All to play for

Image by Thomas Gadd (copyright Bradford City)

By Jason McKeown 

John Watmough surely ranks as the longest serving writer on Bradford City matters. Over the decades, his Counsel and Criticism column in the City Gent has proved insightful and challenging. Arguably John’s greatest observation is the blame cycle.

John’s theory is that, when Bradford City are having a bad time of things, the supporter blame is rotated between the manager, the players and the owners. One of these areas becomes the focus, until some sort of change occurs – such as a manager getting sacked. But if, as so often proves the case, the downturn continues, the blame shifts onto the next target.

The blame cycle was very evident last season, as an example. In the summer of 2018, the cause of a post Wembley season collapse was attributed to the owner, Edin Rahic. He appointed Michael Collins as manager, almost to be the fall guy. And when the season started badly, Collins became the focus of the ire. Rahic pushed Collins under the bus by sacking him, only for the blame to firmly be redirected back onto the chairman. Strong supporter criticism led to Rahic’s unseating, but following a January slump it was back onto blaming the manager, now David Hopkin. And when Hopkin’s resignation made no difference to City’s doomed plight, the campaign ended with the blame cycle firmly centred on the players.

Fast forward to the current day, and we appear to be going through another move in the blame cycle. Over the last few months, City’s decline in form was largely squared at Gary Bowyer, with the criticism raging that he was failing to get the best out of a decent group of players. Bowyer ultimately paid the price and rightly so. But although City’s league position has suffered since Christmas, the club remains on the cusp of the play offs.

All to play for, then. Yet after Saturday’s defeat to Cambridge United, complaints about the lack of quality in the squad – and questionable attitude – mean the blame cycle has shifted onto the players, having threatened to be pushed onto the board during January’s transfer window issues. Some fans are even writing off the season already, arguing the squad is only good enough to finish mid table. Focus on next season, and a much-needed summer clear out.

It’s a curious turn of events. A few weeks ago, a defeat like the manner of the loss to Cambridge would be angrily blamed on Bowyer. And whilst Stuart McCall didn’t escape criticism, there is a general mood that the players’ limitations are now the culprits. From being unhappy Bowyer wasn’t able to mount a stronger promotion push, to suddenly believing a promotion push might not be possible anyway.

And yet, there are still 12 matches to play, and the Bantams are only one point off the play offs. There is a great deal at stake, and it seems strange to throw in the towel. When announcing the sacking of Bowyer, the club argued a change of manager was needed to give City a greater shot at getting promoted this season. Three games into the fifth coming of McCall, and the position – one point off the play offs – is exactly the same. So what’s changed?

It would be wrong to expect instant results of any manager, and if City fall short this season it would be no reason to talk about dismissing McCall. But it doesn’t give him a free rein to see out the season, expectation-free, either.

McCall will know this better than anyone. His honesty is one of his most endearing qualities, and that authentic leadership will be needed over the next few weeks. Bradford City have been in a position of changing managers mid-season numerous times, and often the new guy has come in with a political hat on. Keen to maintain some distance between their ability and the quality of the players they inherit. Peter Jackson and Simon Grayson were guilty of it. So too, was Bowyer a year ago.

I remember co-commentating for the Pulse on a 3-2 defeat to Bristol Rovers at the end of last season, where the players actually had a decent go. Yet when Bowyer came up to be interviewed after, he acted as though he was too angry to speak. It was a sixth-straight defeat under Bowyer, but he was still in a position where he could scorn the players as though it was nothing to do with him.

When poor end of season defeats occur in this situation, it is easy for the politically-minded manager to pile the criticism onto the players. To make it clear they had walked into a mess, which can’t be fixed until the summer. They’re happy to allow expectations to dwindle. For the blame cycle to be focused elsewhere. But come the start of the following season, it won’t take much for supporters to turn on that sort of manager. We’re not stupid.

McCall is too smart to do the same. The excuses are there to hide behind over the final few weeks of the season, but I’d be amazed and disappointed if he was to take it. McCall can, to an extent, preside over some poor results between now and the end of the season, and the blame will be directed at the players and perhaps the board. But that won’t help McCall in the long run. The goodwill afforded his way since re-taking charge needs to be maintained. A spark of momentum is badly needed. Whether City go up or not this season, the club needs to end the campaign in a much better state of mind than right now.

When you dig deeper beneath the blame cycle, things simply aren’t black and white. Right now, and after an ugly ending, it’s easy to portray everything that Bowyer did was wrong. To ignore the things he got right. But whatever we think of his style of football and over-cautiousness, he did have City in the top seven for all but the final game he was in charge. That doesn’t happen without there being some positive qualities to his management. Those same players now written off as mid-table quality were for a time amongst the early season pace-setters. They are far from terrible players, especially at League Two level.

That said though, it’s clear that the players – like Bowyer – have lost their way. For many reasons, their confidence and assurance has drifted. The likes of Harry Pritchard and Callum Cooke just haven’t hit the heights of early season. Other important players early doors, such as Clayton Donaldson and Zeli Ismail, have endured lengthy injury problems. Bowyer’s increasing move to be more pragmatic sucked some of the fun and verve out of the creative players especially. But they didn’t suddenly become bad players. The ability within them is still there. McCall’s task right now is to unlock it again.

I personally found the drop off in performances towards the end of Bowyer’s time especially notable. I attended the Newport County home win in early December, when City were solid if unconvincing. As I was away in the States over Christmas, I missed all the festive fixtures. So my next game was the January 2-2 draw with Scunthorpe. The difference in the confidence and bravery of the players was really stark. I felt the Scunthorpe game was the worst I’d personally seen the team play all season. And they seemed so badly set up by the manager. Over the subsequent weeks, it only got worse and Bowyer paid the price.

McCall is also hampered by the events of the final week of the transfer window, which saw James Vaughan controversially leave along with Eoin Doyle. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but had McCall come in earlier he might have been able to persuade Vaughan – if not Doyle, also – to stay. And even if they’d left, he could have decided on replacements. The fact Kurtis Guthrie was left out of the squad at Cambridge doesn’t exactly bode well.

So it’s not the same squad as the one as the one that was flying in October. Morale is dented. It is very difficult to restore belief and conviction in players mid-season. It’s very challenging to instill a new way of thinking, when time on the training ground is interrupted by terrible weather and the games coming thick and fast. But over the coming weeks we will be looking for signs of McCall rebuilding confidence. It might not come in time to get City promoted this time around. But until he gets to the summer and can really change things, McCall has a responsibility to get the most out of this squad.

History is against McCall achieving success this season. Mid-season changes of managers rarely lead to significant improvement at Bradford City. The only really notable examples are Terry Dolan in 1986/87 and Chris Kamara in 1996/97 – both more than 20 years ago. The two most successful Bradford City managers since then – Paul Jewell and Phil Parkinson – were handed the reins midway through a campaign, but even they struggled to have much of an impact until the season after.

Nevertheless, what Jewell in 1997/98 and Parkinson in 2011/12 did well was take full responsibility for the group of players – and the results. They didn’t hide behind excuses in the way other, less successful City managers did. They fully embraced the leadership qualities needed.

McCall, you suspect, will take the Jewell and Parkinson path. On a 15-month deal, there isn’t time for pretending the first three months don’t really count. And whilst there is absolutely no doubt that Bradford City will be able to take a huge step forwards this summer, when the expensive contracts of a large majority of Rahic’s summer 2018 recruits expire, the club can’t stand still waiting for that moment to happen.

The early way in which McCall has gone about things, and conducted himself, has been very impressive. And that’s why there is no need to wait for him to have the chance to build his own team before judging him – good and bad. City have a great opportunity to finish in the play offs this season. They could yet get promoted at Wembley. No one should hold it against the manager if we fail. But McCall will be in a much stronger position to rebuild the team if he goes into this summer planning for a League One campaign.

Categories: Opinion

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11 replies

  1. Spot on Jason – of the games left 6 are at home – McCall and the supporters can lift the team at VP and we could win all these. Given the 2 previous away performances Cambridge was an improvement – albeit the second half was grim and the substitutions with hindsight didn’t come off. If we can get an away win at Newport we will be back in the play offs and things will look better. This is a poor division and whilst we have no automatic right I still believe the play offs are not only possible but most likely.

  2. I fully agree. I went to Mansfield and that was dire in every way (Oldham sounded much the same a week later)., I went to Cambridge and in the end it was a fine margin. We played well in the first half and poorly in the second, but the wind made things difficult to defend against… Cambridge struggled in the first half for the same reason. You couldn’t fault the players for effort unlike at Mansfield where there was no fight.

  3. The media and pundits have done City fans a disservice this season with their unrealistic expectations. By October, it was clear that City should have felt flattered to be in an automatic promotion position. Winning ugly was being applauded and City’s reliance on good fortune was being ignored. Throughout the season the stats in general have shown that City should be closer to mid-table rather than top three. Yet the media and pundits ignored these facts.

    Currently, the League has a lot of parity with the margin between playoff and mid-table being quite fine. This parity combined with Stuart’s return has renewed my optimism. Even by League Two standards City have struggled to show much quality this season or to at least sustain it for any noticeable period of time. Amazingly, City remain in contention for a playoff position and I feel Stuart is the man most likely to get the best out of this squad. A playoff position is still attainable but if not achieved I will be looking forward to next season. My expectations for this season were always modest.

    • ‘By October, it was clear that City should have felt flattered to be in an automatic promotion position.’

      Do you have any evidence you can provide in support of your opinion?

      I checked some statistics that BBC Sport provided on the 12 games City played up until their first game in October. If I have accurately recorded the ‘stats’ of those 12 games then I fail to see how anybody could come to the conclusion that you have. Unless that is, you decided to abandon the stats and rely purely on personal subjectivity as the means for such a confident statement

      My ‘research’ shows the following:
      City shared 50% possession with their opponents over those 12 games;
      City had 179 shots to their opponents 142 shots over those 12 games;
      City had 47 shots on target compared to their opponents 43 on target over those 12 games;
      City had 75 corners compared to their opponents 51 corners over those 12 games;
      City held a 6th place position with 21 points from those 12 games.

      Personally, I don’t take much notice of ‘stats’ of the above type because the only stat that really counts is the number of points gained. A couple of examples might help you understand why I think this way.

      Example1: When we played Scunthorpe away we had 73% possession. We had 17 shots to Scunthorpe’s 4. We had 5 shots on target compared to Scunthorpe’s 2 and 9 corners to zero in our favour. We came away with only 1 point.

      Example2: When we Scunthorpe at home we had a mere 37% possession. We only had 7 shots to Scunthorpe’s 19. We only managed 3 shots on target to Scunthorpe’s 8. As far as corners are concerned they outnumbered us by 7 to 2. This game also ended in a draw.

      So, as much as I try, I just can’t follow your logic. And I don’t think you help yourself either by claiming ‘Throughout the season the stats, in general, have shown that City should be closer to mid-table rather than top three’ when, actually, the points tally -which by the way IS a ‘fact’- has had City in a play-off spot for the majority of the season!

      Why did you want the ‘media and pundits’ to ignore this FACT? And doesn’t your belief in a play-off place STILL (my emphasis) being achievable not actually support the ‘unrealistic expectations’ that you criticised ‘the media and pundits’ for at the beginning of your post?

      ‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts’.

      Daniel Patrick Moynihan

  4. Parkinson proved his worth by having a small tight squad and getting the best out of them. Today we have a large squad that lack quality in a key area. Each week there are numerous changes, either through injuries and tactical reasons. There is no consistency with team selection. We lack a strong tackling midfielder, like a Stuart McCall or Jones type of player. That will not be resolved this season. It’s a priority that is addressed in close season. Otherwise, we will continue to perform poorly.

  5. I agree with all people are saying that is wrong but to me the whole set up of the club is totally wrong, We have an owner that is not a football fan hardly ever attends games and Julian Rhodes who has done a manful job is not an owner only paid employee and wants to relinquish his position. The manager and we have had a few have no solid backup from a meaningful management team that is why they stand alone and fold under pressure. And as Stuart is saying we have a squad too large doesn’t matter if they have an average game chances are your not playing next game.
    Only way for Stuart to wake this team up is to tell them they are playing for a contract next season and only pick those willing to put a big shift in win loose or draw. The line has to be drawn somewhere. Then people might just see us as a Football Club again

  6. In my humble opinion, our squad isn’t good enough to finish in play off position come the end of this season. In the 31 seasons of supporting Bradford City, that is what I have done for the majority of that time period, support them. I have very rarely called for a manager to be sacked.
    However, I stand by my pre-season prediction that we will finish mid-table come the end of this season. We are not strong enough in central midfield. Our link up play between defence and our forward line has generally been poor this season. Also, a team that goes four months without winning away from home in the league isn’t good enough to get promoted. I appreciate that on paper we still have a chance to make the end of season play offs but based on the games that I’ve seen this season, we aren’t good enough to go up. I will still be attending games this season and I be renewing my season ticket for next season. I am excited that Stuart McCall is our manager again and I hope that he can achieve promotion with us again. But, I don’t think that it will be in 2020.

  7. A good article Jason but like many i think you are over egging the quality of this squad. Donaldson has been average at best and missed some killer chances. I don’t expect his goal tally would have been much higher if he’d played every game. I think citing Ismail
    is grasping at straws, he’s hardy kicked a ball. True he’s shown some quality but equally he’s prone to give the ball away in dangerous areas and isn’t physically fit enough to complete 90 mins. Asking Bowyer to come off in one game tells me everything I need to know about him – there’s all the reasons why Walsall binned him. As for Pritchard I don’t get that one either. True he’s scored some goals but been very average in many games. Plucked from non league not so long ago so shouldn’t expect too much from him. Do rate Cooke though and even though his form has dipped he has the potential to be the pick of the bunch.
    Also wouldn’t read too much into the Guthrie situation. If you looking at the bench Saturday there simply wasn’t space for another attacking player. I’m more surprised that Devitt hasn’t had a look in yet.
    Personally I think Stuart has his work cut out with this squad. True we’re only a point off seventh but more telling is the form over the last 14 or so games which is easily bottom half so we’re actually going to need a huge reversal in current form to achieve our goal this year.

  8. Most supporters can see that this squad has no goalscorer, no ball winner and no decent right back (just two crap ones). Bowyer built the squad and seemed happy with it despite creating those problems.
    McCall didn’t build it and has had no chance to rectify it. Hence expectations on him should be less than the expectations that we had of Bowyer. And yes I’d be saying that no matter who the new manager was. I’m certainly no McCall apologist.

  9. The blame for the club’s current problems clearly lies with Rupp and Rahic. The events under these two have led to a self inflicted and disastrous decline of the club. This cannot be put right overnight. From an upwardly mobile club, with a good rapport with the supporters and a high recognition of the club traditions, every aspect of the club suffered from a steep and sharp decline.

    The legacy of the poor decisions and mismanagement of the club lies squarely with the Rupp and Rahic regime. We cannot function properly as a club with an absentee Chairman and a low profile CEO. The lack of leadership and strategic planning and direction persists.

    The appointment of Stuart McCall is a good step in the right direction. He has already shown great honesty and integrity, which has been sadly lacking.

    Most supporters just want to see the club run effectively, on a sound financial basis, with a manager being allowed to manage, good communications and positive leadership.

    With social media as it is today it is easy to fuel the blame cycle. If we get the basics right then there will be less reason to apportion blame?

  10. All well and good saying we still have a chance to go up…..but are this set of players really going to give it their all knowing their contracts are unlikely to be renewed ??

    Doubt it!

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