Horses for courses

Image by John Dewhirst

By Mark Davis

Maybe it’s because I’m missing restaurants. Or because I still can’t fathom Americans. Or maybe it’s because the format of each episode is so mercilessly similar that it’s providing an oasis of reassuring certainty amidst the wider chaos of 2020. Whatever the reason, Kat and I are now five seasons into watching Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA. There, I said it. I feel better. And I know you ‘hate that man’.

Five seasons in, you start to learn a lot about running a small business and how familiar the pitfalls are along the way. Two storylines dominate. Either a new owner bounds in with a ‘trust me’ wink and barrel loads of enthusiasm, but absolutely no clue of what they are doing; or over time more established owners start to lose sight of why they got involved in the first place, and so gradually cheapen the product whilst hoping their customers either a) don’t notice or b) just keep coming by dint of weekly habit or a sense of loyalty.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Of the coping strategies currently available to our Dear Bradford City, after yet another bang average start to yet another season in the bottom tier, neither a) nor – somewhat more uniquely – b) are currently available to them.

The first is easy to evidence. Humiliated by an impressive Lincoln City in the Cup, then again “in front of the nation” (I’d love to know the Sky Sports viewing figures) against a lively Harrogate Town, and on Saturday against a hardworking Newport County, we have all noticed.

Which leaves b), relying upon the habits and loyalty of supporters. But in this strangest of years, we have each been forced from the path of our fortnightly pilgrimage to BD8 where our bond with the club would be renewed. This is fast becoming the most significant loss of the season. A football club is sustained by its relationships inside and outside of its formal structures. They’ve gone.

For me, this is the walk up Queens Road and onto Midland Road, passed the same badly parked cars, food stalls and scarf sellers, before quickly dodging another speeding Audi to turn right onto Thorncliffe Road, and then even now being struck by how high the back of the Kop looms into the sky.

A quick dance with the ticket checkers, and it’s handshakes with friends: “how we doing?”, “good week?”, and “I could buy 200 bloody tea bags for that, the robbing beggars!”. Two hours passes quickly or not so quickly, emotions are experienced together, before a hasty assessment of where it went right or wrong. Then it’s “you back Tuesday night?”, “fancy an away day soon?”, and “have a good one, yeah”.

In it’s place, squabbling over #bcafc on social media. This can be tolerated to an extent when it’s an addendum to the main event, when it can be judged against the reasoned conversations you’d normally have offline with friends and family. But when it’s the main medium for experiencing the club, its divisiveness can breed indifference and apathy because the energy to sustain a will to engage just dwindles.

With routine gone, Bradford City are left with just loyalty. We’re more loyal than most down at Valley Parade. But are we as loyal when the effort required to sustain our love for the club isn’t being closely monitored by friends and family? In normal circumstances, if I miss a game at Valley Parade, someone notices. “Where you at Davo?” lands in a thread somewhere. But nobody is checking up on whether I’m watching via iFollow. When what’s on the menu is this poor, it’s just easier to skip it – a fact that Simon Parker pointed to in the T&A this week.

When our loyalty to Bradford City is forced into the same rectangular screen of a TV or laptop and we are forced to watch matches in the same way as all the others, it can suddenly feel horribly synthetic. It’s also easier to draw direct comparisons to the game before or after, viewed on the same screen.

And this brings us to the core problem on the field. What is our current storyline? Who is our cast of characters? What is going to have the viewing public on the edge of their living room seats for the next instalment?

“We’ll go horses for courses” has become Stuart McCall’s managerial philosophy. And we know it can work wonders. The team that Stuart inherited from Phil Parkinson was mentally and physically strong enough and talented enough to adapt and to embrace that philosophy. It was also the best footballing side I’ve seen at Valley Parade in twenty years. The present squad simply isn’t anywhere near being capable of that.

As such, I have no idea what formation we will play on Tuesday night against Bolton Wanderers. I had no idea what formation, or which eleven players, would start against Newport County. There is no continuity at all. Seen through the lens of yet another failing American diner, our menu is all over the place and just now the chef doesn’t seem to know which recipe to follow. Watching Bradford City so far this season, I still don’t know what the plan is, and it’s leaving supporters with an unpleasant taste.

Are we trying to play it out from the back, or knock it long? Are we trying to get it wide to marauding wing backs, or play narrow in a diamond? Are we still believing the best way to progress in League Two is with neat and tidy nice lads in the middle of the park who put the fear of God into absolutely nobody when the team sheet is announced. I mean, who fears us?

I continue to find this the most curious part of McCall’s playbook. At nearly 42, I’m old enough to have seen both spells of ‘McCall the player’ and he was brilliant on the ball and thundering in the tackle.

Our successes of recent times has also been built on combative midfielders. Yes, the leadership of Gary Jones of course – but also Nathan Doyle. A nasty, horrible midfielder who could pass the ball just as well as he could shatter an ankle or flail a shoulder. Josh Cullen, Lee Evans, even Jim O’Brien – they liked a tackle. Such players “no longer exist” we are told, despite every team we’ve played this season having at least three of them.

So what is to be done? In each episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA, the solution is always the same. When you’ve lost your way, lost sight of what you’re trying to achieve, and your customers are no longer coming through the door, you have to strip it all back. Rediscover your core identity. Simplify the menu. In other words, get back to basics and find your passion.

The same solution is badly needed at Bradford City. Stop changing everything. Come up with a simple menu that your customers want and stick to it. McCall doesn’t need to find out what we like about Bradford City in the first place – hard work, aggression, effort (and yes, we’ll take some quality football too if you can find it at this level).

I love Stuart McCall. He absolutely should stay as our manager. But the experience of Bradford City has been cheapened is so many other ways for fans that he needs to give us a reason to tune in each week beyond blind loyalty. Our routines and habits have been broken. Now more than ever, we need a Bradford City that we recognise.

Otherwise, and it saddens me to say it, I can’t be the only one unlikely to watch another five seasons of this.

Categories: Opinion

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12 replies

  1. Bang on. Excellent piece.

  2. Very apt analogy, Mark. Not only in relation to the quality of the way the business is run but also in the way the “product “ itself has changed. We are now just one of dozens/hundreds of football experiences to be found on a tv/tablet/ screen. Our team has to become an entity worth watching by an audience no longer captive or captivated by the match day at Valley Parade. Above anything else, I think Stuart McCall has to create a team with an identity that we can relate to on screen – as Ramsay does so successfully. Unfortunately, and grudgingly, in the way one has to acknowledge a certain Mr. Bielsa has managed. Which makes our two dimensional offerings even more unpalatable.

  3. Excellent piece Mark, captures the frustration so many are feeling.

    Despite the constant moaning of how hectic the fixture list is, I honestly believe they just have too much time to over think everything. This constant chopping and changing (and paying far too much attention to our opponents apparent strengths……but then seeming to do little to nullify them), rather than resulting in finding the best formation for our team, just seems to have confirmed that none of the formations work as player confidence and ‘buy in’ to the cause seeps away.

    I am sure I will be called a dinosaur (I was raised on a diet of Bobby Campbell, Joe Cooke and Peter Downsborough) but I would just decide who is my best player in each position of a simple 442 (or whatever they call it these days) and then go with it for a number of games, if someone is consistently poor they are dropped for the alternative player we have for that position and the replacement retains the position for as long as he performs (win, lose or draw). We are told we have virtually two teams with cover in each position (I know we could debate the quality!) so just use that and keep it simple so the whole squad know how we play and what is expected of them in their position. I appreciate this could leave one or two players out in the cold because they don’t fit any role in such a structure but without wishing to sound callous, if it got results I wouldn’t care.

    To use Marks analogy, a good pie and mash is still better than poorly executed fine dining with too many ingredients that fails to deliver.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly with the above. I also remember James Meredith once saying he made two crunching fair tackles at Valley Parade and the roar from the crowd was as loud as if we scored a goal. We need to work to get a team we want to get behind in that same way as Meredith, McCardle, Davies, Darby, Jones, Doyle or Meredith, McCardle, (NKP), McMahon, Cullen, Vincent. Look at what those successful teams were built on!

    I also long for a pint on North Parade before taking the walk up to Valley Parade and discuss the team’s attributes and flaws in person.

    I do think McCall is in an impossible situation and it will take time to right the wrongs of the past few years. Let’s be honest the squad from last year was drifting away into mid table at best and we’ve lost the main goal threat from that side.

    We’ve still been lining up the same back 5 but with 1 player who was sent out on loan and couldn’t get anywhere near last year’s side (as encouraging as French’s display have been).

    We’ve got a midfield which is fundamentally the same as last year but with the impressive Watt replacing the adequate Reeves.

    Let’s see what happens when Sutton, Hosannah, Evans are also regularly involved but still expect improvement rather than overnight success. We may have a side that can compete better but we still need to understand the process and while what’s on offer in the division isn’t great unfortunately we also aren’t great right now.

  5. Well said, and a concentration on the product on the field is absolutely required after comment on Jason’s latest match review, but a nicely worked article. What gets to me is SMc’s willingness to protect his charges, take the blame and say ‘I got it wrong’. Whatever the plan, formation, system employed, if fundamental football is poor – passing, shooting, tackling, moving and anticipation there really is no defence and SMc opens himself up to criticism. As you hint Mark, football is an entertainment and when its not, loyalty is tested. I am also reminded here that should we watch our team on the small screen, it is inevitable we will compare our football to the weekly overkill of PL football where exceptional talent is viewed week after week. Whatever fourth tier football from VP is, it is not comparable to PL football and it must include something not served up on saturday nights. That in my opinion must be effort, purpose, nouse and a bit of cheek, all we have had over the years but not this season so far.
    Perhaps SMc feels his charges cannot play intuitive football but in the Harrogate, Newport and Stevenage games, we looked the same stuttering machine and predictable.
    The owner, ceo and manager do not play, the 11, 14 or 18 are those to take the responsibility for failure. The manager takes responsibility for team selection and yes tactics, but surely basic football is the responsibility of those with the shirt and that so far has been lacking
    The product through ifollow is poor.

  6. great read and spot on

  7. Bob on Mark and additionally we don’t know who we are anymore. 100% behind SMc, he’s got a right dogs dinner to sort. GB.

  8. Stuart seems to set up his team to combat the opposition in every game. He’ll have them watched the week before (or on video) and then set a formation in which he thinks we can expose their weaknesses. Well let them worry about us. Stop tinkering with formation. It can’t be helpful to the players who don’t know what they’re doing from one game to the next. Play a strict 4-4-2. If it doesn’t work in one game, then change the players, not the set up.
    When he was here before we played a flat back four, with a midfield three and Marshall out on the wing. He rarely changed it and i think this was why we were so successful. I know we are much weaker now, with a smaller squad, but please, stop with the tinkering!

  9. – The Harrogate game on Sky Sports Football had an average of 109k viewers across the first half and a 130k average across the second half
    – 232k people watched at least 15 minutes of the game

  10. Football is all about results if you can play open flowing football and entertain and get results great, if we are solid and win through a set piece but get results the fans will accept ether because we will be up there showing ambition and desire, but what we are about now is the complete opposite and the fans are losing interest and angry they feel cheated,the club is lacking ambition and are on a downward spiral how we get out of this with the salary cap in place is going to be difficult, we need hope and that can only come from a plan which the fans can relate to coming from the club .

  11. A bang on analogy, Mark. A side issue of our start to the season, is that fans have got out of the habit of going to Valley Parade and, if these performances continue, how many will bother to come back? A number already seem to have given up watching on ifollow, from the comfort of their own homes.

    The situation cannot be allowed to drift.

  12. Your Heartfelt piece Mark is acknowledged and understood for me its like seeing a very sick old friend and wonder how long he’s got left do i want to keep going, do i have to should i . But then i think of myself as an old fart and football is no longer the game i used to love and know its gone its own way, And then i read your piece and realise we all feel the same way what a relief I’m just a supporter with the City blues

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