By Stephen Dent
Life as a Bradford City supporter is rarely dull. Though sadly, results and performance levels on the pitch have become increasingly so, of late.
For a club that has become accustomed to steady progress over recent years, the last few weeks have been difficult to endure for all but the most perennially rhapsodic supporter. A disastrous run of results and a lack of fight and character from the team has culminated in the removal of Stuart McCall as Manager Head Coach – all of which has been set to a backdrop of mounting rumour, counter-rumour, speculation and a floundering play-off bid.
Are we suffering from a period of much needed adjustment? Or are we being run into the ground by an vainglorious, egotistical, (if infectiously enthusiastic) charlatan and his wealthy sidekick?
It could be argued (with some justification) that few clubs would move to host a Fans Forum event on the back of such a difficult few weeks; PR hasn’t been a strong suit of the club during the, thus far, contentious tenure of Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp. Would Monday night’s gathering prove to be a masterstroke, dispelling Fake News whilst uniting a club and its fan base to galvanise all concerned for a fresh promotion tilt? Or would it fuel the fires of criticism and risk setting supporter confidence in the club back further?
With the theme of supporter interactions on Social Media being raised on more than one occasion during Monday night’s event – more on that later – the denizens of The Cow’s Arse online forum have gathered to offer their thoughts on this very question…
A point which must be addressed at the outset, is the unacceptable, personal and racially-motivated abuse directed at Rahic and his family. Such abuse should not be tolerated, cannot be justified and is never acceptable; it really is that simple. Little more needs to be said on that matter, which is not to diminish the severity of such behaviour or the offense and distress it has clearly caused.
Let us not, however, be distracted from the fact that such behaviour is confined to a moronic few and does not represent the vast, vast majority of our supporters. Let us also not be distracted from the genuine concerns that many have, and a thorough, considered analysis of the questions and answers provided during Monday’s forum.
In judging whether the forum served a useful purpose, it must be asked – what was its purpose? A call for unity and ‘backing the club’ was emphasised during the event. We can’t speak for all, but the sense within the Cow’s Arse fraternity might be tersely summarised as, ‘talk is cheap – and so are we’. The efficacy of the aim of rebuilding supporter confidence as a result of this forum was dependent on a number of key points:
1) Would there be a sense of accountability for poor player recruitment?
2) Would there be evidence of lessons learned being applied from the last 6-12 months, to how we move forward?
3) How would the more concerning rumours around the manager’s control of team affairs be responded to?
4) What tangible plans could be offered to inspire confidence and trust in our foreseeable future?
Unfortunately, in several cases key questions were either deflected or answered inadequately. The defensive denial of poor planning and execution of the club’s transfer activity in January is, at best, a concern and, at worst, patronising.
It’s dangerously glib to dismiss January ‘as a hard time to sign players’. While that’s no doubt true, it’s theoretically no harder for us than it is any other club. Add to this the fact that had player recruitment been more effective in the summer, the pressure to strengthen in January wouldn’t been as anywhere near as pressing. Excuses aside, for Greg Abbott appear on Radio Leeds and state that a decision had been taken to add ‘only players who would improve on what we have’ in the same month that we then signed an amateur striker from a regional league in Germany…. we’ll be kind and say that ‘it’s a stretch’.
With instances like the above in mind, wherein the hyperbole offered and the actions taken are, at best, distant relations, it’s hard to argue against the idea that much of the criticism aimed squarely at the board and the so-called ‘transfer committee’ is, in no small part, self-inflicted given the way their oratory so often belies their actions. Only the most foolhardy of Bradford City fans would criticise the board for their first transfer window in charge where, given such a mammoth task and so little time, they pulled together to not only ride out the storm but perform minor miracles.
Like an instinctive striker who falters given time and space, however, the subsequent opportunities at team-strengthening have been either disappointing or, in the case of the January, down right shambolic (to use a word that apparently ‘offends’ Greg Abbott). This is particularly galling given the rhetoric that Edin especially seems so keen to employ, ‘we will be prepared for the next window’, ‘there is money to spend’ or ‘if we are in contention come January, we’ll back the manager’.
Mistakes happen in all walks of life – but defending the indefensible was an ill-judged move. Of particular worry is the idea that the club strengthened properly in January might actually be believed by those running the show; the same leadership team who seemed at pains to connect the dots between team performance and supporters ‘just getting behind the lads’. By the admission of Greg Abbott, we’re ‘weaker, man for man than last season’ – surely this represents a failure on the part of all concerned, and there’s no dressing that up. When you perform poorly, you lose the right to be ‘offended’ by criticism of how you’ve approached things.
For a stoic and, at times, cynical Yorkshire public, there’s little that raises the hackles more than braggadocio, which is what a hollow boast or unfulfilled promise quickly becomes in the eye of the beholder. In fact, we Yorkshire folk even have a saying for it and, should the board wish to take note, they might want to consider being a little less mouth and a little more trousers.
The account of how Luke Hendrie’s proposed move broke down seemed strange. It’s hard to escape the feeling that there was more to that episode than was proffered at the forum. It’s equally difficult to believe that Burnley would have taken an unreasonably difficult negotiating position for a youth full-back moving for little to no transfer fee while operating in the cash-corpulent Premier League.
Other answers carried an undercurrent – or outright air – of emotional and defensive rhetoric. Football is a tough industry and the manner of many answers provided last night, indicated that some of those ‘on display’ may lack the thick skin needed to deal with the flak that comes with the territory.
But perhaps the most telling response of all – and an indicator that the fundamental reasons why signs of regression are now evident – was the suggestion that supporter harmony would be a telling factor in Simon Grayson’s decision making process on whether to stay beyond the summer. You’d be forgiven for thinking that he’d have more interest in the extent to which he’ll be backed to undertake the rebuild job that’s needed, and that whether or not supporters are behind Project Rahic would be some way down his list of priorities. Culpability, it seems, is a commodity to be eagerly shared.
In the interests of balance it should be noted that the leadership team that spoke did display a sense of unity and desire to move forward. Seeking to liaise with fans through an open forum, demonstrates a level of transparency and intent to engage with supporters at a time when many clubs show little interest in such and at a time when it must have been quite daunting to do so.
However, ultimately we’re firmly on course for a first season of regression since before Phil Parkinson took the helm. For a side that missed out on promotion so narrowly, and had such a promising basis from which to approach this season, that simply isn’t good enough and last night’s forum offered little in the way of specifics to satisfy the growing concerns that many have.
The event’s primary purpose seemed to have been engineered for the leadership team to seek a degree of sympathy, defend their performance and ask for backing from supporters. Eighteen months into a stuttering reign, supporters are looking for accountability, capability, intent and action.
The languid manner in which several questions were answered, the lack of recognised accountability and articulation as to what lessons have been learned and how we’ll prevent similar mistakes, particularly with regard to player recruitment and an inference that the atmosphere around the club, the recent fortunes of the team and our chances of future success will be significantly influenced by the manner in which supporters behave on social media and ‘support the club’, may turn out to be an own goal and a worrying sign that our club’s custodians lack the insight, ability and resolve to really take this club forward.