Gavin Oliver, not half bad

At the back end of 93/94 season my dad won a raffle at work and he, I, and a couple of his mates got the Samaritan’s sponsors’ tickets for a home tie against Stockport. All this really meant was that we swapped our tickets in the kop for entry to a directors’ box, two minutes grinning like idiots on the pitch before kick-off, and some pretty naff seats at the back of the stand.

The game was awful, the pitch a sand pit and the result a defeat. But that’s not why I remember the game. Sitting on my chest of drawers at home is a framed picture of me receiving a signed ball from Gavin Oliver. In reality the task of meeting match sponsors must be a chore undertaken by those on the fringes of the squad, but the injured Gavin Oliver didn’t show any signs of tedium as he chatted, asked about my favourite players and whether I played football myself.

I was made up. I’d met Gavin Oliver. I remember Oliver having a bit of a reputation for scoring own goals and was not seen as the most cultured of centre backs, but he was there week-in-week-out as I was growing up and his was the name that my mum ironed on to the back of my claret and amber, Freemans sponsored, diamond patterned city shirt.

My Dad couldn’t understand why I had Oliver on the back of the shirt given that we had Dean Richards at the time and, quite frankly, Gav, while held in fond affection, was not necessarily revered for his footballing ability. But I was ten and at that age it was the little things that mattered. While I have been reliable informed that my first ever game was a cup tie against Everton in 1987, being three I can’t remember it. I know I had been to games and seen goals before, but the first one that sticks in my memory was scored by Gavin Oliver.

A trawl of football stats websites informs that this was one of only nine goals in just over three hundred appearances, so it sticking in my memory is perhaps all the more impressive. Again my Dad plays an important role, taking me out of school to visit the dentist, or so I thought. Unbeknownst to me and with the consent of my football-mad head teacher Mr Tony Cryer, I was going to my first ever away game – Tottenham Hotspurs in the Rumbellows’ Cup. We actually got there a couple of minutes late and had only really settled when Gav met a corner with a towering header and put us one up. He went on to have a good game at centre half and I came away knowing that if I wanted to be a footballer, he was who I had to emulate.

Getting into football at that time – after the almost glory days of the Dolan era and with the gift of hindsight, just before the glory days of Chris Kamara and then Paul Jewell – was not necessarily the most rewarding of endeavours for City fans. In the dark days of the John Docherty reign, the Spurs game was perhaps the only truly high point, a noble defeat. But Gavin Oliver was steadfast throughout, with City finishing in eighth, scoring more than they conceded.

Others, perhaps those a little older will have different memories of Gavin Oliver. It is clear he was seen as a bit of a comic figure at times. A copy of ‘Bernard of the Bantams’ from 1988, which I unearthed while trying to write this piece, suggests that the perfect Christmas gift for Gav would be a new pair of underpants given that he “soils his on every occasion an opponent runs at him”.

On perhaps the night of his finest moment (to my mind at least), the official Spurs match programme offers this pen picture of Gavin Oliver:

Gavin Oliver (Defender).
Born in Newcastle, Brian started his career as an apprentice with Newcastle United. He signed professional forms for the Magpies and made 32 league appearances for the club, before signing for Bradford City in March, 1989.

For me this unintentional error is telling. Like his unarguably more cultured centre-half partner Dean Richards, Oliver didn’t shout about himself and not being as gifted, often went unnoticed. However, he always tried to let let his football do the talking and while it wasn’t perhaps as fluent or eloquent as others, you always got the gist of what he was trying to say. For eight years he played pretty much week-in-week-out and never once did he shirk a challenge or pull his head away from danger. When he wore the armband, you could see him stand taller than his five foot eleven frame. Of course all young lads should aspire to be a Richards, McCall, or Hendrie, but being a Gavin Oliver isn’t half bad.

I think this is a nice way to finish, taken from an online Millwall fanzine:

All afternoon Tony Cascarino had trouble escaping the attentions of Gavin Oliver and Teddy Sheringham had one of those afternoons when nothing went right.

Cascarino went on to play at the 1990 World Cup and Sheringham didn’t turn out half bad either.

A Very Bradford Revolt, or searching for the soul of Bradford City

It was a very Bradford revolt. John Docherty had arrived at Valley Parade with an impressive CV. He had taken the deeply unfashionable Millwall to the Premier League and was presented as a pragmatic results man. Apparently, just what Bradford City needed after the flamboyant style of the linkable Terry Yorath. Under the Welshman City were said to be easy on the eye, but were a soft touch, they played too much football. We needed results and Docherty was to be the man to get them.

The City fans, used to flowing football under the likes of McFarland, Cherry, Dolan and Yorath, were deeply unimpressed by Docherty’s long ball tactics. However, at first they were prepared to wait and see. There were many debates about style over substance. Some fans said they would take success at whatever the cost. However, results remained inconsistent and incomprehensible substitutions saw the mood of the fans darken.

Eventually the frustration burst into open revolt. During one match the Main Stand, yes the Main Stand, began a chant of ‘we want football’. The team was even once booed onto the field as the relationship between the fans and manager completely collapsed.

The end of Dark Days

I can still remember exactly where I was when I read the Docherty had left Valley Parade. I was elated. What became known as ‘the dark days of Docherty’ arguably changed the culture of the football club.

The chairman and directors fully understood that the supporters wanted a certain style of football. Yes, we wanted to win, but we wanted to be entertained. We were not willing to accept the joyless win at all costs style of football City employed under Docherty. Perhaps it was a different Bradford City back then? The fire had changed attitudes. The spirit shown in the aftermath of the fire, allied to the sense of ownership we had in the club, made the club feel very different to many of the other clubs in the Football League.

From the financial collapse of 1983 to the fire of 1985 and the agonising near miss of promotion to the top flight in 1988 there was a family feel to Bradford City. The bond between the club, players and fans was a close one. We had shared a lot together. However, although Docherty’s rein probably brought that era to an end, the revolt of the fans ensured that City would play in a certain style for the decade that followed.

The echo and the principles

The echo of those days are still with us. A significant number of City fans are uncomfortable with Peter Taylor’s approach to the game. We have been willing to go along with it so long as it brought success – and how desperate we are for any modicum of success following ten years when we have plummeted from one end of the Football League to the other. However, is there a growing realisation that there is more to this beguiling game than attempting to stumble to single goal victories? Yes, Bradford City has hit rock bottom but that does not mean that we should abandon the principles of the football club.

We should debate once again what we want our football club to be. We should debate a set of principles the club should operate to. Those principles should include: style of football; whether to support an active policy of promoting young players; whether to continue to support the policy of cheap season tickets; the policy of keeping the club on an even financial keel regardless of its impact on results.

I’m sure there are many other principles supporters will want to debate. However, as another season threatens to drift into nothingness it is a debate we must have. We are the soul of Bradford City Football Club. If we lose faith and drift away the club will be worthless.

Let the debate begin.