By Jason McKeown
Optimism abounds. After such a desperate season, and the pain of relegation, a bleak summer was widely forecast. There were plenty of rumours that the club was struggling financially. But the gloomy outlook has been replaced by rising levels of positivity.
It’s been a close season of moving forwards. Many of the new signings are eye-catching, and would have been courted by teams in League One never mind the rest of City’s new division. There’s been a restoration of the bond between the club and supporters, with bridges mended through a deliberate re-establishment of City’s identity.
Rather than fearing a long spell in League Two purgatory, there is excitement about the season ahead. Piece by piece, it feels like the Bradford City we love is returning. That we’ve got Our City back.
In the darkness of the end of last season, it now seems evident that seeds were planted which are now turning into visible green shoots of recovery. There was little positive to take from being relegated before Easter, but the club took advantage of their fate. With Gary Bowyer’s future resolved, City could start to plan for this season earlier and with certainty.
Contrast the situation at Valley Parade to the three other clubs relegated from League One. Walsall, Scunthorpe and Plymouth only went down on the final day of the season. Once they recovered from last-gasp heartbreak, all three clubs had uncertainties over their managerial situations to resolve, before they could begin to start thinking about rebuilding their squads.
City were ahead of them all, knowing which out of contract players to keep. Bowyer could draw up his list of targets ahead of his rivals and made quick advances. The speed in which he has strengthened the squad underlines the clear, joined up focus.
There is no guarantee that an organised, methodical close season will deliver success. But a year ago we saw the consequences of failing to prepare. 2018 was a chaotic, befuddled summer dominated by a long and flawed search for a head coach, scattergun recruitment and a disorganised pre-season friendly programme. The catalogue of mistakes led to a feeble relegation. The panic, reactive approach of then is a complete contrast to this summer. It surely has to count for something.
City look ready to go, with a renewed confidence, self assurance and personality. The new-look squad has impressed in pre-season, and on paper looks promotion material. Supporters certainly believe, and a top seven push is surely a minimum expectation.
Stefan Rupp deserves credit for reapplying the glue. His mistakes of the past are well documented, and in many ways he must have ended last season full of regret about ever buying the club. A takeover offer was submitted but quickly rejected. And Rupp has continued to absorb the club’s losses. He could have remained distant, insisting that City is run on a shoestring. But he has continued to invest, ensuring Bowyer has a competitive budget.
Rupp has also seemingly taken on board lessons off the field and is determined to fix some of the damage. His comments in the Liverpool programme and in a letter to season ticket holders suggest a self-awareness of the issues of the past and a positive approach to righting wrongs. Whether in the long term he wants to be the Bradford City owner – or if, indeed, he is the right custodian of the club – remains to be seen. But for now, the signs are encouraging.
A successful season for Bradford City would be not talking about the chairman, especially after the noise and controversy of his former partner last season. The focus will hopefully be on Bowyer and the players only. That’s how it should be.
Bowyer has won a huge amount of admirers for the way he has conducted himself over the summer. His record after coming in last March was disappointing, although there were of course huge mitigating circumstances. This club cannot maintain its high managerial turnover and Bowyer simply had to be kept on.
The way Bowyer has gone about his business, and his engagement with fans, has demonstrated his considerable value. Bowyer has evidently spent time studying the history of the club and has brought the heritage to the fore, such as arranging new displays at the training ground. Inviting Stephen Darby and Gary Jones to address the players was another classy touch. Bowyer comes across as a genuinely nice man. He has charisma, but there’s a steel about him too. You desperately want him to succeed.
To do that, he will need a committed dressing room. Despite the notable summer signings, this remains the biggest question mark going into the season. Whilst there may still be outgoings before the transfer window closes, there hasn’t been as many departures as we fans had hoped. And that means Bowyer will still be relying on players who badly let down the club last season.
Some fans have talked about giving every player a clean slate. It’s admirable but I can’t agree. Last season’s squad only gained one solitary point from a losing position last season. They lost 27 of their 46 league matches. When the going got tough, they hid. You don’t forget that.
Hopefully, these players will recover their reputations and eventually prove to be useful signings for City. But we won’t know for sure until adversity strikes. The first time City go a goal behind this season, or lose a game, we’ll truly find out what this revamped squad is made of. Can it be like the celebrated Bradford City teams of recent, happier times – bouncing back and finding quick answers to tough situations? Or will it be a repeat of folding over like last season?
There will be scars still to heal from those who remain in the dressing room from last season, and this is where the new arrivals will be so vital. They can play without the baggage of what happened, and because of that they can lead from the front with positivity. Setting the example for others to follow. Many goals are expected from Clayton Donaldson and James Vaughan, but City need them to be true statesmen as well. Strong characters are absolutely essential.
It is of course a demanding Valley Parade crowd, and it also remains a big audience. Of all the milestones achieved since relegation, the fact 13,000 City fans renewed their season tickets is arguably the most significant. It was basically the exact same amount of season ticket holders who signed up for the 2018/19 nightmare. And whilst, yes, there has been a sizeable drop from the 18,000 of two years ago, to have such a high renewal rate, on the back of such a painful season, underlines the fact there’s a strong core of City supporters who truly will stick by the club during the lean times.
That huge show of faith can only have strengthened the morale and health of the club. It will have encouraged Rupp to provide adequate resources to rebuild. Helped persuade the likes of Vaughan, Donaldson and Paudie O’Connor to sign for the Bantams. Given the club the conviction to push forwards with the Bantams Heritage initiative, the classy away kit and several positive supporter functions.
The battles ahead might be tougher than we envisage. Go back to the last time we descended to League Two – the summer of 2007 – and the club was buoyed by the return of Stuart McCall, the fresh investment of Mark Lawn and the significant uptake of the first ever affordable season ticket offer. But City did not walk the league as expected, finishing 11th without threatening a serious play off push.
Then, like now, a sizeable part of the playing budget was taken up on players in contract, meaning other areas of the squad had to be strengthened on the cheap. Reality bit almost from day one. And for all the positivity of this summer, an opening day home defeat to Cambridge United would all too quickly burst a few balloons.
It also has to be recognised that history is against City. Last season was the 11th relegation the club has experienced. Not once have they bounced back to be promoted the season after. To go up will mean making new history.
Whatever happens on the field, the club seems to be moving in the right direction. I feel proud, once more, to be a Bradford City fan. And that’s because I believe in what they’re trying to do. It might not lead to instant success, but doing the right things will eventually bring its rewards.
The dark shadows of last season have been cast off. This is a fresh start. A new impetus and a collective spirit of fans backing the club. There is every reason to feel excited about the season ahead. Now is the time to truly turn the corner by closing the chapter on a wretched couple of years.
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