By David Pendleton
I sat in the Orwell pub at Wigan looking out over the Leeds & Liverpool canal. In my mind’s eye I followed the silvery waters as they meander over the Pennines, forming an umbilical link between the great industrial towns and cities of the north. Liverpool aside, the canal seems to having a liking for towns whose football clubs encounters with the Premier League have been either brief, financially catastrophic or fraught with relegation fears: Wigan, Blackburn, Burnley, Bradford and Leeds.
To be truthful I was mentally composing a piece that would contrast the recent histories of Bradford City and Wigan Athletic set against a backdrop of a comprehensive defeat. The compensation of which would be the huge visiting support and the possibility that it signaled a change in attitudes at Valley Parade. I hardly dared dream of anything other than a defeat of acceptable margins, but I hoped that the return of the club’s self-belief, physically represented by the away end packed with five thousand noisy supporters, heralded a brighter future.
Fast-forward six weeks and in December 2012 Bradford City fans were relearning long forgotten skills: securing a match ticket as Valley Parade rapidly sold out. Not since the heady days of Wetherall, Beagrie and McCall (mark two) have supporters had sleepless nights worrying about getting into a match. Even more surprising is that the clamour for tickets is for the League Cup, a competition that until recently, in fact very recently, ranked below the JPT in City supporters’ lists of preference.
With the national media crawling all over Valley Parade it is easy to forget that at two-nil down against Burton Albion (or indeed one-nil down at Watford) the fans present didn’t appear too concerned. The Kop chanted the now ubiquitous ‘it’s only a cup’ ditty as City teetered on the brink. Even when it came to the penalty shoot out, and as Ricky Ravenhill limped to take the deciding spot kick, thoughts were more concerned with retaining our remarkable shoot out record than making the next round. Then in a mad whirl of a few weeks there was Wigan, Arsenal and Bradford City in the League Cup semi-final. Utter madness. It still takes some believing.
Is it possible to gain some perspective on the club’s achievement? As the years pass that will be made somewhat easier, for example if the semi-final appearance leads to a sustained push up the Football League then the cup run will be seen as a turning point; a full stop to the decade of decline that began with relegation from the Premier League in 2001.
However, it is worth reiterating that this is the club’s first cup semi-final since 1911 – fully 102 years. More remarkable is the contrast between Bradford City 1911 and Bradford City 2013. In 1911 City, along with our opponents Aston Villa, were one of the top five clubs in the country; in 2013 almost the entire length of the Football League separates the two sides. Although City are quite clearly no ordinary League Two side (in terms of support level, infrastructure and expectation) the fact remains that we ply our trade in the fourth tier of English football. To get to a semi-final is nothing short of stunning, especially when one considers the opponents we have disposed of en route. This has been no easy road and yet here we are standing within a few hours of Wembley and the League Cup Final.
To put this in its historical perspective, it is probably one of THE most remarkable feats in the club’s history when one takes into account our current league status. The club winning the FA Cup within eight years of its formation was probably our greatest feat, but again one has to consider the fact that in 1911 Bradford was one of the richest cities in the world and that wealth had been used to build a team that of remarkable talents. By contrast in 2013 Bradford is one of the poorest cities in Britain and the team of 2012/13 cost a mere £7,500 to assemble. We are living history and, for however long it lasts, we should embrace it and celebrate it.
Legacy was the buzzword of 2012. Quite what the legacy will be, both financial and playing wise, is difficult to comprehend at the moment. But, for the supporters (especially for those under the age of 25) the cup run is a defining moment. For the two lads of school age stood in front of me at Wigan it was undoubtedly their first really big night supporting Bradford City. Another generation has been hooked. They saw at first hand the potential of the club. If Wigan was the boot, Arsenal was the laces. What an immense boost the cup run has had on the morale of Bradford City. I thought that merely to go to Wigan, and then play Arsenal, was enough. We would stand packed together to reaffirm that, despite the decade from hell, Bradford City was still standing. The proud, colourful and vibrant club many still remember from our heady days in the Premier League.
Well, we not only packed the terraces at Wigan and Valley Parade, we didn’t only create an electric atmosphere, we won the matches against all the odds. Whatever happens against Villa, we have at last, at long long last, written a new chapter in the club’s history. It might be the nine in a row world record penalty shoot out victories; it might be getting to the cup semi-finals; it might be a spring board to promotion; it might even be Bradford City as the most unlikely cup finalists of all time.
We dare to dream – and that my friend is priceless. Welcome to your future.