By Jason McKeown
Around half an hour before Bradford City’s opening game of the season, against Cambridge United, a group of young fans marched down Burlington Street chanting “100 points, 100 points Gary Bowyer”. It was an illustration of the high expectation levels of many Bantams supporters going into this season. It was also a vocal demonstration of a growing movement amongst younger supporters to redirect the ambitions of the football club.
It has been bubbling under the surface over the past couple of seasons, becoming more evident during the dark final few months of Edin Rahic’s doomed reign, and continuing through Bradford City’s ongoing demise that followed the chairman’s removal. To many fans, Bradford City lacks vision and aspiration to truly fulfil its potential. And, the belief of these supporters is that a big part of perennial low expectations are the low standards demanded by the rest of the fanbase.
The crux of this movement is that, as a supporter base, we are too willing to accept mediocrity, and that too often the club’s failings are overlooked or forgiven because our expectations are so low. That clearly played out over the Rahic reign, where civil war erupted between supporters. Right to the end, some fans clung onto an unfounded belief that the former chairman was misunderstood and was, in fact, doing good things for the club. You might call it a naïve outlook; others would call it negligent.
Bradford City is hardly unique in having some supporters who will back the club no matter what. They go to matches to support the team. They believe in the players, the manager and the owners. When City lose they are upset, but defend the club from criticism expressed by other supporters. Such an outlook is needed for clubs to get through sticky patches – typically, it is this type of supporter you see on long-distance Tuesday night away trips or low key pre-season friendlies – but as the Rahic episode showed, blind loyalty can be incredibly dangerous.
Which leads us back to the 100 points chant and where we are so far this season. After five, largely underwhelming league performances – plus a dismal exit from the League Cup – there’s little evidence to suggest a 100-point season lies in store for the Bantams. But that was never the point from those who were chanting for it that day. It wasn’t a prediction: it was a demand. A call to be ambitious as a club. To want the best. For City to take on the mantle of being the biggest in the division by running away with the title.
After all, Bradford City was on the verge of Championship football only two years ago. The relegation, last season, was self-inflicted rather than the result of the club not able to compete at League One level. We should not be in League Two now. In fact, with a competent chairman running the club between the summer of 2016 and the end of 2018, the club should really have made it back into the second tier.
So the ambition to trample all over League Two, and get back to where the club is capable of thriving, is understandable. The problem, as ever, is that reality is now biting. City are stuttering rather than soaring. It is early days in the season, but the underwhelming feeling is growing. It leaves City on collision course for a supporter backlash, unless the team quickly clicks into gear.
And that’s where the difficulty of high expectations comes in. It’s all very well to demand 100 points, but if it becomes apparent that it simply isn’t going to happen, fall outs will quickly happen. Right now, the expectation of where City should be is a long way ahead of how they are actually performing, putting Gary Bowyer and the players under pressure even at this early stage. The demands are the club should beat every team they come up against in League Two. Those expectations either need to soften, or the team needs to start fulfilling them. If the gap between expectation and reality continues to be as wide as it looks now, the calls for Bowyer to be sacked will begin to grow.
It will be at that stage that the other areas of City’s fanbase will have an important role to play. Not everyone is demanding League Two domination, many are happy if City make the play offs. Others will even accept mid-table this year, arguing that Bowyer needs more time to truly get the squad where he wants it to be. Just how vocal fans at this end of the spectrum prove to be could go a long way to determining Bowyer’s fate, should the club continue its stuttering start.
Is it fair on Bowyer and the players that expectations are as high as they are? Probably not. The issue of still being stuck with so many under-performing players from last season, earning significant money, has limited Bowyer’s attempts to improve the squad. Of this group, arguably only Anthony O’Connor is proving reasonable value for money this season.
The continued failings of Hope Akpan sums up much of the team’s struggles so far. Basically put up for transfer in the summer, but no takers. So he’s still here, unable to have a positive impact on the team. Yet Akpan is said to be one of the club’s top three earners, so cannot and shouldn’t be a passenger. Even leaving him out on the sidelines for the rest of the season would still leave Bowyer with the financial pain of a sizeable part of the budget going on the player’s wages. You can already see next summer’s retained list will be short on numbers.
In purely practical terms, this is a season to get through for the club. Get those final, ill-fated Rahic signings off the wage bill next summer, so you can truly rebuild a team. That means just completing the campaign without any relegation concerns as a minimum, judging the bounce back to League One as a two-year target. But that is low ambition stuff, which would probably see Bowyer driven out and a lower take up of season tickets next year.
So ambition is important. And though the 100 points stuff is in my opinion taking things too far, there will have to be serious questions asked if Bradford City fail to improve on a tentative start. In my view, finishing in the top seven has to be the minimum target, and there is no reason why a push for an automatic promotion spot should be beyond this group of players.
The high ambition philosophy has made me question my own outlook and expectations for the club. Are we as fans too comfortable accepting mediocrity? Is it okay to ever consider losing to Forest Green Rovers as acceptable? Should we demand more from the owners and the people employed from the club in taking the club forward? Are we too soft as a fanbase? I feel like my own viewpoint has shifted, and when City are dreadful and some supporters make excuses for them being so poor, I groan. We definitely do need higher standards.
Yet I’m conflicted too, because experience of watching football over the years has habitually shown up the folly of short-term thinking, and the value in giving a manager time to build. Logically, Bowyer needs a couple of seasons, but I’m struggling to be impressed enough to award him that patience.
It feels like an age thing, and that we now have a younger set of supporters coming through with a voice that is different to older generations. I’ve supported City for 22 years now – and over most of that time the club has been languishing in the bottom two divisions. To be in League Two angers me because of what Rahic did, but it doesn’t feel out of keeping with the club’s history. Why should our current predicament be the limit of our ambitions? When did third and fourth tier football become our normal, rather than a huge underachievement for a club of our stature?
To say it’s an age thing sounds patronising, as there is no doubt the rise and rise of social media – giving everyone a platform – has made an even bigger impact. As a Bradford City community, we always argue about everything, but certain views that were perhaps in the past consigned to a few fans debating City in their local pub are now out there for everyone to read and respond to.
There’s less tolerance of other people’s views, and so debate gets shut down too easily. We’re all guilty of aggressively dismissing alternative opinion, rather than considering and respecting what others think. You see it in the backlash against the ‘Bantams Family’ – a phrase which has changed from a nice piece of James Mason marketing into an umbrella term for fans who are less ambitious and over-protective of the club’s weaknesses. Supporters are mocked for innocently posting selfies on Twitter about travelling to an away game. We’ve all become a bunch cynical tossers. It’s just all very fragmented, with fault on all sides.
Ultimately, I feel like as a football club we lack vision right now. As supporters, the wounds of the Rahic regime are still to fully heal and there is a disjointed feel about going to Valley Parade. I find myself pining for the days of Phil Parkinson, when the club had greater togetherness on and off the field, and a resilience to get through tough times. There was still lots of arguing, but also success, positivity, and a sense of direction. The journey was as much fun as the intended destination.
We got off lightly with Rahic, compared to what Bolton and Bury are going through right now. But I do think there has been psychological damage from watching a club you absolutely believed in turn into something you don’t recognise, as it was stripped of its values. And that means patience has become lower currency. I feel like less of a fan now, more a consumer. When City reached the cup final in 2013, I felt a part of that success and that the support we gave was just as important as the assists of Gary Jones. Now, I don’t feel as connected to the current team – that it is their job to inspire me, not the other way around. And that kind of outlook makes failure harder to tolerate.
This summer brought a togetherness on and off the field, with supporters collectively feeling good about the prospects of the club, the look of the new signings and the inspiring words of Gary Bowyer. It hasn’t fully gone away, but the bright mood has been dampened by the early realities of League Two football.
What made us feel so good over the summer? It was having ambition. Believing we were going places. That we were on the brink of exciting times. That the chapter had been closed on a truly dark period for the club, and that we could look forward to nine months of winning lots of football matches. The ambition was too high in some quarters, but it felt good to wonder if it might prove to be right.
For what it’s worth, I think we need to find a middle ground on expectations. Demanding City walk the league only sets us up for disappointment when it doesn’t happen, and leads us down a path of making another managerial change that brings more turmoil to Valley Parade. Yet equally, we can’t just sit back and be happy with a muddling mid-table season, and for the club to drift aimlessly along as it did before Parkinson shook it up.
I think there’s a big debate to have about what we are fans now expect from this season, and what we expect of our football club. And as the final traces of the Rahic tenure are eventually flushed away next summer, there’s also a big debate for us all to have about the long-term ambitions of Bradford City Football Club.