By Jason Mckeown
The eve of a brand new football season is usually one of giddy excitement. But as the 2020/21 campaign gets underway this Saturday, it’s hard to muster great enthusiasm for the return of Bradford City.
Partly it is due to the hangover of two-and-a-half years of struggle at Valley Parade. It’s still difficult to come to terms with the self-inflicted demise on the field. The throwing away of all the good work of 2012-2017. One season slumming it in the basement league might have been tolerated, but like a car stuck in the mud it’s proving more difficult than hoped to escape.
Another year of trips to Newport, Salford and Morecambe, with the mental scars of 2019/20 illustrating we could be here for some time yet. The unexpected emergency braking to last season has left many City supporters in an angry, post Salford stew. There is no momentum taking us into a new campaign.
But the lack of eagerness for 2020/21 to commence stems even more from the prevalent uncertainty of when we supporters will get to be a part of it.
City kick off the season at Bolton on Saturday in the League Cup, the sort of fixture that would typically attract a Bantams away following of 3,000 plus. The weekend after, Colchester visit Valley Parade for an occasion that would usually see a bumper home crowd. But there will be no fans at Bolton, or at Valley Parade. Hopefully by October that will begin to change with limited crowds allowed back in, but even that will be a shadow of the Bradford City matchday experience we know and love.
City will initially be restricted to having 7,000 crowds. Nowhere near enough to satisfy demand during usual times. It means we are likely to have to rotate the home games we attend, whilst watching others on ifollow at home. The club deserves great credit for keeping season tickets affordable and providing streaming access to home games – £150 for all that is truly a bargain – but it will not be the Bradford City experience we know and love.
The great thing about supporting a club like Bradford City is how accessible it usually is. To those of us with season tickets year after year, the ups and downs of the Bantams are largely witnessed first hand. The opinions and memories we have of players are gleaned live and in the flesh. It is not like being a Premier League armchair fan, where you rely on TV and radio to follow your team.
There will hopefully be lots of brilliant Bradford City moments this season. Great victories that lead to success in the shape of promotion. But all us are going to miss out from witnessing some – or maybe even all – of those occasions with our own eyes. Switching off your tablet at full time after a City win won’t quite give you the same buzz as you get from walking out of Valley Parade in triumph.
And even when we are present to witness a brilliant City occasion, the safety first, Covid-19 environment will mean it isn’t the same. You won’t be able to sit with your mates. In your usual seat. There will be no chanting allowed. It will be a shadow of how good a loud and vocal Valley Parade matchday experience can be. There also won’t be any away trips to look forward to – possibly for the entire season.
On Tuesday 1 December, Cheltenham Town are due at Valley Parade. It will be cold and dark. And if City aren’t doing that well in the league, what sort of crowd will show up? With the game available to stream live from the comfort of your own home, suddenly the endurance part of live football will seem less rewarding.
Hopefully, the different stages of returning back to normality will go smoothly and quickly. 7,000 gatherings for the visit of Harrogate Town in early October. 50% crowds by early in 2021. Maybe even full capacity by the end of the campaign. If a Covid-19 vaccine can be developed and rolled out, the landscape could look very different by next Spring. An away trip to Morecambe to witness promotion on the final day would do just nicely.
As disappointing as it all feels about not properly attending games for the moment, it is still better than nothing. That first step back inside Valley Parade will feel special after such a long gap. And as much as we have to compromise, Covid-19 continues to cruelly illustrate there are more important issues in the world. And that we should be grateful for what we can have.
But for City’s sake, you have to hope it’s a short-term existence. Financially, the club will struggle without full capacity crowds and all the revenue a regular Bradford City matchday brings in. There is also a battle to keep supporters engaged. So that, when normality finally returns, the appetite to go to games is still there.
Because there is no getting away from the fact we are bound to experience a feeling disconnect the coming months. A sadness that our football club is less accessible. Moving on without us. The March 2020 lockdown that halted the Bantams’ 2019/20 campaign ensured that we didn’t miss a thing. That things didn’t progress without us (however much it might have been nice if it has carried on with us locked out, given some of the dismal performances after November). But when the referee blows his whistle for kick off at Bolton on Saturday, that will no longer be the case. Bradford City will be playing and making new history. But we can’t go and watch them do it.
The brilliant Rory Smith of the New York Times wrote a superb piece the other week about how football has continued to move forward with the same meaning, intensity and relevance – even without fans in the stands to provide the noise. That players, managers and coaching staff have been just as driven to succeed as they always have. And that it’s meant just as much to them when they have triumphed.
Smith wrote, “That is because, deep down, there is a lie that we tell ourselves, one that players and managers and executives are complicit in. It is a harmless lie, a comforting lie, a kind lie, one that we tell ourselves to excuse and to explain our passion, to transform our powerlessness into agency, to make us feel as if our love is reciprocated. It may be a lie that contains a form of truth. It is almost certainly a lie that those who perpetuate it do not know it to be a lie.
“It is that they play for the fans, for us — that we are not merely observers of the events that play out on the field, but the purpose and inspiration for them. And yet if these last few months have shown anything, it is that is not true.”
Speaking to the Telegraph & Argus last week, Kurtis Guthrie echoed this idea, “It’s nice to have the fans there for obvious reasons but you’ve got to get past that, be professional and do your job…it doesn’t bother me too much.”
Football – and Bradford City – is about to go on without us. And though many of us will still watch every piece of action we can through our screens, it is hard to feel the same sense of excitement and meaning as you get from travelling to BD8 or around the country.
To lose out on pre match beers and post match curries and banter with City-supporting friends and walks down Midland Road and barracking the referee and leaping out of your seat to cheer a goal and the roar of the Kop and the communal feeling.
This is going to be a strange season. Normally, a summer break of three months is enough to get you excited again for the return of football. But the worry about Covid-19 and the long term health of Bradford City is that the absence of regular, full-throttle matchdays will go on and on. To the point where we start to forget about all those things that we love about going to the football – and no longer miss going to Valley Parade on a Saturday afternoon.