By James Pieslak
A couple of seasons ago, an amusing saga unfolded when the Valley Parade music man slipped on ‘Road to Nowhere’ by Talking Heads. He timed it beautifully, hitting play just as the supporters filed miserably out of the ground after another dismal defeat. The title of the song perfectly encapsulated how many felt at the time, and I remember the chuckles as we all heard it and cottoned on.
In the board room, I have a sneaky feeling that the reaction was a much angrier one. It wasn’t long before the music man found himself booted off the Valley Parade jukebox, a crying shame really, because that moment of humour was possibly the highlight of that season. It was possibly the highlight of the last few seasons in fact because, let’s face it, there has been very little to smile about.
Should that DJ be invited back today, what fun he could have. There is so much potential for mischief. Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now by The Smiths, Everybody Hurts by REM, How to Disappear Completely by Radiohead, Caught Out There by Kelis, the theme tune to Benny Hill… it doesn’t take long to put together a soundtrack that sums up Bradford City. It’s fair to say ‘miserable ballads’ would be the genre. Our band name would be One Direction. Or Dire Straits.
Allow me to go back to ‘Road to Nowhere’. A fitting choice back then, but the narrative has changed somewhat since. We have more clarity about the road we are on. A quick rifle through the DJ box and how about this to accompany the players as they slope off the pitch? Road to Hell by Chris Rea. Much more apt. It’s much more serious than an amusing joke nowadays. To cite The Smiths once again, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.
It really isn’t funny anymore. We sit 23rd in League Two. We are one place from propping up the entire football league pyramid. If the season ended now, we would be relegated out of the Football League. It is depressing. It is pathetic.
When you look at the performances this season, nobody can deny that we deserve to be where we are. It’s not bad luck that sees us hanging around the grimmest of trapdoors. From back to front, we have been dreadful. We have been dreadful as an attacking unit. Dreadful as a defensive unit. Dreadful as a whole unit. Dreadful as individuals. Dreadful here, dreadful there, dreadful everywhere.
What also bemuses me is that this is entirely self-inflicted. Shoddy dealings in the transfer market and throughout successive transfer windows have left us with a paper-thin squad, in terms of numbers, character and quality. Our hapless approach to transfer windows seems to get worse each time. Can it get worse again? Crikey, I hope not. Another one for the jukebox, Time Is Running Out.
This has left us brutally exposed in a season where the fixtures come thick and fast. Many supporters saw this coming, but it appears that the club did not. Some might ascribe our situation to bad luck. I put it down to incompetence. Yes, I know that is a strong accusation, but I do not care. If people are offended, I too am offended by what is happening to my club. I am also hurt, angry, and upset. If I use language that people at the club don’t like – good. I want them to know how strongly I feel. They are failing and I am sick and tired of watching our resulting decline.
That’s the shouting over. I don’t want to use this platform to simply shout and rant. I want to try and work out what proactive and decisive action can get us out of this situation. Despite the misery and anger outlined above, it remains my belief that we can escape this mess. It is my belief that we can only do that by changing direction though. We need to change the record.
Change to what though? Well for me, on and off the pitch, Bradford City Football Club needs to sit up, slap itself in the face and start behaving in a proactive fashion. The inertia needs to stop. The club needs to start behaving with purpose. To us supporters, supporters who love this club, there has been no sense of anything other than drift.
It feels as though a siege mentality has set in at Valley Parade. To be honest, that is somewhat understandable given the mood amongst the supporters, but it is getting us precisely nowhere. Those in positions of responsibility need to shrug that mentality off and start tackling this head on.
This starts with the obvious place – on the pitch. It is painfully obvious that our small, threadbare squad is a huge problem. Players are regularly playing out of position to fill gaping holes, players are appearing when not properly fit, and players are getting injury upon injury.
The consequence of this is that our starting XI is getting progressively weaker, and our subs bench may soon have to include staff from the VP offices. To be honest, the Bradford City HR team might well be capable of more commanding defensive displays than what we’ve witnessed this season. Perhaps someone from our marketing department can take on a full back without running the ball into the stand or yanking a hamstring?
I digress. The manager has said that he doesn’t want to bring in free agents, and to be fair to him he has explained why he thinks that. His position made sense then. It doesn’t now when you look at the state of things. It is not a weakness to admit that this squad needs strengthening urgently. We live in a world where every altered decision is badged as a ‘farcical u-turn’ and requires a public humiliation. I disagree with that. I would much rather someone who admits fault and addresses it, rather than someone who just blunders stubbornly on towards inglorious failure.
The time has come to bite the bullet. Not only could the free agent market pad out our rapidly depleting squad, but it could add valuable experience and character, helping a dressing room that seems ravaged by confidence issues. There are plenty of free agents looking to try and get a deal in this Covid-19 world, and even if not 100% match fit, would they offer a worse solution than what we have to choose from right now?
Let’s look at a recent example, Paul Caddis. He was one of the better players we’ve seen over recent years. Not only was he a good player, but he possessed the sort of character and spikiness that we have lacked for so long, never more than right now. Ahead of a packed December, would it be that much of a risk to look at adding a bit of depth, quality and character?
That’s the immediate. Moving onto our wider recruitment strategy, we’re now getting into a thorny issue which I’d say is pivotal in our recent demise and needs a size nine kick up the backside. Forgive me if I am mistaken, but I believe the whole point of a transfer window is to strengthen, yet we continually emerge weaker when the window shuts.
There seems to be no notable plan in the transfer window beyond waiting, hoping, and then telephoning agents at the last minute to see who is on the M62 corridor to get down to Valley Parade. I hate to pick out any individual, but was Kurtis Guthrie seriously on any of our target lists when we went into that window?
We have to approach the imminent January window differently. I would dearly hope that the club has set up something of a ‘war room’ dedicated solely to getting this right. I would love to think that they are throwing everything at planning this window properly. That they are forecasting various scenarios; scrutinising data and every possibility so that when the window opens, they can set about doing what they need to do with rigour and purpose.
Although I’d welcome it, I’m not sure we’ll be fundamentally overhauling the squad in January, but we can certainly make giant improvements. We simply have to be so much better this time around. The fact we are looking at appointing a recruitment manager shows that the club is cottoning on. That is encouraging.
Our failings are not wholly insurmountable, but with this current squad I cannot see how it will get better. The club must act quickly and decisively, something we have not seen enough of in recent times. The primary reason is obvious – to push Bradford City out of a relegation spot. After that, to push us up the league. I am not content to have ‘survival’ as our sole objective this season. We still need to think better than that.
The next urgent reason is to try and win back a disillusioned fanbase. This needs to be a huge priority for the club.
The current mood amongst the fanbase is horrendous. Going back to the music, The Cribs’ You’re Gonna Lose Us rings true right now. It is no surprise after what we have been served up over consecutive seasons. People are falling out of love with the club. Some are packing it in. Many are furious. Just look at the messages that the club receives on social media. Although everybody expresses displeasure in different ways, it is because we care.
I say that again. It is because we care. The club sorely needs to tap into this. The disconnect between the club and the supporters is as wide as I’ve ever seen. Any positive step or sign of purpose would improve things right now; whether that be new faces, an uptick in form, or more transparency and openness. Continued drift will only result in further weakening the bond between club and supporter.
This all stems from leadership. The absence of leadership has been rudely felt and needs addressing. Stefan Rupp is a man who wants out and who is not comfortable in the public eye. Despite his reticence, we sorely need an update on what his plans are. Tell us what you’re thinking Stefan. Until then, people will just fill your silence with their own opinions. Does that help anyone at all?
Just because he has never held a CEO role before, I don’t see that as a reason why Ryan Sparks cannot do well. I for one wish him nothing but success. His appointment as CEO was hardly met with overwhelming enthusiasm, but what better way to start than by grabbing this seemingly out-of-control bull by the horns.
I look forward to Ryan setting out his short-term and long-term visions soon. As he is someone who has worked in communications, I hope that this is a critical pillar of his strategy. He has a huge amount of work to do to win back trust.
Supporter engagement has fallen flat, and the fact we cannot attend games is obviously a huge factor. But still, the fans feel very much on the outside right now. We are not just ‘outside noise’, we are important stakeholders. Our views matter and, critically, our views can help. Tap into us. Use us. Bring us in. It’s not you and us, although that is how it feels right now. Zoom has opened up a whole new way to connect us all – is there something the club could harness there? I know my kids would love the chance to join in a virtual training session, or speak to a player online. Why not have a Q&A? Throw it open.
One more thing – read the room. A tweet saying ‘We. Keep. Fighting’ was always going to go down like a bucket of cold sick given the lack of fight we have seen from various Bradford City sides over the past few seasons. The club is absolutely right to use social media as a vital tool to engage with fans, but the message needs to be thought out better. Rooting it in reality helps.
One last thing on leadership – the manager. Handing him a contract extension looks, right now, a bold decision to say the least. I understand why they did it, and I commend the club for attempting to think long-term. They have backed him, when they could easily have parted company. Given how trigger-happy football is, he is fortunate to still be in post.
‘Give me 18 months’ he has said. He doesn’t deserve a fraction of that if this carries on. He is on thin ice, but I would let him have the January window. I know he has his detractors, and I agree with a lot of the reasons for the criticism, but I would like to see us try and stick with a manager and start to build something under the tenure of one manager rather than potentially ripping it up and starting all over again. I’m not sure these continual managerial resets are helping. They seem to set us back every time.
This is not me unequivocally backing the manager. Far from it. To avoid another reset being the only option, the manager has to get a lot sorted – some of it his doing, some of it not. Recruitment, strength in depth, fitness, confidence, the disappearance of form when players come to this club, strange tactics, our inability to create, the lack of shots, the slapstick defending, the absence of midfield bite, the aimless hoofing, the leadership, the evaporation in the face of adversity, the fact we’re second bottom of League Two. It’s a long list, but that’s how bad things are.
‘Things will get better’ I keep telling myself, but they don’t. The current state of Bradford City makes me so sad. When I think it cannot get worse, it seems I am always wrong. We keep stumbling to new lows. Very soon, we could hit the bottom. The point of no return. It is not too late to turn the tide, but it needs those in charge to act now.
Anything less and there won’t be songs, amusing or otherwise, playing over the tannoy at Valley Parade. Drop out of this league, and there won’t be anyone there to listen to them.
Ryan, Stefan, Stuart – you’re on. Over to you. Change the record. Please, Please, Please…