By Jason McKeown
It’s the Wycombe Wanderers fans I felt sorry for. Last June, the Buckinghamshire club won promotion to the Championship for the first ever time. But aside from three home games against Stoke, Coventry and QPR at the end of 2020 – where 2,000 crowds were briefly allowed – Wycombe played out their Championship adventure without supporters there to see it.
There were no relatively glamorous away trips to Notts Forest, Norwich City, Derby, Middlesbrough and Cardiff. No opportunity to marvel at the talents of Teemu Pukki, Harvey Elliott, Jamal Lowe and Arnaut Danjuma lining up at Adams Park. Only a fleeting moment for a small section of their fans to be in the stadium to cheer on their overachieving team, as Wycombe battled admirably against overwhelming odds.
After relegation, and assuming a legal challenge against Derby fails, manager Gareth Ainsworth has vowed to push for a return to the Championship next season, but history strongly suggests they’ll never touch such heights again. Their fans deserved a much closer view of such a momentous season than from behind a laptop screen.
And now, the moment’s gone.
The 2020/21 football season was always going to be one to remember for its unusualness. Across the country, football stands were largely dormant, as clubs resumed the usual league and cup battles against each other without spectators’ present.
No football fan who is used to watching games live can surely say they preferred the reductive spectacle of cheering on their team from the quiet surroundings of their own home. Sure, it was much warmer, you weren’t ripped off when buying food and drink, and there was no sitting in traffic for hours after the game. But it was a poor substitute for the true football experience we know and love.
Nothing illustrates the absence of fan power more than the general predictability of English football over 2020/21. This was never going to be a year where a fourth tier club beats three Premier League clubs to reach the League Cup Final, or when an underdog wins the Premier League. Man City will lift the Premier League title, again. Two of the three promoted clubs are going straight back down, swapping with at least two of the sides relegated from the Premier League last season. Hull City won League One, Bolton bounce straight back out of League Two – their fans missing out on the humbling reality of squeezing onto the tiny concourse in the Morecambe away end. It was a season lacking fairy-tale adventures.
With the exception of a few heroic clubs like Cambridge, for most supporters, 2020/21 probably wasn’t the worst of years to sit out. Most teams didn’t achieve much above what they were expected to produce. The games were largely sterile, lacking the intensity and edge that comes with vociferous crowds.
Watching games on iFollow was a nice distraction for sure, against a backdrop of some huge Covid-related struggles in our lives. But it’s hard to imagine any football fan will look back years from now and say that 2020/21 was their favourite season.
Nowhere more so was the ‘it’s-not-the-end-of-world-we-couldn’t-watch-this-season-live’ feeling stronger than at Bradford City. It was a certainly a season of many things, but high drama was not amongst them. The 1-1 home draw with Bolton in early March – when Danny Rowe netted a superb equaliser deep in stoppage time – was probably the only occasion where if supporters had been present there would have been epic scenes in the Kop.
Even the bleakest of Bradford City seasons will contain a win or two wildly celebrated, leaving you walking out of Valley Parade feeling grateful you were there. But whether in victory or – sadly – more often in defeat, the games were all quite ordinary and bland this season.
In some ways, the fact City survived a season of such unique circumstances and financial tests was something. They got through it. Not with much grace, and not with a great deal of credibility. But when in our own lives there was ongoing lockdown insecurity, worries about the health of ourselves and our loved ones, furlough uncertainty, plus the very real risk – and for many, sadly, reality – of losing your job, the Bantams largely mirrored that hardship.
As the pandemic ripped up our way of life, Bradford as a city suffered greatly. It had and still has some of the worst Covid infection rates in the country, unemployment has risen by a staggering 90% and – in keeping with the UK – many businesses, stores, pubs and restaurants across the Bradford district have gone bust or closed down.
The health and economic struggles of the Bradford district in no way excuse the Bantams from under-performing. The opposite if anything. How nice it would have proved for morale and wellbeing if only City could have delivered a better season. We saw a slice of just how much it helped supporters during the grim lockdown months of January and February this year, when City were flying and enthusiasm was evident. But as the dust now settles on the 2020/21 season, Bradford City has reflected the realism of Covid life over the past 12 months.
It’s been tough. Really tough.
When in February 2020 Stuart McCall received a phone call from Julian Rhodes about returning as Bradford City manager, he proved to be a bigger, more compassionate person than many of us would be.
Two years earlier, McCall had been thrown under the bus by the owners. Sacked and blamed, wrongly, for problems that had been building up behind the scenes and that were now spilling out onto the pitch. “People are predicting Armageddon now that Stuart has gone and everything will go downhill,” Stefan Rupp said at the time. “That’s not true.”
It is not a quote that has aged well. Since McCall was dismissed in February 2018, City had gone from mainstay occupiers of the League One play off spots to midtable to relegation to struggling in League Two. The team squad has been decimated, managers with better track records have come and gone, and us fans have been getting more and more restless.
In every single area, the club was in a weaker position than when McCall was sacked.
When McCall took that call just over a year ago, asking if he would be interested in coming back to work under Rupp, he might have been forgiven for laughing down the phone and hanging up. But instead, McCall took the job, and once again gave everything he could to try and help his beloved Bantams.
Of course, McCall himself had hardly prospered following the unjust 2018 sacking. He had gone onto earn the Scunthorpe United job over the 2018/19 season, but it ended in disappointment. He was no longer being linked with vacancies, and the call from Rhodes represented a rare opportunity to return to management.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And looking back on McCall’s third spell in charge, you almost wish it had never happened. The what-might-have been, after McCall’s 2018 dismissal, was perhaps a good way to have ended it after all. And he would have forever remained an untouchable City legend.
Instead, McCall came back a third time – the romantic idea of achieving managerial glory with Bradford City, after everything that had happened, would certainly have made for a compelling story. But McCall inherited a team that was a shadow of what it needed to be, and then Covid hit – grinding the season to a halt and leading to a tricky close season.
In less than a year after returning, McCall would be sacked yet again; this time after overseeing a dreadful run of results that had seen a section of City supporters turn on him.
The mental scars of what had happened to McCall since the start of 2018 had arguably impacted on his self-confidence. The moves he made in the transfer market last summer were a bit too safe overall. McCall wanted to have a small squad, and so held back a fifth of his playing budget for the January window. The efforts to replace James Vaughan drew up plenty of blanks, and ultimately led to City bringing in an 18-year-old kid on loan from Wolves.
Watching the games McCall oversaw through the lens of iFollow, he just didn’t quite seem to be the same, assured manager he was over 2016/17, where he’d successfully implemented an improved playing style and positively switched systems game to game, with really encouraging results. There was a flair to McCall’s second spell in charge – as a manager, he seemed to be at the peak of his powers. The subsequent sacking in 2018 and difficult spell at Scunthorpe had seemingly robbed McCall of that same level of conviction.
“I take full responsibility,” McCall declared in late October, after a dismal 3-0 home defeat to Newport County where he had opted to try a 4-1-2-3 formation. “We talk about being more consistent but that’s got to come from me with my selections as much as the players. I think it’s time to simplify things a bit.”
It was telling afternoon for McCall. Up until then, City had won as often as they’d lost, but the approach of tweaking the system for each game and proving unpredictable to the opposition was not working. And that’s probably because the League Two standard players he was leading simply weren’t good enough to be as agile as he wanted.
McCall had begun the season seeking to emulate the Chris Wilder 3-5-2 formation that had proven wildly successful at Sheffield United, where the wide centre halves in the three are encouraged to bring the ball forward and instigate attacks. When, on the opening day of the season, Anthony O’Connor strode forward and crossed for Harry Pritchard to score the winner at Bolton, it looked like a plan that could prove hugely successful.
Alas, McCall doomed himself when the transfer window was closed without enough business done. City had a decent first XI that could work the 3-5-2 well, but as soon as injuries occurred the lack of depth proved a real problem. Anytime that Ben Richards-Everton had to provide cover, City struggled. Reece Staunton was a revelation but had some early season injury issues, and then he suffered a bad one at Leyton Orient that he has still not returned from.
With Lee Novak also ruled out for spells at the other end of the pitch, McCall was left with a squad ravaged by injury that couldn’t score enough goals and conceded too many. He tried different approaches beyond 3-5-2, but always seemed to return to that formation. The sight of 3-5-2 City falling 2-0 down early doors at Oldham, in what proved to be McCall’s final match in charge, with Richards-Everton hauled off after 30 minutes following another dreadful performance, was a really sad finale. McCall was sacked the day after.
McCall had been offered a one-year contract extension just weeks earlier by the newly appointed CEO Ryan Sparks. It was designed to provide McCall with more security; but results only continued to decline. By December, it felt like the club was crawling to the January window trying to limit the damage, before reinforcements could be made. But by then, City had fallen into the bottom two and relegation began to look a serious possibility.
McCall has since argued he would have taken City away from the bottom two in time, and he’s probably right. But the cost of not strengthening significantly in the summer, and having to rely on players who simply weren’t good enough, resulted in a worrying league position. Especially for a club whose fanbase were expecting a promotion push.
It was just such a sad episode. After everything McCall has given to Bradford City over nearly 40 years, he deserved a much better final chapter than to be overseeing a hapless bunch of players pushing the club towards non-league oblivion, and having the social media-driven City supporter community angrily turn on him. Someone who had such a strong affinity and relationship with the Bradford City crowd – both as a player and a manager – was probably struggling inside empty stadiums.
Does McCall regret picking up the phone to Rhodes that February day? Perhaps not, but he will certainly regret some of the decisions he made. Ultimately, he was asked to fix the mess the club had made of things since he was unjustly sacked three years ago, and that proved beyond him. But everyone who followed him in the dugout after February 2018 couldn’t fix that mess either. And five months on from the end of his third spell, the situation is little better.
No matter what has gone on, one thing will forever remain the same – Stuart McCall is a Bradford City legend, and long-standing supporters will always appreciate everything he has done for our football club.
On the same afternoon that McCall took charge of his final Bradford City match, Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars would have been travelling back from Brumby Hall, Lincolnshire, after watching the Bantams’ Under 18s slip to a 2-1 defeat to their Scunthorpe United counterparts. 24 hours later, they would be handed the most unexpected of opportunities.
Sparks’ decision to make Trueman and Sellars caretaker managers in December 2020 was said to have raised eyebrows from those with the inside track on the club. After all, Martin Drury had filled in as caretaker before, and seemed the obvious choice. What experience did these two have? City’s desperate position was hardly a time for experimenting.
Two days later, Trueman and Sellars had managed to halt a six-game losing slide by guiding City to a 1-1 draw at Crawley. And a week after that, they’d chalked up three consecutive victories that were enough for Sparks to slow his search for an external manager.
With the likes of Paul Hurst and Derek Adams in the frame, eventually the recruitment process was completely stopped. Trueman and Sellars continued to impress, earning the status rise from caretaker to interim, and then eventually to permanent managers.
The way in which the pair turned around City’s season was hugely impressive. McCall had lost 10 of his final 13 games at the helm, and the Bantams were in freefall. Within three weeks after taking charge, Trueman and Sellars had picked up 11 points from their first five games. And after a succession of Covid and weather issues resulted in a lengthy run of postponements, they picked up where they left off with a further seven points from the next nine available.
They finally oversaw a defeat, at Exeter, but Trueman and Sellars responded with five straight victories. The relegation fears of December were all but forgotten, as the middle of the table was reached. After a mini dip, came another run of good results. Relegation became mathematically impossible just after Easter, and the play offs suddenly looked tantalising reachable.
You had to go all the way back to 1986/87 for the last time a season was turned around, midway through, at such an extraordinary rate. That was the year City returned to Valley Parade after a difficult exile at Odsal. They were still struggling to adapt to life in the second tier after promotion in 1985 was overshadowed by tragedy. Terry Dolan replaced Trevor Cherry in similar circumstances to how Trueman and Sellars followed McCall. Then, as now, the caretaker greatly impressed – and relegation fears were put to bed through superb form.
Dolan was made the manager permanently, with the second half of 1986/87 proving to be the springboard for the so-called nearly season of 1987/88, when City were so nearly promoted to the top flight.
Hopes that history is repeating itself under Trueman and Sellars, at least in terms of setting up a promotion push for next season, were unfortunately dented by a late season collapse of form that saw them demoted. In 1986/87, Dolan ended the campaign with seven wins and a draw from the last nine games. This time around, it was a worrying one point from a possible 21. And that does not represent momentum to take into 2021/22. In fact, it turned it was deemed to be poor enough form to trigger a change in the dugout.
It’s a real shame for Trueman and Sellars, who did all this without once leading the team with supporters in the stadium to show their appreciation for what they have done. They built up a huge swell of goodwill for their revitalising efforts, earning the nickname of the dynamic duo. But after the end of season collapse, their status has diminished with many supporters happy for the change.
Trueman and Sellars quickly changed City from the open, expansive approach McCall was trying to stick to that was not proving successful, into a team that was supremely organised and tough to beat. The 4-2-3-1 was pragmatic but delivered some of City’s best run of results since the play off finish of 2016/17. The February/March five wins in a row was the best winning streak the club has experienced in 16 years.
But as City pulled well clear of danger, the expectation was that City would build on such a limited style of football. Begin to play more on the front foot, and attack teams rather than contain them. Ugly football is okay when you’re winning, but when the results levelled out there wasn’t a lot for supporters to feel excited by. Bradford City looked to finally have forwards direction, but it faded in a deflating way. And the worry, observing Trueman and Sellars, was that they didn’t seem to know how to address it.
It all left a crazy season of results. Just two defeats in the first 10 games, then 10 losses from 13. Six straight defeats did for McCall, before Trueman and Sellars began with 10 wins from their first 14 matches. A dip then saw two points from a possible 15, followed by 10 points from 12. The final chapter was six defeats and a draw from the final seven.
Feast or famine. If you betted on City this season, you probably lost. But the big concern is we thought Trueman and Sellars had fixed the problems, only for it to turn out they’re still there.
Can we be confident City can find the answers next season?
It was a year of up and down performances from the players. At times you’d have cheerfully strangled them. At other moments, you had renewed respect for them. A lot of them evidently didn’t respond to McCall’s management but they demonstrated a greater determination under Trueman and Sellars. Then they go and lose lots of games again.
Richard O’Donnell went into the season as captain and largely did okay. There was plenty of social media and local radio criticism for his performances, but in truth there weren’t many, if indeed any, goalkeeper howlers. Sam Hornby got a chance belatedly and showed his potential. But it’s hard to shake off the feeling that City need to have a better number one than O’Donnell and Hornby next season.
Bryce Hosannah did very well at right back, before injury ended his time at the club prematurely. It would be great if he could be brought back next season. Anthony O’Connor once again commanded grudging respect from a fanbase that has never fully warmed to him, demonstrating his commitment by playing several positions and doing them well.
Paudie O’Connor had a much stronger second half to the season, and he and Niall Canavan should be a good backline for next season. Connor Wood didn’t hit the same heights as 2019/20. He might be better sticking around and continuing his development rather than moving up the leagues just yet.
Levi Sutton and Elliot Watt were not flawless but did deliver many strong performances, behind the excellent Callum Cooke – crowned WOAP player of the season. The players asked to do a job in the wide midfield positions were patchy. Gareth Evans cannot have enjoyed this season, and Billy Clarke does not look the long-term answer. Harry Pritchard and Zeli Ismail just couldn’t stay fit. More was expected of January arrivals Charles Vernam and Oli Crankshaw. Hopefully, better days lie ahead.
Up front Andy Cook was a revelation after signing on loan, and Lee Novak did very well before injury struck over the Christmas period. Clayton Donaldson also continued to prove a valuable squad member and did a good job when called upon. Danny Rowe was fun to watch and it’s a shame how things turned out.
Many players were moved on in January after failing to impress under McCall. Ben Richards-Everton’s demise over 2020 was stark, and it didn’t get better after he left – as his new club, Barnet, finished bottom of the National League. In 32 appearances over 2020/21 for City and Barnet, Richards-Everton has finished on the winning side just four times. Ouch
Re-signing Dylan Mottley-Henry was a mistake, probably fuelled by ensuring there was cover to support the rule of having a homegrown player in your matchday squad. He has found a happier home at Larne FC, scoring two goals from 10 appearances.
Meanwhile Kurtis Guthrie never repaid the faith McCall had placed in him pre-season. Tyler French was a player who might have been worth hanging onto but is equally no huge loss. That Jackson Longridge has swapped the bench in League Two to become a regular in the Scottish Premier League for Livingston is interesting. It’s probably worth keeping half an eye on how his career progress from here.
(As for the impact of loan signings Austin Samuels, Rumarn Burrell, Matty Foulds, Jordan Stevens and Will Huffer, to quote Shakespeare, I feel like we barely know ye. Erm, thanks I guess.)
The moving on of fringe players afforded more opportunities to some promising youth products. A rare highlight in the first third of the season was the impact of Reece Staunton in the first team, and the Football League Trophy group games against Doncaster, Wolves and Oldham provided the likes of Kian Scales, Finn Cousin-Dawson, Jorge Sikora and Connor Shanks with valuable gametime.
Cousin-Dawson became a regular over the second half of the season, starting more than 20 matches. Scales made an impact in March especially, including scoring a brilliant goal in the victory at Colchester. Sikora looked good at Morecambe in the final game of the campaign. Staunton was terrific and rightly first choice centre half until injury sadly struck.
We’ve seen plenty of academy players burst onto the first team scene and then stagnate. Hopefully, the latest batch of City youth players can build on their achievements this season.
Life in lockdown was often about filling time. And inevitably that included watching a lot of TV. Binge-watching shows on Netflix, or rewatching classic sitcoms or films.
Over 2020/21, Bradford City became a TV show in how we consumed them. And to borrow a quote from Toby in the American version of The Office, “It’s not great, but at least it was something to watch.” That really was how it felt watching City on Saturdays and Tuesdays. It was nice to have some form of meaningful football to follow, but the fleeting moments of joy were largely eclipsed by lots of disappointment
Bradford City’s 2020/21 season was at different times strange, unnerving and often very, very boring. And there is real frustration that, in a year when every other club felt weaker because of the effects of the pandemic, City couldn’t take more advantage.
There was an opportunity to get out of League Two when others were cost cutting and simply trying to survive, but it was one the Bantams never really threatened to take. And as normal life returns and football crowds come back, the worry is that City are still playing catch up at a time when others will only get stronger too.
The positives were changes off the field that suggest a clearer direction – Sparks’ promotion to CEO was an eyebrow raiser, but he has won over most fans, and Lee Turnbull’s arrival as head of recruitment was much needed. More changes will take place over the summer, as Sparks’ seeks to drive performance on and off the field – and good luck to him because he genuinely appears to have a progressive plan. But there is a weariness in talking about big changes over the close season. We’ve had enough new dawns that proved to be false. Results are what matters.
Next season simply has to be better. I’m pretty sure we’ve said that before…
Categories: 2020/21 season review