Width of a Post’s retrospective look back on last year’s astonishing League Cup run continues, as one year ago today Bradford City went to Villa Park and experienced one of the greatest nights in its history. Jason McKeown re-lives his evening.
Two topics have dominated almost every conversation I have been part of since the League Cup semi final first leg, two weeks ago. The first – and most obvious – is whether we can we finish off the job at Villa Park. The other is the bloody weather.
Snow is covering up large parts of the country, especially down in the West Midlands. It presents hazardous driving conditions and prompts numerous warnings from TV weathermen to “only travel where absolutely necessary”. I’m spending a good chunk of my lunchtimes at work carefully monitoring the BBC weather 5-day forecasts. Will Villa Park be accessible? What sort of state is the M6 likely to be in on Tuesday 22 January, 2013?
Seven days before the big match we are halfway down the M6 – at Crewe – watching a 4-1 JPT defeat, with no one’s mind fully on the job. We are due to return to the same M6 junction on Saturday for a league meeting with Port Vale, but the game is called off on the Friday due to the weather. Good news for the players’ freshness for Tuesday, but more apprehension about getting to see it. The weather, the bloody weather. It could ruin everything.
The match itself won’t be in any doubt of course. Villa Park is a Premier League ground with undersoil, snow-destroying heating. And the fact that the game is live on Sky means the pressure of TV scheduling will be too great to worry about whether us ordinary supporters can actually make it. Keep watching the weather forecast, keep hoping. “Only travel where absolutely necessary.” A once-in-a-lifetime, major cup semi final, 100+ miles away obviously meets that requirement.
Distraction comes from planning. I’m driving to Villa Park – I drive to most away games – and with me will be my trusted friend and long-time City watching-partner, Steve. Then Luke, who sits next to me at work, asks if he can have a lift too. And then Kev – husband of our fellow work colleague Becky – is added to make it four. In the pub before the first leg against Villa, I’m introduced to a young lad named Sam. He will later find out that his Villa Park travel plans have fallen through, so gets in touch with me for help. Five of us in a car, this could be fun.
The planning is focused upon getting down there as quickly as possible, thereby allowing us a cushion to cope with any snow-caused travel delays. Some of my friends are setting off to Birmingham first thing, others are departing at 4pm. Me and Luke are on a half day at work so we agree to set off straightaway at 12.30pm. A military-precise schedule is devised for picking up Steve, Kev and Sam. We need to be firmly on our way by 1300 hours.
The distraction of snow and car pick ups is more welcome than I realise. It stops me thinking solely about the match itself. But as I wake up on the morning of the second leg semi final, fear and apprehension strikes heavily. Tonight, our emotions are laid on the line. It is all or nothing. A night of hedonism we can scarcely dream of, should City triumph, or a night of total and utter despair. There’s nothing in-between. I feel excited and concerned at different moments – but most of all I’m just utterly, utterly nervous.
The morning at work goes by slowly – painfully slowly – but finally it is 12.30pm. Close the lap top, quick change of clothes, get in the car with Luke. Get Sam, then Kev, then Steve. It all works perfectly and we are on our way to Villa Park. From Skipton through the traffic bottle-neck town of Colne and onto the M65, finally reaching the M6 junction. Weather conditions aren’t perfect but they’re more than passable. TalkSport keeps us company as the widely-felt nerves limit any great conversation.
Me and Kev are both due to become fathers for the first time during the summer, and as we whizz down the M6 talking about the realities of having a pregnant partner, I’m left secretly hoping that our children will grow up as friends, willing to one day be regaled by the tale of how the two dads once went to Villa Park together for a League Cup semi final.
By the time we reach Birmingham the late afternoon winter darkness has crept over and the snow on the ground is a lot deeper than it was in Yorkshire. We spot Villa Park’s floodlights and begin looking for somewhere to park. TalkSport’s Adrian Durham comes on air and does his best to quell our excitement with some rather unexpected views on our prospects of tonight’s game. For some reason deeply concerned about that widely unloved competition, the Europa League, he expresses hope that we lose tonight in case we accidently qualify to play in it. “For the good of English football, Bradford City must lose tonight.”
No matter, we are parked up and struggling to walk through the snow. A plan was in place to catch a train into Birmingham city centre to meet other friends for a beer, but it takes an age to find the nearby train station. When finally we do and are stood at the platform waiting for a train, my mobile rings. Change of plan, they’re coming to us. “Meet you in the Witton Arms”. We head out of the station; walk past Villa Park and find the said pub – where it seems most City fans are congregating.
It is £2 to enter the Witton Arms, but there’s an unexpected bonus beyond the beer being reasonably cheap: you get to leave your fear at the gate outside. As we head around the corner of the building towards its main entrance, we are greeted by the sight of hundreds of City fans stood in the beer garden, loudly chanting about the team. Inside the pub it is a similar story – you can barely get through the door – and after we buy our pints, the five of us gather back outside to enjoy the mood. The rest of our friends are soon here to meet us, and the buzz is huge.
You leave your fear at the gate and revel in the moment. The beer garden is bulging with City fans and the chanting is non-stop. Rattle through the classics; stay warm through singing at the top of your voice. This is fantastic.
I feel electric. Forget the match, being here and part of these scenes ensures we will at least have some fond memories to take from tonight. The weather seems to be getting worse, but we’re here and we are parked up. Nothing is going to stop us from witnessing history.
Soon enough we decide to make the short, two-minute walk to the ground. At the gate where we paid £2, our fear is handed back to us like a coat stored in a nightclub cloakroom. This is it. This is it. Through the turnstiles, through the concourse and out into the away section. There’s half an hour to kick off and the ground feels very empty. The players warm up in front of us. The calm before the storm.
As is the way with all football stadiums, the home stands remain empty-looking until just before the match begins, but then suddenly become packed out. A fantastic sight. I’ve been here once before, back in the Premiership years, but wasn’t that impressed at the time. Tonight, Villa Park is imposing and feels rich with history. What a wonderful stadium, what a wonderful venue at which to complete the job.
The flags – where did they come from? Just before kick off, the 34,000 Villa fans present start waving claret flags and making an almighty racket. Gulp. The task at hand grows that bit larger in size. There are 6,500 of us City fans here, singing our hearts out too, but we are very much the little guys. They are the big bad wolves, now huffing and puffing at the door. There are three divisions between us, and all they need to do is beat us by three goals to smash our dream.
The first half is horrible. I can barely look. Our players freeze, their players roar forwards and take the game to us. We are pinned back, barely able to touch the ball. The home fans are loud, so very loud. All of the worry and effort to be here tonight, and now I just want these 90 minutes to be over.
After we appeared to have weathered the early storm, Zavon Hines doesn’t get tight enough to the full back Matt Lawton and Christian Benteke menacingly volleys the resultant cross into the net. Feel the noise. The home fans are loud, so very loud. A few seconds later they score again, but it is disallowed for offside. Breathe. Soon after Benteke wastes a glorious chance to make it 2-0 and level the tie. Stephen Ireland is pulling the strings. I can’t look. This is torture. Our dream is being torn to shreds right in front of our eyes. The home fans are loud, so very loud.
Half time brings a huge relief. I look at my phone and amongst the numerous texts there is a delightfully sarcastic one from my boss, watching on TV at home. “Sky have sent home the cameraman covering the end you’re attacking,” he says. “There is nothing for them to film.”
The second half begins better for us. We seem more of the ball, and Villa are knocking on the door less frequently. Still, it’s going to be a long 45. If only we could score. Ha! No chance. But then Hines wins a corner that is swung in and cleared for another. Gary Jones – stood a few yards in front of us – prepares to have another go. Prepares to take aim.
I’m sure there were a couple of seconds in-between James Hanson heading the ball into the net and the commencement of my celebrations. I had a clear view of the goal (and I can still picture my angle of it from inside Villa Park, one year on) but my mind simply refused to believe what I saw as Hanson’s header flew past Shay Given. I stood still and froze – did that really just happen?
We all completely lost the plot celebrating – one of my friends loses his glasses, twice. I’m hugging people next to me, in front of me, behind me. Jumping up and down for what seemed like half an hour. When I came to, everyone is still hugging each other and one of my friends even has to have a sit down, he is so shocked and overwhelmed. This just happened. This really did just happen.
And now, the Villa fans are so quiet, so very quiet.
The game completely changes. Villa don’t react well to the blow of conceding, they fall apart in front of our eyes. The singing is coming almost entirely from the 6,500 City fans, who are on cloud nine. The team more likely to score next – incredibly – is us. Hanson should really have a second but mis-directs a header. Then substitute Garry Thompson smacks a shot against the bar with his first touch. Villa are on the ropes. It would just take one more jab to finish them off. But no matter, time is running out and we are ready to score a points victory.
Minutes away from stoppage time, another sub, Blair Turgott, nearly throws it all away. He has the ball by Villa’s corner flag and just needs to keep it there. Inexplicably, he crosses it into a penalty area that is occupied by just one City player. Given easily catches the ball, boots it down the field and Andreas Wiemann runs around Matt Duke to score.
The game is back in the balance. One more Villa goal and they force extra time. Four minutes of stoppage time still to play. The Villa fans are loud, so very loud. They force a corner. I can’t watch. I have to watch. The corner is cleared. Villa win back to the ball. I can’t watch. I have to watch.
The fourth minute of stoppage time is over, and we are just about there. The realisation of what we are about to achieve begins to sink in, and I have tears rolling down my face. All my football-supporting life I have dreamed of going to a major cup final. I never thought it would ever actually happen, but here we are. The final whistle blows, and somewhere on the Sky TV gantry Martin Tyler immortalises the moment with the words “Bradford City go to Wembley, Bradford City go to Wembley”.
The League Two side has defeated the Premiership club. A bad thing for English football, apparently – but an incredible thing for us.
We’re cheering just as wildly as when Hanson scored 40 minutes earlier. The players are going potty in front of us, looking as disbelieving as ourselves. This sort of thing never happens. Never. We are going to Wembley stadium for a major cup final. The City fans are loud, so very loud.
I don’t know how long we celebrate for, but before long Villa Park is empty apart from the 6,500 City fans. The lights are switched off, “We’ll sing in the dark” is the chant. But eventually we head out into the Birmingham night. In all the chaos me and Steve eventually find Luke, Kev and Sam so we can head towards the car. We’re hugging each other, talking like five-year-olds on Christmas day morning. Villa fans come up and wish us good luck for the final. I look at my mobile and I have dozens of congratulatory text messages and several missed calls.
We finally get back to the car and we’re back on the motorway surprisingly quickly. In the rear view mirror I take one last look at the floodlights – and realise I’ve not stopped smiling for the best part of an hour.
This feeling, this pride – you want to bottle it up forever. I was at Molinuex when City were promoted to the Premier League 14 years ago, but this somehow feels even more exhilarating. Hanson’s goal was one that I have celebrated like no other. Football supporting doesn’t get better than nights like these; where the sense of achievement is incalculable and the realisation of what’s still to come leaves you excited that this party is a long way from being over.
The conversation is not going to change for weeks yet.
Read our look back on the League Cup miracle