Could the City Gent be banned from Valley Parade?

It’s funny how by inadvertently spotting something by chance then leads on to something quite puzzling – and then quite worrying. A friend alerted me to a reader’s letter which appeared in the sporting letters section of The Yorkshire Post on Monday 9 August, attacking City Gent editor Mike Harrison. Knowing that I contribute to the fanzine, my friend said I should take a look.

The letter had been written by Kevin Mitchell, a long-standing City supporter who used to produce the content for City’s Clubcall phone news service, and was a reaction to opinions Mike had shared for the paper’s previewing of the new season.

But the tone and nature of Mitchell’s attack seemed unjustifiably harsh. So I contacted Mike to find out what was going on. Although reluctant at first, he pointed me to his Yorkshire Post piece and explained how he had made what he considered to be tongue-in-cheek remarks, but which had upset one of the club’s joint Chairmen in particular.

Mitchell was close to the Board during Geoffrey Richmond’s reign; and while his response to Mike’s comments might be a coincidence, it could also be speculated whether he sent it in knowing how the Board felt. But if anything that was the least of Mike’s concerns, as he’d been informed the club is considering banning the City Gent from Valley Parade.

The offending article was part of the Yorkshire Post’s pre-season preview, where a supporter of each regional club was asked to share their predictions on matters such as where their team will finish and who the key player will be. Mike, who has contributed to this annual feature for a number of years, offered lukewarm views on City’s prospects for the season ahead, and made one particular comment which the Board appears to have taken as a dig at them.

Mike explained to BfB, “The first I knew that they were upset came after I received an unexpected phone call from Peter Taylor! It’s the first time he’d phoned me and he wanted to check if I’d said something about him having a bigger players’ budget than Stuart McCall in the YP. I knew I hadn’t, and I said I’d find out who had and he seemed okay with that.” (It turned out to be Terry Dolan).

As it was a Thursday and the media pitch up at VP to do their weekend interviews, Mike went along to Valley Parade armed with the Terry Dolan interview to pass on to Taylor and with his own fans’ view, just in case the City manager was upset by his comments.

“It was while I was waiting to speak to Taylor that Head of Operations David Baldwin approached me with his objections to the Yorkshire Post piece,” Mike revealed. “David left me in no uncertain terms that my comments were seen in a bad light and he reminded me about the fact they let City Gent have free rein in and around VP, plus I had offended them last season when an email written for the Internet Bantam list ended up being seen by the Board via the Official Message Board.

“It seems that their main gripe was that they were not happy with my flippant comment when asked ‘What changes need to be made off the field?’ And I replied ‘There are too many to list’. I was certainly left in no uncertain terms that City Gent’s future at VP was in doubt and would be discussed by the Board and that he would be phoning me soon.

“Not long after, Mark Lawn appeared and as he wandered past me in the corridor outside the 1911 club he said sarcastically ‘that was really positive what you said in the Yorkshire Post, Mike’. As I had already spoken to Baldwin I didn’t respond and neither did I say anything to him as he walked past me again a few moments later.”

This exchange took place prior to the Shrewsbury defeat. And although Mike has still yet to be called in, Baldwin confirmed to City Gent contributor Mark Neale at the Stevenage game that the threat of a ban remains. Baldwin is now away on holiday. No decision has been made so far on whether to ban City Gent from being sold in and around the stadium on matchdays.

It should be noted that Mike did not exactly dismiss City’s chances for the season in the Yorkshire Post article; instead he adopted a note of caution and predicted an eighth-place finish. On the question ‘Where will you finish?’ Mike responded, “I have learned my lesson from the last three years, when I was far too optimistic about our chances. So, this time I really am going into a new season not expecting much from the team. That way, it should be easier to handle the disappointment that seems to come with being a supporter of Bradford City. Either that, or the reverse psychology will work on our players and we’ll win the title by 10 points!”

Sadly this meaning was missed when the sub editor of the Yorkshire Post cut Mike’s comments drastically from his original reply sent to journalist Richard Sutcliffe. Another comment that had annoyed the Board and Mitchell, where Mike was reflecting on the mood of some fans unhappy with the constant changing of managers at Valley Parade, was the light-hearted response to a question about offering advice to the manager, “Think of your time managing City as good experience for the next job.”

“To be honest I was totally shocked by the comments of Baldwin and Lawn”, added Mike. “I went to VP thinking ‘phew I’m glad didn’t upset Peter Taylor because it was Terry Dolan and then when he’d actually seen the quote he seemed okay with it’. And yet I walked into something else which was totally unexpected.

“To be honest, the off the field stuff I was referring to in the YP was the embarrassment I felt having a former player locked up – though Taylor admitted to me he would have signed him had he not been convicted for murder – and a newly signed player being jailed for allegedly beating up his girlfriend and not telling City about it.

“Lawn trumpeted the fact that a new training ground was found and he had a go at Bradford Council for the fact the club had to go to Leeds to train, but the deal fell through and the first City fans heard about it was when the players reported for pre season training back at Apperley Bridge. How embarrassing was that? If the Board are not as embarrassed as I am on just those three topics well I can’t legislate for the fact that some of them appear not to have a sense of humour.

“Whether or not there is a wider question here about the Board’s paranoia about what fans say about them and a desire from them to quell anything that is deemed negative about them I’ll leave that up to the City fans to make their own minds up about.”

It’s clear City’s Board is unhappy that negative opinions of City appeared in a prominent newspaper. And there is a clear link between it and their own PR efforts of recent months. Throughout the summer we’ve had endless updates about how great the new playing surface is, we’ve heard that Roger Owen played a proactive role in fixing a leak on a stand roof and, last Friday, there was a bizarre piece on the website about how he and his wife had sorted out the players’ suits.

Great effort from them both, worth commending internally and maybe in the Chairmen’s programme notes. But a news story? There’s an increasing nature of the Board telling us how well things are going off the field and how brilliant Taylor is. Owen, who publicly criticised McCall when he was manager, seemed to be using this story as a chance to praise Taylor for insisting on high appearance standards. But City fans will judge Taylor by how well he get his players performing on the pitch; looking nice before kick off isn’t going to have any bearing on the league table.

As regular readers of the City Gent will know, Mike and other contributors have been wholly positive about Taylor since arriving as manager last February, but the scars of disappointment in recent years and the less than sensitive way some Board members and a section of supporters chased McCall out of the club have left a weary and cynical outlook for some fans. Sure Taylor is great and all, but how long until some people turn on him like many did on McCall, Colin Todd, Paul Jewell and others? And as for getting wildly excited at the start of the season and believing this promotion favourites rubbish; have we learned nothing?

We at BfB have received heavy criticism from a number of fans in recent days for not backing Taylor strongly enough, despite the fact that for months numerous articles have been published offering praise for the manager. Our failing, in these people’s eyes, seems to be that we’ve not joined them in offering over-the-top complements for every little action he undertook over the summer, which inevitably included slating McCall as a poor comparison. Some of the praise Taylor received from others was well-intended but largely meaningless. And it didn’t count for much when many of these same people tore into Taylor after the Torquay loss.

There is no editorial policy whatsoever at BfB, so I can’t comment for how others who write for the site feel. Taylor has my 100% support and I back him strongly, but I don’t feel the need to gush pointless praise upon him and I don’t buy the hype that all that has been wrong for the last three years is that we had a clueless ginger-headed moron holding the club back. Taylor is a great manager, but he is not a miracle worker. We hope he can succeed where McCall failed, but there’s no magic wand tucked inside his immaculate, Owen-purchased suit.

City have had nine managers in the last 11 years – and at the same time have fallen from the Premier League to League Two. These two statistics do not paint the whole picture of the troubles of the last decade, but they are surely intrinsically linked. It’s only a matter of when, not if, we will be writing articles supporting Taylor while others loudly demand he leaves – just as we did with Todd and McCall. Yet still this notion that the next manager will cure all will thrive amongst message board contributors and in the stands on match days, to the point it feels like we’re wasting our time writing anything positive or negative about whoever is in charge.

As Mike wrote on the City Gent editorial of issue 165, “Words are all well and good, but promotion this season will be won on the pitch and whilst I am convinced that we have the most experienced manager available in Peter Taylor he is no more a miracle worker than Stuart McCall, Colin Todd, Bryan Robson, Nicky Law or Jim Jeffries was or actually wasn’t as it turned out. It would be lovely to live in a world where just because someone says something will happen it actually does. Sadly life and as we all know football isn’t always like that.

“What is needed from the present squad of players is to work hard as a unit and not just as individuals. The management know this and they too will be working hard to achieve this aim. It is what they are good at. As for the fans, after a decade of seeing City tumble down the leagues and after witnessing quite a few false dawns, is it not surprising that some, myself included are not putting away past miseries to jump on a promotion bandwagon without first seeing the evidence to justify putting blind faith once again into how we support the team? Perhaps many of us are just getting far too cynical in our old age?

“So, let us see where we are after 10 games when the table starts to settle down and let us hope that for everyone connected with Bradford City Football Club from the joint chairmen down to the youngest supporter coming to VP for the first time this season that this season will be better than the past 10. Nothing would please me more.”

No one should doubt how hard the Board works on behalf of us supporters and, again speaking personally, I’m hugely grateful for the time and investment they put into running the club I love; but while they have a duty to talk up the season and get people excited, they can’t exert that control over others. Or as Mike puts it, “Neither BfB or City Gent are unpaid PR vehicles for what only they want broadcasting.

“I’ve no desire to have any confrontation with the club. If part of the Board wish to deny freedom of speech to the fans on what seems very trivial matters then I would sooner sell CG just to subscribers and at points on the way to VP that aren’t on club property.

“But we’ve always had a good relationship with the club which I wouldn’t want to spoil. They’ve benefited from any profits we make in the form of youth team player sponsorship and cash to help pay for James Hanson’s transfer fee, which I assume they appreciate.”

Mike has submitted a letter to the Board explaining his Yorkshire Post remarks, in an attempt to smooth out the relationship and negate the perceived threat of the fanzine’s ban.

The City Gent famously coined the phrase Bantam Progressivism. Any ban the club decides to implement on it would be anything but.