By Jason McKeown
It was at the end of February 2018 and Edin Rahic was on the defensive. Four weeks after his controversial decision to sack Stuart McCall, and having not spoken in public since January, Rahic headed up a table of Bradford City representatives taking questions from supporters at a hastily arranged fans forum. Facing a backlash, Rahic began by highlighting a spoof internet video that had depicted him as Hitler.
“We are in a foreign country and have to accept people have the right to abuse you however they want,” he stated. “They can have video clips with Hitler and my name on it and abuse my son. That was totally over the boundaries.”
I was sat amongst the gathering of some 250 City fans at Valley Parade that evening, and like all right-minded supporters I felt a sense of despair, anger and shame that criticism of the chairman had gone down a racist route. Rahic had every right to feel upset by this line of attack. The highlighting of personal abuse to get sympathy was a tactic occasionally used by his predecessors, Mark Lawn and Geoffrey Richmond. It demonstrated not just how far out of proportion anger can get, but how the damage can rebound onto those who instigate abuse.
But it was also an important moment in directing the wider campaign that has been taking place to rid Bradford City of the destructive Rahic. A marker in the standards that had to be in place, in order for constructive change to occur. As a community, we supporters could not allow the battle of Rahic’s poor leadership to take place on racist grounds. And also that, as much as possible, the criticism couldn’t get personal.
And it is simply because Bradford City supporters, by and large, stuck to such principles that Rahic is now heading out of the club. The debate about his short-comings, and his mismanagement, had to be on rational grounds. The emotions we all felt, fretting over the future of our beloved football club, were difficult to keep in check. But if hearts ruled our heads, the debate would be lost.
The reason for this was simple – this was all about communication. As main owner and the man with the money, Stefan Rupp was and is the key to the club’s future. In the Spring of this year, and as the Rahic downwards spiral gathered pace, word reached our ears that club employees were not able to communicate with Stefan Rupp. That Edin Rahic had decried he was the only one able to speak with the joint-owner.
This was significant in a couple of ways. Firstly, for club employees with any grievances over Rahic’s leadership, there simply wasn’t anywhere to take it. In most walks of life, if you’re unhappy with your boss you have somewhere to go with it. Your boss’s boss, or a HR department. Any City employees unhappy with Rahic had to either put up with it or look for a new job. The large number of people who exited the club this year tells its own story.
And crucially for Rahic, it meant that he could control the flow of communication to Rupp, watching on from the relative distance of Germany. Rupp only bought Bradford City on the persuasion of Rahic, and it was never supposed to be a hands-on, know-every-detail investment. He trusted Rahic to run the club, and relied on his partner to keep him up-to-date.
We can only speculate on the nature of the private conversations between Rahic and Rupp over this calendar year, but we can all make reasonable assumptions about Rahic’s spin and version of events. And that’s why the Hitler video was so damaging. Because if Rahic was choosing to make this a xenophobic issue, you can be sure this was the version of events Rupp was hearing.
I know from speaking to sources at the time that Rahic blamed supporters for the downturn. For being blind to McCall’s managerial shortcomings because of his legendary status. And that when results fell apart and criticism grew fiercer from supporters, we could be dismissed as fickle. Emotion-led. Not capable of looking at the situation sensibly. Unable to make rational judgements. And when in May of this year Rahic invited me for an off-the-record chat (his decision to make it off-the-record), much of his comments and tone were along these lines.
Apparently I was costing the club sponsors and putting off potential head coaches – nothing to do with him. Edin had a huge amount of faith and confidence in himself. In his plan. And it was our fault for not recognising it.
So Rupp will have been diet-fed a version of events that suggested City fans were xenophobic, fickle and blinded by emotion. Don’t worry, Stefan, about the fans’ reaction, because Edin has a grand plan that others cannot see. To ensure the illusion worked, all he needed was for Rupp to see visible signs of supporters living up to these generalisations, and the deal would be sealed.
And that’s where certain outlets came in. Because in the Spring we became aware that Rupp read WOAP, the Telegraph & Argus and the Bantams Talk message board (an improved version, tone-wise, of Claret and Banter). That whilst he relied hugely on Rahic for what was going on at the club, it wasn’t his only source of information.
Knowing this, we realised that WOAP had a responsibility with our content to not fit caricatures, and to present the arguments and frustrations of City supporters in calm, rational ways. To show that we are not overwhelmed by emotion, or simply upset because we’ve lost a few games. Instead, to make it clear what our concerns are and why they were legitimate. That as fans we are unhappy, but that we have a clear head and sensible reasoning.
Whilst it is fair to say that the site began to be more critical of Rahic from January – as certain off-the-field stories about his approach reached our ears – it’s crucial to point out that it was not pure Rahic out. Whilst very critical about the club’s direction over the first half of 2018 and very worried about the future, we were a little way off yet from believing Edin had to go, and hopeful that in the summer he could fix his mistakes, change his approach and prove himself. It was only after the Michael Collins debacle was fully played out that it became clear there was no way the club could succeed with Rahic at the helm.
We worked closely with people who have deep connections to the club, but not WOAP, to plan certain arguments and debate ideas. For example, knowing that protests would potentially be overtaken by emotion and create the wrong impression, we argued against having them. We received from readers several Rahic out articles that we didn’t publish. Not because we didn’t agree with the core message, but we felt that making this look too personal would damage the overall argument.
We don’t think anyone who reads WOAP would disagree that the tone of our pieces has been very much Rahic out. But we tried to frame it as a failure of leadership, rather than because we have some German in charge who doesn’t get it. In fact, we felt sympathetic for Rupp, who was even more let down by Rahic than the rest of us.
We also tried to encourage a debate about the kind of club we want Bradford City to be, so that we weren’t just talking negatively all the time. And by building a vision of what we as supporters think the club should be that was reasonable and fair-minded; as a collective, we were also able to demonstrate how far removed Bradford City has become from our roots. Who We Are became an illustration of this.
All of this would have had no impact were it not for the fact all we were really doing was to reflect our fanbase. Over the last few months, some have complained that City fans don’t take enough action, and are too weak to save the club from dark forces. That was never the case. And whilst there are some over-the-top supporters who have posted some distasteful things on social media in recent months, in the main, as supporters, we have all been superb at articulating our frustrations and concerns in a reasonable, fair-minded way. You readers, and the comments you have added underneath WOAP articles, have been magnificent.
A public protest might have made us all feel like we were doing something, but in fact risked causing greater damage. Whilst it is easy to admire clubs like Charlton and Blackpool for their public demonstrations of unhappiness with their owners, ultimately they haven’t succeeded in bringing change. They also split their fanbases. Protests at City had the potential of driving away Rupp too, which might have presented the club with significant financial issues. We believed measured criticism would be more influential and effective. The arrival of SOS 1903 was also a positive, as it was created on positive grounds. It has to be emphasised that this was a community-led approach and WOAP was only a small part of this.
So with City fans heads ruling hearts, and staying rational, the racism angle quickly disappeared – especially as City supporters spoke out against any fan who tried to make this an issue of nationality. And the fickle argument faded too, because as fans our criticisms weren’t centred solely on poor results. The fact City supporters have largely stayed with David Hopkin, for example, has aided our reputation.
The media played their part. Simon Parker’s journalism has been excellent, with many scathing but wholly accurate Telegraph & Argus match reports of the club’s failings. And other media stories have had an impact, not least the Zeit piece in October that caused a stir in Germany.
In the end, Rahic was left without any counter argument, and just a terrible record of leadership there for all to see. And for that, as fans we should all give each other a pat on the back. Together as fans, we largely articulated our concerns very well. We made it very clear that Rahic was not welcome at Valley Parade, but in a way that focused on Rahic the leader rather than on Rahic the person.
The final nails in the coffin were probably applied with Julian Rhodes’ return, which came from Rahic but was at the request of Rupp. It was a realisation from Rupp that his partner had lost his way, was no longer credible, and that it needed someone else’s expertise to salvage the situation. The calm and measured way that Rhodes has steered the ship only further emphasised Rahic’s shortcomings to Rupp.
Realising that Rhodes’ return threw open a real chance to finally unseat Rahic, and after individually speaking to Rhodes, the various City fan media groups agreed to release the statement showing our support for Julian. There was no clique or attempt to put ourselves on a pedestal above other fans, but Julian had reached out to us individually to get behind the club because – like or not – we have influence. That said, the joint article was our decision and Rhodes knew nothing about it.
After Julian Rhodes’ £1 ticket offer led to a huge turnout against Oxford United, and the players rose to the occasion to deliver a much-needed win, there was a very public demonstration that as a club we can come together. That we will get behind something we believe in. And the collective spirit of the afternoon occurred with Rahic completely absent. A clear message that Bradford City can be united. United without Rahic.
The City fan community deserve credit for this effective, dignified and grounded campaign. And even the minority of fans who stood by Rahic do not deserve to be shunned or ostracised. They were absolutely entitled to their opinion, and the debate was healthier for it.
The recent collective spirit and passion will be needed in the months ahead for Bradford City to rebuild. The departure of Rahic does not wipe out the catalogue of mismanagement, with the club’s perilous league position there for all to see. It is going to be a tall order to limit the damage, and tough times lie ahead. Inevitably some will criticise Rupp now, and there remains potential for the atmosphere to remain toxic as some may want to unseat him. Rupp clearly has much to prove to us, and so constructive feedback remains important.
We all need to show our passion to get behind the club. Not because we’re fickle, xenophobic or blinded by emotion, but because Rahic’s departure allows us to rebuild the football club and once again believe in it.