Issue What to do about the Bradford City Official Message Board?

As told by Jason Mckeown

The shock resignation of Peter Jackson so close to last Saturday’s home game with Barnet meant parts of the matchday programme had become out of date – but somewhat by accident, director Roger Owen’s Boardroom notes appeared to be perfectly timed.

Owen began his column criticising the manner in which some supporters on Bradford City’s Official Message Board (OMB) had been attacking the club. This was connected with the Bantams’ slow start to the season but – with the OMB going into overdrive during the 48 hours before the Barnet game and many users queuing up to attack Mark Lawn over Jackson’s departure – Owen’s views seemed even more applicable. He said:

The inane and ill in formed (sic) comment s (sic) of a few on the Club’s message board do you no favours whatsoever and my clear advice to those who specialise in this type of comment is quite simply ‘find something better to do with your time’.

Everyone is entitled to pay their money and voice their opinion, but wild speculation, often attributed to ‘someone close to the club’ is wrong. If you have anything to say put your own name to it.

The fall out over Jackson almost deserved for the OMB to carry a parental warning, given how strong and nasty some of the personal attacks were towards Lawn especially. Without any explanation at that point offered by the Board or Jackson as to why the latter handed in his resignation, many quickly jumped to conclusions and instigated criticism. A week later and we still do not know the facts of that meeting. Any conclusions had to be half baked, and were often over-the-top.

While the Board could have been quicker in communicating and perhaps been more open and honest – and while Lawn probably shouldn’t be free of some blame for the situation – that so many were so quick to judge and spout anger without facts did not reflect brilliantly on City supporters.

Yet that’s life – and that’s the instant communication, social media-driven world that we live in today.  The club cannot stop criticism and, in such a unusual situation as Jackson’s walk out, they cannot avoid having to face some difficult questions.

What the club thinks of the OMB

As Lawn was openly attacked on the club’s own website last week, a reoccurring question once again came up – why does the club bother to have the OMB? Are the benefits it provides City – for example potential advertising revenue – an acceptable trade off for providing a platform for supporters to regularly criticise its own employees?

Because part of the programme article included an open invitation for supporters to email Owen, I contacted him to find out.

“The OMB is something Mark Lawn very much wanted to encourage and did so before my time on the Board which started in July 2009,” explained Owen. “The OMB was seen as a means of transparency for the fans in order that dealings could be made clear and I think in that respect Mark’s ambitions have been met. Since the OMB came into being and gained popularity, however, it was obvious that the club could not respond to each and every point and we have always said that if fans were to contact us individually, we would respond. My (programme) article confirms this point.

“Sadly, the OMB has been somewhat hijacked by posters not putting their own names to points they make and by threads almost instantly wandering off the original point into meaningless chat and personal fights between posters. This leads to irrelevant drivel often being the outcome. So when I suggested that if posters could not be better than inane, they should find something better to do with their time, that is what my comment was centred on.

“Despite all this, I do feel there are two benefits to the club. First, there is a conduit for feelings and opinion. I read the OMB most days as does David Baldwin and Alan Biggin. Julian Rhodes and Mark read it periodically, as does Graham Jones and Steve Longbottom and we do discuss the OMB at Board Meetings, from time to time. There are some sensible posters and being in the game of serving the public we should listen and take note and act where sensible things are raised, I spent most of my career doing the same at Morrisons.

“As far as revenue from the OMB is concerned, this is not our main or prime motivation. All revenue from all websites goes to a central pot for re-distribution. We do get a financial benefit but the drop in traffic at Valley Parade and elsewhere does underline the fact that our main and lasting reason for the continuance of the OMB is for you, the fans. I just wish that there was more sensible discussion.”

The insatiable appetite for all things Bradford City

All of which is fair comment and does show an understanding of the modern world and the challenges football clubs face in engaging their own fans.

Football support simply doesn’t begin and end on a Saturday afternoon when the team are in action. For most of us, the only thing preventing every one of the week’s 168 hours including thoughts about City is the need to sleep. From the minute we wake to the moment we go to bed, football and Bradford City is commonly on our minds and a topic of conversation. You just don’t switch off.

The world wide web offers numerous ways of feeding that habit. News websites like the Telegraph & Argus, BBC and City’s own provide updates on what’s happening at the club; the likes of BfB and other fans sites offer comment and in-depth analysis; while Facebook, Twitter and message boards enable greater interaction.

This interaction wouldn’t be stopped by removing the OMB – users would simply congregate elsewhere. So, as Owen states, the club acts as a willing host for sharing views, gossip and to debate – while at the same time having an invaluable way of tapping into the mood of fans and then responding to queries. Yet apart from appointing a handful of moderators, City have no control over the manner and tone users adopt to express themselves.

The appeal of the OMB

The OMB is not the only such place City fans can interact with each other in this manner – with the Claret and Banter website and the truly dreadful Telegraph & Argus message boards, which upset even the paper’s employees – yet it is clearly the most popular. Between midnight at the end of Tuesday and 5pm Wednesday, no less than 46 different topic threads had been commented on. There are 7,646 registered users, with many having posted comments thousands of times.

One such regular user is Steve Dresser – known as ‘Robert Robertson’. He kindly talked to BfB about the appeal of the OMB.

“We’ve had plenty of good things on the OMB; there is a FIFA league, Burns Unit bets and the like and a few of the lads know each other offline,” explained Steve. “The moderation is better now but still needs perfecting, there is a need for any libel to disappear overnight but some of the threads that were negative were deleted without explanation which riles users even more.

“Where there is a large group of people, a cloak of anonymity you will get idiots. Look at Tesco’s Facebook page, the place is full of idiots asking ridiculous questions but they get a polite answer or just batted off, you get that anywhere and football fans (some of us) are hardly known for being brains of Britain.

“You can’t police debate and it’s difficult to keep that on track, some people are blatantly unable to have a debate, recent criticism of Hanson was met with a comment to me that ‘you couldn’t do any better’. I mean where do you start with that? I doubt I could but the whole point of the argument was that we were trying to ascertain whether our striker was doing his bit.

“Whilst I’ve been a bit critical of Lawn, you can’t doubt his heart is in the right place and he’s a big fan of the OMB which is a reason we still see it today. It’s all about what they want from it, intellectual debate? There are pockets of it and overall you start to know who is worth listening to.

“I think criticism is a good thing, some are too sensitive but if we all want ego massaging then it won’t happen – I’d like to think the club were big enough to listen to areas of concern and not just dismiss it as ‘moaning’ or ‘negativity’ as it’s very easy to do so.

“It’s a lot better since we were moderated as libel and needless abuse now is dealt with and users banned who cause trouble – but it a very fine line between encouraging and facilitating debate and policing opinions.”

That said Steve believes that recent events show City could be much more proactive in using the OMB to engage with fans. “The Jackson story caught us all by surprise and there are bound to be conspiracy allegations and yet again the absence of a satisfactory statement to actually explain what went on meant the rumours gathered pace – another PR disaster by the club,” he argued. “Seemingly any PR foul up is the blame of the OMB rather than the club.”

“There’s a definite gap in communication since Jon Pollard (former club secretary) left; he always needed some help moderating but we don’t have ‘ask the club’ or indeed anyone providing an official line, just the moderators who are only fans themselves and can’t answer intricate questions about ticketing or whatever, more and more companies are becoming switched on to social media and City are missing out big style. Often rumours and the like could be nipped in the bud with an official line or a sticky post at the top regarding issues, but they miss that opportunity.”

The other side of the coin

If a message board is like going to a pub, the OMB can often seem to be like a decaying back street boozer with a loyal but seemingly declining clientele, glaring unwelcomingly at outsiders and angrily fighting each other. There is appeal to the OMB and I like a good read of it myself, but the gloomy negative outlook and way some people can dominate the conversation means numerous other City fans detest and have long since given up on it.

BfB spoke to a handful of supporters who don’t use the OMB, in order to understand what puts them off. Steve Baker declared, “I get nothing out of it. It serves no purpose whatsoever other than adding ridiculous rumours and commenting negatively on the players and whole club structure. I used to use it as thought it would give me an inside track as to whats going on at City but it does nothing of the sort.”

Leon Carroll added, “I find it to be everything I dislike about modern football, second only to the ‘comments’ on the T&A website. I rarely go on it other than when I wanted to find news about new kits each summer. Everything else is coloured by opinions I don’t care to read. It always feels very immature and I feel a bit old when I’m on there – I’ve never registered.”

Frank Wood concluded, “I no longer use it because I find it difficult to sign onto; find the layout and navigation slow and unhelpful; am fed up of some regular users slagging off players and management; and find it something of a closed shop, with newcomers not made particularly welcome.”

Such negative viewpoints represent a challenge of sorts to the club. If they want to maintain an environment where fans are encouraged to share their views so the Board can view opinions, what can they do to attract the people who refuse to go near it? Without them they are lacking the full picture of fans views which – if decisions are based upon – can lead to even more frustration.

In Stuart McCall’s final days as manager, for example, the OMB was awash with comments for him to go. Yet once he quit a sizeable angry backlash from other supporters was visible elsewhere whose views had never appeared on the OMB. Every fan has an equal right to have their view heard by the club, but right now a sizeable proportion do not feel welcomed in doing so.

Removing the anonymity?

The problems with the OMB are numerous, but perhaps all stem from the negative outlook that prevails on it. The level of usage is much lower when City win compared to when they lose, meaning a balanced picture of fans views is impossible to gauge. The user name approach – rather than using real names – provides users a mask to hide behind when attacking the Board, management and players. As Owen says, if different users disagree a constructive debate rarely occurs – instead it’s typically throwing insults and name calling back and forth.

Steve Dresser, however, disagrees that removing user names would make any difference. “Why the constant obsession with putting names to post?” he queried. “Should we expect the illumini coated gestapo to arrive at your seat to escort you to the lair on a matchday if you did tell them? I don’t see what knowing people’s names achieves, what does it matter?

“Surely if something is being said is worth a debate then whoever posted it has achieved their aim. Their name doesn’t come into it.”

“If they want to go down that route and add to the moderation (which was implemented haphazardly) and ironically saw us lose some of the really good balanced posters we had due to the tactics employed. Then they should do what a popular forum does and ask for work/uni/college email addresses if they want to police it properly – but is it down to policing or rather – a bit of mind control and shutting up those asking difficult questions?”

What next for the OMB?

If the club values the OMB as much as Owen claims, one hopes they are considering how they can make it more appealing to more fans without alienating those who currently enjoy using it. If they are fed up of users personally attacking them and spouting claims without facts, they need to find a way of enforcing greater responsibility (getting rid of user names is an obvious first step). Criticism towards the club and its employees can be healthy and shouldn’t be prevented, but there are much more constructive and inviting ways it could be expressed.

It is laudable the Board wants to continue offering fans this platform to engage with others about Bradford City away from matches. But right now too many people feel negatively towards it – at times this includes the club itself – and efforts surely need to be taken towards addressing the issues in order for the OMB to be more widely viewed as welcoming and worthwhile.

With special thanks to Roger Owen, Steve Dresser, Steve Baker, Leon Carroll and Frank Wood.