By Jason McKeown
A former Bradford City player or manager sat in the crowd is a rare but not unheard of occurrence. At the 2013 play off final victory, Jamie Lawrence was sat on the row behind me at Wembley. Last season, Kyel Reid was amongst visiting supporters for City’s victory at Leyton Orient. At Villa Park in January 2013, Peter Jackson and Archie Christie were somewhere in the City crowd (not sat together, of course).
Wayne Jacobs is present for every home game, Darren Moore has been spotted before, and for a time Paul Jewell was a regular. Joe Brown has a season ticket in the Kop.
For the most part, ex-Bantams in the crowd are either unnoticed or warmly welcomed. Saturday’s visit to Deepdale was different, however, as Nahki Wells took advantage of a blank Championship weekend to watch his former club. Wells rocked up 20 minutes into the game and sat amongst the City fans. He was moved to another area of the stadium just before half time. For those 25 minutes he received what could be most optimistically be described as a mixed reception; one that evidently left him feeling uncomfortable.
The first moment most of us realised he was there came a few minutes after Rory McArdle had put City 1-0 up, and a positive Wells chant was aired. As it included fans pointing in a certain direction, almost everyone stood up to see what was going on. Is that really him sat over there?
Soon after came the abuse. Derogatory chants about the Bermudian and his choice of employer, songs about what he likes to do to dogs. The ‘W’ insult, the money-grabber taunts, the Judas jibes. People were stood up and pointing at him as they chanted unwelcoming things. Eventually a positive chant was aired again, which almost everyone joined in with. Still, it all left a bad taste.
I don’t know Nahki personally, but I have spoken to people who do and also observed the striker stumble through a supporter Q+A session in Cullingworth. He is a clearly a shy, introverted person, who would not have enjoyed or encouraged such attention. If he really felt he had to move at half time, that is very depressing. Some fans on Twitter and Claret and Banter have bragged about the way they taunted him. It doesn’t sit right with me at all. I don’t understand such nastiness.
Of course, Wells is not the innocent victim in all of this. He chose to move to one of City’s fiercest rivals – a decision which limited the transfer fee the Bantams’ received. There are rumours that something was agreed between Town and Wells behind the scenes, and an allegation that he faked an injury. You cannot escape the fact that Nahki spoiled his own legacy, even though his reasons for moving to Huddersfield – when assessed dispassionately – are understandable.
Yet it still haunts his old club. Just like “Should Colin Todd have been sacked in 2007?” or “Was being in the Premier League worth it?” – Wells’ transfer will be debated for several years. The club made some effort to pin the blame on the player, despite the fact they were clearly desperate to sell him. Attempts to replace Wells have not gone to plan and it is a story repeated up and down the land. As WOAP writer Alex Scott wrote, by selling your best player you are “trading away a pound coin for four twenty pence pieces and some shrapnel. They may be worth the same on the surface, but you win leagues with pounds, not pennies”. See also Tottenham 2013/14 after Gareth Bale, or Liverpool 2014/15 post-Louis Suarez.
There is a pain still raw in how Nahki left Valley Parade, and in truth we miss him. Whenever I see him scoring on the Football League Show, my heart sinks at remembering just what we have lost. Wells should go down as one of the club’s most celebrated modern day players, but that is far from the case. Still, I’d bite his hand off if he ever offered to come back.
But no matter how much controversy will reign over his exit, Wells will ultimately be remembered fondly. Robbie Blake – routinely booed on subsequent returns to Valley Parade after he left in 2001 – is a great example of how wounds do heal. Blake received a great reception on his recent return to Valley Parade for a charity game, and rightly so. When we think of Blake we recall his jinxing runs and stunning goals wearing claret and amber, not the fact he once wore Burnley and Leeds shirts. There is also Peter Jackson who was loved, became public enemy number one and who is now highly though of by many.
Blake and Jackson will never be top tier heroes of the club. They will never have a suite or a stand named after them, nor will either appear on many supporters’ top 5 player lists. But they are still warmly regarded for their contributions to the cause.
And that will ultimately happen with Wells, even if it takes another 20 years. The upset over his exit can’t outlive or eradicate the amazing memories he provided.
Of his thunderbolt goal against Rochdale, of his amazing partnership with James Hanson, of his brilliant hat trick at Northampton to keep us in League Two, of his 26 goals during the History Makers season, of his goals during the League Cup miracle against Burton and Aston Villa, of his vital intervention in the play off semi finals, of his clinching goal in the 2013 play off final, of his blistering start to life in League One, of his superb hat trick against Coventry, of 76 starts for the club (plus 36 sub appearances) and 53 goals.
He was loved, he was lauded, he was a hero during some of the club’s greatest times. For that he will remain in our affections, even though to some he is hate figure right now.
It is very sad that Nahki didn’t have a great afternoon on Saturday, but one day he will be able to sit with City fans and be warmly welcomed for doing so.
The 2033/34 season is just 19 years away…