How can we better support Bradford City managers?

Image by Thomas Gadd

By Jason McKeown

Bradford City’s start to the season has been very unimpressive. Performances have not been good enough, and the club sits closer to the relegation places than the promotion spots. And this, in a league that we all hate the fact we’re stuck in, at a time when a lot of our divisional peers are meant to be in a weaker position.

There is no obvious reason for us to go backwards, and yet here we are. The summer increasingly looks like a missed opportunity. The decisions taken then look questionable now. But that’s been a reoccurring theme for months and years. The spiral of decline that began at Wembley stadium in May 2017 has been brutal.

It’s no surprise that there is so much anger right now. We’ve had a truly rotten, lamentable few years on the pitch. And then you’ve got lockdown making the situation feel even worse. We can’t even watch our football team live anymore, adding further to the disengagement.

But as much as frustration is understandable, there also has to come a time to face up to some harsh realities. Whatever your views on the mistakes of the past and who is to blame, the clock cannot be turned back. And if the result of the almighty club failings since 2017 is that Bradford City are languishing in the bottom half of League Two, with no obvious quick route back, the question becomes what are we going to do about it?

The pitchfork route of driving people out is easy to relate to. As fans, we have such little control over the events we’re so heavily invested in. Beyond demanding change, there aren’t many options available. Seeing people fall on their sword for their association with past mistakes has an obvious appeal. But it’s also not a path that has necessarily worked out.

The manager situation is the obvious example of this. Stuart McCall is just about holding onto a position that has been completely unstable since he was wrongly sacked in January 2018. As laughable as it now seems, Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp’s justification then for sacking McCall, with City in the League One play offs, was to give the club a better chance of promotion to the Championship.

It obviously didn’t work out then. Nor did cheerfully waving goodbye to Simon Grayson, Michael Collins, David Hopkin or Gary Bowyer. Every single time, a change of manager did not lead to improvement. In fact, it triggered the opposite.

The instability in the dugout has also contributed heavily to a squad lacking a balanced structure and with questionable character. It is staggering that Connor Wood has played fewer than 75 games for the Bantams, but is already on his fourth different manager. The turnover of players – which means there are just three survivors from the team built two years ago – is simply too high.

The virtues of patience with managers can be seen in the early League Two table, which is topped by Newport County, who are led by Michael Flynn (the third longest-serving manager in the division). Last season, Flynn came under some pressure from Newport fans as they struggled. But sticking by him through that rough patch has been rewarded so far this season.

In sixth place are Forest Green, led by Mark Cooper (the second longest-serving manager in the division). Michael Duff (fifth longest-serving) has Cheltenham in third, Matt Taylor (fourth longest-serving) has Exeter in fourth and John Askey (sixth longest-serving) has Port Vale fifth. Five of the six longest-serving managers in League Two are occupying five of the six highest spots in the league.

At the other end of the table currently sit teams with a similar revolving manager door policy to what we’ve seen at Bradford City. Just one team in the bottom half (Walsall) have the same manager in charge as they did 12 months ago. And there’s some very fancied teams languishing below even the Bantams. In League One, the top 10 clubs have all kept the same manager longer than a year.  

Of course, you can write a lengthy list – with the help of social media – of the things McCall has supposedly got wrong. As you could have done with Bowyer, Hopkin, Collins, Grayson and, indeed, McCall last time. But the lessons of the past overwhelmingly suggest that – whoever ultimately is Bradford City’s next manager – they will also make bad signings, tactical errors, pick players you don’t rate, say things in the press you don’t agree with, and lose games of football.

It’s clear that the problems run much deeper than this. As has been discussed at length – especially by others – the blame extends to the players, the board and the owner. The club has been doomed by short-termism. And though it doesn’t mean that sticking with the current plan is going to eventually deliver success, not giving time for anything to develop means we’re continually pressing the reset button, with messier results.

Instead of knock it all down again at Valley Parade, is there a way we can build it up better? Pretty much all City fans raised concerns about the summer recruitment approach – some particularly loudly – and those worries are looking well founded. So how can we improve this before January arrives? What plans can be put in place now? And do we even have to wait?

McCall has ruled out bringing in out of contract players, but that was before a pretty significant injury list grew and some poor results. There should be no shame in changing your mind and fans would have a lot more respect if they could see the manager actively looking to improve his hand. The problem of short termism, and ripping up plans so often, can be seen in the current squad. City can’t score goals and can’t defend. Yet McCall is working with a set of centre backs and strikers that he inherited. This included automatic contract extensions to Clayton Donaldson and Zeli Ismail, who McCall probably wouldn’t have wanted to keep. 

He didn’t replace Ben Richards-Everton or Anthony O’Connor or Paudie O’Connor or Lee Novak or Kurtus Guthrie or Clayton Donaldson. Because he knew – Guthrie aside – he couldn’t shift them and didn’t want a bloated unhappy squad or to spend money we might not have. That seems a perfectly rational approach to have taken, even though subsequent events would suggest it was a mistake.

Adding to this, so far, the signings of Austin Samuels, Levi Sutton and Dylan Mottley-Henry are proving disappointing. Not bringing in a better replacement for James Vaughan has further weakened the front line (though McCall evidently did try hard for quality by targeting the likes of Ian Henderson and Jordy Hiwula, who ultimately could not be enticed to the club). And failing to address the lack of wide options has really hampered the intent to play positive football. 

Is recruitment a weakness of McCall’s? It’s probably not his strongest attribute as manager, in which case some further help could allow him to make better decisions. In his second spell as manager, recruitment was pretty decent – at least over the 2016/17 season. This was when McCall had agreed to work with a transfer committee approach that saw Greg Abbott head of recruitment, with the likes of Steve Banks also inputting ideas.

The James Hanson-Charlie Wyke change was perhaps the best illustration of how extra support can help McCall grow the team. At the time, letting Hanson leave was controversial and McCall evidently wanted to keep him. But replacing him with Wyke ultimately proved an upgrade. Tough decisions to make and probably an uncomfortable time for McCall, but the team effort behind that change of number nines was evident and ultimately paid dividends.

The ideals of a transfer committee looked sensible then, taking City in line with the way football has evolved. It didn’t work, largely because it was headed up by the wrong person (Rahic put himself in charge). We’ve completely moved away from that, to a “let the manager manage” philosophy. But it is placing too much weight on the shoulders of the incumbent of the most unstable position at the football club. The results are there for all to see.

McCall would surely benefit from some extra support right now. Someone to be watching other games and other players, so City are in a better position of knowing who to sign. No supporter was disagreeing with those summer calls for a better recruitment approach, albeit the pandemic meant plans the club had drawn up to address the issue were said to have been put on hold. Perhaps it is something that can now be revisited. 

A director of football kind of role/better recruitment approach/more strategic outlook has been campaigned for by many (as have we, in our own small way, here, here, here, here, here, here and here) and events so far this season underline their value. Back in February when McCall was mooted to return, there was hope Neil Warnock would join him on the ticket. Clearly, the now Middlesbrough manager Warnock is someone with his sights set much higher, but finding someone else with experience in the game and football expertise could prove valuable. This kind of support would help the club to support McCall doing what he does best. 

McCall is, at heart, a tracksuit manager. Someone who clearly relishes working with players on the training ground. Putting his arm around drooped shoulders, and motivating them to do better. The results of this approach might be in short supply right now, but we know from the past just how good he can be at this. Has Mark Marshall subsequently come even close to the level of performances McCall got out of him in 2016/17?

What McCall also offers are a huge passion for the club. A willingness to play attack-minded, attractive football. A bravery to blood and develop young players – Reece Staunton and Finn Cousin-Dawson the latest examples. It’s easy to dismiss all of these qualities, but back in February and after Bowyer’s exit, they were exactly the traits that we supporters were looking for. For someone to be in charge who “got it”, and who would feel the pain as much as we do. To improve the safety-first, tedious football of Bowyer.

The point is that McCall has many of the qualities that we as a club and fanbase want in our manager, but he doesn’t tick every single box. Do we use what we know he is not as good at as a reason to change managers, in an elusive search for someone with 100% of the qualities? Or do we decide that what McCall is good at is worth keeping, and supplement it with extra support and resource on areas he is less strong at?

Ultimately McCall looks like he is feeling the pressure. And right now, he appears to be on a path to failure. Maybe he will leave and the club improves, but there is little beyond hope to go on in believing that will happen. History offers scant evidence. 

Perhaps there are ways that those who he reports to, those who work alongside him, and those who play for him, can do more for him. And perhaps we supporters can play a part too. Not in blind faith in believing he will definitely succeed, but in stopping being passive at watching him fail.

The conversation around social media can be toxic and it’s easy to pile on, even though it’s evident a large amount of City supporters want McCall to remain as manager. With limited other ways for supporter-club interaction right now, the mood on social media arguably takes on greater significance than should be the case. In more normal times, McCall would be having his name chanted by fans and applauded when he is making his way down the touchline. 

Maybe this isn’t going to be the season we earn promotion. But maybe that can be okay, if we start to really build some proper foundations. After all, Phil Parkinson wasn’t an overnight success. He guided City to 18th in League Two in his first season. He nearly got the club relegated. He only won 11 of his 41 league games in 2011/12. He signed Craig Fagan. He picked a centre halves as full backs. He played Lee Bullock up front. 

We stuck with someone through some very tough moments, and were handsomely rewarded for that. And when Parkinson subsequently delivered those amazing times, we could all share the joy and reflect on the part that we had genuinely played.

There are no guarantees that keeping McCall will deliver success in the long run. But sooner or later, we have to stick to a plan. And rather than abandon it if green shoots don’t immediately appear, review and see how we can make the plan better as we go along – to give it a greater chance of success. 


Categories: Opinion

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33 replies

  1. Great article Jason, I can already guess the types of replies you are going to receive from the doom brigade.

  2. I whole-heartedly agree. I hope the board do not cave to the social media pressure. I’d give McCall a longer contract and all of the support the club can muster.

  3. After ( 70 ) seventy years of watching City I can honestly say that the Barrow game performance was the worst i have ever seen. We were inadequate all over the park. But like you say changing the manager is not always the answer as the four previous managers (coaches) we had before S.M. can testify. I know its no consolation but look at Bolton. They have actually bought a manager, paid out massive money in wages prior to beat salary cap and for what. ? Look at the lg. table. Mansfield throw money and sack managers on an industrial basis and even we can beat them. So let’s give Stu. a final throw of the dice. Make sure we stay in this Division and sign the right players thereon. I maybe wrong but I think we have 18 players out of contract at the end of the season plus loans to return. Then there would be no excuses, 100pc his team. !

  4. Stuart has short comings without a doubt. He was successful in his second spell but he was aided by Greg Abbot. You are right that he is a motivator but excuse my french, it’s difficult to “polish a turd”. The squad is poor. There are some good players but we have a relatively small squad and it is evident that those selected do not bring the quality one would expect. It is easy to criticise the likes of Samuels. He gets no service. Anyone in his position no matter how good they are, would struggle with that level of service. Who is responsible for team selection, tactics and recruitment? Stuart is! He needs help and he needs it now. I want him to do well but football is a results industry and if you don’t deliver then you have to move on. You are definitely right, anyone else coming in will struggle to get a consistent performance out of this team. Like I said he needs help and support from Rhodes and Rupp. It is clear he needs new players in midfield and up front. There are a lot of out of contract players out there, so come on boards give him the go ahead to try to get the quality we need.

  5. Unless you have a shoe in replacement of the calibre of the Cowleys or Paul Cook I can see no sense in changing horse now. Realistically is our stock high enough to attract that level of candidate anyhow? You are left taking a punt ( a la Jagger) but its risky. Interesting to see John Yems doing well at Crawley with very little experience as a No1 so I suppose it can work.
    Whoever came in still has to work under the same financial constraints. Changing the manager may alter spending priorities but it is not going to bring a bigger infrastructure ie scouting/data analysis in the short term as some think can be developed.
    What is clear is that unfocused and unremitting negativity helps no one and whilst there have always been credible reservations about Stuarts overall skill set he deserves support not opprobrium at a difficult time

    • Hi Paul,

      Just a thought on Crawley. I think there is less expectation at Crawley to be up near the top and that helps reduce the pressure ie no one expects them to have won all their games. City fans feel that we should be in L1 if not the Champ and that frustration means there is a quick change in attitude when it looks like results or performances dont meet that expectation.

      It’s my worry that we are not prepared to play the long game, a situation definitely worsened by Rahics false promises.

  6. Fantastic piece and agree with the majority of it. The director of football role has failed elsewhere and does require a manager to be given time as fitting a manager to what the director of football vision is can be problematic. I also wonder about the finances of such a role been passed by Rupp and if we aren’t intending to enter the market too much its real value versus cost. Your stats show that we need some stability in the managers role and that ALL managers make mistakes. Parkys own recruitment of forwards was far more miss than hit but this seems to get lost in the clamour to blame Stuart by some nor the recognition that after his last sacking we have done nothing but go backwards.

  7. Do you think they are actually listening to SM’s direction? Or just doing their own thing? I can’t believe the gaffer would be telling them to play like this!

  8. Regarding the last paragraph Jason – you can only stick to a plan if you have a plan. Recent years would suggest we don’t have one beyond surviving each season.

    I’m not going to suggest anything that I think could improve things though as I’ll just be shot down and berated for being an unrealistic dreamer.

    Decent read though.

    • You are right post Rahic. Plans have been dictated by the need to stabilise the clubs finances. Pre Rahic there was a clear strategy that most could buy into and which produced success on the pitch and financial security of it. There is some blistering analysis on TCA this evening should anyone wish to be enlightened

  9. Good article Jason ,you have highlighted where the problem are and I mostly agree ,we do need a director of football but it will be hard to attract the right person in the second division ,and agree Stuart belongs on the training ground with the director of football doing the ground work on recruitment,the sooner we appoint someone I think the pressure will ease on the management .and we can go forward.

  10. Excellent. What a sensible read. I hope the management see it. I’m not on social media thank goodness but can imagine how it must feel to read the type of comments they get on there. Must be very disheartening especially in times like we are going through at the minute.

  11. Bizarre times. Liverpool concede 7. Man City ship 5 at home. A Stuart McCall team can’t string one pass together. I know we don’t have the players we had four years ago when you could invite a neutral to VP and watch them be impressed from the first minute, but then neither do Newport and Barrow and yet still have no trouble outplaying our lot. Barrow, who by the way were forced to change manager pre season, were able to play out from the back in the second half against the wind. Bradford City in the first half looked as if they had no clue as to what might happen if they launched a small, lightweight spherical object into said wind. In the second half our goalie tried repeatedly to kick the ball into Scotland. I don’t think we need a debate about sacking Stuart. I think he has been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by a lookalike. Could Jason perhaps suggest to the club a mission to recover him?

  12. Excellent article, Jason, I hope that the powers at VP read it. It is too easy to call for a change of manager but as we have found to our cost it doesn’t solve the problem. Giving the manager help and, crucially, time is, in my view, the way forward.
    Once again, thanks, Jason for providing a bit of positivity in bleak times.

  13. McCall has managed 248 games here, and has won only 95 of them.

    Give him time? He’s had the equivalent of nearly 6 seasons here and has shown precisely zero inprovement.

    Sticking with the wrong manager is worse than firing them.

    I love Stuart, we all do. But, let’s face it, after 248 games we should see some improvement. And we don’t.

    • I find it a bit strange and distorted to add together a manager record from three different periods to suggest he’s had enough time, when in this spell as manager he has only been in charge for 19 games. Does his spell in charge of 2007-2010 have direct relevance to City’s form in 2020? I don’t see how it does.

      But even if you were to go on that record of 95 wins in 248, that gives Stuart a manager win ratio of 38.3%. That is a better win ratio record than Phil Parkinson (34.7%, “only” won 68 of his 196 games in charge) and Chris Kamara (35.7%, 40 wins from 112 games). It’s also very comparable to arguably the best City manager of the past 30 years, Paul Jewell (39.3%, 46 wins out of 117 games in charge).

      If you compare McCall’s first spell with his second, there is evident improvement. He had a 34.6% win ratio in his first spell (46 wins from 133 games). But a 45.8% win ratio second time around (44 wins from 96 games). When comparing Bradford City managers who have been in charge for at least 20 games, that second spell record is the fifth best in Bradford City’s entire history.

      • His spell now is exactly the same as his first spell, and the second season of his second spell. Poor recruitment, garbled tactics, defending indefensible performances from players, blaming the fans. There’s no improvement since then.

        I’m all for giving managers time if there’s signs of green shoots of recovery. Anything to cling to. But losing 5-0 at home to Lincoln City? Getting humiliated again at home to Newport County? Playing hoofball into a force nine at Barrow. There’s no signs he can, or will, make an improvement.

        I agree that it takes time to gel. But he’s got fundamentally the same squad as Bowyer did and is getting worse results from it. The recruitment he has done is incoherent.

        And yes, I think his previous record is relevant to what we have now.

      • In the second season of his second spell, McCall had City in the top six all season, winning 19 out of 38 league and Cup games (50% win ratio). This included victories away at Peterborough, Portsmouth, Wigan, Shrewsbury,Southend and Fleetwood. And all achived after poor planning saw the club lose Meredith, Marshall, McArdle, Clarke and Cullen during the summer, and Edin blocked certain replacements McCall wanted.

        After McCall was sacked, City won 3 of their remaining 15 games to drop from 6th to 11th.

        I think we’d all settle for a season that bad from Stuart again.

      • An excellent response and a very well argued article Jason. WOAP once again delivering what sets it apart and does far, far, better than most: delivering opinion set within context and backed up with good solid objective evidence.

      • Tetchy, who said that Stuart is blaming the fans?

        Notwithstanding, he has reason to be disappointed by the sort of vitriol he has been targeted with. He’s clearly demoralised by the hysterical reaction of his critics and if he ventured on social media he’d see for himself the negativity. As Jason has written, Stuart has weaknesses but he also has many strengths which we would be foolish to discount.

        If anyone thinks that this is a dream job for a new candidate, think again.

      • Another season like his first in the second spell and we’d not be having the conversation. It was heartbreaking to be ten minutes from the success we all want Stuart to achieve for us.

        I want Stuart to turn it round, I want to be wrong, I want him to be winning promotion and falling off car bonnets again. He’s a hero at this club.

        I just don’t see it ever happening. That makes me sad. But wanting him to win isn’t a good enough reason to stick with a manager who isn’t winning and is “happy with his squad” after a 5-0 home defeat to Lincoln City.

  14. Fantastic article, really enjoyed reading this. Hope he can turn things around. Not easy for the owners to offer financial support in current climate, we will all have to show (more!) patience.

  15. Sacking/ changing managers is NOT the answer.
    If it was we would be European Champions.
    The most worrying fact is that Harrogate ;Newport and certainly Barrow were no great shakes but beat us easily.
    The first two.clubs are a great example of what managerial stability can do and whilst Barrow have changed their manager in the summer their stable team.has carried on momentum from reaching the EFL from non league.
    Whilst SM is far from.perfect in his managerial skill set he has a passion for Bradford City which is unquestionable.
    Were he to.go; either through the club deciding or his own choice; then who would we get in.
    Some one elses sacked failed manager who is desperate for a pay cheque.
    And so the cycle would continue.
    The best way forward is for stability with SM at the helm and for us SUPPORTERS to live up to that word.
    Support the team.and support the manager. 55 seasons I have seen periods like this several times.
    The one thing they have in common is that there is an end to times like this.
    It will come. It will happen. We will turn the corner and we will co.e good.

  16. There is a past manager who I believe could help Stuart. He was arguably one of our most successful manangers who with better backing would have taken city to the old first division. Terry Dolan knows Bradford City and Stuart well. He took over a talanted team who were struggling back in 1987. They couldn’t win a game at that time. The first thing he did was to get the team defending properly and used Dave Evans as a sweeper. The next thing was to sign an experienced striker who could score. That being Ron Futcher. Let’s hold off signing a free agent and use the cash to employ Terry Dolan to help Stuart and coach the players to defend properly.

    • I wanted TD to be Stuart’s ‘advisor’ when Stuart was appointed the 1st time of managing City Roberto. I think TD has probably been too long away from the coal-face of profession game now to be able to offer much up-to-date ‘wisdom’. Plus, Stuart has had a good few years of managing teams behind him now, he’s no longer the ‘rookie’ manager. Any help needed will probably be that from a different specialism. Maybe the powers that be (if they haven’t already) and/or a journalist or two, should ask Stuart in what areas HE thinks he could be assisted.

  17. We all seem to be agreeing with the general thrust of your excellent piece, Jason. 2020 has been a dark long year, but it was not that long ago in January when we were all greeting Bowyer’s demise and Stuart’s return with wild enthusiasm. There is no point in sacking him, should we continue this losing run, which I do fear after the last three games in particular.(Southend and Tonbridge next, who knows?). The club must find a way of giving Stuart help and support …getting more out of the better players we have and securing decent out-of contact players (remember Caddis?)

  18. We’re regressing game by game. He’s changed formation over and over again, he doesn’t know his best 11, he’s happy with his squad, he’s got the final piece of the jigsaw, he can’t address a slump, he can’t take criticism, he won’t take advice, he had the chance to bring in the obvious shortcomings in the squad but chose not to.

    Other than that he’s the right man for the job.

    We all want to see him succeed but whenever he’s been up against it, he’s never turned it around. He was rightly sacked after losing something like 9 out of 10 games. We were heading in the wrong direction even if Edin was interfering. The players who were apparently so loyal to him, stabbed him in the back.

    What makes you think he’s going to improve us now with even less quality than he’s ever had before?

  19. 100% Agree Jason!

    I don’t think any fan is happy or has been for a couple of years now. Unfortunately some problems can’t be changed easily and rely on external parties to be interested in owning, managing, working for or playing for the club. A small portion of fans don’t appreciate that and feel that this is some sort of computer game where you can just change staff at will. My fear for a while has been that we will end up with “Bob from Wyke” as manager and “Sarah from Shipley” as CEO if we carry on tearing ourselves apart.

    Today I read an article about how AFC Wimbledon are returning to Plough Lane after 18 years. A credit to their fans! I did wonder though if City could have achieved the same with its fans….it pains me to say it but from some of the stuff I read online I do doubt that!

    I hope that patience prevails and we can build. No player or manager wants to risk coming to a club that has a high turn over and becomes a sacking club, especially when there are no sky-high wages as an upside. Please let us not become known as a revolving-door club and descend that spiral even further.

  20. The best article I’ve read for sometime!
    I 100% agree with everything you say Jason.
    It’s truly heartbreaking what is happening at city and now for mccall to be struggling and reading the toxic comments about him on social media just breaks my heart.
    I want Stuart to succeed more than any other manager we’ve ever had.
    I really do believe that he will succeed but only if he gets the right support from the chairman right through to us supporters.

  21. Jason – excellent article, as ever.

    A few thoughts…

    Stuart has said he is confident in getting us into the top 7. Lets see if he can deliver that, or get close to delivering it. If he can, I think he should be rewarded with a new contract, as it will represent a dramatic turnaround from where we are today. If he gets nowhere near, its the end of his contract, and I would personally go in another direction. I know its hard to imagine getting into the playoffs right now – but its not completely out of the question, and I remember my current local team, Barnsley, sticking with Lee Johnson after an 8 game losing streak where they were playing as badly as City are at the moment, but he turned it around dramatically and was then poached by Bristol City ( but left the foundations for Barnsley to have a glorious end to the season winning the JPT and promotion in the same season). It can be done.

    Is Stuart’s long time assistant Kenny Black not enough support? I got the impression last time round that he was uncomfortable having anyone else involved, but as Jason has pointed out, it did produce some good results.

    In Stuart’s second spell at City, we were playing some lovely football. Are the players not playing the way he wants to? Or does Stuart think these players are incapable of the style we grew to love the last time he was here? It is really noticeable how badly we are playing by lack of shots at goal, a leaky defence, and even with 10 man ( as at Barrow), not willing to do what most teams would do and ‘throw the kitchen sink’ at the opposition. Not a single chance in 90+ minutes at Barrow. 10 men or 11 – that is simply not good enough.

    Stuart seems a bit ‘snappier’ in press conferences/post match interviews that I have noticed recently. This might be down to our local reporter, Jamie Raynor, doing an excellent job in asking some more cutting questions that he is used to here. He needs to respond to these in a better fashion in my view – its not a good look for him, but understand that he is frustrated.

    There are a lot of calls on social media for Julian Rhodes to be replaced before the need for sacking Stuart. What are people’s views on that?

    • I have read somewhere that the new CEO is lined up and an announcement on that will be made when appropriate.

      Rhodes has always been clear he was a short term solution and that he didn’t want to remain at the helm.

      I won’t criticise the guy who stepped in to sort out the mess we were in when Rahic disappeared….I didn’t see a queue of people wanting to jump in to the breach at the time.

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