By Tim Penfold
Final league position: 23rd (W10, D6, L30)
Manager: Nicky Law/Bryan Robson
Top scorer: Michael Branch, Andy Gray and Dean Windass (all on six goals)
Player of the season: Paul Heckingbottom
The 2003/04 season was a year in which Bradford City celebrated their centenary. Hopes were high going into the season, especially compared to the previous year. We weren’t starting in administration, and a crop of promising home-grown youngsters had come through the ranks in the second half of 2002/03.
We’d finally shed most of our underachieving Premiership high earners, and a summer of new, apparently promising signings lead to chairman Gordon Gibb mentioning a possible playoff push under the management of Nicky Law.
By the end of the season we had been relegated with a whimper, Law and Gibb had both left and the club was back in administration and fighting for its financial life.
So what went wrong?
Firstly, the recruitment really wasn’t as good as it first looked. The financial hangover from the first period of administration limited the budget and meant that we lost one of our best players from the previous season in Claus Jorgensen.
There were other financial limitations – a maximum annual salary of £80,000 for new recruits might’ve been considered sensible, but it meant that we ended up with a large squad of cheap players, when a smaller one of more expensive players may well have been a better option.
There was also a ban on loan players from chairman Gibb, which made the large squad a bit more of a necessity as there wasn’t the flexibility of using loans for injury cover.
The squad, despite its large size, was also unbalanced. Andy Gray had been a surprise hit up front the previous season, having signed as a right winger, but Law seemed to plan the squad with Gray back on the wing and went big on signing new forwards.
Dean Windass returned for his second spell, and Michael Branch had a decent early impact. However, we also signed Luke Cornwall and Patrick Bannister, as well Robert Wolleaston who initially joined as a winger but was played up front by Law. All this did was stick a bunch of poor players in the way of homegrown prospect Danny Forrest, stunting his development as a player.
The other consequence of Gray and Wolleaston being strikers rather than wingers was that there was a genuine lack of creativity in the squad. The wide options ended up being the raw and inconsistent Ben Muirhead and Lewis Emanuel, who often looked like a full back playing in midfield.
Shortly after the season started Nicky Summerbee joined and added a good crossing option, but we were short of creative options for much of the season. We had plenty of strikers but no thought on how to create chances for them.
The midfield was also too reliant on the returning Tom Kearney, who had shown promise but could not have been expected to carry the team after a season-long injury, and when he struggled we had a real lack of depth there until Bryan Robson was allowed to bring in loan reinforcements.
By the end of the season Bryan Robson was commenting on how he’d have gone for a smaller squad of more expensive players, and it’s fairly obvious with hindsight that this was the right option. It would’ve left the squad more vulnerable to injuries, but that was the gamble that the club needed to take on a small budget.
Without a ban on loan players there may have been the flexibility to cover the injuries that would’ve inevitably happened. Instead, what we were left with was a squad of too many players that weren’t up to the required standard.
Pre-season also showed some worrying signs. There was a tour of Scotland with some worrying results, as well as an injury to Danny Forrest that he put down to the focus on running. There was also the centenary tournament, which was held over one weekend with Aberdeen, Coleraine and Swansea visiting Valley Parade. However, two intensive games in two days was not a good idea for the team’s fitness, and Peter Atherton and Mark Bower both ended up injured for several months after some rough tackles.
The story of the season:
The early season performances were not good, despite an early rally for a point against Norwich and an unlikely away win at Cardiff. There was a hugely disappointing League Cup exit to Darlington, as well as a hammering by Sunderland. A brief revival with two wins against Preston and Crystal Palace followed, but a run of 11 games without a win dropped us into the relegation zone and sealed Law’s fate.
Law could consider himself a bit unlucky with injuries, but had come under pressure for some strange selections – particularly picking Gareth Edds ahead of Simon Francis – and the performances just weren’t good enough. The real nadir was a trip to bottom club Wimbledon, who had just moved to Milton Keynes, where City went down 2-1 after leading. Law had made several changes to the team, including dropping wingers Summerbee and Muirhead, and took a lot of criticism.
After one game under the control of four senior players, City appointed Bryan Robson as manager. He was a big name appointment, but was it really the right one? The up-and-coming Halifax manager Chris Wilder was one of the other applicants, and he had more experience working in a financially troubled setup. Oldham manager Iain Dowie was also linked – Dowie would instead join Crystal Palace and take them from just outside the relegation zone into the Premier League that season.
Robson’s reign saw an immediate impact with a Danny Cadamarteri-inspired comeback win against Millwall, but Cadamarteri got injured almost instantly and missed the next month. He came back for a trip to league leaders Norwich, which saw a shock City win, but then got injured again. This was the pattern of the Robson reign – when City were at full strength, with Cadamarteri in particular thriving in his 4-3-3 system, then the team competed well and got points.
There was a good run in late February and early March with 3 wins from 4 dragging the team back into contention for safety, but by that time the off-field finances has fallen apart and City had fallen back into administration. Suddenly Robson’s loan signings, including the impressive Ronnie Wallwork, had to go, as did Andy Gray and Simon Francis permanently, and the team lost 8 of its last 9 games to go down.
So why did it all go so horribly wrong? The recruitment in the summer was one issue, as were some strange selections – Edds ahead of Francis, Bryan Robson’s preference for the hugely error-prone Jason Gavin and the fact that Paul Reid, who went on to be a Championship regular with Brighton, played no games in midfield but the likes of Frazer McHugh and Michael Standing did.
Injuries were another major issue – Danny Cadamarteri played less than half of the games in what was his best season for us performance-wise, while Wetherall, Windass, Atherton, Bower and Combe also missed large chunks of the season. Only one player – player of the season Paul Heckingbottom – played over 40 games.
Compare that to the 1998-99 team, where 7 of the team played over 40 games and Robbie Blake played 39. That was a great team, but if McCall, Mills and Moore had missed large chunks of the season through injury it wouldn’t have gone up automatically.
But the main reason? We had no money. The recruitment had flaws, but if we’d had any money we surely wouldn’t have ended up with the likes of Edds, Wolleaston and Cornwall.
The final collapse into administration at the end of February destroyed the team that Robson had been creating, taking away half of the team that had started against Crewe at home – the game where Gordon Gibb, who had resigned as chairman at the turn of the year, infamously took to the pitch and made a speech criticising the Rhodes family.
If City had been able to stabilise the finances earlier, they may have had a chance, but they never truly recovered from the summer of 2002. This relegation was almost inevitable from that moment.
Five 2003/04 City gems
– City went to Cardiff in August having slumped out of the League Cup to bottom-tier Darlington, and there wasn’t a lot of optimism considering Cardiff’s spending power. But a backs-to-the wall performance and two stunning goals from Andy Gray and Lewis Emanuel gave City all three points.
– Nicky Law was under pressure after a heavy defeat to Sunderland, and the signing of Nicky Summerbee, unpopular with the fanbase after a previous transfer saga in 2000, had not gone down well, but Summerbee scored the winner on his debut – a second half comeback over Preston.
– Bryan Robson’s first game was live on Sky, at home to Millwall, and it was all going wrong. City, not helped by Jason Gavin’s usual level of performance, were 2-0 down. At half time Danny Cadamarteri came on, and the team switched to 4-3-3. Cadamarteri was superb, scoring one with Gray scoring another, then after he was forced off through injury his replacement Michael Branch raced through in stoppage time to score the winner.
– City had just gone out of the FA Cup to lower league Luton, and Gordon Gibb had quit. The trip to league leaders Norwich was surely going to be a hammering, right? Wrong. Alun Armstrong’s only goal for the club gave us an unlikely three points.
– The home game with Watford was meant to be a full stadium with a free ticket giveaway – the initial game was postponed, which hurt the crowd a bit but the biggest attendance of the season saw goals from Dean Windass and Paul Evans give City a vital victory.
Categories: Seasons re-reviewed