By Jason McKeown
There may not be any Bradford City action for at least another eight weeks, but 3,981 miles away on the other side of the Atlantic, a football team named after the Bantams and who also wear claret and amber have recently kicked off their inaugural season.
The Palmetto FC Bantams, based in the city of Greenwood in South Carolina, USA, first appeared somewhat mysteriously on the radar of City supporters last autumn. Their website boasted of a link up with Bradford City Football Club, and in time featured images of us City supporters invading the pitch against Liverpool in May 2000. On Saturday 12 May, Palmetto FC Bantams played their first ever competitive match – a 2-1 victory over Virginia Beach. You can watch a video of the highlights here, with the players decked out in glorious claret and amber.
So who is this new football club, and how has this connection being formed? When he was asked a question about it during the Skipton Bantams supporters club meeting last February, Joint Chairman Mark Lawn admitted he knew nothing about it and there have been no subsequent announcements from the West Yorkshire club.
So The Width of a Post went to the source, to find out.
Star spangled banner – soccer in a football country
My wife, Rachel, hails from America and the state of Georgia – around three hours’ drive away from the Palmetto FC Bantams. Over the last decade I have made numerous visits to the States, and what has been noticeable over that time is the surge in popularity of football (or “soccer”, as my father-in-law never tires of correcting me).
On my first trip in 2003, the sport seemed to have no US interest at all, but by 2005 you could watch English Premier League matches on TV in bars, and by 2007 some people were wearing Arsenal and Manchester United shirts. Nowadays when I visit the States, I hog the in-laws’ TV by watching back-to-back Premier League matches.
Aided undoubtedly by David Beckham, US soccer itself has improved significantly in profile too. Major League Soccer matches are even broadcast in England now, and most of these clubs have one or two players you have heard of. That also creates a trickle effect down the soccer pyramid, which is where Palmetto FC Bantams comes in.
Mark Riddle is the co-founder of the US version of the Bantams, along with his longstanding friend and coach of the Lander University soccer team for 28 years, Van Taylor. Last year they agreed a deal with the United Soccer League (USL) to enter a team into the Premier Development League (PDL). The PDL is the top amateur league in America, which consists of 73 teams competing from four regions across the country.
Riddle explained to The Width of a Post: “I have been friends with Coach Taylor for a long time; he is very well respected as a coach and good man. We both felt there was a need for a PDL team in South Carolina. Our state is called the Palmetto State, so that’s where Palmetto came from. And the Bantams came from Bradford City, with approval from Bradford City Football Club.”
English football may now be more popular in the States, but surely the name of Bradford City will hardly be known to anyone, despite our two years in the Premiership at the turn of the millennium? This unlikely link up was forged by a City supporter named Paul Kaye. Riddle revealed: “I have been producing kids’ television shows for many years and I have a good partner who I work with in the UK. His name is Paul Kaye who is in the television media in the UK, he and his family are also big fans of Bradford City. I told him about starting a soccer team here in US and our new Franchise and he introduced me to Bradford City’s GM, David Baldwin.”
Nurturing rising stars
Mark confirmed that the Palmetto FC Bantams receive no financial support from City, but there is an aim of developing and showcasing players who, in time, might be considered good enough to play at Valley Parade. The club has much broader objectives, however, in seeking to attract footballers in and around college to play for the Bantams, with the aim of them being spotted. “Most of these kids are the top college players in US, or they played college here in the United States and are trying to be seen by professional scouts,” added Riddle when discussing the current playing squad. “We are allowed to have up to 8 international players on the team. We have 7 young men who are from England and they are either playing for a university here in the US or they just completed college.
“We have one from Brazil (Gustavo Cunha) who also plays college soccer here. All these young men hope to have a chance to play professionally one day. Over 85% of these kids who play for PDL have a chance to be signed or drafted by the MLS or USL professional soccer leagues here in the US. We hope that our relationship with Bradford City will also help some of these young men get an opportunity to play there as well.”
Coach Taylor, also commented to The Width of a Post: “There are a number of universities in the area to draw players from who are looking to stay fit over the summer in preparation for the college/university season that begins in mid-August. The PDL is a pathway/gateway for players wanting to play at the next level. The number one player selected last year in the MLS college draft played for the Carolina Dynamo, a team that is in our division.”
As American Football fans will know, over in the US, sports athletes do not grow up being attached to a professional club, but instead have to play for a college and university, and then ultimately hope to be drafted to join a senior club. Taylor added: “This league is a great showcase for players wanting to continue their playing careers beyond college.”
Riddle is very confident of the prospects for Palmetto FC Bantams, especially with the rising popularity of soccer in the States. “Soccer’s really growing, we have come along way over the last 10 years,” he said. “The English Premier League is so popular here in the US now. We have major TV networks in the US carrying the games, I know my son tapes every game and he could tell you everything about English and international soccer in general. He came to England this past Spring, loves it there and could tell you where every team stands every week throughout the year. Every kid who is a soccer fan and player dreams of playing soccer internationally.”
Taylor, who in addition to the Bantams will continue to be a coach for Lander University during term time, agrees: “The level of play in the US has increased in general. Youth clubs have formed academies and this has helped to raise the standard of play across the country. The game has gained popularity and more and more youth are playing and watching the game. Our US national team has made great strides in the international arena.”
“For Palmetto FC Bantams, we have a 3 year commitment to the USL to be a PDL team” explained Riddle. “We didn’t know what to expect being our first year. We want to finish at the top of our Conference. If we have a good season then we get to qualify for next year’s US Open Cup. It’s a blind draw, so we could be playing LA Galaxy – David Beckham in our stadium! That’s every young man’s dream to play with or against Beckham. It could happen! So we have some big goals for our first year.”
Since starting the season with that 2-1 victory, it has been a draw and a defeat for the Bantams. Early days still, however, and Taylor is confident of building a successful football club. “It was a good start of the season (the 2-1 success over Virginia Beach) and a solid performance. The players are still getting to know one another in terms of playing to each other’s strengths, but all in all it was a good start and it gives us something to build upon.
“We certainly want to be competitive on the field and build a club that is run first class from top to bottom. We have a reserve team that will help us in identifying young talent for the future.”
Claret and amber credibility
Moving back to the Bradford City link, what are the benefits for the club (other than looking great in claret and amber, of course)? “We think it gives us great creditability,” offered Mark. “We know that Bradford City has a lot of history and is a great club and organisation. It gives our fans an opportunity to have that English club to pull for when we aren’t playing, and hopefully Bradford City fans can pull for us as well.
“I hope that we can even send some players to the team in the future. We hope the relationship can continue to grow and help both clubs in the future.”
Do they know much about City? “We know there is a lot of history and City is one of the oldest clubs in the world. We know the club fell on some hard times with the tragic fire. But we would love to know even more about Bradford City AFC.”
Coach Taylor added: “Our relationship with Bradford City at this time is something that I believe can continue to grow and develop in the future. We hope to have discussions this summer on how we can move forward together in terms of working together on various programmes.”
For more information about the Palmetto FC Bantams, you can visit their website here, follow them on Twitter here or ‘like’ them on Facebook here. The Width of a Post also asked Mark if they might start selling replica shirts which we City fans could buy. Plans are unclear at the moment, but they hope to have an online store soon.