By Jason McKeown
Have you ever had that thing where a new band bursts onto the scene, and your friends and the music media outlets you respect are raving about them? You love the way the artist looks and what they stand for, but no matter how many times you listen to their songs, you just can’t get into their music.
That to me is what it has felt like watching Gary Bowyer as Bradford City manager. It appeared to be such a clever appointment, when he was unveiled as manager 10 months ago. Bowyer was the man who had won widespread respect in football for the composed and effective way he’d managed crisis clubs. While Blackburn Rovers and Blackpool were generating huge media attention for the self-inflicted destruction at the hands of wretched owners, there was Bowyer, calmly guiding the team and achieving relative success.
It seemed exactly what Bradford City needed, in the wake of David Hopkin’s resignation with the beleaguered Bantams sliding to League Two. The club was in a mess after the implosion caused by Edin Rahic. And Bowyer’s very particular type of experience suggested Stefan Rupp and Julian Rhodes had appointed someone with the right skill set to reverse the slide.
But instead, Bowyer has today departed Valley Parade with a fanbase that is more disenchanted than ever, and his own reputation damaged by a failure to turn around City’s fortunes. Understandably, many outsiders will look at the situation of the Bantams on the edge of the play offs, and the manager driven out, as being harsh on Bowyer. That longer distance perspective will ensure Bowyer gets another job in football, but his CV is undoubtedly blotched by his time at Valley Parade.
Certainly, his next employer – and fanbase – would do well to look closely at the finer detail of Bowyer’s management approach. No one at Valley Parade deserves to be accused of negligence when choosing Bowyer. His track record was a great fit with what was needed. But when it eventually came to light, the extent of Bowyer’s pragmatism must have come as a surprise to everyone – including us supporters.
In hindsight, you could see that Bowyer’s tenures at Blackburn and Blackpool – which occurred with crowds dwindling, expectations reducing and huge noise around controversial ownership – would have seen him come under little scrutiny. He was not known then, it seemed, as a pragmatic manager. We now know different.
The problem with any manager who makes it all about the result, to the detriment of entertainment value, is you have to get good results. When you don’t, you leave yourself open to heavy criticism from fans, who are left with nothing positive to take. More idealistic driven managers will at least provide you some sort of excitement – even if you don’t always win. They offer a vision to buy into. Reasons to be patient. A good afternoon out at Valley Parade.
Bowyer ultimately offered none of that. The winless run, since the turn of the year, saw the pressure very quickly ramp up. You could make an argument that the back to back home wins over the Christmas period doomed him. That City beat Mansfield and Morecambe, yet fans came away disgruntled, was basically the writing on the wall. Even winning games wasn’t enough to keep the wolves at bay, and so there was simply no mercy afforded during afternoons as bad as the Mansfield debacle. Or the Oldham collapse.
Bowyer leaves City in a reasonable position, but in what ultimately seems a significant underachievement for a club of City’s stature and recent history. In his defence, Bowyer was not blessed with much more than an okay budget for this level – and 60% of that was taken up by players he had inherited. Most of the 60% was tied up in players the club couldn’t get off the books following the expensive mistakes of the Rahic era. But still, on paper – and in a league not exactly brimming with high quality – the opportunity was seemingly there to challenge for the top three.
There were big expectations, bordering on unrealistic. On the Kop at the start of the first game of this season, fans chanted ‘100 points Gary Bowyer’. It set the tone for a campaign where Bowyer and the team have never quite delivered to a demanding crowd, even at their best moments. Victories came often, but almost always with the caveat of post-match ‘buts’. We won today, but we didn’t play that well. We were comfortable, but we weren’t dominant. Good, but never seemingly good enough.
It isn’t easy for any relegated club to bounce straight back. City have never achieved it in their history. But with the Bantams having so recently enjoyed a glorious period of growth that saw them reach the League One play off final as recently as 2017, there simply wasn’t the appetite for a long stay in the basement league. It is a long way back to the heights of three years ago. But we can’t get back there fast enough.
The quick, unexpected and brutal fall of Bradford City under Rahic has left deep scars that have not yet healed. So much of the supporter talk around the club now feels full of self-loathing. Criticisms about lack of ambition, and the level of professionalism about the club, rage on and on. Arguments between supporters seem more tribal and fierce than ever before.
There is a loud group of supporters who love to describe the club as ‘tin-pot’, and deride the passive nature of other fans. Some mock the club for holding an evening celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Chelsea game, whilst at the same time they accuse City of not being commercially minded enough – failing to see the link. That Anthony O’Connor is probably our best player this season sums up the lack of positives. It’s great that Anthony has turned things around – respect to him for that – but ultimately he’s still atoning for how bad he was last season. It’s hard to get excited about a player who let down the club a year ago.
It’s all just very ugly, following City. A colourless feel about the place. A dispiriting lack of atmosphere at home games. A lingering anger about anything and everything. And just a sadness that this was such a special, thriving football club between 2012-2017, but which seemingly has no legacy whatsoever to show for it.
It makes for quite a lot of baggage for Bowyer to have dealt with. A huge burden on his shoulders, to not just win football matches but try to repair a damaged football club. And in that regard, he was absolutely the wrong man to be in charge. We needed someone truly inspiring, who could unite supporters. Offer a meaningful vision. Rekindle our passion. Get us back to loving and believing in Bradford City Football Club. It’s quite an ask of anyone, but certainly beyond someone who waxes lyrical about drawing away to Colchester United.
And that’s where my long held doubts sadly came to fruition. I struggled to see the qualities of Bowyer last season when he took over, initially for three months. And despite some stirring words from him during the summer, I worried about the true substance behind it. He undoubtedly had most fans believing during the close season, and it seemed he’d re-energised the club after many of us feared a path towards oblivion. But ultimately, it’s what happens on the field that matters.
My first concern about Bowyer came when I first met him. It was after his second game in charge, at home to Luton in March, which came days after a rip-roaring debut victory over Peterborough United. Luton took an early lead, but City pushed the league leaders hard in the second half. Yet, curiously, Bowyer sat back and resisted making changes that might have delivered a priceless equaliser. He eventually threw on Billy Clarke in the 78th minute and Omari Patrick on 85, but he elected against making a third sub – leaving Jack Payne on the bench. Though Payne’s drop in form had arguably sealed Hopkin’s fate, he was still a match winner. A genuine weapon, if Bowyer could unlock his talents.
The game finished 1-0 Luton, and after full time Bowyer came up to the press box, where I was co-commentating for the Pulse. On and off the microphone, he was upbeat, and curiously happy with the fact City had run Luton close – as though that was enough. City had Luton on the ropes, but Bowyer didn’t gamble on gaining what would have been a huge point that would have built some much-needed momentum. Our position at time was too perilous to be satisfied with narrow losses.
Sure enough, City lost their next game at Oxford, and went on a downward spiral that saw relegation sealed by Easter. In that time, Bowyer was given a two-year contract. There were claims that a 4-1 thrashing by Bowyer’s former club, Blackpool, was the catalyst for making him permanent manager, because of how impressive the Tangerines were. The team Bowyer had largely built. It felt like some strange propaganda attempt – Bowyer must be a great manager, because his old team just tore his current one apart. I wrote at the time of the two-year deal, “I do worry we’ve rushed into making a decision before we’ve stopped to really think about it…already team selections are questionable and he has held the team back from really going for it.”
But as City went down, losing seven games in a row, Bowyer was largely given a free pass. It wasn’t his team, and they were such a gutless side that no one could have saved them. Whether this argument was true or not, the stability of having someone in place to prepare for 2019/20 made sense. And the club revealed the news of Bowyer’s deal led to an upturn in season ticket sales.
Over the summer Bowyer did a lot to really win people over, paying an active interest in the club’s heritage, and saying inspiring things at a series of fans forums. He was undoubtedly a popular manager, with his summer signings of Paudie O’Connor, James Vaughan and Clayton Donaldson boosting optimism. His arm-around-the-shoulder approach with players was widely praised. The goodwill was there from kick off.
This season has been challenging, but on paper offered plenty of promise. They made a slow start, but by September Bowyer’s charges were winning games of football and climbing the table. Pragmatic at first, but after Callum Cooke was eased into the side, there were some genuine flashes of decent football. The victories over Carlisle, Swindon and Crawley showed this side could play good football. And the League Two summit was within their grasp.
The high water mark of the season was probably the first half of the Crawley game. City were a goal to the good, after a superb passing team effort was finished off by Harry Pritchard. In the closing stages they led 2-1 and were about to go top of the league, only for two late Crewe goals against Swindon to keep the Railwaymen in pole position. Still, City were 2nd with 27 points from 14 games. It all looked so promising.
From there, the decline set in. A poor first half display against Port Vale, three days later, where the Valiants ultimately nicked a winner in stoppage time. Cooke had given the ball away in the build up to Vale’s goal. A mistake. In the next game, against Exeter, Cooke’s confidence looked dented and he was sent off for a badly judged tackle. Bowyer publicly criticised the midfielder after the game. He’s never quite looked the same player since. A pattern seen with other attacking players.
Ever since that Port Vale game, where they lost from playing a bit too much football in the wrong area of the pitch, City have digressed. They’ve become more functional. More cautious. Defensive-minded. Risk avoiders. They’ve still beaten Exeter, Newport, Mansfield and Morecambe, but none of these performances were that convincing. And in and around these victories, they’ve struggled – especially on the road. Too many defeats, and an awful lot of underwhelming draws.
It’s felt that Bowyer had lost trust in his players. And increasingly wouldn’t let them express themselves. Creative-minded players have gone into their shells. They’ve all lost form. As an attacking force, City have no rhythm and simply don’t create enough chances. The move to three centre halves provided a more sold platform, but the balance of the team has suffered. And as results have continued to tail off, Bowyer looked increasingly short of answers. The recent transfer moves look strange at best.
When you look at pragmatic managers, this seems to follow a similar trend. A lack of confidence in players means the manager gives them limited freedom. A belief is instilled that the system is going to be more effective than the ability of the players at your disposal. And it fuels an impression the manager is holding the team back, rather than pushing them forwards.
Comparisons between Bowyer and Phil Parkinson are like night and day. Parkinson built an organised system for sure, but trusted his creative players to produce and ultimately built a team that was far greater than the sum of its parts. In a different way, Stuart McCall’s side was the same.
Under Bowyer, City have drifted from challenging from the title, to falling outside the top three, and now struggling to even remain in the play offs. It feels like a wasted opportunity. Mitigating factors like a crippling injury list have not helped, but do not fully explain it. If only Bowyer had been prepared to let his players really go for it, he might just have stemmed the tide of supporters turning on him.
But make no mistake, the problems at Bradford City will not be solved by Bowyer’s departure. They run deeper, and require serious thought. We are a club that aspire to be in the Championship and, but for a couple of bad misses at Wembley three years ago, might have made it. Getting the club back to what it is capable of is going to be a huge, huge fix.
What City need from Bowyer’s replacement is a galvaniser. Someone to come in and fuel our egos a bit. To give everyone a lift, both in the stands and in the dressing room. You look at the impact Ian Holloway has had at Grimsby Town – and its local community – and you feel Bradford City need a bit of that. A motivator, who can get everyone feeling ten foot tall again. Someone who will throw the weight of the personality into the club. Who can have an instant impact, at least in the short-term.
It might not be enough to take City up this season, but what the club desperately needs first and foremost is some form of momentum. If Bradford City is a car, we need someone to get the engine running again. To drive it back around the racing track in top gear, rather than its recent stuttering outings.
We need some excitement. Desperately. A couple of rip-roaring 3-2 wins. Get the crowd right behind the players again. Bring back enthusiasm to Valley Parade. Get players back into the side who are capable of getting the crowd stirring.
Neil Warnock, who has publicly said he’d be prepared to take a League Two job until the end of the season, might offer that kick start. And Bradford City is probably one of the few clubs in this division he’d entertain the idea of going to. He is not a manager with a reputation for playing silky football. Still, what he most certainly does have going for him is that ability to galvanise a club.
Stuart McCall has also been mooted by many fans, who cite his unfinished business. It remains to be seen if Rupp and McCall could work together again after the fallouts of two years ago. And there is clearly some opposition from City fans to the idea of McCall coming back for a third spell as manager.
I think the lure of McCall is simply that – above all else – he gets his players playing for him. And what would make everyone feel instantly better right now is to watch a football team truly running themselves into the ground for the club. Playing without fear. Embracing, rather than fearing, sporting the crown of the biggest club in League Two. McCall wouldn’t have City as organised as Bowyer, but he would certainly reignite the passion.
It remains to be seen who will come in. But it is a relief that Bowyer’s time in the dugout has come to an end. He is not a bad person, or a bad manager. But he is not what Bradford City needed to rebuild and progress. So now the challenge is on to find the lightning rod which can truly unleash some positive energy back into this self-loathing football club.