McCall and the never-ending cycle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The stats simply do not look good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

The rest of League Two – Preseason 2008/2009 [II]

The numerous season preview supplements produced at this time of year act as a reminder, if it were needed, that the hopes and expectations we City supporters have for the coming season are not dissimilar to the majority of League Two fans.

Much has been made locally about how last season’s promotion of the MK Dons and Peterborough has left a more levelled playing field, but we aren’t the only ones thinking such sentiments. Some clubs will look to Hereford’s unexpected promotion last season and be confident they can emulate it, others may be hoping it’s emerging young talent can push them forward in the manner of Stockport and Rochdale, while others are upping the wage budget in a bid to go for it. League Two may look weaker without the presence of the Dons and the Posh, but it’s likely to be just as competitive.

When considering who might be in the promotion shake up it’s typical to start with the clubs who have spent money, those who lost out in last year’s plays offs and those relegated into the division last season. The club record £170,000 that Shrewsbury Town has spent on Nottingham Forest striker Grant Holt stands out like a sore thumb compared to everyone else’s summer recruitment. Last season was one of underachievement for the 2007 Play Off Finalists but manager Paul Simpson will begin his first full season with expectations not much lower than at Valley Parade.

Holt made his name at last season’s play off finalists Rochdale, who are likelier to be up there come May. Keith Hill has worked wonders at Spotland and their counter attacking approach impressed last season. Arguably lacking a decent striker, the Dale will hope Halifax’s Jon Shaw can make the step up; especially as midfield playmaker David Perkins, twice the thorn in the side of City last season, has left.

Wycombe Wanderers parted company with manager Paul Lambert at the end of last season and welcome Peter Taylor – with more than a point to prove following a difficult couple of years. They will probably do better than the other semi-finalists of last season, Darlington, who have lost star players David Stockdale and, while not confirmed yet, Tommy Wright. Dave Penney spent big last summer but doesn’t appear to have significant funds this time around.

Elsewhere big things are expected of Lincoln City, who prospered last year under Peter Jackson before his time off through illness. New keeper Rob Burch was sought after by others, including City, while Frank Sinclair could prove a clever buy if he still has the legs. Chesterfield fans seem to dislike their manager Lee Richardson but have one of the best strikers in the division in Jack Lester, Alan Knill will be looking to continue his rejuvenation of Bury and they could be dark horses, while Grimsby has strengthened defensively and will hope young striker Danny North can fulfill his potential.

It’s a sad state of the continuing financial problems many clubs in the lower reaches of the Football League are suffering from that this year’s League Two relegation battle could be determined by point deductions. Three seasons ago Luton finished 10th in the Championship, but the odds are heavily stacked in favour of a third successive relegation and drop into non-league following the 30 points taken off them. Play off form will be needed just to stay up and, with the club still in a mess, that seems unrealistic.

Bournemouth and Rotherham’s hopes of merely beginning this season are still in the balance and respective 15 and 17 point deductions look like a best scenario. That may allow other clubs to breath easier but Chester City, another club with money problems, won’t be counting their chickens as they remember how last season’s dramatic collapse in form almost cost them their league status. Some of the division’s smaller clubs, such as Macclesfield, Accrington and Dagenham, will also be targeting the 50 point mark rather than any loftier ambitions.

Gillingham’s recent financial difficulties make it difficult to imagine they can achieve much beyond midtable but Port Vale, under former City defender Lee Sinnott, will be a better bet for an instant return to League One. The league’s new boys, Aldershot and Exeter, arrive with romantic stories of rebirth and should both be good enough for midtable, where they will surely be joined by Notts County, Barnet, Brentford and Morecambe.

The quality of League Two is derided by some, while others trumpet it as featuring real football and real fans. Last season many clubs enjoyed better form on the road but the ones who did make it to the division above were strong at home, too. This season’s League Two promises to be unpredictable, ugly and beautiful; and those successful in realising their pre-season expectations next Spring will probably be all three.

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