Issue McCall and the never-ending cycle

As told by Jason Mckeown

Stuart McCall once stated he’d rather be a lucky manager than a good one. With dismal recent form threatening to prematurely terminate Bradford City’s promotion chances, a debate is in full swing over which of these two adjectives he is not.

From a largely encouraging first quarter to the season which saw only 6 defeats from 23, a run of just one win, one draw and four defeats has seen cup interest ended and the distance from the play offs increase, with heavy traffic in-between. With each disappointing result, the pressure is growing on McCall. Five of City’s next six games are on the road, January may prove the month which defines the Bantams season and their manager.

It’s hardly new territory for City to be in a position of contemplating a managerial change. In recent times we’ve been here before with Nicky Law and Colin Todd teetering on the edge before the axe finally fell. What’s always curious is the silence in some quarters.

You won’t find the local media – print or radio – mentioning the manager might be under pressure, save for reading out supporters’ texts on air or allowing supporters’ comments underneath articles.

You won’t find public comment from the Board. Speculation continues to rage over one of the joint Chairmen wanting to issue Stuart his p45 and the other disagreeing; from neither has there been public support for the manager, either.

Yet amongst supporters, there’s barely any other topic of conversation.

Just like with Law and Todd, there’s a split of opinion and a disunity amongst City’s fanbase which will only be repaired by an upturn of results or the pull of the trigger. Typically those who want to see a change are shouting the loudest, on the message boards and, increasingly, at games. Short of risking getting into an ugly fight by registering disagreement, it’s more difficult for those who still support McCall to make their views known as loudly. It makes estimations over percentages for and against his continuing employment near-impossible to make.

The arguments for a change of manager largely focus on the lack of progress McCall has delivered since taking charge two and a half years ago. Admitting he’d consider himself a failure if he didn’t deliver instant promotion before a ball had even been kicked in June 2007, the season after that first failed promotion attempt he vowed to quit if a play off spot wasn’t achieved. It wasn’t, but after many supporters begged him to stay he remained anyway.

To some fans, this is now looked back on as him breaking his own promises and almost considered an act of selfishness. The supporters who had persuaded him to stay, be it through writing to him or holding up an SOS sign during the home game with Rotherham last April, have been regularly attacked online too.

But if most fans forgave the failings of his first two seasons, that this year progress on the field has been limited is causing some to lose faith in McCall’s ability. While the last six results have been disappointing, the frustration was growing in the preceding weeks as City’s 10 game unbeaten run of early autumn gave way to a succession of draws.

The improved home form of last season has disappeared and City are winless at Valley Parade since October 24. Even on the road since impressively beating Shrewsbury in early September, the only two victories have come at the division’s bottom two clubs.

The stats simply do not look good.

Yet coherent calls and sensible arguments for managerial change have largely been lost in a sea of over-the-top criticism which has got nasty, ugly and personal. Many have chosen to go beyond reasonableness in the arguments put forward, in doing so exposing a blinkered view that everything will be okay once McCall has been sacked.

It’s a style and tone of criticism striking similar to what Law and Todd endured. For both it was unfair and wrong, for a City playing legend to be targeted so loathsomely is disgusting and undermines the credibility of the protagonists.

The stats simply do not look good – so why the need to embellish them by expressing half-truths, cooking up improbable analysis, uttering spiteful comments and offering no balance?

In recent weeks results have been influenced by some atrocious refereeing decisions, the squad has been disrupted by injuries and suspensions, while some players have shown poor application over a full 90 minutes – yet rather than acknowledge any lack of fortune, these contributory factors are dismissed as McCall “excuses”. Some fans are more sensible in their reasons for wanting change, but the anger of others is threatening to drown them and everybody else out.

Clearly, there remains a proportion of City supporters who believe in sticking by McCall. While no one could qualify his reign as successful so far, there are nevertheless signs that under Stuart the club is being rebuilt in the right way. Off the field much has improved in recent years and much of this – for example youth set up – can be attributed to the rookie manager, who clearly doesn’t view managing City as just managing any old club.

On the pitch, perhaps belatedly, the balance is finally there. From lack of knowledge of the division undermining McCall’s first season – despite successfully turning round a difficult start – through to bringing in players too good for this level but with not enough heart, it finally seems that McCall is setting out to do what he first promised at the time he declared he’d consider himself a failure if City weren’t promoted at the first attempt. That is to bring in players who would have long term careers at the club, rather than be here for one/two years and then be replaced by another short term player.

Are Gareth Evans, James Hanson, Scott Neilson, Steve Williams, Jonathan Bateson, James O’Brien and Luke O’Brien the finished article which we should get rid of in May? For me they are players of great potential who I look forward to seeing the majority of developing at Valley Parade over subsequent weeks, months and years, with other new additions to add to the squad along the way.

This is the path Stuart has now gone down, but it is not a path of instant success. Julian Rhodes recently stated he considered this year’s squad to be better than last year, but he won’t find many regular City watchers who’d agree. However, in time, he might be proven right. Apart from the defeat to Lincoln in August, City’s defeats have all been to teams who it can be reasonably argued have better squads. Last season’s squad was careless in how often it lost winnable games, this one is short of experience but not effort.

The irony of McCall’s reign at City is the longer-term strategy has started up so late, meaning the patience to be allowed to carry it out has worn thin in many fans’ eyes. But it doesn’t make abandoning it the right thing to do. Of course the idea of being stuck in this division another year or worse is one to cause dismay, but change means starting all over again and hoping the rate of progression is then faster. Hoping being the key word.

For as often as we read or hear fans urging the board to sack McCall, ideas about what should happen next are in short supply. Appeals for an answer to the valid question of how sacking a manager improves the club fall on deaf ears.

There’s seems to be a belief that sacking McCall will make all the difficulties which influence the club disappear, that it will instantly herald the long-awaited upturn.

It is a belief that the success and failure of a football is entirely down to the man in the dug out. It is a belief that a manager who succeeded elsewhere will guarantee the same results in a completely different environment – remember that last season a number of fans wanted Dave Penny to replace McCall, he’s hardly pulling up trees at Oldham. It is a belief that placing faith in leaping into the unknown will eventually be rewarded if you keep trying it.

And it is these beliefs which stop me, and others, from supporting the idea of dismissing McCall. As Michael eloquently put it a few years ago when Todd was under similarly fierce pressure, hand me the ‘McCall out’ banner as I want to believe his removal would send the club soaring back up the leagues. You, me, Mark, Julian and everyone else is sick of City failing and hurt by the recent results, so if Stuart leaving guarantees the pain will be over – let’s do it.

The problem is that his removal guarantees nothing. It just seems like the only thing which can be done. It is the only immediate and obvious remedy.

But what’s the subsequent tactics? Sit back and wait for a pile of managerial CVs to fly through the letter box, pick the best interviewee and hope they can bring instant success? What happens if they don’t, go through the whole CV-picking process again?

It is through this strategy that the club’s success and failure becomes utterly dependent on the manager. It is through this strategy that a revolving door will be needed for all the players coming and going. It is through this strategy that the structure of the club will ultimately suffer because no one is around long enough to give a damn.

Which is not to say City should stick with McCall come what may, but to at least ensure there is that much-fabled ‘Plan B’ in place. In the 90s City adopted a strategy of recruiting internally and grooming the next person, which worked fantastically with Chris Kamara and Paul Jewell before being abandoned after 12 Chris Hutchings games. It provided continuity during a period of rapid change, it ensured that the club was always bigger than any manager.

Maybe right now, an internal replacement for McCall isn’t ready, but maybe right now the change isn’t needed. Maybe just as history shows clubs such as Liverpool, Man United and Nottingham Forest moved upwards because of periods of building under the long term influence of sticking by a manager, City can one day enjoy relative success by allowing McCall time to do the same.

I still believe that he should get to stay in charge until at least the end of the season, I’d ideally like it if he was able to at least finish his two-year contract. For that to happen progress must be made and recent results increase the urgency for improvement.

If the overwhelming feeling is a change must be made, I and others will have to accept it. But if change is only made because a few loudmouths got more say than others as usual, it’s not a well-rounded decision and it becomes an even riskier gamble. For those who didn’t want to come to such a decision, the strong relationship many of us have with City will be weakened because of the usual suspects getting their way, yet again.

Because whether McCall is a bad or unlucky manager, we can all be sure who’ll be the first people calling for the head of his replacement.