Do Bradford City have the worst supporters in football?

Now we can begin to understand why City have such a poor home record? Yes, we have had some awful teams, but the atmosphere they have to play in is cynical and negative. It’s a perfect storm of poor teams with fragile confidence playing in front of the worst fans in the entire Football League. Yes, the worst fans and I mean it with all my heart. We are terrible, we have the numbers, but nothing else: no humour; no passion; no belief.

For a long time Dave Pendleton was the poster boy for Bradford City supporters. Hair thinning and with a twang to his voice that stakes him unmistakeably in the West Riding Dave was the man that was called on when television companies and radio stations requires a City fan. Back in the Premiership days ITV’s On The Ball’s sponsors picked fans to represent clubs and you to go back and watch the video you would see Dave in front of a pub fireplace in his classic 1970s City shirt telling someone off camera to cheer up because this time last year we were at Crewe. He edited the City Gent, got called on to write for The Guardian about the club. If someone from Bradford were to have written Fever Pitch it would have been Dave.

So when Dave Pendleton says that City fans are the worst fans in the entire Football League he is not throwing bricks over the wall at unseen targets. He is talking about his peers, and his peers should take note.

What is the best support?

Dave Pendleton’s comments about City fans being the worst supporters in football provoked an interesting debate and one which – in the days after – caused the long time Bantam fan to muse further. “I would easily be able to find examples of much worse behaviour from supporters of other clubs. The lingering threat of violence, and even seventies style racism, at several well known clubs for example. I made the comment more out of frustration. I want our fans to do better and I know they can be.”

Out of frustration but his comments were certainly recognisable. No matter where one sits at Valley Parade one can hear the sound of negativity most of the time and that negativity is expressed in curious ways. Some time ago I recall hearing an agitated debate between two grown men where one had taken objection to the other launching into vulgarities at City’s then right winger Joe Colbeck. The argument progressed as one might expect it would – one side calling for the other to be less negative or go home, the other defending on his right to have his opinion voiced – but it struck me that very few other places in society would this discussion occur.

Very few other places would a man feel he could stand his ground against someone who had called him for swearing violently at a teenager and almost nowhere else would a foul mouthed tirade be considered in any way supportive. Football supporting – and one uses the phrase loosely – had a different set of considerations. Pendleton pays tribute to the people he worked with on The City Gent, on the work of the Bradford City Supporters Trust, on those who assist in the Bantamspast Museum but – accepting that work – returns to notion “We have an inordinate number of fans who leap rapidly on any error a City player makes. More often than not these same people are the last out of their seats when a goal flies in and almost never urge the team on during a period of City pressure. Sadly, they have become the dominant voice of Valley Parade.”

Many would recognise this characterisation. The experience of watching games at Valley Parade is to be as to enjoy despite the atmosphere and not because of it. Infamously a winning team was booed off the field this season representing a new low in this dominant voice.

Anecdotally this seems to be the core of this growing concept of bad support – the leaping on of errors and reticence to encourage – and from that it may be possible to establish an idea of what might be opposite that. That good support might be a tolerance for failures and a readiness to (vocally) endorse the team with a positivity.

Understand here that we talk not about the individual supporters at Valley Parade – after every game where boos ring out the players wander over to applaud the more favourable fans who have stayed to applaud rather than spitting venom and wandering away – but rather of the idea of a communal voice. The single speaking of a people Legion which, as we will come to in time, may no longer be a relevant consideration.

What’s so bad about feeling good?

Mark Lawn’s car was vandalised leaving the joint Bradford City chairman livid. Over the course of a weekend he mused about how worth it it was keeping the club going with his money and considered withdrawing his loan from the club putting it back into administration.

This story – the threat of administration – is often mentioned by those who criticise Lawn but seldom is the vandalism considered as destructive event as the booing of the team on a Saturday. It has parallels being against those who are part of the club, obviously counter-productive and largely a way for those involved to vent spleen. The difference being that while criticising (and abuse without violence) Lawn is seen as different to the players. Criticising the chairman, the manager, the chief executive of a club is often considered a sign of distinction.

Newcastle United have returned to the Premier League despite a constant criticism of chairman Mike Ashley which is seen as only good sense while Liverpool and Manchester United’s owners are vilified but in all these cases there is a bar (on the whole) in booing the players on match day.

This website does not shy from venturing opinions on the chairmen of the club and considers it very much a part of the remit of the supporter to keep a watchful eye on those who own the club and criticise when called for.

There is distinction drawn between the two strands of criticism. At St James’s Park, Newcastle that distinction is drawn in obvious terms by supporter and writer Andrew Wilkins. “The team are the team and the reason we criticise Ashley is because what he is doing gets in the way of the team doing well. If we were booing that team then we’d be stopping them doing well too.”

Wilkins sees this point that negativity in the stands on match day has a directly negative manifestation on the team as unequivocal. “I take colleagues to St James’ and all they can do is talk about how the fans lift the team. I’ve seen it happen when a player does something and gets encouraged for it and just grows and grows during a game.”

There is little one can do to measure the levels of negativity within various teams and see if those teams correlate with the more successful sides and so one if left with personal experience to inform ones thoughts. The United fan I worked with in Manchester amongst a sea of Blues was so often lampoons as guileless, artificial and almost childish but his team won the league while the City fans floundered around the second tier proclaiming both their affinity to the concept of being “real football fans” and their belief that everything was – pretty much – hopeless at Maine Road .

One has to wonder if the cynicism which is so much a part of the idea of authentic football supporter is not counter-productive in itself and that the wide eyed positive optimism portrayed as plastic consumerist football is not a path to success.

Are there cheerleaders in Soccer? No, unless you count the fans!

The cheerleader is rarely seen at British football although they have appeared. First at Watford in the 1980s – Elton John was credited as getting them in because he had an eye for the ladies which suggests how long ago it was – and then sporadically at almost every club in the game.

They appear – these girls with Pom Poms – and work out a dance or two but somewhere around the onset of the dark nights when Winter starts they seem to disappear never to return. For a while Bradford City’s Bantam Belles started the season well but seemed to fade with the club’s optimism every year.

English football has no love of the Cheerleader (Scottish football has no facility, the weather in Aberdeen not being suited) and their absence is part of a general neglect of anything which could be described as pre-match entertainment. Mascot dramas, Opera singers, player interaction with the crowd; All these things have been tried and sit with the Cheerleader in the part of the history books reserved for the regrettable.

Bradford City is no different to most football clubs in this regard but it does contrast with our neighbours Bradford Bulls. The Bulls transformation from the cloth cap of Northern to the razzmatazz of the Super League was alarming to many but impressively effective and the continued sight of car stickers and t-shirts that testify to the time when the club were the best team in the World having won a pan-Continental challenge as well as four domestic titles.

Pop stars singing on the field, girls with pom poms, Bullman and Bullboy the stories of the atmosphere of Odsal had a near mythic status but those days – like the team’s triumphs in Super League – seem behind them. Bulls fan Phil Parsons sums up the mood saying

“(The Bulls) seemed a bit deflated as of late. Some of this is obviously to do with the results on the pitch but quite a bit of it has been because of things off the pitch as well. A lot of people wanted McNamara to go a lot earlier than he did and this seemed to lead to a lot of discontent among the fans. It was other things as well, for example the pre-match entertainment used to be excellent and a lot of it this year has been pretty poor and it’s just sucked the atmosphere out of Odsal.”

Parsons has signed up for the Bulls Pledge – cheaper season tickets if so many people get on board – but hopes that the club cab use the next season as a new start. “They should make a massive deal of it. Go back to things like having an opera singer singing Nessun Dorma just before kick off, the fireworks and having the teams walk out together, that sort of thing. Odsal used to have the nickname ‘Fortress Odsal’ because it was such an imposing place to come to as an away team and the fans loved it. That’s want I want back from next season.”

The correlation in the minds of both Parsons and Wilkins is clear. Good atmosphere off the field – however it is brought about – brings good results on it or at least contributes. Newcatle United’s players are inspired, Bradford Bull’s opponents are scared but in short that good support brings good football, or at least winning football.

I love a party with a happy atmosphere

If a good atmosphere begets good results then it might be worth considering what good supporters do which aids the players or hinders the opposition. Certainly City’s players and management have talked gravely about the silence of Valley Parade. Nicky Law said the crowd was worth a goal start for the opposition suggesting a reverse of the effect that the Bulls seek while Stuart McCall fumed at the booing of individual players suggesting that it hampered the team as a whole.

Peter Taylor highlighted the effect on the development of the younger players in the team of the players being booed suggesting that they would be less willing to do the things that help them develop into better players for fear of the Valley Parade ire. Joe Colbeck was never the same after he went to Darlington and came back with the confidence of having couple of games of the most purposeful practice without the censure in failure.

So we gather ideas of how good support – which we correlate with the idea that good supporters end up with successful teams – manifests itself. Speaking about match days and about what occurs during match days we emerge with a hypothesis: Good support is the tendency to allow for player’s failure giving those players the scope to both be more adventurous (and responsible) in their play and to learn from that experience (which is especially true for the young players) and to believe that the whole is best served by belief in the collection players.

It is difficult to quantify support outside of the realm of bums on seats and noise generated but anecdotally one finds it hard to recall occasions when the clubs which are known for having better supports who are yoked to success have gone against that hypothesis.

It was rare that Liverpool supporters attacked a player but the treatment of Lucas Leiva in recent seasons strikes a contrast to the story of singing while 3-0 down in Instanbul inspiring the players. The fear in football is that when the fans start to boo a single player that the ten other men worry that after a mistake they will be the next target. Peter Beagrie summed up this feeling in his comment about what constituted genuine courage on the football field – “Doing the same thing the twelfth that has left you on your backside for the last eleven because it is still the right thing to do.”

Manchester United supporters made a fable out of Deigo Forlan’s failure to score allowing the player the room to grow, Newcastle United idolise their number nine in a way that seemed to cause the current incumbent to grow a foot when the shirt went on his back. Even over at Leeds United where they are not know for tolerance they express to their players a belief that the club will do well in any division they are in should they apply themselves correctly.

It might seem trite – almost childish in its simplicity – but the supporters who are best able to suspend any disbelief they have for the duration of a game are those who do best in the longer term. The non-cynical attitude of children is mirrored – at least during games – by the fans of clubs who do well and the problem with children is that they grow up.

So now then

Cynicism is no bad thing and if more of football was cynical then the game would be in better health. If every season a 80 clubs did not plan the season on the idea that they would end up promoted then so many balance sheets would not be bright red.

Cynicism in supporters could can be helpful too. After Bruno Rodriguez, Jorge Cadete and Juanjo it was incredible that the levels of cynicism at Valley Parade allowed for another overseas superstar to have his name plastered on a shirt and anyone who showed cynicism probably saved themselves £40.

However when Topp took to the field the suspension of disbelief – the ability to park cynicism – was noticeable for its scarcity at Valley Parade. Nothing really suggested he would be a good player but we all convinced ourselves he would be Pele and so he enjoyed ample chance. Compare that with Barry Conlon who scored more goals in one game that Topp has got in his career and the problem becomes clearer.

This is mental gymnastics. The ability to double-think away from the cynicism that comes with following a club for seasons in which one learns that success is rare is a tough skill to learn and like any skill it is best reinforced when it comes with a positive result. If the double-think of supporting does not lead to results then people are less likely to do it – as with post-Topp City – but Beagrie would testify that it is still the right thing to do.

The supporters who have had the most experience of this working do it more often – Manchester United, Liverpool, Newcastle United and so on – and one could say that the are the best supporters but one would shy from saying that the opposite are bad fans, or to come full circle “the worst fans in football”.

Just that of all the tools which football fans use to be able to do “good support” City fans use few. Perhaps supporters are not bad just not less good and in a competitive football environment in which all teams compete in the longer term City fans are not worse than many but a few clubs have fans who are better able to use their presence to boost their teams.

To those teams the spoils. The rest of us look disparagingly at the Manchester United supporter and his giddy belief that whichever kid Sir Alex throws in will be the New George Best or the Newcastle United fan who has his team’s number nine tattooed on his thigh they look back at us with sympathy.

For we have more of what they would call cynicism and they have more of what we would call success.

McCall echoes Law’s bluntest comments – will we pay attention this time?

Arresting oratory rarely comes from the most lucid speakers. Churchill’s finest hours came not from his desire to play with words but the bluntness of his statements. “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” may flow off the tongue well but more importantly, it is guttural, basic.

As one decade ticks over to another there is a tendency to look back to the last and encapsulate and in doing some one piece of oratory sticks out above others. A couple of years from the start of the decade then manager Nicky Law delivered this damning pronouncement:

At some grounds the crowd are like a goal for the home team, here (at Valley Parade) they are like one for the opposition.

It is blunt to the point of offence and hastened Law’s exit from the position he had at the club but remains – despite two administrations and three relegations – the outstanding comment of the ten years perhaps because of the bluntness. It was the manager of the club at the end of his tether and is perhaps made more significant by the slide that followed Law’s exit. The gaffer – love him or loathe him – was issuing a warning to supporters. He was not the first.

Ten years before IPC Magazines – those people behind Roy of the Rovers and NME – had asked all 92 clubs what music they ran on to the pitch to. This was before the Sunderland’s use of Republica’s Ready To Go updated run-on music and years before Burnley perfected it with Arcade Fire’s Wake Up (Coyle, leaving that, you must be mad) amid the usual Z-Cars of Everton and Newcastle’s Local Hero came not the name of a song but an anonymous comment from Valley Parade.

We usually run out to total silence

Both phrases talk in terms of warnings and strike hard against the memories of Valley Parade after Gordon Watson’s goals against Barnsley, against Liverpool in 2000, against Blackpool in 2003 but anyone who has followed City – especially those who follow City on the road and have heard the contrast between VP and away grounds – knows that for the talk of “best fans” which is heard from all clubs the Bantams backing at Valley Parade is almost always underwhelming.

The City Gent‘s Dave Pendleton talking about the rising Ultras movement in English lower league football commented on how fifty Accrington Stanley fans were able to out-sing 11,000 Bantams in Valley Parade. There are many reasons for this – the movement from standing to all seats, the breaking up of singing groups in the stadium, offish stewarding and so on – but Pendleton’s reflections are not isolated incidents.

At the time Law’s comments seemed to be petty, small-minded and ungenerous – the last actions of an Emporer before the fall of his Rome – but in retrospect they read as as stark a warning every issued to a footballing community. “Care for you club” – they seem to say – “because no one else will and you will suffer the consequences.”

The comments point to a helplessness – a desperation – of manager Law at the time. Some took his comments as a direct criticism of all but from the distance of years they strike one more as a man saying that he can only do so much. “I’m doing what I can,” they float, “how about a bit of help from the supporters?”

Within a couple of years a dozen people were sitting about the Goldsborough in Bradford trying to tie two ends of the club together, trying to riase enough money that City were not be put into liquidation rather than continuing administration, and no one had time to consider Law’s words but they rang around the chasm between the pub and Valley Parade with a mocking resonance.

Reconciling the two positions is difficult. Twice in the last decade Bradford City supporters showed summers of endless depths of passion, of stoicism and of belief to keep the club in business and able to play football through winters in which often the converse was true. Impatience was common, spinelessness frequent and, sadly, distaste poured forth. I heard it said by one of the dozen people who spent a summer raising the money to keep City going that the club was not just saved to give some people a place to moan every two weeks.

This decade was not a week old when Stuart McCall delivered a comment which to many echoed Law’s words and while they were less blunt than the previous manager’s they – for some – contained the same meaning.

If anyone wants to pack up and clear off, then I don’t want them here. That goes for anybody connected with the club.

Rumours following the comments – which the T&A’s Simon Parker attributed to being about the supporters rather than McCall pointed at – were that the manager was upset at the attitude of some of the directors perhaps specifically Roger Owen although one was also reminded of the infamous Brian Clough story which has the great man sacking three tea ladies he discovered sniggering at a Derby County loss. Negativity – Clough believed – undermined everything.

Certainly McCall was quick to point out that he was not criticising the supporters talking about the great backing they have had from the fans 6,000 of whom have signed up for Season Tickets for next season but as with Law’s comments some see this as McCall’s attack on the fan and want a similar response with the manager being stripped of his responsibilities.

Regardless of his intended target McCall’s comments apply equally to supporters as they do to the boardroom, the dressing room or elsewhere at Valley Parade. Clough and Law shared the belief that negativity aided the opposition and it seems that McCall has come to the same conclusion.

One has to wonder what Bradford City 2010 have been like were the reaction to Law’s comments not a ire that he should dare speak against Bradford City supporters but as a motivation to resolve to make what difference a full throated support can for a club? Poor atmosphere is common in football home ends up and down the country but it need not be the case and if atmosphere has a purpose in victories in football then the Bantams support could resolve to be the team that uber-supports rather than just another ground where nothing is ever as good as it could be.

Would we have seen Bryan Robson’s side slide away? Would we have seen the lifeless surrender of League One status at Huddersfield and at home to Leyton Orient? Would we have seen the wilting away of last season’s promotion push? Would any of these things been avoided had Law’s comments rung true and the type of support which often is only witness in away ends could be heard in the home sections of VP.

Certainly at the club the idea that there is a negativity at Bradford City has been noted. Mark Lawn has talked about the message board and making posters responsible for what is said in the hope that it would alter the tone while the moving of away fans to create a noisy Bradford End has been a qualified success with the atmosphere created by some way the most positive in the stadium, and the noisiest.

This website stand accused – from time to time – of “having a go at the fans” which is sometimes true but in this case is not. (Incidentally for my part I have no qualms about saying that on occasion I feel the need to point out unjustified negativity of a section of City fans and for those fans to bleat about being “attacked” or being the subject of having BfB “having a go” is an hypocrisy. If – in one example – a person is man enough to stand up in front of the fans around him – including a good few twelve year old kids – and call Joe Colbeck “a c*nt” then he is man enough to take any criticism aimed at him.)

This is an article about a nameless source at Valley Parade in the 90s, a manager in the form of Nicky Law in the last decade, The City Gent’s Dave Pendleton and another manager Stuart McCall in this one and it is about putting aside a pompous pride and thinking about what is best considered for the wider Bradford City community.

I’m a guy with an opinion, Some bloke at VP is just some bloke, Law was a jobbing manager, Pendleton is just a guy who writes a fanzine, McCall is a club legend and they all speak to the same conclusion about the effects of support and the detriments of negativity. What voice are we not going to ignore before this issue is addressed?

Note on comments An interesting debate on Stuart McCall is taking place elsewhere on this website which need not be duplicated here. Instead – and this is a departure from the usual track of comments – suggestions on ways to improve the mood, the atmosphere, the tone of the club are would be appreciated below.

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