21 May 2013

How claret and amber pride brings Bradford together

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If there is one thing any good fairytale needs it is a happy ending.

Bradford City’s proud fans did not want to leave Wembley, almost now their adopted second home, after they clinched promotion with a 3-0 victory over Northampton Town in the play-off final, providing a celebratory finale to the most remarkable season in this venerable football club’s 110-year history, writes Sunder Katwala.

Fans at Bradford City versus Northampton Town,  Wembley
Bradford City fans at the Wembley play-off final against Northampton Town, May 2013

In February, Bradford City captured the hearts of the football nation. They did so, first, simply by becoming the first ever team from the fourth tier of the English league to reach a major Wembley final, winning increasingly incredible victories over Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa. Yet what stuck most in the memory was how they responded when that bubble finally burst. Outclassed by premiership team Swansea City in what became a five goals to nil cup final defeat, the 36,000 Bradford supporters had responded with a spine-tingling riot of flags, colour and song, expressing a fiercely gentle civic pride that remained undimmed in defeat.

Now Bradford City were back at Wembley already – and this time rather in the role of giants as they played Northampton Town to decide which club would be promoted.

I bump into Bradford fan Dave Pendleton, who curates the club museum as a volunteer, under the Bobby Moore statue at the top of Wembley Way. He jokes that only the Northampton fans will be stopping for photos on their cameras on Wembley Way. “Ours are used to all this now. It’ll be, heads down, straight into the ground.” It isn’t true, as fans of both clubs mingle good-naturedly on the way to the ground. Pendleton, who is as proud a Bradfordian as you could ever meet, is with a small Flemish branch of the supporters club, having invited his friend Frank Depoorter of the Passchendaele Memorial Museum to both of the Wembley games. It was a friendship forged through Bradford fans paying tribute to Jimmy Speirs, the scorer of the winning goal in Bradford City’s only FA Cup victory back in 1911, who was killed at Passchendaele during World War I.

I was waiting to meet up with a group from Sandy Lane Primary School, nine schoolchildren who had travelled down from Bradford to attend their first ever big football match. The school has worked over the last few years with the Zesh Rehman Foundation, a charity created by the former Bradford City and Pakistan captain, which promotes participation in sport as a positive contribution to opportunity, integration and community cohesion. British Future had teamed up with the Foundation to organise this trip, building on our earlier event looking at identity in Bradford just after February’s cup final.

Play-off finals and cup finals are supposed to be tense, edgy, nervous affairs. Neither of Bradford’s Wembley occasions turned out anything like that at all.

Familiarity with the Wembley occasion seemed to help as Bradford scored an early goal at the other end of the ground.

“He used to work in the Co-op” sing the fans after James Hanson scores the opening goal, a chant popularised by his knack of scoring against Premiership teams in the cup, and which symbolises a sense of identification between the team and the supporters.

As it happens, the £7,500 fee for Hanson is the closest that manager Phil Parkinson has come to splashing out on a big transfer, having built his team on a shoestring.

Bradford City race into a three-goal lead in half an hour as the hopes of a somewhat overawed Northampton Town slip away. The Sandy Lane primary school children are thrilled as each goal is celebrated. Nobody tells them it isn’t always like this. If any of them were to get the football bug in a serious way, they can find out about that emotional rollercoaster ride on another day. Why not start it at the top?

Northampton do steady their nerves in the second half, but can’t find the goal that could threaten to put the outcome in doubt again. Bradford’s players just have to concentrate on seeing the game out, though the supporters’ minds turn elsewhere in the 56th minute, as applause breaks out and is sustained for a full minute. This happens at every Bradford City game, to pay tribute to the 56 supporters who lost their lives in the fire at the club’s ground in May 1985.

Then it is back to singing, and waving scarves and flags, as the game ends three-nil.

“We are going up” chant the Bradford fans happily on the final whistle. Anybody who spends any time talking to them will believe that theirs is a club which deserves to succeed.

After six seasons in the bottom flight of league football, Bradford have been averaging crowds of over 10,000, twice the division’s average. That reflects a positive, popular response to the club’s decision to reward and attract support with the least expensive season tickets in the country. The club has also put a significant amount of energy in recent years in seeking to ensure that those from every part of Bradford feel welcome at their Valley Parade ground.

Progress has been gradual and sometimes slow. The club’s 24,000-strong Wembley support is more diverse than the crowd at the league game I attended in February, ahead of the cup final, to report for the New Statesman on the club’s efforts to engage Asian supporters, and this season’s showpiece Wembley occasions have helped to cast a spotlight on the longer-term, grassroots work which seeks to make a reality of Bradford City’s aspiration to provide a source of shared pride for the whole city.

Anybody in Bradford will tell you that they definitely look out for Bradford City and the Bradford Bulls, and then often add that they support Manchester United or Liverpool too, and even, sometimes, Arsenal or Chelsea. Those working on outreach in schools say that the Wembley fairytale has definitely helped to make the next generation think about giving their local team a chance too.

Bradford is a city with a strong sense of its history, which is why there has been such an appetite for the footballing success that many believe has put the city back on the map. As the team parade their trophy around the city on an open-top bus on Wednesday, the final act may demonstrate one lasting impact of this incredible football fairytale, by capturing how the club’s claret and amber colours have become embraced more strongly than ever before, across Bradford, as an inclusive source of a deep and shared civic pride.

Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future.

Check out images from the event below:

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