By Jason McKeown
There’s a few reasons why, right now, the powers-that-be at Bradford City might be feeling uncomfortable when studying the League Two table. And that’s especially the case when glancing at who’s at the top.
The Bantams travel to a Stevenage side this weekend who are sat second in the table and unbeaten in the league since October. They are managed by one Steve Evans – the man who last February made a very public bid to become the next Bradford City manager, following Derek Adams’ sacking.
Stevenage are seven points behind leaders Leyton Orient, who have amassed a considerable 63 points from 30 games. Orient are managed by a certain Richie Wellens – the man who was favourite for the City job last February, and who was spotted watching in the stands as the Bantams were beaten at home by Harrogate.
Two managers who wanted the Bradford City job, but who the club rejected in favour of appointing Mark Hughes.
When Hughes was unveiled to huge surprise 12 months ago, City were above both Stevenage and Leyton Orient in the table. But a year later, both clubs have overtaken the Bantams and are odds on with the bookies to be promoted this season. What might have been perhaps. But is it fair to believe Evans or Wellens would have taken City to such heights had they been awarded the job instead of Hughes?
There are certainly reasons to believe they would not have. Evans is having a fantastic season without question. But his managerial tenures prior to joining Stevenage were less than stellar. Evans did little at Leeds and Mansfield (though he did resign from the Stags when they were fifth in the table). He was sacked at Peterborough for failing to live up to promotion expectations. And though he did lead Gillingham to a season of out-performance, they were bottom of the table and heading to relegation from League One when he was sacked a year ago. Similarly, Richie Wellens – the mastermind of Swindon Town’s 2019/20 promotion from League Two – failed in subsequent roles at Salford and Doncaster.
Both Evans and Wellens have mixed records over their managerial careers. Notable successes at some clubs, failures at others. At best, City would have been appointing someone with a patchy record had they gone for Evans or Wellens a year ago.
They were also far from unifying characters. There is a portion of the Bradford City fanbase – and I include myself in this group – who simply would not have welcomed Evans at Valley Parade. His past misdemeanours are not easy to forget. Plus his confrontational style and pragmatic approach would have made it a difficult footballing decision. Coming after Adams and his less than desirable style of football, it would not have been an approach that would have generated much patience. Even winning games might not have been enough to get everyone onside.
Some managers fit certain clubs, and Evans and Stevenage do look like a suitable marriage. Stevenage have made a name for themselves for playing direct, physical football – not least through the Graham Westley years. That’s not to say Westley was universally popular with Stevenage fans, but there is a track record of success at the club from playing a certain way that means they would be more likely to embrace Evans than others. It’s working out for Stevenage and good luck to them for that.
Wellens does not have the controversy baggage and would have certainly been more welcomed by City supporters. But was it an appointment that would have won hearts as well as minds? Would it have ended the club’s self-destructive pattern of sacking a manager every 12 months? Perhaps, but Wellens’ track record certainly didn’t offer huge levels of assurances. He’d had an awful time at Doncaster just months earlier.
And that’s why the appointment of Hughes over Evans and Wellens still feels like the right call. It hasn’t led to footballing success at the rate of Stevenage and Leyton Orient for sure, but it has had a unifying effect at the club, bringing together fractions and reviving dented self-worth. The latter point is really important. What other League Two club would have stood a chance of attracting someone of Hughes’ calibre? Just at a point where it was difficult to love your football club, Hughes’ presence was a reminder of our potential.
Prior to Hughes’ appointment, there was growing hostility towards the owner, Stefan Rupp, and a feeling the club was drifting. Whether you agree with the decision to appoint Hughes or not, bringing him in was a statement of ambition from Rupp. It’s being backed up by investment in the recruitment strategy and an improved standard of signings. This is a club increasingly methodical in its approach, and getting more of its off-the-field decisions right than wrong.
The response to Hughes’ arrival was a rise in season ticket sales, just at the point where you could have easily seen a drop off. So far this season, they’re averaging 17,433 – a 13% rise on last term. It’s on track to be City’s highest average attendance since the 2017/18 campaign (the post-League One play off final season, where modern day interest in the club peaked).
Compare this resurgence with City’s last spell in League Two (2007-13). After each failed season trying to claim promotion, average attendances went down. The lowest league attendance this season is still larger than City’s highest league attendance in the famous 2012/13 season.
The Mark Hughes factor is clearly at work here. He has inspired renewed faith and enthusiasm in the club just as it was showing real signs of flagging. And the fact City are selling out nearly all their away games as well shows the good feeling largely continues, even with the season not quite going to plan so far. People are already starting to say that the club will struggle to avoid a season ticket sale drop off next year, given current league form. Maybe that’s true, but we’re in a strong starting position even if there is a decline.
All of which is great to a point, but ultimately football is about results – not the celebrity status of your manager. And when we assess Hughes’ record at Valley Parade – P47 W18 D13 L16 – there is obvious room for improvement. Especially when we look at what we could have won in Evans and Wellens, tearing up League Two. Evans has a 60% win ratio at Stevenage, Wellens a 55% win ratio for Orient. Hughes’ 38% win record at City certainly trails that, although it is the fourth-best City managerial performance since the millennium (and is above a certain Phil Parkinson).
It is fair to be critical of Hughes. To expect and demand more. But City do appear to be slowly going on the right path under him. This is much better than last season, the season before that, and the season before that. There are no guarantees, but we should finish closer to the play offs than we have since our return to League Two. In fact, we continue to have a very good chance of making the top seven.
If we don’t make it this year, the squad will need refining rather than overhauling. The knock it down and start again short-termism that has engulfed the club does not need to continue this summer. That includes with the manager. No one’s job is safe in this day and age, but it would take a significant drop off in form from here for Hughes’ position to be under serious threat. Perhaps for the first time since 2018, we can begin a new season with the same guy in charge as the one who began it the season before.
It’s not easy to turn around this failing ship. Maybe we’re making harder work of it than needs to be the case, but maybe in doing so we’re laying deeper and more durable foundations for the future.
The Hughes effect has helped to begin the revival of this troubled football club. And though it’s become pretty obvious of late that he is not, in fact, capable of walking on water, Hughes still looks to be the right person to lift Bradford City off the canvas and back up the Football League ladder.
Until we can invest in goal scoring forwards it doesn’t matter who is our manager
As ever this is measured and intelligent, taking a long view, and using data to come to a rational conclusion. Thank you for a thoughtful article.
It may actually be in the long term interest of the club for us to not overperform – had we run away with the league, we would not keep Hughes. A steady improvement means that we will have the chance of a period of stability and sustainable success under his leadership. This, together with the off the pitch investment and improvement is much more likely to result in us achieving the ambition of regular football in the higher tiers of the leagues .
Wow Tim, that’s a new one to excuse mediocrity.
My favourite was we’ve to wait until MH has learnt how to take us out of L2.
However, it’s in our interest to be average instead of being like Orient is a beauty.
That’s going to take some beating.
There’s been some wacky comments in this comment section over the years and this is right up there. Lets not perform like an automatic promotion side because we might lose a manager who before us couldn’t get a job for well over a year. I can just see Leyton Orient fans telling Richie Wellens to stop winning games…..
A nicely-balanced article summing up relative positions. On the one hand, we might have hoped for more points on the board and more flowing football. On the other, we are still well in the game, so to speak. If this were a limited-overs game of cricket, we are still well in touch, not far behind the asking rate with plenty of overs to go. At some stage soon the run chase must begin big time – and what better time than Saturday to start. Successive wins is what we now need. One big over, analogous to a win at Stevenage, changes the whole picture, gets us going. But remember: big overs don’t come from a blueprint; they need bravery, flexibility and extemporisation.
Nice big word at the end.
Always go out with a bang, Blakey!
Not quite convinced that the squad won’t require rebuilding rather than refining. We have six loan players,few of whom will be here next season. Some aren’t good enough and in the case of Crichlow too good for us as he’ll either be playing at Huddersfield or joining someone else. We have some out of contract Cook, Gilliead to name but two and we aren’t very good at renewing player’s contracts. Our resolve will be tested with Harry Lewis as offers will come in. I would have liked Hughes to build us a side that if it just misses out or indeed goes up that we have a bedrock of players that will be around a while and you can see that if not going up this year then next,but his team building especially this January is built on sand with young kids on loan, a veteran striker, a defender who by his own admission can’t train every day because of his injuries. Hughes has gone for quantity rather than quality, kids on loan rather than someone like Coner McAleny 30 from Salford who was available before the window or Keillor Dunn who Mansfield picked up from Burton 25 years old and both would help our desperate scoring record of 7 goals in last 9 games. I’ll just repeat that, 7 goals in last 9 games.
I largely agree. I want Hughes to stay and I want him to succeed, but I’d like to see a bit more evidence that, almost a year into the job, he has learned what it takes to be successful at this level.
The main example, as your excellent recent articles have explained, is that there aren’t enough goals in the team. Cook aside, the goal return from the rest of the team is awful. No goals from defenders and almost none from midfield puts a lot of pressure on Cook. The worst culprit here is Chapman – we simply can’t afford to have a number 10 contributing so little in terms of goals (and assists for that matter…which is a real shame because we really miss his ability to knit the team together when he doesn’t play.
The worst part about this is that it shouldn’t be a surprise. Filling a team full of players who have historically delivered poor goal returns and expecting them to suddenly turn into goal scorers is naive. One or two might come good, but to expect the majority of them to perform at a goal scoring level they’ve never previously achieved, isn’t going to happen.
The recent admission that the team needs more leaders is a positive sign of learning what a successful League Two team needs. Hopefully Hughes can also address the issues of goals and ruthlessness at both ends of the pitch, which will turn us into a promotion team, but I think to do that will need a little more than just refinement of the squad.
I believe Hughes is a good fit for City. There are critics of him and his style but they would criticise anyone who was appointed. Even if we were to appoint Arteta of Arsenal. We need consistency in our appointments. We can’t keep changing managers. It doesn’t work! Mark tends to be Dogmatic in the way his team play. One could question his decision making sometimes but in the main he gets it right.
He’s a magnet in drawing quality players to the club. We can hopefully get the right balance in the squad going forward. If we make the playoffs then we have had a successful season. So fingers crossed.
Very good article. Will be at Stevenage on Saturday and would not be surprised at all if City come away with all three points.
If not this year then next.
Sparky will get it right!
Who else would City fans wang in charge?
Nice big word at the end.
This article is based on looking at City via a glass half full approach. However a compelling argument can also be made for the half empty approach. The January recruitment in particular indicates that City have gone for quantity over quality. City are clearly not getting value for money spent. Relying on six or more loanees to be competitive in this very poor league cannot be considered foundation building. Neither is having a current squad with no permanent signing younger than their 25th year. It’s too depressing to go on, so I’ll leave it there. A modest expectation should be a playoff spot for this season. If not achieved, serious questions need to be asked.
Reliably looking at half empty approach Phil.
I seem to recall Sparks claiming he wouldn’t accept mediocrity. Nobody should accept City with arguably the largest payroll in the league not being able to at least make the playoffs.
You constantly criticise Sparks yet also admit that we have one of the biggest payroll’s in the division. So where is Sparks praise for this? We are self-sustainable and the budget is due to good business dealings off the pitch. Rupp is putting no extra money in so its Sparks etc work that has enabled the “arguably largest payroll in the league” you claim.
I’d certainly take where we are now, over where we were 12, 24 or 36 months ago, so by that measure we are certainly moving in the right direction.
I do think it’s another squad overhaul though regardless of the division we’re in.
Too many loans and ageing journeymen at the wrong end of their careers.
There is no way this squad comes close to surviving in league one. The 2013 squad grew together. This one no way does that !!
Go up and the squad needs an overhaul. Stay down (much more likely) and again the loans go back. The older heads are more past it and it’s another overhaul.
Those saying rebuild too many loans…
Subs: Hendrie, Kelly, odusina, young, Derbyshire
All of the above are under contract for next year – many with options for another year. In itself not enough for promotion but a stronger side than most teams we’ve started a season with over the last few years.
With a few dropping out for new signings it will be competitive. Wages of the remainder of Adams players freed up and a couple of loans. Stability is imperative to our progression.
Most of the above at a good age other than Derbyshire.
Option to also go back in for Cook and Gilliead. We will also compete for Critchlow if Town stay up and don’t renew but unless we go up it feels unlikely.
That’s mid table league 2 side though !!!
I think you’re missing the point.
It’s a strong starting base – yes it requires additions for promotion but not huge turnover as per previous years.
Cook and Critchlow the only two players from an already competitive XI that we’d really miss. Arguably we could bring both back.
I’m afraid to say that failure to a least secure a play off spot after 46 games will no doubt see ST sales on the reverse and that average crowd figure drop for next season!
Currently we are dropping at an alarming rate and I fail to see how we will finish in the top 7.
Losing Wright and not bringing in another regular goal scorer will be the reasons!
We have 19 games left! That’s a lot of points to play for. I feel we’ve got a good squad with strength in depth compared to lots of our rivals, and a very good manager.
Keep the faith