Stuart McCall might not have been particularly desirable choice for most clubs, but if he gives Bradford a sense of order & belonging, it will be worth it…
In the documentary ‘Jurassic Park’, about the philanthropist John Hammond’s well-meaning but ultimately lethal attempt to create the world’s spiciest zoo, chaotician Ian Malcolm was asked whether he was married. “Occasionally,” he quipped.
You could say the same thing about Stuart McCall and Bradford. McCall was reappointed as Bantams manager on Tuesday, commencing what is technically his sixth spell at the club overall and third as permanent manager. He replaces Gary Bowyer, sacked on Monday after what was by Bradford’s standards a Cretaceous period-long 11-month spell in charge, but it was a decision that felt inevitable after seven winless games, increasing vexation from the fans and their chances of promotion drifting away into the Yorkshire air.
And so, it’s third time lucky for McCall. His first spell as Bradford manager ended in 2010, McCall resigning because he felt like he had let the club down by not getting them promoted from League Two, having already taken a pay cut as money became tighter.
The second was an altogether less pleasant parting, sacked in February 2018 by the notorious Edin Rahic after a poor run of form, but with the club still sixth in League One having lost the playoff final to Millwall only eight months earlier, a hair’s breadth away from the Championship. Given the internal politics that swirled around the club back then it was a minor miracle that they had come so close, but Rahic and Bradford clearly felt they could do better.
That hasn’t exactly gone to plan. Two years later, and Bradford have gone from League One promotion contenders to League Two, having got through four permanent managers and two caretakers since McCall left. Chaos seems to be permanent at Valley Parade, from the rotating cast of managers who have briefly paused in the big chair, to last season’s calamitous relegation, the recent Eoin Doyle debacle and loaning top-scorer and captain James Vaughan to Tranmere at the end of the transfer window.
With all of that in mind, it’s no wonder they have called for McCall again. In objective terms, McCall is not an especially appealing manager: he was sacked from Scunthorpe last season having set them on course for relegation, and has never won promotion in his career. There were not, you suspect, dozens of teams clamouring for McCall’s signature and expertise.
But Bradford is different. McCall and any other team might not match: McCall and Bradford match. It often feels like football is becoming more and more the hunt for the correct answer, a game of measurables and certainties, but McCall’s bond with the club is a comforting reminder that sentiment and the intangible still has a place.
It’s easy to dismiss the impact of having someone more than just a hired gun as your manager. It doesn’t have to be a childhood fan, or even a former player, just someone that you can identify with, care about in some way. Sheffield United would clearly be pretty jazzed with life even if Chris Wilder was simply some random schmo, but because he’s a lifelong Blade it means a bit more. People watch football for loads of reasons, but one of them is a sense of belonging and community. It helps if the leader of your club belongs to that community.
Indeed, it’s interesting that even with all the analytics available to clubs across the country, the money and the intelligence in the game, the idea of a club hero taking over in the dugout is now de rigueur. Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have all appointed an ex-player as their manager in the last year, all without much by way of proven track record and at least two of which would’ve got near the job had they not had that history. It’s about a little more than the idea of someone who ‘knows the club’, which is usually bollocks, but rather the impact that a manager who has some sort of emotional connection with the club can have.
And so it is with McCall. Things have been so messy at Bradford that it feels like they need someone to almost calm everything down, a unifying figure to try and bring some sort of order. It also helps that McCall is fired by the sense that he has unfinished business, that failure to win promotion in his other two spells means he thinks he owes the club something. Whether he actually does is neither here nor there. “Promotion would probably eclipse anything I’ve ever done in football,” McCall said before that League One playoff final in 2017. “I was desperate to return,” he said this time.
Bradford, perhaps more than most, need order among the chaos, and appointing McCall is an attempt to bring that back. Maybe it won’t work. Maybe this is an emotional decision when they actually need a cool, logical one. Maybe all the determination and sentimental attachment will come to nothing.
But if McCall’s return makes a few long-suffering fans feel better, or make them look forward to attending games again after the joyless grind of recent times, or at the very least just feel some sort of connection to the club again, then it will be worth it.
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