By Jason McKeown
Final league position: 10th in League Two (W17 D 11 L18)
Manager: Stuart McCall
Top scorer: Peter Thorne (15 goals)
Player of the season: Joe Colbeck
The summer of 2007 saw a significant attempt to reboot Bradford City, with new ownership, the return of a club legend and the launch of the affordable season ticket philosophy.
The Bantams had just been relegated from League One, leading to a first fourth tier campaign in over 25 years. But the financial struggles of recent years were eased by lifelong supporter Mark Lawn investing into the club and becoming joint owner with Julian Rhodes. A little known David Baldwin also came on board.
Stuart McCall – who had been assistant manager Neil Warnock’s Sheffield United in the Premier League – was persuaded to return to Valley Parade for his first manager’s job. He recruited Wayne Jacobs as his number two, who was assistant manager to Chris Wilder at Halifax.
McCall’s third coming created a huge buzz around the city, helping to drive sales of £138 season tickets to more than 12,500.
The story of the season:
There were big hopes that City would make an instant return to League One, with McCall himself declaring he would consider himself a failure if the club didn’t get promoted. But this would prove to be a challenging campaign of ups and downs.
Whilst the Lawn investment offered McCall a decent playing budget, the legacy of the financial struggles of the past hampered the balance. McCall inherited just eight players, but found their collective wages amounted to 50% of his entire budget. It meant he was limited with the calibre of players he could sign. And that, coupled with a lack of knowledge of this level, led to a mixed bag of incomings.
The season had begun reasonably enough, with the Bantams up into the play off spots by mid-September. But then City went on a dreadful run of five straight defeats. The most infamous was a Tuesday night 3-0 home defeat to Accrington. A new low, in City’s post Premier League decline. Gallows humour was displayed from the Kop that night, who chanted ‘let’s pretend we scored a goal’ and cheered loudly.
As bad as that was, the real low point was defeat number five. A 2-1 loss to Morecambe at Christie Park on a Friday night. The Shrimpers were inspired by a certain Garry Thompson, who equalised and set up an 89th minute winner. It was a long, painful journey home that night, worrying about the very real possibility of a drop to non league.
McCall was on a steep learning curve. During the first season especially, he took defeats very badly. Whilst his passion for the club was a huge asset, at this stage of his managerial career such outward unhappiness wasn’t that helpful. It probably didn’t inspire the confidence of the players to see their leader look so crestfallen, and arguably contributed to losing runs going on longer than they should have.
Even though City stopped the rot by drawing their next game at home to Darlington, it was another three games before they finally won again.
The turning point in the season was a November Tuesday night home game against Chester City, who at the time were second in League Two. McCall made a big call, dropping long-serving defender Mark Bower and bringing in Matt Clarke. Bower’s form hadn’t been great, and though Clarke was far from a world beater his inclusion improved City’s defensive efforts.
On a night where both sides missed a penalty, City edged a tight game 2-1 with excellent goals from Omar Daley and Alex Rhodes. And from there, results improved. With just two defeats in the next 14 league matches, City climbed from near the foot of the table and into the top 10. A play off finish still seemed possible.
Alas, inconsistency weighed down the Bantams. At home especially, results were disappointing. On consecutive Saturdays, City were beaten 2-1 at Valley Parade by Bury and Rochdale – both times due to last minute winners. Hereford, Dagenham and Mansfield also took three points home from their visits to West Yorkshire.
It was a funny season at home. The inflated crowds didn’t quite lead to the red hot atmosphere expected, as City’s new and returning fans didn’t see the Bantams at their best. Patience was in short supply at times. The better home games came on Tuesdays, when the crowd was naturally lower, with victories over Shrewsbury (4-2) and Rotherham (3-2) particularly memorable.
On the road it was a different story. Players who struggled with the big Valley Parade crowds seemed to excel – Joe Colbeck, Daley and Barry Conlon particular examples. City produced impressive wins at Accrington, Notts County, Macclesfield, Chester and Darlington.
The away games that season were so much fun. For me personally, we’d had a few years of financial struggle which limited how many games I could get to. Over 2007/08, both me and my wife had full time jobs and it meant we had the money to go away games. The atmosphere on the road was brilliant. It felt like a real novelty going to places like Accrington and Macclesfield. Who knew we would have to quickly get used to such quirky days out, over the years that followed.
It all meant City’s most impressive moments of that season were largely witnessed by only those of us who travelled to away games. Colbeck would have a rip-roaring game one week on the road, then struggle at home the week after. He scored 6 goals for City that season, but only one at home, which says a lot.
Up until the end of March, play off hopes remained faint but not impossible. A brilliant 3-1 win at high flying Darlington offered them one last realistic shot. But then a 2-1 defeat at Rochdale three days later – courtesy of yet another last minute winner – left them too much to do. The final few games were all about planning for next season.
All in all, it was hard to escape the feeling it was a disappointing season, given the high hopes going into the season. But there was encouragement to take from the way City improved over the season. A what might have been, had the Bantams not endured that October collapse in form. And with those superb away wins over the second half of the season. We had some fun along the way.
McCall would go into his second season a stronger, wiser manager – with the chance to revamp the squad during the summer.
The 2007/08 City side had goalkeeping issues. Donovan Ricketts had endured a really difficult 2006/07 season where his confidence collapsed. It continued into this campaign. And, after an especially poor display in the 3-0 Accrington defeat, McCall dropped him and signed Rhys Evans on loan.
Evans did okay before getting injured at Grimsby, which led to Mark Bower having to take over in goal at Blundell Park. Ricketts was restored to the team in the game after and appeared better for his break. Up until January, his form was much better.
Out of nowhere, Championship QPR came in to sign Ricketts. McCall signed young Watford keeper Scott Loach on loan to replace him. Ricketts’ QPR move then collapsed due to work permit issues, but he never played again for City as McCall stuck with Loach. Ricketts departed that summer and amazingly went onto have huge success in the MLS playing alongside David Beckham at LA Galaxy. There’s no doubt Ricketts’ time at Valley Parade was mixed. But on his day he was terrific. For me, he is one of the best goalkeepers City have had over the last 20 years.
The defence was similarly patchy. Bower’s struggles early season led to Clarke having a run in the team, and faring well. He played alongside veteran David Wetherall, who was showing signs of fading. By mid-February, Wetherall announced he would hang up his boots in the summer. He actually had a strong end to the season, prompting McCall to try to talk him out of retiring.
In pre-season of 2007, McCall had brought in Darren Williams and Paul Heckingbottom to play as full backs. Williams did okay but had injury problems. The back up right back loan signing – Thomas Harban – looked well out of his depth and made just six appearances. Young defender Ben Starosta was signed on loan from Sheffield United mid-season and largely kept the right back slot for the rest of the campaign. TJ Moncur dipped in on loan from Fulham for a spell.
Heckingbottom – who had played for City in 2003/04, winning the player of the season – seemed a great signing. But he wasn’t the same player and failed to convince all season. There was no competition for his place, as Luke O’Brien wasn’t quite ready yet.
On the flanks Colbeck would have his best year in a City shirt, crowned by winning player of the season. He had begun slowly and was loaned out to Darlington, which rejuvenated his form. After being recalled in December Colbeck became a key player and match winner several times on the road.
Daley – who had been signed midway through the previous season – had a typically mixed campaign. On his day, brilliant. On others, hopeless. McCall experimented with playing him up front at the end of the season.
The other wide options included Alex Rhodes – who started the season very well but ultimately lost his place – and Kyle Nix, who also played a lot of games in central midfield. Nix signed from Sheffield United and had a very good season, netting 8 goals from 44 appearances. His career faded badly after that. He never came close to fulfilling that early potential.
Central midfield was patchy for most of the campaign. McCall signed Paul Evans – another returning Bantam who underwhelmed – and a best-forgotten Scott Phelan. Eddie Johnson – a striker signed by Colin Todd in 2006 – was converted to central midfielder. He was okay, but ultimately a frustrating player who was too pedestrian. Another young loanee called Nicky Law came in for a month and impressed.
The central midfield issues improved greatly in January, after McCall signed Lee Bullock on loan from Hartlepool. He was just what City needed, and the deal was quickly made permanent. Youth graduate Tom Penford – who first burst onto the scene in 2003/04 – also got a run in the side after Christmas. He had some impressive games, but couldn’t nail down that first team place and was released in the summer.
Up front, McCall had signed Conlon and the veteran Thorne during the summer. Thorne was a top player in his prime, the subject of big money moves to Stoke and Cardiff. But he had been plagued by injury problems that continued early doors at Valley Parade.
So at the start of the season, loan striker Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu led the line. The Congolese striker was initially a big hit, but after a controversial red card in an FA Cup win over Chester he never quite looked the same player. He returned to parent club Gillingham in December and spent the second half of the season on loan at Darlington.
By the time Ndumbu-Nsungu was fading, Thorne was up and running. He got his first City goal on the same day as Ndumbu-Nsungu’s red card and never looked back. Thorne was a class act and scored several wonderful goals. He was a huge fans favourite. One of the best finishers I’ve ever seen in a City shirt.
Conlon’s inconsistency was maddening, but he produced several excellent displays along the way and was adept at scoring penalties. It was certainly never dull when he played. Back up striker Nathan Joynes – another Barnsley loan signing – made no impact, starting only once.
But this was the year where there were bursts of excitement around other City strikers. Youngster Luke Medley scored a wonder goal against Wrexham with his first ever touch in English football. David Brown also scored with his first touch, after a howler by Macclesfield goalkeeper Jonny Brain. Neither could build on their initial impact.
And who can forget Willy Topp? The Chilean signed to huge excitement and looked very promising on his debut against Shrewsbury. But ultimately he couldn’t live up to the hype. Still, the club shop made a few quid selling Billy not Willy hats.
Also that season:
League Two was strong that year. MK Dons had lured Paul Ince to be manager and celebrated their first season at their new stadium by lifting the title. They pipped a Peterborough side managed by Darren Ferguson, who also spent big. Posh achieved automatic promotion alongside Hereford. In the play off final, Stockport beat a Rochdale side including Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, Simon Ramsden, Ben Muirhead and Chris Dagnall.
The Premier League’s dominance over Europe reached its peak, with Manchester United beating Chelsea on penalties in the Champions League Final. United were also Champions after Arsenal’s title challenge stuttered in the wake of William Gallas having a tantrum on the pitch at Birmingham.
In League One, Doncaster Rovers beat Leeds 1-0 in the play off final. And in the Championship play off final, Hull reached the top flight for the first time in their history following a wonder goal by Dean Windass.
Five 2007/08 City gems:
– A Boxing Day home win over Lincoln City in the Imps’ first visit to Valley Parade since the 1985 fire disaster. Conlon’s stoppage time winner was one of the worst goals you’ll ever see, but sparked wild scenes.
– A classy Peter Thorne hat trick in a 3-0 home win over Notts County.
– Guylain Ndumbu-Nsungu’s 97th minute penalty equaliser away at Grimsby in October.
– The stunning 3-1 comeback win at Darlington in March, with former Quakers Conlon and Colbeck scoring.
– The David Wetherall tribute day at Rotherham on Easter Saturday. It also proved to be City’s last ever trip to Millmoor.
Categories: Seasons re-reviewed