Issue A Chronic Illness

As told by Paul Firth

I’m really looking forward to the Dagenham game. I may not have the best of reasons for making that statement and I hope that BfB readers will at least understand my feelings, but the one reason for my anticipation is that I won’t be at Dagenham. It will be the first game I’ve missed, home or away, since Barnet back in February and I just feel the need to do something else.

In the run of eleven consecutive games since then, I’ve seen just two wins, both at home, and I’ve travelled more miles than I care to tot up. You have to bear in mind that I travel over 150 miles just to get to a home game. At least Chester brought some reduction in my mileage, although it hardly balanced out the trip to Exeter and Bournemouth.

For those of you who don’t drive any distance to get back home after a game, I should point out that the journey lengthens according to the result and the performance. The 70-odd mile trip back home was reduced to about 30 miles, or so it seemed, after the Aldershot game. On other days the same trip has felt like 200 miles.

It’s not just the travelling, though. I’m well used to that by now. I think I’m just generally worn out. Sometimes I think I’m not the only one showing signs of weariness. I think there are plenty of others more closely connected with Bradford City who display the same symptoms.

And it’s not just a question of being tired with the poor performances, although much centres on that issue. I’ve seen poor performances many, many times. I’ve watched years of fourth division football at Valley Parade and plenty of meaningless end-of-season games. If you go back to the end of the 1980-81 season, City finished 14th in the fourth division and played their last game at home to Hereford. Now there’s meaningless for you. And the crowd of 1249 remains a record low for a league game at Valley Parade. I could have reduced it to 1248 by staying at home.

I’ve seen City twice finish 23rd in the fourth division, a final placing that today would get you into the ‘non-league’ league. In one of those seasons they even managed to lose 7-1 at home (their second consecutive 7-1 defeat) to the team then bottom of the fourth division. I never felt quite as bad in those dark days. So it’s not just losing (or not winning) that brings on this malady.

I think I know what the cause is and, even if some fans don’t share my little delight about being given some brief respite care, I think plenty of the Valley Parade regulars will recognise my diagnosis. In a word, I’m disappointed.

In that team that played Hereford we had one or two decent players. There was a young kid at the back called Peter Jackson. There was a slightly older hand in defence by the name of Ces Podd. And up front there was a player in his first full season at Valley Parade. His name was Bobby Campbell. They all had character. OK, one or two of the rest of that team were hardly household names and fourteenth in the bottom division is no claim to fame. But I wasn’t as disappointed as I am now.

Disappointment in my case is a measure of outcome against ability. In real life, that is to say in places that are not Valley Parade, I have always tried to assess what I and others are capable of achieving and then to measure outcomes against that assessment. It’s no good expecting the youngster fresh from school to know how the business works. But the senior manager with twenty years in the job has greater expectations on his shoulders. Among many other factors, that’s why he’s paid more and why I expected more. The newcomer can hardly disappoint at first, but can do after a while if he shows no sign of progress. The senior man can disappoint a whole lot more quickly, simply by not living up to his capabilities.

And so it is in football. Nobody expected Bradford City in the 1960’s to win the league title or the F A Cup. We were a strictly fourth division outfit with, by and large, strictly fourth division players. (Yes, I saw the exceptions, like Bronco and young Hockey long before he could grow a beard.) Even that team of 1981 needed a few more, slightly better players to come into the side that would win promotion the following year. And if you want to see the other side of the expectation coin, there is no finer example than the team that one famous ex-player dubbed the worst team ever to play in the Premier League. (I wonder, how long did it take for his hair to grow back?) Exceeding expectations was what they did best.

You can’t be a Bradford City supporter for too long without being disappointed. Sometimes it’s just one or two games. Sometimes it’s a longer period, but maybe the disappointment is slight or moderate. But this time it’s over a very long period and, because the outcomes are measured against the proven capabilities, the disappointment is about as deep as it comes.

Back in January I wrote ‘At our best, we are truly better than this league. When we’re not at our best, we need to work hard just to match most of our opponents.’ To illustrate that point I cited two goals, one scored by Michael Boulding, the other by no less than Barry Conlon. Those goals had two things in common. They were both team goals, as opposed to examples of individual brilliance, and they resulted from open play of a quality several steps above this league. Indeed, I haven’t seen any opposition team match either of those goals this season.

I doubt very much if anyone at City regrets the fact that we scored those goals. The only reason for regret is that they set a standard that has not been attained for many weeks now. There were plenty of other moves earlier in the season that, while they weren’t finished off with goals, showed how good these players can be at this level. Again, the standard was set; the capabilities were revealed; the justified level of expectation was created.

At the start of the season City were among the bookmakers’ favourites for promotion. There was much hype and many column inches were spent on creating what I then saw as an unjustified expectation. This was, after all, a very new squad. We had not seen several of the signings, except as members of opposing teams, and we didn’t really know how good a team they might make. But by mid-season we knew what they were capable of and we also knew they would have occasional lapses.

As we near the end of the only 46 games that matter, those of us who have watched so many of those 46, in particular this one who has watched all of the last eleven, wonder where it has all disappeared to. If the pre-season expectations were mere words, the performances and the results soon showed what could be achieved. And therein lies the measure of the disappointment, that for so long now performances have fallen so far below what the players are clearly capable of achieving.

The inevitable question is ‘Why?’, but I’m far too tired to even attempt an answer to that one just yet. Let me have my respite, if you will. Let me stay away from Dagenham, if I promise to be back for Rotherham. And then let me try to think about ‘Why?’, even if it may all be a bit late by then.