By Jason McKeown
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a Bradford City game to chew over. This is the biggest gap between City matches since the second world war. And the late start to 2020/21 means we’ve still got several weeks to go yet.
The break from Bradford City has affected different people in different ways. Some people are really missing it and finding it hard, at least based on some of the messages I receive from readers. Others have switched off from City completely, understandably dealing with a lot bigger and more pressing issues in their lives due to Covid-19.
And then there are others, who seem to be getting angrier and angrier about the direction of the club.
It’s very understandable that many people are feeling frustrated. The bad old days of League Two football, 2007-2013, were supposed to be a thing of the past. Without torturing ourselves again, City were a dodgy offside decision away from edging promotion to the Championship just three short years ago. The collapse has been really painful. 2019/20 was meant to be about the rebirth of the club again. But the engine stalled.
Finishing ninth in League Two last season is not good enough for a club where supporters understandably have ambitions of Championship football. And when we look at the health of Bradford City on and off the field, we see a distant owner and infrastructure still weakened from the Edin Rahic wrecking ball. And a chief executive in Julian Rhodes, keeping a low profile.
There’s a lot to be unhappy about. A lot to urge the club to improve on. And an understandable frustration by the current state of flux.
There’s not a single City fan out there who would disagree that we need to strive for better. Nevertheless, the anger that has been building up on social media is in danger of spilling over and becoming very toxic. There is also attempts to bully City’s director of communications and commercial, Ryan Sparks, to the point it is rumoured he is thinking of quitting Twitter. Over recent months Sparks has clearly gone out of his way to communicate directly with supporters – sometimes revealing warts and all – but this has been met with scorn by a section of fans online. It is noticeable he has already stopped replying to Tweets.
Beyond that, fans with a more positive outlook are ridiculed or shouted down. Some have told me they’ve been busy with blocking and muting people on Twitter, because they’re fed up of receiving unprovoked attacks. More worryingly, a couple have even told me they’ve stopped following City, at least in terms of news and the conversation, because they’re struggling to want to be part of a fanbase where their views are shouted down.
“I think those people have successfully ended my connection to the Bradford City community,” one fan told me. He was talking about one particular Twitter account, well known to fans who frequent the #bcafc timeline, run by a handful of people who criticise the club relentlessly and turn on people who disagree. A couple of who have been publically outed as middle-aged men who frankly should be capable of behaving better. Another added of this particular account, “They’re online bullies. Arrogant and always wanting the last word. They never let an occasion slip to criticise the club or supporters who say anything to the contrary.
“I have blocked them and I know my friends have too. I’m fed up of the nastiness.”
What I love about football is that everyone can have an opinion. The Bradford City online community has generally been a really good melting pot of different views and ideas. You’re not going to agree with everyone, and you certainly have some heated bust-ups at times, but there’s a general respect for each other. We’re all City, together. Supporting the same cause. Wanting the same things.
Arguments are good fun. I enjoy a nice debate. Some City fans on Twitter are highly skilled at constructive challenge and in making you think deeper. There are times with City-related matters where I wonder what Ben or Gaz or Paul or Ian or Jo or Cathy think, and I go and find out.
But the problem, which has grown in recent weeks and months, is how nasty the wider conversation has become. How a group of people with a certain viewpoint have helped to breed a culture where people who think a different way are often bullied. Those central to this cause have even attracted other followers, who have started acting and behaving in the same way. You see a fan air a positive opinion and watch the pile on attacking them. It’s not nice to see.
There are worrying connotations about the direction that this is all heading. Everyone is entitled to their view on City. And a lot of the criticisms aired about the club are extremely fair and well argued. But for months a central group of fans have engaged in low level harassment of individuals they disagree with, and that is allowing a space and culture to open up where this sort of behaviour is seen as acceptable. So others revel in that space, and feel empowered to harass other people too. People who are, I’m sure, lovely and reasonable in real life feel they have licence to attack other people online.
There are fans who have been vilified and ridiculed, and those people are probably less connected to the club because of that.
It’s also changing the wider mood around supporting Bradford City. No one would disagree that the club deserves criticism for where we have headed these past three years. But equally, there comes a point where we have to let the club rebuild. Recognise they will be working hard to turn it around. Understand that they will be hurting too.
At the moment, every half-baked transfer rumour from an anonymous Twitter account or click-bait website is given credibility it doesn’t deserve. Often because it fits a narrative that others are determined to pedal. Leaping on every small news development and false rumour, as some sort of confirmation of a wider theory, undermines that constructive criticism.
Calls for better scouting, more analytical transfer thinking, and a director of football have merit. Who wouldn’t, upon looking at the last few transfer windows, dispute that City need to do better? But even though everyone can get on board with this thinking, the constant jabbing in the ribs that we “shouldn’t accept the situation” grates.
Are we supposed to boycott the club because it won’t appoint a DoF? When Billy Clarke plays, should we boo his every touch? If we can’t trust Stuart McCall to choose who he signs, should we start a campaign to get him removed? Just how do we go about “not accepting the situation”? There is a feeling from some quarters that the only way to bring improvement is to start a civil war.
The criticisms are not just angry but incomplete. None of us have access to the financial realities of the club. We think we do, but we don’t know the granular detail. But we do know that right now the vast majority of Bradford City staff are furloughed, and that the club has had no real income coming in since March. In fact, Rupp is believed to be putting in additional money to underwrite these losses.
As a business, is the club in a position to take on new staff, invest into a new scouting system, right now? And if Rupp was to put more money in, what do the majority of us think is the financial priority?
These are constructive and very interesting debates to have. We fans can and certainly should be asking more of Rupp. But it strikes me that Rupp has no good reason to listen to angry Tweets from anonymous accounts who in the next breath are accusing him of pocketing windfalls, or insulting club employees and fellow fans.
If I was Rupp, I’d struggle to understand why such people deserve to be taken seriously.
The great thing about football supporting is it gives you a deep connection to something. And it naturally generates strong opinions on a topic that only a few thousand of us are really knowledgeable about.
But having strong opinions can limit our ability to learn and be accepting of new information. Of understanding other points of view. Of developing empathy.
Each and every one of us can be guilty of suffering from confirmation bias. This means developing certain beliefs, then favouring information that confirms those biases, and ignoring information that challenges it. Social media can magnify this effect.
Just think of a City player you really liked. Every time they did something good, like scored a goal or produced a strong performance, you will have placed great weight on this ‘evidence’ as it confirmed your belief. If they had a stinker or made a mistake, you would dismiss or make excuses for it. And it would be a detail your brain quickly forgot.
According to VeryWellMind.com, “People who support or oppose a particular issue will not only seek information to support it, they will also interpret news stories in a way that upholds their existing ideas. They will also remember details in a way that reinforces these attitudes.”
This is very telling about a lot of the social media arguments that are happening on the BCAFC hashtag right now. It seems every piece of news is interpreted in a way that suits a pre-determined belief about the competence of Bradford City. And the history of the club is reframed in a way to try and justify that argument.
It is strong confirmation bias. But is can be dangerous because it will continue with every development from Valley Parade. Somehow, it would be nice if we could all get back to taking a more balanced view. Campaign for change and improvements positively. Understand different perspectives, especially if you want yours to be understood. But the trenches have already been dug.
The question is – do we have to stay in our own bunker?
The Bradford City supporter community – and social media – would be healthier if we all just stepped back a little bit. Let’s not rush to praise the club – but let’s not condemn them either. We don’t have to decide everything they’re doing is doomed to fail, or guaranteed to succeed.
There’s a really good constructive discussion for us all to have about the future of the club – the leadership, the infrastructure, the strategy, the planning, the ambition. But they can and should be done through civil open dialogue, rather than from behind a pitch fork.
No one has to just get behind the lads. No one has to accept merely being grateful just to have a club to support. But let’s remember that we are all Bradford City supporters. Wanting the same things, and let’s channel that energy and desire into something more constructive.
And above all else, let’s stop marginalising and bullying people who don’t happen to agree with us. Stop going after good people like Sparks, who are going out of their way to try and communicate openly and honestly with supporters. Because if we all stop and listen to each other more, we could all learn a lot.