By Jason McKeown
You tolerate the minor irritations that come from supporting a club with a rapidly expanding fanbase. On a home match day it’s no longer as easy to park near Valley Parade. And if you fancy a pint on North Parade, prepare for a lengthy queue. But nothing sets the emotions running as high as the prospect of missing out on a big game.
Bradford City’s play off semi final second leg game with Fleetwood is one of the most emotive occasions yet. Highbury is the second smallest ground in League One, and the Cod Army are understandably being strict over the Bantams’ allocation. Demand vastly outstrips supply. On Friday afternoon, tickets for the away end go on sale for City fans. There are going to be an awfully lot of disappointed people.
From a ticket perspective, Fleetwood is the worst possible play off tie the Bantams could have landed. Only 70 miles away from Valley Parade, even the Sunday evening kick off doesn’t stop it being an accessible fixture. For weeks Scunthorpe have looked the likely play off opponents for City, but on the final day they leap-frogged Fleetwood to set up a play off tie with Millwall instead. Scunthorpe have given the Lions 1,500 tickets for the Glanford Park leg. It is heavily rumoured that Fleetwood have restricted City to just 800.
If you’re a priority card holder – like me – you have a chance of getting a ticket. But there are no guarantees. Although official figures have not been made public, it’s estimated the Bantams have around 1,200-1,800 priority card holders. The scheme rules listed on the official website even makes reference to how a game at somewhere like Fleetwood wouldn’t guarantee priority card holders a ticket. The bottom line is that not every priority card holder is going to get to go to Fleetwood.
The priority card scheme was originally introduced on the back of a very similar situation: the 2012/13 play off semi final game against Burton Albion. Just like this time, interest in an away ticket to Burton was considerably higher than the away allocation, and fans queued up overnight to secure a ticket. To have first dibs on getting a Burton ticket, the only qualifying criteria was to have a season ticket. There were around 10,000 season ticket holders that season. So it wasn’t a particular fair system to reward those who travelled all over the country watching City.
In exchange for a £10 fee (rising to £20 this season), the priority card allows you first shot at securing away tickets and would have guaranteed you a ticket to matches like Chelsea, Halifax and Reading in 2014/15, and last season’s second leg play off game at Millwall. It also ensured you could attend all the big league matches, such as the recent trips to Bury, Sheffield United and Rochdale. These were not games that sold out before non-priority card holders had a chance to buy, but it took away the risk you might miss out. You were at the front of the queue.
I’ve had a priority card every year since they were introduced. For some seasons it hasn’t been needed, on other occasions it’s come in handy. It is effectively an insurance policy. It doesn’t particularly reward the loyalist and hardcore of City supporters – I’ve personally only attended eight away games this season – but everyone could buy one.
Could City have a better system for recognising their most committed fans? Of course, but it would cost a lot of time and money and only really be needed on those rarest occasions. City have sold out 10 of their 23 away league games this season, but there was ample opportunity for every season ticket holder to have gone to all but the Sheffield United game. At plenty of away matches, fans can turn up and pay on the day. This makes it very difficult to keep accurate records of each supporter’s attendance.
Even introducing better record-keeping is laced with problems. Do you start it from next season, and therefore ignore past years of loyalty? Probably. But to do that would risk upsetting supporters who have followed the club through thick and thin for years, but who might not be able to go as often anymore.
And that is the crux of the debate. Bradford City could have implemented 100 different ways of selling tickets for the away leg and they’d still have angered part of the fanbase. There are plenty of supporters who travel home and away on a regular basis who don’t have a priority card, and they are now deeply unhappy. There are people who have supported the club for decades who believe they are entitled to go to Fleetwood ahead of more recently acquired supporters.
We all protect ourselves with our own self-interest. The best system is always the one we gain the most from. That’s not a criticism, it’s human nature. We all invest heavily in our love of this club. No one wants to feel like a second class supporter.
The bottom line is the club has to stick to its own rules and look after priority card members first and foremost; even if some people who get to go to Fleetwood on Sunday will be attending their first away game of the season.
Missing out on a game because you can’t get a ticket is alien to the fabric of supporting a club like Bradford City. I’ve been going to away games for 20 seasons and only once have I ever failed to get a ticket – the FA Cup defeat to Newcastle United in 1999. However tricky it has appeared at times, if you’re organised and committed enough you’ll have been able to get a ticket for every City away game. I am incredible fortune to say I was at Wolves in 1999, Leeds 2011, Aston Villa in 2013, and – yes – Burton Albion in that play off semi final.
We are not Leeds United or Manchester United, who sell out every away game and whose fanbase accepts the fact that only those who build up years of loyal attendance deserve the chance of getting tickets for big matches. Most of us have been part of City away followings totalling less than a couple of hundred at some dismal ground hours away from home. We are a big club but not that big. And that has fitted us nicely.
This is the most difficult away game to get a ticket that I’ve ever known. A lot of us are likely to face bitter disappointment. It’s going to hurt like hell if we miss out. It’s going to dent our pride a bit. And it’s going to damage our relationship with the club a little.
Which is not to criticise those charged with this impossible task. The club has been given an incredibly difficult hand, and are playing it the best they can. They have paused, devised a workable strategy and even gone to the extent of offering priority card holders a free pint, pie and place to watch the game at Valley Parade on TV this Sunday. They can’t do much more. My experience of attending the MK Dons beamback last August tells me it will be a good night in the McCall Suite. Well worth going to if you don’t make it to Highbury.
There are thousands of City fans who deserve to go to the Fleetwood away game. This is a club that at times over the last 20 years have been propped up by its fanbase, and muddled on through with the help of those of us who defied common sense by sticking with them. Big occasions like this don’t happen too often and days in the sun should be relished. But what will be will be.
If you are lucky to get a ticket to Fleetwood, good luck to you. Just make sure the team comes back with a place in the play off final booked. So we can embark on a trip to Wembley that everybody can be a part of.
Categories: The 2016/17 play offs