Tag Archives: 2012/13

Carl McHugh will always be loved at Bradford City

16 Jun

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By Jason McKeown

Carl McHugh’s two years at Valley Parade has seen the young defender become hugely popular amongst Bradford City supporters – and it is due to that affection that most of us will conclude that his free transfer move to Plymouth Argyle is ultimately for the best.

McHugh’s impressive development needs to be continued. But at City – and thanks to the colossal presence of Andrew Davies – his career is in danger of stalling. At 21-years-old and with so much potential, McHugh needs to be playing first team football week in week out. Stepping down a division to an ambitious Argyle outfit will offer him that opportunity.

One step back, but one that is necessary to ultimately move many steps forward.

For McHugh has ably demonstrated his vast potential, and should be destined for a long and successful professional career. On his day he would not look out of place in the Championship. That is something for him to ultimately aspire to over the next few years. At Plymouth he can continue to learn his trade. Make mistakes and improve. Most of all, he can build his confidence further.

He leaves Valley Parade having contributed some wonderful memories. Signed from Reading during that fruitful 2012 summer recruitment drive, the then 19-year-old was seen very much as a squad player who would only feature in the cups. My first viewing of him was at Hartlepool in the JPT, in his less comfortable position of left back. Decent, steady, but nothing spectacular.

Then, on the eve of the Wigan game during the League Cup adventure, Phil Parkinson was robbed of his two centre halves to injury and we all expected a weakened back line to be no match for the Premier League team’s might. Yet McHugh – and Rory McArdle – were sensational on that memorable October night at the DW. For such a young performer, it was some coming of age.

He was then a prominent figure in the games against Arsenal and Aston Villa home and away. That first leg semi final against Villa included that stunning third goal past his boyhood hero Shay Given. How we celebrated that moment. Who could also forget this image?

McHugh started the Wembley final against Swansea, but then his progress slowed with Davies’ return to fitness. Whilst McHugh was such a star performer when defending against Premier League teams who kept the ball on the ground, reading the game superbly, he struggled at times with the physical nature of League Two. Still, it was some first season for the youngster.

2013/14 must have proven more frustrating for McHugh. Starting on the sidelines once more, this time when the chance came to replace a once-again-injured-Davies he was overlooked. Matthew Bates blocked his route to the team, and it was only after James Meredith suffered an injury and there was no left back available that opportunities for him came about. McHugh gave his all at left back, but struggled whenever up against a pacy winger. A positional switching of Bates for McHugh helped him, but soon after Davies was back.

That was always the problem for the left-sided centre back – his direct competition happened to be the best defender at the club. Parkinson tried them both together in the home game against Crewe, Davies moved to right-sided centre back. The three goals conceded underlined how badly it worked. It was either Davies or McHugh. Not and.

Yet there was one last great McHugh moment to enjoy. Port Vale home in February, City had won just one in 21 and were under mounting pressure. McHugh, playing at left back and brave as ever, headed home a last minute winner to save this season. Just like Aston Villa home 13 months prior, what celebrations. He deserved that.

With Davies contracted for another year and seemingly content with life at City, the way forward is blocked for McHugh. A hugely promising career will go backwards if he stays around another 12 months, waiting for Davies’ next injury.

It is a huge shame that McHugh must leave, as he could have been a mainstay at City for many years in other circumstances. But it in his best interests to move on right now; and for that we let him go with sadness but thanks. We will watch his career with interest, always rooting for him.

McHugh has not been the most celebrated figures of the last two seasons, but he was certainly one of the most widely loved.

We Made History one year on: ending 12 years of hurt

17 May

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On this weekend one year ago, Bradford City were promoted to League One after defeating Northampton Town 3-0 at Wembley in the play off final. In the first of two articles looking back, Jason McKeown reflects on this unexpected achievement.

It seemed as though everybody had given up, I know that I had. Promotion from League Two just wasn’t going to happen. Too much ground to make up, too little time remaining. A seventh straight year in the basement division beckoned, it was time to come to terms with this frustrating reality.

My personal belief that we could do it was extinguished on a Tuesday evening at Plymouth, in the middle of March. Bradford City drew 0-0 with the then-basement club. And though the second half performance was good, the failure to turn late pressure into a winning goal seemed symbolic of what was surely to come in the final few weeks. I departed Home Park frustrated and deflated. There was plenty of consolation to take from the League Cup heroics that would ensure 2012/13 would go down as a good season, but in the league, it seemed, it was all over and all that was left was a nagging sense of what might have been.

When, a few days later, City were thrashed 4-1 at play off contenders Exeter, it appeared to be confirmation that my immediate Plymouth reaction had been right. I listened to the St. James Park capitulation at home on the radio, and began to think about next season. Defeat left the Bantams languishing in 11th place, 12 points behind the Grecians all be it with two games in hand. Too much ground to make up, too little time remaining. Year after year of watching failure suggested that a familiar tale was being played out in front of us again. Ah well, at least we had some fantastic memories to take away from this season. At least it wasn’t as bad a campaign as the last two.

The Exeter loss

The Exeter loss

Two months and two days after the Exeter debacle, Bradford City were celebrating promotion at Wembley stadium.

It was an incredible turn around in form. Started, it was said, the day after the Exeter defeat when Phil Parkinson held a summit meeting with his players. Whatever was said at the training ground that Sunday morning, it had a drastic effect. In the nine remaining games, City produced five wins, three draws and a defeat. Enough to secure the final play off place with a game to spare – a place they snatched from Exeter, for whom the 4-1 Bantams victory would be their final win of the season.

Initially it was difficult to tell that anything special was beginning. The next league match was Wycombe at Valley Parade on a Tuesday, with an early Garry Thompson goal enough to settle a contest between two sides seemingly with little to play for. Any hopes of rekindling play off ambitions seemed to quickly extinguish in the next match, at home to Southend, as City found themselves 2-0 down after just 11 minutes. A commendable comeback saw Zavon Hines and James Hanson make it 2-2 with a minute remaining, but when Kyel Reid had a stoppage time penalty appeal turned away you assumed that that really was it.

Easter Monday at Torquay was the true rebirth to the hopes. That City won 3-1 at Plainmoor wasn’t exactly earth-shattering, but the realisation that every other result had gone our way suddenly made promotion seem a realistic hope once more. We were back in this.

Northampton were next at Valley Parade. Nahki Wells ended his personal goal drought with an early tap in, and it proved enough to secure back-to-back victories. Make that three in a row, after Bristol Rovers were swept aside in superb fashion three days later. 3-0 at half time through Wells (twice) and Andrew Davies; Thompson sealed a 4-1 win in the second half and, amazingly, City walked off the field at full time inside the play off places.

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Exciting, thrilling and unexpected times. Chesterfield away followed and the away end was bouncing. With the score 1-1, Ricky Ravenhill drilled home a lot shot from the edge of the box to spark wild celebrations. So good was City’s form and so indifferent those around them, that a top three finish was in grasp. A stoppage time equaliser by Chesterfield all but ruled that out, and the following Tuesday promotion rivals Rotherham punctured the mood with a smash and grab 2-0 Valley Parade victory. Forget automatic promotion; let’s just get over the play off line.

The final regular home game saw Burton Albion rock up. They looked ordinary, with Calvin Zola in the centre lifeless. Hanson scored a scrappy goal before half time, Lee Bell was sent off for the Brewers early in the second. City held on comfortably and, due to results elsewhere, were guaranteed a play off spot with a game to spare (a game that, at Cheltenham, was used to rest players). There were fantastic celebrations at full time. Finally, after five previous years where we only once came close, City were part of the end of season shootout.

Burton were back for the play off semi finals, and in the first leg at Valley Parade looked a different side. They were far from ordinary, with Calvin Zola full of life. He scored two brilliant goals, Jacques Maghoma tore Stephen Darby to pieces. Half time and City went in 3-1 behind and in big trouble. The second half of the first leg was crucial. Burton failed to press home the fact that we were on the ropes and sat back on their lead. Thompson reduced the arrears with a quality strike from distance. We left the ground feeling disappointed but also relieved – Burton had let us off the hook. Whether we could turn it around at their ground was unclear, but there was certainly no way we would play as badly.

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Sunday May 5 was such a memorable day. The sun was shining brightly, the away end sold out, and as we drove up to Burton the pubs were packed out with City fans full of confidence. I really believed we would do it, although as soon as the game kicked off I was filled with terror and nerves about just what was at stake. This means everything.

We started the game slowly, but then grew into it and – 27 minutes in – a mistake put Wells in to give City the lead and level the tie. Then, five minutes into the second half, Hanson struck a thunderbolt from the edge of the box that arrowed into the bottom corner. Pandemonium. Burton made it 2-1 straightaway to level the tie at 4-4, but then in another instant Wells had made it 3-1 and caused another outbreak of jubilant scenes behind the goal that he scored.

What an afternoon Burton was. The impressive way that City came back, the sheer determination to get to the play off final and the brilliance of Wells and Hanson. “We’re proud of you” was sung at full time and the on-pitch celebrations seemed to go on another hour. Me and my group of friends kept the party going all night when we got back to Yorkshire.

We’re off to Wembley, again.

Meeting Peter Beagrie

Meeting Peter Beagrie

Saturday 18 May, 2013 began for me at 4am. I was riding down on a bus with the Skipton Bantams supporters club, which was departing at the ungodly hour of 5am. We were parked up on the edge of London before 9am, already merry from alcohol. A fry-up in a pub, a short underground journey to Wembley, and more beers in the Hilton Hotel next to the ground. I even bumped into City legend and Sky pundit Peter Beagrie. His former team mate and another Bantams legend, Jamie Lawrence, was sat on the row behind me inside the stadium.

Unlike the sheer I-can’t-believe-we-are-here-wow joy of the Swansea cup final, this visit to Wembley was filled with nerves, panic and fear. Game 64, and a whole season rested on this. It didn’t bear think about, losing twice here in one season, yet there was every chance that this was how it was going to end.

The players clearly did not agree. They were so determined, so focused, so ruthless. They blew Northampton away in the first half. Hanson – goal! Everyone around me was hugging everyone. McArdle – goal! This is unbelievable. Wells – goal! 3-0 and only 28 minutes played. We celebrated in stunned disbelief. No one thought this would be easy, but that’s just what it was proving.

Some people say the second half was an anti-climax, but I didn’t agree. The worry that Northampton might score kept me nervous, and then, as time ticked by and you realised that the improbable was now impossible, excitement grew. We have done it! Promotion, at last. Let’s have that final whistle blown, let’s begin the party, let’s ‘ave it!

The moment of Gary Jones and Ravenhill jointly lifting the trophy will stay with me forever. It was the near-perfect day, and to have finally escaped the bottom division meant the world to us supporters. I attended the Centenary Square open top bus ride a few days later to revel in more public celebrations.

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Supporting a football team like Bradford City carries one undisputable guarantee – the bad days will outnumber the good ones. It means that, when something truly special occurs, like a promotion, a cup run or a thrilling late victory, you savour the occasion that bit more because of what it means.

Perhaps as Manchester City fans celebrated clinching the title last weekend, in a much more reserved fashion than when they won it two years earlier, they would reflect that the thrill of success dulls when it occurs more and more often. It was notable that when Man City fans talked of the bad times, they still referred to their brief flirtation with third tier football in 1998/99, rather than anything since their first Premier League title win. It might have been fun to support Man City this season, but it was probably even better in 2011/12, when it was all so new to them.

1998/99 was also the year of Bradford City’s last promotion. In between that day and the start of the 2012/13 season there had been an even greater ratio of bad days to good ones. Only defeating Liverpool to avoid Premier League relegation in 2000 counted as success over that period. The League Cup miracle was the first subsequent occasion of hedonistic times in 12 years, and it was continued with promotion in May.

Of the two Wembley games, you’d have picked the play off final as the one to win. It all worked out perfectly, and for that we are left with a treasure chest of memories from 2012/13 that we will store lovingly until the day we die.

For all we had been through in the 12 years prior, May 18, 2013 truly was one of the greatest days in the club’s history.

A (magic) man for all ages

12 May

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By Jason McKeown

As Phil Parkinson drove into work last Friday, he would have been mentally preparing for one of the most difficult meetings of his managerial career. Telling any footballer you are effectively making them unemployed is never easy, but it’s part of the job and the accepted reality. This one is a bit different. This one is going to really, really hurt the player.

Parkinson would not have known that Friday 9 May 2014 also happened to be the 15th anniversary of Bradford City’s promotion to the Premier League, and the finest hour of the club’s greatest midfielder, Stuart McCall. But the unhappy coincidence would not be lost on others. It was some anniversary upon which to tell the club’s second-greatest modern day midfielder that his contract was not going to be renewed.

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As he rolled up at Valley Parade ahead of the summit meeting with his captain, perhaps Phil Parkinson allowed himself a few moments to reflect back on the circumstances and reasons for originally signing Gary Jones, two years prior. It was the close season, and the manager was tasked with revamping a playing squad that had endured back-to-back 18th-place finishes in the basement division. He was working through a list of targets that included Liverpool right back Stephen Darby, who had spent the previous season on loan at Rochdale.

Parkinson was watching DVDs of Darby’s performances at Spotland, when someone else increasingly caught his eye. A distinctive, bald midfielder, known to everyone in the lower leagues: Gary Jones. He was everywhere on the park, dominating the games that Parkinson was carefully studying. And, in a misguided development that summed up John Coleman’s doomed spell at Rochdale, Gary Jones had fallen out with his manager. He was available on a free transfer.

Parkinson picked up the phone and called his assistant Steve Parkin, a man who happened to know Gary Jones very, very well. “What are your thoughts on Gary Jones?” asked Parkinson. After a pause, Parkin replied, “The best thing I can tell you about Gary Jones is that the only time he is ever happy is at 5pm on Saturday when his team has won.”

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As Gary Jones drove to Valley Parade on Friday to meet with Phil Parkinson, he was evidently hoping that it would be to thrash out another contract to stay for another year. He was happy at City, that much was obvious to everyone. And though realistic about his age, he was nevertheless confident in his ability to continue playing a part in the club’s rise.

The workmanlike, all-action style of Gary Jones, which Phil Parkinson was so impressed by when watching those Rochdale DVDs two years ago, was simply who Gary Jones was. Born on the out-skirts of Liverpool, Jones was a youth trainee at Anfield but never came close to making it, instead finding a route into football through Caernarfon Town of the Welsh league. 18 at the time, he quickly impressed enough to earn a professional deal at Swansea City, who were then lumbering in the basement division.

Still only young, Jones was loaned out for experience at what must have then seemed an inconsequential destination – Rochdale. And so began the love affair that would result in him becoming the club’s record appearance holder. After making the deal permanent, a first spell at Spotland saw him play 138 times in three seasons. Firmly on his way to legendary status.

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Phil Parkinson himself was something of a one-club man, after spending 11 years at Reading in the centre of the Royals midfield. They say that a manager should know his own position best. Now in 2014 and faced with the decision over Jones’ future, he must have called upon his own playing experience to help him make such a difficult call.

It wasn’t that we supporters assumed Gary Jones would stay, but the smart money suggested he would remain a Bantam for another 12 months at least. He wouldn’t start another 46 games, but could still play an important role. Perhaps even becoming a member of the coaching staff.

After all, Gary Jones had ended the 2013/14 strongly. Most of his team mates did. The season had been a struggle at times, and March had seen some of its worst performances, but a promising ending had banished relegation fears and ensured a top half finish. Jones was excellent during the final few games, none more so than at Tranmere in what would prove to be his last game for City. By some distance the man of the match, he had dragged his team over the line to victory in typical influential fashion.

Just another day at the office for Gary Jones. You thought it could last forever, or at the very least that it wasn’t about to end.

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From the very first moment I saw Jones in a claret and amber shirt it was obvious that he possessed star quality. Guiseley, pre-season, and he ran the show. Gary Jones was the leader even though Ricky Ravenhill beside him was wearing the armband. Jones struck the opening goal of a 4-0 romp and ran past me as he celebrated. I had been unsure what to make of his summer arrival, but was immediately won over. A special player, who offered everything we needed.

He made a strong first impression on everyone connected with the club. So many new signings have needed time to ease their way into life at Valley Parade, but straight away Jones looked like he owned the place. Linking up with Nathan Doyle (Ravenhill on the sidelines injured), Jones was full of drive and energy, getting up and down the park. Every City fan you talked to in the opening weeks of the season steered the conversation towards Jones. He was our type of player, and we instantly took him to our hearts.

Gary Jones was never about scoring goals, yet his first for the club stuck in the mind. Morecambe, a Tuesday night in September, City are 2-1 up in the closing stages and trying to further strengthen their promotion push. A free kick on the edge of the box, Jones lifted it over the wall and into the corner. Cue massive celebrations for a massive three points. Jones raced to the front of the Kop, leapt up and punched the air in celebration. That goal meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to us.

Phil Parkinson’s office overlooks the Valley Parade pitch that Jones had dominated for two years. As Gary Jones arrived for the Friday meeting, a rich tapestry of personal memories of this stadium might have been at the forefront of his mind. He was desperate for the opportunity to collect another 12 months’ worth.

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Just six months out of Gary Jones’ 17-year professional career were spent playing above the bottom two divisions. A month after jumping ship from Rochdale to Barnsley, Parkin raided his old club to bolster the midfield by bringing Jones to Oakwell. The pair couldn’t stop the slide, however, as Barnsley were relegated from Division One (now the Championship).

That, from a divisional point of view, was as good as it got for Jones. You wonder why he didn’t play more at a higher level. How could such a reliable lower league footballer not have been considered someone who could do a job in the Championship? There just aren’t that many Gary Jones’ around.

Perhaps the Barnsley move dented his reputation. Now in the third tier, the Tykes were saddled down by debts and would go into administration, resulting in Parkin being sacked to save money. Without his mentor, Jones increasingly struggled for game time. He was loaned back to Rochdale, where Parkin would shortly afterwards return as manager. There were no surprises when the move was made permanent, but it left Gary Jones back in the bottom tier, where he looked destined to spend the rest of his days.

A lifetime in the bottom division. As Jones sat down to hear the news from Phil Parkinson last Friday, he might have reflected on how hard he had worked to get to the position of captaining a club like Bradford City to 11th in League One.

If Phil Parkinson had bad news for him, it was back to square one. Looking for employment, and most likely a return to the basement.

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“His legs have gone” became a familiar and tedious criticism during the early months of 2014. Everyone is an expert, but when such bland and meaningless statements are uttered, you roll your eyes and politely try to change the subject. Football is more complex than this.

Gary Jones’ legs had not gone. Week in week out, the 36-year-old was still a key part of the midfield. If he couldn’t run around the park, as was suggested, Phil Parkinson wouldn’t be picking him every game. It wasn’t as though there weren’t other options. Jones was in the team on merit. He was wrongly blamed by some for wider team failings.

Post-Christmas, City’s style of play suffered from a range of injuries. From Nahki Wells’ head being turned. From opposition being more wise to the gameplan. After being an attack-minded team early doors, City were no longer creating enough opportunities. Blame the centre of midfield if you want, but as the January transfer window opened and players came in and out, no attempt was made to replace Gary Jones.

And why would Phil Parkinson have even considered it? Jones enjoyed some of his more famous games for City during this period, chiefly the Sheffield United and Crewe matches, where his leadership and drive were so important. I remember the Preston home game with everyone around muttering pre-match about how Jones would no doubt undeservedly get the man of the match award again. Yet Jones was outstanding that evening, and when it was announced that he was indeed man of the match, even his growing critics applauded.

Gary Jones’ performances weren’t flawless around that time, but nobody could claim that theirs were either. When the chips were down and character and courage were needed, Jones demonstrated it in spades. When the team was rebuilt in January, Jones remained a key figurehead and looked a better player for the fine tuning taking place around him.

He wasn’t going to let the season go down the toilet, not on his watch.

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The League Cup miracle produced so many heroic stories, but behind the headlines devoted to the exploits of Garry Thompson, Rory McArdle, Carl McHugh and James Hanson, there was one constant supporting act that featured in the stand out moments.

Jones helped to set up every goal that City scored against Premier League opposition. His set pieces were outstanding, as he planted superb balls over to team mates, who will go down in history for turning those crosses into goals. Jones was also a cool customer in the shoot out victories over Wigan and Arsenal.

As City lit up national TV, Jones’ striking appearance was a topic of conversation. “I love your captain” people would say to me, as he looked every inch the working class hero that personified the narrative of a Division Four team’s incredible adventure. Particularly, when in the midst of the Villa Park celebrations, he spotted first leg mascot and nine-year-old cancer survivor, Jake Turton in the away end and planted a kiss on his head. His father, Andy, was a survivor of the Valley Parade fire. The photographers caught the head kiss, and the most iconic moment of the League Cup adventure was assured.

Gary Jones was vital in those games. His lead-by-example, determined style of play had seeped into his team-mates, who matched his never-say-die attitude and tireless work rate. If the old man of the team is going to cover every blade of grass, everyone else had better do the same, too. Gary Jones’ experience was invaluable in getting City to Wembley, in getting past all those illustrious teams.

A lifetime as a lower league player, you wondered if Jones might have been daunted to play against some of the most famous footballers in the land. Yet he took it all in his stride, even finding time to truly put Arsenal in their place by declaring Torquay United had given City a tougher game than the Gunners.

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The day before Gary Jones and his team mates were dancing around Villa Park, Rochdale had sacked John Coleman. The Dale were stuttering in mid-table of League Two, and envious eyes were cast towards Bradford City and the incredible role that Gary Jones was playing. Coleman and his assistant Jimmy Bell were said to have had a bust up with Jones the season before, and they went into 2012/13 believing they no longer needed the veteran.

Yet Gary Jones was Mr. Rochdale. Over 530 appearances during two spells at Spotland that totalled 12 years. In 2010 he became only the second Rochdale captain in their history to lead the club to promotion, with a second place finish in League Two. Gary Jones excelled in League One the year after, netting 18 goals and finishing the club’s top scorer in 2010/11.

This was the first half of a golden period for the ageing Gary Jones. 2009-2014 were five years of amazing personal success – with that uncomfortable Coleman/Bell bump midway through. What a mistake it would prove for Coleman. Gary Jones was not some relic of the past, but the future hero of Valley Parade. How Dale – and Coleman – could have done with him in 2012/13. But he was elsewhere, performing heroics and having the time of his life.

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The pinnacle moment of Gary Jones’ playing career was promotion for Bradford City at Wembley in May 2014. He described it as the happiest moment of his life, beyond the birth of his children. Mr. Rochdale was now Mr. Bradford. He had become the first Bantams captain in 15 years to lead the club to promotion. The first captain, in fact, since Stuart McCall.

We loved him, how we loved him. The Bradford public hero-worshipped Gary Jones. Everywhere we went during 2012/13, his name was sung. In pubs before and after games, on concourses, and on the terraces. “He’s magic, ya know”. And we truly believed that he was.

No one can ever touch Stuart McCall in the eyes of most Bradford City fans, but Gary Jones runs him close. His two seasons at Valley Parade saw unprecedented success and highly commendable progress. The club that he joined two years ago is transformed. We can, this summer, look forwards from a position of great strength, but we would never have got here without Gary Jones.

He has been such a joy to watch. Such an inspiration to everyone connected with the club.

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Like all managers, Phil Parkinson should know his own position best. Gary Jones was his representative on the pitch, playing the game in the same wholehearted manner that Reading fans once loved Phil Parkinson for. Like all managers, Phil Parkinson should know his own position best – and he will also know just what will be going through Gary Jones’ mind as his career winds down.

Could Gary Jones have accepted the role of bit-part player at City next season? Would he have happily sat on the sidelines, playing 20 or so games, largely coming off the bench? If City were struggling for a result and he was not seen as the solution by Phil Parkinson, could Gary Jones have coped with that reality, or would his desperation to be more influential cause him to become a bad influence?

Which is not to suggest that Jones would ever be a disruptive character, but whole-hearted players of his ilk don’t cope too well at being handed half-hearted roles. Even Stuart McCall found it difficult and had clashes with managers such as Craig Brown, as he was phased out. Jim Jefferies was unbelievably stupid to once tell Stuart “your legs have gone”, but Stuart didn’t need to react so poorly to it.

Perhaps Jones deserves better than to spend his final couple of years on the sidelines; there is plenty of time for the coaching stuff, he still has a hell of a lot to offer on the field. If Parkinson doesn’t see Jones as a first team regular next season, maybe it is fairer on the player to offer him a clean break now. There will be a long queue of clubs willing to sign him this summer, clubs who will be able to provide the first team assurances that Parkinson clearly cannot.

Yet still, no one who has shared in the pride of watching Gary Jones play for Bradford City can feel anything but sadness to see him depart like this. The head might rule that it is for the best, but the heart feels the pain that Jones must now be experiencing. The numerous great memories we have of watching Jones reminds you what a huge loss he will be. The outpouring of devastation expressed by so many since Friday illustrates just how much he meant to people. Wherever he ends up, I’m rooting for him.

The heart of the 2012/13 team has just been ripped out. Clearly, Phil Parkinson is going to have to build a new side this summer. But whoever comes in and however they fare, Valley Parade won’t feel the same without the sight of magic man in the number 18 shirt.

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That’s character

8 May

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By Jason McKeown

Not too many players released by Bradford City over the past decade got to leave with their head held high; but as Garry Thompson begins the search for a new club, he deserves to reflect on his two years at Valley Parade with great pride.

It’s not just about those headline-grabbing moments – the Arsenal goal and all that – Thompson played a key role in changing the culture of the club. He in many ways is the embodiment of what Phil Parkinson has attempted to do over the past few years in terms of the players he has brought in. A manager who lists the number one player requirement as being ‘character’ recruited one of the biggest in Thompson.

Consider his career prior to joining the Bantams in the summer of 2012, and there was little to us regular supporters that suggested Thompson would be any different to a number of other players brought in, over the years, who subsequently failed. He was, like many of these others, older than seemed ideal, and had endured a difficult couple of years that were blighted by injury. Scunthorpe United fans weren’t exactly complementary towards him either.

Superficial damaging, which left you fearing it would result in the same old story.

Perhaps, even now, Parkinson doesn’t get enough credit for his 2012 recruitment drive. There is no question that every single player he signed that summer played their part in the 64-game marathon; but behind the fact that many were clearly considered good ‘characters’, the majority brought with them a very specific type of experience that would ultimately stand the club in good stead.

Stephen Darby had been part of a play off semi final on loan at Swindon and even scored in a semi final shootout against Parkinson’s Charlton. James Meredith had been to Wembley twice in a season, promoted with York City in the second of those visits. Gary Jones and Rory McArdle had also played at the national stadium for Rochdale (beaten 3-2 by Stockport in 2008 play off final), and Jones remained at Spotland to lead them to automatic promotion two years later. Nathan Doyle had scored in a play off semi final for Hull as they climbed into the Premier League. Alan Connell had been Swindon’s top scorer in their 2011/12 League Two title victory.

That is a heck of a lot of experience of the big occasions; of players who had first-hand knowledge of just what it took to be successful. And that counted in bucket loads throughout the 64-marathon. The character came to the fore during that late and successful play off charge, and in turning around the Burton semi final tie that City appeared to have blown. Most of the 2012 summer signings had played in big promotion games before and delivered. For City, they would do so again in stunning fashion.

Thompson himself could draw on experience of past achievements. At Morecambe, he played and scored in the play off final victory that took the Shrimpers into the Football League. After first catching the eye of the Bantams, when he almost single-handedly destroyed Stuart McCall’s side in October 2007, Thompson rejected the chance to move to West Yorkshire in favour of playing higher up the league ladder with Scunthorpe. He again played a significant part in a promotion, featuring in the League One play off final victory at Wembley that took the Iron to the Championship. As Parkinson brought him to Valley Parade in 2012, all that was missing from his CV was the challenge of coping with playing for a large, demanding crowd.

Yet it was here, rather than any of his more celebrated Bantams contributions, where Thompson truly proved his mettle. He began life at City very slowly, and for the first few months was unloved by his new supporters. “Parkinson’s summer signings were good, apart from Thompson” was a familiar criticism around that time. He had muttered something about preferring to play as a striker rather than winger, but was hardly going to get such an opportunity ahead of James Hanson and Nahki Wells. His initial games on the right flank suggested a lack of commitment, or interest. Burton away, in late October, a low point, after his lazy clearance cost 10-men City a share of the points. You wondered how much patience Parkinson would afford him.

The turning point was Bristol Rovers in November. A rain-soaked afternoon saw City 2-1 down at half time, and Thompson in particular was woeful. As we dodged the rain drops on the uncovered Memorial Stadium terrace during the interval, we speculated that it might prove the beginning of the end to Thompson’s City career – he must surely be subbed. Instead of getting the hook, Thompson remained on the pitch for the second half, but had clearly had a rollicking from his manager. Thompson looked a different player, full of energy, determination and creativity. He set up one of the three City equalising goals and generally ran his heart out. From that afternoon onwards, Thompson progressed considerably.

To turn around such an unpromising start to the season – ending it with many arguing he was the club’s best player, post-Christmas – deserves a huge amount of credit. Over the years, we have seen so many players start badly and never recover. The Valley Parade crowd is notoriously quick to make up its mind and stubborn in changing it back. Thompson dug in, as the grumbles from the stands rained down on him, demonstrating true character to find his form and win people over.

Especially when, one cold December evening, he earned his place in Bradford City folklore.

Close your eyes and I bet you can still picture it. Jones’ free kick, Will Atkinson’s flick on and there at the backpost was Garry Thompson: a difficult shooting opportunity was taken with aplomb. After the ball hit the back of the net, Valley Parade went crazy. Thompson’s goal against Arsenal will be forever remembered, and firmly provided the player with the lift off to grow in stature and become one of the side’s key men.

It was the second of nine goals that Thompson netted in 2012/13. Five of the others came after the first trip to Wembley, amongst that successful late bid for promotion. They were important goal contributions too – the second clinching goal at York a week after the Swansea final; an early headed winner against Wycombe that began the late season rally of victories; and another header at Torquay, on Easter Monday, where City won and every other result went their way.

Thompson was truly flying during this period. He didn’t offer the direct pace of Kyel Reid on the opposite flank, but his skill on the ball and link up play with those around him led to numerous goalscoring opportunities. He and Stephen Darby combined with increasing effectiveness, whilst Hanson benefited from Thompson’s physical presence that meant opposition defenders couldn’t solely focus on stopping the supply to the former Guiseley man.

Most vital of all was Thompson’s play off semi final strike against Burton Albion, which turned around a tie that had fallen out of City’s grasp. 3-1 down at home in the first leg, Thompson cut inside, ran past a defender and struck a powerful shot that deflected off Jones and into the top corner. That goal – and Wells’ first at the Pirelli in the second leg – were arguably more vital than the three City scored at Wembley in the final. Had City trooped off Valley Parade defeated 3-1, it would have been almost impossible to come back in the second leg. That goal changed the mood in both camps, prompting fear in Burton and belief in City. It was undoubtedly one of the most important of the 64-marathon.

Thompson is not the only 2012/13 promotion winner who failed to hit the same heights this season, but probably stood out more than others as being on borrowed time. His performances during the first half of the season were generally average, and as the team’s form dipped there was a growing sense that he needed competition on the right flank.

It was too simplistic to put his disappointing form down to age; for me it seemed as though he had experienced a dip in confidence. But even if he was producing 6 out of 10 performances, his commitment never waived. He might have looked a little scared of the ball, but he never hid away from receiving it. And every now and then, he would produce an exceptional cross or pass that would remind you of his quality.

That character, again. You could criticise Thompson’s performances – many people did – but no one could accuse him of ducking responsibility. And even when he faded into the background after January and became a regular substitute, he still contributed positively in the games he was introduced into. How nice it was that he got the happy ending of a winning goal on his final Valley Parade outing.

Thompson is a shining example, one that those who follow him in playing for Bradford City would do well to follow. It not as an easy club to play for, where expectations so often exceed reality; and there is no hiding place. Yet Thompson won the doubters over, following a difficult start, through his own determination.

If future Bradford City signings struggle to adapt to life at Valley Parade, Parkinson could do a lot worse than sitting them down and playing the video of Thompson’s goal against Arsenal, before telling them the story of how the veteran overcame his own early struggles by calling upon his strength of character.

Lessons in history as Bradford City go to Coventry

1 Apr
Picture by Claire Epton

Picture by Claire Epton

Coventry City vs Bradford City preview

@Sixfields (Northampton) on Tuesday 1 April, 2014

By Jason McKeown

In the 20 years that the Sixfields stadium, Northampton, has stood, it has never been so overused and yet so sparsely populated as it has this season. Former Premier League outfit Coventry City moved in last summer, 70 miles away from their home city, with average crowds of 2,222 indirectly bolstered by protesting Coventry supporters on that large hill outside. Not since Wimbledon saw out their final days at Selhurst Park in front of one man and his dog, before relocating to Milton Keynes, have Bradford City embarked on such an unusual away fixture as tonight’s.

Yet it is the permanent proprietors of Sixfields who offer the more fitting perspective to the Bantams current struggles. Northampton Town lie second bottom of League Two, fighting for their lives to avoid relegation. The Cobblers were, of course, City’s play off final opponents 10-and-a-half months ago, crushed 3-0 at Wembley. After another 3-0 loss – to Bury at home, on Saturday - they are in deep trouble.

Only one of the previous 17 fourth tier beaten play off finalists have gone on to be promoted the following season – yet Northampton’s bouncebackability has been especially poor. They have gone from being disappointed not to leave League Two, to now desperate simply to remain in it. Sixfields is in serious danger of becoming a non-league stadium.

There but for the grace of God, and all that.

In the 30 years that the City Gent fanzine has existed, they can scarcely have published a more bizarre reader letter than one which appears in the latest edition, comparing Phil Parkinson to Hitler. Oddly bemoaning that Parkinson is too good-looking and that “if he had a face like a bag of turds and dressed like a tramp waiting for chips, would we have given him this much leeway?”, the letter-writing supporter goes onto state, “He is eloquent I will give you that, but so too was Hitler, and we all know how that turned out.” If I were Mark Lawn, I’d be carefully searching Phil’s desk to check that those opposition scout reports aren’t really secret plans to invade Poland.

Such stupidity represents the far extreme of negative views aired about Parkinson by an increasing number of City supporters, in the wake of some of the worst performances of the season against Shrewsbury and Walsall. There is undoubtedly a growing thought that the manager has taken the club as far as he can, with calls for a change growing in volume, if quietened by Saturday.

Writing as someone still very much in the pro-Parkinson camp (although please don’t mistake my personal views as WOAP editorial policy, we welcome contrary views and articles), the tone of the criticism directed his way continues to sadden me. Read the Bradford City Facebook page, Twitter and the Telegraph & Argus boards – and, in so many cases, what you see is abuse and hatred. It should be easy to put together a constructive argument for why the manager should, at the very least, currently be having his future questioned; but those people who are attempting to do just that are largely being drowned out by outright abuse from others.

It is completely unfair that any manager of Bradford City be the subject of such nasty and vile anger. You think of everything Parkinson has given to the club, of the loyalty he has shown, and you wonder how there could such little respect afforded to him by some people. There is a big difference between no longer believing in a manager and hating him, or at least there should be.

In the 111 years that Bradford City Football Club has toiled, rarely has there been a season as memorable as 2012/13. The 64 game marathon featured a rollercoaster of emotions. The drama, the excitement, the joy, the pride. What a happy ending: a first promotion in 14 years. It meant so much.

As City celebrated reaching Wembley for a second time in three months with victory in the play off semi final at Burton, the 1,600 visiting supporters that packed out the Perelli Stadium serenaded the players with the words “We’re proud of you” and responded to Parkinson’s clenched fist celebrations with a round of “Parkinson’s Bradford Army”. The pride indeed. The glow of which only increased further after the Northampton play off final victory.

As form has fallen off a cliff over the winter months of this season, not unreasonably, several people declared that last season is now irrelevant, and how we all needed to stop talking about it. As Parkinson came under his first genuine spell of pressure in February, the early advocates for change went further, arguing that his 2012/13 achievements should not count in any debates about his future. But of course, that is impossible to do. When evaluating the ability of someone to lead the club forwards, his past record has to come into consideration.

And so, the new, recent theme from some has been to talk down the past. ‘We made history’ has now become ‘Let’s re-write history’. Suddenly, promotion last season is being dubbed a fluke by many people. One that was only achieved because of Exeter’s late collapse in their form; one that was only achieved due to the Bantams scraping a seventh-place finish. A decent manager would not have luckily taken City up last season, they say, but won the league.

Words fail me at such a miserable outlook. That all those warm memories of last season’s run-in are retrospectively downgraded by some as ‘lucky’ and, by association, the success achieved viewed as unmerited. Did people really feel that way at the time? Did they not enjoy those late season victories? That afternoon at Burton? That second trip to Wembley?

Only seventh? Not since 1999 have City finished higher in the division they are in. Only through the play offs? In the five previous League Two seasons, only once did we come close to achieving that basic expectation (and in that year, 2008/09, we did an Exeter and fell away at the end). And we haven’t even mentioned that first trip to Wembley. You could talk down Parkinson’s achievements if they were happening all the time to the club, but years and years of struggle and underperformance should serve to highlight just how incredible last season’s success was.

Yet equally – and let’s be honest – 2012/13′s late run-in featured more than our fair share of luck. Exeter did indeed collapse when they (or other challengers ahead of us in mid-March) should have sealed that last play off spot. But still, that doesn’t change City’s achievement of only losing three of their final 15 games post-Swansea; of picking up 15 points from a possible 24 to steal into seventh, when others dithered. They made the most of the luck that came their way, capitalising in clinical fashion.

Parkinson’s influence on that never-say-die run-in does not deserve to be downgraded 12 months on, simply to suit the debate of today. There is nothing wrong with arguing he deserves to go in spite of last season if that is what you believe, but please don’t attempt to say he deserves to go because of last season. After all, if you’re not happy about last season…well why bother supporting this club?

Not since 1996 have City enjoyed such a spectacular late run of form. Year after year we have either been nowhere near or choked. Last season should always be remembered with fondness – not twisted and distorted.

In the first two years that Phil Parkinson managed Bradford City, he impressed not only those inside Valley Parade but the outside world. Blackpool looked to him as the answer to their struggles, and other clubs would be linked with his services. Parkinson was one of the hottest properties in management, and City did very well to keep him.

“Three years? What were they thinking!” has been a recent grumble, in light of the contract that Parkinson was offered by the club – and signed – last May. It makes debates about his future seem somewhat worthless, given it will likely cost a six-figure sum of money to dispense with his services. We are stuck with him.

Which suits me just fine. I have long believed in long-term thinking. By plotting a future in terms of years and not months, the club has a much greater chance of being rebuilt on firmer foundations. The three-year contract is a three-year plan, one that needs to conclude with City knocking on the door of the Championship, for it to be extended further.

Year one’s objective of staying in League One is a fair and realistic goal. It has not yet been achieved, and crossing that 50-point mark is proving to be an unnecessarily laboured task, but it is progress. We can question the route to get here – the edge of survival – but not the destination. It is vital that City remain a League One club, and that target is within touching distance after Saturday’s impressive away win at Leyton Orient.

As for the three-year debate; whilst there is no doubt that some did question the wisdom when the contract was agreed last year, they were very much in the minority. Very few people were against it, in fact the majority were for it.

That’s why I find those who are now questioning the logic of the contract difficult to take seriously. If we, as supporters, believe we deserve a say in how this club is run, you have to share in responsibility for the decisions you previously backed. If you wanted Parkinson to remain as manager 12 months ago, only for the club to go and make sure that was the case, it is unfair to now pretend you didn’t agree with that decision. And let’s be clear, had Parkinson walked away from Valley Parade last summer, the chairmen would have copped it big style.

In the 11 years that Phil Parkinson has been a football manager, he has made mistakes but also enjoyed notable success. He is a smarter, wiser and cleverer manager for going through those bad times. And what he will have learned over the past 12 months will undoubtedly make him an even better manager. We should be confident that he can apply this greater experience next season.

When looking back on Parkinson’s achievements at Valley Parade, his success in steering the club away from relegation to non-league, during his first season in charge, seems especially relevant at the moment. Today is two years and five days since that horrendous evening against Crawley, where you really feared for the future. Parkinson was able to lift the club from such dark times, and the rest is history.

His first season seems especially relevant at the moment, given the task facing the manager this summer – rebuilding the squad. In September 2011 he took charge of a Bantams squad that was woefully lacking in quality and, in 18 months, had turned them into League Cup finalists. I have no fears that he can deliver the improvements that are needed for next season.

Yet the problem of the here and now is that the sweeping changes needed cannot be implemented until this season is over. Parkinson has made major mistakes in the transfer market which he is in no position to rectify in the short-term. He must continue to make do with a squad that has over recent months let him down on several occasions, and who over the final seven games will continue to deliver inconsistent performances. And poor results will continue to make Parkinson look bad, adding to the pressure now placed on his shoulders.

The short-term outlook is not great. Parkinson must get us over that 50+ point line, even if it’s an undignified stumble – and then he must prove that he can take the club forwards in line with our long-term ambitions.

I have confidence he can do just that, although there are no guarantees he will succeed. The bottom line, however, is that he has earned the right to get that opportunity. After everything he has done for this football club and all the wonderful memories he has provided, Parkinson deserves our support and backing during these more difficult times.

In the 39 matches that Bradford City have played this season, they sit right in the middle of the table. Currently eight points clear of the drop zone but 10 away from the play offs, this looks set to be a season where both promotion and relegation was never seriously on the table.

And all things considered – not least our recent history - that will do just fine.

 

League Cup miracle one year on: Swansea City

24 Feb

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By Jason McKeown

It is one year ago today since Bradford City took part in only the second – and in all likelihood the last – major cup final in its history. 33,000 Bradfordonians filled one half of the vast Wembley bowl, taking part in an occasion that none of us would ever believe we would be invited to.

Bradford City – our Bradford City. Slumped at the time in 12th position of English football’s fourth division. Taking on the might of Premier League Swansea and looking for another top flight scalp. One game away from qualifying to play in the Europa League. 90 minutes away from lifting a major trophy. It is wonderful to look back and reflect upon how excited and proud we all felt as the teams marched out onto the pitch. That even though we strongly suspected we were going to be defeated, there was nevertheless a glimmer of hope that our name was on that cup.

It wasn’t just about that wintry February afternoon in the capital, but the whole build-up to the big match which was like nothing we had ever experienced before. When City defeated Wigan in the last 16, the October before, the national media mentioned us only in passing, behind Arsenal’s remarkable 7-5 victory over Reading. Come December when the Bantams and Gunners met, the incredible penalty shootout victory over Arsene Wenger’s men sent shockwaves around the football world. Then came Aston Villa and the even bigger achievement of defeating Premier League opposition over two legs. The Villa Park celebrations eventually subsided, but the international spotlight would not be dimmed.

There were four-and-a-half weeks in-between that barmy night in Birmingham and walking down Wembley Way, and being a Bradford City supporter had this centre-of-the-universe feel. The media went to town covering every angle – not only looking at the football club, but the city of Bradford itself. The week before the game was especially memorable, as Sky Sports News featured City heavily each day, BBC Radio 5Live hosted a special supporters forum at Valley Parade and on the Friday evening you could watch back-to-back TV programmes devoted to the Bantams.

When earlier that day the players set off from Bradford’s Cedar Court Hotel down South, the moment was captured live on Sky Sports News. It must have been thrilling for the players, many of whom had never received such media attention. There was a wonderful story to tell about City’s cup final opponents, Swansea, but they were completely overshadowed by the exploits of the fourth tier side.

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My main memories of that period are how hectic it all was. We went to town with our Width of a Post coverage, which required a lot of planning and hard work from many different people. We received numerous emails from supporters pleading for help getting a ticket to the game and tried to help those who we could. We assisted TV and magazine researchers by providing background information on the club which helped them to shape their stories. We helped Bantams Banter get permission to broadcast at Wembley.

And like other City sites and fan groups, we received our own media requests. I spent one afternoon at Valley Parade meeting BBC Yorkshire’s Paul Hudson (a top bloke) for a documentary, appeared on college radio in the USA, wrote an article for the When Saturday Comes website, contributed to a special League Cup magazine and Mahesh Johal was interviewed for New Statesman magazine. Proudest of all, on a personal level, was being interviewed on BBC Two’s Newsnight, with the caption ‘widthofapost.com’ appearing on national TV.

It was hard to take in all of the attention bestowed on Bradford City. Our Bradford City. You tried to read as many newspapers articles as possible, watch all the TV specials and listen to bits on the radio, but it was all very wonderfully overwhelming. I was regularly stopped in the office by people wanting to chat about City (“Are you going to the game Jason?” Stupid question) and it was strangely enjoyable to listen to people who three months ago knew nothing about the club share their opinions on your players.

“You’re going to win” a completely trollied Geordie told us on the train journey from Kings Cross back to our hotel, the night before the match. That expert judgement will do me.

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Game day brought panic and terror. I barely slept a wink the night before, as I had become so nervous about it all. Knowing that the rest of the world was watching our Bradford City made you proud, but also apprehensive. What if we seriously embarrass ourselves? What can we realistically expect from our team today?

The morning saw us share a champagne breakfast with Archie Christie and then spend a few hours in the Hilton Hotel by Wembley stadium, supping drinks in the same room as several Bradford City directors. You tried to enjoy it all, but it was difficult to focus on anything beyond those fears about the game. I loved walking up and down Wembley Way, and we set foot inside the stadium at around 3.20pm. The atmosphere was already incredible. When, with 10 minutes to go, Rudimental’s ‘Feel the Love’ came over the PA system and everyone waved their flags frantically, I unexpectedly burst into tears. The nerves giving way to pure happiness.

It seems needlessly painful to go over the game, but equally it has long haunted me. It’s not that I thought we would win, but I expected far better than for us to wait until the 86th minute to have a shot on goal (and a rubbish shot at that). I’ve reflected back so many times on what Phil Parkinson might have done differently and how we could have given Swansea a better game, but there really was nothing that we could do.

Swansea were simply outstanding.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t one of those supporters who could shrug it off and merely be happy with the non-stop chanting for the last 25 minutes. I joined in of course, and I felt proud of the way we supporters responded to such adversity. But for all the times in the build up that I told myself we had no chance of winning, part of you still clung onto the hope. Even the most pessimistic amongst us wanted to win the game. It was a cup final, something we will probably never experience again in our lifetimes. And so it was devastating to watch that impossible dream be ripped up in front of our eyes in such clinical, brutal fashion.

It hurt. A hell of a lot. Rationale and reason simply go out the window at moments such as Matt Duke’s red card. I stayed at full time and applauded our players – they deserved it no matter what had happened on the pitch. I cheered them up the steps to collect their losers medals and applauded Ashley Williams as he lifted the trophy. Then we walked out of the stadium and into the London night, feeling empty.

The bubble popped so quickly; and to go from all the giddy excitement of the build up, straight to feeling crushed, was difficult to take. I remember thousands of us City fans walking back to the train station in near silence. The party was just getting starting inside the stadium behind us, but we had been locked out.

The national media dropped us like a stone. In the post-game coverage they focused solely on Swansea’s brilliance – good on them, they deserved it – and we went back to life in League Two, with the most unglamorous fixture possible to look forward to in three days time: Dagenham & Redbridge.

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Being honest, it took me weeks to get over the cup final defeat. I shared in the pride of how we supporters stuck with the players and loved the amount of praise that came our way for it; but for a four-month period it seemed that the League Cup miracle had completely dominated our lives. To have all those glorious moments come to end in such miserable fashion was unbefitting. Getting back to reality was hard. The struggles of the players over the subsequent weeks suggested they felt the same way, too.

As we look back a year on, the pain has long since faded and the return to Wembley for the play off final three months later exorcised the demons. It was our turn to dominate the opposition to the point they didn’t have a shot on goal until the final minute; it was our turn to lift a piece of silverware in the royal box and to dance around Wembley. And if, a year ago, we’d have been asked to pick which of the two Wembley games we’d prefer to win, I dare say 99.9% of City fans would have voted with me in choosing the play off final.

I’ve watched the League Cup Final back on my Sky box several times. The heartache dulled, I just enjoy the fact we were part of such a wonderful occasion. Proud of such an incredible cup run, one that we will never experience again. Relieved that the story was to have a happy ending in the shape of League Two promotion.

One year ago today was one of the proudest days of my life. It’s just a shame that the day didn’t end at 4.01pm.

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Read our look back on the League Cup miracle

Aston Villa 2 Bradford City 1

Bradford City 3 Aston Villa 1

Bradford City 1 Arsenal 1 (City win 3-2 on pens)

Wigan Athletic 0 Bradford City 0 (City win 4-2 on pens) 

Bradford City 3 Burton Albion 2

The early rounds

The Midweek Player Focus #52: Luke Oliver

5 Feb

The Width of a Post 2011/12 player of the season, Luke Oliver

By Jason McKeown

Some players are cruelly sentenced to never be remembered as fondly as they deserve to be. Not due to any personal failings or mistakes, but because the period during which they excelled was a more generally unhappy one. Luke Oliver is unquestionably a Valley Parade hero, yet his accomplishments occurred during a 15-month period where things were generally dismal at Valley Parade – an era we’d all rather forget.

In both 2010/11 and 2011/12, City finished 18th in League Two and along the way triggered very, very real concerns about the likelihood of retaining their Football League status. No one stepped up to the plate more than central defender Oliver, who put in some masterful performances that ensured City didn’t fall down the non-league trapdoor. During what represented a modern-day low ebb for the football club, Oliver led the rescue mission. He will always be thought of affectionately by City supporters for it.

Oliver departed Valley Parade last week on an ill-fitting low key note. That horrendous ruptured achilles injury, picked up at Burton Albion’s Perelli Stadium in October 2012, put Oliver out of action for nine months and saw him cruelly get left behind. On the evening that the extent of Oliver’s injury was made public, City knocked Premier League Wigan out of the League Cup.

Go through the many, many wonderful moments of the 2012/13 season, and Oliver’s name was absent from the story. It’s not easy for a six foot seven inch person to blend into the background, but that’s unfortunately what happened to Oliver. We Made History – largely without him.

But if it wasn’t for Oliver’s heroics before the 2012/13 season, City probably wouldn’t have even been a Football League club and gone through them. None of it would have happened, without him and others ensuring that the foundations remained in their place during some stormy times.

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If – the day after Peter Taylor left Valley Parade following that nerve-jangling victory over nine-men Stockport County in February 2011 – you were asked to select members of the-then squad to step up and save the club from relegation, Oliver’s name would have appeared near the bottom of most people’s lists.

Oliver was signed 12 months earlier by Taylor, initially on loan from Wycombe, with warnings from supporters of his old clubs that he was a calamitous defender prone to making gaffes. Taylor had worked with Oliver at Stevenage and Wycombe, and you assumed that he would know how to get the best out of him. So when a permanent deal was agreed for Oliver to join the Bantams that summer, no one was too worried.

Yet Taylor’s first – and only – proper season in the Valley Parade hot seat was a huge disappointment. All but David Syers, of his summer signings, under-performed, and the manager’s attempts to patch up the many leaky holes with questionable loan signings clearly damaged squad morale. Oliver started slowly; and then when James Hanson was injured, was thrust up front as an emergency targetman for almost a month. It coincided with some of the most wretched football I have ever seen from a Bradford City side.

Oliver up front, City playing long ball football and with three strikers sat on the bench – it was a set of circumstances that understandably drew dismay from supporters. Especially as it all left City second bottom of the Football League by early October.

With Hanson back and Jason Price brought in on loan, Oliver was thankfully kept away from the forward line but still struggled on return to his centre back role. There was at least one mistake in him per match. He bumbled his way along in a team that just couldn’t get going. And when Taylor and club decided it was best to change manager, we all assumed that Luke would quickly follow him out the door. A modern day Jason Gavin.

Yet something happened immediately post-Taylor: Oliver started playing well. At first not many supporters – understandably fed up of a season’s worth of poor displays from him – noticed. But in crucial games during that relegation run-in, Oliver was a rock. A Tuesday night home game against relegation rivals Burton springs to mind. City weren’t great and should really have lost, but Oliver’s man of the match display helped ensure a valuable point was gained. He also performed exceptionally during a vital Easter Monday victory over Aldershot that all-but-ensured survival. The gentle giant had grown tall.

Nevertheless, his future seemed destined elsewhere. Interim manager Peter Jackson fed upon the mood of supporter discontent towards the squad by putting everyone up for sale. Oliver found himself relegated to playing in a Development Squad pre-season friendly at Silsden, alongside fellow outcasts Michael Flynn and Robbie Threlfall. Guy Branston had been brought in, Steve Williams’ career hadn’t yet stalled; so Oliver began the season as fourth choice centre back – even central midfielder Lee Bullock was favoured ahead of him on the opening day of the season.

But as injuries arose, Oliver was given a chance and carried on in the manner he ended the previous season: hugely impressive. While Branston struggled to live up to his and Peter Jackson’s hype, Phil Parkinson came in and quickly rebuilt the back four around Luke. Andrew Davies was signed on loan to partner him with Guy shipped out on loan, and the club’s struggles that season would be the result of other, weaker areas of the team.

For Oliver was simply outstanding – even being nominated for the December League Two Player of the Month. His new-found confidence best illustrated by his gradual comfortableness on the ball and in bringing it out of defence. Strong in the air but also agile on the deck, Oliver was tasked with attacking the ball when it came into City’s box, with Davies on hand to clear up anything he didn’t repel.

As the club made hard work of avoiding relegation, Oliver and Davies were more and more vital. The bad night against Crawley robbed Parkinson of his centre back pairing, but Oliver returned from suspension in the nick of time to be the lynchpin of back-to-back April victories over Northampton and Macclesfield which confirmed survival. He was the runaway winner of the Player of the Season awards, and could look forward to playing a key role in future, happier times.

Alas, soon after injury struck. Oliver began 2012/13 in the side and, though perhaps not hitting the heights of the previous year, he was letting no one down. Ever-present in the league, until that fateful day in the East Midlands. One can only imagine how bittersweet it must have been for Oliver to see the club enjoy such spectacular success without him.

The worst thing was that Oliver was not missed. Rory McArdle looked superb in taking his place in the centre. Carl McHugh emerged from nowhere to impress in Davies’ absence. Nevertheless, there was hope that he would still have a future at Valley Parade, this season.

Starting off on the sidelines as he battled to prove his fitness, Parkinson talked of letting him go out on loan and then, a matter of days later, brought him in to start against Brentford due to McArdle being on international duty. City won 4-0 and Oliver was terrific. He filled in twice more for Rory, but the long-term absence of Davies in October did not open the door for him. In came Matthew Bates to partner Rory, instead. The fact both Oliver and McArdle are so right-sided ruled out any realistic prospect of forming a partnership.

Perhaps saddest aspect of all was that Oliver’s final appearance in claret and amber came in that old Taylor positon – up front. A Boxing Day home loss to Rotherham, with City badly missing Hanson through injury, saw him introduced from the bench to play targetman with three minutes to go. He barely touched the ball as City were deservedly beaten. It was no way for our hero to bow out.

Oliver does not reach his 30th birthday until this May, and I really hope that he has another five or six good years left in him to make up for the lost time of the past 18 months. It was the cruellest of twists of fate that a player who truly stood up when the chips were down didn’t subsequently get to enjoy the good times, but the mention of his name will always spark great affection.

He set the standards that others have followed. He raised the bar when it seemed no one else could or would stop it from falling further. He played a key role in applying the brakes and in turning around this club – and for that we will always be thankful.

The Midweek Player Focus #51: Gary Jones

24 Jan

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By Alex Scott

I’m not even sure it was the celebration that I’m remembering. I think it may have been winning a corner actually. After the ball spun away behind the dead ball line not long after half time, City’s captain bellowed a rallying call to his crowd behind the Bramall Lane goal. In that one moment completely changing the atmosphere, the momentum of the game, like a light switch.

He was a man in control. A man who would not be denied.

My favourite line from the manager over the past 18 months has been how he noted that he needed to build a team which the fans could believe in. Build it and they will come. That is Gary Jones.

That entire game was a vintage Jones moment. Everything from start to finish was just text book. The award of a “Man of the Match” felt like it was created for performances just like that.

Amidst the nadir of this demoralising run, Gary Jones dragged his City team kicking and screaming toward a point they had absolutely no business in earning. They didn’t come easily, some of the defending on show was beyond the last ditch, but Jones flatly refused to let them lose. Not on his watch.

It was almost Gerrardian in its single-mindedness. One man holding back the tide, Gary Jones harked back to the performances last year which endeared him so greatly to this City fan base, the likes of which have been less frequent this term.

A little over 18 months into his City career, Jones has achieved as much as anyone before him. Saturday’s performance illustrated that he isn’t finished just yet.

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As the story goes, he was noticed by Parkinson whilst scouting Stephen Darby, and on the recommendation of his assistant Steve Parkin, Jones was recruited. Not to be a spearhead as such, more like the spear itself. Jones was the man they needed for the short term, despite just turning 35. To clear space for him, Parkinson let go of budding young midfielder David Syers, who went up a league to recently-relegated Doncaster, for no fee. The irony that Syers is now plying away (successfully) in the division below City offers an apt vindication for the manager on that one. Especially because most of that fact is down to the work of Gary Jones.

Without Jones last season couldn’t have happened. After a long career as a cult hero at Rochdale, most looked at his signature at Valley Parade as something of a pension. Rochdale likely wouldn’t have offered a two year extension on those terms, and Jones could now secure his future a little longer. It should be noted that I was definitively of that mind at the time.

But, as with most things, and people really should never lose sight of this: I am a moron. I am not in the room; I cannot witness the intangibles he brings. Not that anyone can, being intangible and all, but you know what I mean. At that time when I would read words like “leadership” and “responsibility”, I would think immediately of Guy Branston’s inglorious tenure. And that’s on me, and I’ve learned that lesson. Branston didn’t fail because he was painted as a leader; he failed because he wasn’t up to it. Everything else was a sideshow.

However, when it comes to Jones, he has succeeded because he is a leader. His personality is woven in this team, and has carried them through some tough times and some great ones over the past 18 months. Which why anyone questioning his role in a time like this is just infuriating. Ritchie Jones being our starting central midfielder is really not that long ago.

Alongside Nathan Doyle in the middle of the park, Gary Jones made up the beating heart of a City side which was defined by its spine. A rock solid central defensive partnership led by Andrew Davies and the best strike partnership in the division book ended the midfield pairing which had the remit of setting the tone.

The rest of the team were relative stars at that level, but even in spite of that it looked often like they needed a spark, a thrust. And that definitively came from the tone set by Gary Jones. Involved in every set piece, he took responsibility from day one, single-handedly at times making them perform. From the first day of the season to the last he was pivotal.

Without him, the identity of the team would be… I don’t even know what it would be. The personality of Bradford City is as much Gary Jones as it is Phil Parkinson. The composed determination of the squad is actually often at odds with their manager’s frenetic demeanour.

Moving into this season, Jones and his charges managed to keep the engine ticking over until the loss of Andrew Davies, when the increased quality of the league proved a little too much to muddle through. But they still aren’t getting beaten. Despite a talent deficit, they are grinding out results, keeping their head above water unlike any City team in the modern era, which would already be at the bottom of the sea by now.

After one win in fifteen, and facing a two-nil deficit at half time, that second half performance at Bramall Lane could have been a turning point, for the first time in a long time, they looked like they were drowning. Enter Gary Jones.

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It’s curious that the rising tides of discontent which submerged our struggling central midfield last week have yet to reach Gary Jones. Not that I’m an advocate of it as such. It’s just weird, from the outside. You read the odd catcall of fans on the internet complaining about Jones, normally following a defeat, but it’s rare in comparison to what Jason Kennedy has had to deal with.

The likely explanation is that any argument over Jones’ worth can be debunked by pointing to games like the one last Saturday. Performances like that render any discussion asinine. And anyone who could have watched that performance and concluded that Jones was the key problem wasn’t paying attention. I’m not here to talk about his worth really. There isn’t really an argument to frame, and in all likelihood, the anti-Jones argument is a bit of a straw man anyway.

For where the team is, they need someone like Gary Jones far more than a nebulous quote creative midfielder end quote, whatever one of those is. And for fans who’ve sat through the last ten years not to appreciate that is insane. Paul McLaren was a quote creative midfielder end quote.

The team need people willing to take responsibility, at a time like this more than any other. They need people who won’t accept anything less than what is required. Gary Jones flatly refused to let City lose that game. After a disappointing performance first half where Jones spent the majority of his time screaming at his back four – not one ever pointing in the same direction as another – he came out for the second half and led.

That was it. He didn’t perform particularly well, but even with that caveat was still our most impressive performer. He dragged a team in the midst of a truly terrible performance (really don’t let anyone undersell how bad they were first half) kicking and screaming into a point. They didn’t even play well second half! They just willed their way to a point in a game where they should have lost by two or three.

He scored a deflected goal, willing to take a chance, and then set up the equaliser with the only bit of skill from an amber shirt all day long. He ran around the pitch screaming, lifting, dragging everyone. And he did it in a manner which openly took responsibility. The opposite of hiding. The anti-Yeates.

He played like the man Guy Branston wanted to think of himself as. But Jones actually had the wherewithal to back up the bravado. Gary Jones would not let them lose on Saturday. Anyone else in there, even a more gifted player, and City would have been comfortably beaten.

Jones’ running, and credit where it’s due, Aaron McLean’s running, gave everyone else a lift, raising the standard of what was acceptable. And those standards have been one of the running themes of this team. Jones is a big part of that. This side very seldom crumble and get beaten. They’ve been beaten by more than one goal only once all season: Notts County away, where the hosts scored two goals in injury time. For all the fatalistic talk swirling, that’s not a bad record. When James Hanson has started alongside either Nahki Wells or Aaron McLean, City have only lost one game also: Port Vale away at the start of the year.

Despite an apparent talent deficit and a team descending further and further out of form, they are rarely being beaten. They are hanging in. They are determined beyond anyone’s expectations. They will not be denied.

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It is curious that the talk around Jones hasn’t started in earnest though. Looking from the outside, one could rightly assume that a contingency plan for the 36-year-old captain out of contract in the summer should now be in place. In fact they look more reliant on Jones than ever. The future without him less imaginable.

And this is the conversation people should be having. Not that City should replace Jones now. This would be obviously insane. But shouldn’t there be some semblance of a plan? What if Jones wants to retire in the summer?

The mischievous soul in me would posit that perhaps Phil Parkinson is doing that with Jason Kennedy. Jones’ former teammate, nine years his junior, was signed on a two-year deal last summer, without a clear role in the team. Unless it would be as a back-up to Jones this year, with an assumption that by the beginning of next season Kennedy would be able to take up the mantle of his mentor.

Now I don’t know if that was the plan, but if it was, I’d argue that so far that such a plan may require revision. For all the will in the world Kennedy has seldom looked up to the task. This, of course, isn’t to say that he won’t ever be. It also isn’t like Jones has torn up trees in his play this year. The argument that Kennedy for a lot of the time looks like Gary Jones, but without the inspiration and leadership, is strong.

Beyond Kennedy, the reason there hasn’t been any new players blooded this year to spell Jones is that there aren’t any. Scott Brown was let go so that he could join Scottish Premiership outfit St Johnstone, and last week signed a new two-year deal, after making his league debut in October. Looking at the way the season has panned out, he’d probably have got some playing time actually. But with the acquisition of Kennedy in the summer, Scott had no choice but to leave.

The cupboard is bare behind Jones. He has played every minute this season, something that at 36 cannot have been part of the design from the off-season. But needs must. The manager obviously didn’t foresee such a dearth of performers in midfield, otherwise he wouldn’t have signed who he did.

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Gary Jones was the man the side needed coming from the bottom of League Two, and they undoubtedly overachieved. As we have seen over the past few weeks, with Saturday’s game as the exclamation point, he is still needed here. With his initial contract at the club winding down, and the aims over the next few years to establish and push on at this level, the question becomes inevitable: will he be the man they need?

Gun to my head, I’d say he will be. But it’s by no means a sure thing. Jones, along with Doyle, Ricky Ravenhill, Garry Thompson, and Kyel Reid are hitting the free agent market in the summer, and that moment marks a clear opportunity, and maybe a necessity, for Parkinson to recast his midfield.

The acquisition of Aaron McLean to partner James Hanson inevitably means that the tried and tested 4-4-2 will be retained, but the actual four in the middle of that are still up in the air. From that list, I’d think only Jones and Doyle were on the positive side of a 50-50 chance of returning. But if Parkinson was that way inclined, he could blow it up this summer. Kennedy and Mark Yeates are the only hold-overs from the midfield, so the manager does hold the freedom to re-draw the position group in any combination he likes.

The underlying theory of the midfield – two deep lying protectors and two attacking outlets wide – will not change next year. Hanson casts a shadow over the rest of the team in this regard, pun intended, and it has served us well enough thus far. You don’t have a team with James Hanson and not build around crosses into the box.

As this season has worn on, the questioning has been on the effectiveness of the team at this level, and whether one can win playing in the manner which we set out so often. A line of questioning which is really a moot point, as every time the side try anything else they look hopelessly out of their comfort zone. Again bringing me back to my last point, why have someone with such a powerful competitive advantage in Hanson’s height and not use it?

It shouldn’t be forgotten that at the start of the year it did actually work, very well. Now Hanson and McLean have been locked up for the foreseeable future, the method won’t change. They just need to get better at it.

The question for the manager with regard to Jones is whether that in the limited scope of a predominantly defensive midfielder the improvement over Jones he could gain from a free agent would outweigh the loss of his leadership?

Now I don’t know the market enough to come close to answering that, but from watching this team so often over the past couple of years, they’ve been defined by Jones. I’d, quite vehemently, argue that the impact of a central midfielder in this system is limited, and any improvement over Jones won’t cover the loss of his presence in the team.

This is obviously with the caveat over his level of play. Right now he is doing just about enough in his actual play to keep his place regardless, but if there was a regression over the next 12 months, not an unfair supposition, then the balance of that equation may shift. But for right now, that’s not yet a problem.

A conclusion that leads me to think that Jones probably will be back captaining us next season. He’s played every minute this season, and does as much running as anyone. The marginal cost of the next six months for him may not be as big as you’d expect for someone his age. He’s been playing this way 20 years. What’s another 60 games if you’ve already played 600?

And in the end, all of this is missing the point of Gary Jones. Do you want to watch him or not? Would you rather watch a City team with him in it or without? Isn’t thinking about Gary Jones and this Bradford City team a tautology at this point? He has to stay, because of course he does. He has to. They need him. We need him.

~~~~~~~

Objectively, I’m not sure Jones’ performances have necessarily improved or regressed from last year. The level of competition has obviously risen, and with that he has become less notable in his performances. Something which had to have been expected. But the question of his growth isn’t really the issue; he’s 36-years-old. The question is really about how much the side have grown around him?

The rest of the team are still reliant on Jones to carry them through the tough times. The vision of the team as currently constituted without him is a worrying thought. He isn’t as much a water carrier, as the water itself.

At this point the team, the club still need him. They haven’t proven themselves strong enough outgrow his shadow yet. Jones doesn’t need their protection; they need it from him, if anything. At this point they still need him, and even in the medium term, any team without him would be a fundamentally different outfit. They would be a fundamentally less inspiring outfit. For us and them.

League Cup miracle, one year on: Aston Villa part two

22 Jan

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.

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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.”

Ouch.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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?

Then, pandemonium.

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.

F~^k.

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.

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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.

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Read our look back on the League Cup miracle

Bradford City 3 Aston Villa 1

Bradford City 1 Arsenal 1 (City win 3-2 on pens)

Wigan Athletic 0 Bradford City 0 (City win 4-2 on pens) 

Bradford City 3 Burton Albion 2

The early rounds

2013 reviewed by Bantams Banter and Width of a Post

16 Jan

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Against a backdrop of 12 years of underachievement and crushing disappointment, 2013 will be fondly remembered by Bradford City fans for decades to come. To reflect back on the many, many achievements of Phil Parkinson and his players, Bantams Banter have recorded a special podcast reviewing 2013.

Width of a Post was delighted to be invited as guests on the one-hour programme, with writers Gareth Walker and Jason McKeown joining Tom and Dom to re-live the best Bantams Banter clips and share memories of that incredible 12-month period.

We’re unlikely to see the like of Bradford City’s 2013 again, so pour yourself a glass and indulge in some recent nostalgia.

Click on the image below to listen to the podcast.

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