By Jason McKeown
As temperature tests go, Bradford City’s low uptake of season ticket sales for next season demonstrates a frosty front from City supporters towards their club. Sales are some 4-5,000 down on this time a year ago, and this week’s deadline before the prices start to rise would seemingly rule out a significant rally of sales over the final weeks of the campaign. The club is on course to kick off next season with substantially fewer season ticket holders than the 18,000 who signed up for this one. And that is a big disappointment.
We will all have our own thoughts on this topic. For many Bradford City supporters, having a season ticket and going to Valley Parade every fortnight is a way of life. And it has more importance than the performances on the field. As a club, we have had endured far worse seasons than this one, in recent memory, and a first backwards step since 2012 is no reason to step back.
Others will have their reasons for not renewing, and feel justified in their grievances about the way the season has unfolded. It could be anger at the owners, the players, or just fellow fans. They may return quickly, should City bounce back strongly from their current under-performance, or they could in time prove to be the first of a flood.
The cheap season ticket initiative of the past decade has been superb, but the true nature of the loyalty the club has acquired from more recent supporters might just be about to face its biggest test.
Yet ultimately we all suffer. A drop off in season ticket revenue will damage the strength of the playing budget, and with it City’s hopes of progressing on the field. It could add to the list of reasons why Simon Grayson might choose to leave the club. It might affect the calibre of players the club is able to attract. In the long run, it could hinder City’s commitment to keep football affordable.
But rather than criticise stay-away fans, a more preferable route surely has to be to put an arm around them and encourage them to stick around. The atmosphere in and around Bradford City has become dreadful over the past few months, with everyone arguing about everything.
An unsolvable argument has broken out between those for and against the owners and their strategy. It has become an unedifying spectacle. Claws are dug in on both sides. Entrenched views have become more embedded. No one wants to change their opinion and suggest they are wrong.
Yet that has led to a lack of humility, which runs right to the top of the club, and a reluctance to acknowledge misjudgements. And that seems wrong, because the way in which the rails have fallen off this season suggests there should be a greater degree of accountability. Decisions that have been taken have proved to be the wrong ones, and there should be a learning process going on to ensure mistakes are not repeated.
Top of that list is the season-defining decision to sack Stuart McCall. As a football supporter, there is a no element in and around the club that produces stronger emotional views than the merits of the man in the dugout. Stuart McCall’s performance as manager was not perfect, and those fans who called for his sacking were entitled to air their opinions.
But whatever your personal beliefs on the decision to dismiss him two months ago, there has to be an acknowledgment that – amongst the majority – support for McCall was still very strong. So whether you think it was a justified sacking or not, a decision was ultimately taken that the majority of the Bradford City community disagreed with.
The damage is there for all to see. As fans, we will always disagree on aspects of how the club is run, and that will mean seeing decisions made that you don’t agree with. But if the majority of fans feel a certain way, there should be a greater level of respect shown towards that viewpoint. Even if it is contrary to how you feel. And those who were for McCall’s dismissal still fail to appreciate that point. “Get over it” those of us who disagreed with the sacking are continually told. But this was an incredibly emotive topic, and a lot of people still feel very strongly about what happened.
If those people feel ignored or dismissed, it is not hard to understand why they might conclude they would rather sit out next season.
Especially because nothing that has followed has demonstrated the decision to sack McCall was the right one. City might have lost six games in a row – or 8 in 10 – at the end of McCall’s reign, but most fans could appreciate the difficult circumstances he was operating under, and valued the fact the team were still inside the play offs, probably overachieving.
The reasons Stefan Rupp gave for sacking McCall have not aged well. “We considered the risk was too high to do nothing. So then you have to pull the emergency brake really hard … We are running out of games. If we had waited for the next five or six, all of a sudden we could have been out of the play-off places in 11th or 12th place … We need someone who walks in and simply starts straight away because he knows how to do it.” The applying of the emergency brake did not stop the rut. And six games later, City are indeed out of the play places and down in 11th place.
In other words, what Rupp and Rahic feared by sticking with McCall has come to pass by sacking him. In that respect, the decision has not worked out as hoped. There is time to change that, but no margin for error in the run-in. And the club’s form since 3 January 2018 offers no encouragment this team can win six or seven of the last eight games.
Of course, there is no guarantee results would have been better had McCall stuck around. But with most fans still behind him, and the players more bought into his ways than they appear to be under Simon Grayson, there was a greater chance. In contrast, the backdrop of negativity and anger prompted by McCall’s sacking has not helped the club’s efforts.
And those who had lost faith in McCall were always going to get their wish anyway. He was out of contract in the summer. He was not going to get a new deal under Rahic. But his excellent win ratio, and consistency in keeping City in the top six, coupled with the majority of support he retained from fans, earned him the right to fail. To bow out in the summer, either way. Season ticket sales would not be as damaged.
We will never know if McCall could have arrested the slide, and if City could be in a much stronger position to reach the play offs than they are now. But what we do know is that sacking him for very short-term reasons has not gone to plan, unless there is a very late and incredibly spectacular run of form, starting at Blackpool. More patience was merited. More respect for how most fans felt should have occurred. And while you cannot turn back the clock, the inquest into what went wrong this season has to show there were bigger reasons for the slump than who happened to be the manager.
(The answer, by the way, is very poor recruitment. Edin’s strategy is still a good one, in my opinion, just badly executed since last summer.)
You are not going to get Rahic stating he was wrong to sack McCall. You won’t get the minority of fans who supported the dismissal acknowledging that, in hindsight, he wasn’t the biggest problem. And, on the other side of the coin, you are not going to be able to shake off the anti-Edin fraction that has built up over recent weeks. And you’re not going to find fans who feel betrayed by what happened quickly getting over it.
So we’re in a bit of a mess. A civil war where there can be no winner. And the only hope of a peace deal rests on this group of players pulling out of the nosedive, and winning some football matches. Unless the mood somehow ticks upwards a few degrees during the final few weeks of the campaign, expect the bad feelings to last through the summer. And my goodness, won’t the team need a strong start to next season.
But whether you have renewed or held back. Feel happy with the owners or are questioning their judgement. Support the players or are hoping for a clear out. One element should be clear – we’re all City fans. It’s easy for folk on each side of the debate to fling arrows over the fence with the accusation the other lot aren’t true supporters. Just because someone is upset, it doesn’t mean they don’t want what’s best for the club. Just because someone didn’t rate McCall as a manager, it doesn’t mean they aren’t true Bradford City fans. It has become difficult for every supporter to respect other people’s views, which is very depressing, but we ultimately all share the same goals.
No one should feel chased out of Bradford City. No one should feel they aren’t listened to or valued. The club cannot afford to lose fans. And we as a community we should not chuck away years of progress. We’re all City ’til we die, and we’ve got to find a way to rebuild this fragmented landscape.