How Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds

An away trip through South Yorkshire

Chesterfield away is a classic of the genre. A one goal victory that came when Bradford City ground the ambition out of the home side leaving only struggle.

Every pass forward was marshalled and pushed away by an imperious defensive line. Every easy clearance was made hard by strikers and midfielders who chased down what would have been the routine were it not for the attitude that manager Phil Parkinson has drummed into his team.

The goal came when Tony McMahon finished off a mazy run and low cross by Billy Clarke. Clarke enjoyed his best game in claret and amber and tormented the Chesterfield backline dropping into the hole between James Hanson and the midfield and exploiting it.

Chesterfield’s response – to bring on the aging Richie Humphrey – showed a team stepping back on their home turf. McMahon’s goal finished off the home team.

Parkinson would say after the game that City could have had four – indeed the post was pinged a number of times – but really the City manager oversells his policies. A one goal away win excites Parkinson – and excites me – because of the grind that has seen wins come Scunthorpe United, Rochdale, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic.

Those days are Parkinson at his best.

Playing away to teams that want to win mirrors the visits of Sunderland, or Arsenal, or Aston Villa, or the trip to Chelsea. When the opposition commits to victory Parkinson uses Hanson the battering ram occupying multiple defenders, and soaks up pressure with a mean back four.

The City manager’s problems come at home when teams sit back and defend the Bantams attack which is sporadic as shown by the third fewest goals scored total in League One. When City are forced to make the play in a game then games slip away from Parkinson.

Or sometimes things do not work.

An away trip to South Yorkshire

Text message before the game with Sheffield United: “Upper or lower?”

Reply: “Neither.”

Going to a football match should not cost more than going to the cinema. I’ve said this in the past and I believe it.

I think that Bradford City’s home pricing is a rare oasis of sense in a madness of a game in which this generation sells the game from the next and does so with a great deal of support from those getting fleeced.

Bradford City’s away pricing – and walk up pricing – is equally toxic to the game as a whole. Last time I checked it cost £25 to go to Valley Parade as an away fan. It cost £22 at Chesterfield, it cost similar at Walsall, it cost similar at Doncaster, or at Scunthorpe and so on.

The impact of this aggressive pricing that makes following football a thing that only some can afford is obvious to anyone who sees the aging supporter group and the gentrification which seems to come with it.

£27 to get into Sheffield United is certainly something I can afford but it is not something I will pay. It is a few pounds more than other games and those few pounds are hardly significant to me but I will not pay it.

And I do not know when the hand becomes the wrist nor do I feel like I’ve created a hard and fast rule never to be broken but I would not support this part of football’s attempts to gouge out of my pocket because they assume that because I can pay it they should sell to me, aged 42, for a price that me, aged 21, would never have been able to pay.

The combination of the two

If you enjoy a team that puts in a performance that is part frustration, part opportunism then you would have enjoyed the Chesterfield game.

I would argue that Chesterfield, or Scunthorpe, or Doncaster, or Oldham were little different to the game with Chelsea that defines 2015 for Bradford City: Minimise chances coming at your goal and maximise what one has at the other end.

But I cannot say with all honesty that all people would enjoy all or any of those games. I am cut from a cloth were I am more impressed with hard work and honesty on a field than I am by rabona kicks and 45 man massing moves.

I enjoy seeing a team with limitations which overcome those limitations, some of the time, and the processional football of the Champions League leaves me cold. I’ve no interest in football where the players who walk onto the field against Barcelona believe they are beaten before kick off.

Winning away at Chesterfield from few chances but battling to make sure that the team does not concede a chance let alone a goal is a good Saturday afternoon for me but probably only because of the narrative it creates.

It is enjoyable to watch my team Bradford City attempting to overcome limitations because I know those limitations. There is an overarching story of the emergence of Rory McArdle from understudy to as rock of defence, or about Tony McMahon finding a role having floated anchorless at the start of the season.

(There is also a story about James Hanson being not good enough for a transfer to a professional club, not good enough for the bottom of League Two, not good for the middle of League Two, not good enough for a League Cup semi-final, not good enough for a play-off second leg, not good enough for League One, not good enough for a team chasing the League One play-offs. One day he will not be good enough and I’m sure the phrase “we told you so” will be used regardless of all the times naysayers were proven wrong. Watching Hanson over the last few years is a lesson in the narrative of football.)

These things are seen over the course of months, and years, and not in isolation. Football, for me, is never viewed in isolation. I find the idea of turning on Sky Sports to watch any old game as mystifying as opening a book at a random page, reading twenty pages, and then putting it back on the shelf.

To watch the unfolding narrative of a team one needs to be able to watch often and prices over £20 are no aid to that for me but would have been a substantial problem to me twenty years ago. Is Sheffield United vs Bradford City £27 worth of entertainment when – if one considers it – one could take a friend to watch The Force Awakens in IMAX and still have change for popcorn?

I can’t remember a worst time

Sheffield United away is not Chesterfield. Without a game owing to waterlogging and without the regular training pitches owing to flooding reports return that City lack sharpness and are easily beaten. Football is a multi-polar world and games are hard enough when preparations are ideal.

The supporters – both Bradford City and Sheffield United – are subject to some racist chanting from Sheffield United fans and some chanting that is unpleasant. This will be passed onto The FA – who are perhaps the least able and qualified body in the Universe on this subject – but probably not to the Police.

The FA never seem to tire of their role as prosecutors of – some might say persecutors of – those whom the Law of the Land can find no case against claiming their lower standard of evidence as somehow better than the one that is required by any court which could not be prefixed with the term Kangaroo.

I would not want to have The Racists of Sheffield who were at Bramall Lane to be convicted for what they said or what they think. I’m happy to just consider them to be a collective of idiots and be done with it.

But I did not pay £27 so what can I say?

The focus

To suggest that football needs to understand better its audience is to allow the game – the collective of clubs and organisers – leniency on the charge that they understand full well that they increasingly greying men who populate matches are the ones who will dig deepest for tickets and that they exploit that.

The people who run football always need more money and they know that people aged 35+ in good jobs with good incomes will fund their extravagant demands for more wages paid, more promotions pushes, more mistakes and managerial pay-offs.

These people are the focus of football’s attention. In twenty/thirty years time when those people have retired to Saturday afternoons in more comfortable surroundings there will be no generation to replace them because that attention is so narrowly focused.

Oddly enough because of the odd combination of Wembley twice and season ticket pricing Bradford City are one of the clubs who have some protection against this – there is a healthy group of younger City fans who have been allowed a stake in the support – but mingle with the home fans at an away game and appreciate the difference.

Football is ploughing fields without planting seeds.

The longview

Sheffield United away is I am told a bad performance in isolation but not out of keeping with how Bradford City perform. When taken over a longer period City are averaging a point and a half a game away from home, as well as the odd Chelsea if you will.

Often the game plan of Chesterfield works but when it does not the result is as it was in South Yorkshire. Since Phil Parkinson arrived his plans have had a shifting impact on the mentality of the club.

When he arrived the club was congratulating itself for avoiding relegation out of the Football League under the hapless Peter Jackson. Now there is a consideration that the club is not ideally placed to reach the second tier of English football.

But I – and perhaps you – only know this having been fortunate enough to be able to afford to follow the club from that period to this.

I do not see how that will be possible for the coming generations of football.

The opposition to #one four nine and how where it comes from

#onefournine is a success at Bradford City because it makes sense.

It makes economic sense mostly. West Yorkshire is a big place, City are the only club enjoying the sort of success which peaks between Manchester City and Arsenal on Match of the Day, and the stadium is big enough that supply can outstrip demand.

This has been obvious to Julian Rhodes for some time and carried on being obvious after Mark Lawn arrived. It was obvious to David Baldwin and is obvious to James Mason who aligns the policy more with a social movement than an economic one.

Mason buys into the idea that #onefournine is about making football affordable and while the club before him had cast doubt over that with threats to remove the policy if it were not well subscribed – hardly the talk of social reform – it is often the case the social policy has a better chance of succeeding if it coincides with economic interest.

And that should be it. Mason delivers affordable football to an area which is justified in feeling that the club they are asked to support actually care about their support. I’d like to see the club go further but I’m pleased with where they are.

And I’m pleased with where we are: the supporters. The support at Bradford City is vibrant and interesting. There are amusing songs about pies and the sort of mood that makes going to a game about more than the result of a game. As Roberto Martinez said to Phil Parkinson in 2012 as City beat Wigan pointing at the away support “Are they ever not noisy?”

City seem to be – for whatever motivation – at the heart of a reform in football support taking back something which was lost in the commercialisation of the game over the last twenty years.

You have to wonder sometimes if other chairmen might try take Rhodes and Lawn to one side. “You’re making us look bad…”

They never seem to.

But there are dissenting voices and – most curiously – those voices always seem to be from other team’s supporters.

The tone of them is obvious and sneering. The only reason – they suggest – that Bradford City will be playing in front of 18,000 season ticket holders next season is because the price is low and that were the price to go up then the number of season ticket holders would go down.

So far, so Economics 101. If you put the price of a Mars Bar up then you sell fewer Mars Bars. If you bring down the price of a Rolls Royce then you sell more Rolls Royces.

But this is not solely a question of economics. Football at the level of Bradford City – give or take a division in either direction – has to accept that it has a problem. Teams are battling with the Match of the Day sides for supporters on a daily basis.

Sky Sports, BT Sports, every newspaper and a good deal of the football coverage online are dedicated to trying to get you supporters more interested in following Manchester City (or Chelsea, or Real Madrid) from afar than getting down to Bradford City (or Leyton Orient, or Real Vallecano)

The entire game under the elite level of under a fairly constant bombardment.

It is not a huge leap of comradeship to suggest that considering football is played between two clubs that what is good for a peer is good for you too. If more people start watching football at Bradford City’s level then everyone at Bradford City’s level benefits.

And of course you can put it down to a tribalism and a point of jealousy if you want but whatever the motivation for the criticism and the implicit attempts to thwart or discourage similar schemes at other clubs the results are the same.

Walk around Bradford and see the Liverpool shirts, the Chelsea shirts (try not to smile that much) and the Barcelona shirts and contemplate how difficult it is to get people interested in one club over another when one has the masses of media on their side. As fans of clubs outside the elite we should turn cartwheels whenever someone makes headway in attracting more people to get off sofas and go to stadiums.

Moreover though what does it say about the game if supporters of it – from any club – might suggest that there is a virtue in the idea that people should be not able to go to a game because they cannot afford it?

This is, in embryo, what the criticism of City’s pricing policy is. A statement that it is better if poorer people are not able to afford to go to football matches. To suggest that demand should be artificially suppressed with prices specifically so that people less able to afford to go to football should not be able to go to football is basic financial apartheid.

It is as contemptible a statement as made and the people who make it for that reason are worthy of contempt.

We can only hope that Bradford City start to be an example to the rest of the game and that those voices are minimised.

Doing the right thing on the price of football

Q. What do you get if you travel 630 miles to watch your club play at Valley Parade?
A. After the sixty odd pounds you will put in your tank for petrol – a bill for £27.80 each.

Or at least that is what today’s cost of football survey tells us with City coming top of the League Two list of expensive days out.

A list that is – well – not right at all. The vast majority of people who go to a game at Valley Parade will be using the cheapest season tickets in professional football to watch the club and while a pie and a pint might set you back a bob or two the cost of getting into the ground – for most – is superb value.

The BBC’s figures show walk ups – to use the vernacular Mark Lawn did when talking about the 1,000 – 2,000 people who come to Valley Parade for a game who do not have season tickets including the supporters alluded to in the opening paragraph who would have travelled up from Torquay to watch the Gulls play City.

The same price would be paid for a guy who walked 630 meters from Bradford city centre on a Saturday afternoon and one wonders how often that happens. The door price at Valley Parade – over three times the season ticket cost – is expensive.

Need it be that way? BfB talked to Mark Lawn and he said that no one at Valley Parade had really considered bringing down the walk up price.

The pricing at Valley Parade is one of the things we can be genuinely proud of our club for. When times are hard for people Bradford City are not gouging into your pocket, they are showing a loyalty rarely afforded to fans in football. And they are doing the right thing.

Perhaps – in the interests of stability – City might look at the idea of the Price of Football survey and create their own shopping basket to tie the season ticket price at Valley Parade too. Football should cost the same as a trip to the cinema (currently VP is a bit cheaper), or a medium Pizza Hut Pizza, or three pints of bitter, or the average of these things. A built in escalator would stop the price of the season ticket falling behind inflation while underlining the message of cheaper tickets – that they align the price of football to other activities a person does.

And perhaps the walk up price should be the same. Tied to that figure with extra on top to reward people who commit their cash. If £7 is the cost of the City shopping basket then perhaps double it for walk ups. £14 is a more attractive proposition than £20.

That is fair, if old fashioned, thinking. A more modern and more radical approach would be to charge the same for both and to season ticket holders added value. Reductions on shirts, away travel, that sort of thing.

One doubts though that £6 – or £13 – difference will matter that much to the fan coming up from Torquay who obviously is following his or her club regardless of price. Those people deserve a medal for their commitment.

At the moment though the club is doing the right thing on pricing for season ticket holders and – if possible – it would be good to see them extend that where they can to walk ups. City are doing great things to keep football affordable for the fans who make the commitment to the club, it would be good to find a way to reward the most committed fans of other clubs, and set an example to the rest of the game as a way to do the right thing in football.

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