By Jason McKeown
“We want a manager who is not the last one, and so we go and get one – and in doing so we always find that the next guy is lacking some things but not the same things. So while we might have thought we’d found the solution, we end up finding a new thing to be the problem.”
I wrote the above just over 10 years ago, for the still enjoyable website boyfrombrazil.co.uk. It reflected a time when City were going from manager to manager, without any success, and continuing to flounder in League Two. Hiring and firing, and hoping to finally strike gold.
In so many ways, it feels like things are exactly the same today.
“The fact we keep going around this cycle of getting rid of a manager and replacing him with a new one – with little success in reversing a slide down the leagues – can already leave us pessimistic that the next manager isn’t going to be any better.”
I was right at the time, as a few weeks later we got rid of Peter Taylor and hired Peter Jackson. Yet six months after writing this article, City would hire Phil Parkinson. And in doing so, they changed their history.
Today is five years to the day since Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic officially bought Bradford City from Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn. So much can be said about a turbulent period that has seen the Bantams drop 34 places down the Football League ladder, but it’s the ongoing manager saga that seems the more pertinent – and certainly most topical – area to talk about.
When Rupp and his former business partner Rahic first took over at City, they inherited a club very much on the up, with season-upon-season league position improvement, headline-grabbing cup runs and average attendances that had increased by 72% in five years. The club essentially had three major assets that gave it a competitive advantage over others – a relatively large fanbase, a core group of players with strong values, and a manager who had guided the club up 37 places during five seasons at the helm.
Rupp and especially Rahic’s mistake was a failure to truly appreciate these assets, especially the manager, one Phil Parkinson. It is said that it took just one face-to-face meeting with Rahic for Parkinson to conclude that his future lay elsewhere. 21 days after Rupp and Rahic took charge, it was announced that Parkinson had been allowed to leave for Bolton. Rupp and Rahic even waived the right to compensation the club was due, suggesting there was little fight put up to keep Parkinson.
It was a moment that has subsequently haunted the club. Five years and eight manager changes later, City are still searching for someone they can entrust to lift the club back up the leagues.
A big part of the damage caused by Parkinson’s exit was the fact he took all his backroom staff with him to Bolton. It is even claimed they stripped the filing cabinets bare of scouting records.
It left Rupp and Rahic without a major ingredient that contributed to the success of Bradford City – success that had attracted them to buy the club in the first place.
The fact Parkinson seemed to show no sentimentality towards City, moving on without seemingly glancing back in the mirror, had a psychological impact on the Bantams and especially us fans. Why would he walk away so quickly? And doesn’t it mean as much to him as it did to us? Nowhere was their more publicly shown than when City travelled to Bolton early in the next season and the former manager didn’t even applaud his former fans when they tried to give him a positive ovation.
Meanwhile Rupp and Rahic turned to club legend Stuart McCall as the next manager, and for a time it worked well. Aided by further backroom additions, such as the appointment of Greg Abbott as a chief scout, the club progressed without seemingly skipping a beat. The style of football – which had been especially dour during Parkinson’s final season – was much improved.
McCall made good use of the strong defence he had inherited, and it provided the foundations to a more expansive playing style. City had a terrific league campaign, losing just seven games and none at home. The future looked bright.
But at the end of that 2016/17 season, they missed out on promotion. First, a late shot at automatic promotion was denied when they lost out to Parkinson’s Bolton of all teams. And then in the play off final they went down to defeat in agonising style. And what became clear that summer was that the owners had also failed to grasp the true strength of the other major asset they had inherited – the strong player culture – as a failure to negotiate contracts months earlier led to a significant exodus of players who had been successful under Parkinson.
The recruitment that summer was poor, but for the most part it was masked by the fact McCall continued to get above average results out of the squad. They remained consistently in the play offs up until the turn of the year during the 2017/18 season, before turbulent off the field issues began to impact on results. It was then that another manager change was made – and that proved to be a really bad call.
Once again, Rupp and Rahic demonstrated a failure to understand what had made City so successful during the Parkinson years – sticking by your manager in tough times. Parkinson’s tenure saw spectacular success, but also periods of real difficulty. The club was in danger of going down under Parkinson’s first season, and two years later endured a mid-season slump of one win in 21. In these and other tricky moments, the club stuck with Parkinson and were continually rewarded.
The contrast in the lack of support McCall received and how Parkinson was helped in tough times can be best illustrated by comparing August 2015 with January 2018.
City started the 2015/16 campaign badly, and it became clear many of the expensive signings Parkinson had made that summer were not right for the club. Parkinson, with less than a year left on his contract, would have felt the heat that August. But the club stood by him by offering a new contract and making extra transfer funds available so he could fix those mistakes. The reward was City ended that season in the League One play offs.
McCall – also coming to the end of his contract – received no such backing in January 2018, when the club went on the first losing run of his second tenure in charge. They failed to bring in players he needed in the window, such as a striker. They sacked him and argued publicly that firing him gave the club a much better chance of achieving promotion. But the public backlash shook them and it also unsettled a dressing room that was fiercely loyal to McCall.
They turned to Simon Grayson, almost to give themselves the assurance and confidence they felt McCall could not offer. Grayson was a serial promotion winner, especially at League One level. And when he came in, he loudly boasted about what a great manager he was and how lucky City were to have him. He represented a swagger that had suddenly deserted out of City. The Bantams’ sure-footedness had disappeared, and Grayson openly crowed about how he was the person to restore it.
But it didn’t work out. City were in a spiral that Grayson could not fix. And promotion hopes completely disappeared. Grayson choose not to stick around, complaining about the lack of infrastructure at the club and its dated training facilities. We were the problem, not him. Another blow to the club’s self-esteem.
It was also another vote of little confidence in the leadership of Rupp and Rahic. In two years in charge, the pair had been unsuccessful at winning over two hugely experienced and well-respected managers, and they’d sacked a loyal club legend whose popularity and strong performance had helped to disguise their ownership failings.
Rahic, who had been the chief architect of so much of the club’s implosion, attempted to use that summer to wrestle true control of Bradford City. He wanted to prove to the growing number of doubters that he did, in fact, know football. And he tried to do that by installing people in roles who would buy into his philosophy and act out his instructions. But over a desperate summer, he found he could not convince others outside the club that they could succeed working under him. The managerial position remained vacant. Exposing the fact that he was signing players himself.
The view from Rahic was that a head coach was needed, rather than a manager. Someone who would accept just coaching the team, rather than dictating signings. In desperation, Rahic eventually had to turn to youth team manager Michael Collins – someone who couldn’t really turn down an opportunity that he ultimately wasn’t ready for. He appeared malleable and someone who would not be strong enough to ward off Rahic’s desire to have a high level of influence. On the opening day of the season, at Shrewsbury, Rahic visited the away dressing room to talk to the players an hour before kick off.
A large sum of money – money the club didn’t really have – was committed on signing players who Rahic felt could deliver on his vision for football success. But it was all a long way removed from the character-centred recruitment approach that Parkinson had successfully instilled. Imagine if in 2016 Rahic had offered that 2018 scale of budget to Parkinson in that first meeting, with the promise he would retain full control?
It was a mess, and the 2018/19 campaign proved to be one of huge underachievement. Collins was only given six games before panic set in and he was sacked – he was in many ways a poorly disguised avatar for Rahic to be the real manager, something that was brought home by an infamous image of Rahic shouting to the bench midway through a game at Southend. As early season results suggested Rahic’s strategy was wrong, he threw Collins under the bus.
Rahic did belatedly find a head coach with a more proven track record – David Hopkin – and probably pledged the former City midfielder could have more control than the amount he had offered him in the summer, when they first spoke and Hopkin turned the position down. Now at the helm, Hopkin found he could not improve things and was close to walking out himself within weeks. Before Rupp – finally awake to the scale of the mess Rahic was making of things – removed his partner.
That January, Hopkin was given full control to make signings, but City were in too deep of a mess and looked doomed to relegation. Hopkin chose to resign, making him the third manager to walk out of the club in three years. Hopkin had shown some promise at Valley Parade and illustrated the best chance of success for Rahic – but, ultimately, the strategy was just too deeply flawed. The squad not good enough.
The appointment of Gary Bowyer by Julian Rhodes – back at the club to help Rupp – was the best option available from the pool of out of work managers. What Bowyer offered was a track record of coping with turbulence. He had been at Blackburn and Blackpool where off the field issues had hit them hard, and managed to steady the ship.
Such crisis management ability seemed the best solution in such dark times. Bowyer represented a calmness and serenity, which a crisis-stricken City were desperate to experience. They just wanted to stand still, rather than keep sinking.
But Bowyer also failed to last a year. At Blackburn and Blackpool, he had arguably benefitted from reduced crowds and lowered expectations, meaning his more cautious style of football was met with little dissent. But even though City had been relegated, there were huge expectations from the Bantams fanbase that demanded a greater level of boldness than what Bowyer offered.
Suddenly, standing still and being calm wasn’t what was needed. The storm had passed. As the Kop sang about striving for 100 points, Bowyer’s safety-first football kept the club in the slow lane.
Bowyer had achieved promotion at Blackpool two years earlier, but that was largely due to a late burst for the play offs having been mid-table in March. He was not able to survive so long into City’s 2019/20 season, and so didn’t have the opportunity to produce a late upsurge in form as the Bantams fell out of the play offs and he was sacked. If City had brought him in 12 months sooner, they’d probably have remained a League One club even now. Right man, wrong time.
After such a spiral of managerial failure, Rupp and Rhodes turned back to the person that history had glaringly proved the club had been wrong to sack. That was Stuart McCall of course, and his return for a third spell as manager represented a well-intended attempt to right the wrongs of the past. And to find a way of unlocking the club’s soul once again.
But it didn’t work out. And it probably didn’t work out because Rupp and the club still continued to fail to understand some of the Parkinson magic. It wasn’t just about Parkinson, it was also his backroom staff.
Over 2016-18 when McCall first came back, there was a team around the manager. Helping him to identify suitable signings and at times challenging him in a way that made him uncomfortable. There is no doubt that it was a turbulent time behind the scenes with major disagreements, but it sort of worked too. The recruitment in the summer of 2016, as Parkinson left and McCall arrived, was largely outstanding. McCall played a part in that, but certainly didn’t lead it by himself. For example, he didn’t know much about Romain Vincelot.
In McCall’s third spell, on his own, there was a reluctance to spend all his budget. A preference for a smaller squad, that would have been easier to keep happy. A greater level of trust afforded to players he already knew well. But in his second spell, when recruitment was a team effort, McCall was sometimes pushed into changes he would have been unlikely to have instigated on his own.
Take the James Hanson situation. A player who served the club so brilliantly over the years, but who in 2016/17 was beginning to become riddled with injuries and appear less suited to the expansive style. In January, Hanson was sold to Sheffield United – the Matter of Heart film strongly suggesting against McCall’s wishes – and replaced by Charlie Wyke, a player identified by Greg Abbott.
It was a piece of transfer business that worked out incredibly well. Not just in how Wyke helped to improve City, but the fact Hanson’s career struggled after. He was a player beginning to go on the downturn, and City cashed in at just the right time. If it wasn’t for the influence of Abbott, Rahic and James Mason, would McCall have allowed Hanson to leave and replace with Wyke? It’s doubtful, but he benefitted hugely because Wyke was a better player at that point.
In 2020, McCall inherited a squad significantly weaker than when he had been sacked in 2018. He had full control of signings now, but lacked the backroom support and push of others to really improve the squad. And it left him with a team ill-equipped for the Covid-world challenges of games coming thick and fast.
McCall’s expansive approach also proved unsuitable to address the continued decline in form, bringing another change to Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars, after the pair impressed as caretakers. City were also interested in Paul Hurst and Derek Adams – two managers known to be pragmatic in style – but the form of the caretakers shelved the external search.
Trueman and Sellars’ promotion from within replicated the change of CEO only weeks earlier, as Rhodes stepped down to be replaced by Ryan Sparks. There was some symbolism going on in autumn that the Bantams were struggling under the familiarity of Rhodes and McCall, with the fresh, youthful impetus of Sparks injecting a different and new type of energy and drive – something that Trueman and Sellars also represented. The baton passed onto people who had been at the club a while, seen close hand the demise and who felt they offered solutions to address it.
Unfortunately, Trueman and Sellars could not build on such a strong start. They pulled City clear of a troubling nosedive from relegation, but their basic, safety-first style of football seemed to be ill-equipped to the upwards ambition of the club. They addressed a terrible losing run under McCall but ended up going on a run of defeats that were even worse.
That all leaves Bradford City preparing to welcome yet another new manager. The next man is said to already be lined up by Sparks to come on board, with most indications suggesting it will be Derek Adams taking charge as soon as Morecambe’s play off campaign is over.
In many ways Adams suggests the strongest tilt yet back towards having a Phil Parkinson. A strong character, combative and with a big personality to handle the challenges of the club. Adams has built up a reputation of getting the most out of limited resources, and guiding the clubs he has been in charge of to over-achievement. Exactly the sort of thing Parkinson consistently achieved over his time at Valley Parade.
Adams or not, it doesn’t on its own fix all the underlying issues. As a football club that has routinely gone through turmoil over the last five years, there’s been no real attempt to stick with the same manager and allow them the time to come through the other side. Partly it’s because of the extreme bouts of panic, at other times it’s because it became evident the wrong manager had been appointed. But ultimately, City have got to find a manager they’re prepared to stick with in both good and tough moments.
And it needs a stronger infrastructure around the manager. Something that – encouragingly – Sparks has identified. The appointment of Lee Turnbull last December offers the chance to build a more coherent transfer strategy that doesn’t change every time there is a vacancy in the dugout. Sparks is also setting up a performance management team to assist the manager and the coaching team – and this side of the set-up will operate with some independence from the manager and his own staff.
So even if Adams (or someone else) proves to be the next Parkinson and one day leaves, there’s less of a chance he’d be able to take all the coaching staff with him, and leave City with empty filing cabinets.
The coherent strategy needs to run throughout. City’s managerial recruitment policy has been inconsistent. Focused, too often, on addressing what appeared to be the problem of the day, without accounting for wider issues or a fast-changing landscape. Extremes in the type of football each manager wants to play, and therefore the kind of players they want in the building, leading to a mish mash of a squad. And no clear identity.
Before Parkinson came along, City had exactly the same problem with managers and were floundering. Even appointing Parkinson – recommended to Rhodes and Lawn by the late Archie Christie – had an element of randomness and luck about it. City finally struck gold, and that was something Rhodes and Lawn fully understood and made sure they did everything to retain.
Rupp – and more accurately Rahic – did not. They failed to appreciate the true value of the assets they inherited. And the club has paid a terrible price over the past five years.