By Jason McKeown
On Saturday 9 March, 1996, third tier Bradford City were well beaten 2-0 at Oxford United. They remained slumped in mid-table, after a poor run of two wins in 10.
No one gave them a prayer at winning promotion, yet the Bantams would go onto win 11 of their last 16 games to sneak into the top six. And in the play offs, they beat Notts County at Wembley to go up.
On Tuesday 12 March, 2013, fourth tier Bradford City went to bottom club Plymouth Argyle and could only draw 0-0. As in 1996, they were stuck in mid-table after a run of two wins in 10. In fact, they trailed the play offs by nine points.
It seemed all over, yet City won five of their last eight games to finish in the play offs. And from there, they defeated Northampton at Wembley to go up.
A snap shot of supporting Bradford City in mid-March of 1996 and 2013 would have featured a mood of despondency. Seasons seemingly heading to disappointing conclusions. Expectations crushed. Promotion hopes written off. Only for things to change in spectacular fashion.
The past history of City’s last two play off promotions has a lot of relevance right now, as the Bantams are stuck in limbo due to the far-reaching effects of the coronavirus. With the country in lockdown, and social distancing measures likely to be in place for months to come, it’s difficult for anyone to know just when we might get to set foot inside Valley Parade again.
There are much bigger, pressing concerns than playing and watching football right now. And yet, as a nation we’re craving for a return to normal life. For the coronavirus nightmare to be managed to a level where it’s safe enough to go back towards how things were. Working, seeing friends and family, visiting places – and, for thousands of us across the land, going to the football again.
The outlook for football coming back in the near future certainly looks bleak. As Bradford City supporters, we’ve been warned not to expect to return for the rest of 2020. And yesterday Stuart McCall has publically stated that he can’t see the season being finished. Reports now suggest a FL meeting early next will confirm League One and Two won’t return this season, with a vote to determine whether 2019/20 is voided or determined some other way.
The unlikeliness of lower league fans being allowed in stadiums for some time is likely to have a devastating effect for lower league clubs. Many were already sailing close to the wind with their lack of financial strength, and the coronavirus hurricane will potentially send several clubs out of business. Macclesfield, for example, are in big trouble.
To an extent, clubs are currently insulated by the government’s furlough scheme. But at the moment, it only runs until the end of June. This takes the burden off lower league clubs from paying full wages to players and employees when they can’t work. If the scheme is brought to an end, perhaps because other parts of the economy can reopen by that point, many football clubs could be in real trouble. There are already hints from the government that the scheme will be rolled back.
The furlough scheme is huge for lower league clubs, but it’s also why a return to playing in the near future is pretty much impossible.
The indications are that Bradford City are in a better position than a lot of their lower league peers. But of course, no business in the world is going to be immune from operating with very little, if any, revenue, and continued outgoings. So there’s a bumpy path ahead.
Whatever happens, City look set to remain a League Two club when football does eventually resume. And it becomes difficult to see how the season can have a fair outcome, however harsh it is on clubs much closer to promotion.
Trying to determine the season on latest standings, or points per game ratios, are imperfect systems, open to legal challenge. Football is too much of a volatile sport to suggest any league table in March would mirror the final one in May. And whether you benefit or lose out from such an approach, it’s no way to decide the outcome. Swindon Town were crowned Champions, after the Football League released a statement. There’s a hollow ring to it.
The other problem with attempting to arrange some sort of promotion or relegation is the uncertainty of which clubs will survive. Promote Swindon and relegate Southend, but what if Southend go out of business? They were already struggling badly.
Amongst Bradford City fans, there’s not been a great deal of chatter about continuing the season. And that’s very understandable. Firstly, we’ve all got a lot of other, more important things to think about right now. Normally during a close season you’d miss Bradford City and be itching to get back, but it’s low down our priority list.
It’s also partly because the season wasn’t going well. Up until November City had looked strong automatic promotion contenders. But the decline has been lasting and attracting more and more frustration. The impact of changing managers was diluted by poor away defeats to Cambridge, Newport and Salford. The squad – still featuring a number of the 2018/19 relegation side – is unloved.
After the Salford defeat, anger levels were high and many of us were resigning ourselves to the fact the season was all but over. That this group of players lacked the courage to do anything more than allow things to fizzle out. City were ninth in the table, four points off the play offs. The run-in looked tricky. And time was running out.
Yet four points off the play offs was a much better position than City were at the same March point in 1996 and 2013. Had the coronavirus emerged in either of those years, ending the season in the March, Bradford City’s history would look very different.
It looked hopeless after the Salford defeat. But it looked hopeless in 1996 and 2013. The beauty and curse of football is how quickly the mood can change. City are another club who you would expect would have wanted to see the season resumed from where it is paused. However, not at the cost of potentially running up huge losses.
If Leagues One and Two can’t continue, you wonder what that would mean for the top two divisions. Financially, City need Sheffield United’s season to not be voided. They’ll be owed a six figure sum if their Premier League survival is assured, under the terms of the Oli McBurnie transfer from Swansea to the Blades. And right now, when the club’s financial future faces uncertainty, such money could be absolutely vital.
The statements this week from Stefan Rupp and Julian Rhodes suggest City should be able to get through this period. But it’s only going to make us weaker, along with the other clubs.
As fans, as people, we have our own individual priorities right now. Football’s value in society has undoubtedly taken a big knock in the current situation. It’s rightly at the back of the queue in terms of what matters.
But we still care deeply, about Bradford City. And perhaps the crisis will lead to a greater togetherness that has been absent at Valley Parade since the 2017 play off final defeat. Fans have felt disengaged and less valued since the Edin Rahic episode. The club was doing plenty to try and repair that broken trust, and perhaps the next few months offer more opportunity to do that. To tap into supporters’ views and even expertise. To not just survive, but look forwards.
It’s about pulling together, doing our bit – big or small – to help the club. And with it all, perhaps a new-found appreciation of what we have will emerge.
For the day we can all sit back together inside Valley Parade, applaud our team onto the field, and cheer and fret about their performance is one that will have deeper meaning.
We all took going to watch Bradford City for granted, as we did seeing our friends and family whenever we wanted. Hopefully, emerging out of the other side of the coronavirus crisis will lead to a greater love of our football club. Because they’re probably going to need it. In an ideal world, this pause would also offer Bradford City an opportunity to review and improve how it operates. To come back with a greater sense of purpose.
So if the 2019/20 season really is over, that would be sad when there was still plenty to play for. But when all this is over, still having a Bradford City to support, getting to go to the match, being part of the Bantams community. That’s a normality to keep fighting for, during these very dark and difficult times.