A club of Bradford City’s size, investing significantly in the transfer market in the summer, was not supposed to struggle as it has done in League Two this season. It all goes to show how difficult it can be once a football team gets locked into a spiral of decline.
Last term’s miserable bottom-of-the-table finish and musical chairs approach to management set the ball rolling in a way which has been harder than expected to stop.
Now, the return of Stuart McCall has put a few smiles back on faces and the team is at least trying to play a more entertaining brand of football than the functional fare served up under Gary Bowyer, but there is only so much a change of manager can do.
Waiting until three days after the close of a transfer window where Bowyer was allowed to make significant changes before sacking him seems no less baffling now than it did then.
As befits a team ninth in the table, consistency has been the biggest problem. The most consecutive wins the Bantams have had this season is three. They have not lost more than three on the spin, nor drawn more than three successive matches. All of those runs came before Christmas, it has been even bittier since.
You could forgive the inconsistency a bit more if this was a young team learning its way in the game, but Bowyer had pushed the boat out for some experienced names in the summer.
James Vaughan – still the Premier League’s youngest goal-scorer, but with much water under the bridge since – came to captain the side, Clayton Donaldson added City to his extensive collection of Yorkshire clubs (seven now). Chris Taylor joined in slightly odd circumstances from Blackpool, one of a number of recruits Bowyer had worked with before and therefore ought to have known what he was and was not getting.
The arrival of Vaughan and Donaldson meant no place for Eoin Doyle, whose face clearly did not fit, but whose regular flow of goals for League Two rivals Swindon Town only rubbed salt into the wounds.
That Doyle did not find the net for Bradford when recalled mid-season from his loan in a game of poker with the Robins suggested it might have been the right call, but his status as League Two’s top-scorer made it an awkward one nonetheless, particularly with Donaldson picking up a freakish injury early which ruled him out of much of the first half of the season.
When top-scorer Vaughan was loaned out with January’s transfer deadline fast approaching, it was clear all was not well behind the scenes. The fans had been voicing their frustrations with Bowyer and his football ever more loudly since Christmas.
Shipping Vaughan out in the final days of January and replacing him with Lee Novak might have been something the next manager would have done anyway – McCall worked with Novak at Scunthorpe United – but it would have been much better to give him the choice than to land it and other alterations on him.
From his first press conference, McCall was complaining about an unbalanced squad, knowing it would be months before he could do anything about it. It will be longer now football has been put on hold to deal with the coronavirus. At least he has time to plan.
Bradford had tried to muddle on but when they were 3-0 down at half-time at Oldham Athletic the morning after the deadline before, with those in the away section mutinous, it became obvious the day of reckoning could no longer be held off. Bowyer was sacked on the Monday and replaced by club legend McCall on the Tuesday.
There is one respect in which Bradford have been frustratingly consistent, and as yet McCall has been unable to change it. They are awful away from home.
When the suspension for the coronavirus outbreak came, they had lost five consecutive away matches. Theirs is the 18th best away record in this season’s League Two.
Part of McCall’s problem is the tools at his disposal. The return of a man who just cannot seem to stay away from Valley Parade might have put smiles on plenty of faces, but he is trying to play football with a team built for a less easy-on-the-eye approach. At home, even the pitch, a frustration in his previous (second) spell as manager is against him and his way of thinking.
Maybe he should adapt his game-plan as a result, but he was brought in to bring positivity and end the dull football.
The return of McCall and his erstwhile assistant Kenny Black apart, there have been few bright spots. It is a club in need of new heroes and left-sider Connor Wood is one of the few who has covered himself in much glory this season.
With nine matches remaining and a four-point gap to the play-offs, all is not lost if football can find a way to restart the League Two season after the pause for the coronavirus pandemic.
Form and confidence really will go out of the window if there is a fresh start in the summer, with some teams bound to be rustier than others.
Whether Bradford scrape an unlikely promotion via the play-offs or not, yet another rebuilding job will be required when 2019-20 is, one way or another, called to a halt.
The Bantams have probably not punched their weight since McCall was last in the dugout, but English football does not respect reputations even today.
Even if it does get finished, 2019-20 promises to be a lost season in the history of Bradford City.
Turning the tide next season will be far from easy.
Star so far:
Tenacious down the left and a good crosser to boot, Connor Wood has been one of the few Bantams to do themselves justice in 2019-20. Sadly, Bradford’s best player of the first half of the season was centre-forward Eoin Doyle, pictured, but he was banging his goals in for Swindon, where he was on loan. It was a different story when he was called back for a couple of weeks in January, and after some transfer-window brinkmanship, his move to the County Ground was made permanent.
The return of Valley Parade legend Stuart McCall for his third spell as manager cheered up fans demoralised by the football under Gary Bowyer, below, but his impact has been limited. The football has been brighter but two wins from six matches demonstrate he has not been able to waltz back to and just wave a magic wand.
In a long list, no away wins since October comes out on top. A club with the away following Bradford take around the country deserves better, and travelling fans’ increasingly noisy dissatisfaction was clearly a big factor in Bowyer being shown the door.
Hope if season resumes:
PLAY-OFFS look unlikely, but not impossible with a fresh start. The gap to the top seven is four points with (hopefully) nine matches to play. That was looking beyond them in mid-March but it is hard to know how this unexpected break will affect teams if we are able to get going again in 2019-20. Without putting their away form right, though, Bradford can kiss goodbye to their faint hopes of playing League One football again next season.