By Jason McKeown
In so many ways the 2021 that Bradford City experienced was a reflection of all of our lives this calendar year. After so much struggle in 2020, the promise of better times continued to appear visible on the horizon – and yet remained frustratingly just out of grasp.
For the Bantams, the aim was to move away from 2020’s losing of lots of football matches and staring at the abyss of relegation from the Football League. For us City supporters, it was about getting to the end of the global pandemic and seeing our lives return to normal. And at times over 2021, on both counts, it still felt bleak. But on other occasions there was genuine hope, with powerful moments of joy that suggested the struggles of the recent past were now behind us.
2021 was a better year than 2020 for sure – both for the Bantams and the majority of us in our everyday lives – but only by small margins rather than a landslide. And though we move into 2022 in a more promising position overall, recent months have been a reminder of how much work there still is to do to get back to where we want to be.
City entered 2021 sat 18th in League Two, seven points clear of the drop zone. 12 months on, the Bantams end the year point in 16th and are once again seven points above the dotted line, albeit with games in hand. If a year ago the only objective was to avoid relegation before we could aim higher, we end 2021 in a disappointing league position, a long way short of where we aim to be.
Like the pandemic, 2021 for Bradford City was a year of stop-start progress. Some good runs of form, but some struggles too. In the end, relegation fears were all but put to bed in February after a great run of form had left them well clear of danger. It meant that when survival was mathematically secured in early April, there was little cause for relief or celebration. Tension had long since disappeared.
Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars did a great job of pulling City out of their nosedive and steering the club comfortably clear of relegation, but it was hardly the achievement of the decade. The truth was that City had once again seriously under-performed over the first few months of 2020/21, the early 2021 upturn more a correction than unequivocal proof the pair had found a long-term winning formula. A dreadful collapse in form at the end of the season cost them their positions and led to another managerial change.
Cue Derek Adams – fresh from masterminding incredible heroics at Morecambe – and a huge surge of confidence took hold of Valley Parade during the summer. Belief a strong promotion push would follow emanated from those within the club and from pundits and bookies. For one glorious week in August, the substance was matching the hype. City won three games in a row to go second in the fledgling league table. Everything was falling into place.
Yet what has followed is more uninspiring form, or two wins in 23 to be exact. Lots and lots of drawn matches. Much muttering from Adams that his charges have dominated games and deserved greater rewards. Like a slow puncture, much of the enthusiasm has seeped away from supporters, as City began to fall well behind the promotion front runners. They remain in touching distance of the play offs, but badly need to put a run together.
What’s gone well for Bradford City in 2021?
The noises from those in and around the club suggest that, off the field, the club is in a much stronger position. The financial storm caused by Covid has been weathered, and financially City are performing well. Ryan Sparks – who took over as CEO at the end of 2020 – has been able to implement his ideals and make major strategic changes. It has yet to be seen on the field of course, but the club seems to be in a better place.
Beyond that, the biggest success of 2021 was the return of fans. The hollow experience of watching games on iFollow has been replaced with the joys of being back inside Valley Parade, contributing to some decent atmospheres. Season ticket uptake was above expectations – particularly given prices were increased – now we just need a team to match City’s magnificent support.
What didn’t go well?
City have once again been a victim of short-termism. Hindsight suggests it was wrong to give Trueman and Sellars long-term contracts without first seeing how they would manage the team during a downturn. They had to be stood down just three months later, after coming up short during a losing run.
Once more we have had that misguided belief a change of manager will cure all. And, so far, what Adams has shown more than anything else is that he is just as fallible as every City manager he has followed in the hotseat. However, despite the underwhelming results so far, there seems to finally be an acceptance that we have to let someone actually build something instead of knocking everything down again and again.
Adams’ managerial record suggests that trusting him to instill his methods and culture will eventually deliver rewards. Impatience is a big part of our post-2017 decline. Hopefully lessons have been learned.
Best City performance
Not a lot to choose from, sadly. But probably the best all-round team performance was February’s 2-0 success at Cheltenham Town.
The Robins came into the fixture unbeaten in eight games, and would go onto win their next four on route to winning League Two. Yet on the day they couldn’t live with the Cooke-Cook combination, as Callum and Andy twice linked up to produce excellent goals. The team defended superbly and were full value for their success.
It was one of only six away wins all calendar year. Yikes.
Worst City performance
It’s hard to look beyond the Hartlepool home defeat in October. United had not won an away game season, or even scored in their previous five encounters on the road. Yet they took the lead inside the first two minutes and went onto win at a canter. A wretched own goal from Yann Songo’o was a fitting way to seal such a dismal defeat.
Nothing went right for City, who were absolutely woeful from front to back. A new chapter to add into the long book of infamously bad Bradford City defeats to out of form opposition.
Best City player
In a year of streaky results, several players produced some good spells of performances but struggled to sustain their form. Take a bow Callum Cooke, Paudie O’Connor, Elliot Watt and Charles Vernam. In the consistency stakes Levi Sutton and Niall Canavan deserve a nod of appreciation, but with 15 goals from 31 league starts Andy Cook is the 2021 Bantams standout performer.
Initially signed on loan, Cook surpassed all expectations last season and scored the goals that lifted City up the table. After signing permanently during the summer, Cook hasn’t quite hit the same heights. But he is still far and away their best forward and has been a huge miss since getting injured in November. City haven’t won a game since.
Theo Robinson’s thunderbolt at Swindon and Danny Rowe’s volley at home to Bolton were special, special goals.
But just pipping them for best goal of 2021 is Levi Sutton’s strike at Tranmere in November. Some brilliant one-touch passing in City’s midfield before Sutton broke clear, cut inside and unleashed a fine strike that nestled into the corner. A goal Pep Guardiola would have been proud to see Man City score.
The teams coming out against Oldham Athletic in August, for the first occasion of fans inside Valley Parade since the start of the pandemic. The noise and the emotion was incredible. It felt so good just to be back.
The first half of the subsequent home game against Stevenage was also special, as City turned on the style to blow away their opponents.
2021 will be the year we look back and remember…
- Winning five league games in a row for the first time since 2004.
- Playing Exeter City away four times over the calendar year, including the cup replay that was erased from the records.
- Scunthorpe away getting postponed just three hours before kick off, the rearranged fixture getting abandoned 27 minutes in due to heavy snow, and of course we lost the re-, re-arranged game.
- Learning all about the world of NFTs and how they might pave the way for a City return to the Premier League.
- Danny Rowe seemingly grasping the crown of new Bantams’ cult hero before quickly heading off to the National League.
- Lee Angol netting a thumping header against Port Vale live on Sky.
- Filipe Morais ended his football career by fighting his team mate on the Valley Parade pitch.
- Clayton Donaldson playing as a number 10 and actually looking good at it.
- Andy Cook netting a perfect hat trick.
- Harrogate Town completing a league double over us.
- Drawing 1-1 every chuffin week.