By Jason McKeown
On the surface at least, the story of Guy Branston and Bradford City was a well-versed, cliché-ridden tale that has been played out many times before at Valley Parade and will continue to reoccur in future. A manager signs a player in the hope they can make a positive difference, that player struggles to live up to expectations, the manager loses their job due to poor results, and his replacement doesn’t rate the player. Cue a sometimes bitter exit through the backdoor.
But the story of Branston’s time at City was anything but dull, raising some very interesting points about how we supporters view our players and the qualities which really matter. From the day he arrived to the day he left (one year and one week), there was rarely a dull – or quiet – moment when it came to Branston.
A year ago he was the big signing of an understated summer of transfer business by Peter Jackson. Branston walked the walk – five promotions and being a member of the League Two PFA Team of the Season for 2010/11, as he helped Torquay reach the play off final – and he clearly talked the talk. He spoke of how proud he was to join City and how he’d driven up to Valley Parade, seen it on the horizon and pulled over to get out and stare at in awe. He was set to be king of the castle he surveyed. A loud, passionate leader who we supporters – a few short months after infamously chanting “love the club, hate the team” at the disinterested 2010/11 team – could identify with.
Sadly it didn’t work out as hoped. The season began badly, with Branston looking less than reliable. Pre-season friendlies had offered worrying hints he might not be as unbeatable as we hoped and, when 45 minutes into the first proper game, City were 2-0 down to Aldershot and Branston had been skinned en route to the first goal, we raised our eyebrows and doubts crept in. A few days later City played their hearts out at Leeds in the Cup, but many of us present agreed Branston had looked less steady than this team mates. He was, at best, making a slow start to his Bantams career.
Jackson abruptly left with the season not even a month old, and although Branston kept his place initially under Phil Parkinson it was still not going brilliantly for him or club. As for that passion and desire to win, it was evident; but occasionally came out in an aggressive manner. Writing for boyfrombrazil.co.uk at the time, word got back to me that Branston had been unhappy about a match report I wrote of the 4-2 win over Barnet when some fans had started to boo Branston. I actually attempted to defend him in the piece, but did concede the opening Barnet goal had been his fault. He did not like the supporter culture of always trying to find someone to blame.
That carried onto into early October. By now Branston had lost his place to loan signing Andrew Davies – something he apparently took very badly, understandably – and when Marcel Seip joined City a few weeks later, my former writing partner Michael Wood suggested it posed a question mark over Guy’s future. He angrily hit back on Twitter, at one stage requesting to meet Michael (something he was willing to do). The following day, against Torquay, Davies got sent off and Branston came on to have an outstanding game as 10-men City held out for a 1-0 win. Two days later, he was blasting BfB via the T&A. It was actually the day of my 30th birthday and it all seemed very surreal. Particularly as you wondered why the T&A – with a readership that surely dwarfed BfB – wanted to act as a platform to attack us when you’d have thought there were many far more interesting talking points from a thrilling match to write about.
But while Branston’s confrontational style was blunt, he departed and came back from a three month loan at Rotherham (that question mark reasonably raised in the end) seemingly a more humble and approachable man. He was injured at first, but battled his way back to fitness and contention for first team selection.
Guy accepted an invitation from me to meet and interview him before the Hereford game, in February, and what followed was a striking conversation showing his confidence at still having a part to play at the club. Branston looked finished at City, but he didn’t see it that way and felt he could force his way back into the team. He told me, “I didn’t come back here not to get in the first team. It’s very important that I keep working hard and get back in the squad, and then hopefully challenge for a place. I’m still working really hard and doing extra training and fitness work, and I think that I’m fit enough to play in the first team.”
It was a hugely passionate stance, and I was very impressed. This guy has been treated roughly by this club, but he still had undisputable commitment and a desire to prove himself.
But it still looked unlikely he’d get that chance. That very day (Hereford home), Luke Oliver had failed a fitness test and – rather than turn to Branston – Parkinson selected midfielder Lee Bullock to play central defence. And within a few days of this interview being published, two separate and very credible sources told me there was no chance Branston would ever play for City again (he was being forced to train with the youth team, something he didn’t want to make a big deal about when I interviewed him).
Yet he did get his renaissance. The shocking events of March 31 2012, when Crawley came to Valley Parade, saw Parkinson end the evening without his first choice centre backs and keeper for at least three games. Branston was back in from the cold, and though reports of his performance at Plymouth a few days later were mixed, he undoubtedly proven himself a hero when the club badly needed him. Good Friday and City badly needed a win over Southend with relegation a very real possibility – Branston delivered an immense display at the back in a 2-0 victory. He continued to play very well over the final few matches, helping City get the points they needed to confirm survival.
Was there still hope for him beyond this summer? It seemed unlikely when the T&A blasted him for sticking his middle finger up at Shrewsbury fans on Easter Monday (a hilarious moment, prompting the brilliant chant ‘Let’s all do the Branston’). Or when he was dropped for the final match of the season so Davies could have one last game. (After the match Parkinson was asked about Branston and seemed a little put out. “Look, I’ve already praised him publically”.)
When the retained list was announced it was also revealed that several players including Branston – who had a year’s contract to run – could leave. He told Twitter followers he was going to stay, but with Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle signing, and Oliver re-signing, his no-doubt-decent-wages could not be justified. His contract is torn up. He moves on to Aldershot, with City have already moved on in a different path.
The legacy is interesting. Because Branston is the sort of passionate, fully-committed and whole-hearted player that we supporters look for to fill the claret and amber shirts. When we have a footballer showing low effort levels, we slate them and talk about how we will always applaud someone who at least tries. Branston is not the first player to expose this as a myth – he was not popular last autumn, and effort levels didn’t always seem to count for a lot – and it shows that the relationship we have with players is far more complex than spouting a few clichés.
It would have been fantastic for City and Branston to have worked out together. Because Branston gave a lot for this club, and he deserves respect for that. He was a victim of circumstances that were far from his own fault. But, even after being discarded and overlooked, he came back in when City looked in dire straits and helped to keep us in the Football League. That should not be forgotten.
Last February Branston told me, “This is a massive club and I’m so proud to be associated with Bradford City. And now I will always be associated with Bradford City. That’s a good feeling.”
He certainly will be.