By Jason McKeown
The walk down Wembley Way tomorrow lunchtime will clearly invoke memories of being here only three months ago. But in order to fully appreciate the occasion, perhaps we need to cast our minds back further.
It is brilliant to be here, again, heading to Wembley. It is both exhilarating and scary to think that we are one game away from promotion. And whatever happens on the pitch, nothing will change the fact that it has been a magnificent season for Bradford City. Something that we have not been able to say for a long time.
If, between 1995 and 2000, the club enjoyed one of the most successful periods of its history, 2000-2012 ranks amongst its worst. The fall from the top tier of English football to the bottom has been well documented – it seemed like a nightmare that was never going to end. For all we knew, 12 years of misery could go on for another 10 or 20. Or, if it was to end, it would only be because of another relegation that the club, in its current existence, could not survive.
So let us, for a few moments, reflect on our recent history and why it should make tomorrow even more special. Our reward for keeping the faith. Ignoring the two spells of administrations and looking only on what happened on the pitch, here are my 12 worst Bradford City moments from the last 12 years. Please feel free add your own at the end.
1) March 2002 – Stockport at the double
If the late 90s had seen City define themselves as a club punching above their weight, the first indication that we were becoming underachievers came during our first season back in the Football League, when a dismal Stockport side found rich pickings from the Bantams.
Jim Jefferies had managed to keep the squad which ended our second season in Premier League – Benito Carbone included – and we began the season well. Struggling Stockport, without a win, rocked up at Valley Parade in September, and won 4-2. It could have been more.
By the time the two sides met again at Edgeley Park, in March, City’s promotion hopes had faded and Carbone long gone. Meanwhile Stockport had won just one more game since their West Yorkshire triumph and were going down. Stockport County 1 Bradford City 0. The division’s worst team had inflicted the double. Humiliation, and precedent for season after season of City slipping up against teams at the bottom of the division.
2) November 2002 – seven straight defeats
In the aftermath of the first administration, Nicky Law’s task was simply to keep City in Division One (now the Championship) whilst expensive players were replaced by bargain bucket signings. It started okay, but then seven straight defeats in autumn equalled a club record. Relegation was looking inevitable.
The nadir of this wretched sequence, for me, was a 3-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest. Graeme Tomlinson was re-signed on non-contract just to fill the bench, the dreadful on-loan Harpal Singh struggled on the wing. Injuries meant that Law’s 14-man squad featured seven players who had come through the youth ranks (including Tomlinson), but only three would go on to play more than four games for City. Forest brushed us aside easily; the future looked bleak.
3) March 2003 – bloody Burnley
2003/04 was City’s centenary season – marked by relegation and going back into administration. Take your pick of painful moments; from the early season 12-game winless run that did for Law, through to relegation being confirmed, under Bryan Robson, by bottom club Wimbledon beating us 3-2 at home.
My personal lowlight was Burnley at home in March. Robson had started to win matches, although losing three players on transfer deadline day was a huge blow. Beat fellow strugglers Burnley at Valley Parade, and we had a great chance of staying up. We battered them for 90 minutes, but it looked as though we had to settle for a 1-1.
Then a scramble in our box, and pathetic defending allowed Ian Moore to score a Clarets’ winner. Utter misery.
4) February 2006 – Oldham put Todd on the brink
Despite impressing during his first season in charge, it didn’t take long into his second for Colin Todd to come under pressure from some fans. A League One promotion push failed to materialise, and a five-match ban for star player Dean Windass saw relegation worries briefly flicker.
A 4-1 thumping to Oldham seemed like the end for Todd. City were awful and Oldham played us off the park. The defending – usually the strength of Todd’s team – was appalling. Luckily City went on to lose just one of their last nine games, but it looked bleak on this afternoon.
5) March 2007 – not fit to wear the shirt
Todd left in February 2007 with City accused of “going nowhere” under his direction. As David Wetherall took caretaker charge we suddenly found direction; unfortunately, it was the wrong type – downwards.
A huge derby game with Huddersfield needed a big performance, as City had fallen into the bottom four. A packed out away end was rewarded by the limpest of displays. 1-0 down after a minute, no shots on target over the 90. Huddersfield were average, but that’s all they needed to be to earn a 2-0 win. The lack of effort and fight really, really hurt.
6) April 2007 – three relegations in seven seasons
City went down to League Two with a limp defeat at Chesterfield a month later. The afternoon summing up everything that had gone wrong, as Steven Schumacher’s woeful pass set up the first Chesterfield goal, Donovan Ricketts allowed a weak shot to slip under his body and into the goal and then later Mark Bower scored an own goal to seal a 3-0 defeat. We’re down.
Tears at full time, anger in the stands. I’ll never forget the sight of Schumacher crying his eyes out as fans screamed abuse at him.
7) October 2007 – the first Morecambe experience
Stuart McCall was surely destined to succeed as Bradford City manager. The most popular player in the club’s history took his first managerial job having rarely failed in anything he’d tried. McCall’s inexperience showed during his first season, with a run of five straight defeats in September and October leaving City looking at yet another relegation battle.
If getting thrashed 3-0 by Accrington wasn’t bad enough, the fifth of those defeats – at Morecambe – was the real low point. City had gone 1-0 up, but Garry Thompson inspired the Shrimpers to come roaring back. Their winner coming in the last minute. One of the most painful experiences I’ve ever endured supporting City.
8) April 2009 – “Please don’t sing, I don’t deserve it”
For three quarters of McCall’s second season, automatic promotion looked a strong possibility. But then form collapsed and merely making the top seven looked a tall order. After one especially bad night – losing 4-1 at Bournemouth – McCall vowed to quit if City didn’t make the play offs.
Eight games without a win, it was do or die at Dagenham. City looked okay for an hour, but then characteristically collapsed after the Daggers took the lead. It ended 3-0. At full time McCall came over to those of us in the away end to apologise, and when a chant of “Stuart, Stuart” went up he asked us to stop because “I don’t deserve it”.
9) February 2010 – Taylor’s reign begins in a bad way
It was so sad to see McCall leave as City manager, midway through his third season. There had been another promising start, but when form fell away McCall was once again unable to turn it around quickly enough.
Whatever people might say about McCall’s failings, the players were clearly giving their all for him even in defeat. The two games that followed – a 0-0 with Grimsby under Jacobs and 2-0 defeat to Accrington under new manager Peter Taylor – were that of a side unsettled and demotivated. City were pathetic at Accrington and never in the game. A sold out away end turned on the players in a nasty way.
10) October 2010 – losing the plot
It was a wretched start to the season under Taylor, but just as it seemed as though we were moving in the right direction, a bizarre moment. City had just got a good 0-0 draw at high flying Rotherham, with the back four outstanding. A day later, two young defenders from Manchester United – Reece Brown and Oliver Gill – rocked up on loan. We would later find out that the terms of the deal meant Taylor had to play them both in the next game.
So Tuesday’s impressive back four was ripped apart to make way for two players who struggled right from the start – Luke O’Brien and Zesh Rehman the unlucky ones – and a deflated-looking City went down pathetically 1-0 to Morecambe. Forget the closeness of the scoreline, for me this ranks as the worst City performance I have ever seen. We were pathetic from start to finish. Dreadful management.
11) May 2011 – end the season now
Taylor left and interim boss Peter Jackson just about kept us up; but with the club publically declaring it was looking to leave Valley Parade in the summer due to the high rent, a final, meaningless home game of the season carried the question mark of it being our last at the old ground.
City marked it in the worst possible style, getting absolutely humiliated by a rampant Crewe side who hadn’t even made the play offs. City 1 Crewe 5. Thank goodness this didn’t turn out to be the end for Valley Parade.
12) March 2012 – brawl-gate
A second successive season battling against relegation to non-league, and this time around the doubts were greater. Under Phil Parkinson, City had at least become difficult to beat at home. But a visit from promotion-chasing Crawley looked important, with just seven games to go.
On the field City were bettered by an ugly, cynical and downright nasty side. It was horrendous to watch Crawley’s antics and our struggle to match them physicality. A bad-tempered game spilled over into a brawl between players at full time, but as we headed home we didn’t give it much thought.
Later that evening, a double whammy. On top of losing the game, in the dressing room after three City players and two Crawley were sent off. That Jon McLaughlin, Andrew Davies and Luke Oliver were our three best-performing players at that time added to the gloom. Relegation suddenly seemed a real possibility.
Fortunately, the Crawley game was the last genuine low point of this 12-year period. Now we hope that a win tomorrow can truly confirm that such dark days are behind us and that last summer we brought to an end such a difficult era.
Play off final: Width of a Post build-up