Season / Review / Value

The price of next year’s season ticket might be an odd place to start a review of a season, but how much we pay for next year seems germane to the situation which Bradford City have found themselves following a season in which every home game was played behind closed doors.

The perennial discussion of Season Ticket Pricing at Valley Parade seems especially pernicious this year following fifteen months of debilitating of the economic conditions. The impact of COVID and Brexit are creeping through a part of the country which does not have prosperity to spare.

Nevertheless, at the start of May 2021, following a year in which Bradford City fitted to a middle of League Two finish, the club saw fit to ask me what I thought about increasing the price to watch next season’s football.

McCall

There seems to be a certainty at Bradford City that at some point the club will get itself into a level of trouble that will require someone to ask Stuart McCall to help.

McCall’s return as manager for a third time – entirely contained within 2020 – is another case in point and saw the Definitive Bradford City Stalwart rolled up his sleeves and get involved again.

McCall’s exit less than a year after arriving again and a month after signing a new contract offered by nascent CEO Ryan Sparks may be the last time he is involved with the club – or may be the last time he sits in the manager’s chair – but it would take the faith of Matthew 8:5-13 to not believe that the club will at some point be navigating Shit Creek and asking McCall for a paddle.

And one is tempted to suggest that the less said about McCall’s time as manager the better, other than to note that something has to be said about it.

Plague

There is a subtext to discussions of McCall’s 2020 spell as manager of Bradford City that is wilfully ambivalent to the homoousian problems that face the club.

McCall took on a team – inherited from a manager who inherited it from a manager and so on – which lacked character. He recruited players over a summer following a truncated season for a season that many would not finish and tried – and failed – to build those players into a winning squad in a context where players were not even allowed to go to the pub together.

When one recall’s McCall’s exit under Edin Rahic one remembers a photograph of a half a dozen players around the manager. The rule of six, the one meter, the social distance.

That McCall was unable to turn the team who retain the core of the side that bombed out of League One so badly into something useful is presented as a criticism of him – which may be fair – but is also a synecdoche of the issues he inherited and which were passed onto the next man, or men.

Blue

The chief component of McCall’s timely exit was newly appointed Ryan Sparks who seems to not be the first person running the club to find an abrasion in McCall’s ways. His decision to replace McCall so quickly after having him sign a new deal would have destroyed any credibility Sparks had built up but, as it was, Sparks had yet to build any.

Following that early decision to remove one of the most popular characters in the club’s history Sparks cast himself as a kind of Popularist in charge making a series of decisions which were generally well-received by the constituency he seems to be most interested in appeasing, who are, briefly the people who are most vocal on Twitter.

Few missed Ben Richards-Everton or Kurtis Guthrie after they headed a list of players who were sent away as Sparks crafted the appearance of a man who was taking care of business. The signings made following the appointment of Lee Turnbull as a Head of Recruitment were well-received and rightly so.

But reception and action are not the same and Sparks needs to balance the whims of the people he appeases with the demands of creating a fertile environment for success at the club. The history of this club – or most clubs – draws the correlations of good times on the field and the times when CEOs and Chairmen are most quiet.

lersTruemanSel

The decision Sparks did not have to make was appointing Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars to the role(s) of joint manager(s) after the pair suggested themselves with a long run of very good results. Those results through the Autumn and Winter moved the club into upper mid-table before an abortive play off push in the Spring.

The improvement shown, and the subsequent failure to maintain that improvement, represented a reversion to the mean for the club and illustrated much about the group of players who until May 2021 represented Bradford City in that – on the whole – they are technically excellent but lack commitment.

Many or the players – and here I would talk about Anthony O’Connor, Paudie O’Connor, Richard O’Donnell, Gareth Evans, and others – are technically capable but do not show the consistent application which – perhaps – if they were to show or be able to show they would mean they were not be League Two players.

Within this group of players there are those who are not in the middle of League Two because they are without skill but rather that because they are not often enough willing to be responsible for the results. Mistakes are someone else’s fault, problems are other people’s to solve, and notions of collective responsibility are far away.

This culture runs deep at the club and is difficult to address. Trueman and Sellars did not create this problem any more than McCall, or Gary Bowyer before him, or David Hopkin before him did, but they are charged with addressing it, or at least seem to be.

Yet this need to defend Trueman and Sellers is reflexive. It is the result of many years talking about the need for stability and for retaining institutional knowledge but – given how little knowledge there is and how little there is to risk upsetting then why should the manager’s be protected?

The pair represent the end of a path in which options have been tried and readily thrown away. They are the default setting for a League Two club who have run out of ideas.

Press

However that Trueman and Sellars should be able to use the full range of tools at their disposal to do effect any changes should be unquestioned. The idea that a football club prefers a formation – that Bradford City is a 442 club – is inherently ludicrous and hampers it.

The pair brought a few of the trappings of a more modern approach to managing space on the field is not something which should be denied to them for the sake of flaccid traditionalism.

Their use of a higher press during the good period between Autumn and Winter caused problems which – once again – one would be wilfully ambivalent to ignore. With this football season compressed to fit into fewer months, and with the requirements of a more physically demanding way of playing obvious, that City tailed off in the last month seems unsurprising.

Having been asked to put in a great effort to move the club up the league away from the spectre of relegation the players felt legs getting heavier after March. When the going got tough those players absolutely failed to get going.

Outside

This is not a criticism of those players so much as an understanding of the assets they present. No one in the squad is a Gus Branston playing on the edge to make up for his technical inadequacies. They are playing comfortably within themselves and achieving moderate results because of that.

There are a number of prospects around the squad: Elliot Watt, Callum Cooke and Levi Sutton represent potential as a midfield and I have a fondness for Charles Vernam; but all football teams are as good as the senior professionals in them and so these players are more clay to be shaped.

Niall Canavan – a player I look forward to seeing in the flesh – seems to represent a positive seniority within the club well whereas striker Danny Rowe – who exited as quickly as he arrived – did not.

However

All this discussion comes with a massive, and honest, apology to the O’Connors and Richard O’Donnell and all the other players criticised here because – frankly – were I one of those players I might feel like I did a decent job this year and not care much about anything else.

There is nothing about being a footballer which means you are not subject to the world created by the onset of COVID-19. There is no reason why a man who pulls on a football shirt should worry less about his family, or about not being able to visit the urban sprawl we increasingly shuttle past but do not engage with.

There is nothing about a footballer than means they feel less isolated by the inability to socialise, by the rising death toll and lowering of the standard of life. There is nothing about a footballer which means that they – like you and I – are not just getting through this.

Berkeley

Some days have been Hell.

If you are a footballer who has done a job only to have some Berk like me pass judgement on that work, and you feel you have a right to tell me to Go Fuck Myself, then I would not object if you did so.

Because ultimately the problem of assessing 2020/2021 as a Football Season is that to do so robs it of the context. The darkest days in football history – at this club, at other clubs – are measured in numbers of dead which became the day to day ticking of the clock.

Some days have been Hell.

Ambition

There is a need for society to return to normality following the COVID-19 pandemic and part of that return is a reflexive dismissal of the conditions around the pandemic. Which is to say that in order to go back to normal we have to create a collective belief that we are within a state of normality which is as unchanged as it can be.

When the cinemas will open, and we will watch the same movies, the pubs will reopen, and we will meet the same people and go to the same bars.

A part of life returning to normal will be the retroactive installation of a narrative of normality onto events that insists that those events were something that was always to be overcome. The spirit is summed up in the phrase “Keep Buggering On”.

But discussions about the future of football that happened in 2020 talked about a future in the English game with fewer clubs. We already live in a post-Bury FC world before the financial crisis brought on by lockdown.

When Bury went from the Football League there was widespread discussion about how the seventy-two professional club format was unsustainable. In August 2020 the idea of August 2021 coming around with enough teams still intact to have a League Two with Bradford City was not a lack of ambition.

It was ambition.

None of which is to tell you, Dear Reader, that you should be happy to just have a Bradford City to follow just to acknowledge the way that in so many ways last season was an aberration and that the outcome of attempts to navigate it were probably more hostage to fortune than we would like to admit.

The financial costs, the loans taken by clubs, the impact on the game caused by a reshaping of people’s activities will be felt for years to come. We are, in no way, out of this yet.

RPI

The Retail Price Index maps inflation and tells us that given the launch price of Bradford City season tickets in 2007 a comparative price in 2021 would be around £200. If you want a question to how much should a Bradford City Season Ticket cost then that is probably it.

Bradford City have a massive amount of supply of a product – seats at a football match – and a low demand. As a result there is a point in which revenue is maximised but that is ignored because football is not about maximising revenue.

The arguments against the proposed European Super League were that football was not about amassing money it was about the fans and that insight scales downwards.

Manchester United and Real Madrid are acting against fans when they put up barriers to competitive progress, Bradford City are acting against fans when they price people out in the interests of maximising revenue as the country recovers from the economic effects of atrocious Government and global pandemic.

Argument

So much of football is about arguing on the Internet.

One of the rules I have for this website is that commenting on commenting on football is inherently boring and not something worth doing – the T&A “Fans Think” reaction pieces of Tweets republished are the dead of journalism – but occasionally it borders on being necessary and the Season Ticket cost debate is one of those times.

Any discussion on Season Ticket increases that does not include a component of the club offering a mechanism to acknowledge supporters who have lost jobs over the last year should be treated with contempt.

When Bradford City smashed hard against the wall of running out of money in 2002 and 2004 the people of Bradford gave £500,000 to fund the club and were made a promise that the reborn Bradford City would have those supporters at its heart. Raising ticket prices and not looking after the people left behind makes a mockery of that promise, and the people who put their hands in their pockets.

A

Suggestions for fixing the prices of Season Tickets are more common – in the discussion of the club – that the names of new signings and implicit in those suggestions is a direct correlation between revenue in and performance on the field.

That correlation is accurate – although it better aligns with turnover – but raising revenue demands economic conditions which may not be the case.

One might suggest that one put the price up to £300 and let anyone who checks the box to say they lose their job in the Pandemic, or they have no wage coming in, pay £100 and conclude that the problem is fixed.

Bigger

Perhaps though we might do well to dwell on the cost of seasons ticket when they are presented as a problem. If it is the case that prices have to go up to fund improvements in performance it is also thought that if those increases are be compelled then they will have no effect.

Which is to say that the common belief is that if people do not have to pay more they will not pay more. In itself this is a damning indictment of the broken relationship between football and the supporters of it, and of the prism of neo-liberal economics that the game is viewed through.

Football Clubs dance on the line of talking as businesses one moment and community assets the next always on the side which protects their interests against the supporters.

The season ticket debate is another reminder – if it were needed – that we are all in it together until we are not.

Exception

The economics of football are failing.

Without a new economic vision it is impossible to see the game at League Two level carrying on as it does. Many clubs will shrink while others grow and at some point de facto breakaways will force actual breakaways.

This has – to some extent – already happened. The European Super League need not happen for the dominance of the clubs in it to be cemented. The gap between The Championship and League One creates a group of teams like Hull City who will always go back up and teams like Wycombe who will always go down.

This is the inevitable result of inflationary pressures within the economics of football. Exceptions are celebrated precisely because they are exceptions.

Bradford City are hostage to that world and probably cannot step outside it. There is no funding model, no magical number on a Season Ticket application form, which will fix the inequality built into the system.

Rainbows

Some people want to pay more to go see Bradford City, some people cannot afford to pay more, some people need to pay less.

Ultimately if there is a connection between how much is paid in season tickets and how good the experience is then let people pay what they want for a season ticket.

Let the supporter set the price.

How much is watching Bradford City worth to you? Pay £1,000 for your Season Ticket if you want, or pay £500, or pay £100, or pay £1.

Sky Sports costs around £400 a year. Cancel that subscription and pay that for your season ticket.

Or don’t.

The club will be as good as the supporters want it to be and – assuming that link between revenue and performance – if people who are currently paying £150 decide they can pay £1 now when they could afford more then that is a decision they have made.

Then the club would die because the only people who care about it cared more about keeping their money for something else.

End

Which is the season in review.

Twelve months of watching the most irrelevant football being played in front of empty stadiums for no reason other than habit listening to people talking about how other people should pay more to improve a situation which very obviously is not going to improve.

You can care, or you can not, but either way you’ll wish you hadn’t.

Next / Questions / Knowledge

With far too few games left in the season David Hopkin wandered off into mid-distance and Bradford City started looking for a new manager.

Since the transfer window emerged in football around ten years ago new managers have become a panacea. Where as once in the days of low success supporters would have called for a “Big Signing” would now they ask for a “New Manager”. Changing managers has become the de facto response because it is one of the only responses.

That Hopkin also subscribed to that view is odd but largely because we assume that the manager is the grown up in the room and when he behaves like one of his charges and exits our view on football becomes confused.

And so the vacancy at Valley Parade is obvious. Less obvious is the remit of the job.

Bus

Aggressively obnoxious football manager Steve Evans is a big man but despite that few would compare him to an actual bus. I am going to.

Steve Evans is to the Bradford City job what this large Red Bus is to politics. He is a promise made by a group of people about another group of people where the one cannot assure the other’s compliance.

For the past few years Evans has hovered over the City job with the understanding that were he given the role he would smash backsides until the players were, well, better and would win more.

This is a persistent meme in football supporters which originates at some point in the 1970s when the Gentleman managers of Bill Nic and Shankley gave way to the new breed of Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson who saw physical and verbal aggression as tools at their disposal. Those days are gone, a point underlined to all but the more borish by the more congenial style of Gareth Southgate’s approach in the run to the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup. Nevertheless it is the more borish who perpetuate the meme and so it is pervasive.

I am wary about Faustian arrangements that suggest that one can realise a desire if only one will sell a tiny part of the soul precisely because they are Faustian.

Remit

The next Bradford City manager’s remit should not be to avoid relegation to League Two it should be to have an excellent team on the field in August 2020.

The squad which David Hopkin has left at Valley Parade, which was passed him him by a transfer committee that took over from a manager who had very little interest in building a squad in the long term is not only badly unbalanced but it is poorly prioritised.

Unbalanced in that it is festooned with attacking players which comes from poor prioritisation away from defending and, especially, defending by being able to win the ball back. There is nothing attacking about not having the ball.

It would be easy to blame this on the members of the transfer committee but the problem goes deeper. Football has forgotten this basic of the game with low rent tiki-takas and would be Sarriballers selling lower league chairmen on the idea that they will be the next Marcelo Bielsa. Occasionally they go to a club and are successful, most they are not.

Even managers think managers should leave clubs if success is not quick. The first generation of players who saw a fast turnaround of gaffers has now begun to manage. We shake our heads today but Hopkin’s time at the club as a player started when he was sounded out by Paul Jewell, played under Chris Hutchings, was injured for Stuart McCall and left under Jim Jefferies. He only played 11 games.

Hopkin, like many of his peers, has had a football career where management is entirely in the short term.

Long

To say “Bradford City need a manager who…”, and prescribe a set of features, needlessly complicates matters. All clubs need to employ people who have a stable approach to managing the resources generated.

Such a phrase goes well beyond the borders on the tedious but almost all the successful clubs in the Football League have this as a core value. In an environment where even the people who are doing the long term thinking expect to not be able to carry that thinking out there seems to be a benefit in creating an environment where all thinking is long term.

Want

At Barnsley away – because I am what is known as a “funny bugger” – when the first crack appeared in Hopkin’s revival I turned to a friend and quietly sung “We want our Edin back.”

No one feels the loss of Rahic but the loss of the things he talked about – about long term development of the team and about creating an identity around Valley Parade – are significant. Rahic’s failed to instill the values he and Stefan Rupp talked about bringing to the club but no values have replaced them.

It is not that Bradford City need a manager to have and be given time, it is that Bradford City need a manager to bring knowledge.

Question

The failure of Rahic was his inability to infuse his belief in others. Despite a turnover of staff on and off the field allow him to craft an environment he wanted no one but Rahic seemed to buy into Rahicism.

Bradford City – being Julian Rhodes and Stefan Rupp – should not pretend that they know how to make a successful football club and if they do you should not believe them.

The question the manager needs to be asked if they are being interviewed for the role is not how will they keep City in the division – those Yorkshire Puddings are already in the over, only time will tell if they will rise – but rather what City will look like in August 2020 or 2024 or 2029, and how we will get to that point.

Rhodes and Rupp need someone with domain knowledge on how to construct a successful club and they need that knowledge more than they need six wins between now and May.

The Doc departs leaving Bradford City reflecting on lessons it never learns

Benito Carbone, David Hopkin, Paul McLaren and now Tommy Doherty. Players who have offered so much when originally signed by Bradford City; players who – for whatever reason – failed to live up to the expectations of others; players who left the club financially much worse off and looking somewhat foolish.

Tommy Doherty has today officially departed the Bantams, less than 12 months into a two-year deal. He is destined to go down in the club’s history as one of its poor signings. In many people’s eyes he failed to show the right attitude or application. For others though, the fault lies more with the club.

The Doc was City’s best paid player this season. A stella signing by manager Peter Taylor which probably prompted that ‘pre-season favourites’ tag the club has so badly failed to live up to. Many of us remembered his stunning performance at Valley Parade for Taylor’s Wycombe in February 2009. As he rocked up at Valley Parade, we licked our lips in anticipation of watching his superb passing ability over the coming months. The Bearded Wonder; the talisman; our own Paul Scholes.

But while the club spared no expense laying on a new playing surface that he could sweep the ball across, other pre-season plans – namely a new training ground demanded by Taylor – did not come to fruition. Let us not argue once more the effect this might have had on the season, but let us agree that – overall – it has been proven the foundations for this season were built upon sand. In money terms, Doherty was a significant investment for this club. But the infrastructure was lacking, hampering Taylor’s ability to get the desired return from his investment.

Doherty attempted to build up an understanding with new team mates on the same inadequate training pitch that Carbone and others struggled on. And rather than reach the heights enjoyed at other clubs, Doherty like others couldn’t live up to high expectations and in time became painted as a villain.

Worst of all, the club’s over-stretching in persuading such players to sign – instead of spending money in other key areas – keeps coming back to haunt it. Doherty may not have commanded the same level wage as Carbone; but, as they now struggle to pay their players on time and have offloaded the Irish midfielder a year early, it looks like a similar type of mistake.

Not that the club should be solely blamed for how disappointing Doherty’s City career proved. An injury picked up in pre-season refused to go away, and in each of his 21 Bantams appearances he was far from fully fit. Nevertheless his ability was there for all to see. At times he sprayed the ball around majestically, spotting runners and options that no one else in the ground – especially in the stands watching – had seen. As someone who enjoys watching teams pass the ball around with patience and skill (Spain in last year’s World Cup didn’t bore me, even if they did many others), for me it was a thrill to watch Doherty on the ball.

The problems, however, stemmed from the lack of players on his wavelength. With confidence especially low early in the season, it would be common to see Doherty pick up the ball deep and find no one was either embarking on a run or offering themselves as an option he could pick out. As we fans demanded he produce a defence-splitting pass, there would be growing frustration if his attempt to do so lead to possession being surrendered or the ball being worked backwards.

It all came to a head when Port Vale came to Valley Parade, early September. Having earlier produced some breathtaking passes as City tried to overturn a 1-0 deficit, momentum shifted back to Vale and Doherty lost the ball on a few occasions. Then a pass was played to him in a dangerous part of the pitch, and his chipped backpass to Jon McLaughlin allowed Justin Richards to race in and score a comically easy goal. The next time Doherty touched the ball, hundreds booed.

That afternoon probably sealed the type of relationship Doherty was to have with City fans. He was clearly angry to be treated in this way, and when he and club’s form picked up a few weeks later and Doherty was subbed late on to standing ovations in two consecutive games – Oxford and Bury – it was telling that he did not bother to clap supporters back or thank us for our support. On his return to Wycombe in November, he was sent off for an angry reaction to a challenge and again was clapped off by City fans. No response, no acknowledgment, no love for us it seemed.

A month later Doherty finally undertook an operation that he’d apparently needed pre-season, and that was to be the last we’d see of him playing for City. In its own way this hurried the departure of his manager, as the team’s style without their playmaker deteriorated drastically and it became increasingly dismal viewing. Taylor’s exit always threw up a big question mark over Doherty’s future – he’d walked out of Wycombe when Gary Waddock replaced Taylor at Adams Park – and with rumours swirling in recent weeks it seemed this early departure was inevitable.

Could he have given more to the club? Probably. Could City have done more to maximise his talents? Most definitely. But as we face up to a summer of worry and despair over the club’s financial future, Doherty’s place alongside Carbone, McLaren and co. as a foolish use of money is almost certainly assured.

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