By Jason McKeown
“At least we still have a football club to support.”
For a couple of years at least, those words were heard on a regular basis at Valley Parade. They usually coincided with a defeat, or in response to dropping to a less-than-inspiring positioning in the league table. It was a philosophical stance to take. An acceptance and understanding of the bigger picture.
Exactly 10 years ago last week, Bradford City exited administration after spending nearly all of 2004 in this financial state of limbo. It was the second spell of administration in a couple of years, and on more than one occasion the situation looked terminal for the Bantams. During one particular July 2004 morning, fans gathered outside Valley Parade fearing that the 101-year-old club was about to be wound up. City survived this closest of calls, and a route was mapped out for exiting administration by the end of the year. They’ve sailed close to the wind on a couple of occasions since, but thankfully there has been no third administration.
Not that a decade-long spell largely in the black has proven a case of onwards and upwards. The situation got worse before it got better. And even now, the legacy of Geoffrey Richmond’s £36 million debt continues to impact on the club.
In 2004/05, we accepted everything with good grace. We enjoyed the highs that little bit more, knowing how close we had come to an alternative existence of empty Saturday afternoons. Like someone who has endured a health scare but, from surviving it, suddenly develops a new-found respect for life, the air tasted good. And moments such as victories over Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield were all the more special.
“At least we still have a football club to support.” But in time, expectations inevitably rise. Soon, a sense of disappointment returned regarding the club’s continued struggles on the field. And – understandably – the mantra of being grateful merely to have a club was criticised by those leading the disgruntlement. How long can we simply be grateful to at least “still have a football club to support”? At what point does this turn into an excuse for accepting mediocrity? To have a football club to support is to have ambition to achieve things and to be entertained. It can’t just about settling for seeing out your days losing at home to Hartlepool and Port Vale.
A year after exiting administration, then-manager Colin Todd was already under pressure over his team’s failure to mount a credible promotion push. Another year of standing still later, and Todd’s car was vandalised after another abject home defeat. He wouldn’t last another five weeks. A change was demanded and made, but it doesn’t lead to improvement. Instead, there is relegation from League One in 2007. The issues were not blameable on one man after all.
There is more misery to come, as City spend the next six years struggling in the basement division – often looking more likely to fall into non-league than return back up the pyramid. Club legend Stuart McCall is exactly the right man to galvanise the club and he gives the place a major lift, but the third coming doesn’t work out. Mark Lawn’s investment makes City more competitive, but they still punch below their weight. Peter Taylor is best forgotten. Peter Jackson looks beaten all too quickly.
“At least we still have a football club to support” – but is it worth all of this? Did we all raise all that money to save the club in 2004, just so we could endure the pain of relegation battles, wretched home defeats and Darren Holloway? Do we enjoy still having a club to support, when ‘support’ means booing the players routinely? Saturdays might have felt empty without Bradford City in our lives, but on many occasions they would have proven much less painful too.
Then the decline bottoms out and the bounce back is spectacular. 2012/13 – what more can you say? The best campaign ever, in many people’s eyes. Certainly the best season this side of the millennium. A wide range of dizzying highs are experienced. The memories will be treasured forever. It is the biggest of paybacks for keeping the faith. This is why we saved our club. This is why we continued to follow them in the darker hours.
10 years on from exiting administration, so much about Bradford City is transformed and yet many of the fundamentals remain unchanged. In December 2004, the Bantams sat seventh in League One, in a season where better-run clubs would eventually fill the top six places. In 2004, City struggled to win matches at home; leaned heavily on the loan market; had to pay rent to play inside their own stadium; appeared short of the financial strength to get back into the Championship.
The current situation is almost identical.
If in December 2004, it felt like the club had fallen to its lowest ebb, there’s something depressing about the fact that much of the subsequent decade has been spent struggling simply to get back to that 2004 level. The major difference in 2014 is that Bradford City are almost entirely debt-free. They have become a more profitable business. Yet still, it feels as though we are close to hitting our head on a glass ceiling. That promotion looks a tall order within these constraints. The potential is there, and that will soon lead to a creeping up of expectations within supporters. But the vision and the financial clout is lacking. At times, this is hard to accept.
But no matter what has happened over the past 10 years, and whatever lies in store, there is one statement that remains relevant. One that from time-to-time still needs to be dug out, to remind ourselves of how bad it really could have been.
“At least we still have a football club to support.”