They say you should never go back in professional sport, but try telling that to Stuart McCall and the dozens of schoolchildren waiting to have their picture taken with their hero at Bradford City’s training ground on a cold, blustery Thursday afternoon. In five spells across nearly 40 years as a player and manager, McCall and Bradford have seen and experienced almost every emotion together.
There has been euphoria, tragedy, desperation. Their relationship is so strong it was no surprise when the club on Tuesday asked McCall to become the manager for a third time, with Bradford just outside the League Two play-off places following the dismissal of Gary Bowyer.
“It was an opportunity to get back into the game, but it was an opportunity to be back among these people, and at this fantastic club,” McCall says after finally navigating his way to a quiet room for a chat. “I thought about it for all of two minutes before deciding.” Given how his fourth spell at the club ended two years ago, though, you wondered whether there would be a fifth.
McCall guided Bradford to within a game of the Championship in 2017, losing 1-0 to Millwall in the play-off final, before being sacked the following January with the club again in the play-off places. During that spell he worked under Bradford’s German owners, Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic, with Rahic’s desire to control all aspects of the football side now infamous in the city.
Rahic wanted to be involved with team selection. He dominated recruitment meetings and insisted McCall was referred to as head coach, rather than manager. After the sacking, a picture of McCall in the club’s reception was taken down. “What amazed me was we got as far as we did with everything that was going on,” McCall says. “It became obvious Edin wanted to sack me after Wembley, so the writing was on the wall when we had a blip.
“After a couple of meetings before taking the job I got a grip of the situation, and it was unique. The stuff that was going on behind the scenes, I just accepted it. I knew what I was signing up for and if it wasn’t Bradford, I wouldn’t have done it. That summer, after the play-off final, I had nothing to do with recruitment as I thought I was leaving. But Edin didn’t want the backlash from sacking me, and there was no way I was quitting on this club. So it came to a head really.”
Bradford have never really recovered from McCall’s sacking. In the two years he has been away from the club he calls his own, plenty has happened. Four managers have been and gone and the club were relegated to League Two last season but, crucially, Rahic has gone, with the former chief executive Julian Rhodes helping to steady the ship as interim CEO.
McCall has also been busy rebuilding his coaching career, but a tumultuous spell at Scunthorpe last year almost finished him. “The Scunthorpe experience stung me – leaving there with seven games left,” he says. “It left me raw and disillusioned with the game for the first time as a manager. But Bradford … coming back here shakes all that off.”
After 460 games for Bradford as a player, and now joining people such as Martin Allen, Graham Westley and his old Everton manager Howard Kendall in managing the same club three or more times, there is a bond that runs deep. Two promotions – including one to the Premier League in 1999 – as a player have strengthened that, but so too have events laced with tragedy.
McCall was on the field on Bradford’s darkest day, when a fire at Valley Parade claimed the lives of 54 Bradford supporters and two Lincoln fans. Understandably, McCall does not want to discuss the events of 11 May 1985 but he says: “I had eight wonderful years here to begin with that were intertwined with a horrendous tragedy. That bonds people together, and tightens your bond to the club.”
Wherever McCall’s career has taken him, he has tried to return to the city on the anniversary of the fire to remember, at a memorial in the city centre, those affected.
“I think I’ve missed two or three, and they were when I was away with Scotland or Rangers,” he says. “But it’s nothing to do with it being a duty. You pay your respects. You see people afterwards in City Hall who were there that day and if it’s giving them a bit of light to have a chat, then it’s the natural thing. I will always be there whether I work here or not.”
This year’s League Two play-off final falls days after the 35th anniversary of the disaster. McCall and Bradford still aim for automatic promotion despite seven matches without a win before Saturday’s home game against Grimsby. For everything McCall has achieved with Bradford, there is one thing missing: promotion as a manager. “I’d probably look back with regret if that never happened,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but this could be a Championship club. There would be nobody happier than me if we were promoted: and not for myself, for the people of this city, who have experienced so much.”