Bradford, the City which needs to smile

Flicking between channels during The Simpsons advert break one weekday recently, I was shocked to see Valley Parade appear as part of the backdrop behind a BBC national news reporter. The piece actually had nothing to do with Bradford City, it was about how the life expectancy of people living in poorer places like Bradford was a couple of years less than people who lived just a few miles down the road, in nicer areas.

My surprise turned to annoyance. As a Skipton resident, it was great that the reporter was telling me people who lived down the Aire Valley from Bradford are statistically likely to live a bit longer, but why did this national news story have to focus on Bradford at all? It was just another negative media piece about the UK’s sixth largest city, at a time when it seems to be getting especially kicked in the teeth from all sides.

During the recent General Election campaign, the plight of Bradford was highlighted when local resident Emma Heal attacked David Cameron for the way the Conservative Bradford Council had allowed the city to go into decline. She was referring to the embarrassing hole in the city centre where a shopping centre was supposed to have been built long before the term “credit crunch” was heard of by most people.

Then there’s the on-going saga with the Bradford Odeon, an iconic building allowed to rot away through no one having the ambition or vision to do something worthwhile with it. More serious was the recent Bradford murders which generated huge national media coverage, little of which gave a positive impression of the city.

And the negative headlines may not yet be over. Recently Bradford City announced its home game with Southend had been switched from Saturday 28 August to the evening before, without providing any explanation. But it’s recently become clear why, as the English Defence League (EDL) is scheduled to be holding a protest in the city on that day, which has forced the police to ask for the League Two fixture to be moved (the demo is advertised on its website, and there are rumours Bradford businesses will be closing for fear of trouble).

You need only watch footage secretly filmed by the Guardian in May, or check out local media reports of demonstrations the EDL has held in other English towns, to appreciate what might be in store for Bradford that Bank Holiday weekend. One of the organisers told the Guardian reporter, “Bradford will be huge…(it) is a place that has got to be hit.” Memories of the Bradford race riots in 2001 remain fresh, the prospect of similar scenes would have the vast majority of Bradford people despairing, and TV crews charging up the M1.

Far be it from me to influence your political views, but if you are against the EDL’s protest you might wish to visit Centenary Square on Saturday to add your signature to a petition to stop the event.

Regardless of whether or not the demo does go ahead, the problems in Bradford remain. The way the City has been allowed to decline is heart-breaking, and the reputation it has among people who live nearby shows just why it has such a poor national one. So many of my friends talk of going shopping to Leeds or Manchester or Harrogate or anywhere but Bradford, and who can blame them? A few years ago I organised a trip around the pubs of Bradford for my birthday night out. Some friends were genuinely fearful of coming, having pre-conceptions of what the City is like. In the end they were pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable the City Centre pubs were. Not that they’ve been back since, mind.

The City needs shaking up, it needs people with a vision and sense of realism to tackle the issues and give every resident the sort of place to live they deserve. It needs a pro-active commitment that won’t be abandoned when problems arise, it needs more than short-term thinking or a belief that a magic wand can solve everything. It needs help now, but sadly we won’t hold our breath.

And what does this have to do with Bradford City? Not much, but as the new season approaches and we largely remain optimistic about the prospects of glory, perhaps it’s worth reflecting on whether the football club can play a role in lifting some of the gloom.

Of course winning football matches doesn’t remove the problems. We’ve just seen a World Cup held in the World’s poorest continent, which had sparked over-optimism from some people that a football tournament could change these issues. It couldn’t, but it could have helped a little. And even though it’s inevitable that, in years to come, we’ll be treated to media stories about how the World Cup didn’t change Africa and how those lovely stadiums are now under-used, we shouldn’t forget it did some good.

Which Bradford City Football Club could also do locally. For all the negative media stories and problems that affect the City’s image, how good would it be to have Bradford associated with success through reports of the club’s success? “Bradford win again” we might hear every Saturday night on the BBC Football League Show. “Bradford are top of the league” would make a change from hearing about all those league tables the City inevitably appears near the foot of.

In our Bantams bubble we sometimes allow ourselves to believe only those of us inside Valley Parade on a Saturday afternoon care about the team’s fortunes. But who listens to the home radio commentaries BBC Radio Leeds is so jubilant to have agreed again for this coming season? Who else scans the back page of the T&A every day? Who else would join us in Centenary Square to celebrate a promotion? Bradford City does matter to more people than just those of us committed enough to go to the games, and it can do some good in difficult times.

As we prepare for the big kick off, hoping that this time it will finally go in the manner we dream it, it’s worth considering whether who most of all needs Bradford City to get promoted this season is the City of Bradford itself.