By Jason McKeown
It is a useful barometer of Bradford City’s status. For the 2013/14 season, statistics by the72.co.uk show that the Bantams had the 17th best average away following in the Football League, positioned above the likes of Wigan, Reading, Ipswich and Blackpool. The 1,194 average City away support was the fourth best in League One, behind only Wolves (who should never have been here), Coventry (whose fans were boycotting home games and more inclined to go to away matches) and Sheffield United.
There are many different factors that will affect any club’s travelling support season-upon-season, not least how the team is doing on the pitch. For City, being in a new division and going into the campaign with the upturn of 2012/13’s heroics, the greater enthusiasm around the club meant that away attendances were arguably higher than what we would normally achieve. The 2013/14 fixture list featured trips to a whole range of grounds that City had not played at for several years. It led to some bumper followings at the likes of Preston, Sheffield United and Tranmere, although even more notable were the City crowds for less glamorous away fixtures.
For many years it has seemed that whilst City supporters would rival much bigger clubs in travelling en mass to certain away grounds, for other games there would be a disappointing following. Yet in 2013/14, visits to the likes of Crawley (746), MK Dons (1,004) and Peterborough (816, one week before Christmas) attracted high numbers. City’s two biggest away followings (3,130 at Sheffield United, and 2,910 at Preston) produced an aggregate total higher than the overall totals Crawley and Stevenage took away all season.
And it led to some cracking away atmospheres. Games like Bristol City and Preston were as memorable for the noise in the stands as the football in front of us. There are few things in life I enjoy more than being part of a huge away support making an almighty racket, and I felt proud of the number of occasions we packed out an away end and provided a soundtrack of non-stop chanting for the players. We might have a lovely stadium in Valley Parade, but it is ultimately too large for our needs. It is on the road, sat amongst a few thousand Bantams supporters and singing yourself horse, where Bradford City truly feels like a big club.
Yet there was undoubtedly a downside to our higher-than-expected away support in 2013/14 – the number of occasions where, it seemed, the host club were unprepared for the sheer numbers who travelled. At games like Walsall, Oldham and Tranmere, it seemed as though there wasn’t enough space for how many City fans showed up. Our safety was never an issue, but occasionally you doubted it and that in itself was a worry.
What didn’t help was the unreserved seating policies implemented on the day of games, which were not made abundantly clear both beforehand and even inside the ground. “Is it sit where you like today?” you would ask a steward when arriving, who would look confused and eventually confirm that it was (or, at Crewe, one steward told us to go to our reserved seat and another said sit where you like). Yet other fans would understandably assume you had to sit in the seat you had been allocated on your ticket stub, and tensions would rise when they found someone else was occupying it, rightly believing they were allowed to.
At Walsall, a flash point occurred where a group of late-arriving City fans at the front looked as though they were about to fight the stewards. They had nowhere to sit save for the first two rows of the away stand, which were covered in netting. The stewards told them they couldn’t sit there and tempers flared. Finally, with the game having already kicked off, Walsall opened up empty seating in another stand to accommodate these fans. At Oldham, the stewards initially tried to keep all City fans in one half of the big away end behind the goal, before the same thing happened again – no room for the last minute arrivals. Finally, after much arguing between fans and stewards, the other side of the stand was opened up.
Tranmere was the worst of the lot. People arriving just before kick off (with tickets) were admitted into the away stand but then blocked from leaving the concourse and entering the seating area, because there weren’t any spare seats. More arguments ensued, before these people were finally allowed to find empty seats dotted around the packed away end.
But it’s not just the home clubs who are making life difficult for us travelling supporters, we are doing it to each other. The issue of sitting or standing at away games has grown over the past 12 months and looks un-resolvable. Typically, many people want to stand during the 90 minutes whilst others do not, but the former group will block the view of the latter, to their understandable frustration. If you have paid £20 upwards for a seat, you are entitled to expect to both use it and see the pitch. Not being able to leads to arguments that sometimes look very heated. The fan who wants to stand is unhappy that he is expected to sit down, and the fan who wants to sit is unhappy that he is expected to stand up.
To nail my colours firmly to the mast, I am part of the stand up group. There’s something more nerve-wracking about an away game that compels me to want to stand throughout it. I would never block the view of the person behind me and will stay seated if that is the case. But then the person in front of me is stood up, and the person in front of them. And now I can’t see the game. So I’m going to stand. And then the person behind me angrily tells me to sit down, and I argue that I can’t see if I do so. And they tell me to tell the person in front to sit down, so I do that as politely as possible. And now they are annoyed at me, and I am annoyed at being in this ridiculous position. And though the person behind me is happy, the next time City have a corner or exciting moment there is every chance that the whole thing will happen again.
Inevitably in the away stand, there is an invisible line, towards the back, behind which it is considered acceptable for everyone to stand without any issues. It is if you are positioned in and around this line, between acceptable standing and being expected to stay sat down, where the problems inevitably lie. If I am sat near the front I will stay seated without any complaint. But if I’m a position where I can stand, I will choose to do so. I mean no harm and try not to cause any.
The way that away ticket sales are structured – you buy one from the Valley Parade ticket office, and they give you the next one on the roll of a batch of tickets – means it is pot luck where you are sat and who you are sat with. The fact that City away followings have grown to the point where it is close to being sold out has escalated the problem, as invariably there is less freedom to move to a different part of the stand if you want to stand or sit.
I had optimistically hoped that Tranmere on the final day would see these issues sort themselves out. The tickets were sold on an unreserved seating basis, so everyone attending was in no doubt they could stand or sit where they like. “Great” I thought, “The people who prefer to stand can go to the back, and the people who want to sit go to the front, problem solved.” And so we made our way to seats some eight rows from the back, and prepared to stand for the 90 minutes. But then the people behind us wanted to sit down – and started to complain. Why are you sat at the back? Surely this is not in the right spirit! And then a group of people at the front started to stand, blocking the view of the people behind them. And again, this wasn’t in the right spirit. And once more there was this dissatisfaction that people couldn’t enjoy the game in the position they would choose to.
(At half time Mark Lawn and his friends came and stood on the row behind us, having been positioned somewhere near the front in the first half due to arriving just before kick off and having no other choice. The fact that they moved to the back suggested they wanted to stand too.)
The worry about these issues are that they will drive people away from attending away games (more than likely, the people who want to sit). This shouldn’t be the case, and there should be room for everyone who wants to go. Throw in the inevitable rise in bad language and number of people drunk from making a day out of it, and sometimes away games feel like they should be the preserve of single people, or at least people without children or elderly relatives. I hope that my little girl grows up to be a Bradford City supporter, but I would worry about taking her to away games as they are at the moment.
The solution – if money and Government legislation weren’t an issue – would be away sections like the home ends of Accrington and Macclesfield, where the lower half is seating and the upper half terracing. But the other problem in football is that not too many clubs care about the facilities for away supporters to want to invest such time and effort on pleasing people who only rock up once a year at best. Brighton’s new stadium has special away facilities that are changed game to game to make them more welcoming, with the deliberate objective of impressing other clubs’ supporters enough that they prioritise a trip to Brighton over other away games; but they are the exception. Unless you are starting the stadium from scratch, upgrading the away supporter facilities is close to the bottom of any club’s priority list.
More realistically, why can’t the away club’s ticket office sell tickets to their supporters on a choose your seat basis? When I go to Valley Parade to purchase an away ticket next season, why not let me select where I want to sit? I can then choose somewhere near the back so I can stand, and then people who want to sit down can select a seat towards the front. This would require a bit more effort, but it would enhance the experience for travelling supporters. I would certainly be more prepared to take my girl to an away game (when she is old enough, in a few years time) if I knew that we would be likely to be sat near other families, down at the front.
That probably won’t happen for one simple reason – standing in seating areas is illegal and therefore clubs cannot be seen to be encouraging it. But football needs to be stronger than that. Work with authorities, government and whoever to relax these rules (if I went to a gig at Leeds Arena, I could stand up and dance in the seating section without being told to sit down). If they can’t change the regulations, enforce them by stopping people from standing. I and others who like to stand up may not like that happening, but it is surely fairer than those who want to sit down being made to suffer, because everyone around them is stood up and no one is stopping them.
With 2014/15’s League One having a distinctly Northern feel, expect City away attendances to continue to grow next season – and with it this issue will get worse. There is nothing like being part of a bumper away following making an almighty racket, but there needs to be more thought paid towards making sure that everyone who is part of that bumper away following has an enjoyable and safe day.