By Jason McKeown
19 managers, six owners, four promotions, three trips to Wembley, two periods of administration. One horrific tragedy. For both happy and painfully sad reasons, the past 30 years of Bradford City Football Club must rank as its most eventful.
And all of these moments and more have been diligently captured within the pages of the fanzine The City Gent, which – 30 years ago this October – was first launched by John Dewhirst and Brian Fox. 195 issues published and still not out, the magazine remains a part of the fabric of Bradford City culture; inspiring others along the way and continuing to carry both relevance and weight. The City Gent is the longest-running fanzine in the country, which is no small achievement in view of how the the world has transformed around it.
Back in 1984, the fanzine movement was still in its infancy and would go on to have a significant influence in the way that the sport of football has evolved. At a time of rampant hooliganism and fast-declining attendances, fanzines provided a platform and a voice for more sensible supporters to share their views on everything: from the recent form of the team’s number 9, to the competency of the chairman – even into politics.
Within a couple of years of The City Gent’s birth, the then-Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was attempting to implement a football supporter ID system; and the negligent way in which football fans were routinely treated came to a head during those terrible events at Hillsborough in April 1989. Fanzines offered proof that not all football fans were violent yobs, at a time when it was convenient to generalise them all in this way.
But more importantly, fanzines became a unifying place of sharing opinion amongst a community of supporters, who were fragmented through having no shared lines of communication. Today, technology and social media allows any Bradford City supporter to have their say – and be heard – on the club: from the merits of the manager to the price of pies. Back then, there was nothing. Nor were there many opportunities to even read about your football team, apart from the Telegraph & Argus – which at the time favoured Leeds United over Bradford City – and a woeful matchday programme.
The City Gent owned the Bradford City fan printing press for the first 15 years of its existence. It was the place to read your fellow supporter’s viewpoint, and to rally behind campaigns or ideas that you felt strongly about. The City Gent – and other club fanzines – challenged club owners like never before, giving supporters a power that we simply take for granted now. There were fall-outs and controversies for sure, but fanzines couldn’t be ignored.
After taking over as chairman of Bradford City, Geoffrey Richmond was said to have carefully poured over every word of every City Gent edition (going back to the very first one) – and continued to read new issues cover to cover. He certainly reacted badly to The City Gent highlighting just how much he and other directors were paying themselves in dividends, and the growing negativity towards his efforts, as the fall from the Premier League began. Even the current Valley Parade hierarchy has occasionally been upset by The City Gent’s output.
The sense of power and credibility that glowed from The City Gent’s iconic yellow front covers was still very strong when I myself began reading the magazine. It was 1998, and though I had seen The City Gent on sale inside the ground often, I had never plucked up the courage to approach one of those strange-looking men selling it. As rites of passage in life go this was a timid one, but it felt a big deal to me when I finally found the nerve to hand a passing seller £1 in exchange for a copy of CG75. I was blown away by what I read, and have not missed an issue since.
Even in 1998, The City Gent stood out for the fact it was the only widespread platform for City fans’ views. The world wide web was slowly taking off and the Bantams did have a web presence, but the internet was only something you could access in your library – I certainly didn’t know anyone who had it in their home. Even mobile phones were a strange exotic item owned only by businessmen. It was a completely different world in how we communicated, and that meant the importance of The City Gent was far higher than it could ever hope to be again.
Before reading The City Gent, I had no idea if my own views on the team and the players were shared by anyone else, nor was I aware of several other topical issues and talking points surrounding the club. I remember keenly looking for mentions of players I especially cared about, desperately hoping to read praise for their efforts rather than criticism. The weight of opinion mattered so much. It was a powerful magazine.
David Pendleton was the editor and I loved his forthright, considered views that always seemed to come down on the right side of positivity. John Watmough’s Counsel and Criticism column was essential reading (and, indeed, remained so until recently). Mark Douglas – now a very talented North East journalist, pitched into daily battle with Mike Ashley and Alan Pardew – was another regular writer. Richard Halfpenny, Chris Armstrong, Mark Neale, the fictional ‘E-Block Ernie’ – the magazine was full of edgy, striking content that was laced with humour. Home games when the new edition came out were huge events.
The decline of Bradford City, post-millennium, was mirrored by The City Gent. In 2004, the football club was in its second period of administration in 18 months, and the plug was also about to be pulled on the loss-making City Gent – just shy of its twentieth birthday. Mike Harrison stepped into the breach and has remained editor of The City Gent for the last 10 years. One third of the magazine’s history is down to his unwavering commitment.
The City Gent’s fall in popularity was evidently a direct result of the internet’s rise and rise – enabling communication and interaction to take place more instantly. Message boards took off, allowing everyone to have their say. Sites like Boyfrombrazil.co.uk upheld the best principles of City Gent, only they were bang up to date. Soon after would come the birth of social media and podcasts, which has only added to the problems for the print industry in general. Magazine and newspaper circulations have fallen dramatically, globally, and all have been forced to either embrace online or fold completely. Adapt or die.
These days, rather than having sole proprietorship, The City Gent is one of a number of different forums or platforms for Bradford City supporters to share their views. The #bcafc hashtag on Twitter, Facebook, Bantams Banter, BoyfromBrazil, Width of a Post, Claret and Banter, the T&A message board, et cetera, et cetera. The birth of the Bradford City Supporters Trust and even the club-led Supporters Board are an indirect result of The City Gent, also.
There are now a wide range of places to air your opinion and to read others – when there was once The City Gent or nothing. These and others have taken The City Gent’s power of speech, and left the magazine lacking its own unique voice.
And the challenge for the fanzine is remaining topical and engaging, when other avenues can provide instant coverage of events. Even daily newspapers often find themselves out of date within a matter of hours, so what chance does The City Gent – which takes around two weeks to be designed, printed and placed on sale – have in competing? There have clearly been strong attempts to make every City Gent as up-to-date as possible; but if anything, these efforts have reinforced the fact that it isn’t.
But it doesn’t need to be up-to-date, to still be successful. In this era of instant reaction and everything being about the here and now, offering something different – that is more reflective and considered – would stand out and appeal.
It is no coincidence that the best two City Gent issues of recent years were special editions focused on Stuart McCall leaving as manager (with exclusive Stuart interview) and the Swansea League Cup Final. They provided a terrific snapshot of the mood and events of that time, which are enjoyable to look back and reflect upon.
The City Gent can provide in-depth considered comment from a period of the season, even if it is not bang up-to-date, and it could still make for an essential read. Taking you back to the mood of that time and allowing some retrospective thoughts to be added to something that the social media-driven Bradford City community has too quickly moved on from.
It would be great to read original, reflective reports of recent games, for example. A yearbook idea has also been mentioned, which might be worth further thought.
Ultimately, the City Gent’s 30th birthday is something to proud of as Bradford City supporters. It is one of the main things that the club is known for, and – at a time when even some of the most well-known football e-zines are giving up – its continuing place in the modern era is an outstanding achievement. Could it survive another 10, 20 or 30 years? Probably not (there is no obvious successor to Mike, meaning the magazine’s future is probably dependent on his ongoing dedication). And even then, evolution might be required to stay relevant and influential.
Whatever its future direction, the 30-year period during which The City Gent has been sold around Valley Parade has been a comforting constant. It would genuinely be sad if there were ever a day that this was no longer the case.
If you like what Width of a Post do, please vote for us in the Football Blogging Awards.