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.