By Jason McKeown (research by Alex Scott)
In the end what other choice is there to make? Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars have engineered a spectacular turnaround in results since taking interim charge of the Bantams, winning seven and drawing three of their 11 games at the helm. They’ve addressed almost every question mark about their ability to take the Bantams forward.
From academy managers to caretakers to interims and now permanent Bradford City managers, it’s a thoroughly deserved promotion. And they have every City fan right behind them.
The past fortnight saw Trueman and Sellars really underline their strength of character. After finally overseeing a defeat in the away game at Exeter, they faced the test of showing if they could get the team to quickly recover from a setback. That City went 1-0 down to Morecambe in their next game made the challenge that bit tougher, but Trueman and Sellars inspired a come from behind win, followed by another victory over a promotion contender at Cheltenham on Saturday.
It is the best start made by a new City manager since Chris Kamara 25 years ago. In fact, Trueman and Sellars are on track to better the now-Sky Sports star’s initial Bradford City record. They’ve done incredibly well to remould a team that was sliding towards deep relegation trouble. The players appear to be bought into what they want to do, as on the field they look well-drilled and organised. The new signings – chosen with the help of recruitment director Lee Turnbull – have largely made an encouraging start.
It is a terrific beginning to their managerial careers, and one that has been now been rewarded in the shape of contracts until the end of next season.
That success has been achieved by promoting from within replicates the path taken at the top of Bradford City, with Ryan Sparks’ elevation to CEO in November already achieving impressive results. There is a more youthful look to the Bantams for sure, with the passing on of the torch by the older guard to the new re-energising the club. Just as it was beginning to look especially stale.
Nevertheless, that success can be found from within – and be achieved so quickly – shows that City were in a stronger position than the League Two form table has suggested over most of 2020. The financial mess that was Edin Rahic’s parting gift has been cleared up, and a squad of players for the future was starting to be built. The Bantams have been able to weather the Covid-19 crisis better than many of their peers, as demonstrated by how active they were – compared to others – in the January window. There is light at the end of a dark tunnel that City drove into at the start of 2018, and the new people in the key roles are making the most of the opportunity they’ve been given.
Back at the end of September, rumours first floated that Huw Jenkins was in talks to become the new CEO of the club. Many fans expressed excitement at the thought of the former Swansea man taking the helm, with the argument made that a new broom was needed. That City must have a clearout and start looking externally for answers.
Such a viewpoint was completely understandable – Bradford City has been a failed football club for nearly three years, and everyone’s patience has been tested. But in the end, it hasn’t needed revolution to start turning around the ship.
If there’s one aspect to 2020/21 that everyone connected with the club has in common, it’s that we’ve all been wrong about something at some point – from why is Andy Cook preferred up front to Danny Rowe on Saturday, the virtues of sticking with Stuart McCall, whether Ryan Sparks’ elevation was the ‘Peter principle‘ in action, or that the club has no ambition. This has been a season that has confounded usual conventions. Even Captain Hindsight wouldn’t have seen all this coming.
Julian Rhodes deserves credit for recognising the ability Ryan Sparks has and ensuring he was given this chance. And Sparks in turn deserves credit for identifying the potential of Trueman and Sellars and awarding them the opportunity to showcase what they can do. There has been some outside help in the shape of Lee Turnbull – expertise in recruitment was evidently lacking and needed to be addressed – but Bradford City’s turnaround can largely be attributed to finding answers from within the club. From building on the building blocks already in place, rather than ripping everything up and starting again.
Even Stuart McCall can take some credit for the belated success on the field. Recent performances have been driven by excellent displays from players he identified and chose to bring into the club – Elliot Watt, Levi Sutton, Gareth Evans and Callum Cooke. The currently injured Billy Clarke and Bryce Hosannah are also proving to be decent signings.
McCall’s biggest mistake in the summer was not, by and large, the players he signed, it was the failure to sign enough players. Of not planning enough for the scenario of his first choice players getting injured, and how much he’d rely on back-up options that needed to be far better than the squad fillers Dylan Mottley-Henry and Austin Samuels.
The failures of McCall’s third spell in charge are obvious. The lack of depth in the squad meant he has to rely on players who weren’t up to the task. He should have been more ruthless in leaving out players who were repeatedly letting him down (Ben Richards-Everton the most notable example). And when results went into a tailspin, he was reluctant to adopt a more pragmatic approach to stop the rot, build confidence and get the season back on track – exactly the approach Trueman and Sellars did take when they first took the helm.
More than anything, the curious decision not to fully use his playing budget left McCall with a squad lacking the resilience to thrive in this most unique of football seasons, leaving him short when it really mattered. But that did at least leave behind a legacy of a healthy January war chest which Turnbull, Trueman and Sellars took advantage of during the window. And it offers the new permanent managers the opportunity to move away from the short-termism squad building that has plagued the club in recent years.
Saturday’s starting line up featured three Trueman/Sellars signings, four engineered by McCall, two brought in by Gary Bowyer and two that can be attributed to Rahic/Michael Collins. It is a mishmash of recruitment philosophies that still needs some tidying up, but there is now a basis of a team spine to take into the summer. The changes ahead shouldn’t prove as drastic as they have been in recent close seasons.
That’s for another day. In the more immediate term, the question is the rest of the 2020/21 season. There’s a potential issue with the timing of the Trueman/Sellars appointment in that it comes just as expectations are being significantly upgraded. No longer is the club in relegation trouble, and there is giddy excitement of a late push for promotion. That certainly wasn’t part of the remit when Trueman and Sellars initially took charge.
Whatever happens, this is a season that will be looked back on with regret about the poor start. But Trueman and Sellars have gone from managing a team that couldn’t buy a win to one that is now expected to beat all before them. That brings different types of pressures, albeit a more welcome one than grimly battling for survival.
The 24 points from 33 picked up so far would, if maintained over a 46-game season, result in a points total of 100. It’s highly unlikely this level of performance can be maintained longer-term (the last League Two side to pick up 100 points in a season? Plymouth Argyle in 2002). This therefore suggests the end to the season might not be quite as impressive as it is now (but keep in mind the bar is ridiculously high in terms of their achievements so far).
Yet at the same time as results might level off slightly, there is also a challenge to improve performances. Saturday’s win at Cheltenham Town was the first time, this calendar year, that City have shaded the expected goals (1.3 to Cheltenham’s 1.1).
As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, expected goals (xG) 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.
Under Trueman and Sellars, City have significantly over-performed their xG so far. In other words, results have been better than the quality of chances either created or managed by the opposition would suggest should be the case. Over time, there is usually a strong correlation between the team’s results and their xG.
The following chart shows the eight game rolling xG average of Bradford City since they were relegated to League Two in the summer of 2019. The green line is the average number of goals the xG suggests they should have scored each game, based on the latest eight performances. The red line is how many they should have conceded.
Let’s talk through this chart. As you can see, in the early days of the return to League Two, under Gary Bower, City had a healthy xG return in terms of chances created (just under two goals per game) and conceded (less than 1.5 goals per game). But as the 2019/20 campaign unfolded, the expected City goals performance began to decline starkly. Something we saw with our own eyes, as from November onwards the goals dried up.
At the end of 2019, the expected goals conceded went up in the wrong direction too, overtaking the expected goals. In other words, City’s xG performance suggested they deserved to lose games. This was reflected in results, with the final few weeks of Bowyer’s tenure seeing form drift badly. xG attacking wise was less than a goal per game.
Under McCall, and taking in the curtailing of 2019/20, there began to be a pick up in City’s xG performance in front of goal (peaking at 1.5). But defensively, there was no improvement compared to the final couple of months of Bowyer. Again, nothing that we didn’t see with our own eyes.
Interestingly, McCall did manage to improve City’s defensive xG performance towards the end, showing that it was individual errors that really undermined performances – which, again, really highlights the folly of relying on Richards-Everton. But going forward they become more ineffective in creating quality chances, which ultimately contributed to McCall losing his job. The injuries to Lee Novak, Clarke and Cooke were huge.
Under Trueman and Sellars, the direction of defensive improvement has continued. The eight game average has even dipped under 1 goal per game, at least until the disappointing Exeter game. But going forwards, the xG has also fallen slightly to under 1 goal per game. It’s at the levels seen during the end of Bowyer’s tenure.
Look, it’s results on the field that matter and if City keep winning matches no one is going to complain. But the underlying data suggests the current run isn’t sustainable. The xG trends show there is improvement still to make. Especially as the negative gap between City and opposition chances is showing signs of widening. Historically, teams who out-perform their xG see a drop in results down the line.
The good news is you would expect City’s xG performance to improve, especially as the new signings becoming even more embedded. For example, the changes in defence, such as Niall Canavan’s inclusion, should feed into a better average over time. City are a stronger squad now than they were at the turn of the year, and this should filter through to even better overall performances.
If xG is a matter of debate, what cannot be disputed is just what a terrific job Trueman and Sellars have done. A few weeks ago, this was a football club showing signs of imploding. Facing up to a dismal relegation battle where falling into non-league could have put the very future of the club in doubt.
Trueman and Sellars have done it week in week out so far, showing the upturn is more than just flash in the pan. They have 19 games to try to steer an unlikely bid for the top seven. But even if they fail to achieve this still ambitious task, they will lead Bradford City into next season with a growing conviction – amongst fans – that the club is finally on the right path again.