By Jason McKeown
If nothing else, Bradford City’s 2019/20 season will be remembered for its ending.
Not since World War II was declared on 3 September 1939 has a Football League season not been completed. But barely 24 hours before the Bantams were preparing to face 17th-placed Leyton Orient at Valley Parade, the coronavirus outbreak led to the game – and rest of the campaign – being suspended.
Few of us would have quite predicted then that the final nine games would never be played. Initially, the season was only postponed for three weeks. There was every expectation it would return with a visit from Colchester United on April 4. But as the UK headed towards the peak of the pandemic, that desire was quickly rendered hopelessly optimistic.
With League Two clubs facing an uncertain future, but protected to a large extent by the government’s furlough scheme, finding a way to resume had increasingly looked improbable. Bringing players back on full pay to complete the games, when they would have to play behind closed doors with no revenue, could have sent some clubs under. And that’s before you consider the implications of player contracts running out in June – the earliest possible resumption date.
And so – subject to a final vote of FL clubs to officially confirm the end – history will record that Bradford City finished 9th in League Two over 2019/20. Two places shy of the play offs. Another year in the basement league, which on the balance of the 37 games that were played is more than justified.
This was a season that began with so much hope and expectancy. After the misery of the 2018/19 relegation, a positive mood swept through the club during the summer. Mistakes of the past could finally be rectified. A concerted effort was made to boost flagging supporter engagement. And several of the new signings prompted excitement. There was also the buzz of the pre-season friendly with Liverpool.
The season began with the Kop chanting ‘100 points Gary Bowyer’, which showed demands were high. Sadly, it didn’t take long for such lofty hopes to look misplaced. Nevertheless, the grim struggle of the season before did not continue. For the first three months of the season, Bowyer’s men were competing at the top. Playing some decent stuff, with a sneaky suspicion they were capable of shifting up a couple of further gears.
August was a real mixed affair – two draws, two wins and then two defeats. The football was functional. Aside from swatting aside a weak Oldham, goals were hard to come by. Still, there was a lot of change and new signings were coming through the door, right up to the closing of the transfer window.
It all seemed to kick start in September, as City went on a run of six wins from eight league games. There was a grittiness to the victories at home to Northampton and away at Walsall, but after a 3-2 loss to Cheltenham that saw a much improved attacking City display, performances became more convincing.
It was fleeting, in the end, but the home victories over Carlisle and Swindon were joyous affairs. Valley Parade had been curiously flat early doors, but the atmosphere began to improve in response to the way the players were going about their game.
After a victory away to Morecambe, City welcomed a decent Crawley side to Valley Parade and played some terrific stuff, leading 2-0 after an hour. Alas, they dropped off in the final 30 minutes and only just scraped the 2-1 win. They’d been seconds away from going top of the league, but two late Crewe goals over Swindon kept the Bantams second.
It proved as good as it got.
For how strong City results were, the feeling that there was more to come proved difficult to shake off. And the general mood wasn’t helped by Swindon Town’s performances, given their attack was being led by City’s on loan striker Eoin Doyle.
That three different City managers had struggled to get a tune out of Doyle, whilst he was now flourishing in Wiltshire, sparked a huge debate. By the 4 January, when Doyle’s loan was up at Swindon, he’d scored 23 goals and was the top scorer in Europe. Meanwhile at Valley Parade, Clayton Donaldson had missed several sitters and suffered a bad injury at Morecambe. James Vaughan was scoring at a good rate, but no one was close to matching Doyle.
So a combination of Bowyer’s pragmatic style of football, and Doyle’s exploits, helped to create an uneasy atmosphere. And once results began to trail off, it was always going to be a bumpy ride. Just like Peter Taylor almost a decade earlier, the lesson about pragmatic managers is they are only tolerated if they get results. And when they don’t, patience is in very short supply. It gets ugly very quickly.
City lost to Port Vale at home in mid-October, the start of a run of just one win in seven, taking the club to early December. Three draws in a row – including a 0-0 at Carlisle on Boxing Day – saw fans began to vocally turn on Bowyer. City defeated Mansfield and Morecambe at home after that, but neither performance was convincing or enjoyable to watch.
With the season slowly drifting, January was always going to make or break City. Bowyer was able to recall Doyle to much fanfare, but found he had a striker with no enthusiasm or desire to stick around. And so by the end of the month, the manager had reluctantly sold him to Swindon.
Results were poor, with a 3-0 defeat to Mansfield leading to a fall out with Vaughan. On the final week of the window, Vaughan joined Doyle in exiting the club. City arguably had two of the best forwards in League Two, and they’d just let them go. Kurtis Guthrie and Lee Novak were far from convincing replacements.
What Bowyer still had going for him was a very strong home record. They’d won six out of seven at the back end of 2019, which kept them in play off contention when their away form fell away. But in January City blew a 2-0 lead at home to Scunthorpe to draw 2-2, and thanks to a daft sending off from Jamie Devitt conceded a late goal to tie with Cheltenham on a cold Tuesday night at Valley Parade.
No wins in six, a controversial transfer window and barely clinging to the play off spots – Bowyer was on borrowed time. A 3-0 thumping to Oldham – 36 hours after the window shut – was the final straw. Bowyer received a furious reaction from fans at Oldham, and by Monday afternoon had been sacked.
The return of McCall as manager was about writing the deep wrongs of two years ago. Of the club trying to rediscover its soul. Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, McCall only got six games at the helm. At home, seven points were earned from a possible nine, including wins over Stevenage and Plymouth. But on the road, the losing run continued with poor defeats to Cambridge, Newport and Salford.
The gap to the play offs was four points, when shutdown came. Could City have clawed it back over the final nine games? There was certainly time, but the run-in looked tough. Ultimately, performances were too average for too long to suggest a significant turnaround would occur.
Amongst the squad, displays were patchy. Connor Wood probably wins player of the season and can certainly look back on a year of genuine progress. He is still prone to poor positional play defensively on a few occasions, but was accomplished on the ball and a real creative outlet.
Anthony O’Connor also had a decent campaign, as he started to win people over following the issues of the year before. Richard O’Donnell was generally solid, and his obvious affection for the club and what it stands for deserves more appreciation.
There was some real promise to Callum Cooke’s early season performances. Sadly, he never quite looked the same player after a mistake in the home defeat to Port Vale was followed by a red card against Exeter. Dylan Connolly was another loan player liked by the crowd. A whole hearted winger who was resilient, he just lacked a bit of quality.
Jake Reeves initially came back from his injury hell very well, and his long awaited return in the Leasing.com trophy defeat to Rochdale was one of the season’s most heartening moments. Zeli Ismail’s early season displays were a lot of fun, and it’s a shame he subsequently struggled with injury.
You expected a lot more from others. Ben Richards-Everton started well, but before long he struggled. His rashness was very costly at times. The summer capture of Paudie O’Connor seemed a real coup, but he just didn’t kick on. At right back, the battle between Kelvin Mellor and Adam Henley was uninspiring stuff. Mellor in particular made several mistakes.
Hope Akpan showed glimpses of his quality, but he underachieved once again. Harry Pritchard looked terrific but fell away. Jermaine Anderson, Danny Devine, Jordan Gibson and Jamie Devitt just couldn’t get going. Donaldson was a big injury loss, with Aramide Oteh doing okay but not exactly standing out at this level.
The way the season went on the decline was a real mood hoover. The scars of the previous 18 months just couldn’t be healed. At home at least, we were able to watch a side that won almost every time. But everywhere you looked, the club seemed a shadow of what it had been between 2012-2017. It became painfully clear that it was going to be a long road back.
Perhaps this enforced break will benefit City. The chance to press the reset button. There are just 12 members of the first team squad with a contract for next season. And the current climate makes it impossible to see any out of contract player being retained.
The financial implications of the crisis will surely mean a reduced playing budget for next season – but the same will be true of everyone else. McCall has an opportunity to revamp the squad. And when crowds are finally back inside Valley Parade, City will have a support less cynical and weary about the last few years. A greater enthusiasm and appreciation of being a Bradford City supporter.
In time, hopefully history will show that out of the darkness of coronavirus, Bradford City turned the corner. The chance to finish this season was taken out of their hands, but as long as the Bantams get through this uncertainty, they have a big opportunity to rebuild and ultimately flourish.