By Alex Scott
I’m not sure what I can really add here. I’m not really sure what I’m feeling, let alone thinking. Every time I think about it, or watch any highlights, I become all giddy and have to go for a lie down. It’s been two days, I’m not really sure when this is going to wear off. I’m not really sure about anything anymore.
Football has never been more inequitable. Neither has life here. Football has never been more inequitable, and that just happened. I’m not really sure how we are supposed to attempt to rationalise something so inherently unfathomable. The stratification of our football (and our society) has made the highest echelons as attractive as any that have ever existed, whilst those below are ignored and utilised to further the ambitions of the few. Tuesday night wasn’t supposed to happen. It was a vehicle for a raising of the national morale for fifteen minutes, before the ruthless machinelike sanity would prevail with a ruthless machinelike Christian Benteke hat-trick.
And that’s the way it looked at half time. The narrative played out as perfectly as any of us could have hoped. We had our glory in the first leg; we battled, put on a good showing in the second, and receded back into the collective unconscious of the fourth tier. It was a miraculous story, one that would always live with us. Then James Hanson buried a header and life stopped making sense.
This isn’t normal.
It was fitting for the national storyline, and for those of us more unfortunately versed in the ways of Bradford City that it was James Hanson who stole the spotlight. Apparently, he used to work at a Co-op or something? I’ve heard a few rumblings about it this week.
Hanson, the reluctant hero of our story, the man who almost wasn’t, the man who almost is, the man who could never lead us to glory. A glory which we hitherto defined as League One. James Hanson, the man fans were clamouring to replace as recently as last week, and as often as every week before that for three years. It had to be him.
I’m sure, like me, you’ve all read the phrases ‘£7,500′ and ‘Co-op’ more often than your own name in the past few days. It’s a tad condescending, a touch reductive to endlessly belittle a talented professional footballer to his abnormal beginnings, but we are culprits as much as the national media. He noted it in the BBC post-match interview, Matt Duke rhapsodised about it in The Guardian, we sing about it whenever we can. It’s almost a badge of honour for our struggling working-class city that one of our own has achieved everything we all dreamt of children. Of course, the local boy done good is also used as a vehicle to vent our social insecurities, far more often than he is held up as a blue – (black and green) – collared hero.
We’ve seen him miss that header countless times. We saw him miss it at Morecambe on New Year’s Day. We even saw him miss it later on at Villa Park. But in the moment of need, it had to be him. It had to be him, and for all his flaws, his name will go down in City folklore with the rest of his comrades. The Class of 2013, whilst certainly not the most talented vintage witnessed at Valley Parade, they are arguably the greatest. And the fact they will get their moment in the sun, the opportunity to live out their (and our) dreams next month leaves me delirious. I’m beyond delighted for James Hanson.
There are far more qualified writers within our ranks here, and elsewhere, who can offer greater insight into the historical context of Phil Parkinson and The Class of 2013, and I’m sure they will. But if his legacy, which began by keeping Bradford City AFC in existence during his first year, ends nine months later with a historic trip to Wembley for a major cup final, Phil Parkinson surely must go down as the one of the greatest in our history. And what’s more, he might be the most talented.
Regardless of what happens in the league (an utter irrelevance at this point); we’ll never forget him, his image will be plastered on our fictional Mount Rushmore, and will adorn our newest lounge.
He has also managed to usurp the hitherto unchallenged title of Bradford’s Greatest Magician. Except it isn’t an illusion. There is no smoke. No mirrors. The trap door never opened, and the prestige is all that is left.
To do what he’s done with what he’s had, the gameplans he’s implemented and executed, the strength (mentally and physically) he’s instilled in his charges, the miraculous recruiting job he’s overseen. It’s spectacular. It’s preposterous. It’s a Football Manager CV. This doesn’t happen. This isn’t normal.
For Phil Parkinson however, nights like that may soon become some version of normal. He stands alone in the squad whose career might not ultimately defined by February 24, 2013. It isn’t a secret his contract is up, and he could just about write his own ticket at this point. His career, which a defeat at Northampton nine months ago might have destroyed, has been rehabilitated to a stratosphere it only ever hinted at before.
The away support’s deafening hush followed the first sparse rendition of ‘Que Sera Sera…’ which rang around the away end shortly after James Hanson’s equaliser. We’re nothing if we’re not pragmatists. You can take the boys out of Bradford, but we’ll always think things are about to implode.
Nights like Tuesday night, whilst becoming routine for us over recent months, will never be the norm. For anyone. Even if City magically materialised in the top half of the Premier League tomorrow, we wouldn’t ever see times like these. Feel what we have felt. The fact these things are so rare, almost unprecedented, is what made them what they were. The sheer absurdity of them perplexes the mind, and the bemused ecstasy which characterised the post-match celebrations betrayed as much.
Over a long league season, the emotion dissipates, and the last Premier League season aside, that channel of emotion seldom comes down to one distinct moment in time. They are so rare. You might go a whole career and never witness one. And we’ve had a handful of those moments on this run. We are unprecedented. Case studies in the world of fan, and club psychology. Nobody believes in us; we aren’t close enough to the opposition for any of us to even theorise victory, let alone believe in it. It isn’t normal, and it never will be.
The distinction of normal is no more apparent than Wembley week. Sunday sees a trip to a major final at The Home of Football. Three later sees a Division Four match-up against Dagenham & Redbridge. The two states could not be more polarised, yet they are the same. We are Schrödinger’s football club. This isn’t, and could never be described as normal.
Of everything this team and this manager have given me (and it’s a lot), losing my pragmatism is the most rewarding. As a character, I’ve always been pensive, reserved. I attempted to analyse everything, mostly to a fault. I have a degree in economics; my rationality and consideration are the characteristics which have afforded me the blessed life I live. And (again, mostly to a fault), my personality inevitably falls back towards that. In everything, football especially. Safety in numbers. Moneyball. Et cetera, et cetera.
This team has changed me. My normal has changed. The emotion this team has elicited from me has hitherto only been tapped by ‘real’ life. This is a new feeling. This is a new normal for me. I have an emotional attachment to this team that I haven’t had before. I’d sign everyone up again. I’m aware of, and consciously ignorant to, the practicalities. I want to get carried away. I’ve never felt able to get carried away in my life as a football fan with Bradford or England.
But I see the wonderful, exaggerated, bemused expressions on the face of Carl McHugh, the beam of Nathan Doyle, the tears of Gary Jones, I don’t want anyone else. I’ve always loved the club, primarily as a curse of birth. But I don’t know if I’ve ever loved a team, a collection of players that have meant as much to me. And I know I’m getting carried away. I’ll look back on this in six months and cringe, but that’s sort of the point. The unrelenting, incessant nature of football lends itself to peaks and troughs, booms and busts. Aiming to minimise both, living the median is the logical way to approach football. Nothing is as good as it seems, and nothing is as bad.
That’s the way I have always experienced football. Rationality. Consideration. I’ve had safety in the knowledge there’s a “smart” way to be a football fan. As I stumbled down rows of seats on Tuesday after that header, rationality had never been further from my mind. Being a Bradford City fan has been a particularly joyless endeavour for the last decade, the process of letting oneself get swept up in the ebbs and flows would have been bordering on the masochistic. One…, I, had to numb myself with a layer of thought, of reason, a cocoon from emotion. Phil Parkinson hasn’t just made it OK to feel again, he’s allowed me, us, to love again. And for all the wonderful, magical feats he has conjured within our confines, that will be his legacy in my mind.
We are Cinderella. In a month’s time, for one fleeting moment, we will all be stood within The Home of Football, delirious, watching our club, our city, compete in a major final. It’s not a big fairy tale. It’s not an illusion. It’s real. Who’s got it better than us? Nobody.
Things will never go back to the way they were. Our old normality has been shattered. What our new normal will consist of, I don’t know. Maybe this will prove a springboard, a catalyst to growth. Maybe it won’t. It doesn’t really matter at this point. Whichever way it falls, this is the dawning of a new era. The ‘Post-Premiership Blues’ are over. A new moniker, a new home, a new normal awaits.
Regardless of whatever lies on the other side, whatever our destiny holds…This is the best trip I’ve ever been on. And I don’t want to go home.