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.

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