By Jason McKeown
“You’ve got an agenda”. “You’re just sh*t-stirring”. “You’re not helping the club”. “You’re letting them kill the club”.
When it comes to the civil war that has taken place in and around Bradford City since January 2018, we at Width of a Post have taken a few blows too. It has been a challenging time to write about the Bantams, with comment about the club’s direction receiving criticism for either being too harsh or too soft.
It has prompted plenty of feedback and questions about what WOAP stands for, and opinions about what it should be. And so just before the head coach is finally due to be confirmed next week, and as we look forward to next season, I thought it would be a good time to set out how we see WOAP’s purpose and the way we try to run the site. Then we can draw a line and move on.
How we’ve got here
WOAP creation in December 2011 was timed very well. Within months of the site’s launch, Phil Parkinson was building the History Makers squad and we were able to report on the wonderful ride that followed. From the big cup nights against Arsenal and Aston Villa, trips to Wembley, promotion, Chelsea, Sunderland and Reading, we covered all the highs and the infrequent lows of that period. Supported by a growing team of writers, we were busy.
These days the site is co-edited by myself and Katie Whyatt. If there is an editorial team, it is also made up of Tim Penfold and Alex Scott, as we have a Facebook chat group and talk daily. We also have a loose Facebook group of other writers and we chat from time to time. But the direction of the site is mainly the result of myself, Katie, Tim and Alex.
The frequency of writing has significantly dropped over recent years, largely due to me starting a family and with it new commitments on my time. I’ve also stopped chasing other people to write, albeit I still greatly welcome other contributions. In 2013 we published 365 articles – one every day – it has fallen year on year to just 138 last year (less than two a week). So far in 2018, we’ve published 32 posts (around five a month).
It has benefited me hugely. Writing so frequently before risked a burn out, and placed self-inflicted pressure to publish new articles that reduced some of my enjoyment supporting the club. Katie has also been completing her University degree and had other commitments. Over the 2017/18 season, our stance was only to write when we think we have something stronger to say. I’d like to say quality over quantity, but that’s for others to judge.
At the same time, I’ve personally attempted to write in a more informed style. Over the years running the site, I’ve built up a range of contacts. People who have associations with the club (from the outside, rather than leakers), who have kindly helped to build up a picture of happening. This guidance is not used to expose secrets – gone are the days I chase exclusives – but merely to provide context and greater understanding, which I can then try to relay to readers.
From the club itself, I was very fortunate to have strong relations with first David Baldwin, and more recently James Mason. They acted as a useful buffer to enquire about the accuracy of rumours or whispers. They weren’t always in a position to confirm if my information was right or wrong; but at times their help stopped me publishing something that was false, or guided me on a more accurate and balanced path. On occasions they’ve trusted me with club secrets, to allow them space to communicate news to supporters themselves in the right way. And in return, they’ve always been supportive.
And the third layer behind how I write is a loose network of fellow City supporters – many who are friends – who provide feedback on our writing. They’ll get in touch on a regular or infrequent basis to share their thoughts on recent pieces, or offer their opinions on City matters, which help us to gauge the positioning of future articles. Their honesty is invaluable, and I couldn’t do it without them. Finally there are reader comments to our articles and social media feedback, which is always useful.
The upshot is I feel the writing on the site has grown stronger, and more informed. Against the 2011-2017 backdrop where the club has got a lot more right than it has wrong, it was easy to praise the way it has operated on and off the field. We’ve been prepared to be critical when necessary, but always tried to be constructive. Even before the explosion of social media, mindless and ill-informed attacks on the club by some supporters has been common place. We’ve tried to always stay measured.
We haven’t always got it right, and we’ve occasionally upset people for sure, but the spirit and ethos of the site is not to be malicious in our intent.
The last six months
For the first six years of WOAP’s existence (December 2011-December 2017) we’d be infrequently criticised for being in the club’s pocket, or for not going at them hard enough. That has certainly changed since January 2018, with the events of the past six months attracting what can be deemed as negative coverage from this site.
Given the fact that, over this period, Bradford City won just 3 out of 21 games, dropped from fifth position to an eleventh-placed finish, and have gone through two managers, it is unavoidable that recent events have been judged critically. Nevertheless, the content we have produced has, at times, attracted a surprisingly strong reaction.
Many questions have been thrown up – not least, what is WOAP’s purpose? We’ve traditionally had a very pro-club readership, and there is a feeling from some supporters that we should always be behind the club. And that if we are disappointed or frustrated about something, we shouldn’t write anything as it won’t help the situation.
As editor I find it hard to steer the site with this type of remit. We are not the club’s PR department, and it wouldn’t be helpful to them if we were. Whilst there is danger of over-emphasising our influence, if and when we are praising the club, we want it to be meaningful. To feel merited and for it to be accepted that way. But that can only be the case if we have the freedom to hold them to account on occasions we think they’re getting it wrong.
If we can’t write honestly, running the site instantly becomes unappealing. We are not the Telegraph & Argus or BBC Radio Leeds, requiring a level of composed professionalism. I love the club, and I get emotional about its ups and downs. I want the site’s writing to reflect those passions. To be something that supporters, going through the same emotional rollercoaster, can relate to in terms of how they feel too.
At the same time as focusing on our own efforts, I take a keen interest in the wider City community and how others see events. Just like WOAP, there has been a shift in outlook towards City from other respect media journalists – Ian Dennis, Mark Douglas, Richard Sutcliffe and Simon Parker. They are all sensible, responsible people, and yet during the last six months there has been a change in the tone of their commentary. This is a pattern matched by long-standing supporters on social media. For years many of these fans have been hugely positive about club events, yet in recent months they have become more openly sceptical.
It feels like the landscape has shifted, and it’s not just WOAP that moved with it.
What I learned over the past six months is that our influence is higher than I personally think it should be. When we wrote critical articles, we appeared to stir up some people’s emotions. That if they were angry about the situation, we prodded them to be angrier. And in an atmosphere increasingly toxic, we had to show greater responsibility over the small modicum of power that WOAP holds.
So we felt like we held back for a time, even if certain people urging us to shut up might not have realised. When people approached us for advice on organising supporter protests, we politely declined to get involved. Some fans offered to write articles critical of the owners, but we had to hold back the WOAP platform. I can’t pretend I got everything right, and there was still a critical tone to our pieces, but during a volatile close season period searching for the head coach, we stepped back and worked on other things.
What’s the agenda?
The honest answer is there isn’t one, and never has been. From time to time the club will make decisions that we personally don’t agree with, and we’ll offer our opinions on why we disagree. But the intent behind the writing is always that we are merely a small representation of thousands of Bradford City voices, rather than more important than anyone else. And everything stems from a passion and a love for the club. Like everyone else we want the best for the club, we just don’t always agree on what that is.
The sacking of Stuart McCall is a great example. At WOAP we have a history of backing managers, for example during Phil Parkinson’s infamous run of one win in 21. I didn’t personally agree with the decision to remove McCall and still don’t. But that’s purely based on the way he was managing the team, and a belief that the issues that led to his dismissal were collective failings. And I tried to argue that point. Subsequent events offered little credibility that the sacking was the right call, but that doesn’t mean I or anyone wanted the club to fail. We’ve been wrong on so many things we’ve written before, and that will continue. We’d have been very happy to have looked wrong about McCall’s sacking, as it would have meant the club had succeeded.
But even after the dismissal, the red mist never descended. The critical eye on a wretched six months for Bradford City was applied because things were going wrong. It was never meant to be personal for or against anyone. Indeed, many of the people criticised were praised on this site in the past in good times, and will again in future if they get it right. But equally through various contacts, we have been made aware of confidential information about the goings on at Valley Parade. We have chosen not to publish such content; but knowing what we do has made us feel more comfortable about taking a critical stance.
Overall I’m very pleased with where we are with WOAP. There’s a team of people still involved, with Tim deserving a special mention for his recent efforts on the podcasts. Katie is currently taking a break, but hopefully will return soon. The door is open for new writers.
I hope you enjoy what we do as well. Like every other Bradford City fan media outlet out there, we don’t appeal to everyone. But we have a strong audience, readers that we love and a decent relationship with the club that endures, even during a period of negativity. In the Bradford City community there are lots of fans outlets – the #bcafc on Twitter, Bantams Talk, the Cow’s Arse, City Gent, Bantams Banter and BfB. We’re just one of many, doing our thing.
I’ve tried to take on the ethos of the City Gent I grew up reading, and the BfB I was first a reader of and then a part of. That is to attempt intelligent, more informative writing (compared to anonymous message board-bashing).
We are an independent website with no one to particularly please – not the club, and certainly not every single fan. We’re a little corner in a big Bradford City world. Proud to appeal to a section of supporters. And like any independent supporter group, publication or site, we have to find the balance between being critical and positive.
And now we’re in the summer, the slate is wiped clean and we go again. A line drawn under the recent past. I’ve no idea what to expect next season; but what I do know is that as a fanbase we’ll always find something to disagree on. So at WOAP we’ll continue to call it as we see it, and enjoy offering up our small slice of participation in the wider debate.