Written by Jason McKeown (extra analysis provided by Alex Scott)
So that’s now eight games unbeaten for the interim managers Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars. The inexperienced duo have completely smashed all expectations when they were initially handed the caretaker reins seven weeks ago. Turning around a Bradford City season that was worryingly sliding towards a grim relegation battle, into one where everyone is looking up.
In the wake of Stuart McCall’s December sacking, we reflected on how Bradford City’s modern history showed new manager bounces are that rarest of things in these parts. But with 18 points from a possible 24, Trueman and Sellars are on track to surpass even the start made by Chris Kamara in 1995/96, when his mid-season appointment as manager ended with the Bantams winning promotion at Wembley stadium.
So far, Trueman and Sellars are averaging 2.25 points per game. To give you an idea of how ridiculously good that is, over a 46-game season this rate of return would earn you 103 points.
Trueman and Sellars deserve every plaudit going their way. They’ve brought organisation and unity to a side that looked forlorn and robbed of self belief over November and December. The team are set up in an extremely organised manner. They are tough to beat, and beginning to score more goals at the other end.
So what next?
As the dynamic duo’s stock continues to rise, the calls for them to be given the job on a permanent basis are growing louder. The current interim situation is vague and open ended, with no real indication of how long it might last for. So the desire from some supporters to see the club act is understandable. After all, who would suggest removing them from their posts at this moment in time?
Right now, there is a very good argument to make that they should be informed the job is theirs until the end of the season. Especially as the threat of relegation is significantly receding. In my opinion though, the club are playing the situation absolutely right. Whatever uncertainty might exist in the back of Trueman and Sellars’ mind over the relative lack of job security, it’s clearly not impacting the way they go about things. And as City continue to go from strength to strength, the urgency to make conclusive decisions about their future can afford to be delayed.
Bradford City might only rarely get a new manager bounce, but it’s something that clubs up and down the land experience. It’s not unusual for a manager to be sacked, a caretaker come in, and the previously under-performing team to suddenly look invincible.
A decision is quickly made to make the job permanent, without giving enough thought to whether that caretaker truly has the ability to take the club forward. And when form then subsequently drifts away, the tying up of the caretaker on a two or three year deal can look rash. Think of the likes of Craig Shakespeare at Leicester, Tim Sherwood at Tottenham and Steve Wigley at Southampton.
Perhaps the most high profile caretaker turned permanent boss right now is Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. They were flying when he first took temporary charge, with a win ratio of 71% over those 19 games. The 21 games that followed his permanent appointment saw that win ratio fall to 24%. Still, after an up and down spell the Norwegian is doing very well this season.
There are plenty of caretaker managers who have gone onto deliver huge success after their permanent appointments of course. Most notable right now is Cambridge United’s Mark Bonner, who has guided the U’s to the top of League Two. But it can be a risky strategy.
Ultimately, recruiting managers should be based on more than just the form guide. Especially when they have no previous track record.
The litmus test
Unbeaten runs don’t last forever. At some stage, Bradford City will lose a game of football again. And at that point, we’ll learn another side to Trueman and Sellars. How will they handle the pressure of defeat? Will they have the capability, and the inspirational skills to ensure the players quickly bounce back? What are they made of when the chips are down?
We can all agree that it was this side of management where Stuart McCall struggled. During his first spell as manager in 2007-2010 – when he was very much a rookie boss – he took defeats too personally. And rather than offer confidence and reassurance to the dressing room, his downbeat demeanour led to long losing streaks that he struggled to arrest.
McCall was a different, more confident manager in his second spell. And much better at lifting players after set backs. They only lost back to back games for the first time right before he was sacked. But in his third spell, earlier this season, McCall once again seemed to be a manager struggling to cope with defeats. His heart was always worn on his sleeve, and his passion undeniable. But like his first spell, the club experienced worryingly long losing runs.
City will inevitably lose games under Trueman and Sellars. Their tactics and substitutions will be questioned by fans. They will get grilled by Jamie Raynor on Radio Leeds, minutes after the final whistle. Asked to explain tactical decisions that didn’t work. And therein will lie the true test of whether they can succeed where McCall ultimately couldn’t this time.
So far, City have not even trailed in a single game since the pair took over. And let’s not forget the weak mentality of these players when they have fallen behind in the recent past. So there’s still some important unknowns.
Jewell the gem
Perhaps the most celebrated caretaker-short-term-permanent manager journey of Bradford City’s modern history is Paul Jewell. He took caretaker charge after Chris Kamara was sacked in January 1998, immediately impressing by masterminding a 2-1 win at high flying Stockport. City lost their next game, at Stoke, but Jewell was told that if he won both of the upcoming home games he would be made permanent manager.
In the first of the home double header, City were 1-0 up over Swindon but conceded a stoppage time equaliser. Jewell thought he’d blown it, but to his surprise Geoffrey Richmond told him after the game that the job was his until the end of the season. It looked unlikely he would get to keep it beyond that though, as the Bantams struggled badly at the end of the campaign.
Famously, they went to Crewe on the penultimate weekend, and were 4-0 down by half time. A fuming Jewell ordered the players to spend the interval on the pitch to face the wrath of fans. Richmond would later explain that it proved the moment he decided – against all conventional wisdom – to give Jewell the job permanently. And what a brilliant decision that proved.
Whilst we cannot fully know Richmond’s logic at the time, on both occasions City had endured a big set back that tested Jewell’s leadership abilities, and the chairman saw something that gave him confidence he was made of the right stuff.
Trueman and Sellars are yet to have that side of their character tested. But it will come.
The other unknown for now is the ceiling of improvement Trueman and Sellars are capable of delivering. The pair have done absolutely fantastic, without question. But it has also come during a time where expectations fell to near rock bottom. That City stand 17th yet we supporters are happy shows just how bleak things got over autumn. But, naturally, the bar will rise again.
Certainly if Gary Bowyer is still paying attention to events at his old club, he might smile wryly. Bowyer was in charge at the beginning of City’s return to League Two, where expectations were sky high – vocally expressed by some fans singing “100 points Gary Bowyer” on the opening day of the 2019/20 campaign.
The demand then was for City to dominate League Two. Win every game, with style. Play attacking football. And whilst clearly those expectations were too high, come the eve of the 2021/22 campaign, promotion will once again be the target.
Whether it’s Trueman/Sellars or someone else in the dugout by then, that is the standard they will be expected to meet.
Those lower demands of right now means that City can be set up relatively cautiously without dissent from supporters. One up front at home to Barrow is absolutely fine for now. But over the longer term, it’s hard to imagine it being tolerated. The point is that City will be expected to improve a lot more from here. We are so far below our true capabilities, and the next permanent manager(s) will be tasked with rectifying that.
Of course, at this stage City are in waist deep with Trueman and Sellars. The original plan, it seemed, of appointing Paul Hurst is no longer a back up option, with the former Scunthorpe manager having returned to take charge of Grimsby. (And, erm, yikes Paul.)
The managerial search that was taking place before Christmas was brought to a halt. If City were to decide Trueman and Sellars aren’t the answer, the recruitment process would have to start all over again.
Equally, whilst Lee Turnbull has evidently played a key role in City’s January transfer activity, Trueman and Sellars have been heavily involved in making decisions over incomings and outgoings. This is a squad that is now more geared to their requirements and wishes, so keeping the pair in charge seems to be in the club’s best interests.
But it doesn’t change the fact there is no rush to make a decision. Right now, it’s working well – removing the pressure to take definitive action. And that gives Ryan Sparks time and space to judge them over the ups and downs that are an inevitable part of life at Valley Parade. To glean more evidence – good and bad – so he can make an even better decision. After all, they won’t be able to maintain 2.25 points per game over the long-term.
Digging deeper into performances
Expected goals (xG) is a modern day phenomenon in football. If you’re not too sure what it means, expected goals is basically a way of measuring team performances by the quality of the chances they create (and give away at the other end). Using historical data, it can measure the likelihood of the shot being scored. For example, creating a shot from two yards out has a higher xG value than a 30-yard effort, simply because it’s more likely the former will lead to a goal.
Take Lee Novak. His wonder goal against Grimsby had a lower xG value than his close range header against Tranmere four days later. It’s no contest which goal was better, but how often is Novak – or indeed anyone – going to score a goal like the one at Blundell Park? If you rely on long range strikes to win matches, perhaps because you lack the capability to cut through opposition backlines, you’re probably going to struggle over the long-term.
As an example of xG, Saturday’s victory over Barrow saw City record an xG of 1.1 to Barrow’s 1.9 – suggesting Barrow should have won on quality of chances. A stat that reflects what we saw with our own eyes, given Barrow more than merited a draw for their performance.
An interesting trend of City under Trueman and Sellars is that they are vastly over-performing their xG. That is, based on the quality of chances created by both sides during the game, the opposition would have been expected to win. Longer-term xG patterns suggest that this over-performance won’t be sustainable. In other words, if City’s xG remains in line with current trends, the luck might start to turn and results dwindle. Over time, there is usually a strong correlation between the team’s results and their xG.
Let’s break down Bradford City’s xG over 24 games this season, into three groups of eight matches.
What this table shows is that, during the first eight games of the season, City’s results were below their expected goals performance. In the League Two xG table, they stood 11th at this point (in reality they were 15th). Over the second third (the final eight games under McCall) results clearly tailed off and performances were worse. But even then, xG performance ranked City 12th in League Two. In other words, performances in both boxes merited better. (Unfortunately xG doesn’t account for woeful Ben Richards-Everton displays).
The 3rd third is a remarkable contrast. Under Trueman/Sellars, City have overperformed xG expectations by a whopping 10 points. On quality of performance, City have actually dropped down the latest xG League Two table to 14th. Even then, it means City overall are under-performing their xG for the season. Although that may be rectified when games in hand are completed.
Trueman and Sellars have done magnificently well, over eight games, to already better the total points McCall managed over 16. But the margins between success and failure are thin. The following table shows the number of close City games have featured in this season (where these are no more than one goal between the sides). It is a stark difference in results, since the changes in the dugout.
The interim pair deserve a lot of credit for this turnaround. This is a sport of fine margins and the changes they’ve introduced to the side have given the Bantams the marginal gains to come out on top a lot more often than was the case under McCall. But it wouldn’t take much for things to go the other way again.
McCall once said he would rather be a lucky manager than a good one. And the recent xG stats suggest City have experienced an upturn in good fortune under Trueman and Sellars. That’s why the seven games over February will be really, really interesting in seeing if the pair can maintain the results, when performances arguably still need to be more convincing.
The Dolan effect
Although performances do carry a question mark, it all looks very, very encouraging for Trueman and Sellars – and for Bradford City.
In historical terms, the situation has parallels with the 1986/87 season. That was the second year after the fire disaster, and City began the campaign still playing games at Odsal due to a delay completing the rebuilding of Valley Parade. City – promoted to the second division in 1984/85 – were still struggling to adapt to life in the higher division. Languishing close to the wrong end of the table.
It was hoped the December 1986 return to Valley Parade would be a springboard to better results, but form remained poor and relegation looked a real possibility. And at the start of January – shortly after a 5-2 loss to Huddersfield – manager Trevor Cherry was sacked. Given the commendable way Cherry had lead the club through the aftermath of the tragedy, it seemed a cruel decision that shocked the footballing world.
Then, as now, City found success through the caretaker. Cherry’s assistant, Terry Dolan, was put in temporary charge. The club’s fortunes improved dramatically. Dolan was given the job on a permanent basis – after he had lost a couple of games but proved he could lift the team back into form – and the Bantams ended the season in fine fettle.
Terry Dolan told me in an interview for my 2016 book Reinventing Bradford City, “We were down near the bottom when I took over as City manager, I’d nothing to lose! The key was we changed the formation and started playing with a sweeper. That made a big difference. We managed to survive the rest of that season.” Just like in the modern day, a change of formation by the incoming caretaker(s) made an instant difference.
Over their last nine games of 1986/87, City won seven and drew one. The second half of the season revival lifting the club from the relegation places to a 10th place finish.
That set the club up for 1987/88. The so-called nearly season, where they came painfully close to promotion to the top flight, losing to Middlesbrough in the play offs. City could and probably should have earned automatic promotion, but a failure to strengthen at the crucial moment cost them at the final hurdle.
Still, 1987/88 is considered one of the most enjoyable in City’s modern history. A campaign of swashbuckling football, of winning most weeks – there were even good cup runs. The excellent ending to 1986/87, under the caretaker-turned-manager Dolan, was the catalyst.
Within 18 months of fearing relegation to the third tier, the Bantams had come so close to reaching the First Division. Dolan added, “If you talk to most supporters, who watched the team for those two years, they will tell you that they really enjoyed it, because we played good football.”
For the modern day City, repeating that type of history – achieving such a rate of progress – has to be the goal for the next 18 months.
There is probably too much ground to make up to be promoted this season, but a surge up the table between now and May would leave everyone in buoyant mood going into next season. The 2021/22 campaign should be one where fans finally return. And where there will be every reason to feel upbeat.
Are Trueman and Sellars the right people to lead the club forwards? It’s looking very likely that they will be given that opportunity. But with some unknowns still to find out about them, it absolutely makes sense to wait a little longer before committing.
They’ve done brilliantly to reverse the slump and turn around the ship. Over the coming weeks, we’ll have a better idea of whether Trueman and Sellars are capable of maintaining it through tougher challenges and rising expectations.