Bradford City and the circle of safety

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.

Categories: Opinion


34 replies

  1. This article should be printed out by a brave BCAFC employee and stuck to Adams office door with superglue

  2. What a beautifully constructed item Jason. I’ve nothing to add to it that would make it any more superb.
    I can only say that I recommend that we all read this at least twice and the get our bulls in the same corner back to back!!

  3. Wow Jason there is plenty of food for thought in what you have written. Your love and passion for all things Bradford City is a given Will this warning be acted upon ? as much as l would hope it to be sadly l doubt it With some people it’s always my way or the Highway Rahic was a prime example of this and look how that ended Time to get behind the team regardless of how we feel about Adams stop the booing and insults It’s our Bradford City not his

  4. I wish Gordon Gibb would sell us one of his lions from Flamingo Land to get rid of the ox

  5. Excellent article, got goose bumps reading about the history makers

  6. What a brilliant piece of writing Jason. That quality of journalism is rare to see in the main stream media these days, so to find it on WOAP says a lot. And the thinking behind it are right on target. Hopefully it will get into the hands of some of the powers that be down at VP towers.

  7. As much as I agree with the article I do think there are too many supporters who get offended too easily because in reality society has become soft. Football reflects society. So when Adams comes out and calls out individual performances it offends people. However, this isn’t as unusual as people make out. The likes of Conte and Tuchel do it all the time. Usually when they want a player to leave their clubs.

    In addition the lack of respect for Adams is ridiculous. Just because Joe Bloggs a Bradford City supporter thinks his management style is wrong, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be behind him and the club. Results aren’t disastrous. I’m hazarding a guess but I think there are a lot fans still not over the treatment of McCall (who let me remind had two dreadful losing runs.) Adams is arrogant because he knows how to win promotions from league 2. And thankfully there are enough supporters out there who recognise this.

    Coupled with unrealistic expectations they think unless we play a “more” attacking brand of football the manager should be scrutinised. When in reality it’s a results business as well as the club slowly rebuilding it’s infrastructure. I’m not too sure some fans want to listen to that sort of message. They want instant success. They don’t trust the club and Adams (partly because of how McCall was treated in their eyes) and it goes back to my original point. Too many people take offence too easily.

    Maybe the likes of WOAP need to encourage fans to do what we’re supposed to do, and that’s support the team! Everyone just seems to be an expert in football management, coaching, recruitment and the everyday running of the club! Whilst we are in touching distance of the play offs and so long as Adams doesn’t oversee a disastrous run of form, people need to realise that they can kick and scream all they want, but Sparks will not sack Adams. So instead of venting anger at the club, fans should use their energy and make the 12th man that we used to be renowned for! Tuesday night was embarrassing for the club as a fanbase!

    • You have it completely and utterly wrong.

      • Not completely wrong Mark. I do not remember many fans complaining when DA was appointed with an established approach and a well known prickly personality. The groundswell opinion was that he was a winner and we would put up with the negatives to get out of League Two. It is a bit rich spitting the dummy half way through the first season. Paradoxically his tactics have been less pragmatic than i expected with a real attempt to play through the thirds and to overdo it at times.
        Many managers will pinpoint individual errors in post match de briefs without naming the player but of course we all know who is culpable. Naming them is going too far.
        That said DA has got to show some flexibility from a management point of view most of all because he is not taking advantage of the cracking support which can give us an edge at home. That starts with a more positive approach at home.

      • I was ambivalent about Adam’s appointment from the off. I looked at what Plymouth fans had said and spoke to one. I have found him hard to like or even to warm to. If results were better then maybe that would be less of an issue. Some of the things he says are very strange and he seems to forget what he has said in the past. For instance his current comments about Staunton are worrying bearing in mind he seems to have steadfastly refused to have considered playing him.
        The statements made last week by Adam’s about two players were out of order and earlier in the season a out Crankshaw. Both have resulted in players not being here come the following few days. If DA thinks we believe him about the Canavan departure then he simply insults supporters intelligence.

    • I note that your long comments have currently been received on around a 50 – 50 basis. This only goes to show just how far the fans are apart on our current situation and what we should do about it. It would appear there are 2 oxen in one corner and 2 in another. Can 2 oxen fight off a lion, I don’t know but he will be sure licking his lips.

  8. Another superb article Jason, thank you.
    Unfortunately, I think that Adams won’t care what others think about the way that he operates and I don’t think that he will change. Andy Cook, whilst fit, will remain as a lone striker feeding off scraps and talented youngsters like Staunton and Scales won’t be given an opportunity in the starting 11.
    It is clear to see from the games that I’ve been to this season that we don’t look like keeping clean sheets and we don’t have enough width, creative flair or pace to score many goals.
    It’s two years since Gary Bowyer departed Valley Parade and four years since Stuart McCall left BD8 and as a football club on the pitch, we are no further forward and maybe even behind where we were in February 2018.
    Whilst I am not a person who demands a managerial change at the moment, I do think that Adams’s time as our manager is limited.
    A very good friend of mine who supports Plymouth Argyle said that when we appointed Adams as our manager, he said, given time he will get you promoted but it won’t be pretty.
    Only time will tell if Adams will succeed in West Yorkshire.

  9. Brilliant, thought provoking piece Jason. All City supporters and Adams in particular should read this and collectively work towards achieving our united goals. Loved your reference to the James Meredith tackle. Come on City, together we can do this if we ALL pull together. Personally I would love to see Adams show passion, both on the touch line and in his interviews. Let’s all work together with passion, bravery and spirit to get VP rocking once more.

  10. Couple of points here:

    – Gary Jones should absolutley be involved in this club – if he doesn’t want to be part of the coaching team fair enough – however we could do worse to a least bring him in in some sort of motivational role with the squad – especially prior to KO on match day and even more importantly at half time!

    – A few years ago I was in Barcelona for a holiday – in fact it was the week we played Leeds in the cup and hence ended up watching the game in a local bar there which is when I got speaking to a Barca fan in the bar. In regards to the atmosphere at a Barca game for a normal league game – there is no atmosphere – forget the CL where they turn out in numbers and make a noise for 90 mins with flags and flares – for their league games the supporters simply sit there and ‘wait’ to be entertained before they join in making some noise. If the game is poor then the atmosphere is flat too. I actually experienced that too later on the week as I managed to get to see a game and it was true – no one made a noise until they scored mid-way through the 2nd half!
    Point is there is an onus on the manager and the team to at least provide a minimum amount of entertainment to keep us interested – rather than the rubbish that has been served up this season!

  11. A brilliant piece Jason and so apt to our current situation. I’ve watched City for 74 years now and even including the Premier seasons my greatest memories were the 3 times we got to Wembley in the Parky seasons. ( Yes I did go to to the Notts County final as well.) But where are the players like you mention Doyle, McCardle, Wells, Jones and Meredith to be found. Has any club in our division in the January window signed a player that’s comes close. But those years apart , just think of the decades of years that I’ve watched City in the lower leagues but the support unwavering which it has to be now for us to come back to better times. You talk about Adams calling out his players which I agree is wrong but social media comments are 100 times worse and players do look on social media. So do their immediate family which must be really upsetting. We all have bad days at work because we are human but I can’t imagine what it must be like seeing it plastered all over social media for the world to see. But I’m afraid it’s here to stay in our wonderful world of instant gratification. So like you say Jason, the oxen MUST stick together and despite our recent years of mediocrity we must remember that without going through bad times you don’t appreciate the good times half as much. We will come out the other side. Keep the faith. C.T. I. D.

  12. Good piece Jason. The fans need something to buy into and I fear that the 3 year contract given by Sparks and the change in direction from the club in terms of recruitment looks like a massive error in judgement already.

    Adams is just not a good fit for the club. I met Adams at a Shipley Bantams open evening pre season and he came across as affable and a man with a sense of humour.

    Fast forward to today and he really is a PR disaster. The calling out of Cousin-Dawson, Canavan and Crankshaw is no way to build a team spirit and give the players confidence to play with pride and passion.

    The tactics are prehistoric and negative. Just 1 up front and 11 behind the ball with players scared to express themselves who resort to hoof ball and invite pressure on that make poor teams look like world beaters. Fans call for 20 a season goal scorer but we already have one in my opinion in Andy Cook. Give him a foil and partner and play 2 upfront would go some way to giving the fans some kind of attacking and watchable football.
    The early season form and play looked promising. That early promise has long since evaporated.

    Adams is far from a tactical genius and cuts a lone figure from the outside looking in. What is his game plan? The players at his disposal are often played out of position, are some of Adams favorites are above reproach for mediocre performances week in week out. Many fans will remember his smash and grab victory by Adams with Plymouth a few seasons back. It’s awful football to buy into especially if results are average.

    This rigid defensive set up appears to be the Adams style and has gained success however, Fillippe Morias was spot on last week calling out Adams as delusional in relation to his match summaries and successes on the pitch this season. The Valley Parade pitch certainly looks like one aspect of the club that has massively improved.

    The distant ownership of the club is only one aspect of this 4 year demise. On Rupps watch the clubs relationship with the fans has been severely damaged and the emphasis is purely to live within our means and it feels we are just treading water albeit with a big fan base and massive ground but in truth we are struggling to be competitive at this level. We have hardly troubled the top 7 in what is season 3 in the bottom tier of English football.

    Adams has an opportunity to brining the club together on the pitch at least but his tactics and persona will eventually be his undoing. It all seems so unnecessary but as long as Adams continues to take no responsibility for his teams performances, dour tactics and subs whilst absolving himself from a situation he has total control over then the club will never grow together and move forward.

    I would love to see a city manager connect with the fans, show some passion and put a team out there that is worthy of the name then the situation will only continue to fail.

    Listening to Gary Jones recently and given the opportunity maybe just that man to reconnect the fans with the club again.

    Instead we have a team exactly in mould of the manager that is both negative, frustrating and frightened to take responsibility and try something different.

    The lions are circling Derrick.

    • Are you quoting the same Morais who had so much regard for the club that he engineered a release to go play “in Scotland” and actually went to Bolton.

      I don’t like much of Adam’s post match comments, but know he has achieved four promotions and will either sink or swim on his results, hope it’s the latter and it may well be.

  13. I don’t find these types of articles constructive.

  14. I watched part of the Celtic v Rangers last night.
    The thing that struck me was the passion an intensity that was displayed, I realised how much that is missing at VP these days.
    We’re served lack-lustre, lethargic and almost soporific football.
    I’m aware that in L2 football we won’t illuminate the place with fast free flowing football, however endeavour, sprit and desire should be a given not an ask. And will go along way to get fans back onside and start to regroup those Oxen.

  15. I think this is one of your best Jason. I can’t disagree more with the poster Andrew who says he doesn’t find the article constructive. I think it helps us all to understand the fundamentals involved in successful teamwork, and developing a high-performance organisational culture, and most especially at Bradford City. You can expect your main stakeholders to withdraw their stake if you consider them to be of low influence to the business and of low importance for engagement, as Derek Adams appears to do with the fans. As we drift away and find more entertaining obsessions upon which to dedicate our time and money, we wonder how he achieved his success at Plymouth and Morecambe. I can only hope that success will come as a result of the team and the staff bonding despite him, and from leaders emerging within the group, to inspire us all again. We’ve seen before how the momentum can build with character and team work. Wouldn’t it be great to get Gary Jones in, as Andy R suggests, perhaps in some kind of player mentoring role, but I fear this idea would be perceived as a threat to Mr Adams. I’m not sure he can change, as I think your article alludes to, and his bizarre post-match comments suggest poor self-awareness, arrogance and little interest in considering an alternative approach. These are not traits of successful people managers.

    • This is certainly one of your best Jason. Just having read Rick C’s comments that has cemented my feelings. ( Now those are from a female who has only been going to BFC for 10 years and really doesn’t understand the technicalities of the game!! so forgive me). But what I do see and understand is human behaviour. I don’t believe DA can change his attitude but maybe the players have to rise above that and say what the hell we have to give it a go and take the risk whether he shouts us down for it or not. It’s up to us to show that we’re willing to take the risk and if it proves to be a mistake then at least the supporters will see and understand. Grow some broad shoulders.? But Then I suppose maybe DA will I drop them? You’re the experts not me and I hope you’re not too irritated by my naivety!

      • I once remember City playing high flying Bury in the darkest days of Docherty. They won 3-1 and the rumour went round that the players had said sod the manager and play our own game. It certainly looked like that. Within months all the players had gone. Some were out of the game and never got back at that level. So it is not going to happen. Players have mortgages and kids etc. They do what their boss, in this case Adam’s, tells them to do.

      • It was New Year’s Day 1991, Mark. It wasn’t just the win, but the manner of the performance. It was so refreshing to see after the terrible tactics that preceeded that game.

        It wasn’t merely a rumour either!

        As you say, Docherty got his own back.

  16. How disgraceful that Sparks has had to retreat because of such abuse. I hope the people responsible are ashamed of themselves. He is not my cup of tea, but I would absolutely defend his right to do his job without fear of such abuse.
    Adams is a real anomaly. I have defended him to the hilt and urged the club to give him at least until Jan 23 to prove he is making progress, even if that means we remain in League 2.
    Criticising some players as he does and ignoring (particularly the away) supporters, puts himself in a very tricky position.
    Derek, you alone have cranked up the criticism; have you really tried to connect with us supporters? If not , why not?
    Never forget, we own the club really; not you, Rupp or Sparks. You are all just temporary guardians. . Without us, you do not exist. Tread carefully, as Jason says.

  17. Very well written.
    Tell us something most supporters don’t already know.
    Unfortunately their are not many, if any who can do anything about it.
    We just want our club back, with a board, manager and team we can believe in.
    Sadly those days are long gone.

  18. Derek won’t be at City beyond 2024 as it stands anyway. We have to give him until Christmas to deliver. We haven’t got to the end of this season as yet. The football is largely awful but if we make seventh we have matched 2013’s league position. Then there would be three Cup matches to match Parkinson’s achievement. The truth is it doesn’t really matter how Derek behaves as long as he replucates Morecambe’s success within the next 4 months. All to play for !

  19. Profoundly good piece, Jason.

  20. I commented elsewhere after Saturdays game that the team are playing with ‘fear’. They are playing withing themselves and scared of making a mistake. Adams is responsible for that. calling out players and his disconnect with the fans who then also put fear into players of making mistakes all adds up to players and the team not playing at their best. imo

  21. Excellent piece, thank you. I find it really disappointing that one of the ‘best’ performances this season was the 10 men v Sutton.
    That was a terrific performance, which showed that we have the players, mentality and passion to galvanize when we want to.
    On the back of that performance, Adams was purring about how the supporters stood and applauded the team off the pitch.
    This proves he does understand how we’ll rally around, but for the life of me, I don’t get why he doesn’t encourage his players to go for the throat, like they did then, when their backs were to the wall.

  22. I see those “admin issues” blocking publication of my posts still haven’t been resolved, Jason.

  23. Great read Jason….
    I have One main question for Adams and one critical ‘observation’
    Why call out the likes of Cousin-Dawson for the odd individual mistake when Threlkeld performs poorly week in week out. The inconsistency is hugely frustrating.
    If Staunton moves on at the end of the season the club, through the pig headedness of the manager, has failed to develop a hugely promising resource. Shame on you Adams.

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