By Jason McKeown
What a mess.
As one of the closest relegation battles in third tier history leaves half of League One sweating, Bradford City are somehow cut even further adrift of the carnage, with time running out to avoid the drop. The team has lot four in a row and are not just disliked but despised by large parts of City’s support base, who see an underachieving group of mercenaries. We’re on a fifth different manager in 14 months. We’ve a £2 million deficit. Crowds are falling. Season ticket sales don’t sound encouraging. Apathy is growing.
And it could still get worse.
Whilst surviving relegation remains mathematically possible, the form that’s required to clamber to safety looks beyond this dishevelled squad. Frankly, if they did turn it around over these final six games and stay up, you’d feel slightly cheated about why they’ve served up so much poor football for most of the season. But even if miracles do happen, the rebuilding in the summer is huge.
Even with the best efforts of Julian Rhodes, the stripping of Bradford City’s soul and DNA, by Edin Rahic, is a huge fix. Whilst the story of the Bantams’ rise between 2012 and 2017 will be fondly remembered for decades to come, those of us who endured the 12 years of epic misery before that will attest to how incredibly difficult it is to turn around Bradford City when they’re on the decline.
Rhodes’ declaration he will remain at Valley Parade beyond this season is hugely important. He’s seen the worst of times, and he helped to achieve some of the greatest. That experience is absolutely vital right now.
What he and Stefan Rupp need is the support of City fans, both in terms of season ticket renewals and in getting behind the club. That is understandably not an easy ask. Blind faith is certainly not in vogue amongst City fans right now. Reasons to be optimistic amount to straw clutching. And that’s why rebuilding the strong bond that existed between supporters and the club is absolutely paramount in the weeks, months and years ahead.
So what do the club need to do to achieve that? As part of writing Who We Are, I took a deep dive into what our values as Bradford City supporters really are. In terms of what’s missing right now, essentially it boils down to the club needing to revive its core identity and to make us all feel more valued and engaged.
There are several areas I think we need to look at. Not all changes would be costly to implement, and they’re not going to happen over night. But it’s about an aggregation of small changes that can ultimately take the club back to being the Bradford City we know and love. Even the smallest things really matter to many supporters.
Here’s my manifesto of what I believe Bradford City need to do.
1) Sort out that kit
Even now it offends my eyes. Every matchday, when the players walk out wearing that all claret shirt it brings an involuntary shudder. The 2018/19 Bradford City home kit is horrendous, and seems symbolic of the breakdown that occurred between supporters and Edin Rahic.
Yes, it’s only a football kit. But a big part of Bradford City’s heritage is the claret and amber stripes. Unique in England, rare even around the world. We should proud of our identity, and it must be right at the heart of every Bradford City kit. We need to look like Bradford City, not whatever the hell this current shirt is meant to be.
The 2019/20 kit has to claret and amber stripes. End of.
2) Bring in players for their character
There are some good players in this current Bradford City squad, but when the chips who can you rely on? Successful Bradford City teams of the past have been full of leaders. Players who will shoulder more than their personal responsibility on the pitch, driving on themselves and those around them. And even amongst less vocal, more introverted members of those past teams, they knew that if they didn’t do their job there would be a queue of team mates lining up to tell them.
Bradford City has always been successful when they have players who can cope with adversity. There are times when the team are losing and the pressure from supporters rises, and that’s when you need to show your mettle. It remains a huge source of embarrassment to the current bunch that they’ve only gained one point from a losing position all season. It is this more than anything else that betrays their strength of character.
You pine for the days of Gary Jones, Stephen Darby, Andrew Davies and Rory McArdle. You recall with admiration the way someone like James Hanson would shrug off his critics in the stands and continue to deliver. Think back further and you have Stuart McCall, Darren Moore, John Dreyer, Jamie Lawrence, Wayne Jacobs, Dean Windass, John Hendrie, Peter Jackson, Bobby Campbell. Most of these were not the greatest players in the world, but they had amazing levels of courage and grit.
As fans, we want to see players running through brick walls for the club. Fighting to the end. Not accepting defeat. Embracing rather than fearing the challenge of playing at Valley Parade. It is these types of players we must find again.
(Oh, and rein it in with all the loan players please.)
3) Let a manager build a philosophy and stick with them
Gary Bowyer has been appointed permanent manager on a two-year deal. On the one hand his track record at Blackburn and Blackpool makes him the ideal person to take on the role. But I do worry that we’ve rushed into making a decision before we’ve stopped to really think about it.
Rhodes has said that he wants to ensure City go into the summer ready to rebuild, rather than spend half of it waiting to appoint a manager. His experience of recruiting Stuart McCall in 2007, and of course last summer’s seven-week shambles that led to the under 18s coach Michael Collins at the helm, underline why it’s so important to have a plan in place. Take away the doubt, and get on with recruitment.
So I can’t disagree with that logic, but is Gary Bowyer really impressing as manager? He had a good start against Peterborough, but since then results have arguably been even worse than under David Hopkin. Of course the dire league position is not his fault, but already team selections are questionable and he has held the team back from really going for it, even at Charlton on Saturday. We can assume Rhodes and Rupp have gained confidence that Bowyer is someone they can work well with; hence offering him the two-year deal less than a month after he was appointed until the end of the season.
The worry I have is that if next season doesn’t start well, Bowyer will come under huge pressure. And the poor results we’re getting now will be tagged onto that. If things aren’t going as planned, we’ll look back at this time and wonder if we were too hasty to pin Bowyer down.
I don’t see another option other than to have made the decision of appointing Bowyer, but the circumstances of now mean I’m equally not sure we’re in a position to make the best long-term decisions. And for that reason, you could feasibly see another change of manager in the not too distant future.
That all said, Bowyer’s experience and know how offer us reasons to believe he can rebuild and take City forward next season. He has recognised one of the biggest issues at the end of David Hopkin’s tenure – the lack of a holding midfielder, meaning the Bantams weren’t winning the ball back high enough up the park – even if his solution, Jermaine Anderson, is questionable. Whilst Anderson has helped the positionally indisciplined Hope Akpan, the ex-Peterborough man has struggled. The lack of alternative options at Bowyer’s disposal underlines the lop-sided nature of the squad. Letting Jim O’Brien leave in January was a major mistake, given he wasn’t replaced.
Bowyer will need time – something that rightly or wrongly Stuart McCall, Simon Grayson, Michael Collins and David Hopkin did not get. Rhodes, at least, recognises the value of sticking with a manager. Colin Todd is the only manager he has ever outright sacked (assuming the legend is true that Gordon Gibb was the driver behind the dismissal of Nicky Law).
As the Phil Parkinson era showed, we need to find the right manager and stick with them through the lean times as well as good. Parkinson’s success was a result of us standing by him during difficult moments, knowing he had the know-how to find the answers. Parkinson had the vision to introduce the right values, and that underpinned all his success at Valley Parade. But it didn’t happen overnight. We had to be patient and let him build it.
We need to have a manager in place who we can stick to when they’re having a difficult patch, otherwise we’ll keep changing at this ridiculous frequency. We need someone to rebuild the squad, but to also think about the wider culture. Give young players more of a chance too.
4) Communicate with all supporters
Last week, the club announced the Supporters Board was back up and running. This is a monthly platform, where supporters groups are invited to meet with the club and discuss key matters. Some of it, in the past at least, requiring fans to sign non disclosure agreements, as the club were sharing sensitive information like the financials.
The return of the Supporters Board is a start, but not the whole solution. People who run supporters groups are very commendable people, giving up untold hours of time. But they’re not the only City supporters, and communicating with only part of your audience will only limit your engagement.
Without a public figurehead, the club will struggle to run a fans forum. But such open communication would be really helpful right now. A forum should be held before the start of next season, if not sooner. You could stream it on the club’s social media accounts. Or invite one of the two local radio stations to broadcast it.
All fans deserve the right to know exactly what is happening at the club, and have the opportunity to ask questions. It shouldn’t be just a few people. And on the club’s part, they need to look at fan engagement as the chance to sell a vision to supporters, one that will encourage season ticket sales. In these difficult times, you can’t communicate enough.
Be humble. Acknowledge the past mistakes. Admit that you need the help of every single supporter. Make us believe in the future.
5) Improve the matchday experience
At half time of the Blackpool game my five-year-old daughter wanted to get a hot dog or a sausage roll to eat. We walked around the Kop concourse to discover that this was not possible. The kiosks had all but run out of hot food, and a couple weren’t even open. I know these operations are franchised out, but this still reflects badly on Bradford City.
Earlier this season I went to Accrington Stanley who, like a few other progressive clubs, actively encourage fans to arrive to games early and stay back after the match. Stanley offer up a fanzone that, on the day City were in town, included local bands performing. Other clubs do lots of things for kids.
Bradford City can do so much more. Any decent pub is a 10-15 minute walk from Valley Parade, so there is no real competition if they could encourage fans to turn up early by having events and/or a place to eat or drink. Personally I’d force all the directors to park somewhere else, and use the car park behind the main stand as a place for fans to meet up before the match. Get club legends to meet fans. Invite food vans. Source some picnic tables. Book a DJ. How good would it be to have a curry at the ground before the game? Eat, drink and be merry, whilst earning the club more money.
These aren’t easy things to set up, but they can make supporters feel more engaged, and that a trip to Valley Parade becomes more than just what happens between 3-5pm.
Whatever the financial realities that dictate ambition, the matchday experience at Valley Parade is getting worse. It needs addressing.
6) Become more prominent in the community
Last month, Valley Parade was host to the Bradford sports awards. A well-regarded annual community event, where the Bradford sporting community comes together to celebrate success and recognise unsung heroes.
On the night there was a large delegation of Bradford Park Avenue officials present, the same with the Bradford Bulls. Yet from City there was no one officially attending, save for club ambassador Glenn Ackroyd. Billy Clarke was there too, but as a guest of a friend. Literally on their own doorstep, City did very little to engage with their local sporting community.
On the same weekend, the Bradford Bulls enjoyed a handsome win, and the club’s official Twitter account chose not only to celebrate their result, but highlight the other Bradford sporting clubs who had enjoyed success that weekend, including the Bantams. It was a clever way of not talking about the Bulls in isolation, but as a major and valued part of Bradford. Reaching out to promote more than just the Bulls, but Bradford sport.
Bradford is a sport-loving city and district, even if not everyone is a football fan and/or supporter of Bradford City. It is obvious, but City need to be out there at the grassroots level, promoting the Bradford City name and building relationships. The season ticket initiative remains hugely laudable, but we still need to keep attracting new people. Plus, increasingly sadly, lapsed fans. The Bradford City football in the community team are fantastic and do some brilliant things, and the club need to build on that.
Bradford City is a big club, but it is not a huge club. As a fan, part of the appeal is the feeling that every one counts and is valued, rather than the club operating like a faceless corporation that treats fans like customers. And so the Bradford City community feel is an absolutely vital part of the fabric of the club.
The city of Bradford would really benefit from its sporting clubs – professional, semi-pro and amateur – coming closer together. Uniting under the boar’s head that gives us a unique identity, to boost civic pride – much in the same way as Manchester has rediscovered its bee. Bradford City can be at the forefront of a Bradford sporting movement.
7) Have more pride
Bradford City is a wonderful football club. It means the world to so many people. The legacy of Edin Rahic is that people feel hurt that something they love so much could be so badly damaged. The recklessness of one man stripped the club of its values. There are some very good staff working behind the scenes still. But so many good people – playing and non-playing – have been allowed to leave over the two-and-a-half years Rahic ran the club into the ground.
Of all the criticisms that can be aired at the players, the fact they don’t seem to appreciate or care about playing for this club is what hurts us the most. It’s just a job to many of them. One they’d be happy to do elsewhere. They don’t seem to get what this club means to us.
Whatever league we’re in next season, and whoever is wearing the shirt, come August we want to see a group of players who are proud to play for Bradford City. They don’t need to have an in-depth knowledge of our history, but they do need to know more about Who We Are. An appreciation that it is a privilege to be a Bradford City player, and that it comes with the responsibility to give absolutely everything you have for the club.
It’s simple really. Run through brick walls in the name of Bradford City, and we supporters will love you. And if the club can create the right environment through Gary Bowyer, whilst engaging better with supporters, there is every chance of rebuilding Bradford City again.