By Jason McKeown
Hands up who had heard of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars nine days ago? There are plenty of Bradford City supporters with an in-depth knowledge of the club’s academy set up. But to most of us, the news – last Sunday – that Trueman and Sellars were taking temporary charge of the team prompted a collective “who?”
Yet a week later, Trueman and Sellars are winning plenty of plaudits for the calm, methodical and positive way they have managed the team following the sacking of Stuart McCall. The pair have hugely impressed for the changes they’ve made to the beleaguered Bantams, earning four points from two games (the same amount of points the seven league games before that had yielded).
It’s back-to-basics. Disciplined. Organised. No frills. And yet very, very effective. The 4-2-3-1 formation deployed has brought a startling defensive improvement that has seen two decent opposition sides record just one shot on target across the 180 minutes. Players who looked shot of confidence are suddenly soaring once again. Out of possession, the difference in City is immense.
Ryan Sparks, the recently installed CEO, deserves huge credit for the interim appointment. McCall’s sacking was ultimately far from a shock, and the reasonable assumption to make would be that Black would have stayed on as caretaker, just as he did after McCall was dismissed in February 2018.
Trusting the youth coaches with first team matters, with the club in such a perilous position, was a brave call. Had City lost to Crawley and Cambridge, they’d now be bottom of the league. But after two impressive performances and results, it has proven to be an inspired decision.
Trueman and Sellars have clearly caught the eye, behind the scenes, for the impressive manner they have managed the Bradford City under 18 side over the past few years. Last season, Bradford City’s young guns were third in EFL Youth Alliance North East Division before Covid-19 struck. They also went all the way to the fifth round of the FA Youth Cup, bowing out to Chelsea.
Trueman has held the the role of lead professional development phase coach for the U18s since the beginning of the 2018/19 season. He arrived from Halifax following Edin Rahic’s doomed decision to make Michael Collins first team manager (Trueman was Collins’ replacement). He also remains a player himself, turning out for Thackley this season.
Sellars – the son of Scott, the former Newcastle United, Leeds and Blackburn Rovers winger – has also been at the club for several years, working his own way up the academy to his current position of PDP Support Coach for the U18s. He once had an unsuccessful trial as a player at Valley Parade.
The impact of their work has become more visible this season, thanks to the rise and rise of Reece Staunton, Finn Cousin-Dawson, Kian Scales, Jorge Sikora and Connor Shanks, who have been involved in first team action. In November, City set a new club record when seven academy players featured on the pitch at the same time in the Bantams’ Football League Trophy tussle with Oldham. U18s captain Charlie Wood was recently named in League Football Education’s ‘The 11’.
The way in which Trueman and Sellars have reorganised and got the first team playing so effectively in such a short space of time is very impressive. Naturally, it is leading to calls from some supporters to give the pair the job on a permanent basis, or at least until the end of the season. Certainly, their impact has reduced any haste in choosing the next City manager. Giving Sparks more breathing space to make a considered decision.
Awarding a caretaker manager the reins on a full time basis is certainly not a new thing at Valley Parade. In 1987, Terry Dolan was appointed caretaker after the controversial sacking of Trevor Cherry. He turned around the Bantams’ season and was quickly made permanent manager. The momentum gained at the end of the 1986/87 season was taken into the following year, when City went all the way to the Second Division play offs – the so-called ‘nearly season’.
Flash forward nearly a decade, and Geoffrey Richmond twice struck gold by making Chris Kamara and Paul Jewell caretaker managers and later giving them the job full time. Both delivered promotions, and achieved survival the following season in a higher division.
But since the 90s, the record of caretaker managers at Valley Parade has been patchy. David Wetherall was brought in to replace the sacked Colin Todd in 2006/07, only to oversee a relegation from League One. Peter Jackson successfully kept City in League Two in 2010/11 after becoming interim manager when Peter Taylor stepped down. He was given the job full time that summer, almost by default (John Still turned it down), but only last five games.
That paved the way for Colin Cooper – probably the last time City were in a position of having a caretaker impressing. Cooper won his first game in charge, but the club elected to go with Phil Parkinson as the next manager. Cooper was at the helm for one more match before leaving, which City also won. And for a time – as Parkinson struggled at first – the decision not to go with Cooper didn’t look too clever. However, a couple of years later Cooper got a crack at management with Hartlepool and didn’t last long. As for City, it didn’t work out too bad opting for Parkinson…
There is no doubt there is some merit to the calls for Trueman and Sellars to stay in charge. But I think we’re all a bit to long in the tooth at this supporting lark to ignore the dangers of using a couple of results to base such an important managerial choice. Even some of the worst City teams of the club’s modern history have looked brilliant on certain days. Showing flashes of what they are truly capable of, before reverting to dismal type.
As auditions go, Trueman and Sellars couldn’t be doing any more to impress. But as McCall’s demise shows, what makes or breaks a manager is how they cope with set backs. And on that score, the pair are yet to be tested. At the very least, you’d give them a few more games before making a decision.
But perhaps the biggest reason not to give the pair the job yet is that, paradoxically, they are clearly very talented at what they do. We fans might not pay enough attention to the academy activities, but the record of City’s youth sides over the past few years, and the convey belt of talent coming through to the first team, shows that this part of the club is working very well. Would that excellent work continue at the same pace if Trueman and Sellars were permanently running a different part of the club?
Because make no mistake, you’d be moving the pair into the most unstable roles at Bradford City. And there wouldn’t be any going back. If the promising starts aren’t maintained, the supporter criticism is easy to imagine and the ease they could be sacked down the line is obvious. At that point, it would be very difficult to put them back into their old roles. Just look at what happened to Michael Collins.
Bradford City have over recent years been rightly criticised for the weak infrastructure. The academy is one such area of the club that does not deserve to be lumped in with that condemnation. And that’s because of the obvious hard work and talent of the likes of Trueman and Sellars (plus, of course, all the other staff – led by Academy Manager Neil Matthews). The salary cap rules, which don’t cover players under 21, means that clubs who get their youth set up right can have the advantage of larger first team squads. City need to keep that convey belt turning. It appears Trueman and Sellars are valuable to that.
What we’ve seen over the last few days is some of quality coaching talent that Bradford City has at its disposal. And in time, maybe Trueman and Sellars should be awarded a crack at managing the first team. After all, the club’s incredible progress over the last 90s, through Kamara and Jewell, showed the merits of promoting from within. But there are real structural risks in doing it right now. Again, just look at what’s happened to the coaching career of Michael Collins.
It feels like the club could have a pair of gems in Trueman and Sellars, and they can have a big, big impact on Bradford City’s long-term fortunes. Just as they quietly have been doing over the last few years, before most of us had really heard of them.