By Mark Davis
Maybe it’s because I’m missing restaurants. Or because I still can’t fathom Americans. Or maybe it’s because the format of each episode is so mercilessly similar that it’s providing an oasis of reassuring certainty amidst the wider chaos of 2020. Whatever the reason, Kat and I are now five seasons into watching Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA. There, I said it. I feel better. And I know you ‘hate that man’.
Five seasons in, you start to learn a lot about running a small business and how familiar the pitfalls are along the way. Two storylines dominate. Either a new owner bounds in with a ‘trust me’ wink and barrel loads of enthusiasm, but absolutely no clue of what they are doing; or over time more established owners start to lose sight of why they got involved in the first place, and so gradually cheapen the product whilst hoping their customers either a) don’t notice or b) just keep coming by dint of weekly habit or a sense of loyalty.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Of the coping strategies currently available to our Dear Bradford City, after yet another bang average start to yet another season in the bottom tier, neither a) nor – somewhat more uniquely – b) are currently available to them.
The first is easy to evidence. Humiliated by an impressive Lincoln City in the Cup, then again “in front of the nation” (I’d love to know the Sky Sports viewing figures) against a lively Harrogate Town, and on Saturday against a hardworking Newport County, we have all noticed.
Which leaves b), relying upon the habits and loyalty of supporters. But in this strangest of years, we have each been forced from the path of our fortnightly pilgrimage to BD8 where our bond with the club would be renewed. This is fast becoming the most significant loss of the season. A football club is sustained by its relationships inside and outside of its formal structures. They’ve gone.
For me, this is the walk up Queens Road and onto Midland Road, passed the same badly parked cars, food stalls and scarf sellers, before quickly dodging another speeding Audi to turn right onto Thorncliffe Road, and then even now being struck by how high the back of the Kop looms into the sky.
A quick dance with the ticket checkers, and it’s handshakes with friends: “how we doing?”, “good week?”, and “I could buy 200 bloody tea bags for that, the robbing beggars!”. Two hours passes quickly or not so quickly, emotions are experienced together, before a hasty assessment of where it went right or wrong. Then it’s “you back Tuesday night?”, “fancy an away day soon?”, and “have a good one, yeah”.
In it’s place, squabbling over #bcafc on social media. This can be tolerated to an extent when it’s an addendum to the main event, when it can be judged against the reasoned conversations you’d normally have offline with friends and family. But when it’s the main medium for experiencing the club, its divisiveness can breed indifference and apathy because the energy to sustain a will to engage just dwindles.
With routine gone, Bradford City are left with just loyalty. We’re more loyal than most down at Valley Parade. But are we as loyal when the effort required to sustain our love for the club isn’t being closely monitored by friends and family? In normal circumstances, if I miss a game at Valley Parade, someone notices. “Where you at Davo?” lands in a thread somewhere. But nobody is checking up on whether I’m watching via iFollow. When what’s on the menu is this poor, it’s just easier to skip it – a fact that Simon Parker pointed to in the T&A this week.
When our loyalty to Bradford City is forced into the same rectangular screen of a TV or laptop and we are forced to watch matches in the same way as all the others, it can suddenly feel horribly synthetic. It’s also easier to draw direct comparisons to the game before or after, viewed on the same screen.
And this brings us to the core problem on the field. What is our current storyline? Who is our cast of characters? What is going to have the viewing public on the edge of their living room seats for the next instalment?
“We’ll go horses for courses” has become Stuart McCall’s managerial philosophy. And we know it can work wonders. The team that Stuart inherited from Phil Parkinson was mentally and physically strong enough and talented enough to adapt and to embrace that philosophy. It was also the best footballing side I’ve seen at Valley Parade in twenty years. The present squad simply isn’t anywhere near being capable of that.
As such, I have no idea what formation we will play on Tuesday night against Bolton Wanderers. I had no idea what formation, or which eleven players, would start against Newport County. There is no continuity at all. Seen through the lens of yet another failing American diner, our menu is all over the place and just now the chef doesn’t seem to know which recipe to follow. Watching Bradford City so far this season, I still don’t know what the plan is, and it’s leaving supporters with an unpleasant taste.
Are we trying to play it out from the back, or knock it long? Are we trying to get it wide to marauding wing backs, or play narrow in a diamond? Are we still believing the best way to progress in League Two is with neat and tidy nice lads in the middle of the park who put the fear of God into absolutely nobody when the team sheet is announced. I mean, who fears us?
I continue to find this the most curious part of McCall’s playbook. At nearly 42, I’m old enough to have seen both spells of ‘McCall the player’ and he was brilliant on the ball and thundering in the tackle.
Our successes of recent times has also been built on combative midfielders. Yes, the leadership of Gary Jones of course – but also Nathan Doyle. A nasty, horrible midfielder who could pass the ball just as well as he could shatter an ankle or flail a shoulder. Josh Cullen, Lee Evans, even Jim O’Brien – they liked a tackle. Such players “no longer exist” we are told, despite every team we’ve played this season having at least three of them.
So what is to be done? In each episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares USA, the solution is always the same. When you’ve lost your way, lost sight of what you’re trying to achieve, and your customers are no longer coming through the door, you have to strip it all back. Rediscover your core identity. Simplify the menu. In other words, get back to basics and find your passion.
The same solution is badly needed at Bradford City. Stop changing everything. Come up with a simple menu that your customers want and stick to it. McCall doesn’t need to find out what we like about Bradford City in the first place – hard work, aggression, effort (and yes, we’ll take some quality football too if you can find it at this level).
I love Stuart McCall. He absolutely should stay as our manager. But the experience of Bradford City has been cheapened is so many other ways for fans that he needs to give us a reason to tune in each week beyond blind loyalty. Our routines and habits have been broken. Now more than ever, we need a Bradford City that we recognise.
Otherwise, and it saddens me to say it, I can’t be the only one unlikely to watch another five seasons of this.