Why life in League One is not all bad

Image by Thomas Gadd

By Jason McKeown

Just as it’s an unfortunate part of human nature to slow down to look at car crashes, there’s some claret and amber-tinged rubber necking taking place right now over the plight of Bolton Wanderers.

The Trotters are having a really tough time adapting to life back in the Championship. No league wins so far. And a recent run of six defeats in a row, without so much as scoring a goal, that set a new club record. They are yet to pick up a point at home. The former Bradford City manager, Phil Parkinson, is facing an increasingly difficult time from his supporters. He is significantly hampered by the club’s ongoing transfer embargo that severely restricts the wages Bolton can pay players, and it leaves it incredibly difficult to compete in the wealthiest non-top flight division in the world.

It’s easy to forget now, but Bradford City came close to pipping Bolton Wanderers for the second automatic promotion place in last season’s League One. Wanderers were nine points clear at one stage, before Stuart McCall’s men closed in on a stuttering Parkinson side and went to Sheffield United on Easter Monday with a chance to close the gap to just one point.

Ultimately they lost to the Blades in disappointing fashion, and Bolton were able to edge over the line to promotion. Nevertheless, it was a tight affair and far from implausible to consider that Bradford City could have been taking Bolton’s place in this season’s Championship.

Of course, City would come even closer to promotion via the play offs, where a mixture of poor finishing and a lapse in concentration saw Millwall victorious in the play off final. Millwall’s start to the Championship season has been stronger than Bolton’s, and their recent 1-0 success over Leeds United was the type of occasion and result we Bantams fans would have dearly loved. But still, the reality is they’ve won only two of their nine games so far this season.

Promotion to a new division brings big rewards and memorable scenes of celebration, but the “what happens next” can often be tough. From winning most weeks, to losing all the time in a fight against relegation. It requires a change of mindset that can be difficult to adapt to.

City’s promotions in 1996 (third tier to second tier) and 1999 (second tier to Premier League) illustrate the point. On both occasions, they found it challenging to make the step up in the higher division. In the early weeks of each season, the Bantams suffered some heavy defeats that triggered panic from supporters and heaped pressure on Chris Kamara and Paul Jewell respectively. City survived relegation on the final day of both campaigns, with Valley Parade eventually adopting a siege mentality and vociferously backed their team. But it was a bumpy journey.

Having come close to promotion last season in two different ways, it was always going to be interesting to see how Bolton and Millwall – the sides who denied us – fare in the Championship, and to wonder how City might have compared. Without the financial shackles inflicted on Bolton, the Bantams would have had greater financial capability to make a better fist of it, and the success of Barnsley and Preston in recent seasons (not to mention last season’s League One champions, Sheffield United, so far) shows a grim struggle isn’t inevitable. Nevertheless, you are competing in a division of major financial disparities, where in certain fixtures merely avoiding a hiding is a top-level expectation.

You’re going from competing at the top, winning more often than losing, to fighting for your lives. Great in the long run if you can survive and prosper, but in the short-term getting promoted isn’t always much fun.

Why Bradford City have become one of the most successful teams in the country

On this week two years ago, Phil Parkinson was facing a different kind of pressure. The City manager had just overseen consecutive 2-0 defeats to Peterborough and Colchester United, which left the struggling Bantams languishing in 19th place in League One. Parkinson’s job was secure – he’d just signed a new contract – but the struggle to make more of a decent summer transfer budget, boosted by the Chelsea FA Cup windfall, was leading to discontent amongst supporters expecting a promotion push.

Devante Cole was starting to look not all that. Nathan Clarke was all over the place at the back. Goalkeeper Brad Jones was anything but a future star of the Dutch top flight.

A few days later and inspired by loan arrival Kyel Reid, City unexpectedly won 3-1 at Rochdale – a true “stones performance” – and the season was transformed. From that point on, City pretty much turned into a winning machine and finished inside the play offs. Last season under McCall, City climbed into the top six after three games and remained there until the end. So far this year, the Bantams are amongst the pace-setters.

And it all means we City fans have been treated to largely winning football over these past two years. In fact, the club’s league record, from 1 October 2015 to now, reads like this:

91 47 28 16 124 77 47 169


A win ratio of over 50%, and only 16 defeats (just three of which were at Valley Parade). At Bradford City we have become accustomed to winning football matches on a regular basis. This is all the more remarkable given the changes to ownership, management, coaching staff and players that have taken place over this two-year spell. Tony McMahon – who played as a right winger on that afternoon at Spotland – is the only constant from this period.

When you compare City’s record with the other 95 clubs who have played in the Football League or Premier League over these two years, it’s even more impressive.

1/10/2015 – 24/9/2017 P Pts
1 Bradford City 91 169
2 Brighton & Hove Albion 89 168
3 Sheffield United 91 167
4 Scunthorpe United 91 166
5 Portsmouth 91 158
6 Sheffield Wednesday 92 156
7 Tottenham Hotspur 75 155
8 Plymouth Argyle 91 153
9 Oxford United 91 150
= Millwall 91 150
= Bristol Rovers 91 150

City have picked up more league points than any other club over the last two years. They are a point ahead of Brighton, two above Sheffield United and three better off than Scunthorpe United in this two-year table. The next best side, Portsmouth, are 11 points behind.

Compare also, City’s 169 total with the points tallies picked up by the worst performers over these two years, including Sunderland’s 67, Crystal Palace’s 71 and Rotherham United’s 79.

The Millers were promoted to the Championship in 2015, but their subsequent struggles at the foot of the table have meant victories were scarce, prior to their return to League One this season. And that is what you can be swapping by getting promoted – from being one of the best in one division to trying to avoid being one of the worst in the other.

Of course, the slight flaw in the table above is that Football League clubs play more league games than Premier League sides, enabling City and others to rack up more points than their top flight counterparts. But even looking at the average points per game of the 96 clubs for these two years, City’s record stacks up extremely well.

1/10/2015 – 24/9/2017 Average points per game
1 Tottenham Hotspur 2.06
2 Chelsea 1.97
3 Manchester City 1.93
4 Arsenal 1.89
5 Brighton & Hove Albion 1.88
6 Bradford City 1.86
7 Sheffield United 1.83
8 Scunthorpe United 1.82
9 Liverpool 1.81
10 Manchester United 1.8

The 6th best side in the country for average points per game (1.86), in and amongst the illustrious company of Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. City are competing against much weaker sides than the likes of Man City, Chelsea and Tottenham, but still these stats illustrate just how good we’ve had it over the last two years.

Even with their solid promotion record last season, Bolton are currently placed 65th out of the 96, with an average 1.23 points per game. For a full list click on the link below:

Two year league record

Winning matters

Watching Millwall supporters celebrate winning the play off final in May hurt. Viewing the TV pictures of Bolton’s promotion celebrations triggered a tinge of envy. Whatever struggles they are now going through in the Championship, I doubt their supporters would swap where they are now for our position near the top of League One. The achievements of 2016/17 will live long in the memories of Millwall and Bolton fans. For how enjoyable last season’s promotion push was for us, it led up to a bitterly painful ending.

But if there is a tiny silver lining to take from such misery, it’s that City have so far been able to shake off the disappointment of Wembley and go again. They’ve won six of their opening nine games, are amongst the favourites for promotion, and have set themselves up for a really exciting season. There’s a long way to go, and no one should get carried away. But right now, it’s not unreasonable to assume we’re set for another campaign where we win more often than we lose.

City’s record over the last two years – and the last five for that matter – has done so much to build up attendances and enhance the atmosphere. In 2011/12, City’s average crowd was 10,171. So far this season, we’re on course to double that with an early average attendance of 20,593. That is a huge achievement. The result not only of affordable season tickets, but because the club has genuinely being successful since 2012. It’s so often a fun, victorious day out.

The true durability of City’s inflated crowds will lie in how they hold up during the inevitable downturns of the cycle that all football clubs experience. This test might arise if and when City are promoted to the Championship. How would newer fans cope with a potential struggle near the bottom, even if relegation was avoided? And what would a relegation back to League One do to future season tickets sales?

Only time will tell, and it’s all hypothetical for the moment. But going back to Rotherham, there are some hints in their attendance patterns. They were promoted from League One in 2014, with an average home crowd of 8,450. Attendances increased in the first season in the Championship (2014/15 average: 10,240) before falling in the subsequent two years of continued struggle near the bottom (2015/16: 10,025 and 2016/17: 9,783). So far this season, Rotherham are averaging 7,882 – lower than the 8,450 average of their last League One campaign.

Rotherham wouldn’t swap their 2014 promotion and three-year stay in the Championship; but they’re now back to square one with a dip in attendances. City weren’t promoted over this period, but kept coming close, and have successfully grown their fanbase. Financially, the Millers will be richer for their rise and fall, but supporter-wise they’re worse off for going through the struggle of playing in a higher league.

For now, the Bantams are rightfully being rewarded by their public for their success. We’d all like to see another promotion, and a place in the Championship – the owners themselves have talked about reaching the Premier League. But despite so far missing out on such glory, the club has still performed very strongly week in, week out for a lengthy period of time. In relative terms, they are amongst the best of the best in the country.

It might not be anyone’s choice to still be in League One. But it’s not that bad of an existence really. Promotion is a wonderful prize to strive for, but the way City have picked themselves up from successive play off heartbreaks shows that life goes on, it needn’t be bleak. Going up would be great, but it isn’t the be all and end all. Being a big fish in a small pond has its advantages.

And, right now, it certainly appears to be more fun than it is being a Bolton Wanderers fan.

Categories: Opinion

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12 replies

  1. Hi Jason
    A good read and some great stats that puts into perspective how spoilt we’ve been over the last 2 years. I never would have realised how well we have stacked up against all the other clubs. As City fans our glass is always two thirds empty!
    Was it really only just over a year ago our Parky left for pastures new and we were struggling to get a first eleven together?
    I was back home for Blackburn and Walsall and wasn’t overly impressed with what I saw but now as the team has gelled there’s cautious optimism.
    However, there is a long way to go and nothing (league-wise) is won (or lost) in September, Christmas or January but if we continue as we are we better hold onto our hats as it’s going to be another roller-coaster season on the Bantam Express.

  2. Part of me wants Bolton to struggle because of what happened but then the other side of me remembers all the good times PP + SP brought us, also with Cullen and Burke there I hope they survive.
    I’ve heard the transfer ban is lifted so in January they should be able to strengthen but hopefully they are not too far adrift for it not to matter.

    Them stats are so surprising but if we keep them up we will surely get promoted one way or the other.

    Great effort by everyone in those 2 years well done

  3. A very interesting read but doesn’t detract from the fact that it is imperative City push for and hopefully succeed in gaining promotion this season. The infrastructure at the club, the owners and the players are all mentally prepared and stronger than they have ever been before and it’s time that we make the transition into the division in which we finally belong.

  4. It’s always going to be a struggle to perform better against tougher opposition on a regular basis, but isn’t that exactly how you grow as an athlete? Either that or you ship out and get replaced by someone who can. The points raised are very valid and great observations but it’s time City players got to achieve, rather than looking on as others do. That’s in no way trying to detract from the successes to date, but you look at the players, management, owners, staff and fans now and everyone is hungry for the challenge. Who knows how it might go if we get there/ We can speculate as much as we like, but in truth there is only ever one way to truly find out.
    City are finding their feet and the net very nicely this season and with the right coaching, fitness levels and adjustments in formation style, to play over and around those who would try to thwart our new found momentum, we stand at least as good a chance as any other team to recently be promoted to the Championship. I cannot and do not disagree with your findings, but am not entirely convinced that remaining entrenched in League 1 is the best thing for the club. Only time will tell.

    • I don’t think anyone would suggest it would be good to remain entrenched in League One, just that so far not taking that next step hasn’t hurt us.

  5. Very welcome article Jason. I remember sitting in Wembley before the playoff final looking at our team and wondering which of them would genuinely cut it in the Championship. Cullen, probably, Wyke probably but he had only played a few matches at Division 1 level at that point, Marshall, maybe, and after that? Meredith was probably the best of the players under contract but, despite the gossip, we never seemed to have received any offers for him from Championship clubs. A small part of me is pleased we didn’t get promoted – we would have had to buy the players we have now bought and turning them into a Championship level side may not have been possible in the time available. As it is, with a season to gell into a side that can turn it on week after week, plus the opportunity for even more strengthening next summer assuming we get promotion, there is a real chance we can make a solid success in the Championship.

  6. Interesting article as always Jason. Anyone who watched the Sheffield Derby yesterday could only imagine if that was us and Leeds. The occasion was brilliant and the football quality was good. I understand that ML and JR sold the club because they didn’t have the financial muscle for Bradford to compete in the Championship. I would hope that SR and ER do. As they say, “you’ll never know until you try”.
    Regarding Bolton; they gave us so much abuse when Parky left and when we lost the playoff final that I’m actually quite enjoying the position they are in and the banter that is going between the fans. As long as people are not threatening to kill each other or wishing they were dead, it is just normal football banter.
    In a way, I do feel sorry for PP. Whilst he gave us some of the best nights we’ve had for years, he never played the exciting football that SM is giving us now. As far as legend status goes, SM will always be more of a legend to me, both as a player and now as a manager. I hope Bolton go down and I hope we pass them on the way up.

  7. Over the last two, and indeed the last 5 years we have been consistently good. Which after the prior decade we deserve! So although the obvious and necessary goal is promotion, in my opinion it is important to savour this ‘golden age’ and the pleasure of watching good, successful football.

    If and when we do achieve promotion to the championship I hope our current secure structure, unlike Bolton’s, and technical ability both aesthetically and tactically are the right ways to approach going from surviving to thriving in the Championship.

    A couple of other points also give be cause for my glass being 51% full are:

    How similar Sheffield United’s and Millwall’s squads are to last season. I believe millwall will be ok this season (even though I want to see them destroyed each week) and United are flourishing at present. It points to that a good number of our current squad, well coached and managed and unified can cut it in the league above. That is not beyond the realms of possibility. And:

    The amount of championship teams that fluctuate each season. In previous seasons hudders and Brighton have been very much also-rans and with 1/2 seasons got promoted. Teams such as Wolves, Cardiff and Reading are now competing at the top after underperforming under previous regimes (admittedly with bigger budgets than ours). Sheffield Wednesday were at the lower end of the table for some time but have made the play offs in the last 2 seasons and as already mentioned Preston, Barnsley and other promoted sides have done reasonably well. Even Leeds, yes even Leeds, a basket case joke under previous ownership are now top of the lot!

    So although cash is vital for survival it is not the be all and end all. Stable management of the club itself and excellent management and coaching on the pitch, bringing the right players in and getting them to bond and buy into the club’s ethos seem to reap rewards. All traits Bradford City have possessed for 5 years.

  8. Great article. Had similar thoughts after explaining league system to my 6 year old son, who was very quick to point out that getting promotion to the championship would mean games against harder teams and likely less wins.
    After the disappointment of losing out in the playoffs, it’s worth asking the question “did I enjoy games over the last season?”. Likely answer is “yes, we won plenty, and the atmosphere was great”. So, why shouldn’t the following season in league one be as enjoyable? Easy to say for me, who only attends when I’m in Bradford, and I’d prefer it we’re we in the top half of the championship, but agree life in L1 isn’t so bad so long as you’ve got something to cheer about.

  9. Great article yet again.

    Before a ball was kicked this season, I thought that we’d end up mid-table come May 2018 so I am surprised by our start to the season. As some people have recognised, there’s a long way to go this season. However, I would be absolutely delighted for Stuart McCall if he was to lead us to promotion.

    As for wanting to see my team play in the Premier League again, I’m not so sure. For me, it represents all that is bad about football. I am one of those supporters who would still be cheering the Bantams on if we were a non-league team. Football goes in cycles for most clubs and many WOAP readers will have supported Bradford City during the difficult seasons. Who wants to see their team play a 39th league game in China? Not me! Call me traditional but I like my Saturday afternoon and Tuesday evening games.

    Seriously, Jason has highlighted a key point in football; a lower league seeing your team win sometimes/often or a higher league seeing your team struggle?

    • If I could merit you two ‘LIKES’ – then I would, Richard.
      Between Jason and yourself, you have both pretty much summed up my last (almost) 50 years.

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