By Jason McKeown
So that’s that then. Almost a month after it was first mooted that Bradford City’s League Two season would be cancelled, a Tuesday vote has finally confirmed the campaign has been curtailed.
Final placings have been determined on unweighted points per game, which means the Bantams officially finish ninth with 67.14 points – 4.97 points off the play offs. That supposed City would have claimed 13 points from their final nine fixtures – so we missed out on witnessing four wins, one draw and five defeats.
It’s been clear for several weeks that City had no desire to fight to keep the season going, even with Tranmere’s proposal of deploying Einstein’s Margin for error theory, that would have seen the play off participants extended from four to six, with City getting to take part. The club had already released 10 players, and would not have been in a great position to carry on player-wise. More importantly, the financial implications of coming back were just too severe.
So it’s another year in League Two, and now naturally thoughts turn to the 2020/21 season. The resumption of Premier League, FA Cup, Championship and the play offs means that the 2019/20 campaign will stretch into August. It has been suggested that the next Premier League season will begin on the weekend of September 12/13. And so logically the Football League – and Bradford City – will return around then.
That would mean we’ve got 94 days to wait until we get to see the Bantams in competitive action again. It’s been 96 days since City were last able to play, so we’re possibly about half way through this unprecedented break from watching the Bantams.
You have to hope that the improvement in the coronavirus pandemic situation allows for the season to get going by then, for the future of our game. There have been dire predictions of a host of lower league clubs facing up to going out of business. The fact City are owned by a wealthy man in Stefan Rupp provides some protection compared to other clubs. But clearly the longer they operate with no real revenue, the more difficult that financial position will be.
The extending of the furlough scheme until October is helpful to City. And if they can start to get things going before the scheme ends, they can hopefully pull through and emerge with fewer scars than other clubs.
That said, the expectation levels of what will happen next season are going to be challenging. This week, Stuart McCall talked of bringing through a crop of youth players. That new signings would probably be limited to five, with the loan market probably utilised. It does not sound ambitious for sure, and has quickly attracted adverse comment from the usual suspects. The disappointment of not getting promoted this season has been dimmed by the bigger life priorities of Covid-19, but the expectation has not gone away to get out of League Two as soon as possible.
McCall is speaking about a future reality that right now no one can predict, and we just don’t know what the League Two landscape is going to look like come next season. With season ticket sales likely to be down and months of lost income, it’s hard to disagree that football budgets will fall as well. But whether that leaves City in a weak position – relative to their rivals – is not yet clear.
Glancing around League Two, there is not a lot to be worried about. Just look at the clubs coming down: Southend and Bolton are in a mess. Tranmere won’t be any great shakes. The point is what whilst ambition will naturally decline at Valley Parade as survival takes precedence, they might find they are more ambitious than many of their rivals.
Those five new signings could be an opportunity to focus on quality over quantity – after all, amongst the players still at the club, there is the basis of a decent team. Assuming Richard O’Donnell re-signs, City’s goalkeeping, centre back and left back situation is pretty much okay. The same up front, where there are four good League Two strikers already on the books.
It is midfield and right back that are the priorities, and five good recruits in these areas – to add to Zeli Ismail and Harry Pritchard – could really elevate City. It’s also exciting that youth players will get more of a chance – how good would it be if they could make their mark?
And even with a playing budget cut, the market is going to be different. It’s been suggested up to 1,400 players will find themselves out of work this summer. A significant portion of them are probably not going to get themselves another club, at least in the Football League. Average wages will probably fall, because clubs will be more prudent and able to be more choosy. And that means City can still bring in decent players. There should be plenty to choose from.
With the closure of the 2019/20 season at last, clubs like City can now start to look forward. McCall has no need to rush out and make a raft of signings – the club does not need to start paying extra wages right now – but he can certainly start to explore the market. As I’m sure he already is.
Austerity is going to be the buzzword in lower league football. At least until we return to a time of full capacity crowds, sponsorship and commercial revenue. City are not immune from the climate, but with 10 players now off the books – many of whom were nowhere justifying their wages – the opportunity is there to rebuild and come back strongly.