The grudge match

When one talks of job ending decisions at Bradford City: Nicky Law’s damning of City fans as being worth a goal for the other side, Paul Jewell taking meetings at Sheffield Wednesday, Colin Todd’s punch up with Lee Crooks; Jim Jefferies made his on a muddy field in Bradford in early December 2001.

No one really knows what exactly the gnarled Scot growled across the training ground to his club captain Stuart McCall as the midfielder tried to get stuck in in a training match but the effect of the words became obvious.

The shouted phrase, and what happened after, started the end of at the club Jefferies and the end of Bradford City’s attempt to return to the Premiership at the first time of asking.

The words were “You’ve lost yer legs” and nothing has been the same since they were uttered.

Hearts vs Motherwell

Hearts face Motherwell in the SPL this weekend bringing into competition for the first time the two men at the centre of that ruckus in Jefferies and Stuart McCall.

McCall’s Motherwell lag behind Hearts in the division but both are expected to make the cut at the top of the league which will pay this game little regard. Hearts look set to claim a Europa League place but in a league dominated by Celtic and Rangers this is exactly the type of SPL march that seems to pass without much notice.

Jefferies path from Valley Parade took him to Kilmarnock where he posted respectable finishes for the modest club before returning to the club he joined City from. His success – it seems – is in making Hearts the best of the rest.

McCall’s Motherwell bubble around the middle of the SPL. His aim is to get into the top six before the league is split in two and in the longer term it is to move the third Glasgow club closer to the other two. It is said that McCall got the Motherwell job after the chairman – who fell out of love with the idea of appointing the former Rangers player after seeing his decline at City – fell back in love after seeing how Peter Taylor struggled with the Bantams.

There is little significance to most in the match up of the teams if the managers, but south of the border in this corner of West Yorkshire a mention is merited.

Folklore

Skip back to the legs comment and a month or so on top of that and – so folklore has it – Jefferies assistant Billy Brown told his boss straight that to get City going in the right direction they had to break the dressing room (one assumes to rebuild it) and that they had to take on McCall to do that.

Nominally McCall was a part of the coaching staff having been assistant manager under Chris Hutchings but the midfielder had long since been excluded in that role. As City sunk on the field the feeling was that the management had to increase that exclusion.

So when the Bantams took the field post-bust up for a televised game against Manchester City they did so with the skipper purposefully missing for the first time since his return to the club three and a half years before.

The game was lost, and not long after Jefferies was resigning and returning to Scotland. McCall carried on playing, moving to Sheffield United, for three years. His final match being a reserve game for the Blades at Valley Parade.

By that time City had become locked in the slump that continues to this day. The defeat to Manchester City and Jefferies departure turned that season from one of instant return – it stated with a 4-0 win over Barnsley – into struggling under Nicky Law to get to safety as quickly as possible. Administration followed.

The merits of the decision are easily criticised in retrospect. McCall provide he had more to give and Gary Locke – Jefferies chosen replacement – found it impossible to match McCall’s abilities on the field.

Perhaps McCall had been a problem for Jefferies to build a new side around the likes of Locke, Andrew Tod, and Juanjo but that aim was to conduct a curious experiment. An experiment in trying to prove SPL players could be transplanted into the English game and play at a high level. Middlesbrough tried the same thing this season, to similar effect.

The grudge?

One wonders what City would have been like without the bust up. Would Jefferies have gone had McCall meekly have accepted his being put out to pasture or would he have stayed at the club and what would the effect of that been? Had McCall allowed Jefferies to make his mistake without an argument – and argument which at the time prompted questions about his appropriateness – then would he have been given his chance to manage City back in 2002? One can but speculate.

Ten years on one wonders how significant the event was. Certainly City were not heading anywhere good under Jefferies but admitting that the Premiership return would not happen is as good a place as any to mark the start of these troubled times.

McCall may credit Jefferies with giving him the motivation to carry on playing. Having been told he could not do something made him want to do it. Perhaps it is that which gives him the motivation to get on in management at Motherwell.

Playing four times a season, every season, and referencing something that is ten years and an era of a different club ago this is no one’s grudge match. McCall tries to prove himself as manager and Jefferies attempts (and succeeds in many respects) to return to the reputation he had before he came to England and Bradford City.

Everything else seems a world away.

Improvements for the new year

It will be away at New Douglas Park, Hamilton that Stuart McCall starts his career post-Bradford City as manager of Motherwell and as the Bantams start 2011 with his replacement Peter Taylor at the helm one could be excused for wondering where the current incumbent of the City job may be in twelve months time.

At Valley Parade in League One would seem to be the most preferable answer but one that seems remote. One can cheerily look back to Chris Kamara’s promotion side of 1996 and recall how over the festive period they looked as unlikely to be upwardly mobile as Taylor’s team but something shifted and Wembley awaited.

This though is the most wishful of thinking and the vast majority of sides who look like they are going nowhere at Christmas end up at that very destination come May, a notable exception being Colin Todd’s City side of four years ago who looked set to sail of to not much until “improvements” were made that relegated the side.

Todd’s sacking is a cautionary tale for the season, Mark Lawn’s Ghost of Christmas past.

Probably not up, probably not down it seems that City are going to bob around until the end of the season when Taylor’s contract is up and in all likelihood so will his time at Valley Parade be. One can assume at this point the same arguments for the sake of continuity and stability on behalf of Taylor as were voiced for McCall and probably the same arguments against it.

For me the key benefit of stability at this time is that the club would save the money spent bringing in staff, new players and new ideas with every change of manager which in the end so often result in so very little.

But Taylor was not hired to build on what is in place at Valley Parade and his remit is not the long term progress of the club it is the short term need for promotion and with that in mind it is almost impossible to imagine him staying if that aim is not reached, and entirely impossible to imagine it under the terms laid out by the joint chairman who appointed him.

So one wonders where Taylor will be this time next season, and suspects it will not be at Valley Parade. Hope springs eternal though and despite the dispiriting 4-0 defeat City go into the new year but six points off the play-offs.

Using last season’s table as an example City would need a points average of 1.56 a game to reach the play-offs and currently we score 1.2 which means that to get to last season’s seventh place total we would need 48 points from 26 games or 1.84 a game which – if extrapolated over a season – would give a club 85 points.

85 last season would have placed a team second above AFC Bournemouth and so the task for the second half of the season is set. City have to do as well as AFC Bournemouth did last season to get into the play-offs. To get to an automatic spot City would need 2.23 points a game which is akin to finishing a season with over 100 points.

One can be one’s own judge on how reasonable an idea that is.

City face Lincoln City with a team as mutable as any. After a 4-0 spanking in which only Gareth Evans seemed to come out with any credit there seems to be not a single place in the side not up for grabs and so predicting who is in the side is predicting which of the players Peter Taylor feels have done least poorly.

A host of faces may be exiting Valley Parade in the next month with Lenny Pidgeley having not shown so much as to suggest that he was worth bringing in over Jon McLaughlin. Richard Eckersley will go back to Burnley to a new boss – Brain Laws having left this week – but Simon Ramsden hopes to be fit again soon to take his place.

Also hoping to be fit to replace loanee Rob Kiernan are Shane Duff and Steve Williams, both of whom may play on New Years Day, and Michael Flynn’s return could see the end of the hot and cold blowing Tom Ademeyi. Lee Hendrie’s contract is up, and he was sitting on the bench for forty five minutes on the 28th which captain Jason Price should be heading back to Cumbria before too long with Evans returning to the squad.

City face a Lincoln City team bolstered by the return of Scott Kerr – former City man who played a blinder in the Bantams 8-2 win over Darlington eleven years ago – but low on points having sacked Peter Jackson to improve the club and then spent a year trying to get Chris Sutton to improve them and failing. No matter what Lincoln do they seem to be a team mired in the lower half of league two.

One wonders if – after his first three games none of which are at Fir Park – Stuart McCall might be tempted to test City’s resolve for players like Flynn, Ramsden or Lee Bullock hoping that they could play a role in an SPL side. More so if McCall has money to spend in Scotland would either of the pair he found in non-league football Steve Williams and James Hanson fancy a move up North? Certainly if I was the manager of Motherwell I’d be looking at both those young players as being able to make that step up.

January will see changes in playing squad, managers changing later no doubt. Improvements to either not necessarily following.

Stuart McCall becomes Motherwell boss as managerial unrest again grows at Valley Parade

There can’t be many, if any, Bradford City supporters who aren’t cheered by the news Stuart McCall is to become the new manager of Motherwell. The Scottish Premier League outfit are set to officially confirm McCall as the new gaffer on Thursday, ending a 10-month gap from managing for McCall after he departed the Valley Parade hotseat last February. In the interim, he’s been scouting for Norwich City and helping coach one of the Bantams’ youth teams; but his appointment at Fir Park is another chance to prove himself a number one.

A return to a country and league where he enjoyed so much success as a Rangers player represents a terrific opportunity for McCall. The only other British club other than City to wear Claret and Amber, Well are lodged in midtable of Scotland’s top flight and have the small matter of a Co-operative Insurance Cup semi final clash with his old club at the end of January. Unlike managing Bradford City, there should be less pressure to deliver instant success. Motherwell are not stuck in a lower division they believe they are too big for, and the realistic best that McCall can be expected to achieve, in time, is a third place finish behind Rangers and Celtic, some cup silverware and/or European qualification.

Like any manager, he will have expectations to cope with. But with Fir Park average attendances half of that at Valley Parade, the pressure may not be as intense.

McCall’s biggest strength when managing City arguably turned out to be his biggest weakness. He cared passionately about the club, defeat hurt him as much as any of the rest of us. When things were going wrong, he didn’t come across as the inspirational leader we remember so fondly on the pitch. It would cause a snowball affect, with a couple of bad defeats turning into numerous bad defeats and, while no one can question how committed his players were to him right to the end, one was left wondering whether he was the positive leader in the dressing room they needed him to be in difficult times.

But at Motherwell, the lack of previous history with the club should allow McCall to be more dispassionate. Of course it will hurt him when Motherwell lose, but he will be less inclined to take it personally or readily believe those who jump to criticise him. That means his judgment is less likely to be clouded, faith in his own ability much stronger, skin much thicker.

That McCall has secured another job is an impressive achievement in itself. Lower league football managers rarely get second opportunities and the fact that, on paper at least, McCall’s record in charge of City doesn’t look great suggested he was destined for the comfort of TV studios for the rest of his working life. That lower league managers are generally thrown out on the scrapheap in this manner seems wrong, as managing clubs with fewer resources appears much more challenging.

One of the quotes of 2010 was then-Blackburn manager Sam Alladyce’s assertion that he could manage Real Madrid. But beyond the ridicule this sparked, he had a valid point. It is easier to manage a club with vast resources to buy the best players like Madrid than it is to be in charge of a small fish like Blackburn. The likes of Jose Mourinho deserve their place in Madrid’s dugout, they are the best, but why do managers who fail at bigger clubs and earn the sack then get another job ahead of those who have failed at smaller outfits?

McCall’s three spells at City – particularly his two as a player – mean he will always be held in the highest regard by 99.9% of Bantams supporters. Indeed, after the pressure he came under during his final few weeks and continued civil war among fans over the rights and wrongs of driving a legend out of the club for much of 2010, a warmer front from all sides seems to be developing. There was even a poll on the Official Message Board over whether he should be brought back as City boss now (a small majority saying yes). That wouldn’t have happened even before McCall’s new job was sealed, given he and Mark Lawn fell out weeks before he departed.

The warmer front is there because of the managerial unrest brewing at City. The morale-smashing 4-0 defeat to Cheltenham has seen Peter Taylor’s popularity reach new lows. At the turn of the year, City are six points off the play offs – exactly where they were a year ago under an increasingly under pressure McCall. When you remember Taylor benefited from an increased budget during the summer, it underlines how little progress has been made and, once again, the futility of changing managers.

Let us not enter into another debate about the rights and wrongs of forcing McCall out a year ago – BfB usually gets a stack of hate mail for even daring to mention it – but let’s agree it hasn’t worked in the way it was expected. So the question is, will it the next time?

Taylor was handed a one-year contract, which in my opinion has negatively influenced the way he has attempted to manage the club. As things stand, it’s implausible to believe he will be handed another contract in May – if he makes it that long. But whatever the next few weeks and months might hold, it’s to be hoped the joint Chairmen are carefully evaluating the situation now.

It may not be a time for drawing up a managerial shortlist for replacing Taylor, but if things stay as they are and he is destined to leave, what happens next? Can the club afford to keep making each season promotion or bust, when such a short-term approach is routinely being proven to fail? Do we keep handing out one year manager contracts until someone finally gets it right? We can’t stay in this division for long, it’s said. But then we were saying that four years ago and here we still are.

We need a long-term strategy, and personally I believe us supporters should have more insight and a say into what that strategy should be.

We can continue to dispute whether it was right McCall was pushed out of the door, but we can probably all agree that not having a plan beyond his removal is looking a major mistake. The vacancy advert went out and Taylor was eventually judged the best candidate a year ago, and for a time the club bowed to his every whim. If Lawn and Julian Rhodes still believe Taylor is the best man, the opportunity is there to back him in the transfer market this January – providing the club can afford to. Without a significant boost to the quality of the squad, it’s highly unlikely Taylor will be able to fire City into League One next season.

Meanwhile McCall has a fresh opportunity, and what probably helped to persuade his new employers to give him the job was the record of the guy who replaced him at Valley Parade.

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