By Jason McKeown
The first local away trip of the season, and a first ever trip to the New York stadium – you can be sure that this weekend’s clash between Rotherham and Bradford City will attract a healthy away support. It should be a great occasion, and the atmosphere will no doubt be very loud and vocal.
But will it spill over into something more ugly? And where is the line between justified passion, and unacceptable behaviour?
Enter Steve Evans. That horrible, detestable bloke who now manages Rotherham United. As if his past crimes weren’t bad enough, Evans won no friends in BD8 last March after the way he and his then-Crawley side behaved at Valley Parade. They probably had the best squad in League Two last season, but seemed held back – rather than aided – by Evans’ unattractive, physical long ball tactics. Worse still was the way he and his players patronised the referee by applauding every decision he gave them, and then attempting to intimidate him for every decision they did not get. Throw in time-wasting, shirt pulling and other overly physical challenges; and we endured an evening where little on the pitch resembled a football match.
But then came the aftermath: the brawl, the punches, and the lack of manager handshakes. The late red cards dished out in the dressing rooms, the fear that the suspensions to key City players would trigger relegation, the worry of potential point deductions, the FA hearing. Weeks later there were even national newspaper reports of Evans acting inappropriately towards a female Bradford City employee.
It all left a sour, sour taste. And Evans has become a hated figure at Valley Parade. He is going to get some awful stick from us away supporters this weekend. Much of it will be deserved, much of it will be funny; but there should also be a worry that much of it ends up going too far.
The Lee Hughes factor
Less than a month ago, a decent City away following departed Meadow Lane in great spirits after a convincing Bantams display led to an extra time victory over higher league opposition. But not everyone had enjoyed a pleasant Saturday afternoon in the sunshine, after the behaviour of a minority of fellow supporters caused upset.
The target of most City fans attention had been Notts County striker Lee Hughes. Another deserving round of booing for a man who did something in his past that many of us find utterly reprehensible. It’s not that he doesn’t merit his freedom after serving his prison sentence, but to be playing professional football? It’s not right, surely. I would be ashamed if City ever signed him.
At the front of the stand, a group of supporters allegedly went further than the widespread booing of Hughes and chants of ‘murderer’, calling him the ‘c’ word and acting in an unsavoury manner. Apparently nearby parents felt they had to move their children to another part of the stand, such was the distress caused. Stewards and police observed the actions of these supporters, but did nothing to stop or deter them. One fan was so upset by what he saw, that he decided to film their behaviour and, after the game, make complaints to both football clubs and the police.
Having revealed his intentions to press for action on this site, this supporter has unfortunately being the subject of threatening and abuse emails that have made reference to attacking him and his family – it’s unclear how they got hold of his email address, and it certainly wasn’t via this site. These emails have been coming in since the game and now total nine in number, ultimately leaving the supporter feeling that he had no option but to ask Width of a Post to delete his comments for fear of these threats being acted out.
Let us be clear that this is a regular City fan who has observed and being appalled by what he considered to be unacceptable behaviour of others; and has ended up receiving threats from anonymous people for speaking out. He has no problem with others completely disagreeing with his comments and conclusions, and is fully prepared to argue his corner vociferously, but has no appetite in doing so under the pall of such personal threats. Unable to identify who is sending these emails, he has reluctantly decided to withdraw all requests for action from both the Police and the two clubs, for fear of some kind of retribution.
It is an interesting measurement of what we supporters – a community of people – consider to be acceptable. I would never tell you what to think, valued reader, but I’d hope you would share my outrage at what he has experienced.
A community issue
You can argue that the incident above occurred away from Valley Parade and so the club and majority of City supporters have no responsibility. But still, we are talking about the matchday experience of Bradford City fans, and the whole Bantams community – the club especially – has a key role to play in making sure it is a welcoming and inclusive one.
How many parents who felt they had to move their children at Meadow Lane will feel encouraged to take them to another away match? Perhaps – in view of the likelihood of Evans receiving a vile reception on Saturday – they will have already decided on another family activity for this weekend. As Width of a Post reader Richard Marigold commented during the post-County debate, he will not take his grandchildren to watch City, never mind bring them up as City supporters, because of the bad language aired at games.
Width of a Post has no desire to join a witch hunt against the people who caused upset to others at Meadow Lane – it should be in the hands of the right people to deal with. But if they are acting in a way which upsets fellow supporters, or that sullies the reputation of the football club, questions have to be asked.
Bringing us back to this Saturday, I will certainly be booing Evans and giving him some stick. The guy deserves it. But where is the line between fair comment and abusive behaviour? As a group of people totalling hundreds, it will be very easy to use the cloak of anonymity as an excuse to join in with any vulgar or offensive chanting. Equally it’s difficult to make a stand against it. There are already regular City chants that I, personally, dislike – the Leeds-IRA nonsense for starters – but my refusal to join in does not stop them from being aired frequently.
Five years ago at Christie Park, a minority of City supporters decided to chant about 18 cockle pickers dying in Morecambe Boy three years earlier. Few of us joined in and the uncomfortable feeling it caused killed the atmosphere. But no one (myself included) was brave enough to challenge the people chanting it, and Bradford City supporters and the club received negative publicity after these events were highlighted in the Big Issue. This underlines the fact that, not only is there an inherent danger of offensive chanting on Saturday causing upset to fellow supporters, but any lack of attempt by the rest of us to make known any disapproval could lead to the reputation of the club being damaged.
So as much as many of us supporters are looking forward to travelling to South Yorkshire and providing Evans with an uncomfortable afternoon, it would be great to have some form of debate over how we really want to represent our football club and what the priorities are. Me personally, I think cheering on our players and ensuring an enjoyable environment for all City supporters are the joint priorities, with giving Evans deserved stick a rather distant third.
I would love to know, valued reader, what your take on it all is. Please leave a comment and let’s have a debate.