Apprentice / Sparks / Adams

Strider

There is another world in which you know Ryan Sparks as the gruff Northerner on Series Fourteen of The Apprentice.

On The Apprentice Sparks, instantly likeable but also really not likeable at all, tells a few quips while he throws around buzzwords but gets fired by Lord Sugar in week six. As he is in the Taxi going home he is talking about how he has achieved his goals and is going to smash targets going forward and it occurs to you you’ll never think of that person again in your whole life.

Which is a way to say that Sparks – the Chief Executive of Bradford City starting at the end of 2020 and continuing as the club recovers from the Pandemic – often appears inauthentic. His “speaks my mind” persona seems a little too practiced, his mantras around commitment and hard work a little too well versed. One is reminded of Tolkien’s comment about “looking fairer and feeling fouler.”

When I am in communication with the man who used to be Communications Officer at Bradford City – a communication entirely mediated by others but clearly very carefully crafted by Sparks – I find myself asking if I really would buy a used car from that man?

Gomez

I’ve read almost everything I can find about Derek Adams since it became obvious that he would be coming to replace Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars as Bradford City manager and the portrait painted is of a football manager who demands high levels of commitment from his players, who is tactically innovative but not adventurous in attack, and who is only interested in achieving success to a point of that being a character flaw.

Which is not an assisnation of that character just an observation that the drive that once saw Adams banned from the touchline for eighteen matches would seem to be homousian with the drive which has made near to, or actually, Morecambe into a League One club.

No one describes Adams as nice, or personable, or friendly. He is not Stuart McCall being the warm face of the club or Paul Jewell joking with reporters. He is the Phil Parkinson or Colin Todd uninterested in trying to win the favour of the fans with anything other than a successful team. Adams may be the same but he is no one’s idea of the smiling face of the club.

Determination and probably explains why – despite bringing unprecedented success to the Seaside club forever in the shadow of Blackpool – Adams has already agreed to become Bradford City manager and started work having given the club its retained list. The entire adult population of Morecambe could fit inside Valley Parade. There are issues of potential at play here.

Looking for a good little runner are you? Something that will get you from A to B and on weekends: C? I have just the thing.

Highs

As he has probably had his final day working as a manager in football it is worth pondering the path of Stuart McCall’s life in the game. McCall – sacked as Bradford City manager by Sparks at the end of 2020 – must have got to understand to the highs and lows of football.

In his career he scored in the World Cup Finals, got to Wembley in the FA Cup when getting to Wembley was the be all and end all, scored two in the FA Cup final, won promotions and trophies but you do not need me to tell you about 1985 and 1989, and how his playing life was intersected with tragedy.

After leaving City for the sixth time he was quickly on Sky Sports telling funny stories about being manager and showing a genuine warmth for Bradford City. Even after his fall out with Edin Rahic he walked away with a warm smile and wishing good luck albeit with the unspoken addendum of “you’re gonna need it.”

With reflection – for me – McCall comes into focus not as The Glorious Hero of May 1999 or The Crushingly Defeated Manager of 2020 but rather as a balanced human being. A Kipllianian man happy to say that while there are worse ways to earn a living all this – kicking a bit of leather around every weekend – is not really that important in the grand scheme of things.

It is a good runner, it has not given anyone any problems, but I’m not going to say it is impossible that it will breakdown. You have AA membership, right?

Marine Juniors

If there was a phrase which would define Sparks in the same way that “I know football”, “Administration”, or “Peppercorn Rent”, or whatever random nonsense spewed from Mark Lawn’s cakehole defined his predecessors in the boardroom it would be his statement that the club would no longer “tolerate mediocrity”.

Sparks said this after removing Trueman and Sellars from their Managerial roles but quickly walked it back with the aid of a supplicant local media. Sparks – former Communications Manager – did not mean those two people he had just sacked were the subject of the comments on the day he sacked them. Quickly Sparks added that he thought Trueman and Sellars would become great, with time and experience, but that City were not in a position to offer those things.

It smacked of Geoffrey Richmond praising Chris Kamara the week after sacking him after David Mellor suggested a racial component in that decision and made for an interesting follow up article where Sparks got to outline the hope that the pair stay at the club, which is a hope I share.

We only sell the best here, every vehicle gets rigorously tested in our workshop. I know this because I get my cars from our lot.

Reversion

That Trueman and Sellars have been stood down – a phrase Sparks favours – is a crucial decision for the club. It was obvious that – on the field – they had benefited from a reversion to the mean in City’s form which was always going to happen for a club so obviously average in League Two but also obvious that they had done things which facilitated that improvement.

When the play off push that seemed to be April 2021 faltered it highlighted both their successes and failures. They had over performed to take City above the middle of League Two but that over performance could not be sustained.

Once that became clear in Sparks’ mind he move in an unusually rapid fashion to make a change. This is on the face of it Sparks at his most The Apprentice where his word – word now three times signed on contract in the last twelve months – is a flexible thing to be treated as soft because everyone knows football is a results based business, right?

Under that surface it was Sparks affirming that – as much as he might not like to say it – two rookie managers are not an appointment one should expect to lead to great things. “Mediocre” is a harsh word to use – and one he regretted – but recognising the shape of the problem early is important.

Yes, I noticed that myself, a little bit of a knocking on the engine but I’ve got the full service history and this car has never even had a day off the road.

Interesting

Adams will arrive at Bradford City and start a recruitment drive by bringing Cole Stockton and Yann Songo’o from Morecambe. Both have “interesting” histories but Adams trusts them to have the mentality he wants. He has re-recruited both before

This is Adams at his most Phil Parkinson, his wannabe Marcelo Bielsa, his Morrisons Own Brand Jurgen Klopp. Attitude and a willingness to work hard are the defining characteristics of a player. Work hard for the group, or the group does not need you.

There is a rude awakening for many players in the squad who are far too ready to take too little responsibility for the level of performance of the team. The Adams administration – expect to hear a lot about his GPS tracking during games – is a long way away from McCall’s gut reactions.

Tactically Adams favours a player in front of the back four shielding – Songo’o takes the role for Morecambe – and three or often four midfielders running channels to create space and angles for attacking moves when with the ball and to close off passing lanes without it. Without the his teams sit deep behind the ball and break quickly in transition.

Expect Watt, Cooke and Sutton to be running 10km per game or not be at the club any more. Expect Vernam and Crackshaw to be charged with finding pockets of space to break into rather than waiting for the ball before going forward.

The silhouette Adams creates is one of a man who feels that his understanding and his abilities should take him higher in the game. His previous experiences – perhaps his previous compromises – have prevented that.

In Bradford City he sees an opportunity to achieve those aims with the key being that he need not to compromise those principles again.

Looking at buying that from Ryan are you? It’s a great little runner. I hope you don’t buy it because I want to buy it myself come payday.

Likemind

In Adams Ryan Sparks has found a likemind in a way that Sparks could never have in the even handedness of McCall. Football is not life and death, as McCall well knows, and it is not dividing people along a line marked “mediocre”. Largely football is about people and how to get the best out of people in a way which might not always be the best for that person.

However – for all this may read as a criticism of Sparks – I do not mean it to because for all his Apprentice Affectations and Ill Communicators he has identified the defining problem at the heart of Bradford City. Sparks is correct to say that standards have not been set high enough.

Phil Parkinson – as manager – can be said to have set high standards on the field but he clashed with the boardroom over the standard of the pitch. For all that was happening on the field the standards were not higher throughout the club, at least in the manager’s opinion.

Indeed much of the problem before, during and after Parkinson’s time was that people around the club exempted themselves from the standards set and one thing that Sparks has identified correctly is that not only do standards need to be raised chiefly in football, but across the board too, but that he needs to be subject to those standards too.

Sparks is not the autocrat barking that others should do better while doing little himself. He is taking off his (blue) suit jacket and rolling up his (white, crisp) shift sleeves and getting involved even if it does get dirt on his (brown, pointed, brogue) shoes.

I really think this is the right car for you.

There

Derek Adams seems to be a manager who has a clear plan for how he wants a club to be run and Ryan Sparks either found him for that reason, or got convinced by him on the way, but importantly the pair are fundamentally right. The success or failure of the next few seasons – or failures in their implementation of it – does not change that.

Football is ultimately a cruel construction best done by people maladjusted to a part of life in which joy is not a zero sum game. The best football managers – the Cloughs, the Fergusons, the Sebes – took no joy in seeing other teams playing well, in being a part of the well played game.

This is a character flaw, obviously, but it might also be the sine qua non of success in football. That there has to be – to try not to be rude – something a little bit wrong with the people who do prize the movement of a bit of leather in the right direction so highly.

We might have to conclude that those people might have a skewed sense of priorities in the wake of 150,000 deaths in a year both highlights and underlines the discrepancy of demanding so much from our Football Managers and Administrators while accepting so little from our Leaders.

But that we want them to have those priorities and, perhaps, that we need them to have them too.

So, do you want to buy this car?

Car

Ryan Sparks has the feel of a used car salesman trying to sell you a good car.

He is trying to sell you a genuine good deal – something he believes in – but he cannot turn off that sheen in his public persona that makes you feel like you are being had.

He has the right ideas – more or less – and he is trying to sell them the only way he seems to know how but I have to say that I’m there for that. I’m in his corner. I’m on his side.

Derek Adams is coming in to make players run more, to stop them being happy with a home draw and to tell them they should be happy with an away draw. I doubt he will turn on any sheen or charm in his public persona and I expect to hear a lot about working hard, and the unit.

And I’m here for that too. I’ve been waiting for that since Phil Parkinson left the club in 2016.

Jonah

You, and me, and Stuart McCall can then – perhaps – just be happy that we do not have to be cut from that cloth which has a desire insatiable. Watching football managers over the last nine months has been seeing the elevation of the art of football above the ways of living.

Which is not me saying that football does not matter, rather the opposite. I’m saying that other things should matter to use in the way that football does. That these values of not accepting the mediocre echo around a Valley Parade which has settled for too little, too often but find resonance on every street in Bradford, in Yorkshire, in an England where the mediocrity of the used car salesman has preeminence.

Reading what Adams, what Sparks has said, what Tuchel has said after both losing and winning the Champions League in the space of nine months, what every football manager charged with caring about a game in a World where The Prime Minister says that “let the bodies pile up” and I am reminded of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back when he reads a report about how Bob Dylan smokes eighty cigarettes a day.

“I’m glad I’m not me.”

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