Bradford City slipped into the bottom two of the Football League at the weekend when only ten years ago they were still a Premier League club. Bradford supporter Jason MacKeown is of the opinion that it is somebody else’s turn to suffer.
The glass-empty default setting which typifies most football fans means that, from time-to-time, we’ve all wallowed in self-pity over our team’s failings and believed no one else has it so bad. But if there was a prize for the most-suffering supporters in England over the last decade, few would begrudge or feel envious if it was awarded to Bradford City fans. Exactly 10 years ago, Bradford were riding high in their second Premier League season; with the likes of Benito Carbone, Dan Petrescu and Stan Collymore sporting claret and amber. The previous May, supporters flooded onto the pitch to celebrate the Bantams defeating Liverpool 1-0 to heroically avoid relegation. Four years prior to that, 30,000 Bradfordians were at Wembley to see their City beat Notts County 2-0 in the Division Two (now League One) Play Off Final. It had been a meteoric rise, and there was every reason to believe the sky was the limit.
Back in the present, a 1-0 home defeat to Morecambe on Saturday has left now-League Two Bradford languishing 91st position out of 92 clubs. It has been one long, very bumpy fall over the past decade. But for us supporters, the overriding worry right now is that we’ve still not hit rock bottom. Many times over recent years we’ve uttered: “Surely it can’t get any worse than this?” No one dares say that now, because we’re always proved wrong. So much misery has been inflicted upon us over the last 10 years, and it’s not even been restricted to ineptitude on the pitch. Although there have been many mistakes and a wide range of misjudgements, it all ultimately points back to one catastrophic sequence of events – which occurred when we were riding so high.
That was the summer of 2000, where chairman and then-hero Geoffrey Richmond reflected on his strategy which had delivered stunning progress at the end of the millennium – and concluded more of the same would lift City to further heights, rather than realising the club’s limitations. In 1996, Richmond had announced the building of a new stand that would have comfortably held average attendances of the time – and within four years crowds had quadrupled. So when the 18,000 capacity Valley Parade was beginning to look too small during Bradford’s inaugural Premier League campaign in 1999, Richmond pushed things that bit too much and announced plans to increase capacity by a further 7,000 – paid for by a £7.5m, 25-year mortgage from Lombards. A big mistake.
But that wasn’t all; in 1998 Richmond had eyed-up a weak-looking Division One (now Championship) and attracted new investment from a successful Bradford family, the Rhodeses, to push the boat out on new signings. A year later Bradford were promoted; and after surviving their first Premier League season, Richmond again spent big on players – luring a £40k-per-week Carbone amongst others during a period he later dubbed “six weeks of madness”. These fancy players weren’t what was needed for a club still destined to struggle, and Bradford were feebly relegated. Richmond had also allowed the managerial talent who had masterminded Bradford’s elevation – Paul Jewell – to walk out due to behind-the-scenes disagreements.
These days Jewell is a semi-regular at Bradford home games; sometimes assisting local radio with their commentaries, on other occasions apparently sat by himself in the press box with a notebook and blackberry. With each year of Bradford failure, the job Jewell performed at Valley Parade looks all the more astonishing. Yet as the club defied the odds to avoid relegation from the Premier League in 2000, it wasn’t just Richmond on his back. A significant section of supporters questioned rather than backed Jewell, cranking up the pressure. How foolish this now looks, and one would love to ask Jewell his views on what has happened since he left. But most of all one would love to turn back the clock and ensure that 10 years ago it was Richmond leaving the club, and not Jewell.
Peter Taylor is the latest incumbent in the Valley Parade dugout, and after Saturday’s defeat – a sixth in ten games – he needed a stewards’ escort off the pitch as angry fans hurled abuse. In many ways not much has changed since Jewell left, as each subsequent manager is warmly welcomed into the job and then, in time, on the end of angry calls to be sacked – regardless of whether they are part of the problem or might potentially be part of the solution.
Richmond appointed Chris Hutchings after Jewell, but sacked him after just 12 league matches. His replacement Jim Jefferies didn’t fare that much better, heading back to Scotland after barely a year. By then City had been relegated from the Premier League, and in hindsight it was a relatively painless affair compared to what was to come. We knew we were down by January, and it wasn’t as though we’d been in the top flight long enough for it to feel like home. It was, after all, our first time here since the 1920s.
But as we faced up to life back in the Football League, to others we quickly became a bad advert for all that is wrong with the way football has been structured since the formation of the Premier League in 1992. We had craved to be part of that new VIP party, and overspent our credit cards to live a lifestyle we couldn’t afford. But rather than be humble on our return, Richmond upset other clubs by trying to plot a Premier League Two, and then attempting to get Rangers and Celtic to join Division One. Desperate actions from a desperate man; the chickens shortly came home to roost.
City’s first season in Division One ended in an underwhelming 15th, and soon after Richmond was forced to put Bradford into administration with debts of £36 million, caused by the Premier League adventure and the effects of ITV Digital’s collapse. It looked as though the club might go under, but at the last minute the Rhodes family and a new investor – Flamingo Land theme park owner Gordon Gibb – agreed deals with Bradford’s many creditors. Richmond, who all the while had been paying himself excessive dividends and consultancy fees, didn’t put a penny back into the club and was forced to leave. Two years later he briefly popped up at Leeds. A year after that he was made bankrupt.
But if Richmond turned out to be wearing the Emperor’s new clothes, Gibb would quickly prove a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Bradford struggled on after administration in 2002, but many of the debts remained – not least that whopping mortgage to Lombards from fixing up the stadium, which was already looking completely unnecessary as crowds dipped to 12,000. Gibb finally agreed a deal with Lombards to settle the debt by purchasing Valley Parade using his family pension fund, and all seemed well. But with Bradford struggling near the foot of Division One an apparently jaded Gibb walked out of the club, taking his newly-acquired deeds. Within weeks City went back into administration, once again the future was bleak.
The debts looked unmanageable for the Rhodes family on their own and, with such concerns, the fact City were relegated to League One during this period almost shouldn’t have mattered. But on the field performances were some of the most miserable imaginable. First Nicky Law and then Bryan Robson tried reviving the club, but the lack of resources meant City couldn’t compete. That year we set a record for most single-goal defeats in a season (21). We were rarely thrashed, just agonisingly-narrowly beaten every week. Depressing stuff.
The success of surviving a second administration hinged on Gibb and others agreeing to accept less money than owed, and supporters rallied to raise a crucial £250k to keep the club going while he dug his heels in. The club came within minutes of closing, but at the last minute agreements were reached. League One didn’t seem so bad when the alternative was no football club at all. Today Valley Parade has an empty-feel on match day. Big crowds for League Two level (10,640 on Saturday), but there are more empty seats than those with bums occupying them. It’s an impressively-large ground, particularly when you compare it to the more humble homes of our League Two rivals, but it’s not the advantage it should be.
Gibb is no longer involved with the club, but he remains our landlord. The club pays him £600k rent per year for the right to live in our home of over 100 years. It’s estimated there’s a further £600k annual running costs to meet too. This has a serious impact on the club’s resources; and despite attempts to arrange a deal to buy the ground back, Gibb shows no interest in giving up his stranglehold on the club. City have even considered moving across town to share their Bradford Bulls neighbour’s Osdal rugby stadium.
For a while League One seemed quite fun for Bradford. Colin Todd took over as manager, and despite us fearing a relegation battle while we recovered from the second administration, City were challenging for the play offs. But as expectations quickly rose, performances faltered and for three years the Bantams muddled along in mid-table under Todd and he was eventually sacked in 2007. His replacement, long-serving captain David Wetherall, proved a big disappointment as player-manager and City fell from mid-table to League Two – making it three relegations in six years. This is our fourth season in the bottom tier. For a while we achieved some upwards momentum. Extra investment arrived to help the Rhodeses in the shape of lifelong fan Mark Lawn. Club legend Stuart McCall became manager to widespread joy, and the dwindling attendances were addressed by introducing an imaginative season ticket offer that made Bradford the cheapest professional football team to watch in the country. Crowds rose, a promotion challenge was sustained beyond the traditional autumn collapse of form. It was our turn to celebrate, surely.
But somewhat astonishingly, we’d actually gone and repeated the six weeks of madness mistake all over again. In 2008, after one year in League Two, the club’s Board pushed out the boat on signings in the expectation of it elevating us back to League One. But the new faces struggled, and the season collapsed in the familiar miserable style we thought it was someone else’s turn to endure. Then to make up for the losses, the playing budget was slashed by a third. McCall attempted to rebuild, but the club became stuck in mid-table and last February he resigned. Despite ending last season well under Taylor, it’s been yet more torment this campaign so far. Ludicrously, we were pre-season favourites for the title, but to date have scored just four league goals and only Hereford sit between us and rock bottom. Taylor is reportedly close to the sack, and promotion hopes already look to be over. Are we going to be relegated again? Could the club afford to pay the rent if it fell into non-league? Have we fans not been punished enough?
So that’s our story. As I said, the prize for longest-suffering fans should be handed to us. So I’d like accept the award on behalf of all City fans, and to thank Richmond and Gibb for making this possible. To Robert Wolleaston for making us believe we couldn’t possibly see a worse player, and then to Bobby Petta for proving that theory wrong. I’d also like to thank every one of you whose team beat us over the last decade. I know that’s a very long list, but thanks guys – we genuinely couldn’t feel this miserable without you. But to close my acceptance speech I’d like to give this message to the Football Gods. Come on now, we’ve suffered enough. Surely it’s someone else’s turn to feel miserable and our time to experience some joy. We don’t expect to return to the previous heights, an Alan Partridge-style ‘Bouncing Back’ will do just fine. Please.