By Jason McKeown
There is an old fable that dates all the way back to 600 B.C. It’s about a lion who used to prowl around a field where four oxen were based. The lion kept trying to attack them. But whenever it came near, they turned their tails to one another – so that whichever way the lion approached them, it was met by the horns of one of them.
Over time, however, the four oxen fell out, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Seeing the group split up, the lion had its chance. It attacked them one by one, and soon made an end to all four.
What the four oxen had, before their separation, was a collective spirit of belonging. Each had each other’s back, and because they didn’t fear each other they could concentrate on protecting the whole group from the outside dangers. The underlying message of the fable is united we stand, divided we fall. As well as the merits of building and maintaining a circle of safety.
There are lessons in this story that can apply to the current situation at Bradford City, where a growing sense of frustration threatens to lead to self-implosion. Supporters are angry at the club, at the manager, at the owner. Derek Adams is publicly calling out his players; and showing little regard to supporters through his post-match verdicts.
The Bradford City versions of the oxen are quarrelling. The fall out seems to be getting worse. And there is a growing risk of falling under attack from the swirling dangers.
A bleak situation. And yet it doesn’t have to be this way.
This is going to seem cruel, so I’m sorry in advance – but remember the League Cup run of 2012/13? Those glorious nights at Valley Parade, where Premier League Arsenal and Aston Villa were defeated. Incredible times, providing memories that those of us lucky enough to be there will treasure until the day we die. Like I say, I’m sorry to remind you how good it was not that long ago. Of moments we may never experience again.
It was such a special team, led by Phil Parkinson, and they produced incredible heroics. Taking on the big guns and showing no fear. A defence superbly organised, a midfield full of heart and purpose. An attack that gave international defenders a torrid time.
And right at the heart of those nights was us. The brilliance of Gary Jones, Nathan Doyle, Nahki Wells, Rory McArdle and the rest cannot be overstated. But without us fans turning up in huge numbers and making such an intense level of noise, those victories would simply not have happened. We were right in the middle of that experience, those heroics. We sang ourselves hoarse, cheering every City tackle, pass, set piece and goal. It was a collective triumph against all odds that each and every one of us contributed to.
In 2012/13, the Bradford City oxens were all operating inside a circle of safety. We were all a part of it.
Of course, this was one of the highest points supporting Bradford City. A level that is only rarely attained. But those nights were no accident. All season long, that team, that manager and that City crowd were largely together. Pulling in the same direction. We believed in what the team were trying to do, and they trusted in us to back them in taking risks and being bold.
Inside that season’s Bradford City circle of safety, the enemies were not within the club or the City community. They were the might of Arsenal Football Club. Paul Lambert having a go at the pitchside announcer. Steve Evans and his horrible assistant. Exeter City. Burton Albion and Northampton Town. And we circled the wagons. Metaphorically linked arms with each other. And showed our horns.
This week’s dismal, scrappy Tuesday night draw at home to Leyton Orient is a world away from nights like Arsenal and Villa. But if you get the principles right, invite supporters to buy in and believe in what you’re trying to achieve, those feats of nine years ago are a shining example of what you can achieve.
Derek Adams is the current football leader of Bradford City. The expert with the track record, looked on to shape the playing direction of the club and deliver its objective of climbing back up the football pyramid. That comes with all sorts of responsibilities and challenges, from signing the right players to deploying the right tactics. But a big part of his job is to create an environment and culture where the club can succeed on the field.
Where we have a high-performing team, capable of pulling together to produce remarkable things.
Adams will have his own views on the best way of producing a high performing team, and certainly has enough achievements in the game that means he doesn’t need to listen to an over-opinionated supporter website like Width of a Post. But it strikes me that if he is to truly build something successful, he needs to start building his own circle of safety, where his team can thrive.
Playing for Bradford City, there are enough outside threats to focus on. For instance, there’s 23 other teams in this division, all trying to beat and finish above them. But there are also internal threats that are occupying the players’ energy. From the fear of negative supporter reaction if they make a mistake on a Saturday, to the challenge of competing to be in the first XI. There’s the threat you might get injured and someone take your place. Or a contract heading towards its end with no immediate sign of the security of a new deal.
This is where the challenge of football management, and for Adams, is really key. By creating a circle of safety at the club, Adams can reduce the threat his people feel inside the group. Freeing them up to focus on the outside threats and seize the opportunities. To not fear failing to get promoted, but embrace trying to succeed. Without a circle of safety, people are forced to spend too much time and energy protecting themselves from each other.
Adams’ responsibilities lie with the players at his disposal, and the coaching and other support staff around him. He should be looking to build a circle of safety where those within it can thrive. That comes in many different ways, but core is believing that – inside the circle – you have the support and backing of everyone else within it. That if you make mistakes, people are there to help you.
The manager needs to set high standards, be clear what they are and embolden people to live up to them. Build an environment where it feels everyone who works with you are there for you – and will do everything they can to help you succeed.
From the outside, that really doesn’t look to exist under Adams. There are whispers that some players simply haven’t warmed to him, and then there’s the public criticism of the likes of Finn Cousin-Dawson and Niall Canavan. He’s also dismissed many for not having a winning mentality and has shown scant respect for the club’s promising young players. Even the medical and performance management teams have not escaped being criticised by Adams in the media.
The oxens are separate, making them all vulnerable to fail.
It does not look like much of a circle of safety. In fact, Adams can be accused of making his version of the circle too narrow. Nothing is ever his fault it seems, and a handful of players also seem to benefit from not being punished in the way others are when they make mistakes. In such circumstances, the group can feel split in terms of not everyone believing their manager will protect and look after their best interests. Silos can form, politics take over and mistakes are covered up. Many of us have probably worked somewhere with this sort of toxic culture.
When you create an environment where mistakes can have such brutal and public consequences, you encourage people to hide and avoid taking risks. This could be especially seen on Tuesday, when too many players elected to play it safe. Pass responsibility to others, so you don’t risk being the one who fails.
If Adams is going to embolden his team to play with confidence, act out his tactical instructions and stand up to be counted when the pressure is on, he has a responsibility to lead his players in a way that builds team unity and shared trust. The more his group can believe that the people to the left and to the right of them have their backs, the more they can be unified, pull together and be equipped to survive and thrive.
But even then, that won’t be enough.
Right now, there is a disconnect between the football club and its supporters. This is not a new problem and it’s one Adams has inherited following the last four years of failure. But as the man responsible for reviving Bradford City’s fortunes, he has the biggest role in addressing it.
Feelings are running high right now, and many supporters’ anger is in danger of going too far. Disgracefully, CEO Ryan Sparks has received so much abuse he had to change his phone number. As soon as City went 1-0 down on Tuesday, the boos and frustration echoed around a Valley Parade that was looking worryingly empty, as many supporters elected to stay away altogether.
When you think back to the summer and the amount of goodwill bestowed on the club by supporters, excited by Adams’ arrival and the hope of a strong promotion push, you get a reminder of the potential that’s there for everyone to pull in the same direction. Every Bradford City supporter is absolutely desperate for Adams, the players and the club to succeed. But they need something they can get behind.
Adams has broad shoulders and looked unfazed by the anger directed his way on Tuesday, but it can’t be healthy for the immediate or long-term future of the club to have such a cold relationship between the manager and supporters. And it also doesn’t help his players. Full credit to Elliott Watt, Paudie O’Connor and Matty Foulds for their bravery at 1-0 down on Tuesday, but the whole team should feel empowered to perform in the same way – helped by supporters staying behind them, rather than sharpening their weapons.
And that’s why building a circle of safety inside the dressing room is only the first step, not the end itself. Adams should be looking to extend it around the entire football club. Especially bringing us supporters inside it.
He needs our buy in so we can support what he and his team are trying to do. As fans we want to believe and to have reason to make positive noise that encourages the players, rather than the current uneasy atmosphere that helps no one.
If we are included in that circle of safety, we will feel that we have a part to play. That what we think and do matters. That our positive backing can help the team succeed. And the players can open up and express themselves more, knowing their mistakes will be forgiven and their achievements widely celebrated.
It sounds fanciful, but it shouldn’t be. The 2012/13 season – and those history maker achievements – is proof of that. It was a season that ended in the triumph of lifting the League Two play off trophy at Wembley stadium. But it was one that began with a tackle by James Meredith in the first home game of the campaign against Fleetwood, which had the crowd on its feet and a connection formed between players and supporters – one that took them an awfully long way.
You don’t need nights like Arsenal and Villa to attain that level of togetherness, but you don’t reach such heights – or indeed win promotions – without being a unified football club. Derek Adams cannot achieve success at Bradford City without us supporters on his side. If he’s going to survive in the hot seat, he needs to start doing something about the deteriorating situation.
Otherwise, he’s going to remain a lone ox. Ripe for a lion attack.