By Jason McKeown
Here we go again. Again. After a season of underachievement, Bradford City are once more changing managers with the news that Derek Adams has been sacked.
The Scot departs with City languishing in 11th in League Two, eight points off the play offs and with only nine wins in 31 league matches. Three of the last five games have ended in defeat, including Saturday’s 1-0 home loss to Exeter City that ended with loud home supporter chants for Adams to go.
The revolving managerial door at Valley Parade shows no sign of slowing. Since Stuart McCall’s second spell in 2016-2018, no City manager has lasted more than 11 months in the hot seat. Simon Grayson, Michael Collins, David Hopkin, Gary Bowyer, Stuart McCall (again) and the partnership of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars. All came and none could conquer. The dice rolled again and again.
It was to be hoped it would be different this time. That in Derek Adams we had a proven winner, with the ability to revive Bradford City from its downwards spiral. He’d just taken Morecambe – favourites for relegation in 2020/21, with the lowest budget in the league – to promotion. A fourth such success over his managerial career.
Everywhere he had been, there had been success. And though Adams’ reputation as a controversial character and for deploying a pragmatic style of football left some worries, it really did seem as though City had pulled off a major coup by securing his services last May.
Yet despite the apparent security of a three-year contract that suggested City were prepared to let Adams build, the pressure was always there from day one for instant success. The decision to stand down Trueman and Sellars at the end of last season to make way for Adams was a statement of ambition. Promotion was the aim, and Adams himself made no attempt to downplay expectations.
“Next season, my aim is to take us beyond this division and into League One,” he said on his unveiling last May. “That is the pressure I put on myself….We all know Bradford City finished in the bottom half of the table last year. Now, we will aim to be in the promotion picture.”
Hindsight suggests that such high expectations – driven by the club, manager, supporters and media – was a mistake. The truth is that City were nowhere near it in 2020/21, and the gap needed to move forwards from a 15th place finish to getting promoted was huge. When the summer transfer activity played out, this disparity between expectations and reality began to widen. Some of the close season recruits looked decent on paper, others did not. You could see what was still missing, but it was never addressed.
And it left the greatest of ironies. For a club that has gone through manager after manager, without any progress, this season once again seemed to hinge on the cult of manager.
Everyone talked up City in pre-season. Pundits tipped us to win the league, bookies installed us as favourites, fans chanted about getting to 100 points and the club itself came across just as bold. But when you stopped to question just what it was that gave everyone such confidence in City’s prospects, the answer was always the same. Derek Adams. And his great track record.
But that was all we had.
The reality is he didn’t have the squad to live up to the pre-season favourite tags. It started well enough with 10 points from the first 12, including brilliant wins over Stevenage and Mansfield. But then it fell away. Just two home wins since August. Long stretches of draws. Some really poor defeats. And the occasional victory but not nearly enough of them.
Automatic promotion hopes faded to play off, but before long City were stuck in midtable. Still in with a chance of getting back up there, but only if they went on a run. Yet the fact they have not since August achieved back-to-back wins has kept them well off the pace.
And with Adams, the frustrations have grown. He talks after almost every game about how much his team dominated. If they didn’t win, it was down to not taking chances or the opposition goalkeeper playing really well. He spoke often about how good the underlying stats were – and they were, at least until recently – and when quizzed about struggles to convert good stats into three points, he would blame injuries or individual players. At other times, he complained openly about the fitness and performance management teams at the club.
There just didn’t seem to be any hint that Adams had the desire or capability to improve results by doing something different to what wasn’t really working in the first place. Continually complaining about bad luck, and performances not reflecting the stats, is to suggest he was never going to adapt anything – and instead just assume that in time results would improve. And for a while that seemed fair enough, but the longer it has gone on the more it just didn’t wash. There seemed to be no appetite to change things tactically. No evidence of his managerial excellence to find solutions that would improve results.
Then there is the way he has conducted himself. The public lambasting of certain players, whilst others seemingly could make mistake after mistake without ever getting called out. The “it’s not my fault” comment after the Exeter cup defeat. The claim that the club would be “immature” to sack him after the Harrogate loss. And of course Saturday’s statement that the club wouldn’t be able to find a more successful manager than himself if they were to remove him. There was never any humility from Adams. Any public acknowledgement he might have made mistakes. It just didn’t feel like he was being honest, and that made him a difficult person to respect.
The fact that he has made no attempt to build a relationship with supporters has also hurt him. I remember going to Tranmere away in November, and at full time the players came over and received plenty of stick from travelling City fans for the way they collapsed in the second half. Adams was nowhere to be seen. He never goes over to fans at full time in victory or defeat. That might be fine when we win, but in loss it reflects badly on him.
What must players think when they come over and face the wrath of a crowd, and they look behind them and see their manager – their leader – hasn’t come over to join them? Would that help their trust towards him, and their motivation to play for this manager, or did it damage that?
Ultimately Adams just didn’t build up any credit in the bank. If he’d been able to field a team who played a style of football we could enjoy, and if we saw the players having a go, there would be greater tolerance of results not being great. The fact is, the games have been dismal to watch. There is no entertainment. Little to cheer. Very limited belief and buy-in to the plan. Adams can argue he doesn’t have the players and that’s true to an extent, but he has himself admitted he dictated the signings of the last two windows. He has to take responsibility for the issues with the squad.
The problem with trusting in Adams to keep building something is that there is little evidence he will sign players suited to the club and who can handle the expectations. Scroll to the bottom of our website and look in the bottom left at our list of players in contract and out of contract this summer – there’s plenty of good players, aged between 21-27, whose deals expire in a few months time. These are the sort of players who – with the right additions around them – could be the positive drivers of taking City forwards over the next few years.
Are they enjoying playing for Adams? Would they have wanted to stay? And if they didn’t, how much faith did we really have in the Scot that he could replace them when so far so many of his signings have been so average?
It is of course fair comment that Adams has not really had enough time. As a club we have to stop expecting instant success. Constant ripping up of the plans.
But this just looks such a bad fit. He doesn’t seem suited to the club. And we could have stumbled on into next season, hoping that would change. But when you get the kind of supporter reaction you did on Saturday towards Adams, the situation seemed beyond repairing.
Still, there can be no question this is a blow for Ryan Sparks. He invested his reputation in Adams, and getting him into the club was a coup. There will inevitably be criticism of the CEO, who many fans would like to hear more from in these difficult times. But I think there is a shared culpability in this situation.
Let’s be honest, Adams was the overwhelming choice of fans last May. His arrival was viewed very positively, and the majority of supporters were right behind him. Not just for his track record, but his manner and approach. The Bradford City of the last few years can be accused of being too nice and passive. Not being aggressive enough. Accepting the body blows. On social media during the summer, a Twitter thread of Adams’ most controversial moments was widely shared as a positive validation of what City were getting.
Fans loved the idea of his blunt, confrontational style. “Up the sh**house Bantams” was a phrase regularly repeated.
What we expected with Adams’ abrasiveness was that we would be lining up alongside him, revelling in him taking pot shots at others and upsetting opposition fans. If this was a playground, we would get to stand next to the bully belittling others, hoping that they saw us as on their side and so would look after us. Instead, we quickly learned that Adams would behave as aggressively and aloof towards us as much as anyone else.
With Phil Parkinson, he cultivated an us-against-the-world ethos that as a fanbase you felt a part of. Adams never let us in. He came across as having no appreciation or respect for us supporters. A coldness that didn’t invite any warmth in return.
As a fanbase, we wanted Adams to succeed. We bought into that cult of manager, yet again. And we so must share some responsibility for the failure – just like Sparks and Stefan Rupp. We want to have a say on how the club is run, and for our views to be acted upon. And if we want the club to keep listening, we also have to maintain a sense of responsibility with those views we gave in the past. Hiring Adams was acting on the majority opinion. We can’t go back and pretend otherwise.
Just as Adams is not a miracle worker after all, sacking him probably won’t change much in the short-term. City will hopefully get better from here on, but a mid-table finish appears to be our destiny. The hunt is now on for a replacement, and with Mark Trueman at the helm as a more than capable caretaker, the club can take its time with what will be an even bigger decision over who should be the next manager of Bradford City.
We’ve got to end this cycle of short-termism. And that challenge remains just as difficult to solve as it was when Adams took charge 256 days ago. A big few weeks once again faces the football club.