Jason McKeown, 35
Later this year I’ll reach a personal milestone of my time supporting Bradford City – my 20th anniversary. I’m 35, so I wish I could say I have followed the club longer. As a kid I didn’t care for football, only finally getting hooked after watching the 1994 World Cup. There was no obvious route into club football so I took the depressingly obvious one: I became a Manchester United supporter for three years. A glory hunter. A fraud.
It was ultimately unfulfilling, and so when I happened to attend Bradford City vs West Bromwich Albion on Saturday 1 November 1997, my life was to significantly change. For two decades, I have travelled all over the country watching the Bantams. It dominates my life, from attending matches to running this website, and it impacts on loved ones too. The wife was eventually converted into a Bradford City supporter. My daughter has now attended six games this season and hero-worships Mark Marshall. When I went to Sheffield United away without her a couple of weeks ago, she was not happy with me and ended up watching it on TV at home. She sings Bradford City songs in the bath.
Back in those early days, as a teenager supporting Bradford City was a passport to a new world of independence, belonging and excitement. My parents disliked football, so I never had that go-with-your-dad bit. At an age where I was starting to hang out with the wrong crowd, supporting City became an all-consuming pastime. Everything else was of secondary importance.
Looking back, it’s clear that I wasn’t alone. Between 1996 and 1999, crowds at Valley Parade tripled. The club went on an incredible ride up the leagues, tasting top flight football for the first time in 77 years. And it was an affordable journey to be part of. My student season ticket for the glorious 1998/99 season set me back only £66. My Premier League season ticket the year after was only just over £100. A lot of money, when my part time job only paid £75 a week, but City were accessible to me and others.
So the club was able to lure away the glory hunters on their own doorstep, and turn a generation of plastic Premier League supporters into City fans, following their own team from their own city. When I moved to Sunderland to attend University in 2000, the Bantams had just drawn 1-1 with Arsenal at the beginnings of a second season in the Premier League. A new team had been expensively assembled, crowds were high, and the Valley Parade main stand was being extended. I genuinely feared that – come the end of my degree – I would not be able to get a ticket to watch City. That they were leaving me behind.
Of course it all went wrong very quickly, and the commitment of many of those new fans was found to be wafer-thin. Between 2001 and 2007, City were relegated three times, went through the trauma of administration twice, and crowds more than halved.
It was, to put it mildly, a difficult period. Supporting Bradford City was a testing experience, as year after year the situation seemed to get worse. Dropping into League One in 2004 felt like it would be a temporary set back, overcome in a couple of seasons. Instead, City were relegated again in 2007, and the idea of playing in the bottom tier seemed implausible for anyone under the age of 30. Again, we thought it would be a short stay. If someone had told us it was going to take six years to escape the swamp of League Two…
But of course, something remarkable happened in the same year City fell into the basement league. Season ticket prices were slashed in half, as Julian Rhodes vowed to make football affordable once again. Crowds grew despite City’s on-the-field woes. The glory hunters and the plastics found the true soul of football. Rhodes and Mark Lawn committed to the plan even though another relegation looked more likely than a promotion. Finally in 2012, success has returned and the club is reborn.
In time, we might look back on 2007 as one of the most important years in the club’s history. Because now, when the playing side of things is so well-run, and City have improved league positions year-on-year, the fanbase has grown in such a sustainable, long-term way it would largely survive a few barren years. The club’s long history shows success comes in cycles that don’t last forever; and on the downwards trajectory that follows, crowds have dwindled fast. It could be different this time. The days of 6,000 average crowds could be history forever. Perhaps.
As a supporter since the 1990s, the last few years have been a magical, exhilarating reward for keeping the faith. There’s a long, long list of Bradford City disappointments and miserable moments that have characterised the last 20 years, and times when you questioned why you bothered. It has never entered my mind to stop going; but if we only knew in 2000 of the 12 years of misery we were about to endure, we might have had second thoughts.
For those of us who stuck with the club through thin and thinner, there is greater perspective to enjoy these times. This might be the third time in five years that Bradford City have qualified for the play offs, but it’s only the fifth time we’ve ever achieved it. To go a season unbeaten at home is something we never thought was possible. Considering only five years ago we were sweating over staying in the Football League, the prospect of being this close to the play offs is tantalising.
No matter what has been happening on and off the field, I’ve always been deeply proud to be a Bradford City fan. This season especially, I’m bursting with pride and excitement. The McCall factor, the fact my daughter loves it, and the way the crowd, players and managers feed off each other. I have lots of friends who follow the club. We are a community. I feel like I am part of something special, and I’m not sure supporters of other clubs can say the same.
In the 80s the club had a superb rise up the leagues, before a lack of ambition ultimately ripped up the momentum. In the 90s, the climb was even more dramatic – from my point of view, being at Wolves on Sunday 9 May 1999 is something I will cherish to the day I die – but then it was over-ambition that killed everything. This time around, the club is still on the incline and what’s thrilling is we could have a lot further to go.
Promotion this season would mean the world, simply because the perspective of 20 years following City has shown nothing is ever guaranteed, and the good days are out-weighed by the bad, dull and indifferent. Whatever happens over these new few days, they’ll be remembered for decades to come. We are living through history, living up to the right values, and in the midst of an adventure that – young and old – we should cherish.
Katie Whyatt, 19
I fell into Bradford City during that prickly period known as the ‘lost decade’. I went purely because, at nine, ten years old, I was eligible for a free season ticket. My first game was a 1-1 draw with Macclesfield Town, and there were 13,401 people there, and I had good fun. Truthfully, I enjoyed a lot of my first two seasons at City, and the names on that list – Paul Heckingbottom, Mark Bower, David Wetherall – are met with that kind of fondness you’ll always feel toward your ‘first’. Admittedly, as time went on, that relationship with City changed slightly – but, back then, as a kid, things were, for the most part, OK.
Growing up, the notion of City having once been in the Premier League felt so far removed from my experiences that I couldn’t begin to be covetous of it – I’m not sure I ever really tried to be. To put my experiences into some sort of timeline, I’d turned two a grand total of two days before the dawn of the 1999/00 season. There are parts that are fathomable, if inconceivable – I’ve seen that Paul Scholes volley on Premier League Years at least half a dozen times (though Dwight Yorke going in goal in the warm-up is news to me).
But they’re great stories, and I still ask my uncle to tell me the same ones over and over. One anecdote sees him dress as Elvis for Wolves in ’99, give his jacket to Peter Beagrie for the lap of honour, realise afterwards that he probably needs said jacket and ring the club’s reception for Geoffrey Richmond to answer with the immortal words, “It’s in my office – I’m looking at it now. We’ve had it dry cleaned for you.”
But it’s the intangibles I could never get a handle on. My Grandma tells a story of going to a fish market in Bradford during the promotion season and everyone being clustered around radios, all glued to the game, all cheering. Around the same time, the Bulls were a dominant force in Super League. We talked about it last week and her words were, “The whole city was buzzing with sport.” For people of my birth year – born after Italia ’90, born after Euro ’96 – we can imagine, if not genuinely appreciate with any real nostalgia or sentiment, football having that kind of cultural traction. At the risk of sounding like a charity appeal, we had pictures of other people’s open top buses and, ahem, the Iceland game. To an extent, City are bringing it back now – more on that later – but on that scale, and for it to be so local, too? At nine, I’d never have been able to comprehend that kind of impact.
The world turns, I grow up, and the inevitable happens to City’s house on the sand. Smash-cut to 2007 – eight years, three relegations and two administrations down the line – and someone, somewhere – my Grandma, by all accounts – suggests my mum take my brother and me down to Valley Parade. We’re nine at this point, a couple of weeks shy of ten, both football-mad, both eligible for free under 11s season tickets. My mum agrees, unaware that 24 cheap days out will become a life-defining, career-shaping obsession for her nine year old daughter.
Even now, I’m surprised at the clarity with which I can recall moments from that first day, that first season. The goody-bags. The introduction. This is Stuart McCall. He is a legend here. He’s going to get City back up.
I remember being sat in the car, and being told. There was a fire at Valley Parade. Stuart McCall’s dad was injured in the fire, and he went to visit people in hospital. This is the memorial. Look at the names and the ages. You need to know. On Boxing Day, City welcomed Lincoln City, then managed by Peter Jackson, to Valley Parade for the first time since 1985, and Barry Conlon scored in the last minute. To support Bradford City is to respect that history, to hear those stories. I always have, and I always will.
To say things didn’t go to plan is to probably undersell the next six years slightly, but there was never a question of leaving them behind. A light switch had been flicked, and it would wax and wane but never blow out. Away from the cocktails and glitter of the Premier League, this was home, with all its relative highs and all its myriad shortcomings. At nine, ten, I could feel the peaks and troughs, the shift in mood after losing 3-0 to Accrington Stanley. The hyperbole, the ego, burst like a balloon stabbed with a pin. I rooted for Stuart with a fierce intensity, even though I’d never seen him play. I liked what he stood for, liked who he was.
You don’t need me to fill in the next four years in great detail, because we lived through it, so let’s park that particular bus for the time being and leap to the fact that, me included, there were five City fans in my year at school and four on my football team. It wasn’t a fashionable thing to be.
The cup run changed things overnight, it seemed. That was the closest I’d come to witnessing the cultural impact of the Premier League years. It feels pointlessly late to talk about a Phil Parkinson Renaissance at this point, four years after it happened, but one of the most striking things about 2013 was that people actually wore City scarves to school. This was after a period where wearing a City shirt on non-uniform day had been a bit, y’know, risky, an exploit to be done at your own peril. People spoke about City for the first time with genuine interest. Those four or five of us got an identity. Got all the messages after Chelsea.
I had an emotional investment in that History Makers team that, looking back, wasn’t particularly healthy. But it was the first time – McCall aside – that you had something there that understood. You don’t ask for much, as a football fan, and you can reel off a litany of clubs either (repeatedly) failed by the EFL, (repeatedly) failed by their owners and, probably as a partial consequence, failed by their players. It’s striking here that ‘understanding what it means to be Bradford City’ has felt like such a prominent foundation of City’s strategies, at all levels, in the past four years. A managerial change, an ownership change, yet that tenet remains. It’s a cultural component, not a ship that passed in the Parkinson night.
At 19 now, I can navigate football with an emotional distance I simply didn’t have at 15, when, I guess, *repressed* pride frothed out about eight times a season. It comes with age, with work commitments cutting my number of games, with doing more things on other teams at other times. I can switch on and off easily, rightly or wrongly. I won’t have a childhood hero like Gary Jones again, because, for one, I’m not a child, and that kind of fondness only happens at that age (she says, knowing full well what Jones inspired in people three times that). As much as you want to be professional, though, there are times when you kind of have to appreciate a miracle for what it is, and Gary Jones was the beating heart of a side that did the impossible.
But the point is that this is still a special team. For someone five years younger than me (or, frighteningly, ten), this will be their History Makers team, and we all know how that feels. I do now, anyway, albeit it took me a few years to find one. Every fan of every club has ‘their’ team, that iteration that snaps them back to the glory days of a Kop in ’99 or a terrace in ’80-odd. You can see people, now, falling for this club as you do fall for a football club: gradually, mindlessly, then something happens along the way at some ungiven point and you’re there for life – for better or worse.
For Stuart McCall to have been involved in three of the four great ‘ages’ of following City gives him a weird ‘fun for all ages’ tag that no one else really occupies. Say ‘the McCall era’ and what are you actually referring to? The next few weeks are big, but the bigger picture remains. McCall has grown up, and so have I, and he knows how the game works. There’s a steel and understanding about this team that, whatever happens, will remain, and, in some senses, that’s one of the great milestones of McCall’s – and this club’s – careers and identities within my lifetime.
Categories: The 2016/17 play offs