Bradford City’s FA Cup quarter-final against Reading was given a bit of shoeing over the weekend. The goalless draw at Valley Parade failed to provide a decisive outcome and the standard of the football led to much social media chuntering.
In a way, though, the drone of complaints rather emphasised how detached we have all become from the game’s essence. Football isn’t purely about aesthetics, and yet the accepted definition of what constitutes a good match seems to be increasingly defined by them.
That game was very honest. It lacked the perfect playing surface, it didn’t create any particularly memorable moments and nothing that happened within that ninety minutes will ever be found on YouTube, but the palpable sense of struggle throughout made it highly engaging.
Supporters who have been raised purely on the Premier League can be very spoilt. Even before kick-off, there were live-blog complaints about the Bradford-themed cup cakes, the marshland of a pitch, and the over-exuberant local with the microphone, but try to look at it from a different way: there was some tradition there, some much needed authenticity at a time when such a commodity is in short supply.
Sometimes, it seems as if football can only be enjoyed by the majority when a certain set of conditions are met: a game has to be played on a carpet and inside a cathedral-like stadium, it must have the right players, and it must conform to the right style of play.
“If not, then I’ll still watch, but only in a sneering, facetious comment-making way.”
Nobody should be told what they are and are not allowed to watch or enjoy, but there was an irritating reluctance to embrace the sense of occasion on Saturday. Beyond the rickety framework, what did that picture actually look like?
A lower-league club raging against their position in the game, a town who whose imagination has obviously been caught by a fixture, and a group of players kicking each other into the air. There was no cheating, there was no melodrama or sulking, and there wasn’t even any refereeing controversy; it was ninety minutes of blue-collared effort and, while it may not have been that watchable, it was still a spectacle.
The game is about winning and losing and, in the absence of goal-mouth action or Vine-worthy pieces of skill, that was the takeaway detail from Saturday lunchtime: those two teams did absolutely everything they could to progress.
So Bradford didn’t spend £150,000 to re-lay their pitch in the middle of the season and the two teams didn’t cost as much as one Chelsea forward, but that just makes it a different form of entertainment rather than something which can’t be enjoyed at all.
Pause for a moment and think. Consider everything that irritates you about top-flight football across an average weekend, then recognise that Bradford against Reading was actually its welcome counter-point. One of the loudest complaints about the modern era concerns the detachment of football from its community moorings, yet when given a fleeting glimpse of what that once looked like, fans invariably recoil.
Neither the Premier League nor Sky Sports invented football and, as such, this wasn’t some bastardised knock-off version of the sport which had to be tolerated. This was the game in its original form, without the high-definition, without the montages and without the perpetual hand-wringing over ‘what it all means’.
Different can be fun, but only if you embrace the variation.