By Andy Thorlby
These are testing times. At a time when we are beset with challenges, our football club is far from being a comforting distraction. We despair about a run of poor form that seems to have stretched back to a January afternoon in Yeovil, almost three years ago.
The main comfort as a Bantam fan right now seems to be in nostalgia. Last week we could remember 8 years ago, unbelievably beating Arsenal on penalties, in the dream “history makers” year. Over a couple of seasons, they defeated a quarter of the Premier League. In cup runs, that also saw them defeat Leeds, and a fantastic FA Cup adventure that included the historic 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge. Fans with longer memories saw the two Premiership years.
Good times and bad. Years where we left Valley Parade in the pleasant glow of victories…and recent years where its been a trudge back home in the despondency of defeat.
Last week, as we slumped into the league two relegation zone, we all found ourselves contemplating the impossibility of dropping out of the main Football League. I have asked myself, in recent times, what drives me to continue supporting Bradford City. Would I give up, and find another activity? Or start following another club instead? As a kid in the 1970s I followed Liverpool from afar, as their then goalkeeper, Ray Clemence, grew up in the next street to me. Following Liverpool right now would be pretty timely given their recent form and surely better for my mental health….
But then I reflect on what drives me to support Bradford City. I picked up again my copy of Jason McKeown’s “Who we Are” and read the closing pages, its conclusion about history, community, bonds between supporters and them with their club; and I thought about my own story.
I moved to the Bradford area with work in the mid 1990s, and first went to a match with a friend from work, who’d supported them since infancy. I remember a cold Tuesday night on the Kop, no memory of who City played. Not sure there were any goals, I wasn’t inspired to keep going. I followed City from afar – I remember listening to the historic match against my childhood team Liverpool on the radio, that improbably kept them up for a second season in the Premiership. I confess that the spiral into two administrations and to the foot of League Two passed me by.
Like many, my interest re-kindled in the 2012/13 season. I wasn’t at any of those great League Cup matches, but started following closely with my three boys, all by now passionate about football.
My middle son at the time liked playing in goal and we built an affinity with Matt Duke, who’d come back from cancer to play a key part in that campaign. We watched in dismay as a Swansea player carelessly fell over Matt’s feet in the penalty area, he was red carded, and a 5-0 hammering ensued.
We were prompted afterwards to write to Matt Duke, explaining that City wouldn’t have been at Wembley without his magnificent efforts, and he should have been proud of what he’d achieved. The letter must have touched a chord at a dark time. To our total surprise, six weeks later, a parcel arrived with no letter, but containing a pair of Matt’s battered goalie gloves. He’d scribbled in pen on the palms my eldest sons’ names and “best wishes from Matt, No 12”. They still sit in the trophy cabinets in my boys’ rooms, next to the junior football club medals and trophies.
Similarly, in the dark January of 2018, myself and my youngest son wrote three letters of support to Stuart McCall as the defeats mounted. After the second letter, he rang us up, and left an answer phone message for my son, thanking him for the letters and the encouragement. “We’ll do our best to put a smile on your faces this Saturday.” Sadly, they lost again and Stuart was sacked the following Monday. The answer machine message is still there…
Other than these occasional highlights and touching interchanges, over the last eight years we’ve attended match after match, as season ticket holders.
Is there any better feeling than watching the building momentum, convinced a goal will come… and then it does, in front of the Kop? The roar of delight and triumph. We came to enjoy though, not just the well attended league matches, but the EFL trophy games, when, like now, it was almost just us, and those in the dug out.
The summer friendlies at Guiseley and Park Avenue. And getting photos with most of the players, before and (with the subs) during matches. Shaking hands with Matt Kilgallon and Stephen Derby on returns from injury.
We built relationships with the players, and just enjoyed watching football. As I also did, watching my own boys in their own matches. Father and sons matches. And even, at the height of our enthusiasm, just stopping off on a Sunday morning, to watch the local Sunday league match on the recreation ground.
Of course, even before the current dark times, it hasn’t all been plain sailing, for the club, or for me. We’ve had poor matches before. The week after the Chelsea triumph. I remember a dour league match against Colchester, if I recall right. As I trudged home after the match, I found that I couldn’t walk straight, and within hours was in BRI. Improbably, at the age of 45, I’d had a stroke. It took a couple of months to recover.
Amusingly, I arranged for a friend who is a Leeds fan, to take my boys and his son (who we had converted into a Bantam season ticket holder) to the Sunderland FA cup game. I remember my own difficult, emotional return to Valley Parade, after that enforced break.
Which brings me back to the question, why do we bother? For me, its never been about the league status. It’s about the bonding time with my kids, the shared interest, the enjoyment and thrill of watching live football. Our local club, in the heart of the city I adopted and came to love. Community. Family.
Results only matter because it is of course depressing to watch our team being out played, concede goals, and lose matches. At a time when it seems that we are having to dig deep to simply hang on in all aspects of our lives right now, supporting Bradford City is an added source of gloom, not an antidote to it.
Right now, I dread kick off and am relieved when we have a week gap. This is no way to be, as a football supporter. My biggest personal agony is that the main point of shared interest with my youngest son (the only one who’s still a season ticket holder) has become too painful to banter about.
As our whole community faces dark times, we’d love our club to be a positive relief for us. So I am as dispirited, frustrated, angry, as any other fan, right now.
Of course, at some, point, the team performance will bottom out, and they will start winning more matches than they lose, again. How would I feel (assuming the club didn’t implode and go bust completely), if that doesn’t happen before they hit Sunday league football, on the local recreation ground? Whilst a fall of that depth doesn’t bear thinking about…I’d figure watching that my local club, playing hard and winning, with my boys next to me…well, for me, that’s what its been about really, all along.
I’ve come to see the club as a sort of family thing. You love your family to bits. In your own eyes, you want them to conquer the world, hoping that they overcome any failings and faults. Critical, but defending them against outsiders. But even if they let you down again and again – well, they’re your family, and you stick with them through thick and thin. You can’t do it for them, but you do everything you can, to will them on, to be great.
And if that long journey leads me to following Bradford City at the local recreation ground on a Sunday morning. The current crop of journeymen footballers will have moved on. Stuart and Kenny have now gone. Although I reckon that, alongside my boys and I, Stuart would be back, standing next to us as a supporter, willing them on. It ain’t nothing but a family thing.