By Jason McKeown
At just after 12pm on Saturday, Gary Bowyer parked up in the Valley Parade car park by the main stand, ahead of Bradford City’s important home game against Swindon. Wearing a beaming smile, the Bantams manager stopped to talk to the smattering of supporters already outside the ground, high-fived the stewards managing the car park, and warmly shook the hands of security staff before going into the reception.
Bowyer gives off the vibe of a man who is very much enjoying himself. Relishing the task of managing a club of the stature of Bradford City. Revelling in the responsibility of being the club’s figurehead. And his enthusiasm is proving infectious, reflected in the rising number of happy faces that are evident on the pitch and in the stands on a City matchday.
It’s fair to say that Bowyer is not getting huge amounts of credit for the way he is turning around the club’s fortunes. And it’s really time that we start to redress that balance.
At WOAP, we’ve been as guilty as anyone else of being critical about aspects of City’s start to the season. And with it, Bowyer. We’ve published several negative match reports, and rightly so. Adapting to life in the basement league is tricky for all, and the high expectations of challenging for a swift return to League One mean that any performance that falls short is going to get poor reviews. Praise is hollow if you can’t provide criticism when it’s merited.
On my own part, I’ve deliberately held back from lauding Bowyer in the manner many supporters were rushing to do during the summer months. I was disappointed by the results under him at the end of last season, where it seemed he was given a free pass because of the issues that had gone on before him. I was also feeling jaded and disillusioned by the constant revolving door of managers at Valley Parade over the past 18 months. What was the point in getting behind Bowyer, if the usual suspects begin a campaign to drive him out after a couple of bad results?
The unconvincing start to this season only emphasised the need to wait and see with Bowyer. The football wasn’t great over August, and the tinkering of the system was questionable given it seemed the manager hadn’t really used the pre-season friendly schedule to brilliant effect. Having won many fans over during the summer for the way he spoke and the signings he made, watching others quickly turn on Bowyer early doors felt depressingly familiar. But I struggled to muster the energy to be the one to defend him.
It’s now becoming evident that Bowyer is building something positive, that can take City far this season. Recent weeks have seen a steady improvement in performances. Thankfully – as it was beginning to get worryingly turgid – the style of football is much better. Even after winning at Walsall, I remained deeply unconvinced. Strangely, the much better performance in defeat at Cheltenham gave me more heart. It felt like progress.
The last two home games against Carlisle and Swindon have really demonstrated the progression of City under Bowyer. Whilst Swindon’s promotion credentials have perhaps been over-played, Saturday was undoubtedly a major litmus test of City’s prospects, especially as they lined up without Ben Richards-Everton, Matt Palmer and James Vaughan. The Bantams passed with flying colours. They played with real flair. Producing a dominant display that fully merited the three points.
With just over a quarter of the season gone, City sit sixth in League Two and trail the leaders by just three points. Past history at Valley Parade warns us not to take anything for granted – we’ve seen many a City team suddenly collapse in form, without fully recovering – but everything we’ve seen so far suggests we’re set up for a season challenging for promotion. Winning far more often than losing. Finishing in the top three appears to be a realistic aim.
What’s so encouraging is to reflect on the curve of improvement. The swashbuckling, confident and determined manner in which City performed against Swindon is a world away from the tentative, nerve-ridden display against Cambridge on the opening day.
Unlike last season, the summer transfer business is looking as though it is a success. Ben Richards-Everton, Paudie O’Connor, Zeli Ismail, Matt Palmer, James Vaughan and Clayton Donaldson have especially fitted in well. Richards-Everton and Ismail in particular looked to be dubious signings, with patchy track records that suggested they would add little value. So far, they’ve greatly repaid Bowyer’s faith.
The transfer activity just as the window closed is proving even more inspired. Whilst Sean Scannell didn’t pull up any trees at Valley Parade, his higher league pedigree suggested swapping him for Harry Pritchard was a backwards step. Not a bit. Pritchard has been terrific for Bowyer, producing a string of excellent displays and giving everything he has.
Dylan Connolly, who looked an underwhelming piece of business, has also impressed greatly. It’s great to see a traditional winger who just loves to run at people. Finally, Callum Cooke has been arguably the most important signing of all. It’s no coincidence City’s performances have gone to another level since his integration. Cooke is a quality player at this level.
Whilst not all summer signings have hit the ground running – Adam Henley, Jackson Longridge, Tyler French, Sam Hornby and Aramide Oteh will need to bide their time – there’s no question the new arrivals have raised the standards at the club. And that improved culture is helping many of the underachieving players of last season too. Richard O’Donnell, Kelvin Mellor, Anthony O’Connor and Connor Wood are more than playing their part in the team’s rise up the table this season. And on the fringes, Hope Akpan, Danny Devine and Shay McCartan are also pushing hard. The rehabilitation of Akpan is a surprise to us all. Albeit there’s a long way to go for him.
Bowyer deserves appreciation for the way he has rebuilt the team. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s so gratifying to turn up and watch a team that’s giving their all. There’s also a genuine resilience that has seen the players overcome set backs and adverse situations on several occasions. It is night and day to last season, where players hid, went through the motions and had little stomach when the going got tough. It feels like the spirit is back.
It has been a bumpy ride at times, and there are still some issues to resolve, but 13 points from the last six games shows that City are hitting their stride. The rest of October features a favourable run of fixtures, giving the Bantams a chance to really rack up the points and climb higher up the table. It all sets us up for an exciting season. And as we begin to enjoy the warm feeling of winning football matches on a regular basis again, the traumas of last season are being pushed to the past. There are growing reasons to feel good about our club again.
I’ve really enjoyed the last three home games. Entertainment wise, they’ve been really good spectacles. The atmosphere at Valley Parade is returning to what it can be, and was truly something against Swindon especially. That broken relationship between the crowd and the players is being restored. You genuinely feeling excited about turning up to watch certain players. We’re enjoying our football again.
After the false dawn of last December, this time it truly is does feel that we are getting Our City back. And for his pivotal role in that, Gary Bowyer deserves our appreciation.