9 February ~ A manager on the brink of quitting would typically walk head-down along the touchline after the defeat which seals their fate, ignoring abuse from fans nearby. But as Bradford's 1-0 loss to Bury on Saturday spelt the end for Stuart McCall – his resignation was confirmed on Monday – he embarked on a lap around the pitch at the final whistle to applaud supporters. Putting aside two and a half years of frustrating League Two failure, almost everyone inside the stadium applauded him back.
To Bradford fans, McCall was never going to be just another managerial appointment. Two hugely successful spells as a player in the 1980s and 90s left generations of supporters worshipping the ginger-haired midfielder. Emerging through the youth ranks, he was an integral part of the 1985 Division Three promotion-winning side – a success overshadowed by the Valley Parade fire on the final day of the season in which 56 people died. McCall's own father was among the injured.
After moving onto Everton and then Rangers – where he was part of the nine-in-a-row title-winning side – and earning 40 caps for Scotland, McCall returned to Bradford in 1998. He captained the side to promotion to the Premier League and played a starring role in the Bantams' two-year top-flight adventure. For all the fantastic memories he provided and astonishing commitment to the cause, McCall is widely considered as City's greatest ever player.
So when he returned to become manager in 2007, with City having fallen to the depths of the basement division for the first time in 25 years, the glory days looked set to return. Helped by an innovative season ticket offer, crowds flocked back to Valley Parade and we sat back to surely celebrate our hero leading us back up the leagues. Typically with Bradford, things didn't quite work out that way. A disastrous start to that season meant instant promotion wasn't achieved and the second campaign (2008-09) ended just as miserably.
The club gambled on promotion by heavily backing McCall, enabling him to sign good League One players on decent wages, with the expectation that some form of reverse-gravity would cause these recruits to naturally pull Bradford upwards. Yet despite being in a great position with 11 games to go, Bradford's form collapsed and those high earners went missing. When we later discovered they had non-promotion release clauses, we probably knew why.
City even missed out on the play-offs and an emotional McCall offered to quit, but was persuaded by fans to stay on and took a 20 per cent paycut. But with the playing budget drastically reduced to cover losses from the previous season, the quality of this year's squad suffered. Bradford recovered from a disastrous start to threaten a play-off push, before a miserable run of form in December and January left the club 16th and the pressure mounting on McCall. Saturday's defeat was unlucky but it was one unlucky defeat too many. Something McCall knew as he embarked on his farewell lap.
He leaves Bradford in the familiar territory of recruiting a replacement – 12 managers in 20 years has much to do with historic underachievement – but while an increasing number of fans were calling for a change to most it's a deeply sad departure. His affection for the club caused him to take defeats too hard. His legendary status meant we sometimes ignored his managerial shortcomings. But just as he gave everything when he pulled on claret and amber as a player, no one could doubt how hard he tried to deliver success as manager.
This was not supposed to be how it ended, but at least we were able to give our hero an appropriate send-off. Jason McKeown