By Jason McKeown
There was no rollercoaster of emotions at Valley Parade on Saturday. No goals to cheer. No boos for former player Josh Wright. No chants from the North West corner. No debates about Stuart McCall’s line up, or the timing of his subs. No grumbles about the state of the pitch. No queues at half time for refreshments. No catching up with friends. No pre and post-match pints. No joy. No sadness. No anything.
In line with the rest of professional football in this country, Bradford City’s season is suspended until at least Saturday 4 April, when Colchester United visit Valley Parade. It means the bitter aftertaste of the 2-0 defeat to Salford City will fester for a few more weeks. It might very well prove to be the last piece of action for City this season, at least that we supporters get to see.
Against a backdrop of the serious health pandemic the coronavirus is causing, such drastic steps are understandable. We are living in unprecedented times. And the health of the world is undoubtedly the priority over the relatively more trivial nature of professional sport. But with the government’s expert doctors declaring the peak of the virus impact is not yet here in the UK, you have to wonder how realistic it is that football can resume again in early April. If, as expected, the government confirms a ban on mass public gatherings, we will quickly find out if football has a chance of returning anytime soon.
In line with other world governing bodies, the Football League is facing some difficult decisions. With UEFA expected to postpone Euro 2020 for a year, there will be a window to extend the season through May and even into June. This will certainly help, with at least four extra fixtures for Football League clubs to reschedule. It should also allow for an extension of the current season suspension for a few extra weeks, if needed. But if the threat of the illness and impact on society doesn’t allow mass gatherings to recommence anytime soon, what will happen then?
Assuming footballers themselves are able to continue, clubs could complete the season with behind closed doors matches. At least initially. That would not be welcome by anyone particularly, but would at least allow for existing promotion and relegation issues to be resolved. The other, more nuclear option, would be to cancel the entire season. And come back together again in August 2020, with everyone starting again as they were in August 2019.
Such a move might not be too upsetting for us City fans, where promotion hopes are slowly starting to fade anyway. And it would have some comedy value watching the reaction from Elland Road. That all said though, it would be hard not to feel for sympathy for other clubs who have worked hard to get into a strong promotion position. Football is an ongoing soap opera that never ends. Pressing the reset button could seriously damage the integrity of the sport.
Let’s look at the Premier League as an example. Leicester City are closing in on a Champions League spot – a deserved reward for an excellent season. As good as they’ve been, Leicester have partly benefited from Manchester United enduring a wretched first half to the season and Tottenham losing the services of Harry Kane since December. Imagine if the season reset in August, only Manchester United begin the campaign with Bruno Fernandes – who signed in January and has helped to turn around their fortunes – and Tottenham have a fit-again Kane. Leicester’s hopes of repeating their march to the Champions League places would be lower. It would be hard for them to take if they missed out.
There is talk of having the current placings considered the final standings, but that simply won’t work. Whilst Southend and Bolton are clearly going to be relegated from League One, and Stevenage from League Two, not much else in the Football League is certain to happen. How, also, would you decide which teams are promoted in the play off winner slot? Whenever football can resume, and whatever the format, ultimately it has to continue where it left off.
In many ways this is the least of the problems facing some clubs right now. In the wake of Bury’s collapse last August, there has been plenty of talk in football that several other lower league outfits are on the brink of following suit. The financial issues at Macclesfield, Oldham and Southend are well documented. And the hand to mouth existence of these and other clubs could be tested like never before by the suspension of the football season. With no matchday revenue for the next few weeks at least – and perhaps not until next August – will everyone survive? Even when football resumes, crowds are likely to be lower for a time.
There are calls for the Premier League, which will have no such problems, to provide some sort of hardship support to Football League clubs during this period. It would be nice to see the elite look after the pyramid below them, but their track record since 1992 would suggest nothing will happen unless the government exerts pressure. For now at least, clubs are on their own. A spring break that nobody wants, against a backdrop of a society facing far bigger concerns.
This all presents very real challenges for Bradford City. But as Director of Communications Ryan Sparks told BBC Radio Leeds, the Bantams should be in a better position than others. Stefan Rupp has the deep pockets to provide additional financial support to the club, which it appears he is willing to do. You can’t help but wonder what this latest test of his financial commitment might do to his long-term appetite to the owner of Bradford City. The amount of money he continues to have to pour into the club, plus the headaches of City’s on-the-pitch demise, would not be what he had expected when he was persuaded to buy the club in 2016.
Make no mistake, at times like this we are lucky to have Rupp in charge. Whilst questions about the way the club is being run aren’t going away, there will be other clubs envious of our position in these troubled times. There should be a financial buffer to protect the Bantams, at a time when others could go out of business. What we don’t yet know is what will happen in the long-run. City, and other clubs who survive, will probably have to reduce costs and possibly slash their playing budgets for next season. You can’t go weeks or months without receiving your usual revenue and escape some form of long-term consequence.
How all that will play out remains to be seen. In the meantime for Bradford City, training has had to be cancelled for at least nine days, after a member of the coaching staff was sent home to self-isolate as they were showing symptoms associated with the coronavirus. The situation will naturally be monitored carefully and hopefully won’t become any more serious. When the squad is eventually able to return to training, Stuart McCall will need to keep them ticking over in preparation for the nine games that remain.
This will be a period that requires a different way of thinking. McCall will face an unusual week but won’t be short of things he could do. There’s plenty of time to brush up on the opposition City still have to face this season. And to look further ahead, at the plans for next term. If this season is able to restart, the extension to its ending is likely to lead to a shorter summer to revamp the squad. So now is a chance to prepare for a crucial period of change. Build that list of targets. Begin to decide on contracts of the current squad.
One such potential challenge is the possibility of the season being extended beyond the terms of contracts that will expire in the summer. Typically, football contracts run until 30 June. So if the 2019/20 season is concluded by then, City should be okay. But if the campaign runs into July and beyond, McCall – in keeping with other managers – might have to offer short contract extensions (eg a month) so he has enough players.
The loanee market could be particularly difficult. The deals of City’s five loanees would expire after 16 May 2020 – the date of the League Two play off final. City, and others, might lose the services of loan players they rely on. For example, Dylan Connolly. This could be a welcome way of saving costs – for example, Luke McGee might be someone they could sacrifice. But that puts the burden back on the parent club, when they have managed their budgets on the assumption players out on loan would remain partially off the wage bill until the summer. The James Vaughan situation would be an interesting case. Would City able to recall him before the end of the extended campaign, to help the play off push? That could be a huge blow to a Tranmere side battling hard to avoid relegation, although they might want to send him back to save money. And if they had to do that, would it hurt City’s financial fair play requirements?
It could all get very messy. The Football League has a real problem here that won’t be easy to fix. They can’t just blanket say all loans are extended, if some clubs argue they can’t afford to keep up the financial commitments they had made. And equally, you can’t say all loans end on the original date, if parent clubs can’t financially operate with the added burden of the player they had sent out on loan.
These are unparalleled events for football. But as with everything around the coronavirus, it all comes back to the importance of protecting everyone’s wellbeing first and foremost. Staying healthy, of course, but also coping with the impact of their employer potentially struggling. At Bradford City there are probably some non-playing staff feeling apprehensive about their own employment future, just as there are across companies and industries around the world. Hopefully, things turn out okay for them.
There are businesses outside Bradford City who rely on the club’s activities for their own revenue – local pubs, for example. They could still do with our financial and morale support where possible. The wonderful North Parade scene could be really hurt by months of no matchday crowds.
We all have to hang in there, during what are hugely unsettling and troubling times. When the recovery eventually occurs, the landscape around us will have shifted and some things will probably never be the same again. But when it comes to Bradford City at least, hopefully, the cheering and the groans will return. We’ll enjoy and despair in victory and defeat, like always. We’ll chant loudly together. We’ll give praise and grumble. We’ll return to a time when the most pressing matter was Hope Akpan’s form.
Hopefully life, and Bradford City, will ultimately go on as before. Perhaps with us all appreciating it that little bit more.
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This is going to be a challenging time for the football media. Whilst right now outlets seem to be enjoying sensationalising the mass cancellation of sporting events around the world, in a week or so they’ll be left with nothing to talk about. There are some worthy calls via social media for the likes of Sky Sports and the BBC to provide us consumers with some good quality retro sports coverage to keep us going. Re-run classic Super Sunday matches, Match of the Days, or even full World Cup tournaments. If there is nothing new and current going on in football, let’s have some good nostalgia at least. Something to fill that void.
At WOAP, we’ll be facing a similar problem of not having much current to write about, until the season returns. But we still want to provide you with some content. A tiny bit of escapism during some challenging times. So we’ve got a few things planned.
- Last summer, the club asked if I would be up for writing a column for the matchday programme. As I use WOAP for current City affairs, I decided to write a series of articles looking back on the fact it was 20 years since the Bantams’ rise to the Premier League. I’ve written about the ups and downs of that memorable season by going through the key matches. As the programme has a limited readership these days, I’m going to publish these columns over the coming weeks.
- Tim Penfold has been doing what a lot of football fans are doing right now with no football to enjoy – diving deep into playing Championship manager. He’s started an old version based on the 1998/99 football season. And he’s going to write a series of articles about how he gets on managing Bradford City.
- We will of course write about any updates on football’s plans for the rest of the season and what it means for the Bantams.