Managing failure

Without much doubt Bradford City have had a season of failure.

From top to bottom with the exceptions of the increasingly effective department run by Peter Etherington and David Bosomworth’s efforts which have seen the growing numbers of young players breaking into the squad the standards that have been set at VP have not been reached.

All things are relative of course. Julian Rhodes said at the start of the season when a bid for Dean Windass was rejected that one does not achieve the aim of the club – promotion – by allowing the best players to leave and under those terms the Bantams have failed. Perspective on all things though. Should they be relegated Milton Keynes Dons have failed, Rotherham United have failed, Walsall have failed. We have not succeeded.

Semantics aside though in the summer the word around VP will be how can we make sure that next season is better than last and the word failure will be used in relation to Colin Todd, to the team of players, to his signings, to the lack of leadership from the club, the falling gates and on and on.

Things that have failed – relatively failed – and things which are to be put right.

The pressing question is how will the Bantams higher echelons try to put these things right. The pressing question is how will the Bantams manage failure?

Conventional wisdom – as typified by the Sir Alan Sugar “You’re fired!” shout – is that the way to manage failure is to get a P45 out and write on it the name of whichever poor sap happens to have the job of managing the team.

It would insult your intelligence, dear reader who has seen six managers in as many years, to suggest that this is a course of action which is proven to work but it would also not be out of the question for the board to look at Colin Todd’s record and the signings he has made and conclude that so far in his City career has been so average.

Todd’s record at City to date is the picture of average being almost equally split between wins draws and defeats. Played 97 games – won 32, drew 32, lost 33. Todd’s record is better than Phil Parkinson’s at Colchester was at this stage of his career with the now high flying Essex side and obviously the potential for the same pattern which the Parkinson has enjoyed this season exists.

In fact there is nothing to suggest that Todd will improve next season. His signings are hit and miss – for every Marc Bridge-Wilkinson we have a Bobby Petta – and his approach to the game is built on the tried and tested rather than the outlandish and risky but potentially successful. Todd is a manager who does not look at runs of wins but sees a home and away pairing of games as the chance to get four points.

Todd is not going to change. Some subscribe to his management philosophy, others do not but few would deny that continuity of employment for any manager is more likely to bring success than does rapid change. For what it is worth in the poker game of football management I say stick because I tire of the disappointment of the twist.

Replacing Colin Todd is a valid way forward but only a handful – probably less than a handful – of candidates suggest themselves as being able to guarantee to have anything to offer that Todd does not. Sacking him in the name of “anyone is better than this” is the kind of thinking that has laid the club low and more than any other decision in a club the choice of manager is about managing the levels of failure.

Because ultimately failure is the natural state of the vast majority of football clubs the world over. Every season 70 of 92 professional clubs in England fail in some way – not getting promotions or winning anything – and I would suggest the fact that they respond to that failure not by emulating those who are successful but rather by breaking with ways they are similar to the Manchester Uniteds of this world. You never have a manager for ten years if you sack them after 18 months.

Which is not to suggest that failure and success are entirely a product of a sum which includes the time served by a manager but that the tendency in football to view anything other than success as a significant failure which requires revolution at a club hampers most clubs efforts causing them to lose focus on what is being done well and what is done poorly. A manager is sacked and takes with him a back room team many of who may have been doing good work. A club does poorly and the good people within it leave with the bad. The streets of football are full of babies sitting in the thrown out bathwater.

Failure is the way of things in football and with it comes re-evaluation. The late, great Brian Clough used to say that when a manager was sacked the chairman who appointed him should go with him and while Clough’s comments are rough around the edges they have a truth to them. The manager’s performance – ergo the team’s performance – are so yoked into the general structure of the club from chairman down that one struggles to think of occasions where great success on the field was achieved in run down surroundings of it (or vice versa).

When failure – or poor performance if you will – is the case then there is cause for re-evaluation at all levels. Few would say that Bradford City have a perfect set up which Colin Todd is frittering away. Most City fans would want to emulate the progress of Charlton Athletic from small club to Premiership regular and that progress was built on a slow process of measured improvement season in, season out.

So on the agenda at the post-season review meetings many, many arms of Bradford City will be called to account and in the most cases the decisions to be made will be about how to improve things rather than to assess that something is in such a terminal state it must be done away with. Even the official message board – which has as many who loathe it as are devoted to it – undergoes improvement processes with the appointment of moderators. The way to manage failure is to plan improvement. If the commercial staff are not making enough then they are supported and maintained and plans for performance improvements are produced which take into account the failures of the past. The ability to learn from mistakes has been key to human development since the guy realised that he had to cut the edges off his square wheel.

Which leads back to the players and Colin Todd and the mistakes – the failures – which have been made in signing players and deploying them. The mistakes in tactics, selection and all the other things that have made this an average season. We really do not need another manager spending six months working out that Dean Windass is big and strong but is not best played as a target man?

In terms of the season “Average” is used advisably. We are mid-table flirting with the bottom half of the top and the top half of the bottom not because we have done badly or well but because we have been very average. The majority of the squad could not claim to have anything more than an average season. The derided Darren Holloway has had a few duff moments but put in mostly solid games – if you think that Holloway is a bad player then you never saw Darren Morgan or Tom Steele play – while never being that impressive. Holloway is a perfect example of the average and the inconstant which has been Bradford City’s season and illustrates the problems City face. His contract is up in the summer and if we replace him he lose the understanding that he has built with the rest of the squad – admittedly this is a poor part of Holloway’s game – and the assurance of what level of performance he offers. His replacement could be much better than him but seriously how often has this occurred at City? How many clubs these days are giving away players who are good enough to come straight into a League One team and impress enough to drive a promotion campaign in their first season?

A decision must be made over if the average that City have fallen into represents the mid-point of a terminal decline or not and on that basis the failures are managed – lessons learned, mistakes recognised not to be repeated – and the club moves forward.

Football has a business side to for sure but is more about the playing and contrary to what everyone with an opinion will say it is not all money but business planning and practices can inform the way the playing side works and in this case should be. The club should be looking to make changes in the areas that offer the most benefit and those benefits need to be nailed down before a replacement is made and not assumed as a product of the replacement process.

If/When Todd is on his way out of Bradford City we need a managed process to replace him that guarantees an improvement of the position. Until we learn that lesson we are not going to be managing failure, we are going to be bringing it about.