Bradford City’s promising start to the season and the pursuit of happiness

By Jason McKeown

You know what we don’t talk about often enough? Famous American pianists from the 50s, who became TV personalities. In particular, a guy called Oscar Levant, who once observed, “Happiness isn’t something you experience, it’s something you remember.”

There’s something that really resonates about Levant’s quote when reflecting on Bradford City’s weekend 2-2 draw with AFC Wimbledon, and indeed the first 10 league games of this season, which have returned 18 points. Things are going well for the Bantams. They’re perched in the play offs, breathing down the necks of those in the automatic promotion places. Maintain their current average of 1.8 points per game, and they’ll end up on 82 – which would be enough to earn automatic promotion, based on the last two League Two seasons. After many false dawns, City are so far looking the real deal.

And it feels good, but it doesn’t necessarily feel as good as maybe we expected it to be. There’s a sense there’s more to come from this team. That’s there are a few higher gears yet to be found. Performances have been decent, but not wholly convincing. Each game has featured some hairy moments. We’re expecting to see even better displays occur at any moment. We’re still waiting… And so, as the season begins to take shape, there’s a question that’s beginning to hover over Bradford City right now.

Is this as good as it’s going to get?

Which brings us back to Oscar Levant’s insight. “Happiness isn’t something you experience, it’s something you remember.” What he’s getting at is that our brains and memories can trick us into remembering something in a different way to how we actually experience it. Nostalgia is a powerful force. As can be seen by the way those of a certain age seem to love sharing social media memes about how their 70s/80s childhood was better than what the kids of today experience, because they “played outside for hours”.

That trick of the brain leaves us looking back on things in very black and white, general terms. The nuances are lost. Gary Bowyer’s time as Bradford City manager was one long bore fest (we forget the Bantams only lost twice at home in 2019/20 and had some good wins along the way). The tenure of Derek Adams was wholly awful. The Phil Parkinson era utterly incredible. We can dismiss from our minds that, with all City managers of the last decade, there were good days and there were bad days. That’s not usually what we remember.

The happiness is remembered, rather than experienced, concept was one I first heard after attending the Big Chill music festival back in 2007. I saw some amazing music that weekend – Seasick Steve, Mr Scruff, Coldcut, The Proclaimers, Giles Peterson – but I didn’t really enjoy the weekend as a whole. The long, painful walk to the campsite to set up a tent. Average food. Expensive drinks. Grim toilets. I’m not sure my friends felt happy at the time either. Which is why this quote stuck in my mind. Sure enough, we would ultimately remember the festival in a different, fonder way. And when tickets for the following year’s event went on sale, we recalled only the good bits and went back.

And I think that brings us to the deeper meaning of Oscar Levant’s sentiment. At times, deep down, we can all have that feeling we’re not enjoying ourselves as much as we had anticipated. That even though all the ingredients seem to be in place to be having a good time, and you have everything you seem to desire, you don’t feel as happy as you believe you should be. Your expectations of how joyful it would make you feel were arguably too high, and it was never going to be as good as you imagined. But in time, perhaps when we something else in life means we genuinely have reason to be miserable, we look back on that event – where all our desires were met – and remember it purely as a time of happiness.

(This idea is something called Desire Satisfaction Theory, but let’s not go any deeper into this. I know as much about psychology as I do about what makes a good piainist.)

Why this matters right now is that I think many of us are not currently enjoying this Bradford City season quite as much as we know we should be. And we’re slightly scratching our heads as to why. Perhaps, after the last few years of underachievement, we’ve forgotten what it feels like to support a semi-successful football team. But I think it’s mainly because we’re expecting a little more than what we’ve seen so far. And we’re waiting, perhaps in vain, for that higher level of happiness to kick in.

And that’s why I’m starting to wonder if this is as good as it will get for City. I agree with anyone who argues the Bantams can and will play better this season. Timi Odusina said a few weeks that City are in time “going to start putting three or four past teams and it will be scary”. I think that’s true. The best performances are yet to come. Someone will eventually get absolutely battered by this City side.

But I’m not sure we’re suddenly going to become absolutely brilliant week in week out. More realistically, the kind of victories and draws we’ve experienced so far, with spells of good attacking football, but moments where the opposition put us under pressure and we don’t look clever, will continue. How many teams at the top have we welcomed to Valley Parade over recent years, given them a good game, and gone home declaring the opposition were not all that? Teams that win promotion are not necessarily world beaters, they just know how to win football matches. Which is something City now appear to be figuring out.

And part of the reason why I’m starting to think this way is based on looking back on the 1998/99 season, and the way that we remember it now. If you were a City fan like me that year, you’ll no doubt agree it was one of the best seasons we’ve ever experienced. Brilliant football, great results, and the amazing achievement of promotion to the top flight for the first time in 77 years. If you weren’t a City fan then, you’ve probably heard people like me bore on about how it was the greatest. The legend of Mills and Blake, of Stuart McCall falling off a car roof.

If I was ever on Mastermind, I’d pick Bradford City 1998/99 as my specialist topic (it’s a toss-up between this and American pianists who became TV personalities). Who got the second goal in March 1999’s 3-2 win at Bristol City? Who was our third highest scorer that season? Who was the only Division One side City failed to score against home and away? Where was Lee Sharpe signed from? (Answers: Wayne Jacobs, Peter Beagrie with 15 goals, Sunderland and Leeds, with an extra point for adding Sharpe was on loan at Sampdoria when we signed him.) If there’s a football year I’d love to re-live, I’d go for this one.

But here’s the granular nuances about that amazing season: it wasn’t always as fun as we remember it. We weren’t as flawless as we love to recall.

The following things happened in the 1998/99 season. Trust me, I was witness to them:

  • In December 1998 we beat Wolves at home 2-1 with a blistering display. But we missed a hatful of chances, and were hanging on at the end. I remember walking out of Valley Parade feeling angry that our wastefulness in front of goal nearly cost us.
  • In January we beat Crystal Palace 2-1 to go four points clear of third place, in the automatic promotion spots. We were poor, lucky to win, the crowd was restless, and at one point the Kop’s grumbles about Beagrie’s repeated failure to beat his man saw the City winger turn to the crowd and yell “f**k off”.
  • In March we played Norwich City at home, blew them away in the first 45 minutes, going 4-0 up. In the second half Norwich pulled a goal back and John Dreyer was sent off for City. Still, the team managed out the game well to a 4-1 win. It didn’t stop loads of City fans going home at full time feeling really deflated we hadn’t kicked on in the second half.
  • On successive Saturdays in April, we won home games against Grimsby (3-0) and Portsmouth (2-1). Neither performance was great and the run-in nerves were kicking in. In my part of the Kop, at the end of the Pompey game, someone loudly declared we shouldn’t clap the players at full time as they had been so bad. So none of us did.
  • We had some pretty bad results along the way. The slow start is always talked about, but in mid-November we lost 3-0 at home to QPR. We lost dismally at Grimsby in October, at Crystal Palace in March. On the penultimate weekend, we could only draw 0-0 at home to an Oxford side about to be relegated.

The point of sharing these memories is that the halcyon perfection of 1998/99 we now look back on is partly a myth. Of course we were amazing, and had days where we absolutely demolished opposition sides. But we also had lots and lots of wins that were hard-fought, far from one-sided, where you walked away feeling a tiny bit underwhelmed. As though we’d not achieved what we were truly capable of, meaning we couldn’t feel as happy as we felt we should be. We also had set backs.

It’s a sentiment best summed up on the BBC documentary about that memorable season, Valley of Dreams, where a supporter is interviewed and says this. “This season we’ve won games 3-0 and you still go home disappointed. You expect to win every game. And if we don’t win 5-0, we won’t have achieved what we’re capable of.”

I think this is a feeling that rings true right now. Assessing Bradford City 2022/23, we can with strong justification believe we have the best manager in the league, and the best squad, to go with the fact we have the biggest fanbase and the biggest stadium. Everything is there to be successful this season. Not just because we’re called Bradford City and have a big club arrogance, but because you can see that this time around we’ve genuinely laid good foundations.

Expectations are really high. Not, thankfully, manifesting itself with any chants about 100 points. But in a way that seems completely reasonable and fair.

Like what that fan said in 1999, you do turn up with an expectation to win. I don’t think any of us believe for one second we should win every game 5-0, but we are starting to go into every game believing we could win 5-0 today. Or, at the very least, win comfortably. That we should dominate the game, racking up a load of goals and leaving the opposition cowering for the final whistle. We have the squad to do this.

These moments will happen. I really believe they will. But the pattern of this season so far shows that it’s very unlikely to be every week. It does feel like we’re going to have lots of afternoons of watching City win or draw, and debating whether we had a little bit of good fortune along the way, that player x didn’t perform brilliantly, that we faced too much pressure at times, and that the opposition made it a closer game than we’d have liked. That is what happened in 1998/99, and indeed the 2012/13 promotion season of a decade ago. We’ve just forgotten.

And that’s where the happiness is not experienced, only remembered, sentiment seems pertinent. We should be really enjoying what we’re seeing right now – we’ve waited years to have a genuinely good team to cheer. And it’s not that we aren’t, it’s just what we thought we’d be enjoying it more. We want to see City wipe the floor with all who come between us and promotion. And if it’s a bit harder to win games than it looks like it should be, or the dominant position we as a club seem to hold over others isn’t always reflected in the final score, we’ll continue to feel that little bit short of the level of happiness we think we should be experiencing.

Categories: Opinion


8 replies

  1. It is indeed strange how us fans view matches both at the time and years after.

    I remember leaving the ground after that December 1998 Wolves match and thinking it was the best I’ve ever seen us play (still is) and been blown away by how good we were.

    Mind you, that was my first match of the season (with having youngsters always doing sports on Saturday’s I couldn’t always attend) so I’d have a far more rose-tinted view – because compared to the previous seasons it was gold dust, but probably not to most fans who’s seen those October drubbings (i.e. 5-0 against Bristol City)

    Yes. The footie is as good as it’s going to get, because this is L2 and it’s rare that pure footie teams get promoted by ‘entertaining’ every match.

  2. Brilliant article. I couldn’t put my finger on why I feel something is missing this season. Now I know why! Like 98/99 and 12/13, I knew what I was watching was brilliant and we were going to do great things. I do remember the lows as you mention, particularly the slow start to 98/99. Funnily enough, it was the 2-2 home draw with Bolton that seemed to be the catalyst. Coming from behind to ‘win’ a draw. I’m now going to enjoy what I’m witnessing, instead of wondering why we’re hanging on instead of 3-0 up.

  3. That is Jason, a typically well thought out article.
    I think City beat WBA 1-0 that year and were lucky. They were awful against Oxford in that 0-0.
    I can’t go to watch City any more, but follow as closely as ever.
    Frankly, it seems to me that, if Hughes stays, we shall certainly make the play-off and have an even-money chance of automatics. But league 2 is tough. Well-drilled rough teams, not good refereeing.
    I hope we do it.
    Keep the faith.

  4. I think all long suffering City fans buy into this sentiment ,i wonder if MH will use your piece for a team talk. Keep our feet on the ground ,remember we have no divine right to win every game . I agree and have already said it to friends ,someone will get a good hiding from us at some stage but by the same token we’ll drop points along the way. The difference is i don’t think we’ll capitulate as we’ve done before. We’re getting stronger as the contribution from Angol and Oliver showed the strengh in depth needed. We’ve got a squad of players who are all capable of selection for 1st eleven. When did that last happen.

  5. I think you’re over thinking it.

    It sounds strange but I sometimes think that I ‘enjoy’ feeling the disappointment and frustration of a defeat as much as I enjoy the rush of a good win. Probably just as well as I’ve seen City in all 4 divisions on the way up, and all 4 on the way down!

    A good game of football is like a good film. It has hero’s, villain’s, twists and turns. It doesn’t really matter how the film ends, you enjoy it whatever.

    My point is I watch football to be moved, to feel something, anything. The score adds to the narrative but its just one aspect of the afternoon out for me. If I ever went to see City and felt nothing and thought the result was the only thing keeping me there I would probably give up. The worst thing you can feel after a game of footie is nothing. If we ever did start beating people 5 – 0 regularly I’d probably find something else to do on a Saturday afternoon.

    Am I odd?

    • This couldn’t be more spot on.

      It actually would be very boring to win 46 games 5-0. You want the nerves, the pain, the suffering to make the end result better.

      Actually us being rubbish is what made Chelsea and the league cup run so much more special. I don’t think there’s a Liverpool, Man City, Man United fan who has ever had as much happiness from a game as I did at Stamford Bridge.

      These are L2 footballers and actually Man City don’t batter everyone 5-0 every week. We can’t expect consistency for 90 minutes never mind 46 games. So while we should hopefully inflict a couple of hammerings this year that will be really enjoyable I’d rather that. And if you could choose without knowing you’d sneak up by the play offs and Wembley rather than win the league with 100 points.

  6. We were knocking on the door of the championship with nearly 20000 ST when Rupp took over so promotion will be more like late redemption than a massive achievement
    Just enjoy the day and have a laugh

  7. Fantastic article Jason.
    AndyC makes some great points. When I was younger, I was too focused on the result. These days, I focus more on our performance. I can come away from watching us play and think: we were lucky today to get a win or maybe we unlucky today to lose. Or, yes, we deserved to lose or yes, we deserved to win.
    As a side note, after our famous win at Wolverhampton Wanderers in May 1999, I waited outside the ground for our players to emerge. When they did, I remember saying to Peter Beagrie: “It’s a good job that we won today, despite you not scoring your penalty.” He took it well and replied with something along the lines of: “Well, I’ve scored 15 goals this season!”

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