By Jason McKeown
This is supposed to be a hugely exciting week for Bradford City, but after the fall out over the Reading tickets the mood is flat and the positive outlook is dented.
Season ticket holders are now almost fully sorted out with a ticket for the big FA Cup game, albeit many will not be sat in an area of the stadium they would have chosen. The club has gone to huge lengths to satisfy demand and rectify their colossal mistake. Importantly, they have shown humility too in apologising for the upset they unknowingly caused. Nevertheless, it may take some time for people to forgive and forget.
It all leaves a mood that is difficult to judge. The PR and marketing side of the club was impressive in terms of ramping up the mood prior to the FA Cup games against Millwall, Chelsea and Sunderland – a tone of excitement, positivity and even a bit of cheekiness that sat well. It remains to be seen if City can be so extrovert again over the next few days, or if such attempts would be met with incredulity or disdain.
After the successful display of claret and amber by the Kop prior to the Sunderland game, a new campaign will be unveiled on Tuesday. Perhaps tellingly, it will be Friends of BCFC who drive this initiative rather than the club, who are nevertheless behind it. Direct relations between Bradford City and season ticket holders are damaged, and it is hard to repair that in such little time. You fear that this might have a negative effect on the atmosphere around the Reading game. Reaching the semi finals is far from impossible, but has arguably been made more difficult by recent events.
Compounding the fall out has been the frustration that the scenario of ticketless season ticket holders wasn’t an improbable one to have envisaged. The criticism directed at the club isn’t an exercise in hindsight; many people warned the club but were not listened to. The free-for-all Sunderland ticket sales was tolerated but sat uneasily with people. The view was that City got away with it that time, but were setting themselves up for huge problems by repeating it.
They misjudged the mood of the fans, or perhaps more accurately underestimated their own achievements. The Bradford City board have done amazing things by keeping season ticket prices so low since 2007; in doing so they have built up a stronger fanbase which has grown further following the incredible endevours of the team over the past three seasons.
Of course, a home game with Reading was not guaranteed to be a sell out – but then it was never going to matter to most people whether City were lining up in the quarter finals against Wayne Rooney or Simon Cox. The story here is Bradford City and their stunning achievements – and everyone wants to see the next chapter.
It is also true that everyone – including season ticket holders – fails to appreciate just how deep our support runs. Season ticket and flexi-card holders are not the only people who turn up to games, over the course of the season there are many other people who might take in one or two matches, or exiles who live away but travel up when they can or go to away games. City have a sizeable London-based support for example, and if you ever go and watch the Bantams play South of Birmingham you will regularly see these people amongst the visiting fans.
The point is that we don’t merely have 12,000 Bradford City supporters, and there was always going to be huge, huge interest in the game. Especially when tickets were only £15 and BBC opted not to screen the game live on TV. And the debate about who deserved a ticket and who didn’t goes right to the soul of what it is to support a football club.
Whether you are a die-hard, casual, long-term, recent, exiled or lapsed – there is one huge aspect to the Reading game that is different to anything we’ve experienced. The sold out signs have never been put up so quickly. It has never been such a challenge to attend a Bradford City home game. The door has always been open to everyone. This is the first time it has been shut on people, and that is hard to take. We are not Manchester United supporters, where part of the fabric of supporting them is that it is extremely difficult to get a ticket. We are Bradford City, and we rarely do sell outs.
The club has to understand how not getting a ticket has left people feeling, and ensure that supporters who wanted to go this Saturday but won’t be in attendance are not lost. They matter.
As for the ticket sale strategy, a comparison should be made to the 2013 Burton play off away leg tickets. The club originally announced that tickets for this game would be placed on sale straight after the home leg had finished, with the good intention that it would save people an additional trip to Valley Parade to buy a ticket. Yet huge concerns were raised over the prospect of crazy scenes trying to queue orderly outside the ground at full time, or that people would have to leave the game early in order to get a good place in the queue. The club listened, and agreed on a different system instead. Everyone was happy.
“Feedback is a gift” as my manager always says (usually before criticising an article I have written). The club should have welcomed the feedback they received in between announcing the Reading ticket sales procedure and tickets going on sale, and they should have paid more consideration towards acting upon it.
The Burton u-turn happened under the regime of former CEO David Baldwin, whose name has cropped up often these past two weeks, usually at the end of a sentence that begins “This wouldn’t have happened under…”. No one can deny that ticket sales for big games ran much smoother under Baldwin, and the remarkable job he performed at Valley Parade was always going to prove a difficult act to follow.
The result is that Baldwin’s replacement, James Mason, has been made scapegoat and there have been calls for him to resign. The logic that he must bear responsibility is understandable but also unfair. It is very unlikely that he was solely culpable for the ticket strategy and failings against Chelsea, Sunderland and Reading. He did not, for example, set up the online ticket system that failed so badly – he inherited it. He would also not have been the only decision-maker over the unlimited sales decision that backfired so badly. It would be a Board decision, just as many of Baldwin’s decisions would have been undertaken with the help and approval of the Board.
And this is where the strategy needs to be considered. On the field, the club has progressed significantly over the past three seasons, but off it not much is different. The club employs a skeleton level of staff, with the mantra that as much money as possible must go onto the team instead. It is a commendable approach to have – and let’s be clear, we are now using hindsight – but to keep the club moving it needs more staff and greater resources.
One has to wonder what it feels like to be employed by Bradford City of late, for example in the ticket office. To be expected to work long hours sorting out the ticket chaos, and unfairly receiving anger and even abuse from upset fans over decisions that were not of their own making. It is fantastic that Mark Lawn pitched in with calling season ticket holders to sort their tickets out – and it really is fantastic he would do that – we’d surely all rather have a football club structure that doesn’t need its chairmen to have to resort to this.
The pitch and the online ticket system are two neglected areas that have come back to bite. The latter worked well in 2012, but anyone who works with websites (as I do in my day job) will tell you that they need continual investment to remain effective. At some point the club might have been told by the software company that they need to pay for an upgrade, and possibly elected not to do so. That is an assumption on my part, but a reasonable one to make.
Bradford City is no longer a club fighting to remain in the Football League, where it can ignore certain basics and ask fans to raise money for essential items. We have realistic ambitions of becoming a Championship club, yet seem to be lacking certain foundations. It’s not just about doing current things better, but having the resource to focus on other aspects that are forgotten or not even considered. And if you don’t believe that sort of vision is important, consider where City might be now without Nick Allamby. Before he arrived, no one demanded we needed a Head of Sports Science and Fitness. Now we cannot manage without one.
The other aspect that needs some self-reflection is the culture from the very top. The belated apology to fans over the ticket mess was very welcome, yet a note from the Supporters Board suggests it only happened because of their prompting. Apparently the Supporters Board had to instruct the club to use the word “sorry”. Massive kudos to the increasingly criticised Supporters Board for standing up to the club, but it doesn’t reflect well on Bradford City that they were apparently not going to apologise for the upset they caused.
Indeed, prior to last week, the only person employed by the club to apologise recently was Phil Parkinson – and tellingly that was for insulting board members. The upset over people queuing for hours in the snow for a Chelsea ticket apparently didn’t warrant the word “sorry”. Meanwhile, City Gent columnist John Watmough has highlighted disparaging comments made by director Roger Owen last November, in the programme, apparently aimed at former employee Steven Hawthorn-Emmett. Is it right that a director publically criticises someone who worked for the club for several years? What is to be gained from this level of pettiness?
No one doubts that the Board work very hard for the good of fans, and they can share credit in the turnaround of the club under Parkinson. But the fallout of late requires them to take a step back, look at how they can continue City’s upwards progress, and build a stronger, happier, sustainable football club. They cannot undo the pitch and Reading ticket mistakes, but have shown commendable vigour in fixing the damage. Now they need to evaluate how these mistakes happened, so they aren’t repeated.
These are amazing times for Bradford City; but it is not just the players and manager who need to ensure that these successes become the norm rather than the exception.