By Jason McKeown
Earlier this week, the City Gent scooped the ‘Best Fanzine’ prize at a national awards ceremony hosted by the Football Supporters Federation. The Bradford City fanzine beat off stiff competition from publications devoted to Premier League clubs, and thus continued a fine Bantams’ supporter tradition of punching above our weight.
There are, clearly, many football clubs in England that have a much bigger fanbase than Bradford City; and they and others can make credible arguments of being the most passionate. But the way in which we City fans enthusiastically engage with our club, and the lengths many people go to, is something to be immensely proud of. It includes the way we support our team on a match day, and also away from the stands during the week.
The City Gent’s pioneering status is much celebrated around BD8. It is the oldest surviving fanzine in the land, launched in October 1984 by John Dewhirst and Brian Fox. It very quickly grew in popularity and by 1988 more than 2,000 copies were sold per issue (when City’s average gates were between 8,000 – 10,000). At a time when supporters had no voice, the City Gent and other fanzines had a major effect in shaping the way that football’s authorities and the media treated football supporters.
The fanzine movement of the 1980s is often compared to the punk movement a decade earlier; with many of the principles, such as the challenging of the establishment, common in both. But fanzines have long since out-lived that need to rebel, and evolved into an avenue for fans to have a louder say about their club and, crucially, to entertain fellow supporters. They have become breeding grounds for future writing talent, such as the City Gent’s former columnist, and now Newcastle United editor for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, Journal and Sunday Sun, Mark Douglas.
There is little glamour in the life of a fanzine editor, it seems, as there is no financial reward, and hours and hours of time and effort. Mike Harrison continues to ensure the City Gent’s existence, and it is quite extraordinary that the magazine is still a part of the Valley Parade scene. After all, common sense might suggest it should have gone the way of so many other football fanzines up and down the land, years ago. That is either folding, or finding a second life in the World Wide Web.
The internet itself has turned football fanzines into football e-zines, and here again Bradford City supporters have played a big part in this evolution – no one more so than Michael Wood and Boyfrombrazil.co.uk (BfB).
Launched in January 1999 at a time when most of us could only access the internet at the local library or an internet café (who, of that era, will ever forget the screeching sound of dial up?), BfB embodied the best virtues of City Gent’s well-informed opinions and of criticising constructively. And as the internet crossed over into our homes and is now even inside our phones, BfB was well placed to be the flag bearer of all City sites.
Back in those days, it was next to impossible for anyone but a web developer to build an e-zine, which is why Michael was so important. His background enabled him to build a functional and easy-to-use website, and his strong opinions meant that engaging content was plentiful on BfB.
Growing up supporting City in the early 00s was to read and to love BfB – it was my first port of call for City news, and I’m sure for lots of other people too. You think of monumental periods for the club, such as the administration of 2004 or Bryan Robson becoming City manager, and recall reading about it on BfB. It is a key part of those lasting memories. I read BfB to find out if my football club continued to exist, that’s how much trust we readers placed in it.
The development of blogging software has meant that anyone can set up their own blog these days; but like the City Gent BfB is still with us, and Michael continues to produce well-thought out articles and match reports. There are many replicas – imitation the sincerest form of flattery and all that. But Michael’s voice and dedication during the early years of the internet especially has left a huge imprint on many City supporters.
If John Dewhirst is something of the godfather of City supporter engagement, it is great that he has continued to push this cultural movement, alongside another former City Gent editor, David Pendleton. In 2003 – the club’s centenary year – they were both asked to produce an exhibition on the club’s history for the Bradford Industrial Museum. It proved so successful that the club ended up giving the pair space to set up a Bradford City museum – BantamsPast – in 2005.
It remained in the old club shop until the building was sold to the One in a Million charity in 2012, but BantamsPast lives on via displays inside the ground, a website, and books about the club. Somehow it is right and fitting that City supporters have taken ownership of preserving and promoting the club’s history, rather than the club itself.
If BantamsPast is all about looking back, Bantams Banter was another step into the future. Launched in 2010 during the dismal Peter Taylor season, the success of the podcast has proven astounding, amassing thousands of listeners, even non-City fans. The club’s rise and rise in 2012/13 particularly helped to give Dominic Newton-Collinge and Tom Fletcher a national platform. The pair appeared on national TV and radio, and won awards for their show. A superb achievement, after such a low key start. The level of success must have shocked them pair.
What makes it such a riveting podcast is the way that Dom and Tom successfully capture all the best things about being a City fan. That raw emotion of their recordings from games is something that cannot be replicated elsewhere, and certainly not in fanzines and e-zines. To listen again to the pair going crazy at Villa Park or Stamford Bridge is to be transported right back to those moments. They have recorded live from some of the biggest occasions in Bradford City’s modern history, and those recordings will be listened back to and enjoyed for decades.
(The City Gent and BfB achieve this too and their old articles remain wonderful to read. They help you to relieve the big moments but also the other occasions that you thought you’d forgotten, prodding your brain to unleash your own personal memories and to revel in nostalgia.)
What Mike, Michael, John, David, Dom and Tom share in common is a level of passion and dedication for Bradford City that goes beyond investing in a season ticket and going to every match. It is the hours spent unseen from everyone else, working hard on their labours of love – producing something that other fans can enjoy, simply because they themselves enjoy doing it.
And there are so many others too – the guys who run Shipley Bantams, the Friends of Bradford City, the Bradford Disability Supporters Club, Shelf Bantams, the East Birley Supporters Club, the Skipton Bantams, the Bradford City Supporters Trust. All are run by people who want to do more than just cheer on the team for 90 minutes every week. They succeed in fostering a community of supporters who all share this common love of Bradford City.
It all helps to create a feeling of intimacy that you get following Bradford City. A year ago David Pendleton summarised to WOAP, “In truth we may not be all that different from fans at a whole host of clubs, but the important thing is that WE think that we are different. It is the stories we tell to ourselves that can shape the culture of the football club.”
Indeed, we might not be unique when you compare City’s supporter activities to those fans of other clubs, but it is still largely uncommon. Some clubs don’t have a print fanzine, or even a dedicated supporter blog. Podcasts are a relatively new thing, and many will have borrowed some of Bantams Banter’s best ideas. Like the early years of the internet and websites, the technology is not there for everyone to make podcasts just yet.
Bradford City’s mid-size club status seems to work in breeding this type of engagement. It is not a small fanbase, where there would be little interest in fanzines, websites and supporters clubs. It also isn’t such big a club that attempting to establish such initiatives would be lost. As Dom of Bantams Banter told this site in 2013, “I think Bradford City fans are generally loyal towards fan-based media. If there is something Bradford City related, they get behind it. Look at all the fundraising for the Burns Unit, for example.”
Who knows what the future holds for fanzines and even blogs? With social media everyone now has their own platform, and there is a young generation of people who probably won’t read newspapers and magazines when they get older, as they simply won’t have the relevance that they still do today.
But whatever new technologies emerge and however we engage in our love of our football clubs, recent history suggests that Bradford City supporters will be right at the forefront of it.