By Jason McKeown
How long was it for you, in-between waking up this morning and the moment you first thought about Bradford City?
In Nick Hornby’s masterpiece Fever Pitch, he begins the book revealing it is typically a matter of seconds before Alan Smith has entered his head, and for many of us City fans it will be a similar scenario; especially during the football season when we have league tables and the form of James Hanson to fret about. Others think about City less frequently, and some barely at all during the gap between matches. Life enhanced – but not dictated – by the Bantams.
Yet for many of us City fans, there is a need for various things and activities to fill the void and to focus our devotion for the club upon, with the unstoppable growth of the internet acting as the perfect vehicle. Message boards have become a focal point for scratching that itch of talking about Bradford City. A place to raise and debate every little matter with like-minded individuals. A community.
On the 14 June 2012, Bradford City Football Club issued a statement on its own website that the Official Message Board (OMB) would no longer be available to access due to changes to the website which will take a “few months”. Whether the OMB will ever return is impossible to gauge from such a vague announcement, but at the very least it would seem as though it will not return for some time. Rumours have floated that a new-look OMB will eventually be launched, but with a much tighter registration process.
The result has been a breaking up of that community, with a number of supporters and/or websites setting up alternative message boards and the long-established Claret and Banter suddenly experiencing an increase in traffic. The likes of Bantams Banter and bradfordcityfans.com are enjoying success, compared to others, in establishing the popularity of their message boards. But none are receiving the level of posts and debate that the OMB enjoyed.
The OMB has been a part of the Bradford City website ever since the club launched its own site during the Premier League years. It has undoubtedly always divided opinion – a dominant tone of negativity, and irrational attacking of people who represent the club – and a significant number of supporters steer well clear. A Saturday night or Sunday afternoon visit to the OMB after a poor home defeat was never for the faint-hearted.
Yet it was also very popular, and meant that the club hosted much of the conversation and debate which feeds the thirst of a number of City supporters in-between matches. On a Saturday afternoon they provide us with a home for our devotion, and during the week a home for interacting. By some distance, it will have been the most popular part of the official website; which may have had some benefits from an advertising revenue point of view.
Whether it is right that City host these debates is a debate in itself. Bradford City (including its catering and shop partners) probably employs somewhere in the vicinity of 150-200 staff; and so to provide customers with a platform that is often used to slag off these employees, in quite abusive and hurtful terms, is probably not a job benefit they promote when recruiting staff. For the sake of the players’ confidence, you hoped they’d steer well clear (though Width of a Post has heard anecdotal evidence that some do in fact read message boards). From the club’s point of view, they were seen to be encouraging and monitoring feedback from their own supporters. Which in its own way is a nice PR message.
The club offers a platform, but cannot join in the party, so to speak. Wade into correcting one criticism, and soon they’d be expected to answer all the others. Try to police an argument, and the anger will just turn on them. Last season a certain director (Width of a Post cannot bring ourselves to name him) logged on and responded to criticism about the playing surface. It was debatable how much value this contributed. Moderators (regular supporters) were recruited to try to raise standards, but seemed to receive nothing but derision for trying to stop people abusing players.
You can argue, with some justification, that a message board should not be directly connected to the club, because of the inevitably of it featuring angry, often unfair criticism of what City are trying to achieve. The tide of abuse, when things are not going well, does not help matters – and can undermine attempts by management and players to put things right. Most football clubs have long since abandoned hosting message boards on their own site, and focus instead on providing news and information.
Without the OMB for the time being – like the centre of the city of Bradford itself – a hole has been left and it is not immediately obvious if or when it will be filled. The internet and how it is used by people has changed considerably over the lifespan of the OMB; and now, aside from message boards, supporters use Twitter, Facebook and the truly dreadful T&A comments section to interact with each other. The OMB is not any greater or worse than these social media platforms, but its appeal endures because of its central location and greater popularity.
And that is what is lost without it. The OMB was like a very loud and obnoxious bar in town, which was widely derided but equally well liked by many. It was full of youngsters with poor vocabulary (grammar) downing Blue WKDs and talking rubbish; and in another corner there was old grumpy people on the real ale, ready for a fight if someone looked at them in the wrong way. Not the friendliest place to visit, but usually a lively location.
It’s closure has seen splinter groups (bars) form and other sites attract new custom (Claret and Banter, for example, is the old man’s social club next door to the OMB bar, full of regulars who distrust outsiders) and that community seems somehow fractured and disengaged. The OMB might have had sticky carpets, smelly toilets and iffy lager, but to many it was home.
It will be interesting to see if the OMB returns, but its absence has been a useful exercise in gauging its true popularity. For all the derision it deservedly attracts and for all the improvements that surely need to be made if it was to come back, the world of Bradford City somehow doesn’t quite seem the same without the OMB. There is, to stretch the analogy to its breaking point, currently a group of thirsty, impatient people banging on its door desperately trying to find out what time they open.