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.”

Season / Review / Value

The price of next year’s season ticket might be an odd place to start a review of a season, but how much we pay for next year seems germane to the situation which Bradford City have found themselves following a season in which every home game was played behind closed doors.

The perennial discussion of Season Ticket Pricing at Valley Parade seems especially pernicious this year following fifteen months of debilitating of the economic conditions. The impact of COVID and Brexit are creeping through a part of the country which does not have prosperity to spare.

Nevertheless, at the start of May 2021, following a year in which Bradford City fitted to a middle of League Two finish, the club saw fit to ask me what I thought about increasing the price to watch next season’s football.

McCall

There seems to be a certainty at Bradford City that at some point the club will get itself into a level of trouble that will require someone to ask Stuart McCall to help.

McCall’s return as manager for a third time – entirely contained within 2020 – is another case in point and saw the Definitive Bradford City Stalwart rolled up his sleeves and get involved again.

McCall’s exit less than a year after arriving again and a month after signing a new contract offered by nascent CEO Ryan Sparks may be the last time he is involved with the club – or may be the last time he sits in the manager’s chair – but it would take the faith of Matthew 8:5-13 to not believe that the club will at some point be navigating Shit Creek and asking McCall for a paddle.

And one is tempted to suggest that the less said about McCall’s time as manager the better, other than to note that something has to be said about it.

Plague

There is a subtext to discussions of McCall’s 2020 spell as manager of Bradford City that is wilfully ambivalent to the homoousian problems that face the club.

McCall took on a team – inherited from a manager who inherited it from a manager and so on – which lacked character. He recruited players over a summer following a truncated season for a season that many would not finish and tried – and failed – to build those players into a winning squad in a context where players were not even allowed to go to the pub together.

When one recall’s McCall’s exit under Edin Rahic one remembers a photograph of a half a dozen players around the manager. The rule of six, the one meter, the social distance.

That McCall was unable to turn the team who retain the core of the side that bombed out of League One so badly into something useful is presented as a criticism of him – which may be fair – but is also a synecdoche of the issues he inherited and which were passed onto the next man, or men.

Blue

The chief component of McCall’s timely exit was newly appointed Ryan Sparks who seems to not be the first person running the club to find an abrasion in McCall’s ways. His decision to replace McCall so quickly after having him sign a new deal would have destroyed any credibility Sparks had built up but, as it was, Sparks had yet to build any.

Following that early decision to remove one of the most popular characters in the club’s history Sparks cast himself as a kind of Popularist in charge making a series of decisions which were generally well-received by the constituency he seems to be most interested in appeasing, who are, briefly the people who are most vocal on Twitter.

Few missed Ben Richards-Everton or Kurtis Guthrie after they headed a list of players who were sent away as Sparks crafted the appearance of a man who was taking care of business. The signings made following the appointment of Lee Turnbull as a Head of Recruitment were well-received and rightly so.

But reception and action are not the same and Sparks needs to balance the whims of the people he appeases with the demands of creating a fertile environment for success at the club. The history of this club – or most clubs – draws the correlations of good times on the field and the times when CEOs and Chairmen are most quiet.

lersTruemanSel

The decision Sparks did not have to make was appointing Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars to the role(s) of joint manager(s) after the pair suggested themselves with a long run of very good results. Those results through the Autumn and Winter moved the club into upper mid-table before an abortive play off push in the Spring.

The improvement shown, and the subsequent failure to maintain that improvement, represented a reversion to the mean for the club and illustrated much about the group of players who until May 2021 represented Bradford City in that – on the whole – they are technically excellent but lack commitment.

Many or the players – and here I would talk about Anthony O’Connor, Paudie O’Connor, Richard O’Donnell, Gareth Evans, and others – are technically capable but do not show the consistent application which – perhaps – if they were to show or be able to show they would mean they were not be League Two players.

Within this group of players there are those who are not in the middle of League Two because they are without skill but rather that because they are not often enough willing to be responsible for the results. Mistakes are someone else’s fault, problems are other people’s to solve, and notions of collective responsibility are far away.

This culture runs deep at the club and is difficult to address. Trueman and Sellars did not create this problem any more than McCall, or Gary Bowyer before him, or David Hopkin before him did, but they are charged with addressing it, or at least seem to be.

Yet this need to defend Trueman and Sellers is reflexive. It is the result of many years talking about the need for stability and for retaining institutional knowledge but – given how little knowledge there is and how little there is to risk upsetting then why should the manager’s be protected?

The pair represent the end of a path in which options have been tried and readily thrown away. They are the default setting for a League Two club who have run out of ideas.

Press

However that Trueman and Sellars should be able to use the full range of tools at their disposal to do effect any changes should be unquestioned. The idea that a football club prefers a formation – that Bradford City is a 442 club – is inherently ludicrous and hampers it.

The pair brought a few of the trappings of a more modern approach to managing space on the field is not something which should be denied to them for the sake of flaccid traditionalism.

Their use of a higher press during the good period between Autumn and Winter caused problems which – once again – one would be wilfully ambivalent to ignore. With this football season compressed to fit into fewer months, and with the requirements of a more physically demanding way of playing obvious, that City tailed off in the last month seems unsurprising.

Having been asked to put in a great effort to move the club up the league away from the spectre of relegation the players felt legs getting heavier after March. When the going got tough those players absolutely failed to get going.

Outside

This is not a criticism of those players so much as an understanding of the assets they present. No one in the squad is a Gus Branston playing on the edge to make up for his technical inadequacies. They are playing comfortably within themselves and achieving moderate results because of that.

There are a number of prospects around the squad: Elliot Watt, Callum Cooke and Levi Sutton represent potential as a midfield and I have a fondness for Charles Vernam; but all football teams are as good as the senior professionals in them and so these players are more clay to be shaped.

Niall Canavan – a player I look forward to seeing in the flesh – seems to represent a positive seniority within the club well whereas striker Danny Rowe – who exited as quickly as he arrived – did not.

However

All this discussion comes with a massive, and honest, apology to the O’Connors and Richard O’Donnell and all the other players criticised here because – frankly – were I one of those players I might feel like I did a decent job this year and not care much about anything else.

There is nothing about being a footballer which means you are not subject to the world created by the onset of COVID-19. There is no reason why a man who pulls on a football shirt should worry less about his family, or about not being able to visit the urban sprawl we increasingly shuttle past but do not engage with.

There is nothing about a footballer than means they feel less isolated by the inability to socialise, by the rising death toll and lowering of the standard of life. There is nothing about a footballer which means that they – like you and I – are not just getting through this.

Berkeley

Some days have been Hell.

If you are a footballer who has done a job only to have some Berk like me pass judgement on that work, and you feel you have a right to tell me to Go Fuck Myself, then I would not object if you did so.

Because ultimately the problem of assessing 2020/2021 as a Football Season is that to do so robs it of the context. The darkest days in football history – at this club, at other clubs – are measured in numbers of dead which became the day to day ticking of the clock.

Some days have been Hell.

Ambition

There is a need for society to return to normality following the COVID-19 pandemic and part of that return is a reflexive dismissal of the conditions around the pandemic. Which is to say that in order to go back to normal we have to create a collective belief that we are within a state of normality which is as unchanged as it can be.

When the cinemas will open, and we will watch the same movies, the pubs will reopen, and we will meet the same people and go to the same bars.

A part of life returning to normal will be the retroactive installation of a narrative of normality onto events that insists that those events were something that was always to be overcome. The spirit is summed up in the phrase “Keep Buggering On”.

But discussions about the future of football that happened in 2020 talked about a future in the English game with fewer clubs. We already live in a post-Bury FC world before the financial crisis brought on by lockdown.

When Bury went from the Football League there was widespread discussion about how the seventy-two professional club format was unsustainable. In August 2020 the idea of August 2021 coming around with enough teams still intact to have a League Two with Bradford City was not a lack of ambition.

It was ambition.

None of which is to tell you, Dear Reader, that you should be happy to just have a Bradford City to follow just to acknowledge the way that in so many ways last season was an aberration and that the outcome of attempts to navigate it were probably more hostage to fortune than we would like to admit.

The financial costs, the loans taken by clubs, the impact on the game caused by a reshaping of people’s activities will be felt for years to come. We are, in no way, out of this yet.

RPI

The Retail Price Index maps inflation and tells us that given the launch price of Bradford City season tickets in 2007 a comparative price in 2021 would be around £200. If you want a question to how much should a Bradford City Season Ticket cost then that is probably it.

Bradford City have a massive amount of supply of a product – seats at a football match – and a low demand. As a result there is a point in which revenue is maximised but that is ignored because football is not about maximising revenue.

The arguments against the proposed European Super League were that football was not about amassing money it was about the fans and that insight scales downwards.

Manchester United and Real Madrid are acting against fans when they put up barriers to competitive progress, Bradford City are acting against fans when they price people out in the interests of maximising revenue as the country recovers from the economic effects of atrocious Government and global pandemic.

Argument

So much of football is about arguing on the Internet.

One of the rules I have for this website is that commenting on commenting on football is inherently boring and not something worth doing – the T&A “Fans Think” reaction pieces of Tweets republished are the dead of journalism – but occasionally it borders on being necessary and the Season Ticket cost debate is one of those times.

Any discussion on Season Ticket increases that does not include a component of the club offering a mechanism to acknowledge supporters who have lost jobs over the last year should be treated with contempt.

When Bradford City smashed hard against the wall of running out of money in 2002 and 2004 the people of Bradford gave £500,000 to fund the club and were made a promise that the reborn Bradford City would have those supporters at its heart. Raising ticket prices and not looking after the people left behind makes a mockery of that promise, and the people who put their hands in their pockets.

A

Suggestions for fixing the prices of Season Tickets are more common – in the discussion of the club – that the names of new signings and implicit in those suggestions is a direct correlation between revenue in and performance on the field.

That correlation is accurate – although it better aligns with turnover – but raising revenue demands economic conditions which may not be the case.

One might suggest that one put the price up to £300 and let anyone who checks the box to say they lose their job in the Pandemic, or they have no wage coming in, pay £100 and conclude that the problem is fixed.

Bigger

Perhaps though we might do well to dwell on the cost of seasons ticket when they are presented as a problem. If it is the case that prices have to go up to fund improvements in performance it is also thought that if those increases are be compelled then they will have no effect.

Which is to say that the common belief is that if people do not have to pay more they will not pay more. In itself this is a damning indictment of the broken relationship between football and the supporters of it, and of the prism of neo-liberal economics that the game is viewed through.

Football Clubs dance on the line of talking as businesses one moment and community assets the next always on the side which protects their interests against the supporters.

The season ticket debate is another reminder – if it were needed – that we are all in it together until we are not.

Exception

The economics of football are failing.

Without a new economic vision it is impossible to see the game at League Two level carrying on as it does. Many clubs will shrink while others grow and at some point de facto breakaways will force actual breakaways.

This has – to some extent – already happened. The European Super League need not happen for the dominance of the clubs in it to be cemented. The gap between The Championship and League One creates a group of teams like Hull City who will always go back up and teams like Wycombe who will always go down.

This is the inevitable result of inflationary pressures within the economics of football. Exceptions are celebrated precisely because they are exceptions.

Bradford City are hostage to that world and probably cannot step outside it. There is no funding model, no magical number on a Season Ticket application form, which will fix the inequality built into the system.

Rainbows

Some people want to pay more to go see Bradford City, some people cannot afford to pay more, some people need to pay less.

Ultimately if there is a connection between how much is paid in season tickets and how good the experience is then let people pay what they want for a season ticket.

Let the supporter set the price.

How much is watching Bradford City worth to you? Pay £1,000 for your Season Ticket if you want, or pay £500, or pay £100, or pay £1.

Sky Sports costs around £400 a year. Cancel that subscription and pay that for your season ticket.

Or don’t.

The club will be as good as the supporters want it to be and – assuming that link between revenue and performance – if people who are currently paying £150 decide they can pay £1 now when they could afford more then that is a decision they have made.

Then the club would die because the only people who care about it cared more about keeping their money for something else.

End

Which is the season in review.

Twelve months of watching the most irrelevant football being played in front of empty stadiums for no reason other than habit listening to people talking about how other people should pay more to improve a situation which very obviously is not going to improve.

You can care, or you can not, but either way you’ll wish you hadn’t.

Big / Picture / Reality

300

Ancient Greek Historian Herodotus tells of a moment in history when fealty was asked of the City States that populated the Mediterranean. Xerxes – Persian God King – wanted an offering of Water from the shores and Earth from the ground of each state as a symbolic representation of that submission.

Submission to Xerxes meant becoming a part of the Greater Persian Empire which – at the time – was no bad thing if one focused on the material benefits of trade and wealth that it generated but God Kings and edicts cut against the growing sense of Liberty emanating from Athens.

No messenger was sent to Sparta because when Xerxes sent messengers to Sparta they never returned but on being told of the demand by a fellow Greek King of Sparta Leonidas declined and ultimately was slaughtered for his trouble at the Battle of Thermopylae.

The retellings of this incident are many – “This is Sparta” and all – and the example echoes through the ages that surrender – even a symbolic one – was unacceptable to the Free.

Picture

Project Big Picture was an offer from the owners of Liverpool Football Club and Manchester United Football Club to the other eighteen members of the Football Association Premier League in which an agreement would be made that the revenues brought in by television right sales of that league would be more heavily redistributed towards the clubs who were not in the Premier League.

This change in revenues would allow for an instant payment of much needed funds for League One and Two clubs. The proposal would also make League One and Two football instantly more sustainable with £2.5m flowing to clubs who are at present only allowed to spend £1.5m on player salaries. Funds for a Women’s League would be assured, The League Cup and Community Shield would be abolished, Parachute payments, defended play offs and an eighteen team Premier League also featured.

The largest sticking point, it seems, was the extension of “Special Voting Rights” to the nine longest serving Premier League teams which was seen – as much of the project was – as a way to solidify the status of the “Big Six“. The respected Football Writers of our age – David Conn and Jonathan Wilson – described it as a power grab.

Power

Today in a League Two match Bradford City are playing Mansfield Town in front of another empty stadium. Thanks to great work by John Dewhirst – once of this Parish – and Jason McKeown and his There By The Width Of A Post website – also once of this Parish – we can tell that the emptiness in the stadium is largely reflected in City’s accounts.

Interesting in the results of Dewhirst’s work – which was neither surprising or unexpected – was the idea that Players and Good Will made up City’s assets with Valley Parade and everything in it sold and rented back. The City are paying the price for various mismanagements, we knew this going in.

To watch City’s team attempting to recover from a deserved defeat from Harrogate Town with the threat of non-existence over every club in the League highlighted by a stark look at the scale of a business at this level and one is forced to ask: If this is a Power Grab by Liverpool and Manchester United in what way does that power currently reside in League Two?

Again

John Henry at Liverpool and the Manchester United Glazers did not set up the Premier League. They bought into it and they bought into it because the League was entirely built on football’s embrace of neoliberalism. Key to that is the tendency towards monopoly which makes the amassing of power in the hands of an ever smaller collective a feature of the system.

Project Big Picture seems to recognise this centralisation of power and support the rest of football because of the inherent good of having the English football structure in place. To have an FA Cup winner you need an FA Cup and to have an FA Cup you need to support the FA and a five hundred teams and because the cost of that is negligible compared to the benefits for the powerful why not do it?

Henry and Glazer have put forward a plan which confirms the neoliberal system which has been dominant in football for thirty years. They want the “Earth and Water” Leonidas would not give up but they want it from a Football has already taken Xerxes’s offer.

Obvious

Football has submitted wholey to neoliberal economics.

Liverpool and Manchester United are not trying to grab the power from football because they clearly and obviously already have that power. There is a line in the pyramid of football clubs in which football clubs become largely irrelevant to the game as a whole. That line is certainly above Bradford City and perhaps has been for around one hundred years.

The idea that Liverpool and Manchester United have to take power from Bradford City is so absurd as to be laughable. The collective unionised weight of all of League One and League Two together stands knee height to those clubs. This should be obvious as it is obviously a bad, bad thing.

Now that all the power has been centralised and a paternalistic system offers support for the clubs that it has vampirically been created by draining the blood, that support will be denied.

And by whom? The Bloody Bourgeoisie. Always the bloody Bourgeoisie

Bourgeoisie

There is a class of clubs that live under the Top Six of Liverpool, Manchesters United and City, London Arsenal, The Tottinghams and Four Two Chelsea and I’m going to use “Sheffield Wednesday” as synecdoche but I could just as easily put in Leeds United, or Sunderland, or even Bolton Wanderers.

Sheffield Wednesday will not agree to Project Big Picture because they do not believe in this permanent enfranchising of the largest clubs in football which is noble of course except they are not outside of that enfranchisement so much as they are not benefitting from it as much as they would like. There is no attempt by Sheffield Wednesday to try create a flatter, more egalitarian structure in football. There is no attempt to address the neoliberalism that has created a structure in which the Bourgeoisie sit between the Big Six and the Proletariat that comprise the rest of football but rather a quixotic belief that unites the Bourgeoisie that they will one day ascend to the higher echelons themselves.

Leicester City – the actual team not a synecdoche – won the Premier League but are not welcomed into the Big Six not because of a covert plan to keep them out but because of the same market tendency that creates a Big Six. The idea that Sheffield Wednesday The Synecdoche want to maintain that power so they can one day attain it is madness.

This is a fantasy, a dream, and the rest of football should not have to pay the price for Sheffield Wednesday to LARP it.

Reality

League One and Two football has not survived. Project Big Picture is bad, patronising and paternalistic but it addresses the reality that the lower two professional leagues of English Football are not sustainable.

This reality has not been addressed by the Bourgeoisie because they benefit from being in the upper middle part of an unfair system. They are willfully cocooning themselves to the reality they are a part of creating.

Project Big Picture has been rejected, an offer of £50m in loans that followed has been rejected and there is no Sheffield Wednesday plan for rebalancing football. No attempt to create an egalitarian system after rejecting Project Big Picture because it was not egalitarian enough.

There was a chance that the clubs who took all the power in football might pay back for what they had taken. It is not what I want – I want an egalitarian system – but it is better than what I have now which is an unfair system of have and have-nots now propped up by the have-more-than-yous.

Preview / Absurd / Regret

In his preamble to musings on philosophy Danish poet Søren Kierkegaard commented “Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both.”

Debt

Racing Universitaire Algerios goalkeeper Albert Camus remarked “After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”

Camus was not much of a goalkeeper and retired early with novelty remembering him as better than he likely would have been. His aphorism about what he owed to the game is as accurate enough for consideration as the first football season to be played behind closed doors kicks off on Saturday.

There is a lip service paid to the idea that the match attending supporter is the heart of football. This is obviously rendered untrue by those who live The Ladbrokes Life, or who watch Soccer Saturday every week, or who support Barcelona while living in Bradford who are capable of having an experience of football supporting that does not rely on attendance.

“What is football without fans?” was the question, and we will get an answer.

Hope

Over the summer Bradford City have rid themselves of around a dozen players who one struggles to find anything positive or celebratory to write about.

Hope Akpan was not as bad as a mass of people would have it but never did anything to suggest he should be missed.

Those players have been replaced with a second collection of players who are on the whole younger, and those player have been added to by a half dozen players from the youth setup which stands as a lingering testament to the planning done by Edin Rahic while he was chairman of Bradford City.

All this recruitment is best judged in retrospect but it seems highly unlikely that Bradford City have traded a group of League Two quality players for a group of League One quality players. Indeed it seems likely that while the players will have different characteristics they will on the whole be of a similar quality.

Absurd

Narratives around football centre on a type of control which the game seems to rarely, if ever, afford.

One player leaves only to become top scorer, another ends up in the semi-professional leagues and you would do well to see the justification in that given their performances for City. City sign the best player in the League and he is awful but the guy who could not get on the bench at Carlisle is great.

What makes a single recruitment successful? How much was Nahki Wells a success because of two huge morale boosting goals in his first few games? Why was the tireless Billy Knott of Chelsea not a player worth keeping? There are answers to all these questions in principle but that answer is so much a compounded of variables as to be unknowable in practice.

We look at these events and mesh them together in an extrapolation trying to establish that grouping unknowables together makes something knowable by the aggregate. We call that a good transfer window because the alternative seems too dark for us to be comfortable with.

By the time he had given up the goalkeeping Camus had started to look how the human condition attempted to create a sense of events and senseless world and dubbed the condition the absurd.

Absurd

Stuart McCall is planning for a season without striker James Vaughan who scored seven goals in free play last term. McCall should not replace Vaughan with another player so much as he must look to recreate Vaughan’s goals in the sum of play.

Twelve months ago Gary Bowyer assigned the task of goal scoring to a subset of the forward players. This tactical approach Hugo Meisl considered old fashioned in the 1930s but is very much the way the English football operated then and has until very recently.

In his second spell as Bradford City manager McCall tried to create a more multifaceted approach to the game in which players are required to contribute to more to the many areas of play than Bowyer’s teams were required to.

Assuming McCall does this again Vaughan’s goals are replaced if this distribution of attacking play brings one more goal from echo other outfield position. This seems a better way of replacing the striker than chasing another name player through the Wasteland.

Likewise a stronger team can be built from distributing defensive play throughout the team. Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United who task Oli McBurnie with breaking up opposition creative play by blocking passing lanes between their defence and midfield. To Wilder McBurnie’s success in doing that is as important as his scoring goals. McBurnie has six in thirty six for Sheffield United but Wilder judges him on the goal difference while he is on the field.

In City’s opening game – a 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers in the League Cup last weekend – McCall showed signs of having a similar broader view of the impact of a player on the field. The City manager borrowed the Sheffield United trick of the central defender overload which saw Anthony O’Connor crossing to Harry Pritchard into space created by the forward players Guthrie and Novak not looking to score but rather moving away and taking defensive players with them.

There has never been a question of McCall’s passion but his tactical acuity has been called into doubt seemingly to provide a counter to that passion. McCall is a tactical facsimilator rather than an innovator and watching his career has shown that.

Absurd

AL: Belief. Motivation. Motivation, motivation, motivation! The three M’s. That’s what football is about. It’s all about motivation.

CA: Motivation, I follow that.

AL: You’ve got to get those boys on the pitch, motivated. It’s no good saying go out and buy some ice cream, go to the pictures. You’ve got to tell them what they’re doing. You’ve got to motivate them onto the pitch. Push them out with forks if you need to, but get them out onto the pitch. And then when the game’s over, get them in again.

CA: Now, you went to Hartlepool, and you had this system of getting them angry. Was that – Rage.

AL: Well, you know rage is very much an adrenaline inducing factor in all sports. I mean Linford Christie wasn’t in a good mood when he won the hundred metres, was he?

CA: Well, he was afterwards.

AL: Yes, but you’ve got to be in a rage to bring out the best in yourself. And what I do to my players, one of the tactics, this was an early tactic, is to kidnap their wives. Or girlfriends! Girlfriends or wives. I’d send them all on a bus up to Grimsby, with no ticket back, and, errm, the lads went mad. They were – One game against Rotherham, my whole team was sent off, almost as soon as they got on.

CA: Yes. Right. The other sort of weird thing you used to use. I’ll not say ‘weird’, but –

AL: Odd.

CA: Odd.

Alan Latchley, by Peter Cook

Absurd

When one looks at the 2020/2021 season to be opened in front of empty stadiums with teams trying to work out how to exist under a very poorly implemented salary cap it seems obtuse to question a club’s ability to create and stick to a long term plan.

It seems entirely obvious to suggest that Bradford City’s planning is limited and limited to subsisting with the hope of promotion but not the expectation. I may not be especially happy about this I am not tempted to direct this ire towards Julian Rhodes, Stefan Rupp, the man who runs the social media or the chap that cuts the grass.

There is an idea that Bradford City should be creating a plan to move upwards in the Football League and that failing to do so convicts the club, the people who run it, and anyone who does not share the Sisyphusan zeal of a lack of ambition.

I am reminded of an episode of South Park where the gang finds out that a group of Gnomes have created a three step plan that explains recent clothing theft. Phase one reads “Collect Underpants”, phase three reads “Profit” and under phase two there is a large question mark.

How one fills that question mark defines how one approaches the 2020/2021 season at Bradford City and perhaps football itself.

Some fill the question mark with blind faith and optimism, some fill it with statistical analysis and talk of tactics, some fill it with a demand that someone else fills it. Ultimately this might be a reflection of each supporter’s locus of control

However there is an answer as to what is in the question mark space but it is not blind faith and clapping harder or the idea that the club is secretly machinating against one’s best interests. It is simple, failing neo-liberal economics.

Neo-Liberalism

The changes in football in the 1980s and early 1990s are best understood as being the impact of neo-liberal economics on the game. In 1985 Tottenham Hotspur FC set up a Holding Company which owned Tottenham Hotspur FC allowing it to sidestep the rules of the Football League at the time which prevented owners from taking money out of a club in any significant way.

As with the privatisation of British Gas, British Telecom and other utilities Football – a hitherto break even activity – had found a way to join the Reagan-Thatcherite consensus that the market should govern activity.

No Bradford City fan needs me to say what football was like in 1985 nor do people need me to help them recall the years between then and Hillsborough. As Adrian Tempany recalls in his essential book having failed to defeat football through policing and identity card regulation the Thatcherites deregulated all that could be and made the game the market’s problem.

The market solved many pressing problems within football like unsafe, crumbling stadia. It increased the quality of the play which it started to call “the product” and began to invest in support infrastructure in a way hitherto unknown.

But while the market created the improvements needed it unsurprisingly began the tendency to monopoly – or in football’s case an oligopoly – which characterises the economic system. Whereas once the football boom was for everyone the capitalistic filtering of wealth to the top began.

Consumption

The successful clubs demand more consumers and cannibalise support. The language of football is the language of the unregulated market. Of assets and of performance, and failures to perform as expected. The language of football supporting is all but colonised by the language of consumption.

Soon after The Football Industry started to recatagorise football as a product that product stopped being the ninety minutes of a game and started to be the victory within that game. Football Clubs sell themselves as Glory Machines and supporters become consumers of that product rather than enablers.

Defeats then are recatagorised not as events in the life of a supporter – as things to be experienced – but as support issues similar to when your Netflix stops working. The clamour for refunds after a poor away performance is no different to the extra month on your package given when you were not able to watch TV for a night, called the customer complaint line, and they need to placated you.

Twenty five years after the deregulation of the football markets and supporters of Bradford City are now inefficiently assigned resources in a system which would prefer us to trade season tickets in for Sky Sports subscriptions.

Dysfunctional

There is no secret as to why Bradford City cannot create and execute a plan for improving Bradford City, just the unspoken realisation that we are living in a failing world created by our neo-liberal choices.

The tendency to monopoly has centralised football into an industry which functions at the top of the game and is increasingly dysfunctional the further down the pyramid one goes.

It is a laudable traditionalism in football that prevents the market’s answer to the problems being realised as clubs fight tooth and nail to retain their status but just because the likes of Bradford City refuse to bow to the market pressure to be subsumed into the higher echelons of football it does not mean that those market forces are not present.

One can have all the blind faith, or all the red faced anger, concerning City’s ability to create and maintain a plan one wants it will not alter the realities of operating in an unregulated and predictory marketplace in which there is no more easy a way for a League Two team to rise up the leagues as there is for the local Greengrocer to withstand the onslaught of Amazon and Tesco.

And lest this be read as a suggestion that no one cares about Bradford City it is not so, it is worse than that. A small group of people care a great deal and a huge group of people care that we and the rest of League One & Two just go away.

Phase Two: “Smash the capitalist system.”

Seems unlikely.

Unlikely

Increasingly, and in my opinion as a misguided attempt to deal with the absurdity characterised by the question mark of phase two, there is an attack on that supporting football as being counterproductive. That engaging in support is an unsophisticated act of blind loyalty, or blind faith, or both.

This attitude is as present as Bradford City as it is elsewhere and holds to itself as if too much optimism, too much loyalty, will let the people in the shadows of the boardroom off the hook for coming up with a direct path from the exclusionary level the club is in now to something better.

The faith that – given everything we know about the system that that Bradford City operates in – the difference between success and failure is the want of creating and sticking to a plan.

This too seems to be an act of naive faith on the par with the false correlation that clapping harder will make players perform better.

Phase Two: “The Rhodes Plan.”

Seems unlikely.

Optimism

Football is optimism.

Football is the optimism that the things a football club does – be they well planned or seemingly random – coalesce into something that wins football matches.

It is the optimism that for one factor that can be controlled and done well the tens of other contributing factors which beyond control will run the right way.

The only sense we can make of a football season is a retrofitted forced narrative in which we convince ourselves we could have had control so we can tell ourselves that we will have control of it in the future. In this way we try tell ourselves we can can control the world around us.

The last six months since 2019/2020 ended early on a Friday afternoon and everyone went home should tell us that the control is beyond us. Optimism is the sine qua non.

It is Camus’ view of The Absurd writ large. To characterise the optimism of football fans as something which football no longer needs is to pathologise the act of football supporting itself while surrendering to the neo-liberal view where football supporters are replaced by consumers of the football product.

Preview

We take all that, do it over nine months, and call it the 2020/2021 season.

I agree with Kierkegaard.

One can involve oneself in the emotional reach of a football season or not, but either way one will regret it.

Clarke / Post Hoc / Life

When thirty four year old Billy Clarke signed for Bradford City over the summer there was some upset at the club’s perceived inability to find new targets.

New targets were to follow in the personage of Elliot Watt and Levi Sutton but by the time they did a narrative was set that for the want of a recruitment network City were scruffing around to bring in the manager’s mates ahead of what would be a terrible season.

Clarke

No club will look back on football in lockdown with less fondness than Brentford who seemed to have three gilt edged chances for promotion to the Premier League and missed them all. For them the time will come and perhaps they appreciate the distance they have travelled in the past ten years.

In April 2009 Brentford turned up at Valley Parade £10m in debt but spending freely as they tried – and succeeded – in beating Stuart McCall’s Bradford City to promotion. There is a celebrated match report on this very website one can read about it from back when I was good.

Amidst the three entwined narratives of Stuart McCall’s time at Bradford City is the peripheral figure who is on loan to, should be sent off for, and scores for Brentford: Billy Clarke.

Jacko

There is story about Peter Jackson saving Bradford City from relegation from League Two which is rarely heard and lacks any real veracity.

Jackson took over a team destined for a reversion to the mean and a mid-table finish, performed significantly worse, and managed to make a last minute goal from Ross Hannah at Morecambe into a showpiece triumph.

Jackson lasted less than a half dozen games as permanent manager of Bradford City and left among acrimony. Like Billy Clarke poking the ball away for Brentford he is a part of someone else’s history as the manager before Phil Parkinson took over.

Five

“Jon McLaughlin’s fifty yard run and punch on a Crawley Town player is – to me – the moment when Bradford City’s fortunes turned.

The brawl that saw five players sent off was the moment when Phil Parkinson’s team coalesced into being the team which would go onto Wembley twice and Chelsea 4-2.

Had Johnny Mac walked slowly to the dressing room after the dour defeat none of that would have happened.”

Life

In 1970 John Horton Conway devised a Mathematical simulation known as Game of Life in which cells were placed on a grid and be dent of their having or not having the correct number of neighbours they would thrive or not.

Cells follow rules and from that the interactions happen. When I was around eight or nine years old I was entranced watching Life creating stories of villages smashing together, narrating the rise and fall of these areas of blocks, enforcing a story onto what was entirely deterministic.

In Life one created a starting situation, and followed a predetermined set of rules, and the complexity which followed was not in any way random but seemed that way because of the massive compounding of simple factors into something which while deterministic seemed to be utterly random.

Looking at it long enough, focusing on it long enough, staring at it long enough, a story started to emerge.

2021

Bradford City may have a terrible 2020/2021 season or it may be glorious but probably it will be neither.

A lot of teams in League Two have had to lose a lot of players and bring in mostly new squads and one suspects that the League will be decided by how quickly and well those players mesh into a team rather than how good they are.

One thing that Bradford City have going for them is that Stuart McCall – left a half dozen players by Phil Parkinson when he last returned to the club – has some experience melding squads together.

Foucault

All of which presents something of a difficulty for the modernist grand narratives which the match report for the Brentford game, the footnote of Peter Jackson, the friends of friends recruitment of 2020, or the McLaughlan Brawl and how it led to Chelsea are trying to present.

The Parkinson era did not end with the departures of Phil Parkinson or owners Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes but continued for another year or so with McCall’s side being an offside call from Promotion. Likewise the Rahic era did not end when Rahic and Julian Rhodes returned.

The narratives we attempt to use to analyse football as it happens are anticipations of post-hoc appreciations of events which will be given context in relation to other events.

Right now we look at events as they unfold and we decide variously if we think that it is smart recruitment or it is wrong headed and we decide what that will mean for events to come writing a future history as we do that. Looking at events and unfolding information and trying to craft them into the story of the future of Bradford City.

Clarke (Again)

All these events are Billy Clarke appearing dotted through history with significance assigned arbitrarily.

Clarke is just the manager’s mate, unless the group coalesces into a team and wins promotion in which case he is a great senior pro.

We construct overarching narratives to explain events dotted through the past excluding what does not fit our narrative and we do the same for a future we know will only be contextualised by the playing out of those events.

We are all watching John Horton Conway’s Game of Life and assigning meaning to what we see hoping to make sense of seemingly random patterns.

Doyle / Vaughan / Wasteland

The match between Bradford City and Bolton Wanderers in the first round of the League Cup will occur before the first league game of the season and in front of empty seats as laws and guidelines around the COVID-19 pandemic prevent spectators from attending.

Bolton forward Eoin Doyle is pleased with this outcome allowing him to avoid chastisement from City supporters following his protracted exit from Valley Parade. Doyle was part of a team at Bradford City that failed and then was strong armed into returning only to leave again, and then this, and now this.

That Doyle wants to avoid the ire of City supporters on the occasion of his first game in six months is telling. Aged thirty two he – and thirty two year old James Vaughan who also left Valley Parade of late – must have wished they had not heard the news of Lee Cattermole’s retirement, or at least the subtext of that news.

Cattermole

A peer of Tony McMahon at Middlesbrough and playing in Dutch football Cattermole announced that he would be hanging up his boots. As a combative midfielder in his early thirties Cattermole is the type of player who could have been sought after at League One and Two level for another half a dozen years but Cattermole would rather not.

His statement oozes with subtext. At home with his young family for the last six months – locked into home with his young family – powerless as a Global Pandemic lays waste to the world a new framing of the reality of being a footballer seems to have taken his thoughts.

A world of fitness drills and running, and away trips to Eindhoven or Exeter, and being away from his family for days at a time, all seemed so unappealing. The greasepaint and the roar of the crowd so distant he looked at what would have been a future as a senior professional and saw nothing.

Vaughan

I do not know that that is Lee Cattermole’s view. He might think of the clubs he would play for or the security of being financially very well off with his family or if it was the feeling that after six months of atrophy he did not believe that his body could return to the fitness of his twenties to give someone a full season but I imagine James Vaughan has all those same thoughts too.

Vaughan’s exit from Valley Parade was predictable with the striker wanting to return to the Merseyside based club where he had spent time on loan and City acquiescing to those wishes in short order. City manager Stuart McCall was stinging in his criticism of the player wanting to be at home more rather than get into the challenge before him.

One wonders how a person like Stuart McCall goes about managing players so far from the player Stuart McCall was – all heart and dedication – as Vaughan is and then one recalls that when McCall got to thirty two he went home too. McCall played in different times when football was a verdant land of plenty.

One can imagine Vaughan wracked over months by the thought of driving over the M62 towards a failing team which is too accustomed to failing in front of an often hostile stadium with people in it who demand something which he cannot sate and seeing that stretch of motorway as a waste land to be navigated but never conquered. Tranmere Rovers offering him a chance to make the Potemkin existence more bearable and to try silence the thought wondering, all the time, if he should join Cattermole in excluding himself from the broken landscape.

Eliot

In The Waste Land T. S. Eliot describes a Britain recovering from The Great War and facing up to the rise of an organised Socialist movement that threatened revolution and from it creates a Fisher King narrative.

The King is wounded and the country is broken and rendered into a barren, fruitless waste land where small people have taken the place of large characters. “He, the young man carbuncular, arrives, A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare, One of the low on whom assurance sits as a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.”

To repair the landscape The King needs to be fixed and to fix The King, The King needs to hear and to understand the three words repeated in the thunder that cracks the sky above the waste land: “Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata.”

In English: Give, Compassion, Control.

Clarke

The last time the League Cup’s first game preceded the League Season Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City should have gone out of the competition in the first round when Notts County missed an open goal in the 90th minute but went through, and again, and ended up at Wembley Stadium in the final.

That season for Phil Parkinson’s side was remarkable and is talked about almost as much as the win over Chelsea that followed it two years later is. They were halcyon times – for some – but when mentioned now are as likely to bring the sharp rebuke of allowing one’s self to wander in the past as much as they are the feeling of nostalgia.

The afternoon at Stamford Bridge saw two a brief cameos. Mohammed Salah went on to be of awe at Liverpool. Billy Clarke returned to Bradford City this summer slightly older than Vaughan and also keen to move closer to his home in West Yorkshire as his career winds down. Clarke knows that in a few years he will see football as a thing he once did.

To draw the map of football is to see huge constructs of wealth, prosperity, and greatness towering over a broken British football landscape. There is wealth and there is absence and the absence stretches for miles beyond the clubs in Liverpool and Manchester that Vaughan passes on his linear navigation.

In that barren rock there are farmers arguing over which crops to plant in the ash and there are people who would construct monuments and people who would pull those monuments down.

Doyle

Eoin Doyle has been in the waste land too long.

His move from Chesterfield to Bradford City was a good one but went bad and after eighteen months he was sent away only to find some form at Swindon. That form irked the club and the supporters who had cared very little on his exit and so he returned only to leave again, and then leave again and end up at Bolton.

Cattermole, Vaughan, Clarke, Doyle and the thought of playing in an empty stadium having had one’s body atrophy over six months cocooned with a family one seldom gets to enjoy. As younger men Vaughan, Clarke, Doyle having seen the broken players at the end of their careers and knowing that they are those players now.

Stepping into the waste land once again, driving the length of the M62 past the clubs of Liverpool and Manchester and past the farmers arguing about what crops to plant in the ash, and verbalising relief that they will be afforded the privacy – the dignity – of being able to perform in front of no one.

No sound of thunder or whimper of an ending and no supporters to look down at Vaughan, Clarke, Doyle and to shout as they do, and to swear as they do, and to vitriolise as they do.

And to sing the one chant which is heard at all football grounds in this the year of our Lord two thousand and twenty:

“Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata.”

Next / Questions / Knowledge

With far too few games left in the season David Hopkin wandered off into mid-distance and Bradford City started looking for a new manager.

Since the transfer window emerged in football around ten years ago new managers have become a panacea. Where as once in the days of low success supporters would have called for a “Big Signing” would now they ask for a “New Manager”. Changing managers has become the de facto response because it is one of the only responses.

That Hopkin also subscribed to that view is odd but largely because we assume that the manager is the grown up in the room and when he behaves like one of his charges and exits our view on football becomes confused.

And so the vacancy at Valley Parade is obvious. Less obvious is the remit of the job.

Bus

Aggressively obnoxious football manager Steve Evans is a big man but despite that few would compare him to an actual bus. I am going to.

Steve Evans is to the Bradford City job what this large Red Bus is to politics. He is a promise made by a group of people about another group of people where the one cannot assure the other’s compliance.

For the past few years Evans has hovered over the City job with the understanding that were he given the role he would smash backsides until the players were, well, better and would win more.

This is a persistent meme in football supporters which originates at some point in the 1970s when the Gentleman managers of Bill Nic and Shankley gave way to the new breed of Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson who saw physical and verbal aggression as tools at their disposal. Those days are gone, a point underlined to all but the more borish by the more congenial style of Gareth Southgate’s approach in the run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. Nevertheless it is the more borish who perpetuate the meme and so it is pervasive.

I am wary about Faustian arrangements that suggest that one can realise a desire if only one will sell a tiny part of the soul precisely because they are Faustian.

Remit

The next Bradford City manager’s remit should not be to avoid relegation to League Two it should be to have an excellent team on the field in August 2020.

The squad which David Hopkin has left at Valley Parade, which was passed him him by a transfer committee that took over from a manager who had very little interest in building a squad in the long term is not only badly unbalanced but it is poorly prioritised.

Unbalanced in that it is festooned with attacking players which comes from poor prioritisation away from defending and, especially, defending by being able to win the ball back. There is nothing attacking about not having the ball.

It would be easy to blame this on the members of the transfer committee but the problem goes deeper. Football has forgotten this basic of the game with low rent tiki-takas and would be Sarriballers selling lower league chairmen on the idea that they will be the next Marcelo Bielsa. Occasionally they go to a club and are successful, most they are not.

Even managers think managers should leave clubs if success is not quick. The first generation of players who saw a fast turnaround of gaffers has now begun to manage. We shake our heads today but Hopkin’s time at the club as a player started when he was sounded out by Paul Jewell, played under Chris Hutchings, was injured for Stuart McCall and left under Jim Jefferies. He only played 11 games.

Hopkin, like many of his peers, has had a football career where management is entirely in the short term.

Long

To say “Bradford City need a manager who…”, and prescribe a set of features, needlessly complicates matters. All clubs need to employ people who have a stable approach to managing the resources generated.

Such a phrase goes well beyond the borders on the tedious but almost all the successful clubs in the Football League have this as a core value. In an environment where even the people who are doing the long term thinking expect to not be able to carry that thinking out there seems to be a benefit in creating an environment where all thinking is long term.

Want

At Barnsley away – because I am what is known as a “funny bugger” – when the first crack appeared in Hopkin’s revival I turned to a friend and quietly sung “We want our Edin back.”

No one feels the loss of Rahic but the loss of the things he talked about – about long term development of the team and about creating an identity around Valley Parade – are significant. Rahic’s failed to instill the values he and Stefan Rupp talked about bringing to the club but no values have replaced them.

It is not that Bradford City need a manager to have and be given time, it is that Bradford City need a manager to bring knowledge.

Question

The failure of Rahic was his inability to infuse his belief in others. Despite a turnover of staff on and off the field allow him to craft an environment he wanted no one but Rahic seemed to buy into Rahicism.

Bradford City – being Julian Rhodes and Stefan Rupp – should not pretend that they know how to make a successful football club and if they do you should not believe them.

The question the manager needs to be asked if they are being interviewed for the role is not how will they keep City in the division – those Yorkshire Puddings are already in the over, only time will tell if they will rise – but rather what City will look like in August 2020 or 2024 or 2029, and how we will get to that point.

Rhodes and Rupp need someone with domain knowledge on how to construct a successful club and they need that knowledge more than they need six wins between now and May.

VAR / Referee / Solution

VAR has come to The World Cup – which is an event staged to attempt to distract Bradford City supporters from their lack of a manager, which is failing – and it is all not as it seems.

Bradford City’s own Ryan McGowan was furious when VAR was used to The French looked needlessly poor in this match. The lack of pressing in this post-Klopp world was odd. team he had a half decent chance of being in while Iceland seemed to get away with a foul against Argentina largely because there was something amusing about Iceland getting away with a foul against Argentina.

Both tackles seemed to be penalties – if you watched the footage at a speed other than the speed in which it happened, and deliberately pretended that a 2D image can replace a 3D one at giving depth perception, and then squinted – but VAR was deployed for one and not the other and so one was and one was not.

If this seems to you, dear reader, to be business as usual that is because it is. Referees have – for the entirety of football – been giving decisions on the basis of what they may or may not have seen and while VAR gives them some more sight in which to give those decisions it does not change the nature of a refereeing decision, in that it is a decision.

Technology

A digression on technology in football. We – the supporters of the game – were promised for decades that VAR would solve the problem of wrong decisions in football and obviously it will not.

This contrasts with Goal Line Technology which does a single job well and highlights the problems that technology should be used to solve in football. The factual – the discussion of what has happened – is subject to technology while interpretation is not.

A system which gives accurate GPS positions of players and the ball would be excellent at telling a referee if a player is in an offside position but that would not make that player offside.

Technology in football is best used in that context.

Decision

Decision by referees are judgements made, hopefully, in as unbiased a fashion as possible and it may be worth recognising that. The opaque thing in Refereeing is not that a decision was made – one can see that – but the reasons for that decision.

The consensus from Football’s authorities from top to bottom is that Referees are infallible. This has led to a contortion of the laws of the game – and the interpretation of those laws – around the idea that the Referee is never wrong they are just perceiving a judgement you did not. Charlie Wyke’s frequent withdrawn sending offs for Bradford City always come with a side of some official insisting that the decision was accurate even when it is repelled.

The solution to this problem would seem to be simple. The Referee submits a report on the game he has been in charge of – this happens at most levels if not all – and those reports are kept by the authorities. It seems to be a merciful gift to officials to make those reports both more verbose and public.

More verbose in that one has to believe that in the case of Iceland vs Argentina the Referee may be of a mind to write about the missed penalty decision that he did not see a foul during the incident, nor did VAR, nor did the linesmen or other officials.

Public because find the reasons for a Referee’s actions might highlight to supporters the judgements involved, even if those judgements are wrong.

Because judgement calls are never going to get any better than they are now. Technology can tell us if the ball went in but everything else is interpretation of events and good Referees are the ones which interpret events correctly.

Which is the key skill in Refereeing. A Referee needs to know the laws of the game and apply them to the action they have seen which is an act of interpreting the abstract of the law into the practical of the game. To be a good Referee is to be able to do this and, as evidenced by years of watching Referees, this is not the trait selected for.

Broadening and opening up Referee’s reports to the public would highlight this, and make everyone in football better able to know the good Referees from the poor ones rather than wasting time and effort discussing technologies which can never address the main concerns.

Manager / von Neumann / Advantage

A small group of scientists asked a larger group of scientists who would best represent the intelligence of human kind and, with as much of a consensus of scientists every give, the answer was John von Neumann.

American-Hungarian von Neumann was a polymathic figure in science and his contribution to the fields he touched – which were many – were significant. His work on Quantum theory will shape Mathematics for the next 100 years, his work on The Manhattan Project shaped the history of the 20th century, and his work on Game Theory should shape the selection of the next Bradford City manager with his minimax theorem is our case in point.

In my limited way I will summarise it thus: When making a decision in any game theoretic situation a player will consider all options and select the one which minimises the maximum loss. Which is to say – in this instance – that when selecting a football manager players (in this case chairmen) will make the selection of the person who should things go wrong will go least wrong.

It is hard not to see this in action with Bradford City chairman Edin Rahic’s previous two selections. Neither Stuart McCall or Simon Grayson are bad managers and – and this is important – neither could be accused of being poor managers. If McCall were relegated there are some who would have defended him and Simon Grayson did do badly and is defended.  Both were acceptable appointments though and within the remit of what a League One club is expected to do.

This remit is discussed in the work of a slightly less intelligent but significantly more famous Mathematician John Nash.  The main thrust of Nash’s work was that game theoretic situations relied on the participants knowing the range of acceptable and common moves to them, and anticipating the range of acceptable and common moves available to the other players.

The Nash equilibrium also comes into play when considering the game theory of manager selection. There is an idea that the management of football club’s is a settled matter and a decision has been made on how it is done, and that any variation on that is to do it wrong, which means that football is in something like a Nash equilibrium.

Pardew

Except selecting a football manager is not a Nash equilibrium. The role that a manager does changes often. As recently as the 1990s managers used to sell in ground advertising. The Head Coach that Bradford City are looking for would expect that to be done by someone else no doubt, and would find that scouting is done by another person, and one does not have to agree with this breakdown of work that to accept that the role of manager changes.

And should the role change then the demands of the role changes and so does it’s remit as does the profile of a person who would do it well. von Neumann’s minimax theorem is the way which football deals with this.

The desire of chairmen when making the selection of a manager is to make the choice which is least likely to be a very bad choice which very often is the best available of the group of football managers looking for a job at any given time who have experience at the level you are at.

I am not even a tenth as smart as John von Neumann but I feel certain that he, as I, would call this The Alan Pardew Effect.

Unfair

Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp have a list of League One’s Alan Pardews ahead of them and von Neumann theorem would tell them to pick a name from that list. No one person the list will give them an advantage over any other but, at the same time, no one will give them a significant disadvantage. If there are managers who can be found lower down the leagues but who are in effect passing through to find them requires someone to break out of minimax and risk an outcome which does not minimise maximum losses.

So, for example, were the 29 year old Bolton Wanderers player Stephen Darby be offered the role of player manager at Bradford City – and he seems like a qualified man for that role – there is a risk that Darby will manifest zero abilities in the role and the club will loose a dozen games before sacking another club legend. However Darby would seem to have all the indicators that a player can show that he will be a good manager and should he be an Eddie Howe the decision to give him the job will pay far better dividends than appointing any of the League One Pardews.

Two things allow Bradford City to follow this find of approach. Few people seem to expect much of the next management appointment and there is a small but verbal section of fans think that the club is going to be relegated to League Two next season although the chairmen believe that the manager should over-perform and – by definition – expecting one of the League One Pardews to do this is against logic.

Credulity

In selecting a new Bradford City manager Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp a continuum of choice. At the one end they can pick from the list of what we might unflattering call League One Pardews and hope for an uncharacteristic over-performance knowing that an under-performance would not damage the club in a way which is beyond repair. At the other end of the scale is as far away from that list as is possible while still appointing someone who is a credible football manager with the stretch in credulity being the commensurate amount as is justified by the abilities of the target, should such a target be identified.

Which brings us to Nick Cushing.

Cushing is probably not going to be considered by any Football League club this season yet he won the Women’s Super League with Manchester City last season. He is, of course, in possession of an obscene level of resources at Manchester City but his reputation as a coach is very good. He is 33 years old and contracted to Manchester City WFC for sometime but that deal hardly seems necessary. Even the FA seem to believe that you need no ability as a manager at all to manage Women’s football.

If may, or many not, think that women’s football and men’s are non overlapping magisteria and you could believe that were a club like Bradford City to appoint Cushing they could be getting a superb manager or you could think they could get someone who has no relevant experience at all but my point would be that if the club are attempting to get someone who is disproportionately better than the standard of League One they need to find a candidate who has those qualities but is undervalued.

As well as appoint Cushing a club like City could look – and one doubts they would – at Mark Sampson who has experience taking England to a World Cup Final or, should they wish to annoy all the right people, Hope Powell. The level of experience on offer is not going to be matched by someone who got sacked by Scunthorpe Town, unless all that experience is irrelevant.

Instinct

The marketplace for football managers overvalues many irrelevant or partially irrelevant characteristics – such as one’s ability to play the game, or one’s connection to a club – leaving a significant inefficiency that can be exploited. As Arsene Wenger retires is it difficult to recall how hostile the English game was to the idea of overseas managers but Arsenal found they could replaced the entirely unimpressive Bruce Rioch with the Imperious Wenger because Wenger’s Frenchness saw him undervalued by English clubs who were hitherto happy to move around the same talent pool.

Wenger is probably the most celebrated example of a club getting a significant competitive advantage from recruitment. The Frenchman changed the way that footballers behaved at Arsenal, and his legacy is that every other team in the game duplicated the professional, thoughtful, tactical approach and a good number overtook him. This was able to happen because Wenger was undervalued in the marketplace and not just be the xenophobic. His extremely limited career counted against him in his home country as did his demeanor. Famously he was said to resemble a Professor more than a football manager. By ignoring all these points Arsenal were able to create disproportionate benefits.

To find a competitive advantage from recruitment Rahic and Rupp have to identify such areas of value negativity in the market and exploit them. That is exactly what the chairmen of Bradford City should be doing right now.

Come / Grayson / Go

Simon Grayson came and went from Bradford City so quickly that one might excuse him making few friends.

The manager was hired after Stuart McCall was sacked – and no one liked that – with a brief of turning around a slump which saw McCall’s team go from inconsistent play-off contenders to very consistent team heading for a middle of the league finish which would be finalised in May 2018.

Grayson failed in this. He failed for many reasons.

The squad had been split following one of the more serious disciplinary issues that a dressing room can face in January which McCall was ill-placed – and perhaps ill-equiped – to to counter. McCall was everyone’s friend but you cannot be everyone’s friend when sides have been taken.

The manager who can claim to have been promoted four times from League One seemed have enough of a grasp of a game to see what was going wrong both with that squad and during games and some of the time he could do something about that but not often enough to make a difference.

The chairman Edin Rahic had the finger pointed at him as the reason for Grayson’s failure. He has not paid Charlie Wyke a bonus that Wyke was due in the haste when Wyke had wanted it, or so we were told, and because of that Wyke and his fellow squad mates had effectively stopped playing.

How that story reflects worse on Rahic than Wyke I do not know but Rahic has become persona non grata at Valley Parade. He is autocratic they say, and he interferes. The same was said about Geoffrey Richmond of course and one suspects that Rahic would enjoy the same regard were the club to have the same success. Everything in football is seen though a lens of results on the field.

So the squad that was in the play-offs for eighteen months under Stuart McCall went to scoring a third of a point a game and Simon Grayson was on hand to say why.

It was not good enough.

Budget

A bad workman, the adage says, blames his tools. Grayson blamed McCall’s tools but – sensibly given the fact that Our Stuart was able to do far better with them than Their Simon – not because they were poorly assembled but because they were not costly enough.

A club like Bradford City – Grayson said – needs to put is resources into the First Team. One assumes that Simon said that to Edin, and Edin said to Simon that he and Stefan Rupp have a plan to develop young players, and to turnaround Academy released players and the two parties did not meet, or perhaps meet again.

The offer to the manager of Bradford City seems to be that you will get a budget to spend on the first team squad of between £2m and £2.25m and access to – and the obligation to work with – a development set up which one might guess costs the better part of £500,000 to support. That is money paying for squads with coaches who are paid to bring those squads on, who develop those players.

You get Tyrell Robinson, Reece Staunton, Josef Hefele, and George Skyes-Kenworthy and you get at least a half a dozen other players to consider. If you are a football manager you might find that attractive – raw talent and all – or you might also think that you’d rather that money is spent a contract for a senior professional or two.

If it is the latter then you would probably not be the man for Bradford City. And not just today.

Unpleasing

If there is not something that strikes you as unpleasant about the above sentences there should be.

Simon Grayson could not get the same performances out of the team that Stuart McCall could and, because of that, he wanted the dozen or so coaches at the club to be put out of work and the kids that they are coaching to be told to find a new club.

That is what focusing all your budget on the first team is. It is closing down anything that is not the first team. It happened under Phil Parkinson when the Reserve Team closed down and the path from promising youngster to first team member for Oli McBurnie was a broken path.

If you can imagine a Bradford City in the 1980s that did not bother with Stuart McCall, John Hendrie, or Greg Abbott then you can do what I cannot. A football club without the optimism that comes with player development is not really a football club I recognise. It is an artificial thing, a constructed thing, and gives up something too precious to be lost.

Simon Grayson wants to go down that route, Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp do not, and so it seems like a good thing that there has been a parting of the ways.

Recent Posts