Issue McCall vs Abbott recalls the biggest mistake

As told by Michael Wood

Stuart McCall will take his Bradford City team to old Bantams midfield team mate Greg Abbott’s Carlisle United as both club’s look towards a place in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy finals.

McCall and Abbott go further back than that though. When a young Abbott moved North from his Coventry home when he signed for City in the early 1980s he was housed by the club in the bedroom next to Stuart at the McCall house. Andy McCall – father of Stuart and a former footballer – can take credit for the good habits that both were brought up with and it is no surprise that both have made management.

Watching the pair in the midfield for Trevor Cherry’s Bantams in the mid-eighties was something of a cathartic experience for the City both before and after the fire of 1985. The pair battled, tackled, prompted and played in a way that demanded respect for the team in claret and amber who were moving up the football pyramid and for the City at as a whole. Bradford – in the hands of Abbott and McCall – was bouncing back.

Naturally McCall – who went on to the World Cup, six titles with Rangers and being cheated out of the European Cup – was impressive as the side moved through the leagues but Abbott struggled. A player of heart and tackle Abbott’s suspensions – and make no mistake Abbo could put it about – allowed others a chance to take a place in the side.

Trevor Cherry’s replacement – and even with the club floundering second bottom of the second tier playing nomadically around West Yorkshire and up to Odsal few demanded Cherry’s head – was Terry Dolan who as caretaker won eight of ten games and steered the club to tenth in the division being given the job full time as a result. It was perhaps as deserved at the end of those ten games as it was unexpected at the start.

Abbott’s absences – and his deficiencies – were filled as Dolan employed skilful young midfielder Leigh Palin in his place. Palin was an opposite to Abbott lacking the heart of Abbo but having skill which could surpass even McCall. One time City assistant boss Norman Hunter – who went to the World Cup in 1770 and won Championships – once called Palin the best footballer he had ever seen but qualified it with “but only for ten minutes in a game. For the rest of the match he is…”

Such was Palin’s problem. When he was not magic he vanished and while he is in Bradford City’s history for a headed goal against Everton in Stuart McCall’s return and 3-1 defeat the next season his level of ability – no matter how transient – should have seen him achieve more.

It seemed though that Dolan – who had his City team riding high in the second tier in the first third of the season but was watching them falter – thought on the one hand that Palin could provide an edge of quality which would rival fellow promotion runners Aston Villa’s attacking midfielder David Platt but on the other longed for Abbott’s ferocity. He veered between the two all season but identified a player he believed could give him both and went to the chairman – Jack Tordoff – to ask for the money to make the purchase.

Enter Mick Kennedy who at £250,000 was a record signing from Portsmouth. Ultimately he offered neither the skill of Palin nor the commitment of Abbot although he could match the latter for violence in play. City faltered, McCall left, Dolan was fired the next season and the top tier remained a distant dream for some eleven years.

Perhaps this moment was the biggest mistake. Some thought Palin a passenger and that Abbot should be in the side, some that were Palin given the time in the side to settle rather than being in and out of the side then he would be the player he promised to be, others – significantly in the boardroom – had ideas about the signing Dolan wanted.

Dolan had wanted to sign a young Andy Townsend – who was a better footballer than he is a pundit – an equally fresh faced Keith Curle and a striker called Jimmy Gilligan which would have set the club back around £1m but he got Kennedy and the word from the chairman that there was no point paying for a footballer who “might break his leg tomorrow.”

Perhaps it was a weakness on Dolan’s part – he has not been appointed by Tordoff who went on to give former assistant Terry Yorath the job prompting Jimmy Greaves to say on “On The Ball with Saint & Greavies” that it was “just the chairman giving his mate a job.” If it was a weakness on Dolan’s part then it might be noted that when he got the job as caretaker it was at the expense of the wannabe manager who had been successful in the application process: Martin O’Neill.

All of which said we have seen at the club since the effects of spending money that would only be recouped later with success and Dolan’s ambitions might have proved catastrophic. Hindsight in this case is not 20:20 and had O’Neill been City manager, had McCall and Townsend been a midfield pair, had Palin or Abbott been assured the shirt, had Dolan had spent a million we did not have, had John Hendrie not been unfairly sent off in the away game at Manchester City then would things have worked out better? One can only guess, but guess away.

Some twenty years after those events McCall and Abbott square off as managers for a place in a cup final – albeit a minor one – and put all those experiences to the test.