By Jason McKeown
Bringing Derek Adams to Bradford City is a powerful statement of ambition. But to give him the best chance of succeeding, the club must guard itself against its damaging short-term impulses.
The last six Bantams managerial appointments have failed to remain in the hotseat for longer than 12 months. When the going has got tough, managers have either chosen to walk away or – more often – were handed the sack. The solution to a downturn in results habitually seen as changing the manager, even though in most cases it did nothing to alter the direction of decline.
Derek Adams has swapped arguably the safest managerial position in the country for possibly its most unstable. He was a hero at Morecambe – a manager who’s stock was back on the rise after a troubled end to his generally successful tenure at Plymouth Argyle. Had he stayed on at the Globe Arena this summer to mastermind Morecambe’s battle in the third tier, Adams’ reputation would probably have continued to nudge upwards. And future job offers might have proved more attractive.
To swap all of that for the challenge of reviving Bradford City takes courage, and it deserves the backing of a football club and fanbase that has struggled to keep faith in any recent manager. Everything about Adams’ record shows his combative ways can prove successful in getting the Bantams going again, after a troubling few years. He knows what needs to be done, and there’s every reason to believe he can do it.
That’s not to say there aren’t some small doubts. Adams’ style of football is not known for its beauty. Pragmatic football can be popular at Valley Parade, as the Phil Parkinson years aptly demonstrated. But it can also be an approach where little patience is retained if results aren’t immediate.
Adams is acclimatising himself with a fanbase that has unhappy memories of other, supposedly CV-brilliant managers, like Peter Taylor and Simon Grayson. Their track records suggested a sure-fire bet for promotion, but their dour style of football quickly alienated supporters and failure ultimately followed.
The Peter Taylor comparison is especially apt. Not, necessarily, because we should brace ourselves for 11 players back for corners, underwhelming striker signings with highly questionable morals and centre halves playing up front – but because the star quality Taylor possessed sent expectations soaring without any true substance behind it.
In the summer of 2010, Bradford City were made League Two promotion favourites largely on the strength of Taylor’s pedigree. Yet this ignored the reality that some of Taylor’s demands on taking the job – like a new training set-up – had not been delivered by the club, and that the playing budget had actually been cut. Fearing what was to come, on the eve of the 2010/11 season Taylor took issue with Yorkshire Post coverage that claimed City were favourites for promotion. But it was too late. The lid on high expectations could not be put back on. The Bantams kicked off that campaign with League Two domination expected and demanded by supporters.
Taylor parted company with City the following February, and the 2010/11 League Two favourites finished the campaign in a dismal 18th.
The fears of history repeating itself lies in that nagging doubt that merely appointing Adams is not enough on its own to guarantee success. The seven previous managers that Adams follows into the City dugout were not all clueless and out of their depth. It is true that some did not deliver results to reasonable expectations, but ultimately the issues at the club have been running deeper. And that’s why the constant changing of managers has done little to halt City’s trajectory.
To the club’s great credit, it seems to understand this fact. Appointing Adams was not the point where anyone behind the scenes put their feet up and considered it job done. Watching from the outside, it appears that all areas of the club – driven by Ryan Sparks – have been looked at in terms of how improvements can be made.
In time, the summer backroom staff changes and investment in performance management will hopefully be looked back on as just as much of a catalyst for better days as Adams’ arrival. In the same way that the Parkinson years owed much to the the club’s belated efforts to enhance its training facilities, driven by David Baldwin, in order to give the manager a better environment to build a winning culture.
Adams feels like he has more tools now than Taylor had 11 years ago. Take the GPS tracking equipment the club has invested in, that will give Adams, the coaching staff and the performance management team live data during matches that they can use to help assess player fitness and performance – it will influence decisions like substitutions.
Attending the pre-season friendly with Guiseley, I was struck by the analytical thinking on show in the dugout. A member of City’s performance management staff had a tablet and was studying the live GPS data of the players – even in friendlies it was being used. Adams might have an old-school type of reputation but clearly buys into the value of this technology.
When I met Sparks last April to do an interview, he told me the story of a League Two manager who uses this data to help him identify signings. For example, which players cover the most ground over a season. I think we can guess which manager he was talking about…
That sort of data-based decision making will be really interesting as we evaluate the performance of players over the season. Some of the summer arrivals Adams has brought in look, well…a little bit underwhelming. They don’t all scream of fantastic pedigree, and even some of the more notable arrivals – like Alex Gilliead and Abo Eisa – have recently been part of very unsuccessful teams.
But what we don’t know are the data figures behind these players, which Adams is likely to have used when assessing their suitability to join the club. The success of players like Toumani Diagouraga at Morecambe show the manager has an ability to uncover rough diamonds. Players the rest of the market has overlooked and so were cheaper to bring in – hugely enhancing their value with their performances under Adams.
Back in 2010, Taylor decided to use his reduced budget in a way that prioritised quantity over quality – making sure there were two players for every position, even though very often those two players were both distinctly average. Adams too is said to have a lower budget than what City had last season – largely because of the cost savings from certain high earners leaving the club during the summer. But there is every indication that this is still a competitive budget. That Adams isn’t being expected to deliver more miracles on the cheap.
The hope has to be that the comparisons between Adams and past managers leans more towards Phil Parkinson than Peter Taylor. That, almost a decade on from the unforgettable history makers season, the next Bradford City promotion season is about to commence.
We look to Adams to put out a team with that type of history makers passion. They don’t have to be the best players in the world, they just have to care and feed off the crowd in the same way as the 2012/13 vintage. We don’t need to watch silkily, elegant football, we just want to see a team with a plan that we can have confidence will prove successful. The manager sets all of this.
But that does bring us back to us supporters and the role we play. Since his appointment, Adams has been widely welcomed and his every spoken word and decision held up as a positive proof he is the man to deliver success.
All these warm platitudes have come when he’s yet to take charge of a competitive game.
It is easy to get behind a manager when they’re not making tough decisions, not battling to win games of football, and where their weaknesses – perceived or real – are not on display. But it will come. No manager – certainly in my time supporting Bradford City – has escaped criticism and disgruntlement. Adams will ultimately be no different.
Yet we need to break the cycle of managerial turnover. We need to genuinely stick behind someone – and stay with them during tough moments as well as good. Adams will stand in the dugout next to his new assistant, Mark Trueman, who was part of a managerial team who felt the full effects of the volatility of supporter and club sentiment towards managers. During the first few months of his short reign in charge last season, Trueman and Conor Sellars were hugely popular with fans. But it only took a few defeats for that sentiment to quickly alter. And for another change in the dugout to be loudly demanded.
As we’ve written so many times in the five years since he quit the club, the Phil Parkinson years of success were underpinned by a steadfast determination from most supporters and the-then owners to stand by him during tougher spells. The famous 1 win in 21 over 2013/14 for example. Or indeed his first season in charge, when the club struggled to avoid relegation.
The kind of under-performance Parkinson oversaw in 2011/12 would not have been accepted in recent times – he would have been sacked before he could go on and make history. Instead, the bravery of sticking with Parkinson back then was spectacularly rewarded the season after. In Parkinson we trusted.
I’ll be honest, I have some concerns about Adams. In the past he has fallen out with lots of people. He didn’t appear to have hugely warm relationships with Plymouth fans or even indeed Morecambe supporters (though the 2020/21 Covid season made it difficult for any manager to have a good rapport with fans). Cooler relations don’t matter when you’re winning, but they can become a problem when the team is losing. The style of football Morecambe played didn’t look enjoyable to watch. Plymouth fans similarly say that the football under Adams can be grim.
But we’ve got to find someone to back and stick with even if success isn’t immediate. We’ve got to let someone build something, and Adams’ track record offers us a lot of incentive to give him the required time to do just that. We cannot find ourselves in a position of changing managers again in less than 12 months. In Adams we need to trust.
There wasn’t an abundance of reasons for Adams to have chosen to leave Morecambe for the unstable position of Bradford City manager. Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, that he will be able to look back and feel grateful that he did.
Categories: Season Preview