After several years of steep decline, dropping like a stone from the upper echelons of Super League to the bargain basement of League 1 via a couple of desperately unhappy seasons in the Championship and, dare I mention it, more than one stint in administration, Bulls fans have got used to expecting the worst.
Following the latest relegation at the end of 2017, uncertainty surrounded the club yet again, as no one really expected Australian coach Geoff Toovey to stick around, though the ‘will he, won’t he’ speculation still went on anyway, mirroring the situation that clouded the start of his tenure when visa issues meant he was unable to do the job he had been appointed to until halfway through the season, leaving the inexperienced but undoubtedly determined Leigh Beattie to deputise.
Eventually the Toovey saga was brought to a close, with the confirmation he would not be returning, so who would be taking up the reins this time? Who could not only do the job, but also be brave enough to want to do it, given the recent rocky past?
Step forward, to my astonishment and delight, John Kear.
Here was a man with a track record of success in the British game, not just in terms of winning trophies with Super League clubs, which he had done with both Sheffield Eagles and Hull FC, but more importantly given the Bulls’ predicament, getting the very best out of limited resources along and the ability to restore a bit of pride to a battered brand. And brands don’t come much more battered these days than Bradford Bulls.
In my view, he was always the right man for the Bulls job, since the forced departure of the heroic Mick Potter, but it’s probably for the best it’s taken until now for him to get it.
He gets to start with a clean slate, rather than having to deal with all the baggage that has hampered his luckless predecessors in the Odsal hot seat.
No pre-season period in administration. No points deductions to contend with. No off-field dramas threatening the club’s existence – or at least none we know about at time of writing. Bulls fans have learned not to take these things for granted!
I’m not a fan of pre-season games, but the magic dust sprinkled by John Kear’s arrival saw me turn out in all weathers to watch four of them this year, whereas last season it was often a struggle to drag myself out of the house to watch an actual league match. The times they are definitely a’changing.
Wins over Halifax and Sheffield, a loss to Toronto and a boxing match against Keighley (four red cards, two apiece, in a ‘friendly’!!) whet the appetitite for the ‘big one’, the opening League 1 game away at York City Knights.
The Knights are a proactive and ambitious club and wasted no opportunity to pump up the game to ensure it would be watched by a larger than average crowd. They had pulled in a club record attendance the previous season against Toronto Wolfpack, with no away support, so the prospect of a sizeable influx of Bulls fans saw them confident of eclipsing that record quite comfortably.
York are no mugs on the field either. They beat Toronto in that record-breaking game and only just missed out on promotion to the Championship themselves, so for all the pre-season predictions that the Bulls would stroll through League 1 (predictions based more on the club’s name and its past glories more than any incisive analysis of the respective strengths of their opponents in this league, in my view) we were not heading for an unchallenged early coronation.
And so it (almost) came to pass!
It took a last minute penalty goal from halfway by Joe Keyes to see the Bulls run out 22-20 winners in a contest that had just about everything you could want from an afternoon of Rugby League. Great tries, heroic defence, a lead that changed hands several times and a result that really did hang in the balance to the final moments. Not to forget the vocal set of passionate fans from both sides that turned Bootham Crescent into the scene of what felt like an early-season cup final and set a new club record attendance too for York City Knights, which the club richly deserved.
When the final hooter sounded, the noise from the Bulls contingent behind the sticks, which included me for good measure, went up to fever pitch.
If this is how good League 1 is going to be every week, then watching the Bulls rebuild from the bottom up could be more entertaining than perhaps anyone expected.
And as for the man himself, John Kear, the sight of him leaping out of the dugout and dancing with joy across the pitch to celebrate with his victorious team on a thrilling opening day victory against serious promotion rivals will have further cemented the affection which Bulls fans already hold him in after just a few weeks in charge of the club.
On this evidence, he feels it, just like we do, and after all the trials and tribulations the club and its fans have been through these past few years, that really means something.
Watch the whole game on BullsTV