Written by Jason McKeown (images by John Dewhirst)
The season had not even kicked off when the first broadside was launched. Derek Adams was hosting his first pre-match press conference, ahead of Bradford City’s opening day trip to Exeter City, when he went in with a dig.
“We’re not an Exeter, so to speak, who throw young players in and don’t really want to get promoted; they want to stay in that division.”
Nine months on from that remark, it was Exeter City who would be promoted from League Two. Meanwhile Bradford City languished in mid-table, well off the pace. If Exeter really didn’t want to get promoted, their fans must be gutted right now.
But not as much as Bradford City supporters, as we survey another season of major disappointment.
“I know what I am here to do.” Derek Adams on his unveiling as Bradford City manager
This was supposed to be the year that Bradford City came roaring back. The mistakes – and there have been plenty – since the League One play off final defeat in 2017 had apparently been learned from. On and off the field, the club was seemingly in a much better position. Season ticket sales were up, the best manager in League Two from the year before had been appointed, and a host of underachieving City players moved on.
Pre-season piece after pre-season piece predicted the Bantams would be in the promotion shake-up. The bookies installed City title favourites. The stakes had been raised, after the end of 2020/21 season standing down of Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars as joint managers, with CEO Ryan Sparks declaring the change in the dugout was because, “There is no room for mediocrity at this football club.”
There was a confidence. And a high level of confidence at that. The noises from Valley Parade were loud. The expectations cranked up. The talk was bold. And, after more than a year being locked down in homes, watching City through our laptops, it all fuelled a huge level of buoyancy amongst supporters.
“100 points, 100 points Derek Adams.”
Reality, as it so often does, bit hard. Optimistic proclamations soon began to look misplaced. Incredibly, City would go onto achieve even fewer points than the season before, when everyone connected with the club had hoped we’d reached rock bottom.
There’s only one word to describe what we’ve seen this season, and that’s mediocre.
Everywhere you looked there had been a brashness to Bradford City last summer. From the top, from the manager, even from the players. A few days after Adams’ Exeter City taunt, Liam Ridehalgh joined his manager for the pre-match press conference ahead of a League Cup tie with Nottingham Forest. Ridehalgh chose to compare the class of 2021/22 with the Bradford City history making side of 2012/13 no less.
“If you look at that team, they were a group of honest, hard-working lads. That’s what can get you success like the group we’ve got here. We’ve got a group of players that will fight for each other.” Simon Parker did at least help Ridehalgh from digging his own hole too deeply, writing “Ridehalgh is not promising heroics to match a squad forever revered as ‘history makers’ at Valley Parade.” Well, that’s okay then.
To actively compare yourself to the most successful Bradford City side of modern times, after just one game, is brave to say the least. It’s fair to say it’s not a comparison that has aged well. By the end of this season, some were asking the question of whether the Bradford City squad that Ridehalgh is a part of is the worst in the club’s history.
It’s all well and good for supporters and pundits to get carried away in the close season. For expectations to become removed from reality. But the club itself seemed to get swept away with the hype. They made no effort to temper expectations. And, given they’ve come absolutely nowhere near to achieving them, they can hardly be surprised that supporters have felt so dismayed.
“I think it’s one of the most important pieces of recruitment this business has done in five years,” Ryan Sparks on Derek Adams
“This is without doubt, one of the most significant appointments in the history of our football club,” Ryan Sparks on Mark Hughes.
For a fortnight at least, there did seem to be substance behind the hype. This was the season we fans were able to return to watching games live in stadiums – and, wow, did it feel good to be back.
After an opening day draw at Exeter and decent performance in defeat to Forest, in mid-August we got to set foot inside Valley Parade again for the visit of Oldham. Emotions were running high and the atmosphere superb – the day capped off by a stoppage time penalty winner from Lee Angol.
A few days later, Stevenage were in town for a Tuesday night affair. City blew them away with an Andy Cook hat trick before the half time break. When Oli Crankshaw crossed late on for Niall Canavan to seal a 4-1 Bantams victory, world domination awaited. Especially when a few days later City won in thrilling style away to another pre-season promotion favourite, Mansfield. Cook netted late on in front of a packed out away end.
10 points from 12, everything felt wonderful.
Alas, that would be as good as it got for City. The best period of the season occurred before the school holidays had even ended. A surprise 2-0 defeat to Leyton Orient the week after – with City performing feebly – was a worrying indication of the weakness of the foundations. Questions were raised, which over the subsequent months couldn’t be answered.
City’s season became something of a slow puncture. They didn’t lose too often, but they didn’t win many either. Draws became the common currency. Followed by a regular post-match verdict of Derek Adams that his team had dominated and deserved to win. Rinse and repeat.
“Performances have only levelled out because we hadn’t taken our opportunities,” Adams declared after a dismal defeat to Crawley at the end of September. “If we had done that, we’d have won five or six games this season.”
It would become a familiar refrain from Adams. Games were not drawn or lost because of questionable team selections, tactical errors or even the opposition simply being better. It was the lack of clinical finishing of his own players. And what’s more, he gave the air of someone who believed that he didn’t need to do anything more than wait for it to change. Keep doing what they’re doing, and it will start to work.
But it never did.
“We’ve got a squad that can compete at the right end of the division…we have not come into this season just to take part in League Two,” Ryan Sparks at the end of the summer transfer window
City were competing at the top – of the expected goals table. For shots on goal and chance creation, the stats did suggest that City were unfortunate not be picking up more points. So why wasn’t it happening?
Recruitment was the biggest issue. In the summer the club quickly brought in a number of promising signings in the wake of Adams’ arrival. But then it all went a bit quiet. The ongoing vacancy of the number 10 shirt left everyone with the hope something special would happen, to turn what increasingly looked like an average transfer window into a good one.
The window would close with the number 10 squad number still not filled.
It was obvious to most supporters that City just weren’t recruiting the type of players who were going to trouble the top of the scoring and assist charts. Keeping Andy Cook after a successful loan spell felt vital, and the proven Adams success of Yann Songo’o left fans excited by what he could deliver. But bringing in strikers with less than stellar scoring records at Walsall, Leyton Orient and Port Vale left major concerns. The double arrival of Alex Gilliead and Abo Eisa prompted worries they’d merely signed standout players from an awful Scunthorpe team, rather than players who could shift the Valley Parade dial upwards.
It soon became clear Adams didn’t have the forward options he needed for his style of football to be successful. Angol looked a decent acquisition but was marred by repeated injury problems. Cook started well but had a second half of the season to forget. Caolan Lavery and Theo Robinson were as underwhelming as their recent career history suggested. Eisa spent most of the campaign injured.
There was a reliance on Cook to score the goals. On Gilliead to deliver assists. Players who Adams had inherited, Charles Vernam and Callum Cooke, started well. Elliot Watt struggled in a team not built for his strengths. Oli Crankshaw looked promising and worthy of more opportunities – he was controversially sold to Stockport. Levi Sutton was overlooked early doors but made a decent impact when Adams finally realised his value.
Defensively, City weren’t great. They kept just five clean sheets over Adams’ tenure in charge. Oscar Threlkeld struggled badly. Canavan was not quite the same force as the season before. Richard O’Donnell’s powers began to fade. Ridehalgh and Paudie O’Connor were good at least. As was Matty Foulds, who emerged mid-season as an impressive young player.
In October, City had one of those nights of infamy where a team comes to Valley Parade on a dreadful run and wins. Hartlepool United had not scored on the road for over eight hours and yet netted within 50 seconds, on their way to a 3-1 win. City did respond with a brilliant 3-1 victory at Swindon a few days later, but the draws kept on coming. Between 9 October and 11 December, City played 14 matches – they drew 10 of them. Automatic promotion hopes faded to play off aspirations. And even then, City began to drift behind the top seven.
It just wasn’t a good enough squad. At their best they could dominate games and they put in a lot of good first half performances. If they took the lead, they would sit back too much. They would carve out a decent amount of chances, but it was quantity over quality. The forward line was too isolated.
The overall cautious approach left them too much of a hostage to fortune.
“Derek Adams was right about it being individual errors that threw away three points today. He just hasn’t yet worked out that they were his.” Tim Penfold’s WOAP match report of the Crawley defeat.
After starting out hugely popular, the club’s stuttering form and lack of entertainment gradually seeped into a supporter dislike of Adams. He had been welcomed for his brilliant track record and it was felt his abrasive, confrontational style was exactly what Bradford City needed. That it was time for us to become a more nasty, hard-nosed football club with a win-at-all-costs edge.
We loved his early season dig at Exeter City. The way he wound up opposition fans. At a basic, tribal level – Adams was the playground bully that we all wanted to befriend and stand behind. Watch him dispense the insults to others, while we benefit.
The problem was that, in time, it was evident that Adams saw no value in our attempts to be loyal to him. And that he would turn on the football club, its employees and its fanbase just as readily as he would an opposition manager or referee.
When City lost to Manchester United under 21s in the Football League Trophy, Adams declared the back-up players “had their chance” and no one can complain when they aren’t selected again. A couple of weeks earlier, in defeat at Tranmere, Adams complained, “We don’t have enough winners in our side.” After an FA Cup replay defeat to Exeter saw questions asked of Adams, he responded that it was the players’ fault and not his.
Adams talked often about something being wrong at the club that he’d spotted and would fix. “This club has been through difficult times last year, year before, year before that – I can see why.” He never said in public what it was, only clarifying at one that stage that he wasn’t having a dig at Stefan Rupp or Sparks.
At other points he did subtly have a go at the medical and performance management areas of the club. “As a manager, I’m being told that you can’t play this one for this length of time. I’m the manager of a football club that needs results and people will be here long after I’ve left the building. But that’s what happens.”
He was clearly unhappy with the recruitment structure; despite being prepared to give it a chance during the summer. Lee Turnbull – head of recruitment – departed a few weeks after the summer transfer window closed. Adams was allowed to bring in his own scouts and at one stage took full responsibility for every player signed in the summer.
It must have been so demoralising for Sparks. He had genuinely tried to build the right structure off the field. Create a set up to give the manager the best chance to succeed. Given him one of the biggest budgets in the division. And Adams was failing to utlise those resources, or seemingly build good relations with his staff – not to mention supporters.
As City struggled to turn draws into wins before Christmas, Adams neatly summarised the situation. “I can see it, everyone can. I’m not stupid – I know we haven’t got enough players who are capable of putting the ball in the back of the net and that’s our biggest problem… from midfield, from wide areas. We haven’t got enough.”
“Some supporters are not extremely nice and they’ve got to be very careful,” Derek Adams in February 2021
As is so often the case, January brought the offer of salvation. City had endured a few weeks off because of Covid issues. In the first game back, they won 2-1 at Barrow, and the transfer window was open. A chance to rectify the gaping holes in the squad.
It was a rollercoaster month. A dreadful defeat at Carlisle, before seven points from nine including wins over Salford and Walsall. In the next game they went 1-0 up at home to Crawley and all felt good. Jamie Walker, Dion Pereira, Matty Daly and Alex Bass had all come in and the team was looking better.
Yet in the second half of that game, City once again sat back. And from a position of dominance, they lost the game. Anti-Adams chants sounded out in the Kop. And when the transfer window closed a few days later, City had done it again. Two new strikers, both with very average goalscoring records. Tom Elliott and Nathan Delfouneso were not the game changers City badly needed.
And from there on form fell away. They scraped a draw with Colchester, lost to Harrogate. Adams earned a victory at Stevenage, but then along came Exeter – unambitious, don’t-want-to-go-up Exeter – who won 1-0 at Valley Parade, dominating the contest. The crowd really turned on Adams, and something had to give. The mood was toxic.
Adams was sacked, despite boldly claiming the club would be immature to get rid of him and that they wouldn’t get a manager with a better track record. On the latter point, and judging his achievements at this level, you could see his argument. But it became something bigger.
Derek Adams and Bradford City was a poor fit. There can be no question the Scot is a capable manager – after leaving Valley Parade, he would go back to Morecambe and keep them in League One – but his ways and approach just did not suit a club of our size and stature.
His complete failure to build any rapport win fans left him vulnerable during poor runs, and the style of football was tough to watch in victory, never mind defeat. As Filipe Morais summarised excellently of Adams on BBC Radio Leeds, “Sometimes he could help himself a little more in interviews – he doesn’t seem to understand what the fans are thinking and feeling.”
In many ways it was immature to sack yet another manager after the last few years of turnover in the dugout. But if it’s not working, you’ve got to do something about it. And that’s exactly what Ryan Sparks did.
“I just got a sense of a club that wants to do the right things and is trying to enthuse the footballing public in their city,” Mark Hughes on taking the City job
When Derek Adams was sacked, City had 40 points from 31 games. Promotion was looking out of the question, and there were a few concerns they could get sucked into a relegation battle.
In the end, City could have lost every game and stayed up on the points total of 40. But it would hardly have been good for the damaged morale. If promotion could not be achieved in the final 15 games, giving fans reasons to believe for next season was the minimum requirement.
And the club have managed that, with the appointment of Mark Hughes and end of season improvements. Hughes’ arrival was a huge shock – the kind of news story that made national media ripples and trends on Twitter. No one could have possibly expected Hughes to be interested in such a job, at least not until Sparks checked his email spam folder.
Hughes has made a huge impact on and off the field. The crowd are suddenly behind the club again and bought into what he is trying to do. The players – still with their limitations – look much better coached and are playing a more entertaining style of football. The likes of Watt, Vernam, Pereira and Walker have really shone. News the latter has signed a permanent deal for the club is a major boost.
When Hughes was appointed, there was still talk of a late play off push. That hasn’t happened, but it would have been unfair to have blamed that on Hughes given what he inherited and the tricky fixture list. He will have learned a lot over these final few weeks of the campaign, and that could be huge when it comes to this summer. The games against Swindon, Forest Green, Hartlepool, Tranmere, Sutton and Carlisle were amongst the best of the season.
There is an obvious danger of falling into the same trap as a year ago. Of believing that appointing a manager of the calibre of Hughes makes it job done, and success will follow. To the club’s credit and certainly Sparks, improvements have continued beyond that with the appointment of a new head of recruitment.
In Hughes, City have someone of great coaching pedigree. And if they can provide the resources he asks for, there is every reason to believe that this time it won’t end in tears. The way Hughes had City playing was genuinely exciting. Hopefully he can build a team that can embrace and succeed operating this way.
“It’s certainly a challenge but it’s just the thought of getting this place going again that really excites me and motivates me,” Mark Hughes at the end of the season
This was another season where expectations went unfulfilled. As supporters, we’ve seen our team win just six times at home. Endured Harrogate Town do the double over us, again. Watched the likes of Forest Green and Sutton United overtake us. 20 of the 58 points City gained this season came in the first four and final five matches of the season. We started and ended really well – shame about the middle 37 games.
It was a season of quirky moments. The year where Bradford City were targeted by a group of American cryptocurrency advocates, looking to “try a bunch of unconventional stuff… and our hope is that it works. There’s not that much downside if it doesn’t.” The Exeter City FA Cup farce that saw us have to travel twice to Devon on a Tuesday night, losing both times. Our team bus got into the Champions League when it was used by Real Madrid for their semi-final defeat to Manchester City.
Theo Robinson scored an absolutely belting goal at Swindon Town. Alex Bass made some of the most breath-taking saves you’ll ever see at this level, and yet was also responsible for some gaffs.
It was a season of mixed performances. Callum Cooke faded from a player to build your team around to someone who barely started. Gilliead and Watt were questionable under Adams, but looked much improved under Hughes. Songo’o wasn’t quite the player we hoped, but for effort and endeavour has become a popular figurehead. O’Connor continues to struggle for consistency but is getting better every season.
Mid-season arrivals Luke Hendrie, Walker and Pereira more than played their part. Ridehalgh isn’t a history maker just yet, but he’s got a lot of good qualities. The less said about Lavery, Robinson, Elliott, Delfouneso, Threlkeld, Daly and Fiacre Kelleher the better. Vernam was a joy to watch and greatly missed when he was injured. Sutton’s whole-heartedness stood out. Gareth Evans had a mini resurgence before it all faded again.
It was not a year that the club’s younger players will look back on with fondness. Reece Staunton, Kian Scales and to a lesser extent Finn Cousin-Dawson found opportunities hard to come by under Adams. Whisper it quietly, but Hughes was no better with them. You slightly fear for the trio. On a more positive note, Foulds is a player for the future. And the under 19s won their league.
The club end the season in a depressingly familiar position to how they ended the year before. And that means a big improvement is needed this summer – from recruitment to infrastructure. City have been dogged by short-termism in recent years and in 2021/22 they fell into familiar traps. But there is hope as we go into the summer. Some tough lessons have hopefully been learned, and the greater stability at the club – over the final few months – offers a solid grounding to launch a more successful promotion push next time.
In Mark Hughes, we seem to have the right man to lead us forward. Now we need to do everything we can to give him the best chance of succeeding.
And perhaps wait until next season gets going before shouting too much about our prospects.
Categories: 2021/22 season review