What Dreams May Come: the End of Bradford City Website Boy from Brazil
In January, I cast an eye on the unending cacophony of abuse in online football communities, with a section on Doncaster Rovers website Viva Rovers, and provoking a compelling spate of comments involving Leeds United blog, The Scratching Shed. The problems are not confined to Yorkshire alone, but as an important follow up, Michael Wood here provides an epitaph on the Bradford City site, Boy from Brazil, one of the very best chronicles online and one that closed towards the end of 2011.
It is the dream of every football fan: The day the club you support calls your name and says “We need your help”, and it happened to me.
Bradford City were my club and when they called it was not to have me pull on claret and amber and come on for the last fifteen minutes of or take over as manager having recognised my obvious qualities in that area from the website I’d written for the last twelve years.
Those twelve years that had started as an unexpected promotion push came to Premiership fruition and ground down through two spells in administrations before concluding at the foot of League Two. Few clubs will have had the tumultuous times which Boy From Brazil, or BfB as we knew it, had to report on.
Twelve years of reporting at arm’s length from the club but with a respect for all involved with Bradford City which I insisted on. BfB was not to be a place to fire insults at players, managers, chairmen or other supporters. I was told that, before its closing on 4th of November 2011, it was the example that other club’s websites were told to follow. I’d like that to have been true.
There must have been a quality about the website that, one evening, prompted Bradford City’s Director of Football Developments Archie Christie to call me and ask for my help.
To take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them
Christie had been appointed at Valley Parade in the summer of 2011 having been asked by City’s joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes to write a blueprint for the club’s future. Christie did and so well was this received at boardroom level that he was asked to come put that plan in practice.
Only four months later Christie’s broad Scots brogue was asking me just why he was running into such vicious opposition from his club’s own supporters? Having tolerated some early abuse, an increasingly upset Christie had been the subject of some very insulting and vulgar voicemails. One called him a Cockney C**t, which at least raised a booming North of the Border laugh, but really there was nothing funny.
As discussed on this website, there is an increasing problem in football concerning a general degradation in the quality of discussion. Here was a case in point. A larger than life character Christie was never smaller than when he was asking me why he was suffering the vilification from a section of supporters of the club that he was dedicating himself to. I do not understand why people who follow Bradford City felt it was right to tell the guy who was trying to improve the club to “Fuck off back to London”, and nor did he.
Christie made me a promise that if myself and fellow writer Jason Mckeown spent a day with him and, at the end, were not convinced that he was doing all he could for Bradford City then he would leave the club. We were convinced.
‘Was’ because Christie left the club some six weeks later. At BfB, we had been very proud of the series of articles which seemed to have reversed many people’s positions on the Scot. Shadowing him around for a day, we saw and wrote about his hard work. As coincidence had it, he was doing a £1.3m deal to sell the 15 year old George Green to a Premier League club which later became our inside view on the £2m sale of the player to Everton. We saw Christie’s plans for the club which are badly needed for the team that at time of writing is mired in the bottom half of League Two and we were pleased. In fact it was very much the type of focused development that we had been calling for from the club for years.
The articles were extremely well received inside and out of the Bradford City community. The tone of discussions around Valley Parade changed. Some people at the club itself were reported to be overjoyed with the piece despite some initial worries and Christie himself felt that in opening his doors to us and telling all that we had seen, he was then able to get on with doing the job he had arrived at Valley Parade to do with warm backing.
A happy ending then? Not so much, no.
This undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns
On the wall of my office amidst the Post-it notes about client work that needs doing and crib sheets on HTML entities for typographic characters there are but two things which would tell you that it had been a place where over 3,500 articles on Bradford City had emerged from.
One is an email sent from Christie. I printed it out and blu-tacked it up. It is effusive in its thanks and apologetic that the focus of the abuse which Christie had been suffering had shifted in our direction. It was true to say it had but the flow had slowed to a trickle. Most comments were genuine questions and were easily explained with reference to things unmentioned in the article. Some called this the finest hour of BfB and it is hard to disagree. Here was a place that the club trusted to communicate to fans, and that the fans on the whole trusted to get answers for them.
And then everything changed.
I was standing on the steps about to go into a job interview when I found out that Archie Christie had left Bradford City and the circumstances around that. BfB was a marquee item on the CV I held in my hand. Twenty four hours later it would be closed down.
There are details of the discussions which went on between the website and Bradford City FC around the time of Archie Christie’s departure from the club that you will not hear from me. Private dealings, I believe, stay private and I’ve not read a single rumour or report since (even amongst those who profess to be ‘in the know’) which gets near enough to the truth of what happened to be considered accurate. To encapsulate, there had been a shifting of sands under our feet and people at Bradford City who previously had expressed a worry that we would misquote Christie now no longer considered his word to be unimpeachable.
Christie left and behind him there was friction caused by an article written by my co-writer Mckeown about the reasons for his departure. The club wanted us to take a course of action which I felt I could not do and would have gone against my principles. I offered compromises, I offered space for an alternative view, but I could not get to a point where I thought the site could continue before the ability to write articles about the club was not compromised by the dispute.
And there was pressure. There was a level of pressure put on myself and Mckeown from the club which many around us considered to be wholly unreasonable. I would accept that a person (or in this case the business that that person owns a part of) has a right to bring pressure on a publisher in a situation such as this and obviously Bradford City feel that the level of pressure exerted is an appropriate way to deal with its supporter base. I would not agree.
I broaden the subject from myself and Jason to a wider supporter base deliberately. I founded the website in 1999 and since 2007 Mckeown had been co-author but well over 250 Bradford City Supporters wrote full articles, over two thousand had commented, and there were twenty thousand unique visitors who read the site every month. Modesty aside BfB had become a big part of some people’s experience of being a Bradford City supporter. One email read “BfB was the way that I followed Bradford City, so now I don’t follow Bradford City.”
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to
Being close to the club unearthed a number of very ugly issues. There is a saying that there are two things that one does not want to see being made: Laws and sausages; and I’d add football clubs to that list. Having not seen into the core of any other club I could not say if Bradford City are run any differently to other clubs (I suspect not) but as discussion and pressure from the club continued it occurred to me that going forward I would find it very hard to write about the current incarnation of Bradford City.
In fact knowing what I now know has taken the heart out of my love of Bradford City. I posted a message on www.boyfrombrazil.co.uk that said that the website had been removed and I pressed delete on twelve years of work.
There is an irony that on the day that the website was taken down the current board of Bradford City lost one of its more reasonable commentators . The site was known for, indeed often criticised for, not being aggressive (or at times for not being directly insulting) to the players, managers and chairmen over the years. I lost count of the number of times I changed user-submitted comments from reading “Fat Controller” to “Mark Lawn” out of a politeness and courtesy.
Yet it is people who would use much worse terms without shame who have the loudest voice at Bradford City now shouting into the chasm between an increasingly authoritarian club and the low depths which seems to attach themselves to football clubs. The Bradford City Official Message Board is a bear pit dominated by a small, dedicated clique where no holds are barred and the prevailing mood is that he who can shout loudest, and more aggressively, is correct. Many a new, or moderate, member had told me they had been driven away when trying to read the debate let alone join it.
As I write there is currently a question mark over the Official Message Board to do with – reportedly – a sponsor’s demand that he be allowed to be homophobic on that site least he withdraw his funding. This is the situation for the current incarnation of Bradford City are in.
The long running The City Gent fanzine was neutered after their own clash with the same forces at Valley Parade which I dealt with and there are other websites but they range from the promising to the intellectually insulting. The supporters’ organisations were ‘brought under a single umbrella’ by the club recently. Whatever the message that the club might want to disseminate, the one which emerges is that if you are to do something to follow Bradford City as a supporter then that better be something which the current ownership approves of.
Supporters cannot look to local media either in this landscape where the experience of supporting is increasingly privatised by the club for an independent voice. Only this weekend a story we ran in the summer about Bradford City’s winger Omar Daley having been offered a new contract, which local Radio and the club’s manager joined together to flatly deny, was confirmed as having been true. Only when the clubs are threatened, will local media outlets be mobilised in a way other than disseminating the line given by the clubs and then one suspects it is driven by the same self-interest that drives them to fealty.
Which is far from healthy. Commentary and decency are important things in a strong community. My belief that the ad hoc (or ‘unofficial’ if you prefer) endeavours like websites or supporters groups are the lifeblood of football clubs comes out of following a team that twice in the last decade have smashed hard into administration. The Bradford City supporting community was created around hubs too numerous to mention but each hub served not entirely overlapping sections of the support and it was the combination of all which made for a community strong enough to save the club.
Twice in the last twelve years the club went to that supporting community begging for significant sums of money to keep it going, each time with the promise that a new Bradford City would never forget the accomplishments of its supporters in those dark hours. You can imagine, dear reader, how I feel that promise has been honoured.
One has to wonder what would be left of that community when they inevitably come asking for a third time.
Be all my sins remembered
There seemed to be an assumption, rather unhelpfully aired by a Radio Leeds presenter who had no knowledge on the subject, that within a week BfB would come back under a different name and the community would have its website back. Not since the plug was pulled have I been able to consider the prospect of such a thing without wincing. On some Wednesday mornings I read that City have played the previous night in the Guardian Sports Section. I’m a changed man.
I would hope that others could create a replacement which carried out the same work BfB did but were someone to ask my advice if that were worthwhile, I would look back of twelve years of racing back from games to write timely reports, of evenings spent away from wife and family writing previews, of abuse from supporters of many clubs who disagreed with the most minor points and because of that would have you close the site down, of abusive phone messages from very nasty people following what amounted to little more than disagreements, and of the massive pressure myself and Jason Mckeown were put under by the club that had but two months before asked for help and I would say ‘No’.
I would pause a moment though.
Next to the printed email and HTML codes is a photograph of a banner which someone put up at Valley Parade on the day after the site was removed. It simply reads ‘Boy From Brazil’. I find it hard to look at that photograph without feeling nostalgic pain. I feel I have let down whoever put that banner up, and the people like them, by not offering them BfB anymore.
Those people are the majority of football supporters not wanting to swear and abuse nor control and manipulate but just wanting to read a decent view of the game and have a bit of a sensible chat about it. Sadly it seems, and beyond Bradford City, these people are to be marginalised.
The banner was taken down at half time by officials of the club. It was too late though. My name was on a banner at Valley Parade, in a way anywhere. This was where my dream came true.