By Jason McKeown
After seven defeats in nine league matches, anger from supporters about the direction of Bradford City is widespread. The Bantams sit third bottom of League One, and the pre-season objective of reaching the play offs already looks pretty much dead in the water. Merely being a League One club next season would now be an achievement of sorts.
Over the past few weeks, talk has grown of holding protests and demonstrations against chairman Edin Rahic, and the way he is leading the club. Those conversations have intensified since Saturday’s defeat to Doncaster Rovers. And it seems there will be some form of organised demonstration, at the weekend home fixture against Bristol Rovers. Another is being planned for the Sunderland match, the week after.
I’ve thought long and hard about my own views on this subject. And whether my own misgivings would lead me to want to join in any protest movements. It is, of course, a highly personal dilemma for us all. Nevertheless, I have taken the decision not to protest at matches. And I want to explain my personal reasons why I don’t think a demonstration is a good idea.
Firstly, the problem with a protest is that it is not clear what the exact objective is. Saying ‘Rahic out’ is all well and good, but what does that actually mean? Is it a call for him to step down as chairman? Or to no longer be a part owner? Is it a demand that both he and Stefan Rupp, who owns the majority of the club, sell up? And is that realistically going to happen on the back of protests? Selling a business is a complicated and time-consuming process. It looks highly improbable to happen anytime soon.
The idea of protesting is more complicated than it looks. For all the widespread unhappiness at the way the club is being run, there isn’t a common consensus amongst all fans of what we would like to see change. Being unhappy with the leadership of the club isn’t the same as wanting people to leave. Right now, the message behind a protest isn’t clear.
The second concern is the fact protests can be driven by emotion, and there is a risk of losing sight of rational criticism and it crossing over into something darker, that doesn’t necessarily paint City fans in the best light. I say this not to criticise the intentions behind those who seek to organise or take part in a protest; but you don’t have to look far to find examples of protest movements hijacked by violence or other people with other motives.
On Twitter in the past few days, certain people’s criticisms towards Rahic have come across racist. And that kind of path just undermines the valid concerns most share over the leadership of the club. The majority of supporters with misgivings agree that the nationality of the owners is utterly irrelevant, but a minority are using it as a line of attack. There is just a danger that a protest which starts off calm and measured is overtaken by something that displays fans in a bad light. And that, rather than highlight valid issues, it achieves the opposite.
Thirdly, I would question how effective protests really are. I have a huge level of respect and admiration for what supporters of Blackpool, Charlton and Coventry have done to fight for the soul of their football clubs. But none of these have, as yet, achieved the change of ownership they demand. It’s clear their actions have had some impact, but I found the recent visit to Blackpool a sobering experience. Most fans have stopped going to watch their club until the Oystons leave; others still turn up week in week out. A split, fragmented, decimated fanbase, and it has yet to achieve its objective. That is a dark, dark path to contemplate following.
And the fourth and final point, which links to number three, is the potential wider damage protesting at games might inadvertently deliver. Let’s face it, this new Bradford City squad is struggling badly. The league table does not lie. There is a very real danger that Bradford City could be relegated this season.
I don’t buy into the argument that it would be fine to get relegated if it causes a change of ownership. Leyton Orient, another club whose fans protested against their owner, Francesco Becchetti, suffered two relegations before a change of ownership, and remain lumbered in non-league. That is absolutely not the fault of Leyton Orient fans, but it shows just how long and miserable the path of protest can be before change is achieved. I worry not just how bad things are right now at Valley Parade, but how much worse it could yet become.
After all the progress since 2012, going back into League Two would be a massive set back for the club. There are no givens, and it would be all to easy to be stuck in the basement league for years to come, just like the 2007-2013 period (or, like Leyton Orient, we could even fall again). Having come so, so close to the Championship barely a year ago, relegation could destroy the great strides of season ticket numbers and the city of Bradford’s engagement with the club. It could doom us to forever be a third or fourth tier club.
David Hopkin, and the players, need our support. No one should advocate blindly getting behind the lads, but the politics taking place off the field have little to do with the team. Protesting at games, or even just having an ugly, volatile atmosphere on matchdays, is only going to make it harder for them to avoid relegation. I can’t pretend I have warmed to this new set of players and are believing they deserve unequivocal backing; but I don’t want to be entertaining the idea of a local derby with Harrogate Town next season. A bit like in 2011/12, just get the job done and then rebuild the team properly.
Saturday’s encounter with Bristol Rovers, who are 17th in the table, is absolutely huge. Reverse the run of five straight defeats, and there is a chance of moving forwards. Lose that, and it will feel like the sky is falling in on our chances of avoiding the drop. The frustrations of the last few months are more embedded than whether the team wins or loses, and an improvement in results won’t change that. But it will at least limit the damage.
A grim battle to avoid relegation is unappetising, but staying up is better than going down. The big mistakes of the past few months cannot be undone right now. The inquest needs to stay open, and the campaign for a change of approach from the top – and more accountability over failure – is absolutely essential. What we need are central places to articulate frustrations, away from a match day, and where constructive criticism can be shared with the owners, in the hope they are taken on board (if they haven’t been doing so already). The comments section on this site could be one such place.
But to avoid the risk of the fanbase splitting (because not everyone wants to protest, and a big, big part of Saturday is coming together to show our solidarity with Stephen Darby) and to give Hopkin support to turn it around, matchday is not the right moment. The situation on the field is looking serious, and we need to turn Valley Parade into a cauldron of noise to give the players every chance of turning the tide.