Part two of our ‘Potted History of Bradford City’ series looks back at the launch of the oldest surviving fanzine in the UK, the City Gent, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary. John Dewhirst, one of the co-founders, tells the story of its birth.
Three years ago when we were collating photographs for Dave Pendleton’s history of Valley Parade I came across an old collection of photographs from Valley Parade in the early 1980s, a number of which I had taken myself. Whilst the content was familiar – and I can still remember the detail of the old stand – I was genuinely shocked by the run down nature of the stadium and its surroundings. I was forced to ask myself how and why supporters put up with such conditions. From today’s perspective it was a different era altogether. I found it disturbing because whilst there was familiarity in the images, they were also incredibly alien. Quite simply it now feels like a long time ago.
(A good proportion of people who now attend games at Valley Parade have no recollection of what the stadium was like or the circumstances of the fire. As an aside I think this has relevance in how the fire disaster is commemorated and I sense that there is a growing divergence of opinion between different generations as to how the fire should be remembered.)
This anecdote serves to remind me of my age and the fact that the BCAFC of thirty years ago is a million miles removed from the club of today.
In terms of the match day experience there are few elements of continuity at Valley Parade from 1984 – two that come to mind are the Seabrook crisps sold in the refreshment kiosks and the City Gent sold in and around Valley Parade.
The City Gent magazine was launched in October, 1984 and this year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the so-called ‘Voice of Bantam Progressivism’. I co-founded CG with Brian Fox (who was the original editor) but when we discussed the concept of a supporters’ magazine in the summer of 1984 we had little idea that it was to be such a fateful season.
CG wasn’t the first such publication either at Valley Parade or elsewhere in the Football League. For example ‘Bantams Review’ had been published in the previous season and ran to about three issues and there were supporter magazines at York (Terrace Talk) and Bolton (Wanderers Worldwide). To be frank, none of them were much good and we were confident that we couldn’t do much worse. Likewise the standard of the BCAFC programme was abysmal so it was hardly a major challenge to provide a better read at half time. We had talked about such a publication previously but the timing of the launch was due to the fact that we had both just graduated and returned home to West Yorkshire.
Ultimately the catalyst was that at the time Brian Fox was unemployed and CG was seen as a project to help raise his profile and prospects to get work as a journalist.
I suspect that we were not the only ones to be surprised at how CG took off and grew in popularity. We didn’t have a mission as such but there were principles by which we produced CG. The first was a commitment to be as professional and well-written as possible. The second was to be constructive and responsible when communicating criticism about the club. The third was to include historical features about the club at a time when there was literally nothing in print about BCAFC. The fourth was to be unashamedly proud of our roots as Bradfordians. Looking back the early issues betray our youth and naivety but I cannot pretend otherwise that I remain proud of what we achieved.
With the launch of When Saturday Comes in the 1986 and the opening of the Sportspages bookstore in Cambridge Circus, London in the same year there soon developed a tsunami of similar publications that became referred to as the fanzine movement. Until such independent publications were described as fanzines I had no idea what they were. Very soon however most clubs had a ‘fanzine’ and in 1987 The Observer did a photo shoot of fanzine editors at Highbury which was rather amusing.
The subsequent events of our inaugural season impacted on CG. After the Valley Parade disaster and the disruption of playing games at Elland Road, Leeds Road and Odsal, the publication was deliberate in fostering and channeling a spirit of positive thinking about how BCAFC could be rebuilt in the late 1980s. Looking back CG was very much a part of the revival spirit at BCAFC that could be traced to the 1983 receivership and which derived a new momentum after the fire. As editor between 1986 and 1988 I coined the phrase ‘Bantam Progressivism’ that summed up the mood of the time.
We also actively championed interest in the history of the club which has culminated in the support given to the Bantamspast museum and various projects that have been organised under its auspices.
CG was a baby that grew into a time consuming monster. Subsequent editors discovered for themselves that it has demanded a massive commitment to compile and distribute. I have to admit that when I sold the first issue at a reserve game on a wet evening in late October, 1984 I never imagined that CG would become something of a Valley Parade institution. In itself that created new pressures and a sense of responsibility to keep it going.
The success of CG meant that, unlike at other clubs, no other ‘fanzines’ became established at Valley Parade. There were however two other titles, Phil of Frizinghall and City Travel Club Magazine. The former made only a couple of appearances in 1990/91 (published by Yeadon based supporters) whilst the latter ran to about half a dozen issues during the 1985/86 season. Phil of Frizinghall was a light-hearted publication whereas City Travel Club Magazine was essentially a mouthpiece of Patsy Hollinger and his newly-formed Star Travel Club, comprising badly written tirades against Stafford Heginbotham and his fellow directors.
In 1990 came The Relegation Times, a one-off publication that expressed the frustration about impending relegation to the third division and the lost opportunity for promotion in 1988. Mention should also be made of the tongue-in-cheek samizdat newsletters of the so-called Bradford City Liberation Front that were circulated in the Kop during the 1988/89 season. Among the demands of the BCLF was that Bradford residents supporting clubs other than BCAFC should be classified as civic traitors and fined 10% of their weekly income.
In 1987 we launched an offshoot of CG, a comic based around BCAFC with the title Bernard of the Bantams. Seven issues of Bernard were published between 1987 and 1989. One of the characters, Boring Stan the Avenue Fan – a middle-aged fan bitter at the loss of his club and the subsequent success of BCAFC – inspired a new nickname for BPA as ‘The Stans’. However in 1988 we published Avenue Fightback to celebrate and promote the newly reformed BPA club.
I took particular pleasure in the release of Glory, Glory, Leeds United in 1987, comprising 32 blank pages (everything you ever wanted to read about them), a publication that was featured in the national media. Words were simply incapable of expressing the feelings. My only regret was that it wasn’t produced as a toilet roll.
It is no mean achievement that CG has survived for so long. The magazine has a loyal, albeit declining readership but I question what is its purpose and niche in the internet era. For example the core readership remains middle-aged and there are relatively few younger supporters who buy the title. It also relies upon a declining number of contributors. The omens therefore are hardly encouraging. If it was my decision I would relaunch it as an annual yearbook or chronicle.
Much of the energy that was put into football ‘fanzines’ thirty years ago has gone into the subsequent development of supporters’ websites and the patronage of bulletin boards or online forums. Ironically CG can claim another first in that the website of the same name launched in 1996 was the first devoted to BCAFC. I was involved in helping to develop this and it attracted considerable interest from exiled Bradfordians around the world who were anxious to discover news about the third division play-off final at Wembley. This led to the formation of the Internet Bantams, the original BCAFC supporters’ internet discussion group in 1997. Since 1996, there has been a profusion of BCAFC dedicated websites.
Some people suggested that fanzines were to football what CAMRA was to beer. I cannot pretend it was what we set out to achieve and if anyone wants a deep and meaningful sociological analysis then the best bet is to ask people why they bought it. By 1988 we were selling around 2,000 issues of CG five times a season and I don’t subscribe to the notion that there was a ‘typical’ reader. Undoubtedly we exploited, if not encouraged, a demand for reading matter about BCAFC. We demonstrated that it was a viable proposition to produce and distribute your own publication and this most likely inspired others – much the same as the explosion of football related web sites. If there was a purpose or an objective it was for BCAFC to have the best. I certainly had no fluffy political aims.
First and foremost I am proud that CG was recognised as one of the best independent football supporter publications in the League and that it played its part in developing the camaraderie and bond between City fans in the wake of the fire disaster. CG acted as a hub for disparate groups of City supporters and in today’s internet era it is easy to overlook that it also provided a means by which exiled fans could remain in contact with BCAFC news. Not surprisingly a good proportion of readers were exiled subscribers. By promoting interest in the history of the club I believe that CG played a role in encouraging subsequent initiatives such as BANTAMSPAST.
During the last year or so I have been working on a new history of BCAFC as told through surviving ephemera and memorabilia, a history in objects no less. Again, what is striking is how the world has changed in the last 30 years. But it is not only the fabric of the stadium and its surroundings that has changed. Since 1986 there was been an acceleration of change in terms of merchandising, commercial activity and match day experience at Valley Parade. Much of that came from the rebuilding of the stadium but since 1992 there has also been the impact of Premier League soccer capitalism. We have taken that change for granted and it is only when you stand back and reflect on how things were back then that you realise the differences.
The legacy of CG has been inherited by the likes of this website. The modern day equivalent of CG’s creativity and off-shoot publications such as BERNARD of the BANTAMS is BANTAMS BANTER. In no small way BCAFC supporters have had an impact on the football world through different forms of media and I would argue that we have punched above our weight in terms of the size of the club.
What it boils down to is people who care sufficiently about BCAFC as an institution to commit the effort and thankfully there has been no shortage of those.
John was co-founder of CG in 1984 and editor from 1986-99. He has written and assisted with a number of publications about the club’s history and his book A HISTORY OF BCAFC IN OBJECTS is published later this year. Details of the book including the opportunity to subscribe can be obtained from glorious1911 at paraders.co.uk