By Jason McKeown
Ever since the draw for the quarter finals of the League Cup paired Bradford City up with Arsenal, a rather unedifying supporter debate has swirled about who deserves to be first in the queue when tickets go on sale next week. Not surprisingly, everyone wants to be able to attend City’s biggest match for over a decade, and the fear of missing out is added to by the suspicion that other people, far less deserving, will be clutching a golden ticket instead.
Bradford City stands in a somewhat unique position regarding its support base. From the high of defeating Liverpool 1-0 to stay in the Premier League in 2000 and some excellent attendances the year after, the numbers have dwindled in conjunction with a bumpy fall down the divisions. The outstanding cheap season ticket initiative, which launched in 2007, may have pushed attendances upwards again (13,756 average attendance 2007/08). But even over the subsequent four campaigns, crowds have again fallen year-on-year.
Which means there are a lot of Bradford City supporters who have, over the past decade, at some point concluded that enough was enough, and withdrawn their matchday support.
Do you stop being a Bradford City fan at this point? I highly doubt it. But then again there can be little disputing that those of us who continued to attend through year on year of underachievement have shown a level of loyalty which deserves the reward of this huge game. I don’t have the perspective of having supported City 40 or 50 years plus, but I would still suggest that the last two seasons (2010/11 and 2011/12) must rank as some of the worst in the club’s history. Dark times, where ongoing support was vital, if not necessarily in financial terms (the club wasn’t in danger of going under) but certainly morale-wise. There are more than just cheap season tickets meaning that our attendances still dwarf the majority of League Two rivals.
Nevertheless age is a talking point, with some elderly supporters commenting that years and years of supporting the club is more significant than merely attending the Wigan/Burton/Watford/Notts County matches that have got us this far. I chuckled at one comment from an experienced fan who saw his first league cup match in the 1960s and described how unglamorous it was, with the hint that they have therefore earned the red carpet for the Arsenal game. Inevitably his first game was a wet night and the crowd was low. Do people who have supported City over many decades – through thick and thin – deserve their ticket more than others?
There are two points to make about all of this fall out. The first, and most important of all, is that everyone who wants an Arsenal ticket will have the chance to buy one. The club has clearly read message boards for fans’ views, because it seems every idea put forward has been implemented. It is right and fair that season ticket and Flexicard holders get the opportunity to reserve their seat first, and the initiative of every season ticket holder being entitled to buy one extra ticket means that – if you are not a season ticket holder – you better start being nice to friends who are.
But even after that, some 4 -5,000 tickets will go on general sale and – as long as you are pro-active in getting yourself sorted – there should be no excuse for missing out. It’s true that a lot of non-City fans and/or Arsenal fans will get tickets in the home areas, but as long as you get off your backside and sort out your ticket, the club is giving you every chance to reserve a seat. There is nothing more they can do.
The other point is that football support is, for most of us, a lifetime relationship and the Arsenal scramble is merely a snapshot of where people currently are. Sure, many people have turned their back on City over the past decade, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they intend for that to be for good. It might be that some have vowed to wait for the club’s rise up the leagues before coming back (you can call that less loyal, but playing teams like Barnet and Burton is hardly what we all originally signed up for). Others are just at different stages of their lives, where City is perhaps not the priority it is for the rest of us.
And therein lies the reality. For the last five and a half seasons I have typically missed just one home game per year (league and cup) and attended 75% of away games. Yet at 31 years old, happily married but without children yet, and with both myself and my partner holding decent jobs, I have the time and money to do so. That isn’t going to last forever, as other commitments (like eventually having kids) will eventually limit my availability. So I’m enjoying it while I can and – on paper – my record of supporting the team looks pretty loyal.
But when those commitments do kick in and I can no longer drive halfway down the country on a Saturday to watch City play the likes of Barnet, Bristol Rovers and Wycombe, I don’t believe I will look upon myself as any less loyal than I was before. Because my love for my football team will remain just as strong. It’s just that if you spend your life putting City first forever…well, there probably isn’t going to be that much else going on in the rest of your life.
And that’s the point of football support. It’s not about clocking up the hours and miles, proudly displaying ticket stubs from locations far and wide. It’s not about one-upmanship from attending dismal JPT matches or meaningless end-of-season games at Brentford. It’s not about how many years you have been doing this for – an 80-year-old supporter who has held a season ticket at Valley Parade since 16 is no better than the rest of us, they are just someone to admire.
Football support is about loving your football club, and maintaining a relationship with your club that suits you and feeds that love. And the Arsenal game is a reward for enduring the fact there have been rather too many downs compared to ups over recent years, and an opportunity to remind ourselves of why it’s worth keeping the faith. I am the best Bradford City fan in the world in my head, and you are the best in yours. And whether one or both of us is wrong doesn’t really matter, because, we’re all City ‘til we die.
I think that going down the route of “I’m-a-better-fan-than-you” doesn’t help anyone because it is so unwelcoming. We are, as that cheesy song goes, all in this together. So let’s use the Arsenal game as an opportunity to open up the doors and welcome one and all, for an evening when we can celebrate and reaffirm our love for this truly fantastic football club.