Issue The 2010/11 season reviewed: part two, off the pitch

As told by Michael Wood

If there was one chant that must have been music to the ears of Bradford City chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes it will have been the chimes at Southend that rang “Love the club, hate the team.

The team which failed on the field were cast as no hopers who could not care less and the manager who brought them to the club maligned. Regardless of your feelings about both players and manager(s) those in the boardroom must have thought it was just a matter of time until the Valley Parade ire would be turned in their direction.

And, dear reader, you will have your own thoughts on how justified that ire would be.

The season started off with Bradford City’s directors proudly backing Peter Taylor as the new manager although later Mark Lawn would tell us that he had reservations about the appointment having watched Taylor’s style of play. Nevertheless City – according to the directors one of whom had reportedly fallen out with former boss Stuart McCall – had the right manager in place and promotion was on the way.

Mike Harrison of The City Gent disagreed and felt the wrath of Valley Parade being unceremoniously called into the club to explain his prediction of eighth. Come the end of the season the “ludicrously optimistic” jokes wrote themselves but one could share a worry for the Bantams directors had they not handled the situation so poorly. Feedback loops at football clubs and Bradford City have been in a negative loop all season. Taylor’s arrival was an attempt to change that with the hope that positive thinking off the field would be manifest on it. That change of culture – from negative to positive – is important but the way to achieve it is more a matter of winning hearts and minds than applying the strong arm.

The club’s confidence stemmed from Peter Taylor’s appointment and from the traits which Taylor brought which were lacking in the previous manager. One could argue past the return of bovinity about the merits and methods of both but Taylor had been involved in success and knew what that success looked like. When he told the club that the team needed overnight stays, new suits and Tommy Doherty then the directors put hands into pockets and found the money for them, or so it was said.

Doing, and having to do

Savings were made at Valley Parade: A burst pipe fixed here, a new lighting system there; but most impressively Mark Lawn announced that – with some sadness – City were relocating to training facilities in Leeds with Apperley Bridge no longer considered suitable. The day before pre-season and suddenly Apperley Bridge was fine, the training facilities Taylor demanded to join the club were not forthcoming and the mood for the season was set. After the cameo of Lee Hendrie he and his uncle John were at a supporters evening chaired by Lawn who made it clear that despite the urgent need of the summer to replace the facilities they must now be considered good enough. He told BfB that they had to be, because there was no money to change them.

Taylor, in the meantime, had started using the relaid Valley Parade pitch to train on and credit to all that it withstood a bad winter better than many other surfaces. The trapping of success include a good surface and on that City have progressed this year. The supporters – underwhelmed probably – respected it enough to stay off it after the final game of the season.

The winter of bad weather also saw a season ticket promotion which prompted calls of amateurism from the club on the one hand and on the other asked questions about the strategic direction of the club. There is a worry that the club create direction and policy on the hoof and looking at a “cheap and cheerful” promotion which prompted a response of being “cheap and nasty” those thoughts seemed to be confirmed. It was not just the cackhandedness of the advertisement but its inability to communicate the message that City’s season tickets were superb value, a message which was lost in the infamous Santa Dave advert.

All of which led to a comment in The City Gent and threats passing from club to fanzine. Legal action was mentioned and once again the club was at loggerheads with supporters. One has to wonder if – on reflection over the season – these fall outs between the directors and the supporters which increasingly crop up should be approached differently. Mark Lawn’s car is vandalised and he talks about winding the club up. Mike Harrison talks out of turn and there are threats. The City Gent’s John Armitage criticises and there is talk of legal action.

Perhaps it is time to look at a new approach?

2004, and all that

Administration looms large over the summer and it will be said that this is not the time to talk about anything except securing the future of the club but those who battled to put the club in the hands of Julian Rhodes in 2004 for Mark Lawn to join him in 2007 will recall only too well the talk of how supporter would be at the heart of the new Bradford City. The club saved by the fans would not forget the fans. If 2010/2011 tells us anything it is that the supporters of Bradford City are to toe the line.

I speak as someone who has sat with Mark Lawn this season. He is not an unreasonable man and in talking to him one cannot help but be sympathetic to a man who clearly loves the club, clearly is trying his best, and clearly is crying out for assistance. Jason and I heard him talk about how the supporters interact with the club. How the OMB is used in anonymity and how a “Friends of Bradford City” scheme could be used to raise much needed funds and while these things are true the tone of the conversation stands as a stark contrast to 2004’s rhetoric. The club that was saved by the fans putting in a six figure sum is now telling them what to think, or so it might seem.

Lawn cuts an isolated figure at times. He admits to his blustering style but one wonders if it belays a worry that his aims for the club will never be realised. He is at great pains to paint out that his door is always open but one wonders if an open door is enough. Bradford City as a club pledged itself in 2004 to be more about the supporters. Perhaps Lawn and his fellow directors need to engage with supporters in a more active way. Show me a hundred Bradford City fan and I’ll show you a hundred skilled people across many fields. The only time these people ever get asked for help is when there is snow to be cleared from the field on a winter afternoon.

Indications from the club are that there are developments on this and it will be interesting how much the club are prepared to let go in the interests of supporter involvement. The benefits of supporter involvement are all in engagement. At the moment Bradford City is a product consumed by supporters – and in that context the customer complaints procedure is pretty bad – and how long any club should carry on in that way is debatable. In 2004 this was going to be our Bradford City. That spirit needs revisiting especially as we once again skirt the waters of administration if only because the loss of it has contributed to rendering the club in the position it now finds itself in.

Should this not all wait until after Administration?

There seems little doubt that Bradford City are in for a torrid summer and one might think that talk about learning the lessons form 2010/2011 off the field can wait until we know for sure that there will be a 2011/2012. Were you to think that, dear reader, you may be correct.

However our experience after 2004 tells us that things said in the heat of a troubled summer fade in the winters of a season and many of the problems the club finds itself in can be put down to the distance that emerged between supporters and City in the last ten years.

The atmosphere at Valley Parade is atrocious but with supporters set firmly is customers rather than invested parties there is little invitation to do much more than pay up and turn up, little reason for many to treat professional football as a thing they are invested in.

In addition the boardroom is out of touch with supporters. For sure there is a note of websites such as this one, of the Official Message Board, of The T&A comments section, of The City Gent but these are the publication of enthusiasts not the word of the man on the Clayton Omnibus. Small samples taken as representative have informed decisions made with the club.

Geoffrey Richmond would not take a meeting with any supporter’s organisation which numbered fewer than 4,000 members but – in a very real way – handfuls of people on the Internet are setting an agenda which the club respond to and those people are not necessarily representative of the general view of supporters and it is that general view of the people who tossed tenners into buckets in 2004 which the club losing sight of.

Moreover though as the club struggles to survive once more the need for vigilance in the boardroom could not be more clear. Supporters are a constant for the club which is under threat from a boom or bust policy which targets promotion. The spirit of 2004 suggested that involvement from supporters would create guardians for the club within the boardroom to prevent us from reaching this situation again.

Yet here we are.

The lesson of 2010/2011 off the field is a correlation between the deterioration of the relationship between Bradford City’s boardroom and Bradford City’s supporters