By Jason McKeown
What does it take to play for a club like Bradford City? As the Bantams went down to a wretched defeat to League Two strugglers Carlisle United on Saturday, it’s a question that feels especially pertinent given the club’s ongoing struggles to live up to pre-season expectations.
Jordan Gibson and Omari Patrick were ultimately deemed to not have what it takes to play for Bradford City. They came to the club, as young players, in the summer of 2017. Against a backdrop of high managerial turnover, a toxic ownership issue and relegation from League One, both players struggled to make the mark (combined league starts: 13). They were ultimately moved on and had to rebuild their careers.
On Saturday, both Gibson and Patrick scored against their former club, and each player chose to celebrate by goading Bradford City supporters who had booed them during the match. It was an embarrassing spectacle to watch players supposedly not good enough to be at your club play like League Two world beaters. Letting them leave was supposed to lead to improvement, not regression.
What did this humbling to discarded former Bradford City players say about the current bunch? In front of another huge away following, Derek Adams’ side wilted under the pressure and produced a feeble performance. At the final whistle, there were chants of ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’. The players – minus Adams, who never comes to face supporters at full time, win or lose – exited the field with the boos ringing in the ears. The league table finds them 14th position at the half way stage of the campaign. They kicked off this season favourites to win the league.
Up in the stand above the players at Brunton Park there was at least one person who can say with confidence he knows what it takes to play for Bradford City. Gary Jones was on co-commentary duty for BBC Radio Leeds and could not hide his anger and despair at what he was seeing from this group of Bantams players.
It wasn’t so much the performance – as Jones explained, “we all have off games” – but the lack of effort. Jones argued that City’s players should have been doing a lot more. “You can still run around and put pressure on your opponents”, he exclaimed, adding that City supporters “at the very least want to see them working their socks off. It costs nothing to do that. It should be a given every time on the football pitch.”
It’s cruel to compare arguably the most inspirational Bradford City player of the last 20 years with the current squad, but the standards he set offers pertinent lessons to the 2021/22 vintage. It’s almost eight years to the day since the famous 2-2 draw against Sheffield United, a match that will be forever known as the ‘Gary Jones Game’ for reasons he articulated brilliantly when summarising at Brunton Park this weekend.
In that game at Sheffield United, the Bantams were 2-0 down in the first half and playing very badly. Jones was as poor as anyone. And when he talked on Saturday about how players can sometimes have off days, he was relaying personal experience.
But it’s what he did next that day that made it the Gary Jones Game.
On that afternoon at Bramall Lane, Jones would not accept City’s dismal surrender. He refused to let his own disappointing display act as an excuse to roll over. So he got into the face of his team mates. He loudly demanded the ball. He grabbed hold of the entire team in the second half. Inspiring every single City player to aim for higher standards and give everything they had.
City came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. Jones netted the Bantams’ first goal and set up the equaliser. A point rescued from a hopeless situation.
He never gave up. And we loved him for that.
Jones left that summer, but his influence lived on in the history maker team mates who continued to thrive and set the culture for the dressing room. It was a remarkable time for the club. Not always plain sailing and some bumps along the way, but a huge inner resolve and determination to ride out the difficult moments and come back stronger.
Heavy pressure and some tough moments in front of a demanding crowd. “You’ve got to be a certain type of player to play for Bradford, to handle it,” Jones said in 2017. “We wore our hearts on our sleeve every time we stepped on that field, we gave 100% – I think that’s what a lot of supporters related to.”
Those players knew what it took to play for Bradford City. And when Gibson and Patrick walked into Valley Parade in the summer of 2017, the last traces of that culture were being wiped away. James Hanson, James Meredith, Rory McArdle and Stephen Darby had just gone. Billy Clarke – a player who came after Jones left, but was deemed such a positive influence he was infamously named in Phil Parkinson’s inner circle by a bitter Alan Sheehan – had just been sold to Charlton. Senior players like Tony McMahon, Romain Vincelot, Matt Kilgallon and Colin Doyle were still there to continue the legacy, but not for long.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that, within the dismal drop in the squad’s character that has followed since 2017, Gibson and Patrick struggled to thrive. But as various bad eggs have come and gone, the bigger worry for City right now is that those old high standards and character remain elusive.
It is this – as much as a striker who can score a hatful to support Andy Cook, a right midfielder who can consistently assist, and a right back who can actually defend – that is needed in this January window.
Adams has talked a lot about having too many losers in his squad. And he needs to find players with the confidence and character to play with their shoulders broad and their chests puffed out. To relish the challenge of playing for the biggest crowd in League Two. Not just for those days where things are going well and thousands are chanting their name, but those difficult moments when instead of hiding you need to stand up and be counted.
Does Derek Adams recognise the type of player who has what it takes to play for Bradford City? He has been given the benefit of the doubt about the summer transfer activity, and that’s fair to an extent. But with the behind-the-scenes changes to the recruitment set-up that he has overseen, this January there can be no doubt the incomings will be his choosing and how they perform a full reflection on the manager. The club must also do their bit by ensuring Adams is adequately backed and able to bring in the type of players he wants.
If we see improvements from the January arrivals, especially to the overall squad standards, then belief can be retained that Adams is the right man to lead us forward, even if promotion doesn’t occur this season. But if there is no improvement, the pressure will inevitably be heaped on his shoulders. City so often change managers in February, and Adams will do well to survive what seems to be an annual Valley Parade managerial storm at that time of the year.
The players have a lot to prove after Saturday. And so does everyone directly involved in the running of the football club. These next few weeks are going to tell us an awful lot. Ultimately, the Bantams need to emerge from the window much closer to having a group of players who know exactly what it takes to play for Bradford City.