By Jason McKeown
Last weekend, WOAP reached the milestone of our 9th anniversary. So much has happened over the near-decade since we first purchased the widthofapost.com domain name – but what never seems to change is Bradford City’s capacity to surprise.
The recent turn of events, which has led to Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars being promoted from caretaker managers to interim – is a great example of how unpredictable football narratives can be. When it was first announced they’d assumed charge in the wake of Stuart McCall’s sacking, not much was expected from them. They’d maybe pick the team for two games, before the next manager was recruited. They probably wouldn’t improve the dark situation, with defeats at Crawley and at home to Cambridge looking more than likely.
Five impressive games later, and Ryan Sparks has opted to extend the pair’s tenure, possibly for the whole of January. It’s difficult to disagree with the decision. There remain inherent risks in giving them the job on a more permanent basis, given they’ve yet to be tested in terms of managing the team through set backs. But for a club that has been on the decline for three years now, going through manager after manager, no potential route to success can be ignored. Trueman and Sellars have earned the right to prove themselves over a longer period.
When we launched WOAP back in December 2011, the landscape around the club was depressingly similar to as it is today. Nine years ago, a 3-0 Boxing Day win over Crewe had lifted City to 19th in League Two, just one place below where we currently find ourselves. Then, as now, the Bantams had endured a tough start to the season but found form over the second half of December. But even with a Christmas upturn, the club was operating well below its true potential.
Back then of course, Phil Parkinson was at the helm. He’d been in charge for four months before WOAP launched. And as we all know, he delivered spectacular success at Valley Parade. A truly exciting ride lay ahead for us supporters, as City avoided relegation that season, reached a major cup final and got promoted the year after. They continued to climb up League One to finish in the play offs in 2016 – with more amazing cup wins along the way.
At WOAP we were fortunate to cover such a wonderful period in the club’s history. By delving into our achieves, you can find a match report of every single game Parkinson was in charge of – even friendlies – from January 2012 onwards. It was a remarkable time, as the club improved its league position year on year. The sort of climb we aspire to achieve once again.
But football has changed. Bradford City has changed, if not in positive ways. It took less than 24 hours from McCall’s sacking for the T&A to pour a huge bucket of cold water over supporter aspirations that Parkinson could be lured back. If the club is to replicate the league climb of 2012-2016, it will have to be done a different way.
The reality – however much people like me have reservations about it – is that the days of a manager sticking at Valley Parade for the sort of length that Parkinson achieved seem to be behind us. Ever since Parkinson’s departure in 2016, I’ve been longing for City to appoint someone who can build over years rather than weeks. Who – like with Parkinson – we could stick with during downturns in form, for the longer-term trade-off of progression and success.
Parkinson had a lot of difficult moments at Valley Parade, times where he could have been sacked. But the club continued to be rewarded by keeping faith with him. For believing in the virtues of stability.
The contrast of the last few years, where every manager change has led to further decline, rather than improvement, has been a poor advert for a revolving managerial door policy. But when you dig deeper, there have clearly been other factors too. Once Edin Rahic made himself head of football, the club’s strategic direction took a flawed direction. Increasingly poor recruitment. Over-spending. A constant turnover of players. No real identity. And a club that has gone from the League One play off final to the League Two relegation zone.
Once Rahic left and Julian Rhodes took charge, control over recruitment was handed back to the manager. But the club has continued to struggle with its transfers. It was a poor cycle of managers quickly leaving yet being given control over the budget, leading to the next manager finding issues with the squad they inherited, and a need to further revamp things. The nadir was Gary Bowyer’s eleventh hour signing of Kurtis Guthrie on an 18-month deal, last January, only for the manager to be sacked three days later.
City have not found their next Phil Parkinson, despite giving recent managers the level of control that he thrived under. And though no one could have foreseen just what a success Parkinson would be when Archie Christie originally recommended him to Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes, hoping to eventually stumble on the next Parkinson is clearly a limited strategy.
It’s highly unlikely that Trueman and Sellars will have the longevity of Parkinson in the Bradford City dugout. We don’t even know if they’ll make it to February. But there are signs the club is learning from its past mistakes, and moving more with the times. Lee Turnbull’s appointment as recruitment director is a move away from giving full control over player comings and goings to the manager. And it gives City the chance to build a more longer-term squad and clearer identity, which doesn’t all hinge on the most unstable position at the club (the manager).
It is the fourth attempt, in modern times, to take a different approach with recruitment. The 2011 Archie Christie experiment proved flawed, as his presence clearly unsettled Peter Jackson and was ultimately seen by Parkinson as unwelcome. Phil Parkinson did temporarily bring in a Head of Recruitment in Russ Richardson at the end of 2012 – but for unclear reasons the experienced Richardson didn’t stick around for long.
And then of course came the Rahic transfer committee policy of 2016-2018 – a well-intentioned move again, but fatally undermined by the former chairman believing he knew football. It led to a series of transfer decisions that weakened the team – whilst spending an awful lot of money failing to fix those mistakes.
As we’ll cover on WOAP next week, Turnbull’s background in football is very different. So is his remit at Valley Parade. He is concentrating on identifying players who City might look to sign, but the final decision rests with Trueman and Sellars. In the summer of 2011, Jackson and Christie had their own separate budgets and it was all muddled. In 2018, Rahic gave the head coach role to Michael Collins but was already signing players himself. Even in the gap between Collins and David Hopkin, players were still arriving.
Bringing in Turnbull is a different way of trying to fix a problem that has grown in significance. The club has not been thinking strategically with its transfer business for some time. McCall clearly had a very difficult summer doing recruitment on his own (his more impressive, second spell as manager coincided with the transfer committee, where he was inputting ideas for signings but not in overall charge of making the decisions). Whatever the rights and wrongs of McCall’s third spell, it’s difficult to make a case for continuing an approach of expecting the manager to undertake so much work on recruitment. McCall needed help. And so do his successors.
On the face of it, Trueman and Sellars have no experience of signing players and few contacts in the game. If Turnbull was not here to help them with this most important of transfer windows, frankly it would be illogical to keep them at the helm. But they can focus on coaching the team, and preparing for upcoming matches, whilst someone else – with proven experience – is scouting players and bringing ideas to the table for them to consider.
Clubs up and down the land are progressing through stable, modern thinking – having a transfer strategy, and accepting success does not begin and end with the person in the dugout. Time will tell if going into this direction works for City, but it is encouraging to see the club moving away from the status quo. And perhaps, in the long run, it could put them in a really strong position – even beyond what Parkinson managed.
The first time I met Rahic, he moaned to me about Parkinson. It was a supporter group Q&A event in the summer of 2016, a few weeks after Parkinson had left with McCall coming in. The impact of Parkinson quickly deciding he would not work for Rahic ran deep. It wasn’t just the manager who left, but almost his entire backroom staff went with him to Bolton. And, as Rahic complained to me and others that evening, the scouting records and player files that Parkinson and his team had built up exited the building with them.
Rahic felt this was wrong, but there was nothing he could do about it. City were starting all over again.
Therein lies the limitations of relying on a manager – however brilliant and successful – to assume so much control and influence in the running of the club. All managers leave eventually – just look at the troubles of Manchester United post-Alex Ferguson. The legacy Parkinson left behind was weaker than we would have expected. And though McCall did a fine job building on what Parkinson had achieved, keeping City moving forwards. It didn’t take long for everything to collapse.
So much of what Rahic wanted to do was good in intention. He just lacked the ability and personality to achieve it (and, unfortunately, he also lacked the self-awareness or humbleness to know this). But after moving away from so much of his theoretical thinking, City are nudging back in that direction. You suspect Rahic – who it said still lives local – would approve of the number of youngsters breaking through. Of bringing in Turnbull. Of trusting in young coaches to manage the team.
I hope Trueman and Sellars are managing Bradford City for years to come, but it’s unlikely. In the current 92, only 59 clubs have had the same manager in place for longer than 12 months – only 33 have kept faith in someone for more than two years. Whilst the managers at the top end of the long-serving list – Simon Weaver, Gareth Ainsworth, Sean Dyche, Jurgen Klopp and John Coleman – still present a strong case for managerial stability, football has changed.
If Trueman and Sellars can focus on taking the club forwards, they can one day leave behind a firmer footing for their successor to inherit. And right now, that seems a realistic and sensible target for everyone to be working towards. Everything has been built on sand. This is a time to really fix the club, and to move away from the wild volatility of the past nine years (and, indeed, the last 20 years).
When WOAP started in 2011, Bradford City was at its lowest ebb since the 60s. It did so, so well to transform into a successful club over the following six years, but fell back to square one far too quickly and too painfully. City have to change, if we are to ever shake off this sentence of being stuck in the third and fourth tiers. And with the recent appointments of Sparks, Turnbull, Trueman and Sellars there are signs the club is taking a very different path to the one before.