By Mark Davis
Originally performed in 1967 – the year Bradford City finished 11th in Division 4 and was forced to hold a crisis meeting in St George’s Hall to save the club from folding – Monty Python’s Four Yorkshiremen sketch probably still resonates in these parts more than elsewhere. Parodying old friends catching up and reminiscing about their shared humble beginnings and difficult childhoods, as the conversation progresses, they each try to outdo one another in just how tough they had it.
One wonders how the same sketch would play out if you gathered together the last four Bradford City managers. If we skip the interim appointments of Trueman and Sellers, and whatever the Michael Collins ‘era’ was meant to be, that would be a conversation between David Hopkin, Gary Bowyer, Stuart McCall and Derek Adams.
McCall: “Aye, there’s nowt like a bouncing Valley Parade!”. Bowyer: “Ohhh, we used to dream of a bouncing Valley Parade! It were more like an angry library for us”. Hopkin: “Hmph, you were lucky to have them angry – all we had was a silent library!” Adams: “Luxury! I used to dream of a silent library…”. I was reminded of the sketch while witnessing us meekly surrender for the fifth time this season to Exeter City, with everyone around me in the Main Stand either bored or quietly grumbling.
Complaining at Valley Parade has long been its own reward. We Yorkshire folk love a moan and on Saturday – as on far too many other occasions this season – there was plenty to complain about. Boy, it was dire! But the logic of it was also often contradictory, demanding one thing from the manager or players, only to complain when it then happened.
One example was a call for Adams to change the system and get some height up top, Exeter overloading us and beating us on the grass. “Get Elliott on and let’s get up at ‘em”. Elliott arrives, and the same group shout, “What’s he brought that useless lump on for?”.
For a few months now, there’s been a troubling sense that a minority in the crowd on match days actively want the situation for City to get worse, not better. That in the extremity of a heavy defeat their complaints are justified and proven correct.
Adams certainly alienated the fanbase, but it is surely to give the man too much credit to long for a more extreme defeat just so one can be more extreme in complaining just how tough they’re having it?
Somewhere along the lines – five years descending from the heady cup runs of the Parky era, through an iFollow-led detachment, and year after year of over-promising when season tickets need renewing to then under-delivering when the season kicks off – have we somehow forgotten what it means to support Bradford City?
For all the reasons to do so, sacking Adams is the victory of impatience over patience. If the club is not going to stick with a manager with Adams’s track record on paper (you might have heard him mention it!), then it isn’t going to stick with anyone. Which begs a more important, if harder to hear, question: what is our role as supporters in the alarming realisation that, since 20th May 2017, Bradford City have had 10 different managerial set ups?
Losing to Millwall, McCall was followed by Abbott, Grayson, Collins, Hopkin, Drury, Bowyer, McCall, Trueman and Sellers, Adams and now Trueman again. Half of those were caretaker positions, and some feature more than once, but with an average of six months in charge we are not giving anyone the chance to plan long-term.
Any manager coming in knows he has around 100 days to show improvement to earn our patience, and so will plan accordingly for short-term temporary fixes. When that doesn’t work, we get the February cannon out. Adopting this approach, the club has fallen from 5th in League One to 12th in League Two. I’m really not sure, as supporters, if we’ve yet gotten over that defeat at Wembley.
Returning to the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, our four non-caretaker managers in that time have had plenty to complain about too. Hopkin: “They said they wanted ‘one of their own’, but that I was dour and only had a half decent record in Scotland”. Bowyer: “Oh you were lucky! They said they wanted a professional, but that I was boring, and my football was boring, and they called me Gary Bore-Ya”. McCall: “They love me as ‘one of their own’ too, but said I was too emotional and only had a half decent record in Scotland. And I once bought them a toaster!”. Adams: “Luxury! They said they wanted a professional, with a proven track record at this level, but that I was boring, and my football was boring, and…”.
As the above illustrates, we have demonstrably tried every type of manager – involved and passionate former player who ‘gets the club’; detached and dour professional driven by results. We have tried every type of strategy – give the young players a chance; go for experienced older-heads at this level; go direct; no pass the ball, pass the ball. Aye, it’s all very passable!
We swing from one extreme to the other. A too-involved McCall must be followed by a more detached Adams. A detached Adams must be followed by an involved Flynn, Jones, or Carbone. Someone who ‘gets the club’. In February 2023, when that isn’t working either and Oldham (away) looms on the fixture list, we’ll be loudly demanding a more detached, professional approach.
So, as we now search for our eleventh managerial set up in five years, what is it we supporters of Bradford City actually want?
Ask most of us and I bet you a good glass of Chateau de Chassilier that you’ll get the same answer: we want success (of course), and not to tolerate mediocrity (I mean, obviously), but if we’re honest with ourselves what we really want is a team we can identify with. Give us entertaining, attacking, front-foot football in the upper tier of League Two, rather than dour, boring, grind-the-opposition-down sideways ball in the bottom tier of League One.
Across the generations of City supporters, the teams we have loved – truly loved – have all shared similar characteristics: hard defenders, thunderous midfielders, skilful strikers alongside big target men, and wingers, wingers, wingers… I’d get up out of a shoebox at ten o’clock in the morning, half an hour before I went to bed and work twenty-nine hours a day down t’mill to watch a team like that again! But try telling that to young people today… and they won’t believe you.
Of all the stats he repeat-quoted at BBC Radio Leeds’ Jamie Raynor in his post-match robo-answers, Adams categorically failed to convince enough City supporters that his football was worth watching. We’re honest folk in Yorkshire. We don’t suffer fools. Tell us your XG, transition and rest defence stats… but if what we’re seeing is garbage, we’ll say so.
We don’t see the point of being top of the XG table if we’re losing games. We know that another way of reading the same data is that the team is rubbish at scoring. There’s no point saying the team concedes the fewest chances per game, if it only takes the opposition one chance to score. That just means we’re rubbish at defending. We know all this.
What type of manager do we actually want? And are we any longer prepared to be patient with them? James Pieslak’s brilliant article for WOAP this week captured the sadness many are feeling at a recent loss of connection with the club, as his young family decide going to Valley Parade on a Saturday is just too wearisome to bear any longer.
In the long-term, apathy is always more destructive than anger. Loyalty is being tested across the fan base – and yes, because the Adams era was such a difficult watch and Adams himself too detached and analytical for many – but supporting the club means having faith.
This is what did for Adams, I think. We don’t need the science. We want to believe. If an optimist is someone who believes the club is already in the best of all possible hands, and a pessimist is someone who dreads the optimist being right, then most of us reside in a third position: hope.
Whoever walks into the Valley Parade barely-warm seat next, maybe it’s time for our collective attitude as a fanbase to change. We have to give being patient a go. We have to rediscover that sense of hope. And that means seeing something tangible that we can genuinely believe in as a smart, fiercely loyal fan base that truly cares… not ‘a vision’ we can ‘buy into’ because consumer analytics suggest it will be optimal for season ticket sales every Spring.
Changing managers every February, doesn’t work. Giving managers a budget for January then firing them, doesn’t work. Throwing any type of manager into a football club seemingly hell bent on tearing down whichever strategy and identity they try to implement, doesn’t work.
As supporters, maybe it’s time for us to try something completely different… or heading to Valley Parade is going to keep on resembling cleaning Midland Road with our tongues and then eating half a handful of frozen gravel.