As Bradford City’s league campaign gets underway on Saturday, WOAP writers Adam Raj, Phil Abbott, Nikhil Vekaria and Tom Swithinbank share their views on the Bantams’ prospects and the long-term ambitions of the club.
We’ve also set up some polls to get your views, so get voting!
Have you missed Bradford City over the past six months?
Adam: I have, but not anywhere near as much as I thought I would. I think after the last two and a half years of abject failure and boredom, a detox was needed.
Phil: It’s a strange feeling. Life has been tough in recent months and perspective has been well and truly focused. In many respects, football has been at the bottom of the pile, with health and livelihood our priority. That said, we as fans are a community and even when things aren’t great on the pitch, the experience of following your team home and away is one that has been missed by many.
When we follow City, we do so collectively. We all do it because we are drawn by its warped charm. In not having that, and in losing the opportunity to share these events with our families and mates, we have definitely missed out.
Nikhil: Yes, definitely. When the season was initially curtailed due to Covid-19, I felt quite disillusioned with the club following a couple of poor results and had the impression that our chances of reaching the play offs were pretty low.
However, as time has progressed, I have certainly missed watching City and everything that comes with it, including the people and the matchday experience. Although this experience is unlikely to be the same for quite some time, I’m looking forward to City being back in action after an extended break.
Tom: I am living in Bristol now so don’t go to many home games anyway but I was looking forward to seeing if Stuart could stimulate a late surge for the play offs. It will be great to get back to a game next year with hopefully a decent crowd and new side.
Do you plan to watch games online/attend when crowds are allowed back in?
Phil: If my season ticket permits me to attend, I will make every effort to be there. If not, then online it will be. As a relatively distant Bantam, I am used to streaming games, particularly midweek, so I have become accustomed to some of the short-comings of the iFollow service already. There is absolutely no substitute for being there – not just for the game, but for the whole match day experience.
Nikhil: Yes – I have bought a season ticket and I’m looking forward to both watching online and attending when possible. Although this is unlikely to be the same for some time, I think it will be nice to get back into Valley Parade after a long break.
Watching games online will be a new experience for me and although it won’t be the same as being at the stadium, it’ll be good to have such a major part of my Saturdays back! I also really enjoyed being able to see replays on iFollow in the Carabao Cup clash against Bolton – it’s nice to have a second opportunity to see what’s happened if I’ve been guilty of not paying full attention!
Tom: I’ve actually bought a season ticket on the basis that I can watch games at home, ironically I will see more of city this season than usually. Being in Bristol I was looking forward to away games at Cheltenham, Newport and Exeter but it doesn’t look likely that will happen.
Adam: Yes, my dad and I have both renewed our season tickets ahead of this season. We’ll be looking to attend every match we will be allocated and hopefully more. Away days look unlikely this season sadly, so iFollow will have to make do in that regard.
What are your expectations for the season?
Nikhil: I hope to be proven wrong but I think we’ll finish around mid-table. I do strongly believe that a club the size of City should always be competing for automatic promotion from League Two, particularly with the top three going straight up. However, I have major concerns about the depth of the squad and worry that a few injuries (which are to be expected in a 46 game season) could really have a big impact on us, particularly at full-back, in the centre of midfield, or out wide.
I also thought that we were a fair way off last season and despite being close to the play offs when the campaign was abandoned, didn’t think we realistically looked like going up. Although I think that Elliot Watt and Callum Cooke on a permanent basis are really good additions, I haven’t seen much else to make me think we’ve got a better squad or are in a better position than last year and I’m really concerned about the depth.
Tom: A very entertaining side playing attacking, open football, scoring lots, conceding lots and picking up a few points along the way. I think we will finish 7th!
Adam: The expectation for Bradford City in League Two must always be promotion. Of course, the impacts of COVID-19 on lower league football clubs are obvious, but I don’t think that we should be tempering our expectations of the football club because of this pandemic.
In fact, I think we should see this as a fantastic opportunity to gain promotion. Clubs rather than players are in the driving seat in the transfer market – they hold all the cards with 1400+ out of contract players this summer all fighting for a limited number of contracts.
Also, other clubs aren’t fortunate enough to be blessed with wealthy owners willing to underwrite losses as we are with Stefan Rupp. Similarly, the vast majority of clubs in this division don’t muster up the revenue from season ticket sales and merchandise that City do, even if our season ticket prices are the cheapest.
Phil: The performance at Bolton was promising and the young City side who played at Doncaster offered much positivity in their determination, teamwork and tactical discipline. Whilst we all hope that this will be a season that ends with a fond farewell to League 2, it is probably too early to make any authoritative predictions that I’d be happy to stand by.
In a season that will at least begin with a part-executed salary cap, the continuation of the Covid crisis, no fans in stadiums for a significant duration and the transfer window open well into the new season, there are many unknowns. It remains to be seen what effect, if any, an empty Valley Parade will have on the team.
My fear is our strength in depth, although the performance at Doncaster showed we are not without talent. I don’t think the character of the team will be a problem and they appear motivated and working well together. We do look a bit threadbare in places, but anyone we bring in will need to be a genuine option for a starting position, otherwise I just don’t think we will quite have the quality to get promoted.
If we can recruit well, I think we will be there or there abouts, for what it is worth.
There’s been a fierce debate on social media about if the club has sufficient ambition – what’s your view?
Tom: I don’t really know why the word ambition has taken on such a prominent focus on social media.
Sometimes I reply to people on social media to ask what they mean by ‘ambition’ and sometimes they say “we need to recruit better, spend more etc”; in my opinion this isn’t the same as having ‘more ambition’.
The players have said the aim is to go up, although Ryan Sparks and Stuart stopped short of saying as much but if Bradford City’s stated ambition is to get promoted how can you be more ambitious than that?
Phil: Without knowing the full picture, it is hard to say. On some levels, the ambition of some of our competitors appears higher than ours, with cash seemingly flying out and bigger names choosing them over others. But I don’t for one minute think that this means those clubs have over-spent on their budgets, rather, their plan on how to meet the same goals we are all after is different.
I’d argue that we are being ‘differently’ ambitious in backing hungry players, at the expense of raw skill and past reputation. It is certainly a calculated risk, but there are a number of clubs who would have called themselves ‘ambitious’ in the past few years who have blown their budgets on over-paid, under-performing players and not succeeded.
Adam: Ambition, for me, is twofold. It’s all well and good having a desire and goal to achieve something, but unless there is a well thought out plan on how to get there, then it is nothing but blind hope.
Ryan Sparks has previously stated, when asked about the long-term plan of the club, that Stefan Rupp has a desire to at least get us back to where we were when he bought the club. But how exactly is that going to happen? Right now, nobody knows what the plan is, if there is one at all.
A cliché maybe, but actions speak louder than words, and right now, to me, the actions of the club don’t represent one that is ambitious in the long term.
Nikhil: I think it depends how you define ‘ambition’ and how you judge whether it’s been shown. I believe that the ownership and those in power at the club want City to play at as high a level as possible and I’d argue that some of the signings which have ‘shown ambition’ have arguably been some of the ones which have caused us the most issues in recent years, such as Eoin Doyle and James Vaughan.
However, I do also think that you could argue the club lacks a coherent plan going forward and this is where I would say it potentially lacks ambition. There doesn’t appear to be any sort of forward thinking in terms of the managers the club has appointed in recent years, with Simon Grayson, Gary Bowyer and then Stuart McCall all having different philosophies and styles of play.
Signings are often made on what appears to be a short-term basis and to fill a role for a short period of time, although this admittedly happens a lot in League Two at all clubs.
I also think some of the arguments surrounding a lack of ambition stem from the way the club sometimes acts in the transfer market and communicates this with fans. It was obvious that there was a reasonable chance of a salary cap being introduced, yet City failed to do much business before it, compared to sides like Salford and Bolton who did.
In short, I do like to think that the club is ambitious and that those in charge want us to be playing at as high a level as possible, and I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on this. However, I can definitely appreciate that at times the noises coming out of the club don’t always appear to be in line with this.
What one thing would you change about the club?
Adam: The club has suffered six successive dreadful transfer windows over the last three seasons. For one reason or another, the wrong players and/or characters have been signed, some on ridiculous wages and some for extortionate transfer fees.
Half the reason for this is because there is no continuity between the managers we hire. We gave a long ball manager in Simon Grayson, players who are suited to expansive football under McCall and then we gave the latter players who were signed to play defensive, ugly football under Bowyer. It’s no wonder that when a new manager comes in mid-season, they can’t get a tune out of the players they inherit. And it’s also the reason why we need an annual clear out and rebuild every summer.
The solution would be to hire a Director of Football. In the long term, I would like him to be able to oversee the recruitment of players based on data analytics rather than the manager’s phone book as we’ve been accustomed to. But in the short term, he could at least oversee the recruitment of managers who fit a fixed way of playing that the club will be associated with.
Nikhil: The division that we play in – I’d have us at least a league higher! Although, that’s probably a slight cop-out, so I’d say I’d like to improve the infrastructure of the club, including the training facilities, youth facilities and stadium.
I love Valley Parade but think it could do with a lick of paint and still think the pitch could be improved. Despite the work done on it, I don’t think it’s the best and I believe it sometimes hampers the quality of football on show. The training and youth facilities are pretty self-explanatory and I think improvements to them would be massively beneficial to the future of the club and it’s long term sustainability.
Phil: I think I would increase the price of season tickets. Whilst we all love a great deal, I think it has become a millstone around the club’s neck. There is a danger that we devalue the product way below what it is actually worth and when times are tough, there is no other direction to go to incentivise fans when prices are already rock bottom.
Tom: Covid has put a halt to this and may do for a while but I would love for the club to do more with the the concourses and outside spaces around the ground – music, local beer, local curry and pies – get people in and around the ground early and build up the atmosphere.
What does Stuart McCall need to do to earn another contract at the end of the season?
Nikhil: Be more ruthless. It’s easy to forget just how close McCall took us to promotion to the second-tier in the 2016-17 season, with an attractive style of play and an unbeaten league home record. However, a lack of ruthlessness and sloppy draws against mid-table sides is arguably what cost us in the end.
I’m confident that we’ll play good football this year, but I’d like to see us finish teams off with a more ruthless streak and not let points slip despite playing well.
Phil: He will no doubt be aiming to reach the play-offs at least. I would expect that anything in the bottom half of the table would lead many to question not only Stuart, but the leadership of the club. I am confident we won’t be in that position and that he will land himself another deal as a result.
Tom: Finish in the top half, entertain us and improve some of our young players.
Adam: At the very least, McCall needs to ensure a top seven finish this season. Wherever we finish, we will do so playing attacking football, so the entertainment factor that was non-existent under Gary Bowyer will certainly be there.
If we manage a top seven finish this season but fall short of promotion, McCall should be afforded next season to go one step further. But, what happened after the play off final defeat in 2017, cannot happen again.
If we fall short, he must be allowed to retain his best players, finances permitting. And if that doesn’t happen, they need to be adequately replaced using a vastly improved scouting and recruitment setup.
How confident are you about the future of the club?
Phil: The club will be around for a while yet. A club with such a history and such a potential catchment of supporters will always be enough for potential suitors to splash the cash if it were ever needing another saving hand.
Tom: I hope we can get promoted this year or next and compete in League 1 over the next few years but unfortunately the bumper crowds of the Championship look a long way off. I hope in time our Academy can continue to develop to feed the first team, it is great to hear the enthusiasm about the young players with the first team now.
Nikhil: Relatively. I’m confident that we’ll have a club to support and that going to City will still be an enjoyable experience with friends and family in the long-term. However, I’d say we’re more likely to be in League Two than the Championship in 10 years time and I’m not overly confident we’ll be out of the bottom tier anytime soon.
Adam: I think that depends on what your aspirations for the club are. If the club is genuinely targeting the top end of League One as to where they want to be, then no, I’m not confident. Mainly because the recruitment needed to get there needs to be so much better and financially prudent than it has been recently and I think that area of the football club is still stuck in the previous decade in terms of resources and planning.
Financially, we can’t think Rupp will continue to bail us out or bankroll us, even if we think he should. Especially now that we seem to have exhausted all sell on clauses for former players, which makes long term recruitment even more important.
Categories: Season Preview