season, with the seemingly impossible task of keeping the Bantams in League One.
Saturday’s collapse at Fratton Park leaves City six points from safety with only 11 games left to play. With only one win in the last nine games, and with the relationship between supporters and players slumping towards toxic levels, Bowyer walks into an almighty mess and in need of a magic wand. He cannot let the squad he inherits throw in the towel, but realistically the club is dangling off the relegation cliff, with hope all but vanished.
Although Bowyer is not necessarily a name to prompt wild excitement, his proven calm management during troubled waters makes him a very qualified person to reverse the tide. His dad, Ian, played for Nottingham Forest during Brian Clough’s European Cup winning heyday. A player of little distinction himself, who most notably turned out for Rotherham United for a couple of seasons in the nineties, Gary worked up the coaching ranks at Blackburn Rovers for the best part of a decade, becoming caretaker and latterly permanent first team manager in 2013.
This was a troubled era for Rovers, who were relegated from the Premier League in 2012 under the controversial ownership of the Venkeys family. The Ewood Park outfit had quickly churned through Steve Kean, Henning Berg and Michael Appleton before settling on Bowyer. Appointed in March of the 2012/13 season, initially Bowyer ensured Rovers weren’t relegated for a second straight season, before stablising the club and guiding them to 8th and 9th place finishes in 2013/14 and 2014/15 respectively, with an FA Cup quarter final place to boot. He had to manage under a transfer embargo and cope with the Venkeys selling star players.
Bowyer’s final few months at Ewood Park saw him operate under the threat of the sack. Rovers had lost 1-0 to Brighton and were flying back to Manchester Airport, only for Bowyer to find out on landing and switching on his phone that the Sun newspaper were reporting he had been sacked. It proved to be untrue for the moment, but didn’t exactly strengthen his power with the squad. Three months later – with Rovers 16th – he was dismissed. It only sent Rovers on the decline once again and they were relegated 18 months later.
Bowyer’s next stint was at another troubled Lancashire club beginning with B. Blackpool had just been relegated to League Two under yet more unpopular owners, the Oystons. But Bowyer was able to turn around the Tangerines’ fortunes, guiding the club to instant promotion via a play off final victory at Wembley in 2017. It has been a rare feat, over the past 15 years, to see teams relegated from League One bounce straight back, so Bowyer’s achievement here should not be underestimated. It’s also a type of past success that seems very relevant to City’s outlook.
Over the 2017/18 season, Bowyer guided Blackpool to a respectable 12th-place finish in League One, which included the infamous 5-0 victory over Simon Grayson’s Bradford City nearly a year ago. Against a backdrop of supporter boycotts, minimal money for transfers and all kinds of off-the-field court case distractions involving the Oystons, Bowyer’s level-headed assurance won him many admirers. He resigned just one game into this season, apparently fed up of receiving such minimal investment support. For example, the club’s lack of training facilities was leading him to fork out money from his own pocket to hire a suitable venue (he was later reimbursed). He also lost several key players in the summer, with little resources to sign replacements.
Boywer has spent the 2018/19 season learning – both in spending time visiting other clubs’ training set ups, such as Rafa Benitez’s Newcastle United, but he is also studying at Manchester Metropolitan University, where he is due to graduate this summer with a Master of Sporting Directorship. His dissertation? The experiences of sporting directors in recruiting head coaches. Someone should send a copy to Edin Rahic.
It is difficult to know how to judge Bowyer’s prospects for Bradford City over such a relatively short timeframe of 11 games. Clearly, if he keeps City in League One it would be a sensational achievement, one that would see him rightly lauded as a hero. If, as seems incredibly likely, City go down, it will hardly be the fault of Bowyer’s. He needs to somehow win six or seven of these remaining matches to save the Bantams. Such form seems utterly beyond this squad.
Bowyer certainly seemed to be the standout candidate from the field of available managers. Paul Hurst was also mentioned and might have been a good shout in view of his achievements at Shrewsbury, but there’s something of the Simon Grayson about him given he was sacked from a Championship club struggling near the bottom of the league earlier this season. Michael Appleton was another name finding favour with some fans, but he probably has his sights set higher.
City were understandably inundated with applications, with famous names like Benito Carbone and Robbie Fowler putting themselves forward. In different circumstances, these would have made interesting options – but with the club desperately in need of an urgent pick-up, now is probably not the time to go with someone who doesn’t have any track record.
Steve Evans was also mentioned heavily, and on social media there’s been a passionate debate about the merits of turning to the former Crawley, Rotherham and Leeds boss. Clearly it would have divided supporters at the worst possible time, and you have to question the merits of bringing in someone who’s primary asset, according to his backers, is his ability to shout at players. Evans is an old school manager, fast looking dated in his ways. To most fans he is an enemy of Bradford City, and simply not welcome.
Against this backdrop, Bowyer looks the best option. However his hopes of staying as manager beyond the summer may be linked to events over the county border, at yet another distressed Lancashire club beginning with B – Bolton Wanderers. The Trotters’ survival prospects in the Championship are even bleaker than City’s in League One, with Phil Parkinson increasingly unpopular with fans. Like everyone else at Bolton, the former City boss is regularly going without being paid on time and operates under the cloud of uncertainty of a takeover, which it’s heavily rumoured will lead to his sacking. To an outsider looking at Bolton’s problems since 2016, Parkinson has done an astonishing job – but he seems unappreciated and, as a consequence, fed up.
All of which paves the way for the possibility of an unlikely return to Valley Parade. It’s all ifs and buts, and in reality Parkinson’s stock should be higher than going back to Bradford City. But as Michael Appleton told the NTT20 podcast, sometimes in football it’s better that managers pick clubs on the basis of the relationship with the chairman rather than the division. Parkinson and Julian Rhodes are still firm friends, and if Rhodes remains at Bradford City beyond May, there could be the possibility of linking back up.
That’s all for another day, but you can understand why City don’t want to close that door just now. And why Bowyer is brought in only for a short-term deal at this moment, rather than yet another long-term managerial deal offered out. The irony is that if Bowyer keeps City up, Parkinson might be more enticed to return to Valley Parade and therefore Bowyer ends up unemployed again. But even if this seemingly unlikely turn of events were to happen, Bowyer would massively enhance his reputation in football by saving the Bantams.
If he is to have an immediate, positive impact, Bowyer has to quickly unite a squad that looks disenfranchised, and inspire enthusiasm from a supporter base that seems on the brink of really turning on the players. The eight goals conceded in the last two away games shows there are huge defensive issues. At Portsmouth, Martin Drury elected to retain a similar Hopkin approach build around the number 10s, with similar poor results. It was the fifth time this season four or more goals have been conceded in a league match. For comparison, City only shipped four or more goals six times over Parkinson’s five-year reign, and only once during Stuart McCall’s 19-month second spell.
Bowyer has apparently requested dossiers on each player that he will have studied hard over the weekend, and if he saw a video of the Portsmouth debacle he will be keenly aware of the size of the task at hand. It remains an infuriating mystery how a group of players who look reasonably talented on paper can be under-performing so badly. The feeling that many in the squad have a mercenary streak, or are of poor character for building team spirit, is difficult to shake off. After the Portsmouth game, Drury argued the players do care and I’m sure that’s true. But do they care enough?
Which leads us onto the man of the hour, Anthony O’Connor. At Fratton Park on Saturday, he infamously slung the captain’s armband onto the floor, having only just received it back at half time following an injury to Paul Caddis. O’Connor’s hurriedly-issued statement that he discarded the armband because the stitching was coming away seems feeble at best.
It was the manner in which he discarded the armband that reflects badly on O’Connor. Being the captain of Bradford City should be a big deal. It should inspire standards and a way of doing things that have at times been lacking in O’Connor’s performances. And the tossing away of the armband seems symbolic of the way he has approached his responsibility.
The captaincy has deep meaning for City supporters. This is a club that celebrates its leaders. Stuart McCall. Peter Jackson. Gary Jones. Stephen Darby. David Wetherall. O’Connor has performed well at times, but hasn’t led from the front enough. His innocent explanation for throwing away the armband might be true, but actions speak louder than words and the pictures simply don’t look good.
Drury took the decision to strip O’Connor of the captaincy after the Walsall game. What led to the caretaker manager taking this action? And why did he feel the need to announce it two days before the game? It is not unheard of to swap captains, but usually it’s only announced when the team sheet is revealed an hour before the next match. Drury felt he had reason to demote O’Connor, and wanted to tell the world.
I don’t want to lead the pitchfork charge against O’Connor, a line has to be drawn under the saga now and we move on. But the wider point remains that this season’s dismal team performances are a question of standards – and too many players simply haven’t set their own bar high enough. O’Connor is certainly by no means on his own.
Bowyer could certainly do with the O’Connor who began life at Valley Parade in hugely impressive fashion, taking no prisoners on the opening day of the campaign. He also needs Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Richard O’Donnell to regain their confidence. For one of Hope Akpan or Jacob Butterfield to miraculously turn into a competent holding midfielder (how bad a decision was it, in hindsight, to allow Jim O’Brien to leave?). He needs Jack Payne to justify the club’s endeavours to keep him in January. He needs George Miller to demonstrate why Barnsley invested a quarter of a million in his future potential. He needs Eoin Doyle to show much more.
Bowyer has plenty of options. The squad he inherits is too big, even with several members now out on loan. That has clearly not proven cohesive for team spirit, with the sheer number of players who can’t be in the team unsurprisingly impacting on morale. Back in the Parkinson era, the City manager would have a small squad to deliberately foster a close-knit togetherness, relying on the loan market for depth as and when needed. Bowyer will have a really tough task bringing everyone together.
But as a manager who has walked into the civil war of Bloomfield Road, and who before that took on the challenge of arresting Blackburn’s toxic implosion, the situation that greets Bowyer at Valley Parade will not be alien or overwhelming. Bowyer was valued at both Blackburn and Blackpool for the manner he went out of his way to make all staff – including non-playing – feel valued, and to create a positive atmosphere in troubled times. He also helped to improve and develop players, as can be seen by the success of Sean Longstaff at Newcastle, who spent last season under Bowyer on loan at Blomfield Road, and before that Tom Cairney (current at Fulham) and Shane Duffy (Brighton) from his Blackburn days.
Of his time at Blackpool, Bowyer reflected, “There was a special bond between the players and the staff and you have to concentrate on what you can control…My initial aim was to bring stability to the club. I wanted to lay some foundations to build on.” Former Tangerine Keith Southern said of Bowyer, “It’s never easy coming into a club when it was a losing football club and had been for two or three seasons. He came in and he had to turn the tide – and he’s managed that. He’s recruited really well and brought in league specific players.” Bowyer’s former assistant, Terry McPhillips, who succeeded him at Bloomfield Road, said of Gary, “He’s a brilliant manager, a brilliant coach and a brilliant man-to-man manager. He gets the most out of his players.”
Maybe it’s too late to save Bradford City this season, but Gary Bowyer could just be the man to stop the bleeding and, in time, make the Bantams respectable and loveable once again. This could actually be the turning point.