By Jason McKeown
“Recruitment doesn’t stop. It is ongoing, whether you’re looking for a player for tomorrow, next month or for in one or two years.”
Lee Turnbull, September 2016
When things were looking increasingly bleak at Valley Parade just a few short weeks ago, the overriding feeling was that the upcoming January transfer window would be vital in saving the club from the spectre of non-league football.
But for weary supporters, frustrated by years of regression, relying on a good Bradford City transfer window seemed a frightening prospect.
It’s that time of year again where City have so often faltered badly. They did last January, and the January before that, and the January before that. The 31-day opportunity to improve the squad has habitually prompted big expectations, huge pressure and – too often – major disappointment. You have to go back to the January 2017 transfer window for the last time the Bantams did very well during this often season-defining period. That was when James Hanson was sold and Charlie Wyke brought in for £250k. Paving the way for a strong end to the campaign where Wyke netted seven goals in 19 games.
The subsequent transfer windows were all about strikers too. The false promise of a Kieffer Moore, the strange pizza tales of Kristen Dennis, the oddness of German lower league striker Kai Bruenker, the eleventh hour arrival of Kurtis Guthrie – a forward who couldn’t get into the side sat bottom of the league. Decent money has been committed over this period – Jack Payne’s wage packet, Stephen Warnock’s retirement swansong, Lee Novak, Paudie O’Connor, Ryan McGowan. Ambition has been there, but the application highly questionable.
Too often the club – and manager – went into January with good intentions. They advised us all it was a long month. Not to panic. That it takes time. But all too often, the manager didn’t quite get what they wanted, left with desperate last minute scrambles to paper over the cracks. And, amazingly, for the last three January transfer windows, the manager at the helm didn’t subsequently make it to the end of February.
There was every reason to predict a similar, frustrating path for City this time around – and it still all might happen, especially the possibility of a February manager change, given the short-term nature of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars’ current deal. But the club are at least attempting to do something different. Increasing investment in the act of recruitment itself, with the recent appointment of Lee Turnbull as recruitment director.
“A lot of hard work has already been done to set up a robust recruitment department, put a scouting network and database of players in place and get Bradford City moving forward,” beamed Turnbull upon his official unveiling at Valley Parade last week. “We must get recruitment right and ensure the dynamic of the players we have is exactly what we need, to ensure we can get back to where we should be.”
He will certainly have his work cut out. Although the urgency to improve the squad has lessened over the last few weeks, as results have improved, the need for quality reinforcements remains obvious. McCall had built a decent first XI during the summer – one that, on paper, looked capable of pushing for the play offs – but behind that, the squad is badly lacking in depth. Right now, a lot more players are available than was the case during McCall’s final weeks. But injuries and suspensions will inevitably grow in number again, and the club is still a long way below overall expectations. So improving the squad is a must.
Then there is next summer, where currently just seven players remain in contract. It is a massive opportunity to revamp a squad that has under-performed for the past three years. And to develop a more cohesive team building strategy compared to the fragmented, quickly shifting approaches over recent times. Turnbull – who will work closely with Ryan Sparks, Trueman and Sellars – is going to be busy.
Not that such a situation is unprecedented for the 53-year-old. He has held recruitment positions at several clubs over the past two decades, developing a decent reputation in the game as someone with the talent and eye to find players who can support the manager or head coach.
Turnbull himself was a lower league player of little note. Starting his career at local club Middlesbrough, before moving to Graham Taylor’s Aston Villa in the late 80s, when the Birmingham club were pushing to return to the top flight.
Turnbull – who was a striker – never played for Villa, moving to Doncaster Rovers for £17,500, where he began to establish himself. He was never prolific, but earned Doncaster some good money. Firstly, in 1991 when they sold him to Chesterfield for £35,000. Then in 1994 they re-signed him from the Spireites on a free transfer, before selling him just 10 games later, to Wycombe, for £20,000. Turnbull winded down his playing career with spells at Scunthorpe, Darlington, Halifax and Barrow.
There was a relatively brief dalliance into coaching and management at Barrow, where under his charge the Northern Premier League club finished second two years in a row, losing in the play offs (2003/04 and 2004/05). He was sacked in 2005, and had a short stint helping out at Southport. But he eventually moved into scouting, paving the way for recruitment to become his new career.
Especially as one of his former clubs, Scunthorpe, was still a big part of his life. In 1999, Turnbull took on the role of CEO of the Scunthorpe United Community Trust – a position he would hold for 16 years. In 2006, Scunthorpe appointed their former physio, Nigel Adkins, as manager after Brian Laws left the club for Sheffield Wednesday. Turnbull took on the role of chief scout under Adkins – and success was just around the corner.
In the 2006/07 season, Scunthorpe were promoted as League One champions (the same year Bradford City were relegated from the third tier). They went down in the Championship in their first year, but the season after they bounced back to win promotion again, this time through the play offs. They survived relegation from the Championship this time, although after Adkins was lured to Southampton they were down again in 2010/11 under Ian Baraclough. Still, it was a memorable five years that Turnbull was chief scout for.
Turnbull’s star was clearly rising at that point. As Alan Knill prepared to take charge of Scunthorpe in League One, Turnbull remained in the Championship – hooking up with former Chesterfield team mate Sean Dyche, who had just taken charge at Watford. Turnbull held the title of head of 1st team recruitment, and would have been busy given Watford signed 10 players and 10 left the club. Watford finished 11th, but at the end of the season new owners came in which saw Dyche sacked and Turnbull leave with him.
Next up was two years at Huddersfield Town, with the same 1st team recruitment job role. Town had just been promoted to the Championship, and finished 19th and 17th in Turnbull’s time at the club. This was a period where a certain Nahki Wells made the move from Bradford City to Huddersfield, and James Vaughan joined from Everton. Turnbull first worked under Simon Grayson, and remained in the role when Mark Robins replaced him. But when Robins was sacked in August 2014, Turnbull was once again victim of a backroom reshuffle.
It was back to Scunthorpe, and League One, at least for a season. Robins took over at Glanford Park and brought Turnbull with him. But at the end of the 2014/15 season, Turnbull was on the move again to hook up with a former manager. Nigel Adkins had earned the Sheffield United job, and took Turnbull with him, beaming, “Lee is very known to us and was an integral part of our success at Scunthorpe United. He has a very good eye for a player and will work closely with existing staff with regards to identifying targets, as well as providing us with information on future opponents.”
But it was not a happy period. Turnbull was credited with identifying the signings of Martyn Woolford, Dean Hammond and Alex Baptiste. They and other arrivals did not thrive, and the Blades – still in League One for a fifth straight season – finished 11th, a lowest league finish in over 30 years. Adkins was sacked, and a certain Chris Wilder came in. One of his first acts was to bring in his own recruitment team, which again spelled the end for Turnbull.
At this stage of his career, Turnbull’s employment appeared to be intrinsically linked to the manager of the club he worked for. He was part of backroom teams, with the same level of instability. Yet after a short spell at Oldham that summer – where Turnbull claimed he signed 21 players in 21 days – he returned to Scunthorpe once again. But this time, he was to become a more permanent fixture. Chosen by the club, rather than the manager.
In his first season back, 2016/17, Scunthorpe made a flying start to the League One season and topped the table for the first half of the campaign – ahead of a certain Sheffield United. It was no mean feat, given they were operating on a much lower budget than the likes of the Blades, Bolton and Millwall. In the end, they lost a play off semi final to Millwall – who went onto beat Stuart McCall’s Bradford City in the Wembley final.
From there, the decline of Scunthorpe has been similar to the Bantams. Like City, in early 2018 they controversially sacked their manager – Graham Alexander – when still in the play offs. They at least still finished in the top six, losing to Rotherham in the play off semi finals. A year later, they were relegated alongside City – and before the Coronavirus brought football to a crashing halt in 2019/20, Scunthorpe were 20th in League Two.
And after a short spell earlier this season at Chesterfield – where he stayed for less than a month – he has rocked up at Valley Parade.
Matt, who runs the excellent Scunthorpe fansite and podcast iron-bru.co.uk, told WOAP, “It was announced in the summer that Lee’s role as Head of Recruitment was being made redundant, with budgeting reasons cited as the reason by chairman Peter Swann. Swann told our Iron Bru podcast, ‘I’m sad to lose him, but we couldn’t come to the agreement that we wanted to. The recruitment is changing. With the new salary cap coming in and our limited budget you can’t spend 10% of your budget on scouting and recruitment.’
“He was offered a coaching role alongside Russ Wilcox, who the club had originally hoped would continue as manager, but Russ had a change of heart and Lee moved on. He has recently been replaced in a Head Scout role by Peter Swann’s (chairmain) son, Will, who has been working as an agent in recent years.”
Matt adds that the departure of Turnbull split opinion amongst Scunthorpe supporters. “Turnbull was seen as part of the furniture at the Iron and was a hugely experienced and likeable character, so the decision certainly upset some fans, however in recent years the players coming into the club have not been up to standard.
“I think it would be unfair to blame Lee completely as the club had been using a transfer committee to make decisions on incomings and whilst Lee was a voice on that committee, it would be interesting to know whether he agreed with every signing the club has made during our freefall from the top of League One.”
The close dagger secrets of football recruitment mean it is difficult to get an sort of accurate picture over which players Turnbull has spotted and helped clubs to sign over his career, but his track record of working for several clubs and operating closely with some decent managers, suggests City have got someone with a good pedigree. He might have been working in the lower two divisions for the last six years, but that is exactly where City are right now. They badly need someone with first hand expertise of this market – Turnbull appears to offer that.
As Matt mentions, Scunthorpe’s recruitment record over recent seasons is not much better than City’s, which is definitely a concern. Like the Bantams, Turnbull and the Iron have opted to plump for the likes of Alex Gilliead and George Miller, who for all their potential have struggled to consistently deliver at this level – and in League One. A lot of the clubs Turnbull was involved with were not hugely successful over the periods he was there for. Hopefully, lessons were learned along the way.
Matt concludes of Turnbull’s recruitment record at Scunthorpe, “Players signed during his spells at the club have left for big money, however a number of people lay claim to discovering two of our finest ever strikers Billy Sharp and Gary Hooper! I believe Lee definitely spotted Martyn Woolford, who came from Non League York and became a key player for us in the Championship, whilst his worst signing was certainly Rob Jones who turned out to be the Iron’s most expensive mistake.”
With Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars not having enjoyed careers as professional footballers themselves – and their focus on youth development over recent years – they are not going to have the contacts in the game or the knowledge of the league that would set them up for a strong transfer window. So in that regard, Turnbull’s judgement, expertise and experience is going to be really important over the next few weeks.
He will certainly need to hit the ground running. Whilst McCall’s failure to use up his full budget was curious, it leaves City in a strong position going into this window. They have around £300k of the budget to play with, which should allow them to target quality – and hopefully players with an eye on lifting the club upwards next season. A new striker once again tops the list, but wide players, a centre back and perhaps a right back should ideally be on the shopping list.
If other clubs have used up more of their budget than City, it does at least mean the Bantams will be in a stronger position to strengthen. If they can boost the depth of the squad, it really sets the club up for a much better second half to the season.
It might be too late to get into the play offs, but at the very least the target has to be to develop some momentum that can be taken into next season. And to make sure there is no slide back towards relegation trouble.