By Jason McKeown
Reality is biting at Bradford City. A summer of transfer activity that initially sparked waves of optimism has ended on a disappointing low-key note. The squad now at Gary Bowyer’s disposal has notable gaps that will likely hold the club back over the coming months. It just wasn’t quite the revolution we had been hoping for.
In some ways it ended how we’d cautiously expected it to fully play out. Last season’s under-performing squad had 16 players still under contract, most earning wages that were amongst the highest in League One, never mind League Two. It was obvious that most of these underachievers had to be moved on, and that a delay or failure to get enough players out the door would restrict recruitment.
When at the end of last May the club shared details of Gary Bowyer’s playing budget, the scale of the challenge was further underlined. Bowyer had £2.6 million overall, but as it stood £1.6 million was tied up with the contracted players (62% of the budget, or just short of two-thirds). He either had to rely heavily on a group of players who had badly let the Bantams down, or hope that other clubs would come in and take them off his hands.
In hindsight, the initial flurry of new signings probably distorted expectations. 10 new players arrived at Valley Parade before pre-season training began, including the unlikely-to-be-cheap James Vaughan, Clayton Donaldson and Paudie O’Connor. It fuelled hopes of a strong promotion push, and the mood of supporters was lifted.
However at that point, recruitment ground to a halt. Pre-season was strange, as two of the friendlies were used as an opportunity to field a deluge of trialists, the vast majority of whom looked nowhere near good enough to be worthy of a permanent contract. Meanwhile, the only departure was Josh Wright. Having made great strides, it became obvious Bowyer was now waiting for players to leave before he could bring in further reinforcements.
Even with the welcome news of Oli McBurnie’s Premier League move, earning City a sizeable windfall, it was made clear there would only be a small boost to the playing budget. Most of this money was ear-marked to repay Stefan Rupp, who had covered the unexpected high losses of the 2018/19 season.
Finally, as the season got underway and the permanent transfer signing window closed, a couple more high earners departed. Eoin Doyle and Sean Scannell probably wouldn’t have been top of Bowyer’s preferred list of players to leave, as they offered some value on the pitch. But the club’s position probably left them in no position to be choosy. Doyle, for example, was said to the highest earner and would in all likelihood have been back up to Donaldson and Vaughan.
It doesn’t reflect well that Doyle had made a flying start to life at Swindon, but City couldn’t really have a player on such large wages sitting on the bench. Swindon are said to have taken on more than half of Doyle’s wage. That means we’re still paying Doyle a portion of his wages to score goals for a promotion rival. It isn’t a great situation, but it’s difficult to see what else City could have done. They ideally needed other high earners to leave so Doyle could have been kept on, but there hasn’t been a queue of buyers.
If there are no willing takers for the likes of Hope Akpan – and there wasn’t even the faintest sniff of a transfer rumour that he would move on – you had to let others go to free up budget. It was also a major body blow that Joe Riley – on good money and seemingly not in Bowyer’s plans – was ruled out injured for the rest of the season. Moving him on would have been a significant boost to the overall budget.
So it was that Bowyer was left hunting in the bargain bins for late signings with the limited budget left over, and on the field City are undoubtedly weaker for swapping Eoin Doyle for Aramide Oteh and Sean Scannell for Harry Pritchard. Bowyer has failed to bring in a ball-winning midfielder that everyone can see is badly needed.
A long-term injury to Vaughan and Donaldson would now have major repercussions, as there is little experience in the other striker options. Finding an effective midfield has so eluded Bowyer, and he’ll have to find the solution from options that have so far struggled to impress. The defence is at least well stocked up, and there are now more wide options. But it is a squad lacking balance.
It’s a really difficult situation, and it once again brings us back to the folly of the 2018 summer transfer business. Unchecked and without anyone to resist his worst impulses, Edin Rahic signed players on weighty contracts that have since acted as a millstone around the club’s neck. It’s not just that these players performed dreadfully for the Bantams last season – they’re on lucrative wages that quickly put off other clubs from wanting to go near them.
We’ve been through this issue before. The six weeks of madness during 2000 – a much more destructive period of many financial mistakes – left City with a group of under-performing players on huge contracts that would push the club into administration twice. But even then, the year-on-year decline continued because City were still in a position of having players that the club’s reduced revenue streams were struggling to afford. A revolving door of well-paid, underachieving players dragging City down, eventually replaced by cheaper but inevitably inferior players who weren’t capable of turning the tide.
Until every single underachiever signed up by Rahic a year ago has left the club, we’re going to still be paying for those mistakes. Bowyer is earning a lot of criticism right now and much of it is justified. But in his defence, he is not far from managing with one hand tied behind his back.
Of that 16 players in contract at the end of last season, we can reasonably guess 12 were on high wages (including Shay McCartan and Jake Reeves, signed in 2017, and Tyrell Robinson and Omari Patrick who were awarded enhanced contracts in 2017/18). Of those 12, only two have left plus Doyle has been loaned out.
Bowyer can and must do better. He has to fashion an effective football team from what he has, even accepting he started out with a very poor hand. City have a budget and group of players who simply have to push for a play off spot this season as a minimum. But Bradford City can only truly build for the long-term when they’ve flushed away the expensive mistakes of the past.
Reality is biting. Biting very hard.