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.