By Jason McKeown
When you’re a manager under extreme pressure of losing your job, the next logical move doesn’t appear to be to loan out your captain and top scorer, plus sell the leading marksman in Europe. But that is the route Gary Bowyer is said to be on the verge of taking this week, as James Vaughan and Eoin Doyle are on the brink of leaving Valley Parade.
Vaughan is heading to Tranmere Rovers for the rest of the season, who if the loan move is confirmed will offer him the chance of playing at a higher level and a base closer to his Merseyside family. Doyle, who was recalled from Swindon Town after netting 23 goals in 22 games, is set to return to the league leaders. Bowyer has just days to bring in at least one replacement. The manager’s own future is increasingly in doubt. His margin for error is wafer thin.
Whilst losing one of the pair might be forgivable, for both of the club’s leading strikers to depart at such a critical moment of the season looks utterly baffling and reckless. Almost nine years to the day, the unpopular then-City manager, Peter Taylor, all but confirmed he wasn’t turning back from taking City into a dark tunnel of pragmatism, by loaning out his only flair player – Omar Daley – and bringing in the workhorse Kevin Ellison. Taylor was effectively signing his own P45. And now Bowyer can stand accused of doing exactly the same.
Both Vaughan and Doyle are on their way out of Valley Parade with noises emanating of an unhappy dressing room. It is rumoured Vaughan and Bowyer have fallen out, whilst Doyle has simply not settled back in West Yorkshire. The so-called Ginger Pele has got his head down and worked hard on his return, but it is understandable if his heart isn’t in it. That has clearly created a problem for Bowyer, who is left with a difficult dilemma that in truth he can’t win. If Doyle leaves, goes back to scoring week in week out for Swindon, and the Robins get promoted ahead of City, Bowyer looks foolish. Yet keeping a disgruntled Doyle also appears self-defeating, if City are left with a well paid asset who doesn’t produce.
Either way, it seems Bowyer has failed to make a striker in red hot form believe that he has a future at City. Compared to the joyful experience of playing for a flying Swindon side that was built around his strengths, these last four, winless games in Bantams colours must have felt harrowing for Doyle.
Vaughan’s proposed departure is undoubtedly more disappointing. He is the club captain after all. No one should underestimate the importance of being closer to family, but Bradford is far from a million miles away from Merseyside. It hasn’t moved any further down the M62 since Vaughan was happy enough to sign a three-year deal to join City last summer. And let’s not forget, it was reported at the time that he turned down an offer from Tranmere to sign for City. What does it say about his leadership and commitment that when the chips were down, he apparently wants out?
The rumoured suggestion is that Vaughan would stay if the club sack Bowyer. But as much as most of us supporters want a change in the dugout, that is a dangerous piece of player power if true. It’s all very well for some to argue that we should dismiss Bowyer to keep Vaughan, but again what does it say about the player? Should Vaughan have a hand in choosing the next manager? I’m not going to jump to the front of any queue to defend Bowyer right now, but the rumours of Vaughan’s reasons for potentially leaving simply do not sit well. If he departs now and returns to City in the summer, he will have a lot of convincing to do.
There are far bigger and better reasons to sack Bowyer, right now, than simply to keep a player with a questionable attitude happy. Especially as that player is rumoured to be unpopular in the dressing room.
Of course, the squad disharmony reflects badly on Bowyer first and foremost. Over the summer, the manager received plaudits for the arm-around-the-shoulder approach to a group of players who had been unloved. Over recent weeks, it has looked increasingly as though these players are not playing for the manager. Frustrated, perhaps, by the rigid, safety-first approach that sees them operate with such little freedom. If the players are as unhappy as their body language suggests – coupled with the unrest amongst supporters, that has now stretched to even those who have spent months loudly backing him – Bowyer is all but finished.
One of his final acts as manager might just be to sign a replacement for Vaughan and Doyle. WOAP understands that around £6k pw in wages will be freed up by these departures, and the club is actively seeking to bring in at least one replacement striker of stature. They need to. This is not a time to sign yet another raw young loanee from a Premier League or Championship club. Accusations of a lack of ambition are now laid squarely at Stefan Rupp and Julian Rhodes. That charge can be disputed with a big name arrival, or confirmed if a cheap unknown rocks up through the door. And don’t forget, the club also needs a ball-winning central midfielder.
The clock is ticking. If the club still has ambition to get promoted this season, they must show it over the next few days.
All of which adds even more spice to a pivotal evening for City and Bowyer, as City welcome Cheltenham Town to Valley Parade. You would assume that Doyle and Vaughan will sit this one out, whilst their futures remain unresolved. After the fall out from Saturday’s wretched defeat, Bowyer must hope his players deliver tonight – or the backlash will only grow. The social media anger over the Doyle and Vaughan situation shows that Valley Parade will not be in a forgiving mood tonight. Defeat, and it’s hard to see how Bowyer can continue as manager.
Even with a victory, Bowyer will be hanging on and needing a result at Oldham on Saturday. And that would put him and the club in a strange position. As it stands, ultimately it will be Bowyer who sanctions the moves of Vaughan and Doyle, plus signs a replacement, when the manager himself might be out of the door before the ink dries on transfer deadline day contracts. It’s no surprise that some fans are demanding that Bowyer should not be making such crucial decisions. But unless the club sack him, what’s the alternative? The principle that the manager gets final say on incomings and outgoings has to be preserved right now, even when few of us have any faith in the manager.
In the long-term, the club would do well to seriously look at bringing in a director of football, rather than entrusting all football decisions with a person whose job security will always be flimsy. It would help the club to build a better football identity, and reduce this constant turnover of players caused by the ripping up of the squad every time a manager fails.
In a strange way, a City defeat tonight and Bowyer sacking in the morning might be the best thing. But then again, it would leave City without a manager during the crucial final moments of the transfer window. And that could prove just as costly. So it’s a really bad time to sack a manager, and yet increasingly there is surely little alternative.
It’s an almighty mess, really. When the dust settles, there needs to be an inquest into how a season of such promise has descended to this.
It is a shock to see proven goalscorers on the brink of leaving the club. But City’s recent history shows that this type of situation is far from unique. On the negative side, it’s 13 years ago now since top scorer Dean Windass was loaned out in January to Hull City, which sent the Bantams on a path to relegation. More positively in 2015/16, Phil Parkinson raised eyebrows for swapping top scorer Devante Cole with Fleetwood’s Jamie Proctor. That and bringing in Wes Thomas and Josh Cullen actually proved the catalyst for a stronger second half to the season, with a reshuffled City squad reaching the play offs. And then a year later there was the controversial sale of James Hanson to Sheffield United, with Charlie Wyke bought from Carlisle. Again, it proved a decent piece of business and City prospered.
Can Bowyer and City pull off something similar again? You wouldn’t bet on it, but equally it shouldn’t be ruled out. Right now, with the very real likelihood of Doyle and Vaughan’s exits, the club is receiving a huge amount of criticism – and they have to take it on the chin. Ultimately, City need to be judged by the full set of business that is done between now and the closing of the window on Friday evening.
But be in no doubt, the stakes could not be higher. Bowyer appears on the brink of losing his job, and he’s about to let go of two of his best players. This is a defining moment in Bradford City’s season. One they simply cannot afford to get wrong.