Written by Jason McKeown (images John Dewhirst)
40 years ago, Bradford City were storming their way to promotion from the old Fourth Division of English football. A swashbuckling Bantams side – led by City heroes such as Bobby Campbell, Ces Podd, Garry Watson, Peter Jackson and Joe Cooke – finished second to Sheffield United. They netted 82 goals along the way.
That goal return – and points total of 91 – have not been bettered since.
Promotion was finally sealed with a 2-2 draw at home to Bournemouth – a result that ensured both clubs would go up. There were great celebrations on the pitch, as fans lapped up the accomplishments of a team that had been expertly managed by Roy McFarland. Better days appeared to lie ahead. And indeed would.
40 years later, the present Bradford City side is paying tribute to that memorable season through the predominately white shirts they sport as a home kit. It is an unfamiliar sight, in the modern era, to see the club move so far away from the usual claret and amber colours. But there is a purpose and a clear statement of intent – let’s do what the great team of 1981/82 managed, and get promoted out of League Two.
For the class of 1981/82, their connection with Bradford City Football Club was made lasting through their accomplishments of 40 years ago. Many still live in the area and reportedly attend games. Revered for what they did for the club, and never forgotten by those who were present at the time to cheer them on.
If, back then in May 1982, as those players popped open the champagne corks to celebrate climbing out of the fourth division, someone had informed them that in 40 years time the club would be right back where it was, they would probably have felt disappointed. But not surprised. The history of Bradford City is one of great struggle. Season upon season of disappointment. More times cast in the shadows than out in the light.
This is Bradford City’s 18th season languishing in the bottom two tiers of English football. That is utterly depressing, especially with the relative recent memories of the 90s rise under Geoffrey Richmond, and the fact the club dined at the top table of the Premier League at the turn of the century. But 18 years in the bottom leagues is not unique to its history. Three years after the 1981/82 triumph, City were promoted again – this time from the third tier to the second. And that brought an end to 48 years of playing in the bottom two divisions.
(Let’s just hope that particular piece of history doesn’t repeat itself identically. Otherwise we’ve got 30 more years to wait until we get back to the Championship!)
Bradford City’s long and varied history has huge implications on the modern day. The good times offer us inspiration of just what this football club can achieve, that we should strive to live up to. The bad times have left all sorts of scars – physical and mental – that hold us back and invite self-doubt. We still pay for the mistakes of the past – from the feeling of being trapped in League Two to the fact we no longer own our beloved stadium, and must pay a significant amount in rent to use it. Money that could be better spent reviving the club.
The past gives us reason to believe that present day challenges can be fixed. Sometimes, after a poor home result such as Tuesday, it can feel like we will never enjoy success again. But promotions, cup runs and sustainable progress have occurred plenty of times in our history – often after a period of darkness. The open top bus does eventually come out of the garage again.
Nevertheless, cherry-picking the best moments of the club’s history and believing that they are the normal can be dangerous too. Football is a fast-evolving sport, fiercely competitive. What brought success in the past is no guarantee of success in the future.
The white kit Bradford City sport right now is testament to that. Aspiring to replicate the achievements of 40 seasons ago is a great aim, but right now the current crop are nowhere near on track to achieving the same level of achievement. On this very week, 40 years ago, City had just won 3-2 at Stockport County. A ninth straight victory, that made it 28 points from a possible 33 at the start of the season. It put the Bantams right out in front, and set the tone for a season of such memorable success.
Just like the class of 81/82, the current crop of players can be celebrating success next May. But it will be more of a difficult slog. Downs, as well as ups. They don’t look like a team capable of winning nine games in a row (though feel very free to prove me wrong!) Still, if they succeed in winning promotion, they will make their own history.
Bradford City as a club has put a lot on the line this season. Openly stating the goal of promotion and how anything less is failure. There is an inner confidence about the club that deserves admiration. But it also opens itself up to the very real risk of them publicly falling on their faces. And of the progress that appears to have been made over the past 12 months to ultimately be framed as more disappointment. As not good enough.
It’s here the weight of history can feel the heaviest. Derek Adams has talked twice of how current struggles are an extension of the past three years of failure. And he’s right. When we lose a game, it’s not just frustrating because of the performance in the game – all the baggage of the recent past is unleashed too. We weren’t just rubbish today. We were rubbish last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Our patience is completely exhausted.
It weighs us down, because we all know that this club is capable of so much more. And we also know that it shouldn’t take that much to reach some of those high standards again.
In the more recent past, we had the glorious Phil Parkinson years that taught us what is possible with hard work and organisation. Rewind the clock a bit further, and you come to those heady Premier League days and all those incredible moments, characterised by teams full of attacking flair and gritty character. And if you’re old enough to go back further, you find the memorable 1980s of climbing from the bottom tier to the cusp of top flight football with a tremendous team spirit and collectiveness.
These are the standards we seek to replicate.
The problem with Bradford City is that all these spells of success ultimately had unhappy endings, as measured by the subsequent decline down the league ladder. The good times meant so much but counted for nothing in terms of positively changing the club’s status in the long-term. And that always leaves a bit of a ‘but’ against our happiest memories. It was great to reach the Premier League, but. Parkinson revived Bradford City, but.
But the real cost of those the falls back down runs much deeper. For they have taken place against the backdrop of the biggest shake-up of English football since it was first established. There have been winners from the revolution and there have been losers. No prizes for guessing which camp the Bantams have fallen into.
If, in 1988, City could have squeezed into the top flight, the club’s history could have looked very different. The gap between the First and Second Division was much smaller then, and there is every reason to believe City could have remained in the top tier for several seasons, growing ever stronger as they did. And that would have meant that when the Premier League was launched in 1992 , the club would have been in a better position to benefit from the splitting up of the financial rewards about to be showered upon English football.
Instead, we got the John Docherty era.
It took 11 years, after the devastating play off defeat to Middlesbrough in 1988 that ended top flight promotion hopes, to get back into the same position of closing in on the top flight. This time, in 1999, the club did it – winning at Wolves to seal automatic promotion. The Premier League was already a different beast then, and despite surviving the notoriously difficult first season, a bumpy fall was just around the corner. The risk of trying to become part of the elite was greater than anyone could realise. Getting it wrong came at a heavy price.
In the early years of the 2000s, City were in financial turmoil and again falling on the wrong side of the redrawing of the financial map. They were right in the storm of the ITV Digital collapse – almost going out of business as a result. But before they left the top two divisions in 2004, they had helped to vote on a rule change that would hurt them in the long-term – one that means Championship clubs now receive the vast majority of Football League TV money, whilst Leagues One and Two feed on scraps.
Since then, the Championship has continued to grow in prestige and financial rewards, whilst Leagues One and Two have fallen behind. It’s no longer just a yawning gap between the Premier League and everyone else, there’s also a huge barrier between tiers two and three/four. Every time a new glass ceiling was installed, City were unfortunately languishing underneath it.
The upshot is that as club we have timed our falls from grace particularly badly. And with each and every year we remain in League Two – never mind League One – our long-term future remains more challenging. It’s not hard to shake off the fear that we’ve been left behind, and that the ground to make up might be beyond us.
But we’re trapped with a belief – rightly – that we should aspire for much better. We have attendances that rival some Championship clubs. A stadium that belongs in the second tier. As a club, our size can be comparable to Championship sides Millwall, Barnsley, West Brom, Fulham, Stoke and many others – never mind Premier League Brentford, Burnley, Watford and Brighton.
And it’s not just those clubs are so, so far ahead of us – it’s those who we’ve fallen behind. A host of other clubs, whose size and heritage cannot be compared, have overtaken us. Fleetwood, Burton, Accrington and Morecambe will never have a fanbase as big as ours, yet are comfortably competing at a higher level.
The great beauty of football is that clubs small and big can rise and fall, but there is no great reason for City to fall so far off the pace. If the redrawing of English football cast great misfortune upon Bradford City, it doesn’t excuse those who have at different points held responsibility for running the club from the long list of self-inflicted mistakes that have contributed to our demise.
The biggest danger that we can cast upon ourselves right now is to normalise any of this. To simply accept that history has gone against the club, and that bobbling around in the bottom two divisions is our life sentence. Parts of our history offers reasons to give up and to accept our lot, but other moments should inspire us that this can be better. That Bradford City can rise again.
We have to do better. As a club, we do not cope well with turmoil. When things go wrong, we lack the resilience to quickly bounce back. Failure supersedes failure. When the ship starts sailing in the wrong direction, it takes too long to turn it around.
And when things go badly, the panic and short-termism ultimately looks just as counterproductive. So many times, the answer to the immediate problem of a poor result is held up as to sack the manager. So many times, that manager leaves and there is little difference. Players are signed to suit one particular manager, but the next person in the hotseat typically has a different style and wants a different type of player. It has become the norm for players to come in on two year deals, and by the time they leave, with a less than brilliant record, they were working with a different manager to the one who signed them.
It strikes me that the only way we will ever succeed is to stick to a plan or at least a philosophy. To recognise that not every issue – real or perceived – can be addressed at once, but also should not be ignored. The club needs to continue to communicate openly with fans, but be humble as well as aspirational – admit mistakes and the learnings taken, rather than pretend they never happened. We should all be part of this journey.
There is a clear problem right now that a part of the fanbase are struggling to trust or believe in the plan – and that there is division amongst the community of everyone who shares a love of this club. Such fragmentation is normal in troubled times, but it doesn’t help either.
No one should blindly get behind the club – everyone needs to see genuine substance. But, perhaps, we don’t acknowledge enough that we all ultimately want the same thing. The club has a heavy responsibility to listen to supporter concerns and engage with the fanbase, but it also needs to have a level-headed plan that it can stick by no matter the latest result on a cold Tuesday night night. We’ve somehow got to find the right page – and all get on it.
We have to aspire to eventually look back on the period of 2018 and up to the summer of 2021 as a rock bottom period for the club, but that will only be the case if we are able to move forwards from here. And not panic if the speed of progress is a little slower than we’d like. I myself had some misgivings about Derek Adams as manager and still do, but the last thing I want to see is another change. We’ve invested in Adams and need to give him the tools he needs to succeed. Now we need to be patient enough to allow him to improve the culture of the club, and – ultimately – City’s position on the football ladder.
We have in Ryan Sparks a young CEO who will make mistakes, but who has shown a level of ambition to improve the club that others have been guilty of not demonstrating. The ideals he has communicated are ones that we can get on board with and support. His vision of success is one that we would enjoy seeing come to fruition. He has a drive to bring about change. There is substance behind his words.
We have an owner in Stefan Rupp who will keep the lights on, but is in many ways trapped in a situation he would never have chosen. It’s difficult to disagree that City ultimately need new ownership to take the big strides of pushing for the Championship, but until then Rupp has a responsibility to reverse the decline of his tenure – to invest, and make the club a more saleable asset.
Rupp would do well to start communicating with fans – not because we’ve happened to lose a few games and some people are blaming him, but because it’s the right thing to do in good times and bad. The high profile role of owning a club like Bradford City does not naturally suit staying silent. Ultimately, how can you fully trust someone who doesn’t talk to you?
We have a group of players who generally seem honest and committed. Less journeymen (although sadly still a couple too many). Fewer bad characters. Some good players under the age of 25 especially, who can grow stronger – and who you could build a team around. The lessons of the success from the 1980s, 1990s and 2010s are that the club needs a good dressing room and to invest in the growth of the players. It’s time to stop always believing the answer lies in the next transfer window or releasing 10+ players every May. We’ve got to develop these players, push them to be better and hopefully they can elevate their careers by elevating Bradford City.
The Bradford City Football Club community has never been one of perfect harmony. There are always disagreements. Topics for debate. Unhappiness is as much a part of football supporting as the good moments. Disagreements are healthy, especially if they lead to better outcomes and a stronger football club. But somehow we’ve got to allow ourselves to escape our cynicism (and I include myself in that as much as anyone else).
There’s such a big rebuilding job needed. Hopefully, it’s begun and the foundations are being laid – even if, right now, it doesn’t seem like there’s an awful lot to show for it. We cannot keep treading water. We’ve got to drag ourselves out of the League Two mud, and find a way to catch up with those who have left us behind.