2011/2012 I/IV: The manager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackson’s strong first impression – but a considered approach is still needed

Should winning a couple of matches ever be used as the basis of deciding to appoint a new manager? Doing so is so often accepted wisdom in football. A manager departs after a run of poor form, a caretaker steps in and results suddenly improve. Media and fans talk up his case for the job full time, and a more permanent deal is signed and sealed.

Bradford City’s Board is said to be following this well-trodden path in the consideration of interim manager Peter Jackson as the boss full time. Prior to his first game at Gillingham, credible sources revealed a couple of good results would see him land the job until at least the end of the season – otherwise John Hughes will step in. Tuesday night’s morale-boosting victory over Rotherham was a major boost for Jackson’s hopes of extending his stay, and already it is difficult to believe someone else will be taking his place in the dugout anytime soon.

If this is to be the way the successor to Peter Taylor is decided, then those of us with strong fears can at least be somewhat comforted by Tuesday night. In a season of so many disappointments, especially evening kick off games, it was heart-warming to see City claim the three points in a more stylish manner.

For me at least it wasn’t so much the Brazilian full back-esqe charge forwards and low shot from Lewis Hunt and long-range belter that probably didn’t cross the line from Tom Adeyemi that brought joy – as excellent as the two goals were from Taylor signings who have struggled to impress – but the shape and approach Jackson deployed the team in. For the first time in what seemed ages, City were playing attractive, attacking football that was exciting to watch.

Ultimately I went against Taylor not because of poor results, but the dismal style of defensive football he favoured that was so uninspiring to watch. Watching City had become a joyless, disengaging experience and in truth attending games had become more of a routine than a joy. I’ve watched City 28 times this season, but even comparing those horrible relegation seasons I’ve rarely found it so monotonous. I’m used to us losing and failing, but I’ve always enjoyed us trying. This season it’s not been a great watch or led to pleasurable outcomes very often.

So for Jackson to play an attacking 4-4-2 with a decent tempo and commitment to passing the ball around, instead of launching long balls – well, it has helped to significantly win me round. I still have some large concerns about Jackson as our manager and remain very fearful that, a year from now, we’ll have made little progress and he’ll have been driven out in far nastier circumstances than Taylor. But I’m also more encouraged that his ways could lead to success, and that – at the very least – watching City will feel like a privilege rather than a chore.

For the first time in months, I’m genuinely excited about the next game.

In the cold light of day, Tuesday’s win was fortuitous. But even if Jake Speight had tucked away a couple of his numerous chances, so the scoreline reflected City’s dominance, is one win (and hopefully another on Saturday) really justification to give Jackson the job? Let’s recall other City managers in our recent history who made a good impression in their first home game – Bryan Robson (the 2-0 down to 3-2 win against Millwall), Nicky Law (3-1 over a decent Portsmouth side), Jim Jefferies (2-1 Premier League win over Coventry) and, most infamously of all, Chris Hutchings (2-0 over Chelsea).

As positive as we might feel about Jackson’s brand of football right now, we once held similarly optimistic views about Hutchings.

But Jackson’s trial should be about more than determining whether to give him the job on the outcome of a linesman’s call. And, as a history lesson, we should go back to the last successful manager, Paul Jewell. He took over as caretaker in not dissimilar circumstances in January 1998. His first game saw an impressive win at Stockport, followed by a defeat to Stoke. Chairman Geoffrey Richmond proclaimed Jewell would land the job if two up-coming home games delivered six points. The first game was drawn, but Richmond awarded him the job until the end of the season within an hour of the final whistle.

Jewell failed to impress as City slumped to a mid-table position, and we all assumed he would be booted out for a bigger name. But Richmond stuck by him, endured a lot of flak and, ultimately, was handsomely rewarded when City were promoted to the Premier League. No manager since Jewell has made such an unremarkable start.

Yet the reasons why Richmond showed faith in Jewell were largely visible only behind closed doors. It was evidenced on the training ground, in the way Jewell conducted himself with Richmond and the manner he lead his players and coaching staff. It was stuff we fans didn’t see first-hand, but that demonstrated to Richmond the ability we were to benefit from so gloriously the following season.

So as much as Tuesday night was great and as much as this recruitment process still bothers many of us, it’s to be hoped that a decision to appoint Jackson full time is also made on the basis of how he’s performing behind the scenes. His plans for the club will be known within the corridors of power at Valley Parade, his thoughts on the current players and what’s missing will have been made clear to the men who hold the purse strings. His positivity to accept certain things – not least a decrepit training ground – likely to find favour, especially considering the reduced budgets the club will operate on next season.

City’s Board can be accused of not casting the net wide enough in the hunt for the next manager – especially considering there were some 40 applicants – but they are at least in a position to fully assess the merits of Jackson. And in doing so, it’s to be hoped the decision whether to appoint him isn’t just based on a couple of football matches – however uplifting they are proving to be.

The managerial failure cycle – bad choices or bad strategy?

The recent demoralising defeats to Port Vale and Chesterfield have once again heaped the pressure on Bradford City manager Peter Taylor. This weekend the Bantams face a crucial home game with Stockport that could determine his immediate future, but already it seems implausible to believe Taylor will be employed at Valley Parade beyond the expiration of his contract in May.

It will soon be time to search again for the man to revive this ailing football club but the fact we keep going around this cycle of getting rid of a manager and replacing him with new one – with little success in reversing a slide down the leagues – can already leave us pessimistic that the next manager isn’t going to be any better.

To blame the club’s decline on poor managers would be over-simplistic and, no matter who takes residence in the dug out after Taylor, there will still be all manner of financial issues that hold us back. Yet so much is reliant upon the manager that it is such a key position to get right, and as thoughts soon turn to filling a vacancy it is a process that needs to be reviewed in order to increase the chances of it succeeding. We can’t just keep hiring and firing and hope the law of probabilities means we’ll stumble on the right manager eventually, can we?

Over the last few days Michael has written two excellent articles – here and here – on what the club and supporters might be looking for in the next manager. Too often, it seems, football clubs in general appear to have no thoughts on the right person to take their club forwards beyond sacking the present incumbent and waiting for CVs to file through in the post. It seems a backwards methodology in these days of recruitment specialists and head hunters and, as City apparently keep getting the choice of manager wrong, it’s worth posing the question of whether this is because as employees we keep making bad choices, or because the qualities we are looking for have either not been considered enough or were misguided.

Let’s try and find out…

Chris Hutchings
“Oh Wetherall’s free! Fantastic header!”

Sunday 14 May 2000, and Martin Tyler’s description of David Wetherall’s winner for Bradford City against Liverpool – which confirmed the club’s Premier League survival – is relayed around the world. A pitch invasion follows the final whistle and the celebrations in and around Bradford go on long into the night.

But something’s not right. Rather than looking joyous or even relieved, manager Paul Jewell is sporting a scowling face that radiates the pressure he has been under from media, supporters and his boss. A few weeks later he quits, fed up of the way he has been treated. And the last successful Bradford City manager we’ve had goes onto enjoy a fine career elsewhere.

It is at this point the look behind the strategy should begin; because although the steep decline that followed was more to do with finances than bad management, nothing on the pitch has proved a success since.

I never agreed with the decision to appoint Chris Hutchings as Jewell’s successor, but it’s difficult to dispute the logic that led to Chairman Geoffrey Richmond promoting Jagger’s assistant. Since Lennie Lawrence departed in 1995, Richmond had enjoyed great success promoting from within after both Chris Kamara and Jewell delivered a promotion and survival in the division above the following season. An Anfield-esqe bootroom culture that promoted continuity was a worthy blueprint.

I never agreed, because the circumstances were different. Kamara and Jewell took over a club with the resources and capacity to be better than they were, but City had now climbed to a level they had not previously reached for almost 80 years – and we needed some experience to help us negotiate uncharted territory. Instead Hutchings was entrusted with the biggest transfer budget this club is ever likely to have, and given a remit to improve the style of football and guide City to a mid-table spot.

History shows this was far too ambitious – not to mention damagingly expensive – and, as clubs like Stoke and Wigan continue to battle to preserve their top flight status year-on-year, the idea that City could prosper by turning to flair and playing 4-4-2 at Old Trafford now seems breathtakingly naive. A more experienced manager would surely have known that the strategy was all wrong.

Jim Jefferies
“It is my opinion that he was an undiluted disaster for Bradford City from beginning to end”

With such a talented squad at his disposal, it was no surprise that Hutchings quickly came under pressure as results were poor, and Richmond – to his later regret – failed to back his man and sacked him. What we needed was an experienced man who’ll who whip these under-achievers into shape. A no-nonsense manager.

Such requirements led to Jim Jefferies, a tough-talking Scot who’d enjoyed great success in Scotland, taking charge. Yet within weeks he was telling Richmond that the club was effectively relegated and needed to get rid of the fancy Dans. It was only December.

In the excellent ‘The Pain and the Glory’ book Richmond was scathing of the job Jefferies did, but in some respects ‘the Judge’ did a good job in at least helping the club prepare for tough financial times ahead by getting rid of high-earners and sellable assets before the end of the season. He was given little money to spend on replacements with City now in Division One, and it proved a thankless task trying to take the club forwards when so much quality was being taken out.

Jefferies left the club after 13 months, and with such fiscal times on the horizon, the search for a new manager centered on candidates with experience of finding lower league bargains and happy to manage on a small budget. Peter Jackson turned the position down, so in came the Lawman.

Nicky Law/Bryan Robson
“I’m just hoping we can bring back the 16,000 who were here for the first game.”

As City went through the turmoil of administration and emerged skint and picking up out-of-contract players from Brentford, it was difficult to imagine a better person to have in charge than Nicky Law. He managed the club well through a very difficult 2002/03 season – targeting battlers over flair – but was a victim of rising expectations soon after. The remaining high earners departed in the summer of 2003, and the wage constraints meant that Law struggled to find replacements good enough to keep City in the division.

So Law was sacked after 12 winless games, and with Gordon Gibb now in charge it is interesting to speculate how his approach to recruiting the next manager differed. Gibb had enjoyed success building a theme park with sufficient attractions to keep people visiting, and it was clear that much of the thought behind appointing former England captain Bryan Robson was to increase falling attendances.

It didn’t work, and a deflated Gibb would depart just 8 weeks later with Administration 2 just around the corner. Meanwhile Robson was benefiting from a larger budget than Law and was able to bring in experienced loan players, with a greater focus on skill over graft. Results were improving, and though it would probably have proved too little too late City might have managed to avoid relegation had the administrators not taken over and being forced to sell key players.

Robson was left trying to keep City up with players he’d declared only two months earlier to not be good enough for the club and who were welcome to leave. With the prospect of limited funds in League One, he felt it was a job he could not continue.

Colin Todd
“I honestly think Colin should be right up there for any manager of the season…I see him as the man to take us back up the football pyramid.”

With the club in such dire straits that summer, appointing a new manager was hardly the most important priority. Colin Todd, assistant to Robson having come close to landing the job the November before, was handed the reins. However sour it ended, it proved a good choice as Todd steadied the ship while the club limped on following the narrow survival of administration. An 11th place in the first season was beyond Julian Rhodes’ expectations:

I thought we would be facing a relegation battle. Bearing in mind this season was going to be about coming out of administration, I thought we might well be facing life in League 2 when the rebuilding could really begin.

Todd’s time in charge was categorised by low budgets and limited stability. He put together a decent team that threatened to finish in the play off picture, and though the following season saw little progress (another 11th place) the Bantams still only lost 13 games. Todd, however, was under pressure from a section of supporters.

Some argued the former England international lacked passion for the job, and that defeats didn’t hurt him enough. Some argued we could do better than treading water in mid-table. But when he was eventually sacked midway through his third season, City drowned.

Rhodes, who had previously backed his man strongly even during difficult times, admitted that the pressure of supporters and stalling attendances was a telling factor in booting out Todd, especially now he had just launched an innovative season ticket deal that required thousands of people’s commitment.

When it gets to the stage where they [supporters] stop coming then something has to be done. At the end of the day it’s their club.

He was right, only now it was our League Two club.

Stuart McCall
“I will see myself as a failure if I don’t get the club back up at the first attempt, and I’ve got the strongest desire anyone could possibly have to achieve that.”

So out with Todd’s lack of passion and after David Wetherall’s unsuccessful caretaker stint, the hunt for the next manager did not require an advert in the classifieds. We needed someone who cares, someone who will get the players going and someone who will not tolerate underachievers. We need arguably the greatest achiever of City’s modern history.

In came Stuart McCall, along with the investment of Mark Lawn that allowed the club to hand the manager a relatively strong playing budget for the first time since Chris Hutchings. McCall was the overwhelming choice as next manager from fans because of the passion he’d put in to the job, no one can argue they were disappointed on that front at least.

Unfortunately, no matter how much Stuart cared he was in his first manager role and working in a division he didn’t know, and the inexperience was to show as success continued to allude the club. McCall put his neck on the chopping board straightaway by declaring he’d be a failure if he didn’t guide City to promotion at the first attempt – but he did fail attempt one, and then attempt two, and he was on course to fail attempt three before he eventually quit.

Of course the experiences along the way helped him to become a better manager, and by the end he had enough knowledge of the lower leagues to be able to use a reduced budget to bring in non-league players that could make the step up. Nevertheless, just like with Todd, the lack of speed to the progress left McCall under heavy pressure.

The passion and how much he cared went against him in the end. We didn’t want someone who would be more upset than us if they lost, we needed a wise head who had a track record for success. Passion was good, but the very reasons McCall was brought in were no longer what the club was looking for. This time a job advertisement would be needed.

Peter Taylor
“4-3-3 can be 4-3-3 and not just 4-5-1”

Which brings us back to Taylor, who was appointed on the basis of his outstanding track record in delivering success and high level of experience. However, criticisms over the football Taylor favours have followed him throughout his long managerial career, and he is now heavily slated for style of play City have produced for much of the season. We know Taylor will be gone soon and, when the discussions over the qualities to look for in his replacement begin, it’s likely that style of football will feature strongly on the next list of interview questions.

So there we have it

“There’s only two types of manager. Those who’ve been sacked and those who will be sacked in the future.” (Howard Wilkinson)

Hutchings to Taylor via Jefferies, Law, Todd and McCall. All were branded failures and, with such a cycle of hiring and firing helping the Bantams fall from the Premier League to League Two, one is again left to wonder what could possibly lead us to believe the next guy will prove any more successful?

But is it a matter of changing managers proving futile, or is our ongoing failure to find the right man more to do with the goalposts continually shifting?

Was Nicky Law sacked because the lower league manager route was wrong, or was hiring someone with great experience of handling small budgets actually a sound strategy that should have been continued? Instead of getting some guy who used to play for Man United to pack the stadium out, after Law should we have recruited then-Doncaster manager Dave Penny, for example?

Did Stuart McCall fail because he cared too much, or was the passion we hired him for the right quality required and Dean Windass should have been given the job instead of Taylor? We ask for one quality in a manager, don’t like some of the other characteristics that manager brings and then dismiss that original quality during the next search.

We want a manager who is not the last one, and so we go and get one – and in doing so we always find that the next guy is lacking some things but not the same things. So while we might have thought we’d found the solution, we end up finding a new thing to be the problem.

Circumstances – not least City’s changing financial capabilities – have changed often during the last decade. But as we soon start to prepare to recruit another manager it’s to be hoped the criteria will be more thought out than finding someone “not like the last manager.” Because over much of the past decade, that has often appeared to be the case.

Taylor’s revival avoids a pressing problem

Only a fool would consider sacking Peter Taylor as Bradford City manager now but five games and twelve points ago it seemed that the City boss was a game away from his P45.

The game changes quickly and probably having lived his life in it this comes as no surprise to the 57 year old manager. One has to wonder what he made of the pressure he was coming under and the asked for and not received backing. No matter. For now, Taylor is safe.

Safe because only a fool would sack him now and Mark Lawn is no fool – indeed he did not act when other itched five games ago – but he is also no expert. Indeed looking at Bradford City at the moment and making a list of which person at the club knows enough about football to be qualified to make a call on the job that Taylor is doing and one is forced to conclude that at the head of the list is the manager himself and the gap to the others is startling.

Wayne Jacobs and Junior Lewis – and a few of the players – have some knowledge on the field and Mark Lawn, Julian Rhodes et al have some off it but like the vast majority of football club chairmen they were set the task of assessing the all round performance of the manager without the required domain knowledge to make a decision.

Take as an example Liverpool – a great reference for many things – who when replacing Rafa Benitez with Roy Hodgson did so with the idea that they were replacing a lame duck with a soaring eagle. At the moment Liverpool struggle and it seems not that Hodgson is doing an especially poor job but that Benitez had been doing a rather impressive one taking the team to second place.

In essence there was no one able to tell the difference between a good manager doing well with a bad team and a bad manager hampering a good side or – as is the case with the vast majority of situations a hard working manager doing his best only to be replaced by another hard working manager doing his best.

Indeed the idea of a good manager is questionable. Nigel Clough built Burton a season at a time over ten years and created a strong club which managed his departure without much of a blip. That is to me the measure of a good manager, not a win percentage figure.

Yet chairmen are constantly forced to look at the win percentage, the most recent trophies in the cabinet, the flavour of the month. Hodgson got the Liverpool job for taking Fulham to a cup final, Steve McLaren got the England job for similar. The list of managers sacked from doing the long term job because of poor short term results contains some impressive names.

Sir Bobby Robson – after all – was replaced at Newcastle United by Graeme Souness because he failed to secure Champions League football and Peter Reid was given the boot by Manchester City for not finishing high enough up the Premier League. United spent a year in the second tier, City ended up in the third.

Looking back at the last three decades of City managers and noting the only common factor in success – the two promotion winning managers were appointed from within – and one sees many examples of this practice of a chairman who knows less about football than the man sitting opposite him, trying to make a judgement on the man opposite him.

Gordon Gibb was wowed by Bryan Robson, but how could judge between Robson and Todd the two men in for the job? Gibb had some experience as a junior footballer but how did that qualify him to know which of the two potential gaffers would be the best for the club?

Plenty of people would tell you that Mark Lawn make a mistake when appointing Stuart McCall, or when sacking him, but most would agree that when appointing a replacement and trumpeting that man’s years in the game and experience the joint chairman was basically saying that he did not really know what he was looking for the first time, now he thinks he does.

He is not alone. Most chairmen hire managers on promises and sack them in disappointment that those promises have yet to deliver a promotion or a trophy and at no point are they qualified to judge anything other than what can be seen from the league table. The decision to move on Taylor from Hull City and replace him with Phil Brown ended up in promotion (and relegation) but the club rode on what the current City manager had built and Brown’s magic wore off in the top flight.

Chairmen lack the domain knowledge to make decisions on their managers. They can be unhappy at results but most lack the calibration to know if those are bad results with a good team or good results with a bad one. Lincoln City have replaced Chris Sutton who was gaffer for a year replacing Peter Jackson with almost no net result at all. Sutton’s side did no better than Jackson and – one was forced to conclude – that the factors in play at Sincil bank are deeper than the dug out.

To borrow a phrase Mark Lawn needs an experienced assistant. Someone with football experience at boardroom level. Most chairmen do. They need someone next to them who knows the difference between a manager building something and one who is doing badly. Someone who can tell them that things are going well at the training pitch, that the young players coming through have real potential, that the manager is doing his job well.

They do not have this, and so they sack on form and results.

Only a fool would sack Peter Taylor now, and in retrospect the decision to not make a decision on him five games ago looks a great on indeed but Mark Lawn – in common with a great number of football chairmen – needs to bring in expertise to give him the ability to make that call should it ever arise again.

England and the Spirit of Sir Bobby

Before the days of frustration seemed to overwhelm English football in the mid-1990s when the clichés of losing to the Germans and overpaid players under performing started to loom large in the popular mindset there were two World Cups in which are said to have excelled.

I recall them as halcyon days myself. Whatever I will say about my parents I will never criticise the slap dash attitude to bedtime that meant that unlike many of my schoolmates I was allowed to stay up until two or three in the morning watching as much of the Mexican World Cup of 1986 as I liked and saw everything up to and beyond The Hand Of God.

When the Italian World Cup of 1990 came around I’d finished my GCSEs the aforementioned parents were on holiday in Bulgaria and I had nothing to do in the summer except watch football. They were glorious days that ended in Rome, on penalties, with Gazza’s tears and Sir Bobby’s clenched fist of regret.

If only, it seemed to say.

Those days are recalled as a silver age by England FC. Not Moore and co in 1966 at Wembley but the next best thing with unfair exits at the heart of the mythology of both. A far cry from Fabio and a team which struggled to put three passes together in a row in South Africa.

Perhaps not. In 1986 the English started against Portugal – do not let the name scare you these were a third rate European nation then – and a win was expected but did not come. Indeed I can recall clearly seeing the ball sweep in from the close side and be finished untidily at far post by a rather portly looking chap with a moustache. England had threatened in the game I recall but ended with nothing at all.

Then came Morocco – a place that at the time I associated more with a cartoon Mole than football – who were the minnows of the group a fact illustrated by the way that they had two players to a sticker in the Panini album.

The minutia of the game – played in the early hours – eludes me but the major moments are burnt into the mind. Bryan Robson – who was a one of a kind player in his day – went off injured clutching the shoulder Sir Bobby Robson had begged Manchester United to allow him three months off to have an operation to fixed and about five minutes later Ray Wilkins was sent off for what some might call throwing the ball at the Referee although others would say that were the round thing to have hit a snail on the way to the man in the middle then it would have stopped so weak was the hurl, clearly not a red card offence but a red card was given.

I remember half time in our house but only when I’m talking to my therapist.

One point from two games and England where nowhere. The fans who had paid to go to Mexico were demanding that the FA or even the Thatcher Government pay for them to get home and most certainly for for Sir Bobby Robson to be sacked. Having failed to qualify for Euro 84 it seems that Bobby – or Booby Robson as he was christened back then – and England would part company not long after.

Peter Beardsley was thrown into the side and Gary Lineker got a hat-trick against Poland and then the rest soon became a glorious history that does not record the pressure that Robson resisted that would have had him take the ageing Trevor Francis over Beardsley nor does it recall how and why Robson arrived on his pairing of the two, of deploying the uniquely useful Steve Hodge to do the running with Glenn Hoddle did not.

Robson – Sir Bobby – found his team after two games because his plans had to change.

Four years later Robson was a dead man walking. He had handed in his resignation from England and in the run up to the finals had been exposed as having an affair. Euro 88 had been woeful with England losing all three games and the pressure had told on the England manager.

The opening game saw Gary Lineker give England a good start with a scruffy goal but Jack Charlton’s Irish side ground the game down into an unattractive slug fest in a nasty wind and the game finished 1-1. A week later and during a 0-0 draw with Holland which saw England put in a good display also saw Bryan Robson once again be injured out a tournament.

The quality of that Dutch performance is understated and a strike from Stuart Pearce bulged the goal but was ruled out for being struck from an indirect free kick but there was a confidence that came from that display in 1990 which can not be said to be here in 2010.

Nevertheless there are three commonalities. Firstly that England had two draws in the group from the first two games and secondly that neither Robson nor Capello’s side had been behind at any point. Lineker and Steven Gerrard gave leads which were pulled back in the first games before goalless draws in the second.

Thirdly after two games – and to use a phrase which became popularised after the semi-final which resulted – the players went to the manager and “had a word

The England players had decided that the team – as it was – lacked fluidity being a 442 with Peter Shilton in behind Paul Parker, Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Pearce; Paul Gascoigne and Steve McMahon partnered in the middle of flank pair John Barnes and Chris Waddle; Lineker and Beardsley up front. They told Robson that they wanted to move to a three at the back formation – adding Mark Wright – which would allow Parker and Pearce more freedom.

The machinations of the change are lost in football history. Butcher was injured when Wright played and scored against Eygpt but by the time the second round make with Belgium took place and David Platt scored his king-making late goal England had switched formation away from Robson’s choice to what the players wanted. That flexibility proved the making from the man to the legend.

England’s players enjoy a full and frank discussion with Fabio Capello enjoying the full public backing of his captain John Terry – who we recall got nothing of the sort from his International manager – who it is said are keen to see the Italian change from the 442 which has brought him so many honours to a 433 that includes Joe Cole on the left of a three up front.

It remains to be seen the results of such a suggestion. Sir Bobby Robson was able to be flexible to the needs of the matches ahead of him and the demands of the squad and in letting the players make the decision for him he signed over an ownership of the team to them. Invested in the selection perhaps Robson made the result matter more to his players because they felt more of an authorship of the team.

Perhaps the spirit of Sir Bobby – involved in advertising this World Cup – comes in the manager handing over some responsibilities inside the camp to his players? Capello’s high-handedness is a long way from that put very much what was wanted after “Stevie and Frank” and the regime of McLaren which was seen as too close to the players. Often the solution to the last problem becomes the current problem.

Indeed it remains to be seen how these first two games of the 2010 World Cup will be recalled. Portugal and Marocco, Ireland and Holland are but footnotes in bigger stories and it is not so much the result of the meeting, but the match on Wednesday and any that follow it which will dictate how Capello’s story is to be told.

A decade of decline, misery and still existing

Played 495, won 150, drawn 124, lost 221, scored 604 goals and conceded 728. As a decade, the noughties have been long and largely miserable for Bradford City.

It began with the Bantams scrapping for their lives in the Premier League under Paul Jewell, it has ended four divisions below and with typical pessimism over the immediate prospects of beginning the ascent back. Dashed hopes, repeated agony, fruitless endeavour. Even though the club’s history is littered with underachievement, the last 10 years have set some new standards.

In fact, looking around at others, it would not be an exaggeration to label Bradford City English professional football’s most unsuccessful club of the 00’s.

It hasn’t all been doom and gloom – five months into the new millennium was that never-to-be-forgotten afternoon City defeated England’s most successful club to seal Premier League survival. It prompted scenes of delirium as the final whistle was greeted by fans swarming onto the pitch to mob their heroic players and join in singing You’ll Never Walk Alone with the gracious Liverpool supporters. The bars in Bradford were heaving that night and we supporters dreamt of a future of top flight football as the mid-90’s momentum that had seen City climb from England’s third tier saw few signs of slowing. A fantastic day, but what’s next?

With each passing year of disappointment, that victory over Liverpool has given rise to another debate about whether it would have been better City had lost and been relegated instead. If City’s first top flight campaign in 77 years ended in heroic failure rather than plain heroic, City might have rebuilt more sensibly in the Football League; perhaps bouncing up and down like Birmingham. More likely, City might now be muddling along like a Barnsley or Ipswich; still having undergone some financial difficulties – for then-Chairman Geoffrey Richmond would have still spent relatively significant money and the 7.5 million pound new stand would have been built anyway – but strong enough to be a firm fixture in the Championship, a place we now aspire to be.

Instead David Wetherall’s headed winner paved the way for those six weeks of madness and almost complete financial meltdown two years later, with debts of over 35 million. The financial strife was self-inflicted and the damage is still endured now. Every subsequent failure since Dermot Gallagher blew for full time against Liverpool can ultimately be traced back to those six weeks.

The question of whether we’d use a time machine to fly back to May 2000 and warn a Liverpool defender to mark Wetherall in the 12th minute is one we’d all answer differently. Me, I’d like to think that one day the financial ball and chain will be removed and when it is the memories of that warm May afternoon will still feel as joyful as it continues to do now. Liverpool at home is a life moment I’ll always be grateful to have experienced, and I hope one day to be truly able to say it was worth it.

As for other great moments of the decade, City’s continuing existence will go down as the biggest achievement. It’s often a point of criticism from other fans that supporters who still talk of their gratitude for still having a club to support are excusing subsequent underachievement and need to move on. I agree to a point, but the lessons learned in 2002 and 2004 are ones which cannot be forgotten.

It’s commonplace for lower league clubs to hit financial troubles and, as Watford, Southend, Accrington and Stockport take the national media’s sympathy spot this season, it’s always tempting to shrug the shoulders and mutter “so what?’. Like a typical Richard Curtis film we all know there will be a happy ending, don’t we?

In both of City’s spells in administration the prospect of the club’s termination was very real and very scary. That July morning in 2004 when it looked all over and fans stood outside Valley Parade, ready to mourn as the noon deadline for the end approached, was a day I was flying from the UK to the States, agonisingly stuck on an eight hour flight then a two-hour car drive before I could access any information about whether I still had a club to support.

The joy each time when at the last minute the club was saved and the relief as the players ran out onto the Valley Parade pitch for the first time since a few weeks later. It was easy to take it all for granted before, but the traumatic summers of 2002 and 2004 taught us to be thankful of this special relationship in our lives, which can cause us frustration and pain but that we cannot cope without.

Post-administration on both occasions, it was clear the immediate future was one of tredding water rather than a time to draw up blue sky five-year plans. Unfortunately relegation was not too far away both times – the common thread being the enforced lack of investment in the playing squad having disastrous results. City’s 2003/04 centenary celebrations were hollow as a squad of Premier League cast offs struggled dismally, setting a new Football League record for most single goal defeats in a season. In 2006/07 the squad depended on loan signings – those who did well quickly disappeared and those who remained failed to possess enough fight to rescue their temporary employers from the League Two abyss.

At other times, seasons often began with seemingly reasonable expectations of challenging for the play offs, but as the nights drew darker in winter early season promise drifted to usual mediocrity. The only season where promotion hopes remained in tact with less than a quarter of it remaining was last year, but then a talented squad’s form collapsed bringing with it that distressingly familiar feeling of despair.

There’s been little cup cheer as a distraction either, save for this season’s run in the JPT and the Intertoto adventure back in 2000.

Underpinning much of the decline has been musical chairs in the managerial seat. Jewell was controversially gone in the summer of 2000. His replacement Chris Hutchings exited 12 Premier League games later. The no-nonsense Jim Jefferies quickly waved the white flag on City’s Premiership survival hopes. He departed the following Christmas Eve with his rebuilding job struggling to get going.

The pace of change at least slowed then, with Nicky Law, Colin Todd and now Stuart McCall afforded more time to get things right. Bryan Robson did have a short spell after Law was sacked in 2003, but Captain Marvel talked a better game off the field than his charges did on it.

All since Jewell have been branded failures at City, but the hiring and firing policy has also played its part in the fall to League Two. If Richmond’s big mistake was to go mad for a month and a half, Julian Rhodes’ decision to sack Todd in February 2007 – with City three points clear of the relegation zone and displaying midtable form – is one to regret. Todd was ready to leave at the end of the season and, despite the handicap of losing his three best players, the chances of survival were far greater with the experienced hand rather than under the rookie tutelage of caretaker Wetherall, who’s concentration would have been better served on just leading the team as captain.

Todd was sacked for frustration at City being stuck in the mid-table of League One, now McCall is under pressure for so far failing to reverse the damage from becoming unstuck.

Not that Rhodes’ influence over the past decade should be dismissed by that one action. After Richmond’s borrow-heavily-self-reward-through-dividends-a-plenty policy failed disastrously in 2002, the Rhodes family – also recipients of those controversial dividend payments – did everything they could financially to maintain the club’s existence. A fortune built up through the success of their Filtronics company has declined through their obvious love of the Bantams, and though for a time they were helped by Gordon Gibb the Rhodeses were once again the only saviours around in 2004, alongside supporters who did everything they could to raise money to keep the club going over that summer.

One can only admire the Rhodes family’s resolve in attempting to put the club on an even keel again. There was hope in 2006 that then-commercial manager Peter Etherington was to ease that load and inject much needed capital, but in the end it proved a false dawn. At least Julian now has the added support of Mark Lawn since 2007. Rhodes has made it known he is less comfortable in the spotlight, and Lawn has over the last three years become the public front of house.

It’s to be hoped that, ultimately, Rhodes’ legacy will not just be saving the club twice, but to have made professional football affordable in a part of the country that is far from affluent. City’s demise to League Two should have seemed a catastrophe, but with Rhodes’ cheap season ticket initiative taking off and McCall appointed manager it was a club reborn.

The offer has so far being repeated three times and there is every indication it will continue for sometime. In League One, the lower crowds City attracted affected the atmosphere with the limited noise rattling around a two-thirds empty stadium. There are still plenty of unsold seats on matchdays, but the atmosphere is undoubtedly better for the season ticket offer bringing in 10,000+ supporters.

Though as Rhodes will have learned many years ago, success on the field is an outcome almost impossible for the board to determine. There has been a high turnover of players at Valley Parade ever since Jefferies told Richmond the flair players he inherited had to go. A cycle of underperforming players being replaced by poorer ones has continued through to League Two. When it’s a few players not up to the job it has hampered progress – much was expected of the likes of Dan Petrescu, Ashley Ward, Jason Gavin, Bobby Petta, Owen Morrison and Paul McLaren, but they and many others regularly failed to make the right impact – when it is almost a whole team relegation has followed.

Plenty of wretched team performances along the way – Stockport ’01, Wimbledon ’02, Sunderland ’03, Forest ’05, Oldham ’06, Huddersfield ’07, Accrington ’07, Notts County  ’09 and Rochdale ’09. Though on other occasions the 11 players (or nine) have got it right and prompted giddy celebrations; defeating Chelsea in ’00, a Benito Carbone-inspired Gillingham thrashing in ’01, the last minute Michael Proctor equaliser against Burnley in ’02, Bryan Robson’s managerial debut where City came from 2-0 down to win 3-2 in the last minute in ’03, the five wins in a row of ’04, completing the double over Huddersfield in ’05, Joe Brown’s late winner against Blackpool in ’06, Lincoln away ’07 and Accrington away last season.

10 years is a long time, and for each of us watching in the stands it will have been a decade of personal change too. My perceptions and outlook on City has altered; I’m now older than many of the players and the obvious decline in quality of the playing staff since the Premiership means I’m more likely to admire players – Donovan Ricketts, Nathan Doyle, Andy Gray, Simon Francis, Dean Windass, Dean Furman and Carbone – rather than treat them as heroes.

This Christmas a thoughtful relative got me an Edinho t-shirt which I love but it also hit home that, over the past decade, there’s been few players who can come close to matching the feelings I had for our Brazilian striker. Of course we also live in a time of message board users ripping apart everyone connected with the club which makes hero status harder to achieve, and though this type of criticism existed in 2000 I was unaware of it – and much happier for that.

There’s still no better feeling than the joy of the ball flying into the back of the net and celebrating wildly.

I’m always thrilled by the experience of a feisty game where City are on top and all four sides of the ground are backing the players positively, urging them forward to score. All negative moaners are drowned out, all problems the club has to meet are suspended. The noise carries over the thousands of empty seats so they don’t matter, everything else in our lives has been left at the turnstile door for later.

This was the decade we nearly lost all of this. It may go down as one of most unsuccessful periods in the club’s history, but the noughties have been unforgettable.

Sack the manager? It just doesn’t add up

“Everybody knows the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.” Leonard Cohen

As predictable as the boos circling around Valley Parade at the final whistle against Rochdale, was the resulting strong wave of criticism emanating from Bradford City supporters in the days following the 3-0 humbling.

In contrast to the relative quiet satisfaction following the success at Grimsby, the City cyber-world went into overdrive as complaints and criticisms were boisterously aired. BBC Radio Leeds listeners learned of a publicity-seeking Bantams fan from Accrington, who texted in straight after the match to absurdly label the performance the worst of his 15 years as fan, and to reveal he’d ripped up his season ticket renewal form and Darlington match tickets. Ah well,  he didn’t miss much in terms of the latter.

The main thrust of the displeasure was once again regarding the capabilities of manager Stuart McCall, with the returning of cries for him to be sacked which were last aired in August. Often such arguments are defined by the short and long term viewpoint, with the pro-manager supporters arguing for the long term and dismissing the opposing views as short term-ism. On this occasion, fans calling for McCall to be sacked notably adopted a more durable stance themselves; arguing that, after two-and-a-half years at the helm, the former Scottish international has had long enough to deliver a promotion-winning team.

But ultimately, it remains a short term viewpoint, for question marks over McCall’s future would not have been raised had City beaten Rochdale or at least not been so badly embarrassed by the leaders. Equally, the opinion he should be handed a P45 would have more weight were it not only uttered when City have a bad result. Sacking a manager should be a decision made on a bigger picture than merely the form guide, sadly in football that is all too rarely the case.

And the problem, rarely considered it seems, is what happens after the sacking. It’s apparently accepted practice within football that no thought is paid to a successor before the dismissal, often triggering a period of uncertainty while the position is advertised. Sometimes results improve under the caretaker, in other situations the damage gets worse. If things are so bad a club must sack its manager, why is it so often done with little preparation for the immediate aftermath?

When the new manager is finally installed, the prospects of an immediate revolution usually fail to materialise. Approximately 20 of the 92 English professional clubs have already dismissed their manager this season, but few are betteroff for it. In the Championship, the promotion prospects for Middlesbrough have hardly improved by sacking Gareth Southgate. On his dismissal Boro were a point away from the leaders, now the best they can hope for is a play off spot.

Meanwhile in League One Wycombe remain near the bottom, despite allowing Peter Taylor to leave, where they currently sit level with Tranmere Rovers, who sacked John Barnes. In fact Tranmere are perhaps the strongest example of the perils of readily changing managers; inexplicably sacking Ronnie Moore during the summer despite Rovers just missing out on the play offs, they now look set to exit the division the wrong way.

Throw in bottom-placed Stockport and Brighton and Oldham just above, and League One’s current bottom five clubs have all failed to benefit from swapping managers during 2009. In League Two, the bottom three teams have also fired their managers this season.

Perhaps this argument is flawed by the fact clubs near the foot of leagues are naturally more likely to want to make a change; but that Lincoln manager Chris Sutton this week declared his third-bottom side were in a relegation battle can’t have been great news to Imps supporters, who called for then-manager Peter Jackson to be sacked for losing three early season games on the basis the club had to be challenging for the play offs.

Indeed Sutton’s downbeat outlook is a complete contrast to Jackson, who at the beginning of the 2008/2009 season boldly predicted Lincoln would end it as Champions. A similarly statement of foolishness to McCall’s “I’ll consider myself a failure if we don’t go up” of 2007 perhaps, but the chalk of Sutton to Jackson’s cheese is hardly a statement of progression. At least Barnsley and Norwich fans can argue their teams have been boosted by making a change, but the success ratio across the country is hardly inspiring.

Nor is City’s recent history of giving bosses the boot. If two managers – Chris Kamara and Paul Jewell – were responsible for lifting City two divisions, the subsequent six have all played their part in City’s fall to League Two. Appointing Chris Hutchings may have been a mistake, but dismissing him after 12 games hardly made much difference given replacement Jim Jefferies told Geoffrey Richmond City were doomed just eight further league games later.

At least Jefferies was then afforded time to reshape the squad, but his departure just before he was pushed mid-way through the first season back in the Football league did not lead to the promotion which had been targeted at the beginning of it.

Nicky Law’s sacking was a watershed moment for me. I was undecided over whether he should be dismissed in the autumn of 2003 as City lay in the relegation zone, but despite replacing him with Bryan Robson the Bantams still ended the season in the same position they were the day Law was sacked. Despite the ongoing financial difficulties which saw Colin Todd lose his best three players, sacking him with City in 16th place proved a mistake as the season ended with relegation under caretaker David Wetherall.

The same criticisms aimed at Hutchings, Jefferies, Law and Todd are repeated towards McCall. Yet the proven failure of sacking City managers mid-season seems to be forgotten. Perhaps by firing McCall now we’ll get a fantastic replacement who ends up leading City up the steps of the Wembley Royal Box next May to lift the League Two play off trophy. Against the evidence of recent City history and how other teams have fared from recently making a change, you wouldn’t exactly bet on it.

Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean City should stick with McCall if he’s not meeting expectations. In the cold light of day the last two seasons were failures, as McCall himself admitted, but the signs since agreeing to remain as manager last May offer renewed encouragement. The summer signings have all largely been young players with something to prove. There’s a clear determination to self-improve and every indication the squad sees playing for Bradford City as a privilege.

Were the end of the season now, how many of this present squad would McCall and supporters want to release? The total would be low, certainly compared to recent summers. No matter how this campaign ends, if McCall is allowed to remain in charge the focus will be on building on it rather than starting all over again.

If McCall had only just taken over this summer, this policy would be universally accepted. That he has the baggage of two years failure counts against him, but if the ethos of what he is now trying to achieve is one which can be agreed is a good thing, shouldn’t it be pursued anyway?

Because ultimately the lesson to be taken from sacking a manager is that the problems inflicting the club rarely disappear as quickly. Maybe by sacking McCall now we’d find our own Jim Gannon, John Still, Keith Hill or Andy Scott instead, or maybe by sacking McCall now we’d find our own Egil Olsen, David Platt, Glen Roeder or Carlton Palmer. Maybe by sacking McCall we’d discover he was holding us back, or maybe by sacking McCall we’d discover he was moving us forwards.

At best it would be a gamble, a roll of the dice which might land a six but could just as easily come to a one. Until the summer at least, it would best to leave the dice for someone else to roll.

Pondering Nicky Law as City visit Alfreton Town

It is the source of some bafflement to this writer why it is thought in football clubs both high and low from terrace to table of boardroom that the solution to all ills is merely a change of manager away.

Moving aside from issues regarding Stuart McCall for a second Alfreton Town, tonight’s opponents, are managed by former City boss Nicky Law who was never massively popular at Valley Parade and was fired to bring about that much longed for improvement.

Law was replaced by Bryan Robson and relegation followed although perhaps Robson would blame Law and Law, Robson for that.

Either way since being fired from City Law has not managed another league club save less than a year at Grimsby Town that ended badly but one doubts he could have done a worse job at Sheffield United than Robbo and the moral of the story seems to be that changing manager in itself is not a cure but a cause of problems. That and don’t piss off the Father’s of kids who might become midfielders you want to sign. Or they will go to Rotherham. This lesson may yet prove worth learning with Law’s second son spending half a year at Alfreton’s grandly named Impact Arena last season on loan from Chesterfield.

City’s side at Alfreton is unknown. Fringe players may get a run out considering the proximity of the season start and the level of opposition but as discussed City are light on fringe players.

Expect though appearance from new keeper Simon Eastwood, Steve Williams as he bids to be last man uninjured in the central defence, a host of would be number fours and James Hanson and Gareth Evans who play with Peter Thorne’s tributes ringing in their ears.

The senior City hit man is excited about the two youngsters pressing for his place and with a seven subs allowed on a bench next year all four forwards can expect to be in action, or watching action from close, next season.

That is eleven days away though and tonight is a winsome evening, a calm before storm, where one wonders and ponders.

What would have City been like had Law not been fired? Why do a club with as much money as Notts County feel it is appropriate to charge £20 for a League Two game? Is Josh Law any good? Will City have a different Evans next season following single years for Paul and Rhys?

I’m ready to find out. Roll on the season.

Todd, Robson and some unresolved history

Those who tuned into watch Manchester United lift the Premier League title on Saturday will have seen shots of Bryan Robson in the stands before and after the game. Now assuming the role of Manchester United Ambassador (nice work if you can get it), the TV director cut to the Red Devils legend at irregular intervals so the commentators could point out he was captain of the first of manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s 11 title triumphs. On the day he even had a role in presenting the trophy to the current players, receiving a warm reception from home fans as he walked out onto the pitch.

What the commentators didn’t find time to reflect upon was how Robson was once considered the air to Ferguson’s managerial throne. His early managerial career appeared to offer great promise, with two promotions and two domestic cup finals with Middlesbrough, but his inability to lift the North East club above the lower echelons of the Premier League would eventually cost him his job. A tarnished reputation appeared to have been rebuilt after pulling off the great escape with West Brom in 2005, but he ultimately lost his job after adding another unwanted blemish to his CV – three clubs managed, three clubs relegated.

The other club in that trio was Bradford City, who five years ago he turned his back on. After taking over six months earlier he was tasked with preventing City’s relegation from then-Division One, but such were the financial difficulties which threatened to kill off the club that even Sir Alex wouldn’t have been able to overcome such insurmountable odds. Robson did okay, but the impression he wasn’t exactly displaying the level of courage and commitment he exhibited as a player was difficult to shake off. A comparison of the hours he and Stuart McCall put in would be unlikely to reflect well on the former England captain.

So Robson seems destined to spend the rest of his life shaking hands with important guests in the Old Trafford boardroom, while the man who worked under him at Valley Parade and who took on the challenge at City he eventually baulked is back in English football. The similarities in the situation Colin Todd inherited at City to that he faces at Darlington have been talked up by the North East media and the reaction of the fans is likely to be comparable too. With all the anxiousness over the club’s ability to even start the next season, a new manager isn’t going to cause much excitement. Great to have you Colin, though in all honesty who else would have taken such an unattractive-looking position?

Todd’s time at Valley Parade is viewed differently by many. The fact he worked with such limited resources seen by his biggest critics as a poor excuse for accepting mediocrity. The entertainment factor was questionable at times, though was arguably masked by the fact his appointment coincided with a drop down a division where the difference in quality was particularly notable. I know of people who gave up watching City during Todd’s reign.

Yet for a club which had suffered such dark times, the more stable footing he achieved should not be discounted. There was enough of the wrong type of excitement for a period of calm to be needed, and the consecutive 11th place finishes he guided City to included signs of promise. Todd’s ultimate failing was his inability to take the club forward, though the transfer strategy of relying heavily on loans during his final season did much to undermine such hopes of progression. The time was coming for new direction, ideas and enthusiasm – but history suggests that time was called prematurely.

For while many will disagree, I don’t believe City would be in League Two right now had we not sacked Colin Todd when we did. The club was on a poor run of form just as the axe fell, but a similar scenario had been the case the season before and Todd had been able to avert the nose dive. Instead David Wetherall took charge, moaned about the fitness levels and declared intentions for City to play a more high tempo style of football. The subsequent results and wretched performances suggest he didn’t have the right players for such a philosophy to work.

Had we kept Todd until the summer before taking the decision to look for a new man we’d probably still have ended up with Stuart as manager, but in a higher division which we’d be sharing with Leeds and Huddersfield and from which, with Mark Lawn joining, we might have been able to mount a more realistic promotion challenge than Todd was ever able to. Instead the depths of League Two are proving troublesome to climb out of and the first target is just to get back to where we were under Todd.

For next season, Todd will be back at Valley Parade and the reception he’ll receive is likely to be mixed. It’s a chapter of City’s history that will never be universally agreed upon, but one for which Todd deserve at least some appreciation given his undoubted high efforts towards moving the club out of the mire. I for one will applaud Todd when he walks down the touchline and starts leaning on the dugout in a manner which so wound some fans up.

Some will say he’s still got the stomach for a tough challenge, still got the belief he has something to offer. Others will argue the 60-year-old’s not even good enough to get an ambassador’s job.

Leaving his Mark

I remember Mark Bower’s debut for City.

Down at Carrow Road in April 1998, City had climbed into a seemingly unassailable 3-0 advantage thanks to quick-fire goals either side of half time. The first of those scorers, Wayne Jacobs, had to go off injured, so off the bench stepped an 18-year old to take the City skipper’s spot. Norwich, trying to avoid relegation from then-Division One, came back to 3-2, and we were too busy willing the referee to blow for full time to be pre-occupied with how the debut boy was getting on. He must have quietly got through it, never giving cause for a fuss.

And that’s what is both great and not so great about the long-serving defender, who today it was officially announced has been released. Bower’s City career has rarely featured controversial headlines or given managers cause for headaches, but it hasn’t included too many good times either. During his 11 years he’s generally looked solid and dependable, but when his understated presence was taken away, for manager Stuart McCall, it wasn’t missed enough.

That said there is great sadness in thinking of the Bradford-born defender out of work and facing an uncertain future right now. His presence at Valley Parade, for the past decade, was something we took for granted.

The next time I saw Bower was when we were beaten at home to Portsmouth at the end of a season his team mates had long since given up on. The following two campaigns were unforgettable, with promotion and then that exciting first season in the Premiership, but what Bower saw of it was from the sidelines or from afar while on loan at York City, near the bottom of the Football League.

He did at least get to play for City in Europe the following season, but was back at York for half a season as City sank miserably from the Premier League. A fleeting appearance here and there, including another game at Carrow Road during which he scored his first City goal, was all he had to show as City laboured to get going back in Division One. Eventually Nicky Law, already Bower’s fourth different manager, gave him a run in the side and he played a significant role in ensuring a second successive relegation was avoided, even scoring the winning goal at Wimbledon to confirm mathematical survival.

Typical of Bower’s luck, he became more part of the scene just as the bad times really begun. As the club fell into administration, Bower was one of only five players it did not attempt to sack. At times that summer City staying in existence was touch and go and, while the immediate concern for Bower the City fan would have been for the future of his club, it would equally have been on his own given he was the verge of making it. In the end City survived and Bower prospered in a reduced squad with reduced expectations the following season, playing 39 times.

The centenary that City celebrated during the 2003/04 season was marked by relegation and administration, with Bower not for the first time watching others underperform in his place. Jason Gavin was brought in and played ahead of Bower by first Nicky Law then Bryan Robson, and if there was one early thing to trumpet Colin Todd for after he took over that summer it was his decision to pick Bower ahead of the hapless Irishman.

And under the tutelage of the former England defender it seemed Bower had finally arrived. City, now in League One, bobbled about in mid table for two seasons with David Wetherall and Bower mainstays at the back. Bower picked up the 2004/05 Player of the Season award ahead of an undoubtedly aghast 28-goal Dean Windass. Yet a year later came further clues that Bower was not the kingpin to build a defence around, with Todd shifting him to left back for a time so the impressive Damion Stewart could partner Wetherall. Todd’s now-huge army of critics saw it as an opportunity to slam the City boss, while ignoring the fact Bower looked excellent charging forward down the left flank.

With the club seemingly on irreversible decline, it seemed to finally catch up with Bower a year later. Todd was sacked in February and Wetherall asked to assume a caretaker role, and the opportunity was there for Bower, newly appointed as skipper, to emerge from Wetherall’s shadow and become a rock to depend upon. He was hardly the only player to fail to reach the heights expected as the club crashed to a seemingly avoidable relegation, but the player who had never let anyone down failed to convincingly prove he could step things up and be a hero.

With two years of a four-year deal still to run, Bower stayed on for life in League Two but it has been far from kind. If asked to name regrets, Bower might just list his willingness to play in goal away at Grimsby, when an injury to keeper Evans left manager Stuart McCall without a specialist to take the role. Bower let no one down in goal, but his replacement at the back, Matt Clarke, impressed instantly alongside Wetherall and suddenly a worrying dip in form meant Bower was dropped two weeks later. There has been the occasional appearance since, but no one should be surprised that, with the club now needing to release high earners, the highest earner of the lot has being shown the door.

Much of this season has included a soundtrack of fans whining about Bower’s exclusion and Clarke’s inclusion, which is a testament to short memories and of absence making hearts grow fonder. Back in the autumn of 2007, Bower was crucified by some supporters but it’s almost been airbrushed from history as some openly questioned “what he ever did wrong?” and screamed abuse at Clarke. Bower did little to deserve the abuse he was getting back then, but he’s equally done nothing to prompt some fans to elevate him to to the status of saviour and, belatedly, chant his name at games.

Bower will be no fan of Stuart and no one can blame him. But Stuart is the manager of this club and is entitled to make what he believes to be the best decision. One can only speculate that, for how much Bower’s weekly wage was, Zesh Rehman’s contract at QPR would be comparable. Rehman has been offered a deal and I for one am delighted. Clarke has also received another contract offer and, though he’s never going to be able to win over a section of support, has largely looked strong this season.

As for Bower, he should have little trouble finding another club, maybe even one in League One. He will go onto to enjoy a decent career elsewhere because, like the last home-grown City defender to ‘make it’, Andy O’Brien, he has plenty of talent and a good attitude.

He will be missed back at Valley Parade, but perhaps not quite enough. A player who will always be guaranteed a good reception on his return, a player who may one day be welcomed back with open arms, but sadly also a player for whom it’s difficult to associate with too many happy times.

It’s time that both he and City enjoyed a turn of luck.

Moans, groans and negativity

It was a warm Tuesday evening in late September 2009 and as the City supporters trudged away from Valley Parade, there was much talk about whether the appointment of Dave Penney in the summer had been the right move by Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn following Stuart McCall’s exit at the end of the 2008/2009 season. City had narrowly missed out of the final play off position after failing to win their final game at Chesterfield and thus as McCall had stated in April he quit the club that he loves as he felt that he had failed owing to the fact that Bradford City were still a Division 4 side. Now that Penney and City had suffered their third consecutive home defeat, this time to league newcomers Burton Albion which left them in the bottom half of Division 4, many City supporters were questioning Penney’s appointment.

Obviously, the above paragraph is made up but a similar scenario could occur later on this calendar year. City fail to make the play-offs, McCall is true to his word and departs from the Valley Parade hot-seat, another manager is appointed and City begin the 2009/2010 season in a poor fashion. What will the so-called City supporters be moaning and groaning about then?

The negativity inside Valley Parade on Easter Monday was disgusting. I’m sure that Joe Colbeck, last season’s Player of the Year, would be the first to admit that he had a shocker and when McCall went to a 4-3-3 formation bringing on Mullen for Boulding, many people near me were shouting “You don’t know what you’re doing” at McCall. Now whilst I’m not the greatest supporter of Mullen (I believe that he looks and plays like Conlon) and I would have kept Boulding on the pitch, I didn’t start hurling abuse at a person who has experienced promotion as a player, scored two goals in an FA Cup final, won numerous trophies with Rangers and scored in the World Cup Finals. I’m not saying that a great player makes a great manager as shown by Bryan Robson (in my eyes a superb player but a poor manager) but McCall is still learning the managerial role.

Calls for Mark Bower to return from his loan spell at Luton could be also heard on a day. This is the same player who has been abused in previous seasons. The negativity inside Valley Parade spreads like a cancer and it makes me sick! I for one kept shouting encouragement at our players and I still believe that we can make the play offs. And if we don’t I’ll be back at Valley Parade next season supporting the men in claret an amber. That’s what the difference is between a supporter and a fan. A supporters offers words of support during the difficult times which is what our team is experiencing at the moment as our winless run continues.

So to all you moaners and groaners out there, if you want to follow a successful club, go to Old Trafford and join the thousands of others who have no connection with Manchester but who want to follow a successful team. Or go to Stamford Bridge and watch loads of foreign players where local home grown talent has very very little chance of making it into the first team.

For me, it’s the delights of Division 4 at the moment, watching the likes of Colbeck and O’Brien, special home grown players. And who knows, it could be Colbeck scoring the winning goal at Chesterfield on 02 May. Now where’s that ticket for Saltergate…

Yeah, but if it wasn’t Stuart…

I have come to the conclusion that the debate on Stuart McCall is impossible to have in an emotional vacuum that is presented with the opening gambit “Yeah, but if it wasn’t Stuart…”

The City boss is Stuart McCall and – when Peter Jackson became persona non grata in the 1990s – he is the only club legend we have. Sacking him, or pressuring him into leaving because it amounts to the same thing, is a permanent severing of that relationship. For confirmation one need only to look how Andrew Stuart McCall Junior turned his back on Elland Road after the way that Leeds United behaved towards Andrew McCall Senior. “I’ll know that a few thousand people in Bradford want me to put one over Leeds.” said the then Rangers midfielder before 1992’s European Cup Battle of Britain.

Nevertheless it is perhaps worth exploring that question of “Yes, but if it wasn’t Stuart” as we come to terms with the manager’s statement that should the Bantams not make the play-offs this season then he will not be in charge next.

Three away defeats in a row have blotted out moving fourth after a 5-0 win at Valley Parade and we are forced to ask what would previous incumbents of the manager’s job at Valley Parade had done in the circumstances that McCall admits, and few would deny, hurt him as much as anyone.

David Wetherall certainly faced his darkest day when the Bantams were so easily swept aside by Huddersfield Town 2-0 in 2006. Wetherall’s response was muted to say the least but as a caretaker – almost house sitter – manager one can expect little else so we move back to the last permanent City manager Colin Todd.

Todd was not popular with the same people who would have rid of McCall, and more besides, and approached his time at Valley Parade as casually as could be. A man who had seen the highs of football and is soon to be glorified as such on the silver screen viewed his time at City with the dispassion of a hired hand. Not that one could say that Todd did not care for the club and his charges but that he cared because of his professional pride rather than being felt from the heart.

Perhaps after three away defeats Todd would have said that winning away from home in football is hard and not to be expected and while he hoped we could improve our form and that he would do everything to ensure we did, he worked under tight restraints. Of the managers I shall mention today Todd is perhaps the only one I would rank above McCall in terms of what one might call “management ability”. Todd was going to leave at the end of the season he was fired in and one can speculate that he had grown weary of the constant unbalance of expectations and resources.

“The job gets harder every year” the man from Chester-le-Street said.

Another man from Chester-le-Street would have lost no sleep over Bradford City’s three defeats on the road. The heart that Bryan Robson put into playing for England and Manchester United was sorely lacking from his time at Valley Parade. When, it seemed, the excuse of administration offered itself Robson accepted that his then second step into management would be a failure and marked time until the end of the season making no enemies and ensuring he would be continue to be thought of as a good guy, a nice bloke.

Bryan Robson would not have lost any sleep over three defeats.

That Nicky Law might be doing now is, one hopes, a result of worries about his son’s place in professional football next season. Law Jnr is much trumpeted but, as with perhaps all the Bradford City players, he is hidden under this criticism of McCall while not putting in as much as he should. Nicky Law Snr’s time at Valley Parade can be defined in a single comment – “At some grounds the crowd is worth a goal for home team, here it is worth one for the opposition.” – and while that became the epitaph of his career as the Bantams manager it is as true today as it was then.

There is a poison in the support at Valley Parade, a cancer, that undermines any work that is attempted and that cancer is so significant than now results are not viewed to their ends but rather to the reaction of the reactionaries. I am told this is the same at all clubs but an appeal to how ordinary and how unremarkable we have allowed ourselves to become is no comfort.

As manager Law would no doubt have made the right noises about how to solve the problems of defeat but perhaps been incapable of solving those problems. As a manager he suffered the same problems of reducing resources, and had boardroom in-fighting to contend with to boot, but one suspected he saw the job as his big chance and in contrast to Robson he would have faught with all the strength he could muster against that chance dwindling.

Law’s predecessor Jim Jefferies reacted to defeats with a retreat, back to Scotland and the safety of the middle of the SPL. His character shall never recover from the smut of it being said that when they going got tough, he went. The impression from Jefferies, who was no fan of Stuart McCall and attempted to drum him out of Bradford City for the sake of winning over the dressing room suggesting a style of management that demanded fealty rather than respect, was that ultimately he cared not for the future of the club as long as he was ensured his pay out to leave a club that five months later would be making redundancies.

A stark contrast to McCall who did all he could to help in 2004 when the club faced closure and, when prompted in 2007 by Mark Lawn’s stabilising investment, answered the call and took on this his role as Bradford City manager. One wonders too about the long term interest and investment of Lawn in a situation in which his choice for manager resigns on the grounds that the effects of the job are too great.

So to answer the question “Yeah, but if it wasn’t Stuart” I would say that if it was not Stuart then I worry whom it would be. If it was not Stuart I worry that we would have someone who cared less, who did the job for the financial situation or personal betterment, who slept well knowing that the football club paid him today but another would tomorrow.

If it was not Stuart then I would worry that we would go once more down the ridiculous route of believing that the next manager, whoever he may be, will be better than the previous despite all the evidence to the contrary. If one will talk about rose tinted spectacles then one would do well to explain that contradiction.

Primarily though I would say that if it was not Stuart then Bradford City would be worse off because the chances of any successor being a vast improvement on McCall’s abilities are slight while there is a certainty that whomever should follow McCall as manager of this club whenever that change comes will care less about the club, will put less effort into the club, will engage less of his heart into ensuring the clubs improvement and will have less reason to engage whatever abilities he has into the progress of the club and in those very real, very important ways will be guaranteed to be a lesser manager than Stuart McCall.

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