By Michael Hanson
When my son James walks out at Wembley on Sunday, I know that there will be a tear in my eye. Myself, my wife and rest of the family will be there watching; feeling hugely proud of what he has achieved. Although I must admit that – as a father – the nerves I feel on Sunday will be no different to the ones I first experienced when he was a seven-year-old, playing left wing for Bolton Woods.
James’ journey to reach this moment hasn’t always been smooth. Ever since he was a kid, I used to say to my wife that he could make it as a professional. She is more down to earth, and told me to dream on.
It’s been well documented that he was released at 14-years-old by Huddersfield Town, but what no one knows is that he had a six-week trial with Bradford City straight after. At both Huddersfield and during his trial at City, James was asked to play left back. It’s not his game at all, but you trusted the coaches because they supposedly knew what they were talking about.
He was at Huddersfield Town for six years, and we would drive up and down the country every Sunday watching him play. But James wasn’t enjoying playing in the wrong position, and I think it was a relief to both of us when he was released. His trial at Apperley Bridge for City came when Joe Brown was playing up front for the youth team. Once again, James was asked to play left back. They eventually brought him into the office and told him they were letting him go because he was too small and not vocal enough.
Then he went to Bingley Juniors, which I thought would be good for him as all his mates played for them too. I used to still follow him on a Sunday, washing his boots for him when we got home. It was a bad team at Bingley; they would lose 8-2 every week. But the thing for James was that he was the one scoring those two goals. So I was happy that he was scoring.
Then he went to Eccleshill and it snowballed from there, aided by a growth spurt. He went through their academy, and then on to Guiseley. Mark Ellis picked him up and put him forward to Stuart McCall for a trial at Bradford City.
Myself, my wife and a few other family members went to his first trial game, against Burnley at Valley Parade. There were only about 1,500 people present, but that was the biggest crowd James had ever played in front of. I was just hoping he could provide a good account of himself. I didn’t know what to expect, but he performed well amongst a team of professionals, and could have even scored a goal.
James didn’t hear anything after, so we didn’t know whether he would be taken on. Then he played in the Bradford Park Avenue friendly and scored with a header, before featuring in the next friendly at York City. We still didn’t have any inkling. I prepared myself for the worst and thought well he can still return to being a semi-pro whilst working part-time.
At least he’d given it a shot.
Eventually he was offered a contract by City. It has been well publicised that James took a pay cut to become a professional. I said to him not to worry about the money. Because in 10-15 years’ time, you don’t want to be working in a factory and looking back with regret at turning the opportunity down.
One of the first things that stood out about watching James play professional football for Bradford City was seeing the name on the back of his shirt. He’d never had that before. It sounds silly, but seeing his name on the back of his shirt was brilliant. James made his debut at Notts County, when City were already 5-0 down. We couldn’t get to the game because I was working in the morning, so we were listening on the radio in our kitchen. I remember thinking to myself “what a bad time to make your debut!”
For the first few games Stuart played James on the left. City’s results weren’t great, and I remember thinking “what has James let himself in for?” But his first season was absolutely brilliant in the end. It culminated in us all attending the end of season dinner where James won the Player of the Season award. It was a fantastic moment, and we were all so proud.
Stuart was brilliant for James. Even now, Stuart comes out in interviews calling him ‘Big James’. I know the fans didn’t like Peter Taylor and results weren’t great, but I thought he was fantastic with James and James loved him. Peter protected James and looked after him. Peter Jackson wasn’t there long enough, although he did upset me and the wife when he decided to publicise the fact he had invited us in for a chat about James. The chat was great, and he spoke about how he thought James had a great future ahead of him. But Peter never told us that he was going to go and tell the local paper he had called us in.
Obviously the fans reading the T&A story thought we’d been called in to talk about James’ drinking, or other such nonsense. We were really surprised and disappointed. Peter subbed James in one of his final games, and my personal opinion was that he did it just to pacify the fans.
The stick that James receives from some supporters really upsets me and the rest of the family. But then I think to myself that it is part and parcel of football. Strikers get criticised more than other players, especially for missed chances. And James has missed a few chances, which he admits himself.
He doesn’t get as much abuse as he used to a couple of years ago. I remember we were playing someone away at a tight little ground. I was texting him after the match, and he was saying that he was sick of this abuse now. That was my lowest point of him being at Bradford City. Since then it doesn’t seem to affect him as much. He shrugs his shoulders and gets on with it.
He’s mentally stronger now.
When it comes down to it, every manager James has played under has always picked him for the team. And that’s going back to his early days as well, not just at Bradford City. He has never played a reserve team game in his entire career. Whenever he has had niggling injuries he has always been rushed back into the team. So he must be doing something right!
I had a chat with Phil Parkinson in pre-season. He said that we were both singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of our views on James. He was telling me how James can do this and that, and is pretty much unique for a targetman. I trust Phil. He comes across as a very sincere fella. He is fantastic with James, and James loves going into the club every day with Phil there. He has no complaints with the gaffer at all.
The cup run has been unbelievable. I went to the Burton game, where James, Nahki Wells and Kyel Reid came on as sub at 2-0 down and changed the match, we won 3-2. I went to the Wigan match – what a brilliant night. I thought we were going to lose. Then it came down to Arsenal and we were inside the stadium with my nephew. We heard the Arsenal team: Gibbs, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Sagna… and I thought crikey! No chance here.
But then James won a few early headers against Mertesacker and I thought, hmm he’s not doing too badly here. Then Mertesacker started standing off him and I began to think that he was not all he was cut out to be. Two years before that I had watched England play Germany in the World Cup with England taken apart by Mertesacker and Podolski. And now here we were, with James giving Mertesacker a really hard game.
The Villa home game was slightly frustrating from a selfish point of view, because James could have had two goals. But a 3-1 result was brilliant. I was waiting for James after the match, and as he was doing the warm down on the pitch he was physically sick – he had put that much into the game.
For the second leg at Villa Park, I thought that it was looking bad and we were hanging on. But then in the second half James popped up with the goal. I think I have replayed it about 20 times. I’m not normally emotional, but I shed a few tears that night.
The next morning I woke up at 5am and went to the shop to buy the papers, and there were pictures of James in all of them. There was one paper which had a picture of James next to a picture of David Cameron! It seemed surreal. You can’t make things up like this.
Wembley – it’s going to be unbelievable! Before the Villa games I had joked with James that, if he got to Wembley, he had better sing the national anthem – now I really mean it! I said to him “I don’t want you to be like Rooney and all those others who stand there. I want you to sing. If you don’t know the words let me know and I will teach you!”
Footballs about the glory, and I’ve always said that to James. I’ve read books about Bradford City’s history and all the legends like Stuart, and I’d just love for James to one day appear in such a book.
On Sunday he and his team mates have the opportunity to make sure that happens. I couldn’t be prouder.
Cup Final: Width of a Post build-up