It seems a long time ago; but just over ten years ago, Bradford City were a Premiership football team. The reason that Bradford City made it to that level is well documented and, to be honest, best skipped over – there’s enough very good writing about it around the internet, and its pretty heart-breaking stuff all told. I’m not even interested in the fall from grace that the club suffered. This article is about the failed attempts to get the Bradford City ship turned around again and sailing in the right direction.
Since that Premiership spell, every season has brought a false dawn; a window of new hope and the chance of redemption which eventually crumbles into a level of shambles and disappointment. I’m not a Bradford City fan, as I’m sure some of you are aware. I look upon the club now with no small amount of sadness, though. Bradford City fans do not deserve the 21st Century they’ve had – after two years of living the dream, its been ten years of living a nightmare. In this article, I want to look at some of the more obvious reasoning for their problems over this period.
Jim Jefferies managed Bradford City out of the Premiership in May 2001, it wasn’t his fault, but he held the reins. Since Jim Jefferies, Bradford City have installed seven managers who were meant to herald a new dawn (not just holding the role for others) – here’s the list in full; Nicky Law (P87 – W 26%), Bryan Robson (P28 – W25%), Colin Todd (P139 – W32%), Stuart McCall (P133 – W36%), Peter Taylor (P25 – W40%), Peter Jackson (P19 – W 21%), Phil Parkinson (P56 – W32%). Three of those seven used to play for the club, of course – add that to Wayne Jacobs and David Wetherall, and a pattern emerges. Rare is the manager who is successful at a club he also played for, but so many clubs clamour to install such men. It also indicates that chopping and changing managers so often is no way to encourage consistency within a club – and it leaves a club without a real footballing identity, too. That, in and of itself, isn’t a massive problem at League Two level (though, to be fair, the clubs who have gone on to be a success in the division above – the Exeters and Stevenages – have their own identity; Graham Westly was tempted away from Hertfordshire, while Paul Tisdale is regularly linked with ‘bigger’ jobs, but has stuck with Exeter despite trickier recent times) but success begets an identity – if a team gets promoted playing ‘hoofball’, they’ll be seen as ‘hoofball merchants’. Hopefully, now Phil Parkinson is up to 56 games, enough confidence is there that he will be given the time to shape the squad in his image; though it remains to be seen what image that is.
The other thing that regular management changes brings to pass is a lot of players. Don’t believe me? Look at the graph of players used season by season since 98-99 (league games only – and players with appearances only; the unused substitutes are not included) -the last three seasons see two 37s and a 40 (forty!) and notice the rise. I would say anything above 30 is worrying and, taking this a step further, in 2010/11 Bradford had 3 number 11s, 3 number 26s and 3 number 28s; there’s a quiz question there, and I’ll give you Oliver Gill for free.
The fact that the managers have been able to use so many players indicates that they’re being backed in all cases and its also worth noting that, if you read across the three bars from 03/04, they go downwards (as Colin Todd was settled in his job), and the same from 06/07 (Stuart McCall the same) before skipping back up under new management. I know Phil Parkinson used a lot of loanees last season, and has made a fair few changes over the summer – it will be interesting to see this season’s figure – we’re up to 16 as of today (morning of 18/9/12).
We can do a little bit more with those numbers, too. If you’ve watched a lot of lower league football, you’ll be familiar with the fact that players occasionally rock up, play three or four games, and then disappear; the most obvious example of this is young kids at the end of the season, getting a start in games that don’t matter any more. When that is the case, they tend to come in place of the experienced pros, particularly those who don’t need to clap a farewell to the fans.
So I’ve got an up to date (so far as I can tell) graph of Bradford’s debutants as well, and that makes astounding reading, in my opinion. It is divided into calendar years because its easier to do it like that, but two hundred and ten since 2000 (!) tells its own story. That is 17.5 players per year – very nearly a full squad of players making their debut for Bradford every 12 months; madness. Here’s that graph, then.
We can draw an obvious conclusion from this – Bradford City have had no level of consistency for the last decade, and it has seen them slide, slide further, and then remain on the bottom rung; still sliding up to 2011/12, to be honest – here’s those seasons represented in graph form – the black lines being the divisional boundaries.
Not one season since 99-00 have Bradford improved upon their position the previous season (twice they were the same – 55th and 86th in the ladder respectively – which tells its own story). That consistency manifests itself in other ways – Bradford haven’t had an unbeaten run longer than eight league games during the period I looked at, and only twice since their promotion to the top flight has the Bantams longest run of consecutive wins exceeded that of defeats (04/05 and 09/10). Inconsistency in team selection leading, equally, to inconsistency of results.
The number of Bradford players featuring in ‘most’ games is getting lower and lower – admittedly, this is part of the trend with squad rotation, but there’s normally a spine to a team, and Bradford haven’t, or haven’t been able to do that, for a fair time now. Indeed, their last ever present (including goalkeepers) was David Wetherall in 2007/08. I have to admit, when I tune in to see (or hear) Bradford, there’s always somebody that I’ve never heard before, or didn’t realise was wearing claret and amber.
Yet through all this uncertainty, they have been well supported. The season ticket offers at Valley Parade have been both innovative and well-taken up, and the fans still go through the gates every week. This, in turn, means Bradford City have managed to remain a ‘big club’ in a division of teams who are generally aren’t. Looking at this season, Rotherham could lay claim to it, with their new stadium, Gillingham’s recent history suggest there is more to come, and Fleetwood are being lavishly backed. None of those seem ‘bigger’ than Bradford in all reality, which is reflected in the fact that the West Yorkshire club can still appeal to players who are coming to the division; Kyel Reid, Alan Connell, Stephen Darby.
But every one of Bradford’s five seasons in the bottom tier has seen their average attendance at comfortably more than double the divisional average, and generally closer to treble it – though the crowd has fallen off since then, generally by over 500 fans each season; in response to the poorer and poorer performances on the field, this is not surprising, but even with the figures dropping off, it does show there’s a willingness to go to see the team.
There are massive disclaimers to all this information. Bradford have been in administration twice during this period; both of those occasions, and indeed the years before and after, will necessarily see massive player turnover and a dip in league form. The amount of money Bradford have brought in through player sales in this period far outweighs the amount they have spent, which will also lead to player turnover but the fact remains that by effectively starting again every few years, Bradford have seen too many managers pass through the club, who are unconnected to one another. This has led to too many players passing through the club. This has led to too many opportunities passing through the club, which has led us to now, wherein Phil Parkinson is trying to bring about success for at Valley Parade.
They sit sixth currently. Phil Parkinson’s project is still new, and will take time to bed in, but current signs are encouraging. There is clearly still a receptive fanbase in Bradford, so if the club move in the right direction, there’s a lot of climbing they can do before they reach a level where the club would look uncomfortable, and a lot of momentum can be gathered.
10 years after having their wings clipped, the Bantams are ruffling feathers again. Here’s hoping they can get off the ground this time.