By Alex Scott
For a while, that really hurt. There were lows during the first hour of that game which I’ve not really felt before as a football fan. The stakes have never been high enough for me. I was too young to appreciate the Premiership years as they were happening, and although it hasn’t been much fun, standing through an abject 2-1 defeat at the worst side in England can only hurt so much after this much practice. I’ve never really been one to care that much about defeat. Possibly as an explanation. Probably as a consequence.
As Matt Duke brought down Jonathan de Guzman, my heart sank. I looked at the clock; thirty five more minutes. Kids around me were crying. I wasn’t far off.
It was the helplessness that got me.
The impenetrable, breathless, awe-inspiring dominance on display in front of our eyes was a wonder to behold. I’ve never seen football played to that level before. I’ve not had the pleasure to see Barcelona or this current Spain team in person. The only ‘World Class’ football I get to see live involves England and thus doesn’t involve anything close to whatever the hell that was on Sunday. Swansea were only limited by their own ambition. It hurt. I was in a state of terrified paralysis for the first half hour. I wasn’t alone.
The ‘Football Manager’-isation of our game has led to the backseat driving, second guessers to take the vocal supremacy. I’ve been one of them. I am one of them. Whilst there is always a distance between us and the players, we could, theoretically, with a few different life choices here and there, have become football managers. We’re qualified to critique team selections and formations; I could do that. I am doing that.
But the helplessness of Sunday was inescapable. There was nothing Phil Parkinson could have done but rearrange his deckchairs. The team froze, unfortunately, but it wasn’t their fault, how could they do anything else? And even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t have made any difference. If Zavon Hines or Andrew Davies had started, nothing would have changed. There are no what ifs, because it wouldn’t have mattered. No chance of a rueful regret. Perhaps a silver lining it itself. The freedom of powerlessness.
The first foul surrendered was the penalty. Swansea’s ethereal floating and gliding reduced City to chasing recently-disappeared shadows.
The helplessness of the team was palpable, no better embodied than poor Nahki Wells who barely touched it; he barely got within 20 yards of the ball before being sacrificed for a reserve goalkeeper. These men, these heroes, our men, our heroes, powerless to stop an inescapable death. It hurt. A lot.
It’s a weird sensation, being nostalgic for something before it even happened. I spent the weeks leading up to the game coaching and convincing myself to not care. It will never happen again in your lifetime. The outcome doesn’t matter. Make sure you enjoy it. Please make sure you enjoy it.
For all the anticipation, that thought put undue pressure on the moment. Like most I’m sure, I didn’t really sleep the night before, or truth be told, the nights before the game. But I wasn’t nervous about the outcome. I was nervous about something else.
There’s a story we tell ourselves, people like us. It’s one of our commandments, perhaps the commandment. That being a football fan isn’t actually about football. It’s about everything that goes with it. Family. Belonging. A collective purpose. However you want to describe it. It’s the most selfish and the most selfless I feel. It’s not about me, it’s about us, but it’s still one of the most personal aspects of my life.
Sunday was the day of our wildest dreams. This was our heaven. ‘Us’ as Bradford City fans, but also ‘us’ as football fans. A fourth tier team at Wembley, in a major final. It was a fairy tale. It still is. This was going to be the best day ever. And I knew that going in, I suppose we all did. I didn’t really care if we lost, because I wasn’t looking forward to the game anyway, I was looking forward to the ‘everything else’ bit. But with that anticipation came the worry over ‘what if?’ What if we got battered? What if it wasn’t what I hoped? Could it ever be what I hoped?
This thought, this anxiety, sort of consumed me for a week or so in the build-up. I had never dreamt of this day, I could never have dreamt of this day. Could anyone? I barely ever dreamt of a Jonny Paint final, so out of reach has even that felt. But it was happening. Sunday meant everything for the players, but it meant everything for us as well.
As I stepped out of Wembley Park Tube Station at midday, my mind cleared. I saw the arch, and beneath it, like the gold under a rainbow: a sea of claret and amber taking pictures, meandering gleefully up Wembley Way. I couldn’t say what I thought; because I’m not sure I thought anything for the next two hours. I’m not sure I was capable of thought. It was… I don’t know what it was. I want to say it was like Disneyland for a kid old enough to appreciate it, but I don’t know, I think it might have been better than that. I just beamed for hours. I think I may have skipped with joy at one point, I couldn’t possibly say.
We’ve been able to believe in magic this season. The story on a football level is merely a succession, a ludicrous succession, of missed chances, valiant blocks, and an awful amount of luck. But that isn’t the fun way to explain it. The Romance of the Cup is all we need. The beauty of sport. The wonders of Any Given Sunday.
This trip has been as remarkable as anything I could ever think to draw a parallel to. Maybe that ‘Argo’ story? But even that is more believable. It felt like it reached its zenith fittingly atop Wembley Hill at The Green Man pub, within which about half of Bradford seemed to be packed hours before the game.
One benefit of the situation, our silver lining, was that after the fourth, the game didn’t matter anymore. It wasn’t about the football. Everything else took over.
There was nothing left to be anxious about. We could enjoy ourselves. The freedom of oppression.
That final half hour, being stood in that stadium was a confirmation of everything I’ve ever thought true about being a football fan. Everything I’ve ever wanted to be true. It really isn’t about the football. My team were about to suffer the heaviest defeat in League Cup Final history, and I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I couldn’t have imagined being anywhere else. As the (wonderful) Swansea City fans applauded our pride, I tried to burst into song with everyone else, and nothing came out.
There were (prolonged) moments of pain and of desolation, and some of those still ring true as I write this. Trudging into the office on Monday morning was hard. I keep seeing flashing images of Nathan Dyer flying around my mind (unmarked) in fits of PTSD. But then I think about the noise; take in those images in my mind that will live as long I can keep them alive. Yesterday was the strongest affirmation of faith I’ve ever felt. I wanted it to last forever. It felt like it did.
Looking back on this game in the future, once the wounds heal, I will only see a heavily redacted version. The game itself will fade into the ether and that day will live forever as ‘everything else’. The proof of everything else. I’m glad Swansea are getting the accolades they deserve. What a marvellous club they are, in every aspect. I’m sure Sunday February 24, 2013 will go down as their fans’ greatest day, as it should, but I don’t think I’d trade places with them.
For who we are. For how far we’ve come. How long this road has been. For all those who couldn’t be there. This was everything. Whichever angle you want to take on our story, it’s just a remarkable, remarkable achievement. But the story which will live on, which will define this year, which will define our club, which will define our city, is us.
As the flags flew, the chants rang, the ball flowed across the Swansea back line, and I had the opportunity to look around silently, and just take it in, I’d seldom felt as at peace. Time stood still. After an hour of anxious desolation, it all faded away in a sea of smiles and claret and amber. It’s an awfully selfish way to look at the event I know, but I can’t help it. My parochial narcissism has taken over. In front of a national audience, on the biggest of stages, we had a moment, a never ending moment, which was for us and us alone. We made sure we enjoyed it. That moment was more than I ever could have dreamt. Nothing else mattered, nothing else will matter. In that moment, we were infinite.