Preview / Absurd / Regret

In his preamble to musings on philosophy Danish poet Søren Kierkegaard commented “Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both.”

Debt

Racing Universitaire Algerios goalkeeper Albert Camus remarked “After many years in which the world has afforded me many experiences, what I know most surely in the long run about morality and obligations, I owe to football.”

Camus was not much of a goalkeeper and retired early with novelty remembering him as better than he likely would have been. His aphorism about what he owed to the game is as accurate enough for consideration as the first football season to be played behind closed doors kicks off on Saturday.

There is a lip service paid to the idea that the match attending supporter is the heart of football. This is obviously rendered untrue by those who live The Ladbrokes Life, or who watch Soccer Saturday every week, or who support Barcelona while living in Bradford who are capable of having an experience of football supporting that does not rely on attendance.

“What is football without fans?” was the question, and we will get an answer.

Hope

Over the summer Bradford City have rid themselves of around a dozen players who one struggles to find anything positive or celebratory to write about.

Hope Akpan was not as bad as a mass of people would have it but never did anything to suggest he should be missed.

Those players have been replaced with a second collection of players who are on the whole younger, and those player have been added to by a half dozen players from the youth setup which stands as a lingering testament to the planning done by Edin Rahic while he was chairman of Bradford City.

All this recruitment is best judged in retrospect but it seems highly unlikely that Bradford City have traded a group of League Two quality players for a group of League One quality players. Indeed it seems likely that while the players will have different characteristics they will on the whole be of a similar quality.

Absurd

Narratives around football centre on a type of control which the game seems to rarely, if ever, afford.

One player leaves only to become top scorer, another ends up in the semi-professional leagues and you would do well to see the justification in that given their performances for City. City sign the best player in the League and he is awful but the guy who could not get on the bench at Carlisle is great.

What makes a single recruitment successful? How much was Nahki Wells a success because of two huge morale boosting goals in his first few games? Why was the tireless Billy Knott of Chelsea not a player worth keeping? There are answers to all these questions in principle but that answer is so much a compounded of variables as to be unknowable in practice.

We look at these events and mesh them together in an extrapolation trying to establish that grouping unknowables together makes something knowable by the aggregate. We call that a good transfer window because the alternative seems too dark for us to be comfortable with.

By the time he had given up the goalkeeping Camus had started to look how the human condition attempted to create a sense of events and senseless world and dubbed the condition the absurd.

Absurd

Stuart McCall is planning for a season without striker James Vaughan who scored seven goals in free play last term. McCall should not replace Vaughan with another player so much as he must look to recreate Vaughan’s goals in the sum of play.

Twelve months ago Gary Bowyer assigned the task of goal scoring to a subset of the forward players. This tactical approach Hugo Meisl considered old fashioned in the 1930s but is very much the way the English football operated then and has until very recently.

In his second spell as Bradford City manager McCall tried to create a more multifaceted approach to the game in which players are required to contribute to more to the many areas of play than Bowyer’s teams were required to.

Assuming McCall does this again Vaughan’s goals are replaced if this distribution of attacking play brings one more goal from echo other outfield position. This seems a better way of replacing the striker than chasing another name player through the Wasteland.

Likewise a stronger team can be built from distributing defensive play throughout the team. Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United who task Oli McBurnie with breaking up opposition creative play by blocking passing lanes between their defence and midfield. To Wilder McBurnie’s success in doing that is as important as his scoring goals. McBurnie has six in thirty six for Sheffield United but Wilder judges him on the goal difference while he is on the field.

In City’s opening game – a 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers in the League Cup last weekend – McCall showed signs of having a similar broader view of the impact of a player on the field. The City manager borrowed the Sheffield United trick of the central defender overload which saw Anthony O’Connor crossing to Harry Pritchard into space created by the forward players Guthrie and Novak not looking to score but rather moving away and taking defensive players with them.

There has never been a question of McCall’s passion but his tactical acuity has been called into doubt seemingly to provide a counter to that passion. McCall is a tactical facsimilator rather than an innovator and watching his career has shown that.

Absurd

AL: Belief. Motivation. Motivation, motivation, motivation! The three M’s. That’s what football is about. It’s all about motivation.

CA: Motivation, I follow that.

AL: You’ve got to get those boys on the pitch, motivated. It’s no good saying go out and buy some ice cream, go to the pictures. You’ve got to tell them what they’re doing. You’ve got to motivate them onto the pitch. Push them out with forks if you need to, but get them out onto the pitch. And then when the game’s over, get them in again.

CA: Now, you went to Hartlepool, and you had this system of getting them angry. Was that – Rage.

AL: Well, you know rage is very much an adrenaline inducing factor in all sports. I mean Linford Christie wasn’t in a good mood when he won the hundred metres, was he?

CA: Well, he was afterwards.

AL: Yes, but you’ve got to be in a rage to bring out the best in yourself. And what I do to my players, one of the tactics, this was an early tactic, is to kidnap their wives. Or girlfriends! Girlfriends or wives. I’d send them all on a bus up to Grimsby, with no ticket back, and, errm, the lads went mad. They were – One game against Rotherham, my whole team was sent off, almost as soon as they got on.

CA: Yes. Right. The other sort of weird thing you used to use. I’ll not say ‘weird’, but –

AL: Odd.

CA: Odd.

Alan Latchley, by Peter Cook

Absurd

When one looks at the 2020/2021 season to be opened in front of empty stadiums with teams trying to work out how to exist under a very poorly implemented salary cap it seems obtuse to question a club’s ability to create and stick to a long term plan.

It seems entirely obvious to suggest that Bradford City’s planning is limited and limited to subsisting with the hope of promotion but not the expectation. I may not be especially happy about this I am not tempted to direct this ire towards Julian Rhodes, Stefan Rupp, the man who runs the social media or the chap that cuts the grass.

There is an idea that Bradford City should be creating a plan to move upwards in the Football League and that failing to do so convicts the club, the people who run it, and anyone who does not share the Sisyphusan zeal of a lack of ambition.

I am reminded of an episode of South Park where the gang finds out that a group of Gnomes have created a three step plan that explains recent clothing theft. Phase one reads “Collect Underpants”, phase three reads “Profit” and under phase two there is a large question mark.

How one fills that question mark defines how one approaches the 2020/2021 season at Bradford City and perhaps football itself.

Some fill the question mark with blind faith and optimism, some fill it with statistical analysis and talk of tactics, some fill it with a demand that someone else fills it. Ultimately this might be a reflection of each supporter’s locus of control

However there is an answer as to what is in the question mark space but it is not blind faith and clapping harder or the idea that the club is secretly machinating against one’s best interests. It is simple, failing neo-liberal economics.

Neo-Liberalism

The changes in football in the 1980s and early 1990s are best understood as being the impact of neo-liberal economics on the game. In 1985 Tottenham Hotspur FC set up a Holding Company which owned Tottenham Hotspur FC allowing it to sidestep the rules of the Football League at the time which prevented owners from taking money out of a club in any significant way.

As with the privatisation of British Gas, British Telecom and other utilities Football – a hitherto break even activity – had found a way to join the Reagan-Thatcherite consensus that the market should govern activity.

No Bradford City fan needs me to say what football was like in 1985 nor do people need me to help them recall the years between then and Hillsborough. As Adrian Tempany recalls in his essential book having failed to defeat football through policing and identity card regulation the Thatcherites deregulated all that could be and made the game the market’s problem.

The market solved many pressing problems within football like unsafe, crumbling stadia. It increased the quality of the play which it started to call “the product” and began to invest in support infrastructure in a way hitherto unknown.

But while the market created the improvements needed it unsurprisingly began the tendency to monopoly – or in football’s case an oligopoly – which characterises the economic system. Whereas once the football boom was for everyone the capitalistic filtering of wealth to the top began.

Consumption

The successful clubs demand more consumers and cannibalise support. The language of football is the language of the unregulated market. Of assets and of performance, and failures to perform as expected. The language of football supporting is all but colonised by the language of consumption.

Soon after The Football Industry started to recatagorise football as a product that product stopped being the ninety minutes of a game and started to be the victory within that game. Football Clubs sell themselves as Glory Machines and supporters become consumers of that product rather than enablers.

Defeats then are recatagorised not as events in the life of a supporter – as things to be experienced – but as support issues similar to when your Netflix stops working. The clamour for refunds after a poor away performance is no different to the extra month on your package given when you were not able to watch TV for a night, called the customer complaint line, and they need to placated you.

Twenty five years after the deregulation of the football markets and supporters of Bradford City are now inefficiently assigned resources in a system which would prefer us to trade season tickets in for Sky Sports subscriptions.

Dysfunctional

There is no secret as to why Bradford City cannot create and execute a plan for improving Bradford City, just the unspoken realisation that we are living in a failing world created by our neo-liberal choices.

The tendency to monopoly has centralised football into an industry which functions at the top of the game and is increasingly dysfunctional the further down the pyramid one goes.

It is a laudable traditionalism in football that prevents the market’s answer to the problems being realised as clubs fight tooth and nail to retain their status but just because the likes of Bradford City refuse to bow to the market pressure to be subsumed into the higher echelons of football it does not mean that those market forces are not present.

One can have all the blind faith, or all the red faced anger, concerning City’s ability to create and maintain a plan one wants it will not alter the realities of operating in an unregulated and predictory marketplace in which there is no more easy a way for a League Two team to rise up the leagues as there is for the local Greengrocer to withstand the onslaught of Amazon and Tesco.

And lest this be read as a suggestion that no one cares about Bradford City it is not so, it is worse than that. A small group of people care a great deal and a huge group of people care that we and the rest of League One & Two just go away.

Phase Two: “Smash the capitalist system.”

Seems unlikely.

Unlikely

Increasingly, and in my opinion as a misguided attempt to deal with the absurdity characterised by the question mark of phase two, there is an attack on that supporting football as being counterproductive. That engaging in support is an unsophisticated act of blind loyalty, or blind faith, or both.

This attitude is as present as Bradford City as it is elsewhere and holds to itself as if too much optimism, too much loyalty, will let the people in the shadows of the boardroom off the hook for coming up with a direct path from the exclusionary level the club is in now to something better.

The faith that – given everything we know about the system that that Bradford City operates in – the difference between success and failure is the want of creating and sticking to a plan.

This too seems to be an act of naive faith on the par with the false correlation that clapping harder will make players perform better.

Phase Two: “The Rhodes Plan.”

Seems unlikely.

Optimism

Football is optimism.

Football is the optimism that the things a football club does – be they well planned or seemingly random – coalesce into something that wins football matches.

It is the optimism that for one factor that can be controlled and done well the tens of other contributing factors which beyond control will run the right way.

The only sense we can make of a football season is a retrofitted forced narrative in which we convince ourselves we could have had control so we can tell ourselves that we will have control of it in the future. In this way we try tell ourselves we can can control the world around us.

The last six months since 2019/2020 ended early on a Friday afternoon and everyone went home should tell us that the control is beyond us. Optimism is the sine qua non.

It is Camus’ view of The Absurd writ large. To characterise the optimism of football fans as something which football no longer needs is to pathologise the act of football supporting itself while surrendering to the neo-liberal view where football supporters are replaced by consumers of the football product.

Preview

We take all that, do it over nine months, and call it the 2020/2021 season.

I agree with Kierkegaard.

One can involve oneself in the emotional reach of a football season or not, but either way one will regret it.

Doyle / Vaughan / Wasteland

The match between Bradford City and Bolton Wanderers in the first round of the League Cup will occur before the first league game of the season and in front of empty seats as laws and guidelines around the COVID-19 pandemic prevent spectators from attending.

Bolton forward Eoin Doyle is pleased with this outcome allowing him to avoid chastisement from City supporters following his protracted exit from Valley Parade. Doyle was part of a team at Bradford City that failed and then was strong armed into returning only to leave again, and then this, and now this.

That Doyle wants to avoid the ire of City supporters on the occasion of his first game in six months is telling. Aged thirty two he – and thirty two year old James Vaughan who also left Valley Parade of late – must have wished they had not heard the news of Lee Cattermole’s retirement, or at least the subtext of that news.

Cattermole

A peer of Tony McMahon at Middlesbrough and playing in Dutch football Cattermole announced that he would be hanging up his boots. As a combative midfielder in his early thirties Cattermole is the type of player who could have been sought after at League One and Two level for another half a dozen years but Cattermole would rather not.

His statement oozes with subtext. At home with his young family for the last six months – locked into home with his young family – powerless as a Global Pandemic lays waste to the world a new framing of the reality of being a footballer seems to have taken his thoughts.

A world of fitness drills and running, and away trips to Eindhoven or Exeter, and being away from his family for days at a time, all seemed so unappealing. The greasepaint and the roar of the crowd so distant he looked at what would have been a future as a senior professional and saw nothing.

Vaughan

I do not know that that is Lee Cattermole’s view. He might think of the clubs he would play for or the security of being financially very well off with his family or if it was the feeling that after six months of atrophy he did not believe that his body could return to the fitness of his twenties to give someone a full season but I imagine James Vaughan has all those same thoughts too.

Vaughan’s exit from Valley Parade was predictable with the striker wanting to return to the Merseyside based club where he had spent time on loan and City acquiescing to those wishes in short order. City manager Stuart McCall was stinging in his criticism of the player wanting to be at home more rather than get into the challenge before him.

One wonders how a person like Stuart McCall goes about managing players so far from the player Stuart McCall was – all heart and dedication – as Vaughan is and then one recalls that when McCall got to thirty two he went home too. McCall played in different times when football was a verdant land of plenty.

One can imagine Vaughan wracked over months by the thought of driving over the M62 towards a failing team which is too accustomed to failing in front of an often hostile stadium with people in it who demand something which he cannot sate and seeing that stretch of motorway as a waste land to be navigated but never conquered. Tranmere Rovers offering him a chance to make the Potemkin existence more bearable and to try silence the thought wondering, all the time, if he should join Cattermole in excluding himself from the broken landscape.

Eliot

In The Waste Land T. S. Eliot describes a Britain recovering from The Great War and facing up to the rise of an organised Socialist movement that threatened revolution and from it creates a Fisher King narrative.

The King is wounded and the country is broken and rendered into a barren, fruitless waste land where small people have taken the place of large characters. “He, the young man carbuncular, arrives, A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare, One of the low on whom assurance sits as a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.”

To repair the landscape The King needs to be fixed and to fix The King, The King needs to hear and to understand the three words repeated in the thunder that cracks the sky above the waste land: “Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata.”

In English: Give, Compassion, Control.

Clarke

The last time the League Cup’s first game preceded the League Season Phil Parkinson’s Bradford City should have gone out of the competition in the first round when Notts County missed an open goal in the 90th minute but went through, and again, and ended up at Wembley Stadium in the final.

That season for Phil Parkinson’s side was remarkable and is talked about almost as much as the win over Chelsea that followed it two years later is. They were halcyon times – for some – but when mentioned now are as likely to bring the sharp rebuke of allowing one’s self to wander in the past as much as they are the feeling of nostalgia.

The afternoon at Stamford Bridge saw two a brief cameos. Mohammed Salah went on to be of awe at Liverpool. Billy Clarke returned to Bradford City this summer slightly older than Vaughan and also keen to move closer to his home in West Yorkshire as his career winds down. Clarke knows that in a few years he will see football as a thing he once did.

To draw the map of football is to see huge constructs of wealth, prosperity, and greatness towering over a broken British football landscape. There is wealth and there is absence and the absence stretches for miles beyond the clubs in Liverpool and Manchester that Vaughan passes on his linear navigation.

In that barren rock there are farmers arguing over which crops to plant in the ash and there are people who would construct monuments and people who would pull those monuments down.

Doyle

Eoin Doyle has been in the waste land too long.

His move from Chesterfield to Bradford City was a good one but went bad and after eighteen months he was sent away only to find some form at Swindon. That form irked the club and the supporters who had cared very little on his exit and so he returned only to leave again, and then leave again and end up at Bolton.

Cattermole, Vaughan, Clarke, Doyle and the thought of playing in an empty stadium having had one’s body atrophy over six months cocooned with a family one seldom gets to enjoy. As younger men Vaughan, Clarke, Doyle having seen the broken players at the end of their careers and knowing that they are those players now.

Stepping into the waste land once again, driving the length of the M62 past the clubs of Liverpool and Manchester and past the farmers arguing about what crops to plant in the ash, and verbalising relief that they will be afforded the privacy – the dignity – of being able to perform in front of no one.

No sound of thunder or whimper of an ending and no supporters to look down at Vaughan, Clarke, Doyle and to shout as they do, and to swear as they do, and to vitriolise as they do.

And to sing the one chant which is heard at all football grounds in this the year of our Lord two thousand and twenty:

“Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata.”

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