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The Importance of Being iFollow

Last week I overcame many years of self-doubt and remarkable laziness to produce my first ever football blog. Knowing that any negative feedback would most likely lead to me launching my phone into the river and taking a hammer to my laptop, I was pleased to see and hear that reaction has been generally positive.

The article was about how brilliant iFollow has been for my 72 year-old Dad, who for the first time since the mid-80’s has been able to watch Bradford City home and away this season. The article is here for anybody who’s interested, but I’ll warn you now it’s quite Bantam-centric. 

It was just my little story at first, but it seems to have struck a bit of a chord with other City fans and mates who support other clubs. That’s the point at which it has occurred to me that this is probably something occurring up and down the country.

My personal experience of iFollow has been good after initial teething-problems. It’s nothing like going to a game, but it’s absolutely scratched the itch for me. Myself and my fellow season-ticket holders have been setting up concurrent Zoom meetings, synchronising the match clock and watching games together, which has helped maintain a social side to matchdays. Beer acquired from fridge, match notifications turned off, phone cast aside to cater for the 1-minute lag, away we go.

“I’ve paused it on 1 minute 27 seconds, let me know when you catch up mate…”.

Up to the new year we’ve had my Dad wrapped in cotton wool. In his 70’s with a list of ailments as long as his right arm (and leg), he’s watching home games on Mum’s iPad using one of my mates’ untapped iFollow logins, whilst I get on with my usual Zoom watch-along.

Just after the turn of the year I contracted Covid, around the same time as my Dad had his first vaccination jab. I recovered fine, and as Dad’s first jab made it to 3-week maturity we slightly relaxed the stringency of our support-bubble. I’m not sitting on anybody’s knee, but with my antibodies and my parents vaccinations taking hold, I’ve been making myself a little more at home at the parental abode.

Home games have remained solo Zoom/iPad missions, but ever the frugal Yorkshiremen, we’ve been watching away games together to maximise the value of the £10 outlay.

This has led to us watching City together properly for the first time in my 36 years. It only occurred to us recently that between us we have been season-ticket holders for 50 out of the last 60 years, but we have never done the “Dad & Lad” days for which many has been a rite of passage. We’ve been to four games together in total.

Dad followed City home and away from the late-50’s right through to the mid-80’s. His interest was more in-depth than just going to watch, playing for the Supporters’ Club and helping organise fundraisers to raise a few-hundred quid here and there when the club was on its knees (back when a few-hundred quid made a difference!). 

Two significant events happened in Bradford in the mid-80’s. The first was a bit of a landmark for me as I was eased into the world on New Year’s Eve 1984. The second far more significant event was the Bradford Fire on 11th May 1985, where 54 Bradford City and 2 Lincoln City fans tragically lost their lives.

Dad had watched pretty much every game at Valley Parade that season, sitting in the antiquated Main Stand from which the fire emanated. City had already won the Division 3 league title and it was trophy presentation day. I’ve never seen City win a league title, but if we ever do I imagine I’ll be turning up to the ground topless, daubed in body-paint with a gallon of ale in me. On that day in May 1985, my Dad showed one of the main differences between he and I, viewing the game as nothing more than a friendly with the league already won, and opting to play cricket instead.

What a decision that proved to be.

In the following years he went to a few games at Odsal, but by his own admission he totally lost interest in going to Valley Parade after that day, and on the handful of occasions he’s been back he says he hasn’t felt comfortable. At that point he lapsed from supporter to arm-chair fan and his close affiliation to the club he’d followed for nigh-on 30 years had been diluted.

Up until 2020 the problem with being an armchair fan of a lower-league team is that you don’t get to watch them live, barring one or two games a season on Sky. The last team he knew the individual traits of first-hand contained a young Peter Jackson, John Hendrie and Stuart McCall. Now, for the first time in nearly 40-years he now knows for himself who’s who in the squad, rather than what I relay to him from my beer-addled memories of the day before. The iFollow option has been great and it’s highlighted the importance of it continuing in some form beyond this season. He nearly leapt out of his chair when we equalised in the 93rd minute the other week against Bolton, and he was more gutted than I was the day after a late defeat at Newport.

Keeping iFollow available in some capacity going forward is vital. I’m aware it carries the danger of impacting footfall in grounds when they reopen. Somebody far brighter than me will need to work that one out down the line. Maybe an £5 supplement for each Season Ticket holder to get an online match pass as well? That way it remains cheaper to actually go to the game. I don’t know.

I understand the EFL are standing the streaming-costs this year. My club have included access to home games free-of-charge as part of the £150 season-ticket offering, and away games have been £10. Of that, £8.34 per ticket goes to the home club, but from the 501st onward £8.34 per goes to the away club. We’ve been selling around 3,000 passes per away game which the club has broken down in minute detail each month, it’s evidently been a good chunk of unforecast income to the club.

Going forward, clubs and the EFL should be aware of the benevolence of fans, without profiteering. It’s a fine balance, but I’ll happily pay a fair amount up to £15 to watch a game if I’m confident a good chunk of it will go to the club. Anything beyond that though, I think will be an act of greed on the part of the EFL. 

Streaming will doubtless come with costs, but the cameraman, commentators and live beaming of the footage were matchday costs pre-dating iFollow. The Carabao, Screwfix, Your Move and Utilita adverts must also go some way to mitigating their outlay.

Those facts absolutely cannot be forgotten when we inevitably get fed a line on how much it costs to cover a game as they try to justify charging £25.

Take the mickey out of me and I’ll be tempted to the deepest, darkest part of the internet for a dodgy stream, and nobody makes any money out of me.

Clubs are easier to contact than ever now and I imagine there are regular iFollow pleas being sent to teams by people with work, geographical and childcare issues.

My reason for writing this is to try and beat the drum for the lapsed supporters of clubs who still live within a 20-mile radius of the institutions they have supported for decades, but are no longer well enough to attend in the flesh. Many of the people who’d benefit from “Blue Badge Season Tickets” aren’t going to be sliding into the DM’s of their club’s CEO, so this is me trying to do so on their behalf. My Dad still has a daily battle with the Sky remote, so he’s not going to be going viral with a TikTok challenging the EFL.

I’ve been a Bradford season ticket holder since 1998 having found my own way into it. There’s only been a couple of significant games I’ve missed in the flesh in that time. That is why the penny has dropped in the last few weeks that with 1,000’s of games under our belts individually, it has very rarely been a joint experience, and it’s been ace. If lockdown is lifted as planned, this is going to be the only time it happens, as I’ll be back to travelling around the country next season.

City is my main topic of conversation with my Dad, now more than ever. He has a long-standing “Dad joke” when we avoid defeat, when he talks about the points gained as though they’re physical items which need careful transportation. Without fail he asks if I managed to carry them back down Manningham Lane without dropping any, or if there was enough room in the back of the car to transport them back from an away ground.

I’m abundantly aware Peter Kay doesn’t need to be watching his back, but Dad jokes aren’t meant to be amazing and it’s been our thing for 20 years now. The daftness has been dialled up in the last few weeks after we went on a run of picking up 36 points from a possible 45. At one point we were discussing the ambience at which points would be best stored and whether we need to be building a racking-system for them in the garage to give them breathing space and prevent over-crowding. At least a recent mini-slump has saved us an ironic trip to B&Q on pensioner-discount day for some lengths of timber and a dehumidifier.

One thing you can easily gauge with my father is his contentment level by the level of nonsense he talks. His team doing well evidently still makes him happy, and thanks to technology he now feels a bit of a connection with it. That gives us all a bit of hope doesn’t it.

Paul Askham (@Asky_84)



ON THE PLANE?

2020 should have been the year that England were able to show their credentials after successful showings in the Nations League and World Cup over the previous two years. However, the coronavirus pandemic halted proceedings quite dramatically part way through the 2019/20 season and therefore postponed the entire tournament. 

With the tournament still expected to go ahead in some sort of capacity in the summer, Gareth Southgate will be observing his potential candidates very scrupulously and making sure he has picked the correct 23 men to lead the country rather than picking players based on their names. We are looking at you Fabio Capello!

Who are the guaranteed men?

There are always going to be several names that meet Southgate’s criteria and they come in the form of the players he trusts. It is notable that Southgate has tried to keep the core together from his 2018 semi final team that took Russia by surprise and produced one of the best summers that England has ever experienced. Just as I mention Russia, I find myself humming the Atomic Kitten tune “Whole Again”.

The players that you would assume that are guaranteed a place on the flight (if there is one!) would be captain Harry Kane and his supporting act of Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling. All three of these players are vital to how a Southgate England side tick. With control in the midfield from Jordan Henderson, another name guaranteed to be in the 23 man squad, these three can punish most defences in Europe.

Dropping further back into defence, you can see how much trust Southgate has in Harry Maguire as he has been an ever present member of the manager’s starting eleven since he made his debut in 2017. Across the back line with Maguire, you will expect to see Kyle Walker who can slot into a back four or a back three depending on how England setup.

Behind the defence is a contentious position according to many pundits and fans alike but it seems Southgate is going to stick with the man who ousted long term goalkeeper Joe Hart and that is Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. There is no denying that Pickford is a great shot stopper but to quote Roy Keane, it's his job to make saves. With competition from Nick Pope and Dean Henderson for the number one spot, it would take something monumental to make Southgate change his mind on Pickford.

Who is certain to make the cut?

Since the heroics of 2018, Southgate has also put his trust in several players who have performed exceptionally for club and country. Declan Rice is one of these players to  have really made an impact on the England side and deputised in both the midfield as well as the defence, proving his versatility and importance to this young emerging side. Rice fits into that same category as Mason Mount who is very trusted by Southgate, much to his detriment. Sometimes with Jack Grealish and James Maddison breathing down his neck Mount has come under a lot of pressure but the England manager sees him as the focal point in the attacking midfield and Mount is a very good talent.

Other young talents who have secured a place in Southgate’s reckoning include Dominic Calvert- Lewin, Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Phil Foden, Ben Chilllwell, Bukayo Saka and Reece James. These players are typical of a Southgate selection, young, hungry for success and relatable. When Southgate arrived he wanted his England side to be loved again and when you have fresh attacking talent like the aforementioned players it is hard not enjoy watching England play, the concern comes with Southgate not letting the shackles off a bit sooner in games to allow them to really prosper.

An honourable mention has to go to Kalvin Phillips who has taken to international football like a duck to water. When he was playing for Leeds United in the Championship it was clear he was playing below his standard but playing in the Premier League has made him an even better player. With England, he has brought a different dimension to the team and one that can not be overlooked. 

However, despite a look towards the future, the former Middlesbrough manager does have his old reliables still in the likes of Kieran Trippier, Eric Dier and Harry Winks that you anticipate will make the final 23 man squad.

Who needs to prove a point?

There are several players who need to prove a point but for different reasons to impress Southgate. Pickford has already been mentioned about his shortcomings but someone who has not experienced many shortcomings for his club but is struggling to establish himself for his country is Jack Grealish. The Aston Villa man has been playing out of his skin for Villa and is a leading example, on the pitch maybe not so much off it, of how to create something out of nothing. It is hard to say what he needs to do next to be England’s creative man but he must carry on doing what he is doing so well to keep himself right in the thick of it. 

An area that England are struggling to settle on is a centre back partner for Maguire. The main player to be challenging for that position is Grealish’s teammate Tyrone Mings. The towering centre back is a dominating figure and has stood out in Aston Villa’s season making them more stout in defence but also is an option from corners; which suits Southgate’s style of play.

Who could be the wildcard selections?

If form is anything to go by we could see a return to the England fold for John Stones and Luke Shaw. Both men have impressed in Manchester for their respective clubs. With Stones partnering Reuben Dias and looking the equal of his Portuguese teammate we could see a return to the Maguire and Stones partnership of 2018. 

The resurgence of form for Shaw must have grabbed the attention of the England manager as well as Stones’ because the full back has been marauding down the left hand side with a lot of freedom contributing four assists for the Red Devils.

England do need another option when going forward in attack and cannot just rely on Kane. Southgate has taken closer looks at Calvert-Lewin and Tammy Abraham more recently but names like Callum Wilson, Danny Ings and more importantly Patrick Bamford cannot be ignored. All have impressive goal scoring records with Ings finding the net seven times in the league this season, Wilson ten times and Bamford eleven. Bamford might be the one to get the nod due to his better injury record if Southgate decides to go down that route.