Issue 2011/2012 I/IV: The manager

As told by Jason Mckeown

In comparison to his two predecessors, there’s something unique and noteworthy when looking at the characteristics of Bradford City manager Peter Jackson – his ordinariness.

Stuart McCall took his place in the managerial dugout with his legendary status and heart-on-his-sleeve love for the Bantams, which meant no one who shared his passion for the same cause would have wanted him to fail. His replacement Peter Taylor came with an outstanding track record that inspired widespread confidence he could achieve great things. And so for the past four seasons, so much of the focus and responsibility for what’s happened on the pitch has been centred upon one person.

Whereas both McCall and Taylor’s managerial qualities were universally held in high esteem at one point, towards Jackson there is much lower adulation, far less attention and a reduced level of expectation. Having been presented as a potential managerial hybrid when he became City’s Interim manager last February, amongst fans on the eve of this season, there is either a general warmness or quiet disapproval regarding Jackson. Trusted to do the job yes, but no one seems to be expecting miracles.

This outlook might be personal to Jackson; but, after the last two appointments were ultimately judged not to have worked out, it is perhaps more a case of the club and supporters falling out of love with the idea that a manager is the answer to all the problems.

For now at least Jackson has regained the sort of popularity he enjoyed when captaining the club with great distinction and dignity during the 1980s, before a second spell in the early 90s proved hugely disappointing and a defection to matters blue and white. Ever since he’s been considered more an annoyance than legend, whether managing Huddersfield for two separate spells or popping up as an agent for disgruntled young City players. His returns to Valley Parade saw him endure some strong and at times vile abuse, and the idea of him ever being welcomed back as manager would have seemed laughable.

Time heals wounds, and as Jackson cropped up as Lincoln City manager in 2007 – quickly followed by being diagnosed with throat cancer – attitudes towards him began to change. As McCall struggled as manager the season after, Jackson’s name was put forward as an alternative solution. He was passed over in the interview stage in favour of Taylor after McCall quit in February 2010, and a year working in a very different environment with his wife was ended by some proactive phone calls to Julian Rhodes when Taylor went the way of McCall, five months ago. The rehabilitation of Jackson’s standing amongst City fans has been swift since.

Even when he was claiming to bleed blue and white, Jackson was never far off our radar – so the strengths and weaknesses of his managerial ability have already been heavily debated before. Past successes are easy to point to – twice he left Huddersfield better off than when he took over them. Failures are also difficult to ignore. It’s not hard to see why Rhodes and Mark Lawn chose Taylor’s CV over Jackson’s 18 months ago, and the fact his three previous managerial appointments all ended with the sack suggests there’s a high possibility it won’t end brilliantly this time either.

Yet there is much to commend Jackson for since his first game in charge at Gillingham in early March. If he didn’t exactly set the world alight in terms of results, he at least applied some brakes to the post-Christmas slide in form that had pushed City from play off outsiders to relegation candidates. The season ended badly, but could have been far worse. Performances weren’t much better overall, but the style of play was at least more attractive. Jackson oversaw survival with a week to spare, all the while left uncertain over his own future and with growing off the field problems overshadowing his minor achievements.

Jackson’s desire to get the job full time was laudable. As the Valley Parade rent situation looked desperate, BfB understands he was told that this season’s playing budget could have been as low as £400k; on top of the potential 10 point deduction to start the campaign from. Such a bleak prospect would have put many people off – remember Bryan Robson in 2004 walking away because he felt the job, post administration two, would be too tough? Yet Jackson remained unfazed, determined to take his chance.

If his Interim manager record of four wins, three draws and seven defeats is hardly the stuff of great promise, the impact his personality has had on the club certainly was impressive. Who’d have thought, as he posed a lot and talked about himself in third person while managing our local rivals, that this annoying git would actually prove himself to be an immensely likeable bloke?

His loud, passionate and enthusiastic persona may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and maybe it didn’t have the greatest affect on the players he inherited from Taylor. But now having built his own squad and appointed his own coaching staff, there’s a feeling that Jackson’s motivational style can make players perform above themselves and improve as professionals.

And it doesn’t just begin and end with the players. Jackson clearly enjoys mixing with supporters and talking to the local media. Those who attended the club’s recent open day will have witnessed the manager serving burgers with Lawn and chatting away happily to anyone and everyone present. Just like McCall, it’s clear that Jackson doesn’t regard this as any old club and is proud to be here. That may not translate into success, as McCall showed, but it can only help.

Like Taylor, Jackson has only being handed a one-year deal and what the Board and supporters’ expectations are from him this season are unclear. Everyone knew that for Taylor it was promotion or bust; but given how far away the club was from achieving it last season, to demand the same from Jackson would seem unrealistic. That’s not to say this season can’t end in glory, but that smaller steps need to be focused on first before the bigger leaps.

The fact Taylor’s one-year deal was so centred on delivering instant success did not produce a stable atmosphere, and when things went wrong it quickly felt like he was a sitting duck rather than someone who would be given time. Perhaps that’s why the loan market was so overly used by Taylor – he simply didn’t have the space to develop existing players by giving them chance to come good. Perhaps that’s also why the likes of Jon Worthington and Mark Cullen were signed but given little opportunity when they didn’t make an immediate impact. Will Jackson face a similar type of instant pressure of having to narrow his focus on simply getting a result on a Saturday to keep his job, or will there be leeway for him and his players to make mistakes?

For me, success and the offer a new contract for Jackson come May is for us to be able to look back and reflect on improvement: a more appealing style of football, more committed performances from the players and a healthier league position. If a forwards momentum can be started, it would be wrong to risk its continuation by sacking Jackson if its speed is not as fast as we’d ideally hope.

We’ve spent four seasons impatiently trying to scramble out of this division and truthfully haven’t even come close. Now has to be the time to truly take it steady rather than keep hoping to find shortcuts; and for Jackson the challenge this season should be to prove he is the man with a map to success.

Above all else, it may be that this season – relative to the last few – talk in and around matches is less about the manager. The fact that hiring and firing managers has proven a failed policy in delivering improvement will probably never be embraced by some, but this year more than ever there is a collective responsibility for everyone involved with the club to perform.

Maybe Jackson is an ordinary manager, who we could do better than but could also do worse. But after the last few years have seen so much hope and expectation pinned on his predecessors, it might be nice having someone in charge who we already recognise as having faults – in order to move past this culture of blaming every failing upon the occupant of this role.