By Alex Scott
The past week in football has been defined by two moments for me, two feelings. Primarily, the stomach punch defeat for the England national team (which still stings). And the other was the lack of joy I felt after reading about the signing of Rochdale star Gary Jones (which doesn’t still sting as much as it still ‘nothings’). The England national team have been castigated from all sides upon their return, the moral admonishment of their ‘embarrassing’ display clogging up the airwaves and column inches. Gary Jones should be a certain star at this level, a man who could raise the level of those around him in the Bradford City’s promotion ‘push’. I feel like I am on the wrong side of both of these debates, and the reconciliation between the two is troubling. Why does the (in)actions of my national football team leave me neutrally pragmatic, yet the actions of my football team raise the moral warning flags in my mind? What is my problem with Bradford City and why can’t I shake it?
As the ball floated slowly, painfully slowly, through the air towards the centre of Joe Hart’s goal, a nation looked down, knowing they were done for. The remainder of the shootout was immaterial, as was the fact they were still essentially ahead. Right at that moment, it was over. A desired effect from Pirlo, the primary motivation behind his Panenka kill shot.
Now the all important hand-wringing could begin for a nation ever so adept at its favourite past time. Hodgson is a dinosaur, his tactics positively archaic. Our star players are inhibited by the team’s conservative manner. They’re all chokers. It’s the Premier League’s fault. There aren’t enough youth coaches. Our kids should be playing futsal not eleven-a-side. There should be a winter break. Et cetera and so forth.
We spend our lives trapped in these never-ending conversations, banging on the plain glass window in our minds desperately striving for anything else to talk about. (There’s a similar feeling surrounding the goal line technology ‘debate’. At this point I’ve been rendered inert and comatose, and only want it changed so we can stop talking about it.)
The primary source of the vocal majority’s disgruntlement over England is the ‘manner’ in which the team conducted themselves on the field. Fortune does not favour the banks of four.
We have become accustomed to failure, but glorious failure, not whatever the hell that was. The main issue with the defeat isn’t the defeat, it’s the style in which the side was defeated. England appear to have morally crossed a line, selling their soul to the devil from West Bromwich. No more Brave Lions. If you win on penalties, we’ll totally take it, but if you lose, don’t bother coming home. Success is the only justification. We’re supposed to feel dirty, we’ve disgraced ourselves.
As the players embark on their walk of shame home from Eastern Europe and hope to sleep off the hangover in solitude until pre-season, the rest of us are left to denounce their actions from atop our moral mountains. (Note that the manner in which the team played sparks this moral admonishment, not the player(s) which were selected in the squad.)
I’m sceptical of this entire moralist narrative. I just wanted them to win. The manner in which they played was irrelevant to me. And looking around the squad pragmatically, this ‘manner’ was probably the way to go. But the more I think about it, the clearer the parallels are and the more hypocritical I feel.
With Bradford, I spend a lot of my time complaining about the ‘manner’ in which the club is run, but this isn’t because they lose, that is a mere symptom of the ill which frustrates me. From top to bottom, they get to me. (The feeling I have for the decision makers is the same as the marketing department of Kia for that godforsaken Buzzcocks cover which is slowly taking over the world. I understand what they are trying to do but can’t get past the execution of it.) I hold them to some moral standard to which they must attain for me to feel proud of them. Pride is the word. For some reason I hold the adages of youth development, long-term planning, community involvement in higher regard than other competing strategies employed in football. But that is all they are, strategies. There shouldn’t be a moral aspect, but it is inescapable.
This summer has progressed in almost the polar opposite to the last. I’m sure the side will be far more successful, but still I’m left detached, disenfranchised, attempting to repress the urge to hope for personal vindication.
There is many a way to skin a cat as there is many a way to win a football game. We cannot all be Swansea, or every 5’7 mini-Britton would be worth £20m and Andy Carroll would be a free agent. But in my mind, one approach feels more ‘just’ than the other. The ‘right’ way. Syers, Threlfall, O’Brien, McLaughlin, Wells, Hanson, these have been my favourite players in the team, not (just) because of their performances, but because what they represent. I’m letting personal beliefs cloud my better judgement on how the club should be progressing. Which is patently unfair.
So again, why is it I am this way? Are others? Stoke, Bolton, countless others have proven that one can succeed with veteran rentals, youth disloyalty and depressing football, and Crewe have illustrated the opposite. So why do I want to be Crewe? What is my problem?
The process of supporting Bradford feels a lot more personal than that of England. The concept of ownership clouds. I’ve always attempted to justify the board’s actions in that it’s ‘their’ money. I cannot complain about their impatience, or entitlement when they are the ones which have been footing the bill, running at a loss for five years now. But as ticket holders, fans with the shirts, the scarves and the flags, don’t we hold ownership? My money essentially funds the squad, in the same way my taxes fund government services. Just as the spending of my theoretical taxes infuriates, watching my club spend my money on a one-year rental of some guy from Rochdale instead of a young local product, with whom I have a relationship, enrages.
Football, like pretty much everything, is a defined game. Resources are limited, and the game is to utilise those resources in a more efficient way than your competitors. Every spending decision has an opportunity cost. The board have preached recently that the strategies of last season were too ambitious, they were attempting to ‘run’ before they could ‘walk’, an obviously preposterous statement. Especially when overspending on short term rentals of veteran stars is the equivalent of ‘walking’.
I have no doubt Gary Jones will be good, but that’s not really the point. David Syers represented something else, something which, as a fan, I desired more than another team’s legend who happens to be better. What’s more is, from a coldly financial, detached viewpoint, in eighteen months every one of us will rather have Syers, regardless of how well Jones plays now.
But here is the crux: Phil Parkinson is in the final year of his contract. He can take a look at the scenery of the club, and its past decisions and know if he is 12th at Christmas, he’s probably done for. So why wouldn’t he let a prospect go when he could buy a 35 year old sure thing? He doesn’t care where the club will be in eighteen months if he isn’t there. Nor should he. Similarly, why would he waste portions of his budget on a youth programme, or on locking up Nahki Wells long term? Wells is under contract for this year on peanuts, why would he waste money tying him up long term that could be spent on a new winger for this year? If he doesn’t get promoted, he’s gone, as is Wells. And he doesn’t care about that. For him the optimal investment is Jones, when for the club it is almost certainly Syers.
An aside here, whilst Syers did leave up the divisions, the argument that the club couldn’t have kept him is a fallacy. They had ample opportunity (beginning from last summer), but chose not to, assuming they could keep him on a lesser wage than his worth due to injury status and perceived loyalty. And to assume he is on more money than a seasoned League One pro like Jones seems preposterous. It was a straight choice and Phil Parkinson decided to pursue a more seasoned veteran (and probably, better player). Again, I have no issue with the justification of Jones over Syers on purely football terms, rather as a multi-year investment for my team.
This is exactly the same reasoning which led to the club appointing a Head of Football Development last summer. Someone to oversee the long-term future of the club alongside a manager taking care of the first team prospects. Unless Parkinson was offered a three-year deal, why would he relinquish control in this manner? He wouldn’t, and voila, here we are. But the value in the role which was apparent last year, is still apparent. The board should be lauded in placing their faith in a manager without interference (compared to common practice across the leagues), but they should seriously analyse his incentives and motivations. If the club fails this year (remember, only four sides can get promoted), that’s it. Manager gone, best two prospects gone, bloated wage bill, the fans a year more disillusioned. I’m sure they have considered this, deciding the current situation has become untenable, and they don’t care about next year. But as an ‘investor’ in the club, I’m unsettled by the wanton disregard for what is essentially my future, not the decision-makers’.
The parallels between this situation and England’s are easy to see. Only success will justify the means for the majority of fans, anything short is a disaster. And only four sides out of twenty four can witness that success, the odds aren’t great. In a year’s time, there is a 75% chance we will be sat here still in Division 4, without any of the prospects we currently own, and nothing else to hold onto. The best players will be gone, as will the manager. Success is the only justification of these unsightly means.
The difference with England is that each two-year cycle is self contained, even the three week tournament itself evolves into its own entity. There isn’t a temporal temptation to invest in the future, we’ve got two years to get ready for the next meaningful event, but this, right here, is all that matters. With City, after a decade of futility which has been defined by calamitous short-term thinking, not only have we nothing to grab onto, when we look down the road, the prospects are ever more bleak.
‘Win-Now’ mode should always be a fan’s dream, the club (theoretically) will contend for promotion. But mortgaging the future in this way leaves a bitter taste. Even success will be met with a sigh of relief rather than the Status Quo-laden euphoria. Maybe it’s my predilection for catastrophe which is skewing my thoughts, and I should be more positive and get on the bandwagon. If it doesn’t work, whatever, the board will just fund another run as they’ve proven time and time again, they will.
Maybe, but beyond the possible financial and footballing consequences, morally it stings. It’s as if the club are cheating in some way, doping, stacking the deck in their favour. They are yet again becoming that team in the division everyone else resents for their staggering entitlement. As a fan base who were so fired up by the detestable Crawley team last year, it’s a substantial but unspoken problem. We are the big spending entitled, those defined by hubris who act like they are better than this, and belong higher. (I am aware Crawley had many more detestable facets than their expansive spending, I’m purely drawing a parallel to that one. The same would apply to Fleetwood, and soon Rotherham. Morally, it feels a questionable strategy.) Local football clubs like ours are supposed to represent their community. Looking around Bradford right now, there is little to draw parallels to.
What’s more is that we’ve seen this story before, with Stuart McCall in 2008 which proved heavy short-term investment is no panacea, and it left is wallowing in the depths of our division for years, whilst we have watched the Torquays, Crewes and Cheltenhams routinely finish ahead of us. There is no sure-fire answer to the question, but after what we have all been through, is it worth the risk? Are we prepared to go through all of this again?
The glaring elephant in the corner of the boardroom no one appears willing to acknowledge is that the club finished 18th last year. Whilst admittedly appearing to play quite well in patches, can three expensive signings change the culture that dramatically to rise 17 places? They will likely need a minimum of 30 more points than they acquired this year, it is a sizeable chasm. You could argue that Cheltenham did it (almost), I would counter with how they did it. It certainly wasn’t this.
The Oakland Raiders of the 70s and 80s were dominated by owner Al Davis’ adage, “just win, baby.” Nothing else mattered. They carried themselves with a swagger and an attitude which ran through the organisation, do whatever it takes. For some reason, I cannot reconcile that in my mind for Bradford City. I don’t want them to “just win”. For some reason, that isn’t even the most important thing to me. I don’t know what kind of fan that makes me. I’m more focused on the means than the end, and at this point, the means leaves me uncomfortable. Maybe the ends will justify it, maybe next year the club can grow into something I can be proud of. Maybe I should be proud regardless.
The way ‘support’ differs between national, and international football deserves its own essay, but every word one wishes to speak on it could be summed up by one look around the crowd, taking in the names of the clubs represented on flags. We are all coming together, but this is who we represent. We’re all England fans, but this is who we are.
I don’t care if England act in an embarrassingly regressive manner, I just want to win. I want to beat Italy. But I want more from my team. I want other things. I want more than this.
There shouldn’t be a right way and a wrong way to win football games. Especially on a moral level, it is merely an operational decision. Each team embarks on their own strategy and at the end of the year, one team is vindicated and the rest are left to oversee the damage and start again. That should be it. Yet I can’t shake the feeling of shame, of guilt. This feels wrong, not in the sense it will be unsuccessful, but in the sense we are cutting corners, we are cheating in some way. There shouldn’t be a moral component here, but still it persists, and I can’t escape it.