The origins of The City Gent magazine

Next month marks the 35th anniversary of the launch of The City Gent, now in its 221st issue. Anniversaries invariably bring with them a combination of self-congratulation and retrospection but often the memories are incomplete. As co-founder, intimately involved with the project from its conception in 1983 until 1988 (when I handed over to Mick Dickinson as editor) this is my version of the origins and early development of The City Gent, distinct from the imagined history told in a recent podcast.

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The timing of the launch of The City Gent coincided with Brian Fox, Jon Burgess and myself returning to Bradford from university in 1984. We had talked about producing a Bradford City-centric publication the previous year and what finally brought the project to fruition was the fact that Brian was keen to establish credentials to secure a job as a journalist. He was the creative writer and I was the organiser who managed the printing and the logistics. Jon was the third member of the original team, a former fellow pupil at Bradford Grammar School who lived close to Brian in Thornton. However, he moved away to Peterborough shortly after the launch of The City Gent and so was not as actively involved. John Watmough later managed sales of The City Gent and took responsibility for subscriptions.

All three of us collected football programmes and were acutely aware of the poor standard of the City programmes as well as familiar with what good looked like. If we had been given the chance, I think we’d have jumped at producing the programme and you will find quite a lot of mention about club programmes in early issues of The City Gent. We were all members of City Travel Club ’73 (Bradford) and travelled to most away games. At a CTC meeting John Watmough had shown us a copy of Terrace Talk, a publication produced by supporters at York City (first published in November, 1981) and we had also become aware of Wanderers Worldwide, a similar publication from Bolton (first published in 1983). However, it was the Bantams Review publication sold in the club shop during the 1983/84 season and which ran to three issues that was the real inspiration for The City Gent.

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Bantams Review was published by Raymond Maul, a local programme dealer and its pages devoted extensive coverage to City collectables. The standard of the editorial was poor and we knew that we couldn’t do any worse. More to the point, the existence of Bantams Review demonstrated that it was feasible to self-publish and it gave us the self-confidence to go ahead with our own project. The choice of title was instinctive: we all had fond memories of the City programme cover from 1966-74 and wanted a return of the character – and striped shirts – to Valley Parade. (The background to the City Gent character is told here.)

Our objective was to provide news and comment about Bradford City at a time when there were few other sources. We also saw The City Gent as a means to foster positive impressions about the club. Brian, Jon and I had all just finished at university where we’d seen ourselves as ambassadors of Bradford City among our peer groups and had countered the usual prejudices about Bradford.

As regards the influence of punk fanzines I can categorically state that this was not a factor, despite being fond of new wave and punk music (and a keen Stranglers fan to this day). Although I was familiar with self-published music fan sheets, I found a lot of them pseudo-intellectual and arty. If I had to cite an influence it would have been involvement with a college magazine whilst at Oxford and it wasn’t until around 1986 that I had even heard of ‘fanzines’. From the start we described The City Gent as an independent supporters’ magazine.

There was never any thought given to the sort of abstract titles that later became commonplace among fanzines elsewhere. From the outset we were practical and focused on financial viability. For instance, the choice of title was considered suitable to appeal to a wide audience and yellow covers were adopted so that the magazine could be seen on the terraces and sellers made visible. The editorial style was also deliberately responsible and whilst we didn’t shy from controversial comment, we sought to be balanced and fair in what we wrote. For the record, the Soviet style iconography adopted by The City Gent is not to be confused with ideological leanings. It was entirely tongue in cheek, inspired by my own travels behind the Berlin Wall as a student.

Initially The City Gent was published as the magazine of CTC but it was later made stand alone to avoid the impression of being too narrow based or cliquey. Nonetheless, strong links with CTC continued and its away trips were given coverage in The City Gent. The CTC had been established in 1973 in response to the parent club declining to arrange coaches to away games and was fiercely protective of its independence. In 1984 for example the members rejected overtures from Bradford City AFC (encouraged by the police) for away travel to once more be co-ordinated by the football club and it is fair to say that The City Gent shared the same independent mindset.

In the late 1980s the emergence of football fanzines – publications produced independently by supporters and on a non-commercial basis – was an unprecedented phenomenon in British football and it didn’t take long before academics began offering profound explanations about what had given the impulse to their emergence. Inevitably it all started to become contorted as a major sociological affair, frankly unrecognisable to what I remember having occurred. It seems that people are still fond of attributing deep and meaningful explanations for what, as far as we were concerned was virtually an impromptu and spontaneous initiative.

As one of the first and now the longest surviving fanzine at any club in Great Britain, The City Gent has been held up as an example of one of the pioneering publications at the vanguard of the so called fanzine movement that had emerged by 1987. I won’t deny that The City Gent was considered influential in those formative years – I was told as much by supporters of other clubs during my time as editor – but we never considered that we were riding a wave of fashion as a generic football fanzine. My explanation for how the phenomenon came about is that supporters at different clubs wanted to emulate what was happening elsewhere, including imitation of what had been achieved at Bradford. It was a basic competitive impulse that harnessed the passion of supporters for their club and seeing that it could be done elsewhere provided the inspiration. (NB It’s hardly different nowadays with regards to the phenomenon of internet blogs.)

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Pictured: Observer magazine feature on football fanzines at Highbury in 1986

For sure The City Gent became extensively networked with fanzines around the country and it brought us in touch with people with similar ideas and attitudes. We were open in sharing our publishing experience, but I don’t believe we ever saw ourselves as part of a movement as much. We remained polite but in private you could not ignore a massive gulf in standards between fanzines (and more than a few of them were poor).

We always identified first and foremost as a Bradford publication and indeed, The City Gent was essentially about a Bradford identity with its own curry guide. As far as we were concerned The City Gent was a partisan publication with an agenda driven by pride and loyalty to the city. There were other unique circumstances and it is surely no coincidence that The City Gent came of age in the aftermath of the Valley Parade fire disaster at the end of our first season. The best way to describe the publication at that time was as the flag bearer of a revivalist spirit at Valley Parade, what I later described as ‘Bantam Progressivism’.

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Any doubts that we had shared about the launch of an independent supporters’ publication were soon dispelled and The City Gent was more successful than we ever imagined. By the end of the 1984/85 season we had a print run of 1,800 for example. Whilst all of this was very satisfying it felt as though we had created a monster that increasingly demanded more of our time.

Had the fire not occurred there is a good chance that The City Gent might have been a short-term phenomenon and set aside. However, the aftermath of the disaster provided a purpose to maintain the commitment to continue publishing. Brian’s parents had been badly injured in the fire and we both recognised that we had a part to play in the club’s recovery by continuing to produce The City Gent. Hence if The City Gent had originally been an opportunist venture, by the beginning of its second season it was positioned to play a part in the revival of Bradford City.

By 1986 our circulation averaged around one in six of those watching Bradford City – probably one of the highest readership ratios in the country – and evidence that The City Gent had popular appeal across a broad range of supporters. By virtue of the circulation we were taken seriously and respected by those in charge at Valley Parade. It would be wrong to say that we were part of the establishment but we definitely had a foot in the door because Stafford Heginbotham knew that we could not be ignored or ostracised. All of this was achieved because we didn’t set out to be anti-establishment per se and we were responsible as well as considered in our editorials.

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The City Gent has had seven editors since 1984. Each of us has shaped the publication in our own vision but it is wrong to say that we have necessarily shared the same outlook or emphasis. To retrospectively project a later vision to ‘explain’ the origins and early development of The City Gent constitutes a remarkable leap of the imagination, one that is entirely at odds with what I remember from back then.

When it comes to people attempting to contextualise The City Gent in broad brush strokes alongside punk fanzines or underground anti-establishment samizdats I just roll my eyes. It is what I describe as sloppy, pretentious history telling for anyone to paint such a picture. In the desperate search for complex, profound explanations to somehow intellectualise and romanticise what happened 35 years ago, the more mundane yet fundamental elements of the story have been overlooked.

We never produced a manifesto but had we done so, the objectives of The City Gent would have been defined roughly as follows:

  • To provide a positive impression of the city of Bradford, its football club and its supporters.
  • To provide a link with the club for exiled Bradfordians and a contact for supporters of other clubs.
  • To encourage constructive debate about the club and its reconstruction.
  • To provide quality reading about the club and its history.

It was as simple as that. The success of the publication came from two basic ingredients: (i) a refusal to compromise on standards; and (ii) hard graft.

The development of The City Gent benefited enormously from securing a cheap printer. From the second issue until the end of the 1984/85 season we used the services of a couple who happened to have a printing press in their basement in Saltaire. It was an unconventional arrangement and on occasions the print quality and rejects left something to be desired. Crucially however it allowed the size and circulation of The City Gent to be expanded without impact on cover price. From the second season we opted for a high street printer which made life much less fraught.

By 1988 I was close to burnout from the effort and handed across to Mick Dickinson as editor. I could no longer afford the time commitment and felt that I had taken The City Gent as far as I could and that it needed new energy and direction. The circumstances of the nearly season (1987/88) were demoralising and hadn’t exactly boosted my enthusiasm to continue. I was also fed up of the petty politics at Valley Parade which had impacted on enjoyment of the football. However, by that stage it was also becoming apparent that the publication was at a watershed.

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During the first couple of seasons The City Gent had been produced through a combination of ‘typewriter and letraset’. In around 1986 I had invested in a Canon Typostar which was an electric typewriter that printed on thermal paper. The disadvantage was that if the paper output was left in the sun for too long the content on the page would disappear. On the other hand, the technological advance was that the machine had a memory that allowed you to correct anything that had been mistyped on the preceding couple of lines. The savings in Tippex were immediate but it remained a laborious task to type up articles and letters for publication. The following year I invested in an Amstrad home computer and whilst this was primitive by today’s standards it nevertheless represented another leap in technology and getting things done. It also opened the door to new opportunities.

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Around that time I recall having had conversations with someone who had suggested that a Bradford listings publication could be spun out of The City Gent. In 1986 and 1987 there had already been diversification to publish a range of publications such as the six issue comic series Bernard of the Bantams; an away travel guide; a handbook to promote the relaunch of Bradford Park Avenue; a blank tribute to L666ds United; and even a one-off tongue in cheek fanzine, ‘Und Nun Voll Dampf’ based around the East German side, Lokomotove Leipzig. The concept of a listings magazine was a step too far but I can’t deny that it would have been an interesting project. (NB Even now I think there would be mileage in The City Gent linking with the likes of the Bradford Review to embrace its design and distribution.)

Technology had become a decisive factor in the production of supporter publications by the end of the 1980s. When I retired as editor there was already a growing divergence between a number of titles becoming commercialised and those continuing on a more traditional, amateur basis. By then the fanzine boom was probably past its peak and it seemed that many had become identikit / formulaic with little originality or distinctiveness.

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Looking back, I am proud of what was achieved and the way in which The City Gent helped champion interest in the history of Bradford City (which also led to my own book writing). I believe that we played a big part in bringing supporters together and encouraging a sense of pride. However, what gave me the greatest pleasure was to contribute towards the revival spirit at Valley Parade after the fire. I make no excuses that we were deliberate in fostering and channelling a spirit of positive thinking about how the club could be rebuilt after 1985, including a successful campaign to return to Valley Parade.

The critical success factor of The City Gent was that it did not become overly dependent upon a small number of contributors and this allowed standards and variety of content to be maintained. Likewise, its survival has been due to a succession of people willing to assume responsibility for its production. However, The City Gent benefited enormously from the fact that it never had any serious competition and as a consequence, there was never a fragmentation of effort in Bradford among rival titles. The advantage undoubtedly accrued from the rapid growth of The City Gent in its early existence that gave it a monopoly position at Valley Parade (at least in printed format) it has never lost.

It seems a long time since The City Gent first went on sale at Valley Parade and much has changed since then. However, the emotional commitment of people to their favourite football club remains undiminished. To re-read the pages of The City Gent from those early years is a reminder that the basic experience of supporting a club is much the same and that people do not change, whether directors, supporters or players. The City Gent provides a valuable historical record of life at Valley Parade and yet for all the change so much remains the same in BD8.

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