By Emma Levine
“So, dear, have you kept the Sunday afternoon free?” said my underground station’s newspaper seller (from India, we usually have a chat about the latest cricket news).
“Afternoon free? Mate – it’s a three-day party!”
No exaggeration there. The date of 24 February, in addition to inducing heart palpitations just by looking at the calendar, was extended into quite a humdinger. The Saturday was booked for a grand old meet up with Bantams fans, aka the North London Craft Beer Crawl, as selected by the owner of Bradford’s very own Sparrow Bier Café. This was to be the first time I could put names – or rather Twitter handles – to faces.
Monday 25 was simply booked off work to recuperate.
As was soon obvious, the most frustrating thing about the build-up to That Day was that none of my workmates particularly cared. I’m an editor at a magazine, and among my five other editorial colleagues, none gave a hoot. Nothing. Nada. Any mention of the words Wembley/final/Bantams/tickets/Cup provoked a mass non-reaction, with eyes glazed over. They simply didn’t care about football.
This rather irked my build up, and I had to be satisfied with singing ‘Wemberlee, Wemberlee, we’re the famous Bradford City’ (etc) walking to and from the tube station each day.
“So, what are you doing at the weekend?”
“Well there’s a final on Sunday”, stating the obvious. They had forgotten. “But I’m meeting up with a load of Bantams on Saturday.” Blank looks. “Bradford City fans down for the weekend that I’ve never met before, only met on Twitter. It’s a bit like a mass blind date.”
“Ahhh”, it was greeted with slight pity. But having left Bradford 27 years ago, and now living in North London (via several other countries), I had no friends or family in the city, yet made connections courtesy of my relatively new relationship with Twitter, and this would be the first chance to meet them. I was especially hoping to meet up with Paul, the chap kind enough to help me organise my tickets for the Big Day, and buy him a few beers.
Saturday dawned, the official start of The Big One. With an immense fried breakfast to line the stomach, I headed to the first pub on the list – which of course changed even while en route on the overground line via frantic text messages from Andrew, the coordinator.
In a tucked-away pub round the corner to Kentish Town West station, Tapping The Admiral sold the likes of Mean Time, Dark Star and Redemption ales, names that conjured up intrigue and hangovers.
Once the claret-and-amber scarves and shirt-wearing folk arrived, it was indeed putting faces to names. As the beers went down, the venues changed every hour, a thirty-something-ish crowd feeling easy and excited and with the usual “how the blinkin heck have we made it here” sentiment. We skirted around my usual Camden haunts and this time it was with a new band of Northern merry men and women.
Inside the darkened Brewdog Camden, a few Arsenal fans made the short trip from the Emirates, where they’d just beaten Villa.
“Good luck for tomorrow” one Gooner said to me. “How come you want us to win?” “Well, we’d rather say that we were beaten by the eventual cup winners!” she replied.
I painted my nails claret and amber stripes in the darkened shadows of the standing-room-only Brewdog Camden, the only nod to femininity for a weekend of beer, football and (mainly) blokes.
Still waiting to hear from Paul, I finally got a text from him at 8pm: “In Covent Garden, not sure which pub”.
Zipping onto the tube, still singing “Wemberlee, Wemberlee” softly, I emerged at the cobbled broad street of Covent Garden, leading down to a pedestrianised piazza. Unable to get through to his phone, I walked into the first pub, The White Lion.
It was a Bantam extravaganza, a sea of scarves and songs, packed to the gills. Now this was where the party would no doubt be going well into the night. Unable to find my Bantam knight in shining armour, I stepped outside to try the phone again.
“You alright love?” grinned a lad who looked about 12, but his cigarette and pint indicated a tad older. They’d travelled down that morning and turning the weekend into a party.
“You must meet my Grandad – he played for City,” he nodded over to a lovely septuagenarian chap standing against the wall, who shook my hand firmly. This was Pat Liney, the Scottish-born goalkeeper who played for Bradford Park Avenue and Bradford City in the 1960s and 70s, and was enjoying the prospect of his first trip to the new Wembley.
Now 9pm, I figured being sensible, getting an early night and avoiding a hangover for the Big Day was in order, so headed home and straight to bed with that growing Christmas Eve feeling.
The Big Day. Armed with the list of City-designated pubs around the stadium, it was an even larger fry up which started the day along with a strange, unfamiliar feeling of anticipation. I’d been listening to Radio 5 Live since 6am, watched the highlights of both Villa legs yet again, filled up the hip flask with whiskey, and layered on the clothes; it would be a sub-zero day.
I met my pal Rick at Baker Street tube station, and we joined the fans on the tube to Wembley Park. But where were the Swans? It appeared that 90% of those on the train were City fans. Perhaps we’d scared Swansea away?
I finally got a text from Paul: “We’re in JJ Moon’s”.
Map in hand, we headed the huge pub on the Wembley High Street, with bad-tempered security men in luminous tabards on the door. The mood inside was a joy, a dizzyingly noisy and packed pub filled exclusively with Bradford fans, singing and chanting. And there was Paul, a big hug of thanks and several pints later, and it finally hit home.
We were going to Wembley.
It was that delirious site of the famous Wembley Arch, which has meant so much to thousands of fans over the years, which made you just want to stand and soak up that sight, to get dozens of photographs of “I was there” sentiment. And of course when the teams ran out onto the pitch at 3.50pm – that was priceless. I’m glad they didn’t play “Abide With Me”; I would have been blubbing for the rest of the afternoon.
Let’s gloss over the match, as many have written about that 90 minutes, and how we finally met our match with a team that were thoroughly deserved winners.
On the Tuesday morning, still proudly wearing my City scarf, I was greeted with a card on my desk: “Sorry For Your Loss”.
My very sweet colleagues had written messages of condolence – not bad for a bunch of people who didn’t care about football. Perhaps the whole experience had given them something to think about.