Five different managers in his first nine games for Bradford City left Ryan McGowan the subject of one of world football’s craziest statistics. Valley Parade is a far more settled environment now thanks to the rebuilding work of David Hopkin, but McGowan won’t forget the madness of 2018 in West Yorkshire.
A combination of managerial changes and a knee injury saw the former Hearts defender in something of a whirlwind last year. By the time Hopkin took charge of Bradford for the first time at Blackpool in September, McGowan was making his ninth appearance for the club under his fifth gaffer having arrived last January.
Dressing-room jibes were inevitably at their peak by that stage. The Australian’s debut came under Stuart McCall, who was then sacked. Caretaker Greg Abbott took charge for the next match before Simon Grayson was appointed. McGowan featured in Grayson’s first game but was then sidelined until the summer by a knee injury. By the time he regained fitness, Grayson had been replaced by Michael Collins.
Five games under Collins ended when he was dismissed to make way for Hopkin in early September. Understandably, McGowan is thankful for some stability entering the New Year with Hopkin stamping his mark on the Bradford players.
“It was mentioned on Twitter so everyone in the dressing room found out about it. I had five different managers in nine games, which is crazy to think about,” McGowan told the Evening News. “My first three games for the club were under three different managers. I was only with McCall for a game, then we had a caretaker, then Simon Grayson came in. I picked up an injury after his first game.
“Because of the injury, I pretty much had each manager for one or two games. I’m feeling much better now under a more stable structure. There is more of a gameplan and we are fully fit. I’m more confident and fully over the knee injury. I’m getting a run of games which will hopefully bring out the best in me.”
Hopkin is prising more and more from McGowan and his colleagues with each passing week. Livingston fans will know exactly the scenario.
The former Scotland internationalist led them from the third tier to the Premiership in two seasons by instilling a remarkable will, fitness levels, energy and aggression. He left following their unexpected promotion to Scotland’s top flight in May but his philosophy is still heavily evident in their progress this season under Gary Holt.
Bradford are benefitting from the very same approach. “He is huge on fitness,” explained McGowan. “Every day is 100 per cent, hard training sessions. His biggest thing is that he sticks to his principles and his gameplan. If you are straying from the gameplan, you find yourself out of the team. That makes everyone look sharper and fitter.
“When defenders get the ball, strikers know where they are going to put it and they are already on the move. You end up looking fitter and sharper because everybody knows their job and what is going to happen. It’s only when you stray from that plan that we will put ourselves under pressure or cause mistakes.
“As a team, we are definitely much fitter than when he first came in. It’s down to the training. He pushes you but he also sees it as a bit of a mental test, I guess. He wants you to really put it in. Some boys have come off the training pitch saying: ‘That was harder than pre-season at other clubs.’
“In the Tuesday sessions, we are clocking up six, seven or eight kilometres just in training. It’s almost like a game on a Saturday. That’s the intensity the manager demands and expects and it’s rubbing off on everyone. Some boys obviously don’t like it but that’s the same at every club.
“If you want to go forward on this journey and go with him, there’s plenty of room for you. If you don’t, he will be quick enough to ship you out. It’s taken him a little while to get everyone organised and up to speed. I’m really enjoying it and I’m hoping he can get us up the league now.”
Four wins last month brought City out of the relegation zone and offered veritable evidence that Hopkin’s methods are having the desired effect.
“He is really starting to put his mark on the team now,” added McGowan. “Confidence was rock-bottom when he came in but he has worked hard on the training pitch and he’s got everyone doing exactly what he wants them to do. You can’t complain too much after the month we’ve just had. I think the hard work we have put in is really starting to show.
“We maybe weren’t getting the rub of the green when he first came in but we’re getting that now and putting results together. That breeds confidence and we are a confident team at the minute.
“We had a really good December. We kept four clean sheets, scored a load of goals and probably should have got a result in the only game we lost at Sunderland. They had a League One record crowd of 46,000 there on Boxing Day but we lost 1-0. We are slowly starting to turn the corner and we needed to have a good month in December.”
Bradford’s priority remains avoiding relegation. “We are under no illusions about where we are in the league. We aren’t getting ahead of ourselves. We’ve had a couple of good games but our target is to get away from the bottom as soon as possible, then see what that brings. You see with a lot of teams once they get confidence and results, they put a run together and become a bit of a force.”
Out of contract in June, McGowan said he is keeping his options open for now.
“I’m really happy down here. I’m settled, enjoying living here and playing for such a big club. We had more than 16,000 at our game on New Year’s Day. I’m out of contract in the summer so I’ll just wait and see what happens – if Bradford offer me a deal or if there are options on the table elsewhere.”