By Philip Jackson
It was a warm, glorious day in April 2011, the road twisted towards Hereford from Worcester, breathing in the scenery all around us, quintessentially English, bright greens and golds, trees and flowers in bloom stood before the bright blue sky above. A dream, everything was right with the world, what could be wrong?
As the season wound to its penultimate match, Bradford City were still not mathematically safe but should be okay, surely! This unremarkable season sliding to an unremarkable conclusion. You may be wondering what the significance of this insignificant game is, for me it was just another game, my Bantams history had as many ups and downs as that road to Hereford. But it was significant, it was my son Daniel’s first City game, he was eight.
Living in Birmingham, I had been struggling for some time with how to deal with attaching him to a football team. He was born and had lived his whole life here (a true Brummie I guess). As an exiled City fan since 1987, could and should I expect him to follow my team, from a place he knew little of and one that in recent years had failed to bring much joy to one’s life? Should I take him to Blues or Villa? Will he attach himself to following one of the big boys? I resolved that if I was going to a match, I’d invite him along and see how it goes.
So we drove to Hereford, a short-ish drive down the M5, nice and easy. The City faithful that day were spread out in the old Edgar St. stand, the upper tier of which gave wonderful views of the rooftops and church spires of the town and the lush green hills beyond (unfortunately not such great views of the action along the nearside touchline! A key feature of the stands appeal I guess).
A City side of: Pidgeley, Threlfall, Hunt, Oliver, Bullock, Syers, Daley, Worthington, Evans, Hanson and Speight, played okay. Joe Colbeck got booed and nothing much happened, by half time, it was clear we were definitely safe, Dan was enjoying the game, asking questions, the offside rule was explained, then we scored! Great, eight minutes left, in his first match, Dan was probably going to see a City win.
Late on however, Hereford get a free kick on the edge of the box, and neatly curled the ball into the bottom corner Pidgeley’s goal. Cue wild scenes of celebration from the home supporters (they are reprieved from relegation for a year), shrugs from the City fans. No bother really, seen all this before. That is except one person hadn’t; Dan.
In that one, quiet nothing sort of a game, in his first experience of live football, he was hooked. Without knowing what will lies ahead and what has already passed, his young mind is made up, he’s following his Dad’s team, he’s following City. In years to come, he may recall this match as where it all started. He was truly disappointed by that late equaliser, with the City fans and his Dad all match, wanting one team to win and one to lose, that was what mattered. He had no idea about the league position, no cares for troubles behind the scenes or possible disharmony in the dressing-room, just what happened on that rectangle of green grass, simple.
He got home, kept the programme and stuck his ticket on his bedroom door.
Fast-forward a year and another City ticketing masterstroke comes into being ‘the Flexicard’; the Marmite of Valley Parade, for myself and many others in my position no doubt are in the ‘love it’ camp. 135 miles away, busy family life, the season ticket just doesn’t work, but this might just do it. £50 for me and a whole £5 for a junior season ticket.
City draw Arsenal in the cup, “Did you manage to get tickets?” “OH YES!” Yes, but it’s a school night, no bother have two days off, just don’t mention to ANYONE at school where we’re going, “No Dad”.
Tuesday 11 December 2012. AM, phone rings, Dan’s headteacher “Why isn’t Daniel at school?” “He’s poorly” “Oh, because some classmates said he’d said about going to a football match” “Ah, yes” phone down, “Dan, did you mention to anyone about the match?” “No” “So how come I’ve just had Mrs Chamberlain on the phone with this knowledge?” “I may have mentioned it to Katie” “Cheers son, and the rest, get your uniform on (Claret and Amber by the way!) and we’ll have to drive straight from school, and you’ll be in tomorrow as well!”
We arrive to the strains of ‘Claret, Amber’, in time. Due to various issues ‘our’ seats in B block, just behind the dugouts had gone, so it’s a sprint up the stairs and out into a scene that both Dan and I were new to: ‘Valley Parade, FULL!’. Up in the top deck of the Sunwin stand, in line with the goal line, perfect to see the shape and co-operation of City’s formation, and THAT Gervinho moment. We are doing ourselves proud, we’re not getting blown away, we are on!
Dan embraces every minute, every song, clapping, chanting, chatting with the lad next to me, the boy is in his element, bought in 100%. A stunning win, a stunning day, soak it all up son, as it may never be like this again, he gets this as his first ever Valley Parade experience! Out we go, I take him to the Fire Memorial. This happened, it happened right here, it matters, this is part of being a City fan, you need to know.
He stands in the crisp winter’s night looking at the marble, the names, scarves and flowers and takes it all in, he understands, when he gets home he tells his mum about the memorial and the fire, which was very touching. We walk through the dazed throngs of happy Bantams, back to the car and then the drive home. Minus two degrees has never felt so warm.
Back in ‘our’ seats for the Christmas games, seven rows from the action, these players are real, you see their faces, expressions and shouts, the benches, them walking onto and off the pitch, responding to your cheers and applause, they become more than his heroes, more like friends. Dan loves the live experience, learning more, now in the incessant rain, in the flesh than 1,000 matches on TV could, he was never bothered by football on the telly, but this! Yes, the songs, the togetherness, already these people in our colours are good people, they are family.
We get Villa, and decide to go to the away leg. Dan, the proud bantam has confidence (more than his battle-weary father) “You’re gonna get battered” he’s told by friends at school, water off a duck’s back to our Dan. Everyone knows he’s the only one, he knows he’s the only one and he loves it. The night of the 1st leg, he’s not sleeping, he listens to every pass, every moment, all the drama, his team wins, our team wins, he’ll be the winner in school again.
The next two weeks finally pass and we get to 22 January. “The most nervous day ever” we finally go, through the suburbs of South Birmingham, past the house of the mad Villa fans I play 5-a-side with every Friday, past 4 Co-Ops none of which James Hanson worked at. I tell him to take it all in, relish tonight because there is no guarantee we’ll get another night like tonight.
Out come the teams and out come the flags, all you can see is a sea of light blue waving frantically, let’s hope they’ll be waving the white flag in a bit. We all stand, no sitting tonight, Dan stand on your seat, we can see, we can see Villa attacking our way, we forget to keep the ball, concede the initiative, Villa threaten but they are not ruthless, they really aren’t that special. If we focus like against Arsenal we could see this out. Villa’s goal comes, but with it, they ease back and we see the half out.
The snow starts falling, beautiful big white flakes down from the clear black sky. Parky has had a word, we start the 2nd half better, passing, moving, playing our game, on the front foot, playing towards the screaming hoards in claret and amber. Corner, we see Jones walk directly towards us by the corner flag, we scream at him, unbelievable noise straight into his soul, he must be lifted by it. Corner two, the pressure builds, we can will this ball in, we can make these Villa boys wilt. In swings the corner, a perfect trajectory, Villa stop, it’s found a City head.
Watching the net react and fill as it is contacted by the ball, tells me it has happened, a goal has never, ever felt this good before. I grab Dan (I am still his father and still have to ensure he doesn’t get mullered by everyone around us) we go mental, everyone is going mental.
Time is ticked off in 10 minute chunks, as each go by the knots in my stomach tighten, the knots in the throats of the City faithful tighten. Villa score, finally, the tricky Austrian who scored in the first leg, the only Villain with any sort of fight finds the net.
The last high ball into the box is cleared, the final desperate card of a team out of ideas and unable to think straight, and referee Phil Dowd ends the match and the impossible has happened.
Dan and I have witnessed one of City’s greatest nights, in his first full season he has got this, my first season bringing him along he’s hit the jackpot. We sing till it hurts, then we sing some more, Villa park empties but we don’t want to leave, we are all family together and we are going to savour this as long as we can.
Dan goes into school, the conquering hero, champion of champions. You said we’d get thrashed, well I was there and we were great, I’m going to Wembley, this is what it’s about, City is his team. I ask him occasionally if he wants to support Villa, we both burst out laughing spontaneously. Like yeah Dad like I’m going to support that load of rubbish team. No thanks, I know where I want to be.
We drive down to Watford, and stop into his Uncle and Aunt’s, he drops us off at Croxley tube and we wait on a deserted platform, wrapped up in our City hats and scarves. We bump into a nice family from Swansea and have a pleasant journey into Wembley Park. The stadium looms large above its surroundings, a huge glass hulk completely at odds with what lies around it. We wish the Swansea family well and join the milling throngs.
Damn we turn out well, a majestic sea of claret and amber, we belong here, proud to see our crest emblazoned on the side of the ground. Let’s get inside, the greyness of the exterior is in contract with the glorious colours inside, the sponsors’ pump the place full of activity, but it’s the noise and passion of the supporters that make it what it is.
The team come out, I well up with emotion. I’m so proud of our team and what we’ve achieved, we get a momentary blast of heat off the jets of fire and I well up inside.
Just play your game lads, do us proud once more, man! Swansea are good, they are so fast, the passes fizz from man to man, into space leading teammates on, give and go, every ricochet and bounce goes their way. We finally get the ball and head forward, it stalls, they break, without the numbers back we are exposed. Duke makes a save, but a swift Swansea foot gets to steer the ball in before his City marker can block.
Unlike Wigan, Arsenal and Villa they are clinical, dive on any error, get to loose balls, through two sets of legs and in. We’re both quiet, slumped in our seats through half time we look for any distant hope to cling to, but can’t see it.
By the time it’s 4-0 and the Swansea vultures have stopped bickering over who can pick over our carcass, our self-reflection has passed and as one, realise we need to soak in the last quarter of the game, back our boys and thank them for all they’ve done. The next 20 minutes perplexes the sensibilities of the cossetted Premier League and armchair watchers, why are they doing this?
Wow, supporters supporting their team, we’re not deserting them, we’re not going to throw off our claret and amber for a nice Manchester red or Chelsea blue. We’re here and we’re going to make sure you don’t forget about us.
Remember this Wembley, remember this world we will return.
Now we just need to get out of this league Dan, yes we do Dad. He is still singing the Claret and Amber song, he still loves his club, proudly wears his colours, we get statistical and logical updates from his friend Benny on how we’re doing and where we are in the table, like we don’t know. We just need to get a few wins, you never know, we’ve seen we are better than these teams, we get points and results.
Back into a gloriously sunny day in Bradford, Northampton at home. The ugly up and unders and the long throws are repelled, is that as many fans as you can muster for a crucial end-of-season game? Funny! In our seats, down the front for autographs, shouting out warnings to James Meredith, urging them on. They can hear us, we can make a difference, Dan involved in all the banter, copying his Dad berating the ref (must stop that), happy to be home, clear off Northampton, clueless, only playing one way, how did you get to 3rd?
Dan has already asked “When does the new season start?” This lad is hungry for more, he want to be back at Valley Parade and getting into it all over again!
Back up to another beautiful Bradford day, for Burton in the play offs, nice and early, car on Midland Road. Dan wants more City merchandise, a team poster, a nice top to wear at football on a Friday, standing out amid the Chelsea and Manchester United strips. He knows his team’s players, not distant figures seen on the TV or in a magazine, but real, working, fighting and producing right before his eyes.
The ground is fuller than normal. The seats around us have filled up, although not the Burton section, is that it for a play off semi? The teams parade out, Burton conspicuous by their bulk, a team of body builders or rugby players, with no little hint of chemical enhancement. They dominate, never have goals been celebrated with so little noise. My frustration twists my insides.
Thompson scores a cracker, and 2-3 seems like a victory in some senses. The Burton fans look happy with their night’s work, Dan asks if we can still do it, I tell him if we play like we know we can, then yes! And so they did, another sunny day brings forth the result we need and Wembley approaches.
The final is on 18 May, oh, that’s the same day as your baby cousin’s 1st birthday party up in Leeds, which do you want to go to Dan? Ha ha very funny Dad, what do you think?
Saturday arrives. Back off to Watford, this time it’s a load of City fans at Croxley station, all the way in. We don’t need photos, already got them, we’re not here to mess about, this is it Dan.
Up in the top tier, looking down on the half-way line, we start on top I turn to Dan “We need an early goal” we need to get some reward for our dominance. Up in the top tier, City’s play can be appreciated for what it is, all the interplay, movement and dominance, near post, far post, back to near post an un-marked Hanson can loop his header back over the keeper. Beautiful. Those Northampton fans on our left can start to shut up.
Again near post, far post and Rory McArdle relives his goal against Villa. What worked against them does again against this lot.
For a 3rd time our movement across the goal loses the Northampton defence we can all see Nahki Wells alone this side. So can Thompson. The goalie slumps to his knees against his left-hand post knowing his team is getting blown away. City are doing exactly what they need to do, the opponent is on the canvas and they are not being allowed to get up.
In the end it feels like we are having our own party, enclosed in this arena, away from the world, Northampton have gone by now, the world seems to have gone by now, it must be hard for others to feel what this means, after years of strife, days of coming home, not knowing if your club will still be around, not knowing where they will be playing, unsure of when it will turn around and almost believing that that may never happen.
And we were there, me and my son, his first proper season, my first with a football companion since the mid ‘90s, the pain and waiting made it all the sweeter. This story started on a sunny spring day and will finish the same way. The event organisers at Wembley feel they need to ‘create’ a party atmosphere for winners, so we had endless ‘celebratory’ songs. But I’d rather we could have just sung ourselves hoarse with our own songs, rather than almost feeling like a spectator due to this insistence on blaring out their own playlist.
So the summer is here, a time of looking back and looking forward, of watching Dan in his City top and listening to him hum ‘Claret, Amber’ over and over again and waiting to get my new Flexicard for another season with my Bradford City mad brummie.
Thank you to Julian and Mark for going above and beyond for years now. To David Baldwin and all the staff at City. To Parky and Steve and all of the team – for giving us a team to love again and making us feel like excited kids once more.