By Jason McKeown
The fourth largest budget in League One. Fourth. A £4 million wage bill. £4 million. And in return, Bradford City have been unable to mount a push for automatic promotion. They have got nowhere near reaching the play offs. They have failed to achieve mid-table mediocrity. They have not been successful at avoiding relegation. Instead, Bradford City have finished bottom of the league. Bottom.
Analysing it in relative terms, there’s a strong argument to make that the 2018/19 season is the biggest under-achievement in the club’s history. They’ve been relegated 10 previous times before. Twice, in the mid-60s, the club finished second bottom of the Football League, forcing them into the ignominy of applying for re-election. Relegation is always tough and rarely will the club have deserved any credit for past demotions. But there have often been mitigating circumstances. Lower resources than other clubs around them. Financial issues. Dwindling support.
For the 2018/19 season, there is simply no excuse for City to perform as badly as they did.
We all know the root cause of the club’s downfall. Edin Rahic. Let loose last summer, he compounded past mistakes by embarking on a series of terrible errors that will have long-lasting consequences. We’ve written at length about Edin’s wretched leadership along the way – here, here, here, here, here – oh and here – so let’s not keep repeating it. But equally it is difficult to review the 2018/19 season without mentioning his destructive influence. Even his exit didn’t remove the mess he’d left behind.
At the start of the 2018/19 season, there was a clear split amongst supporters about Rahic. Trust in his approach was dwindling fast, but he still had a sizeable level of support from others. And so when City began the season with a promising 1-0 victory over Shrewsbury, some crowed. When it was followed up by a stark home defeat to Barnsley, positive spin was attempted – “Barnsley will win the league” – but the gulf in class was stark that day.
Three days later City were knocked out the League Cup by struggling League Two side Macclesfield. Three days after that, Southend United defeated the Bantams 2-0. A photo swirled around social media, of Rahic in the Roots Hall stand talking to Michael Collins in the dugout, just after half time. It did little to dispel the suspicions the chairman was calling the shots.
You could see the confidence chip away from the last remaining supporters who had believed in Rahic. Michael Collins was the main reason for that. The chaotic summer head coach recruitment drive had ended with the under-18s coach given the job. An astonishing high risk gamble from Rahic, that was always going to make or break him. Optimistic spin that Collins could be the new Paul Jewell or Gareth Southgate was quickly disproved.
Collins, we were told, was a progressive coach with wonderful ideas. In pre-season you waited with anticipation at seeing a new, clear style of play emerge. One that would justify Rahic fast-tracking Collins to a manager position. But it was clear very early on that there was no magic dust. Whatever Collins was trying to do, he was unsuccessfully getting it over to the players.
There’s this annual debate that pre-season is meaningless, but watching City go down weakly to Guiseley, York City and Carlisle was hugely concerning. And then there was that woeful 7-2 thrashing at Harrogate Town. The fitness coach Robert Lossau had returned in the summer but quickly quit, leaving the club without a fitness coach. As the saying goes: fail to prepare, prepare to fail. City’s chaotic pre-season has showed all season.
It was always going to be difficult for Collins to win over a sceptical support base, but he didn’t help himself. His press interviews were poor. There was a lack of humbleness about him. In only game five, a stuttering 1-0 home win over Burton, Collins elected to blast fans over a lack of respect towards him. He didn’t have any credit in the bank to pull that off. And when defeats at home to Wycombe and at Fleetwood followed, the pressure was already growing on him and Rahic.
Rahic pushed the panic button after the Fleetwood loss. Throwing the 32-year-old under the bus in a doomed attempt to keep the wolves at bay. For reasons unfair to make public, this was an especially challenging time for Collins. You can’t blame him for taking the opportunity of managing a club like Bradford City – he might never have got it again – but he was chewed up and spat out by the club. His career and future employment prospects needlessly damaged.
Of course Collins had to go, but he should never have been appointed in the first place.
David Hopkin had already been approached to take over as manager before Collins was sacked. His record of back to back promotions at Livingston made him an interesting candidate during the summer, even if Rahic hadn’t pursued the idea. Hopkin initially brought a sense of calmness to the club, but it wouldn’t be long before he looked as brow-beaten as everyone else.
The first game of his reign, at Blackpool, suggested salvation for City and Rahic. Without playing well, they were 2-0 up with six minutes to go and the away support was as positive as it had been for months. Yet Blackpool didn’t give up, and terrible goalkeeping for Richard O’Donnell contributed to a 3-2 collapse. I was doing the radio co-commentary that day and met Hopkin for the first time after the match. He put on a brave face, but looked shell-shocked by the collapse of his team.
City would win only one of their next 16 league and cup matches – the only bright spot a 1-0 victory on a Tuesday night in Wimbledon. New manager bounces never seem to happen at Valley Parade, and Hopkin’s arrival was no exception. It got particularly bad during October, when in the space of two weeks City were defeated 3-1 at Accrington, 2-0 at home to Rochdale, 4-2 at home to Coventry and 4-0 away at Gillingham. It sent them to the bottom of the league. The closing stages of the Rochdale loss saw the first home chants of Rahic out.
The co-owner had disappeared by this stage. At Accrington, he had brought along Dougie Freedman as a guest as part of talks over a partnership with Crystal Palace, that would see City give young Palace players loan opportunities at Valley Parade. City were 1-0 down at half time when Rahic chose to leave the ground. He was never seen again on a match day.
Still, the autumn was dominated by supporter talk of the best way to protest, and increasing media coverage about the club’s plight. City were the new Blackpool, Charlton, Blackburn etc. Wrecked by dodgy owners.
It did begin to get better on the pitch. I worked with the club to organise an appreciation evening for Stephen Darby, where legends of the past turned up and some 600 City fans were present in the McCall and Hendrie suites and over £7,000 was raised for MNDA. Hopkin, fuming about the loss to Gillingham on the Saturday, ordered the squad to attend and learn about the heritage and meaning of the club. They paid the admission to be there and helped out by selling raffle tickets. But for the most part, the players were sat together in the corner looking semi-interested.
When Gary Jones came on stage for a Q&A, the room erupted and you could see the surprised reaction of the current players. Most had only seen a disgruntled City support base, not the powerful positive force we can be, and so seeing hero-worship for Jones would have startled them. Jones used his time on stage to address the players directly, pleading with them that if they showed hard-work and bravery they would win over Bradford City supporters.
They lost on the following Saturday to leaders Portsmouth, but the commitment was so much better. And that led to further improvement over November that offered a small chink of hope. Julian Rhodes made an unexpected return too, at the request of Stefan Rupp but with Edin Rahic’s support. The penny had finally dropped with Rahic, and he allowed Rhodes to call the shots and lead from the front. It would be too late to save Rahic, who officially departed a couple of weeks later.
Rhodes had the vast experience of turning around the Bantams from their post-Premier League fall from grace. And so for a crucial home game with fellow strugglers Oxford, he slashed admission to £1 and over 19,000 supporters attended to back the club. The players turned up too, winning 2-0 through goals from David Ball and Jack Payne. I was on radio duty that day and as we left the ground at 6pm David Hopkin was also leaving. “You must be pleased?” I asked him. “When you’re a manager you don’t get to feel pleased, you just feel relieved,” was his answer.
With Rahic gone it seemed like a weight had been lifted off the club. Hopkin was seemingly making his mark, and December was an exceptional month. A 3-3 draw at Plymouth was a useful if slightly frustrating point. A 4-0 thumping of Walsall – in shocking monsoon weather – was one of the season’s highlights, as the Bantams played well. They beat Stuart McCall’s Scunthorpe United 2-0 to climb out of the bottom four. They were unfortunate to lose at Sunderland. But they quickly bounced back with a terrific 4-0 victory over Rochdale.
The players looked rejuvenated. Payne was a revelation, turning early season promise into weekly man of the match displays. Ball won over a seemingly doubting Hopkin to be a key figure alongside him, and George Miller and Eoin Doyle began to start scoring goals more regularly. Even Nathaniel Knight-Percvial, who had looked finished as a player in October, came back strongly for a spell.
The inclusion of a holding midfielder – Karl Henry or the returning from injury Jim O’Brien – was vital. Paul Caddis, a November addition, added leadership and assurance. The young Lewis O’Brien – the only player to keep going during that difficult autumn – grew more and more in stature.
On New Years Day, City defeated Accrington to earn a fourth win in five games. It seemed that with the dark clouds of Rahic removed, the club was finally able to move upwards. Talk moved from not merely avoiding relegation, but making a late push for promotion.
Was the December form as good as we remember it? After all, the run of victories came over sides struggling near the bottom, going through very difficult patches themselves. City might have beaten Walsall 4-0, for example, but in the first half were indebted to Richard O’Donnell for making crucial saves. There was no question City played very well over this period, but they got the rub of the green from the fixture list computer too. Perhaps that created a false level of confidence within the club and amongst fans.
Still, as Lewis O’Brien and Connor Wood scored terrific goals in that 3-0 demolition of Accrington, it seemed the storm had passed. City were out the bottom four. Everything was well at last.
Who would have predicted that from that high point, City would win just three more games all season? It went very badly wrong, with the club going on a nosedive that it simply couldn’t pull up from.
There was expectations of significant transfer spending in the January window. Rupp, as part of his apology over what Rahic had done, promised money would be available if needed. Shortly after that statement, Rupp would begin to uncover unexpected financial surprises left behind by Rahic – with the realisation the club was going to make a £2 million loss. Simply finding the money to pay the wages was an issue for the club. The purse strings were tightened.
That’s not to say there was no transfer activity. Payne, who was in such sensational form over December, became the subject of interest elsewhere. Hopkin wanted to keep the loanee, so Rupp agreed a deal with Huddersfield to cover more of the player’s salary in return for Town allowing him to stay. Jacob Butterfield, an outcast at Derby County, was signed on loan too, with City covering 10% of his wages. Billy Clarke, Jermaine Anderson, Paudie O’Connor and Calum Woods also came in.
But with a bulky squad of high earners, City needed to ship out players to bring in more. Kai Bruenker, Ryan McGowan and Jim O’Brien left (Karl Henry had already decided to go). The out of favour Josh Wright and Joe Riley were made available, but there weren’t sufficient takers. It wasn’t quite the transfer window we expected, and there would be serious repercussions.
Did the club underestimate the scale of the challenge staying up? It is a source of keen debate. With the wage commitments on Payne and Butterfield, plus the debts to cover, there probably wasn’t much more that could be done. Ultimately, it was now firmly Hopkin’s call on who to bring in. He wanted to do more – of course he did – but it was a difficult market.
Sunderland and Charlton, flush with money from selling strikers in January, struggled to find replacements. City needed a striker, that was obvious to everyone, but their financial circumstances put them at the back of a queue. A lot of clubs were fishing in a little pond.
And what really hurt Hopkin and the club was that the poor returns of the January business. Payne’s form dropped off a cliff after his new deal. He never hit the same heights. The opposition got wiser to his threat, knowing that stopping Payne would stop Bradford City. Building the team around Payne looked logical in December, but ultimately Payne would demonstrate the early season fears I had about him. A good player, no question, but not good enough to carry a team.
There are suggestions the club’s move to pay Payne more caused resentment in the dressing room, but in reality he was a very popular player behind the scenes who everyone wanted to keep. And the wage arrangements made no difference to Payne financially – he was paid a set weekly amount all season, as part of his Huddersfield contract, it’s just that from January City were now paying a higher proportion of that weekly amount, and Huddersfield less.
Elsewhere, Butterfield has only offered glimpses of what he can offer. We expected more. Anderson only showed flashes of his ability. Paudie O’Connor was under-used until it was too late. Billy Clarke has failed to hit the heights – another number 10 wasn’t what was needed. Woods looked a very good player, but injury problems meant he barely figured. The failure to replace Jim O’Brien/Henry was a major issue.
Every player signed in January had not been playing regular football for months. They weren’t up to speed at a time when City needed them to fly.
With hindsight January was a bad transfer window. The extra money tied up keeping Payne was counter-productive. Had Payne left, City could have got by with Ball and Clarke and have extra funds to strengthen other parts of the team. Butterfield wasn’t the player that was needed.
Was there enough scouting support? Hopkin had spent the last 16 years playing and working in Scotland. His assistant, Anton McElhone, had been working in the MLS. They didn’t know the English lower leagues brilliantly.
There was value to be had in January – Jonson Clarke-Harris, and his impact after signing for Bristol Rovers, proves that.
There was an unexpected 11-day gap after the Accrington win. On the Saturday that followed, City’s scheduled league opponents Shrewsbury were in FA Cup action, so the game was postponed. It seemed like the break would be welcome for the players, who looked a little leggy during the Accrington game.
Hopkin gave everyone five days off. But it proved counter-productive. The previous levels of intensity dropped. It caused them to lose momentum.
And so a week after that, City endured a 3-0 thumping by an excellent Barnsley side. An afternoon which they never recovered from. Losing away to one of the best teams in the division shouldn’t have been season-defining. But Hopkin had tinkered with the team. Caddis moved from right back to holding midfielder. McGowan asked to play as a wing back. Paudie O’Connor had a debut to forget. From Barnsley’s first attack they scored and City crumbled.
It was more than three points lost that day. City were bright and purposeful early doors at Oakwell, but were ultimately played off the park. Confidence was dented, and it never returned.
The week after saw a 4-0 home loss to Southend that was grim. There was a small revival with draws at Burton and Wycombe book-ending a thrilling 4-3 home win over Shrewsbury, with Ball providing the moment of the season with a brilliant last minute winner. But the season was on a knife-edge. The thin margins were going against them.
The demise for Hopkin was swift, occurring over just three matches. Prior to the home game with Fleetwood at the start of February, the manager generally had the approval of fans. A turgid 1-0 loss to the Cod Army sharply changed the mood, and a 0-0 home draw with fellow strugglers Plymouth the week after did little to salvage it. And then came the 3-2 loss to a struggling, out of form Walsall, who played with 10 men for 84 minutes. It sent City second bottom of the table, and caused shockwaves within the club.
Just as Rupp and Rhodes faced a big decision over what to do about Hopkin, the manager resigned. It was a sad moment. Hopkin is a good man who genuinely cared for the club, and who was making moves behind the scenes to improve the culture and change the losing mentality. It was always going to take time for his approach to truly bear fruit, and time was against City.
Hopkin isn’t beyond criticism for City’s relegation. He might have inherited a lop-sided squad with a highly questionable attitude. And in those early days especially, there was the over-bearing influence of Rahic, who attempted to dictate to Hopkin that he must play younger players so the club could sell and move on others.
And whilst he had to work within financial limitations over January, the moves Hopkin was able to make did not work out. Tactically, he looked short of ideas at the end, especially in finding a solution to opposition sides neutering the threat of Payne. After the Fleetwood defeat, the team needed a shake-up but Hopkin barely altered things over his final two games. He placed too much trust in senior players who let him down.
Right man, wrong time was Hopkin’s undoing. We need a short-term burst of impact to get over the line. The vital rebuilding work on and off the field absolutely needs addressing, but as panic of relegation set in it was clear Hopkin was short of ideas to retrieve it. So he fell on his sword, in the hope someone else could provide the answers.
And so after a one-game caretaker-ship of Martin Drury – who infamously stated the club will not get relegated, before overseeing a 5-1 thumping to Portsmouth – the club turned to Gary Bowyer. The early impact was promising, as City registered a surprise 3-1 win over Peterborough. But that was as good as it got. The next seven games all ended in defeat, consigning the Bantams to League Two.
Bowyer has tried different things to Hopkin. He could see the problems of a lack of ball winner in midfield, trusting Hope Akpan to be the man to solve it. Akpan started well but fell away again. The manager gave opportunities to the outcast Josh Wright. Brought in Paudie O’Connor and Jermaine Anderson from the cold. He swapped around defenders, midfielders, strikers and even the goalkeeper. But nothing could lift City out of the spiral.
With a two-year contract in his pocket, the debate about Bowyer’s performance as manager is one worth putting on hold until next season. It hasn’t been the greatest of starts, with Bowyer’s record even worse than Hopkin’s. But with all the turmoil, and a squad that no one else can get a tune out of, we need to give someone the time and resources to rebuild things. Bowyer’s excellent track record in this position offers hope.
The news of Bowyer’s two-year deal led to a surge in season ticket renewals, suggesting a lot of us can see a brighter future under the manager. From Stuart McCall to Simon Grayson to Michael Collins to David Hopkin – the managerial revolving door needs to stop at Valley Parade. We’ve got to move past the culture of turning on the manager every time they go through a bad patch.
There are so many lessons to take forward for Bradford City from this season. Moments of joy were rare. Defeat has followed defeat. Bad news added to by more bad news.
It’s hard to think of anyone who has not been damaged by their association with this season. Edin Rahic, Stefan Rupp, all the managers, all the players. Julian Rhodes’ return has been welcome, but ultimately he couldn’t save the club from the drop.
This was a season doomed before a ball was even kicked. Under-achievement to a level unsurpassed in Bradford City’s 116-year history. And because of that, we’re back in League Two again. League Two.