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:
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|
|2||Brighton & Hove Albion||89||168|
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|
|5||Brighton & Hove Albion||1.88|
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:
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.