By Jason McKeown
Edin Rahic used to regularly boast that he didn’t understand how any team could ever get relegated, because all you have to do is be better than three/four other teams…
In the 10th minute of this relegation wake, Billy Clarke won a free kick in a wide position from which he swung in a cross that was headed home by Kelvin Mellor. It was only the first assist Clarke has managed since his January return to Valley Parade. And the striker is yet to register a goal.
Only 23 months earlier, Clarke was charging forward at full pace, one-on-one with the Millwall keeper Jordan Archer. The scene was Wembley stadium. The occasion was the League One play off final. It was a glorious chance for Clarke and Bradford City to go 1-0 up. To take a huge step towards winning the showpiece occasion. And of earning promotion to the Championship.
Clarke could not beat Archer who saved well. City would go onto lose the game 1-0. Fine margins. But from that big opportunity, the Bantams have just kept falling. An astonishing, painful collapse that reaches a new nadir of relegation to League Two.
At least the current crop avoided the indignity of equalling a club record eighth defeat in a row. Mellor’s goal here meant the Bantams led for a large part of the game, but Brandon Hanlon would earn Gillingham a point with a tap in from Ben Wilson’s mistake. The rot was stopped. Small comfort for a sparse Valley Parade crowd. Thousands choosing to stay away in dismay at the way the season has gone.
It’s a numb feeling right now, watching a team who have already been relegated. We knew we were going down weeks ago of course. Months ago, even. The Sword of Damocles has hung over the club since the Walsall debacle. The actual moment it was confirmed on Friday was hardly a shock. And that made it less painful.
But when you stop to think about it, you can’t help but feel rising anger inside. This is such an avoidable relegation. In the past we’ve gone down because of failing to compete with stronger forces (2001) or through financial troubles (2004 and 2007). And sure, we’ve made mistakes that have eventually been punished with a drop down a division (1990). But never has relegation been as nonessential as this.
23 months ago, Billy Clarke was part of a Bradford City team that under Stuart McCall had built on the strong legacy of Phil Parkinson to combine attractive attacking football with toughness and steel. The 2016/17 side was foolishly broken up far too quickly, and the succession planning was woefully lacking. We’ve swapped a team to be proud for this shambles of a squad.
With nothing left to play for but pride, the players performed okay here. The two O’Connors – Paudie and Anthony – were excellent at the back. Mellor, returning after injury, showed qualities we have been missing. In the centre Josh Wright continued his slow reputational rehabilitation with a steady display, while Jermaine Anderson broke up play well, set up attacks and impressed with his off the ball running. Scannell had another strong game, if utilised ineffectively by Gary Bowyer.
It’s hardly a lot to be excited about. But had City put on a show to demolish Gillingham, you’d have felt even more cheated by what has gone on before. They deserved to win this game but tripped themselves up as usual. Some positives, but really these are miserable times and nothing will rid the sour taste of relegation.
It is gross negligence to go down like this. And there’s only one man to blame of course. Edin Rahic’s vanity has gutted a proud football club of its values and character. His naivety and arrogance meant City went into the summer of 2017 losing too many good players that – with earlier foresight – could have been pinned down on new contracts much earlier. Mark Marshall and James Meredith might have been in demand that summer, but there was nothing stopping the club tying them up on new contracts before Christmas of that season. Or at least undertaking succession planning, as Parkinson always seemed to do so well.
Instead City spent that summer on the backfoot, ultimately recruiting badly. Rahic did not know what he had until it was too late.
He inherited the gift of a high-performing football club, whilst putting in relatively little capital himself. He didn’t appreciate the extraordinary job Parkinson had performed, resulting in one of the most successful managers in the club’s history deciding to walk away after just one meeting with Rahic. He didn’t respect Stuart McCall’s 37 years’ football expertise, somehow believing he knew better. He didn’t trust the staff around him – micro-managing, marginalising and eventually driving them away. He didn’t understand what had made Bradford City so successful since 2012. It was motoring along nicely in the right direction – all he had to do was keep it going.
He should have listened. To Parkinson. To McCall. To Simon Grayson. To James Mason. To Billy Clarke. The City striker was amongst the departures during that ill-fated summer of 2017. Sold to Charlton, without McCall even knowing. When Clarke returned in January this year, amazingly only Nathaniel Knight-Percival and Danny Devine remained from when he left 18 months earlier.
The 2016/17 side was probably the best we’d had since the administration of 2002. It needed building on, not tearing up. It was a brilliant season to be a City fan. Unbeaten at home, only seven losses in 46 games. Some terrific football, led by a club legend.
Rahic got credit at the time too – few knew just how destructive he was already proving to be behind the scenes. But the way he and Stefan Rupp rushed past McCall to take the acclaim, after the play off semi final aggregate victory over Fleetwood, was ill-judged. Success was down to the manager. Because of the players. Not you. Matter of Heart? What followed was a Matter of Farce.
When we think of Rahic’s mistakes and the way he has destroyed Bradford City, you automatically go straight to the sacking of Stuart McCall 15 months ago. It was clearly a terrible error of judgement that Rahic must regret. But it is not the reason why we have just been relegated to League Two.
Because the biggest mistake Rahic made was what he did last summer. At the end of last season, the chairman’s popularity was on a huge downturn. But he still had the opportunity to rescue the situation. Few tears were shed when Grayson opted not to stay on as manager – but it should have sent huge alarm bells for Rahic.
Grayson would not countenance working for a chairman dictating transfers. Rahic should have realised once and for all he needed to step back, and to accept that the decisions he had been making – sacking McCall, dictating transfers – were causing huge damage. He should have appointed a manager and given them them the freedom to operate their own way, including fully choosing who to sign. And off the field, Rahic needed to stop micro-managing people and let them do what they’re good at. The departure of James Mason was needless.
If that had have happened, Rahic could still be chairman of Bradford City right now. But instead he went into last summer with no one to resist his worst impulses. Rahic embarked on a seven-week hunt to find a head coach that ended with the farcical decision to give it to under-18s coach Michael Collins, after so many candidates turned down the chance due to the lack of control they would be forced to accept. Over that period, and with Abbott recovering from cancer treatment, Rahic carried on signing players anyway. He was playing real life championship manager.
With Rupp’s financial backing, the club went on its most expensive player recruitment drive in 15 years. It was absolutely reckless leadership from Rahic. Such investment should have led to a team that could compete for the play offs. To be bottom of the league, a long way behind everyone else – including many teams with far, far lower resources – is utterly shameful.
Imagine what a proper football manager could have done with last summer’s budget? Used wisely, City could have been closing on promotion now – with Rahic’s reputation restored. Instead, we have a lop-sided squad lacking quality in key areas. A muddled recruitment drive that wasn’t built for any tactical philosophy and that crucially neglected assessing players for their character. The chaotic environment has dragged them all down, and players who could have offered calm leadership, such as Matt Kilgallon, were driven away.
Not one player signed last summer has done themselves justice. They’ve all let the club and us supporters down.
Clarke returned to an environment that must seem unrecognisable. There was hope his January return could see the old values reinstalled, but Clarke’s powers are evidently fading. Starting here behind Scannell and George Miller, Clarke was clearly instructed to sit deep and ping balls down the channels. It isn’t his game, and he was eventually hooked with 10 minutes to play.
45 minutes after the final whistle and with the crowd having gone home, Clarke made his way to the back of the main stand lower tier to meet up with Colin Doyle, who had come along to watch the game. Doyle was shockingly released last summer, and both his replacements have proven inadequate. It must have made for an interesting conversation between the two former team mates.
The consequences of last summer’s amateurish approach are there for all to see. Bradford City will kick off next season in League Two, with little on the field that’s worth keeping. 16 players are still under contract beyond the summer. Rahic at least arranged for there to be relegation clauses that will reduce the wages of those who choose to stay, but it makes for a huge rebuilding job.
At least Rahic has left. Stefan Rupp belatedly woke up to the damage his partner was causing. And to his credit, he is committed to cleaning it up. Off the field the foundations are stronger, and the two-year deal given to Gary Bowyer – the seventh different person to stand in the City dugout in just 14 months – brings some much needed stability.
There has to be question marks over whether Bowyer is the right man after such a poor run of results. The resignation of David Hopkin – under mounting pressure from a section of fans – has led to even worse form. But Bowyer has a strong track record and hugely relevant experience of getting clubs through troubling times.
It is going to be a really tough job, rebuilding the club. It could takes years for us to be back in the position we were in May 2017. And the harsh truth is we might never get that opportunity again. Bradford City’s history is already against them. They’ve spent 65 of the last 78 football seasons in the bottom two divisions. A financial gap is growing between the Championship and League One, and with each passing year City will get weaker for being on the wrong side of that divide.
It has been a two-year collapse that could have long lasting consequences. And it was all completely unnecessary.