By Jason McKeown
This time last year, it felt as though the open top bus was already getting warmed up in the garage. A sense of triumph emanated from Bradford City that spread across its fanbase. The club had pulled off the coup of securing Derek Adams’ services, a host of new faces had joined with the help of head of recruitment Lee Turnbull, Valley Parade was undergoing much-needed improvements as it prepared to re-welcome supporters after the pandemic, and season ticket sales were strong.
It’s fair to say that high confidence would prove misplaced. The bubble bursting long before the nights drew darker for winter, as expectations of League Two domination fell flat. That summer 2021 feeling the club was on the verge of success became yet another false dawn. The CEO Ryan Sparks recently admitting that the season was “a bit of a disaster in terms of our initial plans not working out.”
Everyone rightly hopes it will be different this season. That the painful lessons of 2021/22 (and for that matter 2020/21, 2019/20 and 2018/19) have been learned. But with optimism levels firmly returning this pre-season, there is every danger that hubris strikes again. And that what look like brilliant plans right now are torn to pieces when the true yardstick of competitive League Two football matches begin.
For that reason, a sense of cautiousness is healthy and surely needed. It’s not to talk down Bradford City’s chances, or to start to pre-prepare excuses should they fail. But no one wins promotion in July. This is the beginning of the latest chapter in trying to escape the quagmire that is League Two. And the last three seasons have underlined that it’s not as simple of a challenge that we’d like to think it is.
You get the feeling that – within the club – this is recognised. A year ago, everything about Bradford City seemed to reflect the personality of Derek Adams. The Scot was brash, arrogant and single-minded. He had a brilliant track record and knew it – and he projected that hype onto the club. It felt like a populist time where the answers put forward to the challenges facing Bradford City came across that little bit too simple. Talking bold will guarantee plenty of likes on Twitter, but where was the substance?
This time around, the club seems to be mirroring Mark Hughes’ personality – and that instantly makes it more likeable and relatable. As we wrote earlier this week, for all he has done in the game, Hughes has the right to be arrogant. But a large part of why he has achieved what he has is because he chooses not to be. He is calm, humble and methodical. He doesn’t give it the big talk, but he doesn’t back away from sounding ambitious either. There’s a quiet confidence and assurance about the way he operates, and it feels like those at the club are following this lead too.
There feels to be a lot more thought behind City’s actions this summer. The appointment of Stephen Gent as head of recruitment has seen a very different approach in the transfer market. Many of the players who have come in are not typical of the kind of business City have been doing in recent years. And, as we all know, the business City have been doing in recent years has been very poor. There is an intelligence behind many of the incomings. A world away from last summer, where we were snapping up Walsall back up strikers or picking off players from one of the worst clubs in the league.
As we at WOAP have already discussed here and here, there are risks to the more youthful City approach. A lot of the players brought in have very limited track records. Some of them have never played week in week out for any club. We hope Gent has unearthed some real gems, but we must also be realistic that such an approach will lead to some duds too. It’s a long season, and even those who start well might hit a wall mid-way through, as they adapt to the pressures and demands of playing regularly in front of 15,000 supporters.
But even if success isn’t immediately forthcoming, this feels like a more considered, measured approach. It’s not just building something that can be successful over the next few weeks, but potentially a model that can serve us well for years to come. Time will tell of course, but even if the new era has a rocky start there might be more patience afforded than what Adams and his recent predecessors experienced. If there’s a plan that is more measured than signing a has-been journeyman striker in the final hours of the transfer window, it might just have a chance of succeeding at a club trapped in a spiral of short-termism.
Part of the reason it has a better chance of lasting is Hughes. A mid-season managerial arrival can sometimes be doomed by the fact they inherit a mess that they quickly become associated with. An end of season run of iffy results takes away some of the new manager shine, and if they don’t start their first full season well, the honeymoon period quickly disappears. See Gary Bowyer, Peter Jackson and Peter Taylor as good examples of this.
Hughes got to the end of last season with supporter admiration levels very much intact, if not rising. And that wasn’t just because he delivered some decent end of season results, he had City playing in a much more entertaining way. The 1-1 Good Friday draw with Tranmere was a brilliant watch. You went home frustrated by Rovers’ late equaliser, but encouraged by the entertainment. Hughes had City playing some really good attacking football and one of the most exciting elements of the new season is watching that continue.
That will be crucial to City’s chance of success, especially if results aren’t immediately brilliant. With Adams, it was win or bust. You could just about put up with being bored to tears if City were victorious. But when you got neither entertainment nor three points, it was difficult to stay patient. Would you rather watch a game like Tranmere at home under Hughes, or a laboured victory like Rochdale at home under Adams? It’s not an easy one to answer – ultimately, we want entertainment AND results. But if the latter can’t always happen, having the former is a consolation that gives the manager breathing space.
Still, we can’t ignore our recent history. Bradford City hasn’t gone through a season without changing manager since those halcyon days of 2016/17. That’s five years in a row where there’s been a mid-season change in the dugout. No City manager has lasted a full 12 months at the helm since Stuart McCall’s second spell of 2016-18. Seven have tried and failed since.
It seems unimaginable right now that Hughes could lose his job this season, but again that felt the case with Adams this time last year. If Hughes makes it to the end, that’s an achievement that so many others can’t say they managed.
And that probably brings us to the uncomfortable truth about Bradford City last season. You cannot pin all of the blame for the failure on Derek Adams. You just can’t. Yes, it was all unsatisfying to hear Adams blame everyone but himself for the club’s failings, but at times – with some of the things he said – he had a point. Last summer, the biggest reason why everyone thought City were going to be successful was Adams. But he still lacked the infrastructure and players he needed to be successful. City improved greatly after he left, but let’s not pretend the team became world beaters.
This is a mistake we can’t afford to repeat. I love Hughes, and remain amazed he is the manager of Bradford City. And if we are successful this season, he will clearly be a huge reason why. But success or failure is not down to him alone. This club has continually invested in the cult of manager and yet keeps hiring and firing. The answers to City’s recent difficulties have not been solved by a change in the dugout. And the club – and fanbase – dooms itself to keep stumbling if they keep believing that.
Adams spent last summer no doubt noticing how supporters lapped up everything he was saying. By the time the season began, and results started to become iffy, that adulation quickly disappeared. There is every chance Hughes will experience the same. He will make subs later than we want. Overlook players we think should be in the team. Keep picking players who the crowd doesn’t rate. If you believe it will be any different, name me a Bradford City manager who hasn’t been accused of all these things? In 25 years supporting the club, I’ve never known it different.
Hughes’ popularity will be tested at some point. But wouldn’t it be nice if this time we could actually stick with someone through the rough as well as the smooth?
All of which isn’t to talk down City’s chances and focus only on the downsides. But last summer there was an almost a sentiment of ‘this can’t possibly fail’ in the air. And when things did go wrong, there didn’t seem to be a plan of idea what to do next. Adams was brought in on a three year deal, but we didn’t even give him a year. And there was a deeply uninspiring January 2022 transfer window suggested a lack of preparation or resources to really shift the dial upwards. It all suggested that when things didn’t go as expected, there was no plan B other than eventually ripping up plan A and starting again.
With Hughes, we should absolutely plan for him to succeed and give him everything he needs to achieve that. But it would be foolish not to prepare for a season of City trailing the play offs. What do we do if we’re stuck in mid-table in January? Will we be prepared to stick with Hughes if the going gets tough? Plan for every scenario, to reduce the risk of panic down the line. At the end of every season since 2018, the club has been left so short of where it wanted to be that a complete rebuild was needed. If City don’t go up this season, they should be aiming to get closer to their goal. So that next summer it’s about strengthening rather than resetting.
Hopefully, the club develop contingency ideas that are never needed. There are genuine reasons to feel excited about the Bantams’ chances this season. It definitely looks like a much better squad. Hughes has a clear vision on the style of football he wants to play, and pre-season has offered plenty of positive signs to suggest Gent has found suitable players to make it work.
When you think back to where Bradford City was last February – the disappointing 3-1 home defeat to Harrogate Town – that engulfing sense of darkness then has disappeared. Who, trudging home that night, would have predicted that Mark Hughes would be our next manager? That season ticket sales for 2022/23 would exceed 2021/22? That the club would be capable of attracting players from the Championship?
This summer has seen a chance to reset. Revamp the squad and improve it. Hughes has had more than a glimpse of this level. He knows what’s needed to succeed, and he has a stronger infrastructure around him to achieve it. This time around, Hughes is one of many reasons to be confident – rather than the only reason, which was the case last year with Adams. Every part of the club and the playing squad genuinely looks to have been improved compared to 12 months ago.
Whatever happens over the 2022/23 season, it doesn’t feel like a season where you’ll want to look away. This is a huge opportunity for City to succeed, and the tools to do the job look fresher, shiner and leaner.
The club has a fanbase that has stuck through it through thin and thinner on the field – not to mention the global pandemic and cost of living crisis – and they’re bursting for success. There’s a whole lot of love they’re waiting to impart onto the players and manager. It all has the potential to come together, and to prove very special.
We should feel really excited by what lies ahead. But mindful of past scars too. For now, let’s keep the keys to the open top bus locked away. But also make sure the bus has an up to date MOT certificate.
Categories: Season Preview