Our mini-series reflecting on the 10th anniversary of Bradford City going into administration continues with Jason McKeown looking at how those turbulent events changed the way we view our players.
Ask any Bradford City supporter who has followed the club for over a decade to name their favourite players of all time, and few will put forward names post-2002. David Wetherall and Dean Windass would get many mentions, but carved out their hero status when City were in the Premier League at the turn of the millennium. Nathan Doyle, Jermaine Johnson and Dean Furman might receive a few votes, but they were at the club for too short a period to lose their initial popularity.
It is perhaps understandable that there are no modern-day heroes – look at what the club has gone through over the past decade – but for many players of recent years, who deserved more respect than they received from an impatient Valley Parade crowd, it seems they are paying the price for their predecessors’ failings to. Two years ago City, under Peter Taylor, lost 2-0 at home to Port Vale and individual players were booed. An injured Michael Flynn summarising on radio perceptively summed it up: the crowd were not just unfurling their frustration onto the current players for another home defeat, but their frustration at a decade of failure. A heavy burden.
Events during the first administration in 2002 were a defining moment in how the relationship between us supporters and players has changed. Not least, after 15 players opted to strike rather than play for their club two days before a vital CVA meeting, which would determine whether Bradford City could continue or would fold. A bunch of youth players instead turned out for a pre-season friendly at Hull City in what at the time strongly looked to be the final ever match in our history. Anger towards those 15 players was fierce.
And it shouldn’t have ended up this way. Those 15 were the remaining players of the 19 the club’s administrators had attempted to sack a month earlier. The way they were so shabbily treated invoked a huge sense of sympathy and empathy between supporters and players. They did not deserve to have their contracts torn up, when they had done nothing wrong themselves. As the PFA was stung into action to fight their members’ cause, and eventually the administrators had to reverse this decision or City would lose their status as a Football League club, these players were eventually warmly welcomed back for pre-season training. They were still having to go without pay.
Pre-season friendlies began as normal, and the coaching and playing staff geared up for the start of a new season despite not being fully sure if the club would be able to fulfil its fixtures. A very difficult situation, which attracted further goodwill from us supporters; this was far from ideal, but their professionalism was rightly lauded.
Then came the week of the CVA meeting, and sizeable speculation that creditors would vote against what the administrators were proposing and so the Bantams would be liquidated. Those players were once more in a difficult position as the friendly at Hull City approached. Play for a club which in three days time might no longer exist – meaning they would never receive the three months worth of wages they were owed, plus future earnings their contract promised – or sit it out in order to avoid the risk of being injured at a time when they might have to find another club.
The day before Hull (Monday), rumours spread that a strike was in the offing. Wetherall, City’s PFA representative and new club captain, laughed this suggestion off. But later that day the 15 players had a meeting and eight voted to strike – meaning they all had to pull out of the Hull game. On the Tuesday Wetherall revealed: “The players are not in the right frame of mind to play football. We don’t want to risk getting injured tonight because we may have to look for jobs with other clubs at the end of the week. We will train as usual and remain hopeful that a resolution can be found to the situation on Thursday.”
It was not exactly a statement of confidence that Thursday’s CVA meeting would prove successful. Hull’s Chairman Adam Pearson was in uproar, over the lost revenue for his club. A team of City youngsters, trialists and the five contracted players who were being paid lost the game 3-0. The line up that evening was: Richard Siddall, Gus Uhlenbeek, Lewis Emanuel, Paul Evans, Robert Morgan, Mark Bower, Michael Standing, Craig Fishlock, Paul Gedman, Andy Gray and Andrew Lee.
Not in the right frame of mind. Sympathy and empathy had been replaced by an angry backlash of disgust and contempt. With the club’s future so delicately in the balance, it was felt that the players had badly let us down. They had lost perceptive, as Jonathan Jackson, writing for boyfrombrazil.co.uk, summed up superbly:
“What kind of frame of mind do these tossers think that the supporters of City are in. So what if they might be about to lose their highly paid, easy money jobs. We could be about to lose a way of life, a religion. How do they think the Pope would react if the Catholic Church went bankrupt, because that is what no BCFC will mean to a lot of us.”
The CVA was accepted on Thursday, and the club could continue. The players returned a few days later to play in a 7-0 thrashing of Bradford Park Avenue, and eventually would receive every penny they had been entitled to. Meanwhile local Bradford businesses had to make do receiving a fraction of what they had been owed, and the 40 non-playing staff who had been sacked were looking for work.
The strike ultimately proved a futile exercise, and all it achieved was to alienate City supporters and damage a relationship which should have been at its strongest. Imagine if they had not gone on strike and instead retained our admiration for what they had gone through? When City marched out onto the field to play Wolves in the first game of the season – a moment we feared might never happen – we cheered and gave thanks for still having a football club. We did not give the players a hero’s welcome.
The other impact of administration was the lowering of sights when it came to new players. That summer, manager Nicky Law was able to sign Paul Evans (a perennial lower league player for Brentford), Gus Uhlenbeek (who had been playing for Walsall and scored an own goal on behalf of City on the final day of the previous campaign) and Andy Gray (a Forest winger whose career was drifting). This just two years on from the excitement of Benito Carbone, Dan Petrescu and David Hopkin rolling up.
It was the beginning of a new era. Those 15 players who striked would largely be replaced over the next two seasons – because their wages remained too high for a club which still had plenty of financial headaches – with their successors much cheaper and evidently not as good. Chairman Gordon Gibb had declared there would be no major signing for at least three seasons, and we had to get used to greeting a lower standard of player that was more difficult to warm towards. We had gone from eating caviar to buying baked beans.
That cycle has continued. Average player perceived to be underachieving eventually leaves the club, but their replacement has often proved even worse, meaning they too are ultimately bombed out for an even worse player. City’s fall down the league has been the result of this. We’ve been swimming against the tide – and at best have had periods where we could tread water.
It would be wrong to suggest booing or hating players did not happen before administration, but over the last decade it has taken on a greater intensity and certain players who did not deserve it have been hounded out with boos ringing in their ears. We don’t seem to view our players as heroes or with the type of affection we once did, and can be very quick to drop support for individuals if they have a couple of poor games.
Perhaps that’s slowly changing again now. Certainly last season, the team was backed at Valley Parade in a positive manner we’ve not always seen in previous years. There has been a growing acceptance of our level in English football, and we’ve lost some of our arrogance that because we are Bradford City we have the right to succeed. Twitter has also helped to build more positive relationships between supporter and player. Guy Branston is probably the most high profile example of that.
Football is relative. We may never in our lifetimes see a City player as good as Stuart McCall, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a footballer who in time comes to mean as much. The last decade has been devoid of heroes and the events of 2002 set much of the tone for this – but there are some pretty big gaps in our City-filled hearts for future players to take a place.
Next time: we take a look at Geoffrey Richmond’s role in City’s rise and fall.