By Jason McKeown
I’ve been doing a lot of reading during lockdown. Trying to improve the way I think and approach the day job. Finding new ways of looking at familiar problems. One standout book was called Black Box Thinking by Matthew Syed – an award-winning newspaper columnist and former British table tennis Olympian. And I believe the book’s theories have relevance and value to Bradford City.
The premise of Black Box Thinking is that mistakes are a vital part of progress. And that rather than bury them or pretend they never happened, mistakes should be analysed and used as a learning opportunity to do things better. “We progress fastest when we face up to failure – and learn from it.”
I won’t go into too much detail or risk boring you with complicated theories, but quickly highlight industries and professions who do this well and one who does it badly.
Black box thinking refers to the black box you find in every plane, and how the aviation sector is extremely good at learning from mistakes or near-misses. If a plane crashes, its black box is full of data that outlines the reasons for the incident. And that data is heavily scrutinised, and widely shared across the entire industry, so lessons are learned and mistakes aren’t repeated.
At the other end of the mistake acceptance spectrum are doctors, according to Syed. The medical profession culture has a huge stigma on mistakes – doctors can be struck off, their years of study and building up a career left in tatters. So when a patient dies due to a doctor error, the chances are the mistake will be hidden or the doctor will not even admit to themselves they did something wrong.
The consequences of not accepting, sharing and learning from these errors is that other doctors will repeat the same mistake in similar situations down the line, meaning more people get the wrong treatment.
In between the range of the aviation and medical industries approach to mistakes are a host of organisations who have succeeded by making and learning from their mistakes. James Dyson, for example, made 5,126 mistakes before finally creating the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner that has sold millions. British Cycling emerged from being the sport’s also-rans to world domination by testing every little detail about the bike, people and diets – achieving marginal gain learnings that ultimately added up to something huge.
Pixar screenplays are continually pulled apart and rewritten as they go through filming production, so that weaknesses in the plot are analysed and improved on. “Early on all our movies suck,” states Pixar President Ed Catmull. “Our job is to make them go from suck to non-suck…reworking, reworking and reworking again, until a flawed story finds its throughline or a hollow character finds its soul.”
If leading pioneers and organisations around the world are embracing and gaining from a culture of accepting mistakes happen, but using them as a springboard to success, there is surely no reason for Bradford City to resist thinking differently. After all, this is a club that has declined starkly over the past two-and-a-half-years.
Bradford City has got a lot more wrong than it has got right, and it continues to struggle to recover from recent blows. Mistakes have been made, but they should offer a platform to learn from.
Football is a lot different to the medical industry, but on the reluctant acknowledgement of mistakes scale it isn’t too far behind. It is a volatile industry, with people coming and going in the blink of an eye. Managers get little time to deliver success. Owners are quickly on the receiving end of supporter frustrations. Players move clubs more often than some of us have haircuts. If you want job security, the football industry probably isn’t for you.
It is dog eat dog. Survival of the fittest, so no one wants to own up to their own flaws. How often does a player leave a club bitter about a manager who didn’t pick him? Or a manager depart blaming everyone but themselves? It’s always easy to point the arrows elsewhere, rather than self-reflect.
Part of the problem is that it is a game of personalities. The club was relegated in 2019 because of Edin Rahic. It didn’t bounce back to win promotion due to Gary Bowyer. There’s a lot of truth in the way City’s overall failings are projected onto the shoulders of one or two people, but it can be over-simplistic and prevent us from digging deeper to learn and improve. Why was Eoin Doyle so pedestrian when playing in claret and amber, but become a goal machine at Swindon? Why did Bowyer get Blackpool promoted, yet fail to convince he would do the same at Valley Parade?
On the eve of a new season and a fresh start, it’s easy to talk about clean slates, look forwards and ignore the past. But it’s a times like this we should really be reflecting on the mistakes of recent years, to see if we’re learning our lessons.
So what are those lessons to take from recent mistakes?
It takes a certain type of character to be a successful player at Bradford City – we have to get better at finding them
The player recruitment at Valley Parade has been dreadful for at least two years, if not ever since the play off final defeat to Millwall. It has been well documented that the summer of 2018, where Rahic was left unchallenged at the wheel, saw a huge playing budget badly wasted, but the summer of 2019 wasn’t much better either.
11 players were brought in by Gary Bowyer before the season began, and a further three added before the August transfer window closed. Not one of them can be classed as a success. The January 2020 transfer window activity wasn’t great either.
How many successful signings have been made since the end of the 2017/18 season? Richard O’Donnell and Connor Wood for sure. At a push, Lewis O’Brien, Paul Caddis and David Ball could be considered decent business. But none of those three are at the club anymore.
City ended up with a transfer budget of over £4 million in 2018/19, and £2.7 million in 2019/20. So that’s almost £7 million spent in two seasons, with very little to show from it.
This dismal record has to be improved. What’s needed is a coherent approach. Joined up thinking. Not a legacy of signing players on contracts longer than the manager who brings them in, and who are not necessarily wanted by the next manager. Wood and Anthony O’Connor both signed three-year deals, and are already playing for their fifth different manager.
There’s been a lot of talk about having better scouting. Improving the data analytics side. Some of the work that was said to be planned for this summer was pushed back because of the financial impact of Covid-19. But it must not be completely forgotten. When finances allow, City need to invest in this area.
But it’s also about a quality not necessarily measured by the data. Character. City badly need to get back to the proven approach of Phil Parkinson’s tenure, when he signed players for their propensity to handle a demanding crowd, the pressures of playing for a big fish in a small pond, as much as their ability on the ball.
The mistakes in the transfer market have been really highlighted during the many tough times over the past two years. Only three times in two years have City come from behind to win a match. That is staggeringly bad, and has shown that when the chips were down we did not possess players with the bravery to stand tall and get the team out of a hole.
During the summer fans forum on Zoom, Stuart McCall talked at length about doing his homework on the players he is looking to bring in. Asking lots of people in the industry about their backgrounds, to check their character. The revelation Nicky Maynard was not signed due to the issues of his commute suggests lessons have been learned over the mistakes in the James Vaughan saga. This is definitely a step in the right direction. And it needs to be continued.
Talking about pride and passion for the shirt is a cliche, but we need players who see Bradford City as a club they really want to play for, rather than merely a decent pay cheque. We need players who will roll up their sleeves when the going gets tough, and display the fight needed to revive the club from its slumber.
We have made mistake after mistake in the transfer market. We have to stop repeating them.
Standing still risks getting left behind again
In the early 2010s a debate raged about Bradford City’s Appleby Bridge training facilities. The infamous issue of players having to get changed at Valley Parade and driving to and from the training ground – dodging big puddles, dog muck and keeping out of sight of opposition scouts taking advantage of the open facilities.
The counter argument for not upgrading back then was that the facilities had been good enough for the successful City sides of the 80s and 90s, so why does it matter? But it of course ignored the progress within football that saw clubs up and down the land invest in better and better facilities, helping to give them some of those marginal gain edges.
From the summer of 2011, the training facilities were indeed improved, thanks to a new partnership with the Woodhouse Grove school. Overseen by David Baldwin, City finally had onsite facilities for the players and coaching staff. New pitches were built, away from prying eyes. The players had a place not only to get ready, but to hang out together after and bond. And soon after, City began to be more successful on the pitch.
Baldwin once told me that the training facility enhancements were his proudest achievement of his time at Bradford City. They’ve come a long way. But the lessons of a decade earlier are that progress needs to continue.
There have been calls from some supporters for the club to build a new training facility. One that doesn’t require them to share with a school. And though it’s a nice idea it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. That doesn’t mean the club should settle.
Baldwin’s approach was to make gradual improvements each year, and if that isn’t carrying on right now it needs to be. It is the work on the training ground on a Monday to Friday that has such an influence on a Saturday. The salary cap restrictions have little bearing on this season, but are likely to in future. So if there is spare money available because it can’t go on new players, investing in the development and facilities for those players we do have is the next best thing.
There’s a lot to debate about James Vaughan’s departure to Tranmere. But if we assume he is being truthful about his loathing about the journey down the M62, then in the long-term there is probably something to take away from the location of the training ground. Woodhouse Grove is not easy to get to, especially off the motorway.
The Utopian vision of a new training ground down the line might help City to attract more players if they can find and afford a base in a better location. But for now, let’s get what home we do have as effective as possible.
Trust takes years to repair
On the corner of the Midland Road, just after you turn onto it from Queens Road, there is a lamppost that still displays a Rahic Out sticker. The sticker is an interesting imprint of modern Bradford City history, one that has endured a couple of harsh Bradford winters to still be visible.
Rahic has long gone but the damage he caused lingers on in the relationship between supporters and the club. He is not the first – and won’t be the last – Bradford City chairman to break the trust of fans. But for those at the club left to pick up the pieces, the repair job is very much ongoing.
As we wrote a month ago, the Bradford City social media world has become a dark and ugly place. People routinely look for – and find – fault with the club. Moments like James Vaughan’s departure or the salary cap confusion proved a lighting rod for many to pile on with criticising those who run the club. Some of it is over the top, but some undoubtedly has merit.
The club still has a real job repairing that broken trust. It might yet take several years to get back to the level it was. Ryan Sparks is doing a fantastic job communicating with fans. Over the months of lockdown uncertainty, he was regularly explaining where the club was – in the local media, on Twitter, at supporters board meetings and through the fans forum. At times though, it must seem like a thankless task.
That Julian Rhodes is silent and rarely heard from is not new. His tenure jointly owning the club, in the position of chairman, was undertaken with limited public comment. Whether that is as acceptable when he is now in the different position of chief executive is certainly a matter of fierce debate at the moment. And then there is Stefan Rupp, who like Rhodes does not like to talk in public much.
Without Sparks’ efforts at transparency, the relationship between the club and supporters would be in real trouble right now. But at times it is tough for him to sell the people at the top when they appear so reluctant to engage with fans themselves.
The key word is substance. There was a lot of good work attempted to revive supporter relationships last summer, but it all felt flat when the team underwhelmed on the field. The club must keep communicating, communicating, communicating. But unless those at the top are more willing to talk openly, it’s going to be a slow slog restoring the levels of trust that have been broken.
Lockdown boredom, the long break from matches and the scars of past recent failures have created a level of toxicity amongst many supporters that is almost unprecedented. Hopefully the healing can begin with the resumption of matches.
The club cannot succeed when animosity is so high from so many of its own supporters. Developing an overarching vision that everyone can believe in could start to bring the club and fans together again.
The club needs a long-term philosophy or a manager for the long-term – it probably can’t have both
The fortunes of Bolton, the first opponents of the season, are likely to be closely followed by a lot of City fans. After a turbulent few years, Wanderers have adopted a brand new approach, with Tobias Phoenix appointed Head of Football Operations. The former Macclesfield Director of Football is in full charge of playing recruitment and recruiting a head coach.
Stuart McCall will pit his wits against Ian Evatt on Saturday, but who will survive in their job longer? Evatt is a rising star as manager after getting Barrow promoted to the Football League, but in a head coach role that is purely about training players and picking the team, he will be very expendable too.
If Bolton don’t perform on the field, Evatt will probably leave. As clubs like Watford have shown, the head coach philosophy can have high coach turnover. It’s results or nothing.
Not that McCall is necessarily any safer than Evatt. Manager – and club legend – he may be, but Bradford City have not stuck with the same person in the dugout for more than 12 months since McCall himself was sacked in January 2018. In early February, Bowyer was fired the moment City fell out of the play off places. If McCall – who has 12 months on his deal – is not any more successful at a similar point in this season, will he endure the same fate?
Since Rahic’s departure, City have gone away from the head coach approach that was badly executed and back to placing the responsibility of player recruitment with the manager. But the problem of doing so, and then changing managers so often, is that the replacements keep inheriting an unbalanced squad with no clear overall direction.
From McCall to Simon Grayson to Michael Collins to David Hopkin to Bowyer, changing managers so often has not helped the club to move forwards. The near-five years of Phil Parkinson was a testament to the value of stability and long-term thinking. But City remain trapped in a spiral of short-termism that makes it difficult for them to stick with anyone.
Either you find a manager who you are prepared to let properly build, or you start to take away some of the longer-term decision-making from people who won’t be here for the long haul. That’s why what happens at Bolton this year will be watched so keenly.
The Rahic model wasn’t necessarily wrong – it was just crazy he put himself at the top of it – and Bolton are trying to make that approach work for them. If in six months time McCall is pushed out with City trailing in Bolton’s wake, it might be time to start moving away from repeating a plan that keeps going wrong.
The little things add up
There isn’t going to be a revolution at Valley Parade any time soon – partly because of the long-term uncertainty of the club’s ownership, but also because of the club’s financial limitations whilst operating in the basement league during a global pandemic. But we still have to start finding a way to move forwards.
The marginal gains philosophy is a good one to be thinking about in such a climate. What small changes can be made that give City an extra couple of percent? How can we measure if they’re making a difference? And if they are working, what do we move onto next?
If something is tried that doesn’t work, let’s learn from that rather than pretend it never happened. Why didn’t it work? Is there another way? How are we recording it? Because as owners, managers, players and coaching staff inevitably come and go, there shouldn’t be this culture of starting all over again with very little knowledge of the recent past.
When McCall made his first return as manager in 2016, a picture of him holding up a scarf was displayed in the Valley Parade reception under the caption ‘new era, same values’. But it was a lie. Those values, which had taken the club a long way, were discarded by those at the very top. And now, we’re struggling to remember just what those values were – and how to truly live by them.