By Jason McKeown
This needs to be the best season of Stuart McCall’s managerial career. Otherwise, it could well prove to be his last.
18 months ago, it appeared that McCall was consigned to the dreaded manager scrap heap. A 3-1 loss to Rochdale saw him sacked by Scunthorpe United. Over a 12-year period that began at Valley Parade in 2007, he’d had a real go at proving himself a successful manager. But the P45 from Glanford Park – coming barely a year after he was wrongly sacked by Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic – seemed to plunge him into the wilderness.
It just wasn’t to be. That first spell at Bradford City was a steep learning curve, which ultimately ended in real sadness two-and-a-half-years later. It was followed by time North of the Border at Motherwell where, free from the emotional burden of reviving a club so close to his heart, he began really well. Only to probably stay on for a season too long.
There was the huge pride of being manager of Glasgow Rangers for half a season, as they pushed hard for a return to the Scottish Premier League. But McCall’s hope of a longer stay were ended by a play off defeat to Motherwell of all teams. Then came a return to Valley Parade, where despite a fraught time working under difficult conditions he took City to the play off final. And finally there was a challenging year at Scunthorpe, which ended in dismissal just weeks after receiving the Manager of the Month award.
A year ago McCall wasn’t working in football. And there didn’t seem to be any going back. He came to a couple of City games as a spectator. He started to do the after dinner speaker rounds. He joked about fifth time lucky at Bradford City, but that ship had seemingly sailed.
Yet opportunity came knocking again. Last February saw an emotional afternoon against Grimsby, as McCall was restored to the Valley Parade dugout. Unfinished business, for someone who’s harsh dismissal two years earlier led to Bradford City’s implosion. An attempt to restore the values of the club. To right the wrongs of the past. Now we get to see if it works.
As McCall goes into the 2020/21 season, he arguably has his strongest opportunity yet to grab that so-far elusive success. There are no acrimonious relations with the boardroom. No one else calling the shots over which players to sign and let go. It is a division where almost every club is weakened by the Covid-19 lockdown. There is no obvious reason why he – and City – can’t succeed.
And with a contract that has less than 12 months to go, this probably genuinely is his final, final opportunity. It might not be a promotion or bust scenario, but there has to clear evidence of a move forwards from where we are. A stronger push, better football, more of a long-term squad building plan. Something to believe in. Which we did not have with Gary Bowyer.
For McCall to last as a football manager for 13 years is no mean feat. It is an industry that spits people out quickly. People who go into it don’t always get the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and try again. McCall might not have any silverware to stick on his managerial CV just yet, but the fact he has endured for this long shows he has plenty of ability. He has the chance to apply the lessons of the past. To use the scars and bruises to his advantage.
There aren’t going to be any surprises. We know what he does well, and not so well, as manager. Compared to the grey, safety-first football of Bowyer last season, City will be more open and attack-minded. Take risks. Try innovative tactical ideas. Play attractive football. It should make for a fun watch. It did last time.
You can see a real sense of enjoyment emanating out of McCall over pre-season. Those who know him well say he is bursting with excitement about the opportunity ahead. He is not daft, and knows this is a make or break moment. But if it is to end in sadness, McCall is making the most of doing something he clearly loves.
Like Bowyer, and like Hopkin before him, McCall inherits a squad that is not fully of his own choosing. And that and delicate Covid-19 finances do limit what he can achieve right now.
The last two seasons have habitually shown the squad’s soft centre. That when the chips were down, it was a group of players who folded. McCall witnessed it himself, in the shape of three dismal away defeats during the short window he had back in the dugout before lockdown hit.
McCall has made his name as a motivator. He likes to work closely with players to develop them. Put his arm around his squad, encouraging them to express themselves. It is said that not all players he has worked with have bought into this approach, but others have clearly revelled in it.
Can his ways convert a squad fearful of failure into one that is brave enough to play for a demanding fanbase? That is key to City’s prospects this season.
We know there will be good days when the Bantams easily swat aside opponents, running up a few goals. And that will certainly be preferable to the 1-0 grind philosophy of Bowyer last season. But it’s what happens when things aren’t going as well that ultimately matters. No team can get promoted if it doesn’t have a backbone. A resilience to grind out results when things are difficult. To bounce back confidently from set backs, rather than slump.
Based on McCall’s first spell as manager at City, you wouldn’t back him to be the manager to lead the team out of a tough spot. Famously back then, he took defeats personally. The set back of a loss would drift to another couple of defeats, and then a crisis would grow that would see the losing streak continued. With damaging, often fatal consequences for City’s promotion prospects.
But second time around, McCall was a different manager. He was hardened by past difficult experiences, and showed a much stronger ability to revive sagging spirits. He also had the greater knowledge and confidence to change the team set-up to get results. It was only right at the end of his second tenure that City recorded their first back-to-back defeats under McCall.
Does McCall have the best squad in the division at his disposal? Not really, and that of course could present challenges for a club whose supporters still carry high expectations going into the big kick off this Saturday. The transfer business this summer has not looked inspiring and the accusations aired at the club for not being smart enough with recruitment have not exactly been disproven by what moves have been made. Still, if those working under him are bought into the manager’s philosophy, it can carry City forwards.
That’s why it doesn’t have to be such a disappointment to see McCall bring in four players he’s already worked with, in Levi Sutton, Billy Clarke, Dylan Mottley-Henry and Callum Cooke. He knows them as people – what they can do, and what they can’t. What they’re like in victory, and how they handle defeat.
McCall must see them as positive contributors to a dressing room that has looked suspiciously weak on spirit. If he can count on them to deliver on his instructions – and his ethos – it can help to influence others too.
It’s going to be really interesting to see how McCall gets on. 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of his long association with Bradford City, one that began when he was signed by George Mulhall at the age of 16. The difficult moments he has endured as manager at City have long since shattered any romantic notions of a guaranteed happy ending. But what it would mean if, this time – after all that has gone on – McCall achieves success this season?
No one with claret and amber in their veins will want to see him fail. But we’re all grown up enough to recognise that very real possibility. Whatever happens, McCall probably has his final shot at taking Bradford City forwards. And he’s got the opportunity to do it his way.