By Jason McKeown
You never quite get over your first football hero.
Mine was Edinho, way back 20 years ago. A Brazilian striker who looks-wise gave off a passable impression of his fellow countryman, Ronaldo. Blessed with wonderful skill, outrageous celebrations and a contagious smile. Edinho’s abilities were ridiculously exaggerated in my mind. His weaknesses blissfully ignored.
At times, supporting Bradford City and supporting Edinho were equally important in my mind. When Bradford City scored, I wanted it to be Edinho who got it. When others were picked ahead of him, I wanted them to fail. When in the famous 1998/99 promotion season players of far, far superior quality like Lee Mills, Robbie Blake and Gordon Watson began to lead the line, Edinho was cast onto the sidelines and I was gutted. By the end of that season Edinho was languishing in the reserves and eventually released. The club had moved on, I had new heroes like Stuart McCall, but it still felt crushingly sad when he left.
There’s an age when you’re a football fan that players are put on pedestal, and you obsess about them almost as much as the club you support. Getting older, hardened and more cynical, the relationship between fan and player changes. I absolutely loved each and every member of the 2012/13 History Makers side, but it was a different kind of affection. Gary Jones was the only player older than me, and the limitations and mortality of that squad was as clear as its strengths.
But two decades on after Edinho, this season I got to watch the joy of player worshipping through somebody else’s eyes. I took my daughter Georgina to her first Bradford City game on Boxing Day. It all went better than I dared hoped, and by the end of the season had attended seven matches – her one and only defeat the play off final against Millwall.
And she quickly latched onto Mark Marshall as her hero. The heartbeat of the team, and the one player above everyone else who was getting you off the edge of your seat, the appeal was obvious. Marshall darted past players, drove forward with pace, and would invariably lay on a chance to score. Such players are usually loved and hated in equal measure. But through non-cynical, three-year-old eyes, they are superheroes.
The second game was took Georgina too was away to Northampton, where Marshall came off the bench and ran the game. He smashed home an equaliser from an angle after dribbling the ball through a tight spot. The noise of the celebration initially scared Georgina, but ultimately helped to build up the appeal of going to watch Bradford City. She was also at Gigg Lane in April where she had a great view of Marshall firing City in front, and was present for the play off spot-sealing win over Wimbledon where the Jamaican was once again on the scoresheet.
And so in between dressing up as Disney Princesses at home, Georgina would pretend that she was Mark Marshall. We go to kids’ football training in Keighley on Saturday mornings, where she proudly sports the white Bradford City shirt with Marshall’s number 7 on her back. And because she loves Mark Marshall she loves Bradford City. And next season she has a season ticket.
So, erm, yeah.
Breaking today’s news to Georgina won’t be easy. Expecting her to understand it right now is impossible. The difficult talk will invariably have to wait until the first game she goes to next season. “Where’s Marshall?” will be the inevitable question. I’ll be sure to have some comfort chocolate or something on standby to help her deal with the shock.
(A friend of mine last week had to tell her 5-year-old, whose hero was Billy Clarke, about the Irishman’s move to Charlton, and she burst into tears. Karl Robinson, you have a lot to answer for.)
You never get over your first football love, although some things don’t get easier with age. News of Marshall’s departure to Charlton Athletic today makes your heart sink. Another really big Bradford City player from last season out of contract. Another sad departure. It had all gone very quiet on the Marshall’s future front, to the point where hope was allowed to build that he might stay. Stuart McCall’s future resolved, the appeal of working again with a manager who has revived his career was one that we hoped would sway Marshall into re-signing for the Bantams.
There is anger from some towards at the club. Right now, less than a month after the season ended in crushing disappointment at Wembley, things don’t look very clever. Several departures and at least two more first teamers are likely to follow. No incoming signings yet, and all that off the field uncertainty.
Yet in reality the loss of Marshall was expected. With his family settled in London a desire to return to the capital, in order to be nearer them, is completely understandable. Whilst moving to a League One rival is hardly ideal, it shouldn’t be forgotten that last summer City were in for Josh Magennis, but couldn’t compete with the wages that Charlton were prepared to offer the Northern Ireland striker. Charlton might be having much bigger off the field problems, but clearly still have plenty of financial clout. City did what they could.
It is a good move for Marshall, and few of us will begrudge him for it. If Karl Robinson manages the player as successfully as McCall, expect the Addicks to be a strong contender for promotion. Meanwhile McCall and City have yet another big hole to fill. The recruitment is going to be absolutely vital over these next few weeks, in order for the club to compete again.
For City fans this is an unusual summer. Sizeable levels of player departures are not a new phenomenon, but the reasons behind the high turnover this time around are very different. Over the last few years we’ve largely waved goodbye to players because their value to the club has receded. City were leaving them behind, rather than the other way around. Nahki Wells is the only player of recent times to depart City for a club in the league above. Up until now, he was the rarest of examples of a player whose ability had outstripped the club, and who couldn’t be kept hold of.
This summer, we’re seeing more instances of players choosing to leave City, rather than City choosing to let them go. And that is understandably disconcerting. Because whilst the Bantams were very quickly stronger for releasing the likes of Gary Jones, Garry Thompson, Nathan Doyle, Billy Knott and Alan Sheehan, right now they look much weaker for losing Marshall, Billy Clarke, James Meredith and, in all likelihood, Rory McArdle and Tony McMahon. No wonder it feels like we are going backwards.
Yet this is not the time for anyone to panic. There is a long way to go in this window, and it makes no sense to judge the club and owners until we see the calibre of the players who are brought in. Back in January there was some anxiety – from this site as much as anywhere – when James Hanson was sold to Sheffield United. But Charlie Wyke was subsequently signed, and quickly proved what a good investment he is. The logic behind cashing in on Hanson was eventually there to see.
Marshall leaving is sad, but not a shock. The club will be disappointed, but must surely have started to look at plan B. Let’s wait and see. Afford Greg Abbott and the transfer committee patience to bring in quality, and to use the budget wisely.
Right now, it seems scarcely believable that City can repeat, never mind better, last season’s heroics. But this time last year we were saying exactly the same thing – and looked how that turned out.
The club has an incredibly strong recruitment record over the last 12 months. If they can keep it going this summer, there is no cause to write off the future. And every reason to believe that a team of new heroes can be created – one that we can all get behind, from the oldest supporter to the very, very young.