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.