The greyness of Bradford City underlines how far there is to go restoring the club’s values

Image by John Dewhirst

By Jason McKeown 

Are we there yet? If Bradford City’s promotion charge was a car journey, us supporters are increasingly turning into the irritating kids in the backseat, loudly complaining about how long it’s taking, bored by the grey colourless scenery outside, and fed up with the middle of the road music on the radio. Gary Bowyer is the stereotypical dad, quietly pleased by the time he is saving from taking his carefully pre-planned route, but feeling anxious about the risk of an unexpected traffic jam pushing everyone in the car to breaking point.

It’s just not much fun is it, this season? On paper, City’s record remains strong and they’ve been a near constant fixture in the top seven. The home form is outstanding, and the defensive record is the best in 35 years. Even with Saturday’s loss to Crawley – just a sixth league defeat of the campaign – the promotion prospects look good. In a tight division, City are very capable of sealing an instant return to League One.

But promotion seasons are meant to be exciting. Winning games of football regularly is usually exhilarating. Instead, this season there’s a near constant lack of enthusiasm. Wins are ground out, rather than achieved through dazzling football. A hard-to-beat ethos has helped City dig in and pick up points regularly, but it is a real slog. On that car journey, we’re stuck in the slow lane. Making good time, but still feeling left behind.

This is the price of pragmatic football, and boy is Bowyer pragmatic. He didn’t particularly have this reputation prior to becoming the City manager. He was widely respected by people in the game – and knowledgeable lower league fans – for the calm and authoritative way he managed crisis clubs Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool.

In hindsight, what sticks out now is they were two clubs who at the time operated under low expectations and a dwindling fanbase. In such circumstances, of relying on your very loyalist supporters, who have reduced expectations, pragmatic football is more easily accepted and less noticeable, especially to the outside world.

There were obvious early comparisons to make between Blackburn, Blackpool and the mess Bowyer inherited at Valley Parade last March. But City supporters have largely stuck by the club, with season ticket sales holding up in spite of relegation. And in a lower division, expectations have proven sky high. Especially after a promising September and October. Even during a recent eight match unbeaten run, the suspicion remained that City were playing below their potential.

On the pragmatism scale Bowyer ranks somewhere at the top end of previous City managers, close to John Docherty and Peter Taylor. He is more pragmatic than his predecessor, David Hopkin, who despite his reputation for ugly football did try to build a City side around number 10s like Jack Payne. Bowyer is also more pragmatic than Phil Parkinson, whose near-five years at Valley Parade saw some dour football. But mixed in with it, City played some very bold, attacking stuff at times.

As we saw during Peter Taylor’s underwhelming reign, really pragmatic football can only be broadly tolerated by fans if City are winning. When they fall short, the frustration of dropped points, combined with low entertainment, sees patience very quickly wear thin. Ultimately with Taylor, I and many others concluded the values he was instilling couldn’t be stomached, even if it had lead to success. We are some way off that point with Bowyer, but a list of what he has going for him right now would be lacking beyond bare statistics.

You can like the City team Bowyer has built, but you can’t get passionate about them. Individual players have shown decent flashes of ability that you can enjoy – and no one would accuse them of lacking effort – but they don’t leave you clinging to the edge of your seat. And when you miss a game, you don’t seem to miss much. It is all very functional, and far from enthralling. They largely seem a good bunch. Yet you would not have swapped any of them into the 2012/13 promotion side. They are nowhere near as good or as lovable.

The players, more than Bowyer, sum up Bradford City in the aftermath of the Edin Rahic era. The heart is in the right place, but it is all a bit grey. There’s a collective will from most supporters, players, coaching team and behind the scenes staff to come together and move on from the past. But there is no real vision or identity. The things that made this club so wonderful under the Parkinson years, and Stuart McCall’s first season back, remain lost.

Nothing feels as good as it used to be. There’s no lack of effort from the club, but things don’t seem the same. The physical scars of Rahic’s destruction are fading, but mentally the problems run deep. We are haunted by our difficult past.

Bowyer is doing his best to take the club forwards, in the way that he knows how. But it increasingly feels like he is the right man at the wrong time. Perhaps, if Rahic had appointed Bowyer in September 2018 after sacking Michael Collins, the club would be in a much better position than it is now. He was late for the crisis that he might actually have been able to calm. Had he come on board then, City would probably still be a League One club.

At this moment, after a dark chapter in the club’s history, it feels like we need to have the opportunity to let our hair down more. To watch a few rip-roaring 4-3 wins. To be raving over attacking football, even if it means putting up with a leaky defence. We are all so cynical about everything that it would do us good to get lost in idealism. To reconnect with the pure, basic joy of being a football fan. When was the last time we all went crazy – I mean, completely crazy – celebrating a goal?

But we are where we are. And of those supporters calling for Bowyer to be sacked and Stuart McCall reinstated, there is an irony in the idea that getting rid of a manager when still in the play offs is now viewed as a solution. That changing managers yet again can somehow bring something better, when our recent history suggests anything but.

Ever since McCall was sacked with the Bantams in the League One play offs, we have been trapped in short termism. It is a cycle we must somehow escape, if the club is ever going to rebuild those solid foundations of 2012-2017.

Julian Rhodes and Stefan Rupp aren’t going to sack Bowyer, so it’s a waste of time campaigning for it. We are reaping what was sowed from Rahic and Rupp giving into short termism two years ago, by believing McCall had to go. Managers deserve time to build something. So Bowyer too deserves time. He wasn’t my choice as manager, but I don’t believe that sacking him now is the right answer.

Whilst City remain in promotion contention, we have to continue this journey. And if it leads to a return to League One next season, the club will be in a much stronger position. A first step towards getting City back to where they should be, pushing for the Championship.

But if we are successful this season, it comes at a price. It might seem cruel to compare Bowyer to the ultimate idealistic manager, Arsene Wenger, but the former Arsenal manager’s philosophy on football feels especially prevalent right now.

In May 2015, Wenger said of football fans, “I always like to think that the guy who wakes up in the morning after a hard week of work has that moment, that fraction of a second, when he opens his eyes and says: ‘Oh, today I go to watch my team.’ I like to think it makes him happy, he thinks he can maybe see something special. We can’t guarantee that, but we have to try…You always have to have it in our mind that you want people to wake up in the morning with a love of going to the stadium and for them to go home having enjoyed themselves.”

We had that feeling all the time relatively recently. We want to have it again. Bradford City and Bowyer are moving us forwards this season, but we supporters will ultimately struggle to fully reconnect with our club until that feeling returns.

Are we there yet? Nearly, in some ways. But in others, there’s still an awfully long journey ahead.



Categories: Opinion

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23 replies

  1. I think Gary Bowyer is a good human being but I’m not sure about his tactical knowledge or player assessment abilities. In other words, his management skills are questionable. The return of Doyle means this is the season City must gain promotion. Bowyer’s tactical and assessment skills are going to be put to the test. His job security will be dependent on promotion and in light of the payroll, size of squad and the Ginger Pele, rightly so.

    To a degree I feel sorry for Bowyer and the pressure he must currently find himself under. In my opinion the good start to the season is somewhat due to good fortune and it has masked some quality issues in the squad. Bowyer did not help himself by claiming the squad have impressive depth and then relying on negative football and contradictory excuses when the squad ran into injury and health issues.

    My expectations at the beginning of the season were quite modest. Now, into the second half of the season and recognizing the parity that currently exists I see no reason why City should not at a minimum gain a playoff spot. It all comes down to Bowyer and his ability to adapt to an attacking bias. I suspect most fans will be bitterly disappointed if City don’t gain promotion, which is quite understandable.

    • I’d disagree on his player assessment abilities as I think bar maybe 2 or 3 out of the 15 or so he’s brought in, they’ve all looked as good if not better than what we had and they all actually have a bit of fight in them. He also managed to get Jake Reeves back after 2 years, which says a lot about him as a man-manager. So to me he has some managerial skills.

      Tactically I think he’s either naive or stubborn, but certainly not stupid. Rightfully he made us hard to beat first after the horror show of last season which is fine, but as Jason said we as city fans need someone to make us fall back in love with the club again properly. A ground-out 1-0 win every saturday just won’t cut it.

      However having said that, Bowyer could just be doing this to get us out of L2 with plans to play more expansively if we gain promotion, which also is a reasonable plan given most supporters would take an instant promotion with shitty football than a couple of years in L2 playing nice stuff.

  2. Well written Jason McKeown you seem to have summed up the team, Manager and supporters in this article all in one go and yes it looks like we are going to have to show great patience for the rest of the season and some great faith in the club, Just remember we have come back from the Abyss and as you say its left deep scars.
    Bowyer doesn’t seem such a bad manager we all need time in an impatient world the team still needs to come together and that doesn’t happen overnight lets give it time and understanding and hope for better to come

  3. I don’t necessarily want Bowyer to go. What I and many want is a functional team that plays in a manner that entertains. You talk about Wenger. He was functional and developed a team that was hard to beat but played in an entertaining way. Bowyer, plays in a manner that is conservative (your words). Do not concede just score approach. If you don’t score settle for a dreary draw.
    City like Arsenal fans also work all week and look forward to going to a match and be entertained. I and many have not been entertained for weeks. Yes results indicate that City are moving in the right direction. There is more behind those matches. The performances have been dire in the main. The performance on Saturday just was not good enough. Despite the team set up. I thought the formation would get us a result. All reports said the same! City were poor and Crawley should have won by more.
    On paper, I believe city have got a very strong squad and should be able to compete with the best the division offers. It is not happen! The question I have to ask is why not?

  4. As usual, you sum up the situation superbly, Jason.

    Read the various message boards and you’d think we were scratching around the bottom of the table. The match day experience, on and off the pitch, is a chore. The football is monotonous and the atmosphere is flat. On your recent podcast, I recall the presenters stating they didn’t currently have a favourite player. Add me, and I suspect many others, to that list.

    Little is seen, or heard, from Rupp. Likewise, Julian Rhodes. I’ve nothing against Gary Bowyer, but he appears to be the mouthpiece for the club and his radio interviews are a great cure for insomnia. The PR is abysmal. It’s as though everyone has given up. On another thread, a contributor has listed the over sized list of midfielders, virtually everyone a nondescript. That just about sums the club at present – NONDESCRIPT.

  5. Another excellent article Jason, yesterday’s match was the 5th time this season that myself and my wife had travelled to see City away (partly to visit new away grounds for us)
    After seeing us at Stevenage, Morecambe, Plymouth, Leyton Orient and now Crawley, I can honestly say we should have lost all of them.
    Even the two we won were shocking performances and I’m afraid that enough is now enough.
    Despite having the time and spending power, I have just lost the will to travel all over the country and spend a considerable amount of money to watch such abject efforts week after week.

    • Well presented piece Jason. The club is still very much stuck in limbo in terms of ownership, leadership and direction.

      On the face of it Rupp and Rhodes are supporting the cheap season ticket initiative and have very much given Bowyer a free hand with a top end budget to get on with winning promotion. It all feels like a very temporary set up with an emphasis on a return to league 1 at the first attempt.

      The squad appears to be a good one but in reality 27 games in it’s a bloody awful watch. Narrow home wins sprinkled with the odd away win with a remit and team set up of grinding out narrow victories or settling for a point.

      Thel last few pre and post match interviews with Bowyer have become defensive and difficult to listen too. His assessment of the games especially the performances are at best questionable and at worse insulting the inrelligence of the paying fans. The pitch is also been used as an excuse but in reality as bad as it is no decent football has been played on prior to the poor playing surface becoming problematic earlier than usual.

      After fans screaming for a 442 formation Bowyer went with it at Crawley which apparently produced one of the worse performances of the season even with the leading goal scorer in the country been recalled.

      From what I’ve seen of Bowyers team this season it’s just not good enough and unless results and performances improve the cracks appearing between the fans and manager will only widen and his departure will be inevitable.

      Endure when you must enjoy when you can. There’s very little to enjoy and there’s only so much the fans will endure before the the calls to sack the manager will become too loud to ignore.

  6. Another fine article, thanks Jason.

    I think that your comments are echoing what a lot of Bradford City supporters are thinking right now.

    I really want Bowyer to succeed as Bradford City manager whether it’s this season, next season or the season after that.

    Hopefully the return of Doyle will see us starting to score more goals this season. However, we do need to provide our forwards with more scoring opportunities.

    Personally, I think that Shay McCarten should be given a run of games where he starts. I know that he started two games during the Christmas/New Year period, however after scoring that great goal at Swindon Town, I imagine that he wasn’t impressed with not starting the game yesterday.

    I’ve also been quite impressed with Jordan Gibson when he’s played, so I’d start with him on the left wing in front of Connor Wood.

    As others have said, we are lacking an attacking central midfielder, someone who can dictate play in the middle of the pitch.

    Here’s hoping that we start to see some attractive, attacking football from the players in claret and amber.

  7. Wrong to say he won’t be sacked. Managers never far from the chop and under mr Bowyer sticking pins in my eyes are more entertaining at moment. No plan no motivation & most IMPORTANTLY UNDERACHIEVING which to me unfortunately the problem of all them MR Bowyer

  8. Despite our league position it’s undoubtedly a tough time at the moment for Gary Bowyer who is finding out how difficult it can be to manage a club like Bradford City.
    Whilst the huge fan base has many benefits, it comes with high expectations, something that many a past manager and players have found difficult to deal with as GB is finding out.
    However, now is certainly not the time to make a managerial change, especially given our recent past.
    My hope is that the gaffer, who has many likeable attributes can rise above the criticism, lift the mood amongst fans and achieve his target of promotion, which is the prime consideration that will ultimately determine his long term future as manager.

  9. This concept of pragmatic football is totally fine. However when you witness the sheer lack of imagination week in week out it is that which leads one to think the manager is clueless. Leaving the most impressive players on the bench like Zeli Ismail and Connolly even when we have tussled ineffectively for over an hour suggests that he just doesn’t get it. I was appalled by the victory against Mansfield the two penalties the only real chances we could muster against a very ordinary side. Then in the next match stole a victory from an even more ordinary side, Morecambe.

    It was obvious that is we stopped randomly booting the ball up to Vaughn we were far more likely to create something…. This has been the case time and time again.

  10. The hope at Crawley would be that a return to a more attacking starting formation would accommodate Doyle with some of our other attacking options like Connolly & Vaughan and it would provide a formula for more goals for the rest of the season. But unfortunately it exposed some of the worrying traits that Bowyer’s pragmatism has masked. When a little more open defensively, many of the City’s strong players struggle. Reeves & Palmer were utterly second best and it was the worst performances for some time from the likes of O’Connor & BRE.

    And that will probably be that now, I don’t see Bowyer using 442 again because Crawley really were that dominant. But for a couple of good saves from O’Donnell and some poor finishing, the scoreline could have been much worse.

    Was it vindication of Bowyer’s pragmatism? Maybe. A similar performance at Plymouth where City were completely second best led to Bowyer reverting to 352 and an unbeaten run. I’d expect him to do the same because it can accommodate Doyle up front as well as patching up the wounds from Crawley.

    Unless performances fall off a cliff, Bowyer will still be here at the end of the season and we should be involved in the hunt for promotion. The doubt is whether he can lead a sustained push into the top 3.

  11. As ever a very articulate, and well presented argument, and i do enjoy your blogs.

    I’m glad that even with your critique, you’re still agreeing that only with stability are we going to move this club forward, of course none us want to be in this division.

    Just to share my thoughts, I’m actually really enjoying the season as in my eyes Bowyer has performed above and beyond all expectations.

    I know it’s not always the most entertaining (Mansfield at home being the most obvious example) but it’s League 2 football. I’d much rather watch a scrappy game, and get a win, then watching an entertaining draw (Salford at home anyone?)

    For me, i think we’re underestimating how poor things at the club actually were. We got absolutely battered each week last year leaking goals for fun, and with a lot of players on long term contracts, did anyone really expect us to walk this league?

    It’s the first rule of football coaching, to start from the back, and then take it from there. I think we’re suffering because of the injuries to Pritchard, Devitt & Ismail. It’s been a lot of pressure on Donnelly to provide all our creativity, and in recent weeks we’ve even had to push him up front.

    So no greyness in my eyes, looking forward to saturday, and hopefully we’ll all be a bit more entertained after a good win !

    • Matt’s thoughts pretty much echo my own about the current situation.
      When GB took over, the club was in a terrible place. We were going down faster than the Titanic. GB has done a lot to stabilise the club, because we were so damaged from the Rahic era that we could easily have dropped out of the league.
      When you consider the size of the task he had on his hands at the end of last season, he’s done a remarkable job. Yes, on field performances have been pretty dire to watch, but virtually everyone inside and outside of the club has demanded an immediate return to league 1. So, given weight of expectation, coupled with the players left over from last season, and what he’s been able to recruit he’s going about it in an effective, but far from pretty way.
      Performances of late have been particularly horrible to watch, but despite a horrendous injury list coupled with a sickness bug, we’ve slowly climbed the table during one of the busiest times of the year for games. That’s no mean feat. Most teams go backwards when they’ve had to contend with what GB has.
      Let’s just get the job done this season. Results over performances. GB will then have another window in the summer in which to build his team and offload more of Rahic’s deadwood. Then we can make more of a judgement about his style of football.
      Parallels with PP are quite apt. I seem to recall fans moaning about his style of play, but he arrested years of decline and slowly built a team capable of playing some great football (at times).
      I have to laugh when reading comments on social media calling for MB to go. Especially when some of those wanting MB gone want him replaced by Steve Evans!!!

      • No bigger compliment in my eyes than to be compared to parky mate ! But yes I do forget how people moaned “hoof ball” etc

        My god don’t miss that

      • I am with you boys. I did not find early season form “grey”. Newport and Salford games were good in parts. Granted the last two home games were abysmal. The time for an inquest is at seasons end with an upturn in form quite possible in the meantime. Ninety five per cent of Mackems were calling for PPs head 4 weeks ago….I wonder how many have second thoughts about it now.

  12. With players coming back into fold within the next couple of weeks GB needs to get His starting 11 and starting system and stick to it, this will allow players to get into the rhythm and process of feeding Eoin Doyle, proven scorer in and around the box and if players have to be sacrificed to make this happen so be it.

    None of the forwards have ripped tree’s up, including the captain, so let’s not walk on egg shells, it is what it is, and we are where we are, unbelievably, so big decisions and changes need to happen.

    We have the highest goal scorer not only in league 2, but also in Europe at our disposal, let’s not waste it.

    I ain’t a rocket scientist, but we only have to Feed Him, Feed Him, Feed Him, Feed Him, Feed Him……….

    At whatever cost…

    PROMOTION REQUIRED…

    I would take 4 – 5 – 1, hard to break down and nick a goal with amount of balls through to the Ginger Pele for the rest of the season as long as we get out of this division, end of…..

  13. Not only does it feel Grey, but it seems that we are lost in a swirling thick and impenetrable fog, not able to see our way forward. Every game is so overly cautious, with a midfield that knows how to pas sideways and backwards but seems unable to carry the ball or make a telling pass. It is ‘belt and braces’ with a hint of OCD style of football. Dour to watch and about as appetising as a World War One offensive, which is slowly gaining ground, but at what a cost. You feel that there is little ability among the players and coaching staff to find more dynamic and stylish ways of making progress. Yes headway is being made, but it is dull and unedifying fayre!

  14. I think Gary Bowyer has done wonders for the club…off the field – but feel that sentiment it slowly running out for precisely the reasons you give above….you can like this team but cannot get passionate about it…..unless we are losing, then you can – but in a negative way.

    What annoys me more than anything is that Bowyer claims we signed ‘exciting’ players – players who would supposedly terrorise defences – players such as Zeli – but we never player them!!

    So this article comes at a time when people are thinking about renewing season tickets again – and I find myself asking the question again – should I?

    My current thinking is that if we have to endure another season of L2 dross then perhaps the time has come not to renew – and have to say the rest of the family feel the same (thats 6 ST’s).

    For me the excitement has gone.

    • I guess my view is that I will renew my ST, as will the other 5 in our group. However, our lives have revolved around going to City games, however that is changing, as the entertainment level has dropped. Yes good to meet up as we all live away and not in the same areas, so the pre match banter is good, until it turns to discussing City and then a change in mood descends! By buying into next season, then we can hope that things improve.

  15. Dear Jason
    The fence is getting a bit weary of you constantly sitting astride it, apart from pointing out historic Rahic errors. There is indeed a greyness, but this is flowing from the top of the club downwards. The presumed reluctance of Mr Rhodes to take any measured risks, now as an employee attempting to satisfy the Chairman must be key. His priorities, as are presumably all chief execs are to balance finances with success. the aura from the boardroom appears more to be that of balancing books, breaking even/a profit. To me the cost of this is Bowyer-ball. The unsuccessful 442’s appear a shot at the supporters for criticising the narrow margin victories delivered by 532, particularly irksome the previous match which seemed switched to accommodate Doyle, rather than stick to the successful format. Is Bowyer making a point? Did he need to change a successful team? Could Doyle have come off the bench? Rhetorical questions don’t get any points but if the answer is yes, then what was the manager doing? Is he held to account by the Chairman, by Rhodes or does he point at the table and say “I’m delivering”. He is delivering, but so completely underwhelmingly I don’t think anyone can understand why. Going to watch city is a chore under his stewardship. There is no one vocal or commanding player. No Tony Mac, no Rory McArdle, no Davies, no Hanson. The teams lack of identity is a real concern. No one to get behind, no big tackle going in that shifts momentum. This is his team in the majority. There is no one organising or managing the team on the pitch, no player is looking up at any other for inspiration, guidance or a geeing up. Vaughan has been given the armband, perhaps in his contract? He puts a shift in, he should be Edinho, but he’s not been so far. He’s technically great, but L2 arguable brings him down, the physicality leading to going to ground on the halfway line rather than winning free kicks on the edge of the box. Ive nearly said enough. I’m still in love with Bradford City, but me and her, we’re on the rocks. Im pretty sure it’s her not me.

    • As a an editor / journalist Jason has to be balanced as long as possible. It’s not his job to lead the readers to one conclusion like so many of the papers do these days with their complete disregard for impartial balanced journalism. He expresses his thoughts and always tries to see where there are counter points from the other camp. In essence this is why WOAP does not descend to the all-emotions-accusations-insults style that can be found on other supporters platforms. The very point of this site is to be balanced in praise, balanced in criticism, share concerns and share what we love and like.

      Where I do wholeheartedly agree with you is that going to watch them is a chore at the moment. The lack of combative passion or even a glimpse of attacking football in some games does make you consider if you would renew the season ticket for a year.

  16. I would ask when the next Fans media meeting is, as this seems to have slipped off the radar. Granted, they may not wish to comment but it might give us an idea of what the club feels at present.

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