By Jason McKeown
Geoffrey Richmond would probably be enjoying this. The former Bradford City chairman was nothing if not a showman, and would talk up a battle to avoid the drop as box office entertainment. “The Bradford public loves a relegation scrap,” he once told long-time City supporter, Mark Neale. The adventures of his time at the helm certainly supported this.
In the 1996/97 season, Chris Kamara’s Bantams were in the fight of their lives to survive in Division One (now the Championship), and at this stage of the season were on a poor run of one win in eight. Using the local media, Richmond whipped supporters into a frenzy and City narrowly secured survival with late season home wins over Wolves, Stoke, Charlton and QPR. All played out in front of a couldron of noise.
Fast forward three years to 1999/00, and another City relegation battle – this time in the Premier League. Paul Jewell’s charges embarked on a poor run of eight straight defeats over March and April, and a Good Friday 4-4 draw at home to Derby seemed to condemn them to the drop. Yet from nowhere City won three of their last four games to stay up, which included home wins over Wimbledon and Liverpool that occurred in front of two of the best Valley Parade atmospheres I’ve ever seen.
That us-against-the-world, Bradford defiance has been at the heart of successful relegation battles. Even in 2011/12 – the last time we were in danger of going down – there was a coming together after the Crawley brawl. Fans, players, managers and owners fighting as one to get over the line. When the chips were down, we would go into survival mode and fight. Working together to defy the odds.
These examples of our recent history underline why it shouldn’t be time to give up on Bradford City this season. Yes of course, the situation looks bleak. This group of players are a major disappointment. Spineless, gutless, cowardly – insert your own insult and it will be hard to disagree. For a club that has in recent years set such high standards, this lot aren’t fit to wear the shirt.
But they’re all we have. And despite the severity of the league position, they are still capable of getting out of this.
What gives hope is the madness of this season’s League One. The 12 teams above City are still deep in relegation mire. There are a lot of clubs that remain catchable, albeit we’ve given them a big headstart. Across the final eight rounds of the season, there are 29 fixtures between teams in the bottom half. That’s a heck of a lot of six pointers, where teams will drop points.
From City’s point of view, they have to produce extremely good form over the last eight games. Winning the occasional game like against Peterborough won’t cut it. They need a run of victories, a bit like what they showed over December where for a fleeting moment they looked like promotion contenders.
The run-in could be kinder but could also be worse. The next three games against Blackpool, Charlton and Doncaster are our toughest remaining, and realistically four points are needed. After that, the final five matches are against Bristol Rovers, Coventry, Gillingham, Scunthorpe and Wimbledon. They are winnable games. And if City can get to the Memorial Ground on April 13 with the gap to safety reduced from the current six points, there’s still every chance.
To the players the message is simple: give it everything you have. To an extent, they’ve been shielded from the fiercest supporter criticism that has been reserved for Edin Rahic, Michael Collins and David Hopkin. But there is no question we supporters feel very let down by their efforts. On paper, they are so much better than the league table shows – so prove it. Every ounce of effort is a minimum requirement. We also need intelligence, composure and quality. The imminent return of Sean Scannell from injury – the winger could be on the bench on Saturday – will help.
As supporters, we also have a massive part to play. Valley Parade flickered into life during the second half against Peterborough, but we’ve been too quiet this season. That’s 100% understandable, but how good would it be to go back to the days when Valley Parade was a couldron of noise, starting against Blackpool on Saturday? How about we use the hours of 3-5pm to park our justifiable grievances and roar on the team?
Blind faith is a ridiculed approach these days. The mantra “just get behind the lads” has been mocked by many fans, who rightfully have pointed out that the people who utter such slogans were the same supporters who foolishly backed Rahic to the end, and the same people who always refuse to criticise the club. Blind faith makes you a fool. Setting yourself up for a fall. In a wretched season, being a cynic guarantees you will be proven right. It’s completely understandable. The club have offered us little reason not to be disillusioned and weary.
But for how bad things are now, the worst is yet to come. Relegation will hurt us for years, and the consequences would be keenly felt, long after the last member of the current squad leaves.
Take a look at the League Two table. 14 of the 24 clubs have been relegated from League One since Bradford City were promoted to the third tier in 2013, and there are two more plying their trade a league below. When teams go down from this level, they rarely come back quickly. Our last League One relegation in 2007 was followed by six years in the basement league, most of which was grim. That is the sentence awaiting us once again.
Whilst players, managers and owners come and go, it is us supporters who will stick with the club through thick and thin. League Two is our hell to endure, not theirs. This is our problem, and there’s still a lot we can do to try and stop it from happening.
And that’s why I don’t think we can afford to give up on this. And why, despite our merited anger, we somehow have to keep going with our support. To back the team loudly and defiantly. The lessons of 96/97 and 99/00 show that desperate situations can change quickly. And that bursts of relegation-saving form can appear from nowhere.
The players and manager must take a lead. Off the field, the club must do more to connect with the fans. And we supporters have a part to play, no matter how hopeless the situation looks. This is our football club. Our lifestyle. Our passion. As long as avoiding relegation remains possible, we mustn’t give up. The criticisms and the long inquest can wait. We cannot change the past, but we can still change the direction of our future.
As the chant goes: I’m City til I die. This is the time to shout about it.