By Jason McKeown
In February 2010, Stuart McCall shook hands with Bury manager Alan Knill knowing that the 1-0 home defeat he’d just overseen would be his last as Bradford City manager. Over a post match beer, Knill told McCall that he believed the City players were still running through brick walls for the manager, adding that when he was sacked at Rotherham his own squad had given up and contributed to his P45.
In February 2018, Stuart McCall walked into the Bradford City training ground the Monday after a 2-1 loss at Oldham, to be told by Edin Rahic he was sacked. McCall spent all day at the training ground, as a queue of players and non-playing staff waited their turn to say goodbye. A few days later, a large part of the squad took Stuart out for a meal. Resulting in the famous picture that an angry Rahic seemingly used as a hit list.
Twice before Stuart McCall had departed as Bradford City. Twice with a group of players giving everything they had and seemingly genuinely sorry to see him go.
As McCall prepares to pack up his manager office for the third time, having being sacked as Bradford City manager today, perhaps the biggest illustration of where it has gone wrong is that he probably won’t have a queue of well wishers sad that he has gone. This is a group of players who did not appear to be giving everything they had for the cause. They weren’t running through brick walls for McCall. They were letting him down, time and time again.
And it has cost Stuart his job. Probably also ending his managerial career forever.
McCall is sacked – just like in February 2018 – in the aftermath of a defeat at Oldham that extended a losing run to six games. But everything else about the football club and overall situation seems utterly different. Back then, failure was deemed to be still sitting in the League One play offs. Now, City rank 90th out of the 92 and are in major danger of bowing out of the Football League for the first time in its 117-year history.
Dropping into non-league could well kill off the club, given the huge rental commitments to play at Valley Parade. It is not a relegation that City can afford to go through. And so today the dice is rolled in the hope that a new manager will bring change.
McCall can ultimately have few complaints. Performances have been unconvincing all season. And results have tailed off badly. The loss at Oldham was a 10th in 13 matches. Victories in that run have only come at home to bottom club Southend and away at non-league Tonbridge Angels.
It is a huge, huge under-performance. And there are no immediate signs that it was about to change.
McCall has been unfortunate in some respects. The injury list has been devastatingly high, leaving him with a real shortage of options beyond a threadbare first XI. But he also failed to build a squad with the endurance and resilience to cope with injuries. It was too weak in quality, beyond a reasonable first 14 or so players, to cope with the grueling schedule of Saturday-Tuesday.
McCall had the financial resources to have strengthened better during the summer. He wanted to go with a small squad to reduce the risk of unhappy players on the sidelines, and he would have expected to have had January to improve the situation if needed. But results have been far, far worse than expected.
We know from his past record as manager that McCall struggles to turn around losing runs. Part of that is a principled approach of trying to win every game. Be attack-minded and play your way back into form. Other managers would be more pragmatic. Choosing instead to go back to basics. Become more horrible and tough to beat. Take a few 0-0s or even accept a narrow defeat as progress. Build up slowly from a low base.
When City went more pragmatic at home to Cheltenham, there were signs that McCall was taking that more basic approach. The Bantams were unlucky to lose that night. But perhaps had a way forward. Unfortunately, against Carlisle and Oldham, McCall went for a more front-footed approach against teams bang in form. And he was once again let down by his players.
That failure to be nasty and cynical, to stink the place out and accept smaller rewards, was probably McCall’s final undoing. Ultimately, the team does not look organised enough. And attempts to play good football continue to be undermined by terrible, terrible mistakes. We needed signs the ship was turning away from the approaching iceberg,
It is completely understandable that the club has taken this tough decision. Although the fact it comes just two weeks on from awarding McCall a contract extension does not look clever in hindsight. It’s clear that when Julian Rhodes was replaced by Ryan Sparks, the club tried to inject some stability. But results made such laudable attempts difficult to justify. Ultimately, it did nothing to give McCall more job security. It didn’t take away the pressure.
For McCall is brings an end to a third and unusual spell in the City dugout. He returned in February to a hero’s welcome, with the club stating he was brought back because of the excellent job he did 2016-2018, when City competed at the top of League One on a budget a fraction the size of their rivals. It was a chance to try and restore the soul of the club, after a difficult few years. But the 1-1 draw with Grimsby on McCall’s return – the Mariners snatching a stoppage time equaliser through Luke Hendrie of all people – underlined the scale of the task.
McCall was in charge for six games before the coronavirus brought everything to a halt. That included three away losses as poor as anything under the final few weeks of Gary Bowyer’s reign, but entertaining victories at home to Stevenage and Plymouth. City were slipping out of the play off picture, and the narrative was clearly mapped out that they would fall short had the season continued as normal.
Instead, we got months of limbo.
McCall tried to rebuild in the summer, but was hampered by the Covid-19 situation. Normally, a manager coming in at the end of the season would assess their squad and start scouting potential summer signings. But that period was taken away. There was criticism of McCall signing players through watching videos online, but with a national lockdown and no lower league football he wasn’t flush with options either. Despite letting most out of contract players leave, McCall was left with 15 players in contract that he couldn’t move on. He was over stocked in central defence and up front.
The decision to let James Vaughan go was controversial but difficult to dispute the logic of. A player, on good money, who did not want to be around, for reasons McCall could not change. But not bringing in a replacement of the same quality was a huge issue that other strikers have not been able to mask. Austin Samuels might emerge into a top player eventually, but right now he is not James Vaughan.
The season began okay, but with expectations of promotion looking unlikely from the start. The top 10 turned to mid-table, then bottom eight, before finally bottom two. Some truly awful performances, with patience as supporters tested further by the fact we were all watching online rather than in the stadium. It is sad that McCall’s near 40-year association with Bradford City comes to an end inside empty stadiums.
Sacking McCall now is the club’s biggest call they can make. And hopefully, it quickly leads to better days and improvement. However, there is no escaping the damage of short-termism at Valley Parade ever since McCall was last dismissed. The last few years simply do not inspire confidence that sacking McCall now will fix the reoccurring issues.
Sacking McCall in February 2018 didn’t improve the club. Waving goodbye to Simon Grayson that summer didn’t improve the club. Sacking Michael Collins didn’t improve the club. Letting David Hopkin depart didn’t improve the club. Sacking Gary Bowyer didn’t improve the club.
What do we have to go on to believe that this time it will be different?
Perhaps, when we’ve rolled a one so many times, there is nothing to be lost by rolling the dice yet again. But make no mistake, at some point we have to find a manager that we will stick with. We have to let someone rebuild. It doesn’t matter who that person is. We have to stop this recruitment mess where one manager signs a player that the next manager doesn’t like, and who the manager after doesn’t like either. Anthony O’Connor should be embarrassed that he is about to start playing for his fifth different manager in two-and-a-half-years. Richard O’Donnell and Connor Wood similarly get little credit.
Ultimately, City need to be smarter from top to bottom. This is a huge, huge January transfer window. This is a huge managerial appointment. If the pattern that followed McCall’s February 2018 departure, and the exits of Grayson, Collins, Hopkin and Bowyer continues, Bradford City are going to be relegated.
Some big, big decisions lie ahead. Get them wrong, and it might be the end of Bradford City.