Tag Archives: League Cup

Carl McHugh will always be loved at Bradford City

16 Jun

NV2G9441

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.

League Cup miracle one year on: Swansea City

24 Feb

SAM_0442

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.

SAM_0387

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.

DSCF6790

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.

SAM_0435

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.

___________________________________

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

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.

DSCF6347

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.

DSCF6317

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.

DSCF6333

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.”

DSCF6345

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.

DSCF6360

I don’t know how long we celebrate for, but before long Villa Park is empty apart from the 6,500 City fans. The lights are switched off, “We’ll sing in the dark” is the chant. But eventually we head out into the Birmingham night. In all the chaos me and Steve eventually find Luke, Kev and Sam so we can head towards the car. We’re hugging each other, talking like five-year-olds on Christmas day morning. Villa fans come up and wish us good luck for the final. I look at my mobile and I have dozens of congratulatory text messages and several missed calls.

We finally get back to the car and we’re back on the motorway surprisingly quickly. In the rear view mirror I take one last look at the floodlights – and realise I’ve not stopped smiling for the best part of an hour.

This feeling, this pride – you want to bottle it up forever. I was at Molinuex when City were promoted to the Premier League 14 years ago, but this somehow feels even more exhilarating. Hanson’s goal was one that I have celebrated like no other. Football supporting doesn’t get better than nights like these; where the sense of achievement is incalculable and the realisation of what’s still to come leaves you excited that this party is a long way from being over.

The conversation is not going to change for weeks yet.

______________________________________________

Read our look back on the League Cup miracle

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 part one – the alternative Wembley view

16 Dec

On each of the final three Mondays of 2013, Width of a Post is looking back on an unforgettable year. In part one we reflect on the two visits to Wembley – not from the viewpoint of Bradford City fans in the West end of the stadium, but what two opposition supporters made of their respective days.

DSCF6857

Swansea City 5 Bradford City 0

League Cup Final

By Huw Richards

There is visual evidence of how I felt before the League Cup Final. A picture on page 67 of Huw Bowen’s book ‘Swansea City: Road to Wembley’. A group of fans including Prof Bowen posed on Wembley Way, all smiles of anticipation. Well, nearly all. Second from left is a bearded, bespectacled 50-something in a brown leather jacket whose expression might be termed pensive. The caption reads, in best West Walian demotic ‘C’mon, Huw Richards, mun. Cheer up, it’s a blydi cup final!’.

But that was the trouble. When your club has taken 101 years to reach its first major final, there’s no reason to believe it will happen again in a hurry. To win a real trophy is the fulfilment of every football fan’s dream, cherished perhaps most fervently by those of us who spend most of our supporting lives with no realistic hope of it happening. It had to be now, or very likely never.

Bradford had inevitably, and quite rightly, dominated the build-up. To get to a final while playing at level four was an achievement deserving all the acclaim it got, and had the additional merit of diverting even the most trivial of mass media away from That Bloody Ballboy.

Nor was Bradford’s status any reason for complacency. The last time we played a League Two team, Shrewsbury in late 2011, had also been the last time we lost a League Cup tie. Our closest call on the trek to Wembley came at Crawley, lately of the same league.

Both of us had recently played Aston Villa. Bradford won over two legs, while we scraped a last minute draw at home. Bradford had knocked Arsenal out of the League Cup. Arsenal knocked us out of the FA Cup.

There would have been no disgrace in losing. A palpable air of mutual goodwill, summed up by Jason McKeown’s When Saturday Comes musing that ‘I’d be supporting them, if they weren’t playing my team,’ hung over Wembley Way. It was a contest of clubs and cities with much in common.

But we would inevitably have gone down as the Premier League club who blew their best chance of a trophy against a team from three leagues lower. However much goodwill you feel, nobody wants to be the fall guy in somebody else’s happy story.

Hence perhaps the difference in collective miens on Wembley Way. Bradford colours are much more vivid than our own, but this also seemed a rare occasion when the Swans fans were beaten for decibels per capita. Bradford’s good cheer seemed unforced, our own underlain by an edge of apprehension.

But that was also Bradford’s chief misfortune – that they ran into a rare Premier League team to whom the occasion mattered just as much. Their best chance would probably have been against one of the oligarchs, absent-mindedly chasing a trophy they see as, at best, a consolation prize.

We perhaps got lucky to be playing a lower division team whose instinct was to play football. A traditional up-and-under, stick-it-in-the-mixer-and-see-what-happens battler might have been more of a problem. But that doesn’t mean Bradford were wrong to play the way they did. Wembley isn’t the place to start playing against instinct.

So the match followed a template laid down in the first minute, when the Swans passed and passed and Bradford’s first touch was a clearance for a corner. With Bradford evidently under instructions not to dive in and commit themselves, it increasingly resembled a training session – the Swans passing, moving and switching while Bradford chased, covered and hoped to pressure them into mistakes.

Being in possession was reassuring – one element most pundits miss about Swansea’s style is that having the ball a lot is our first line of defence – but barely steadied underlying nerves. That only happened as the goals came, and it was not until number three went in on 50 minutes after a build-up featuring two superb dummies from Michu that it was really safe to believe the cup was coming our way. The ecstatic leap by Michael Laudrup, usually an impassive touchline presence, suggested he felt the same.

Then came number four, and a different sort of anxiety. I certainly didn’t want to see Matt Duke sent off in a match that was already decided, still less to see Bradford humiliated. Subsequent interviews have suggested that the Swansea players felt the same. Four was plenty, the fifth an afterthought when the risk of real humiliation had passed.

The remainder had a dream-like quality. Part of me believes that we entered a parallel universe some years ago and that in reality we’re still getting beaten 4-0 at Rushden and Diamonds. The idea that we were about to take a real trophy still seemed barely graspable.

Those closing stages belonged to the fans – the Swans exultant, Bradford still proclaiming pride in their club and its achievement. There was a hint of call and response in the Swans answer to chants of ‘Stand up for the 56’ and a glorious gallows humour in Bradford singing ‘All we are saying, is Give Us A Shot’. The applause when Gary Jones, recalled by some of us as a raw, angular midfield Scouse recruit to the Swans in another millennium, gratified that minimalist desire in the final minutes was worthy of a winning goal.

The unmatchable moment post-game had to be Ashley Williams lifting the trophy. Status, as supporters of both clubs know, is temporary. But we’ll have this for ever, just as Bradford have their 1911 FA Cup and, it can be argued, Manningham’s inaugural Rugby League championship.

But a close second was the guard of honour Swansea’s players gave to their Bradford counterparts. Whether it was planned or spontaneous, or whose idea it was, I have no idea. Laudrup made clear his respect for Bradford’s achievement ‘This match was history – a small part because of us, but mostly because of Bradford’. But if asked to guess, I’d suspect that Ashley, remembering his own years in the lower leagues, might have been the author of this gesture of respect. And while seeing your team win a trophy offers pride enough, to see them as good winners, honouring a worthy adversary, redoubled that feeling.

One problem with being in the Premier League is that the cacophony of witless chatter around it cuts out most other experience. It is easy to lose sight of the lower leagues. But I’d imagine that many Swans fans took rather more notice than usual of the later stages of League Two last season, and were delighted to see Bradford promoted. I’d not bet against us meeting again as league opponents, and sooner rather than later.

That sense of February 24th as a bit of a dream lives on. I’m unlikely to have a better year as a football fan than 2013. Three linked events stand out – the semi-final victory at Chelsea, Wembley and the Europa League win at Valencia. It was mind-blowing just to be playing Valencia, never mind winning. All three were in Cups and I’ll remember them as long as I live. But as to 2013 in the Premier League, the ‘Promised Land’ where you ‘Live the Dream’, that giant 24/365 generator of cash, bombast and bullshit in equal quantities – most of that has gone already.

There’d be a message here somewhere, if only Sky, 606 and other culprits too numerous to mention would turn down the volume so I could hear myself think.

Huw Richards is a third generation Swans fan who saw his first match in 1966. Since then he has seen Swansea lose on more than 90 different grounds (including Valley Parade). A freelance journalist based in London and well-known for contributing regularly to When Saturday Comes, Huw was also a writer on cricket and rugby for the International New York Times, former (1995-2009) rugby correspondent of the Financial Times, author of several books including The Swansea City Alphabet and co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to Football, into which he smuggled references to the Swans and to Ivor Allchurch, who he still ranks as their greatest player.

______

SAM_1074

Bradford City 3 Northampton Town 0

League Two Play Off Final

By Danny Brothers

18 May 2013…a day that we, as Cobblers fans, were hoping never to forget. It ended up being a day that we wanted to rid our memories of as soon as our feet stepped back on Wembley Way. As we trooped back down the famous walk way the fact that there were just claret shirts heading for Wembley station told the whole story – the Bradford supporters were starting a party that gave them their dream ending to a season that will go down in their history.

And didn’t they just deserve it. My experience of Bradford up to that point was that they were a true sleeping giant at League Two level, always high in the betting for promotion candidates yet never fulfilling their potential. It is to their enormous credit, then, that their fantastic supporters were out in force for their second Wembley appearance of the season for a play off final of the basement division.

Not only that but they were up for it. Since the whistle blew on their fairy tale adventure to the League Cup Final a few months before they had been on a run of form that would have frightened anyone coming into the play offs, and I for one was hoping that they would finish in the top three – I fancied us against any of the other play off candidates but not the Bantams, who had used the cup final defeat to spur them on to a morale boosting finish to the league season.

Burton Albion threatened valiantly to almost bring their tale to an end but after a turnaround victory for Bradford in the other play off semi-final, coupled with the Cobblers’ narrow wins over Cheltenham, we knew how tough the final would be.

The big day came and from the moment I arrived I felt that I was there more in hope than expectation. Bradford had a real balance to their team sheet that any League Two club would have died for whilst the Cobblers had amazingly dropped Bayo Akinfenwa. The City fans were well and truly ready and confident with the Cobblers end shrouded in nerves.

That feeling spread to the pitch as well and so it was that half an hour ended any hopes at all of a glorious chapter in our history books being written. We were simply blown away across the pitch and in the stands and had no answer. James Hanson and Nahki Wells were tearing us to shreds whilst Kyel Reid was causing endless problems.

Hanson and Rory McArdle sunk us before we’d even settled and, of course, Wells got his obligatory goal against the Cobblers. After twenty eight minutes we were dead and buried with a good run of defensive form shattered by a front line gagging for more.

Pride was the only thing at stake for us in the second half with Bantams fans already planning their evening celebrations that were starting at the other end of Wembley. Bayo was brought on far too late and his final acts as a Cobblers player were minimal. Bradford had come, seen and conquered in ruthless style.

I remember sitting in my seat for an age after the final whistle – partly to reflect on how close we had come pre-Wembley but mainly to make sure I applauded the winning team as they made their rightful way up the steps to lift the trophy. In a morbid way I think I stayed to make any successes that do come one day on days like this that bit sweeter, but the Bantams were worthy of congratulations from both teams.

It was a day that I can’t ever fully erase from my memory – it was a stunning first half an hour in so many ways and Bradford completely knocked us into submission before we’d got into any stride. Their supporters were a credit to their club and I’m sure continue to be just that in League One. It’s no surprise to any Cobblers fans how well they are doing and I genuinely hope that they can make it back to back promotions come May 2014.

We will meet again one day and, though there will always be the Wembley banter, I hope that there’s a new level of respect between the two sets of supporters. Next time, though, please warn us before you smash us to smithereens!

Danny Brothers is the editor of the fantastic Northampton Town blog, A Load of Cobblers. He juggles writing his site with caring full time for his amazing daughter and keeping his house on the outskirts of Bath relatively clear of mice. Danny is very happy that City donated Matt Duke to Northampton, and is hoping Ricky Ravenhill’s loan move is soon made permanent.

League Cup miracle, one year on: Arsenal

11 Dec

2012-12-11 22.26.41 

Width of a Post’s retrospective look back on last season’s incredible League Cup run has reached Arsenal in the quarter finals – one year ago t0day. Katie Whyatt recalls the night when the Bantams beat the mighty Gunners.

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

We’re going to win, I tell myself – and anyone who’ll listen – as I wrap up against the December cold and take the walk down a darkened Manningham Lane littered with the painful memories of the journeys home from too many crushing defeats. We have to win this. ‘Cupsets’ happen every year, and it’s our turn to be the heroes, to take the starring role in a David and Goliath fairytale, to be the plucky underdog the nation coos over. We’ve just got to score first, and then defend everything out of the game. Or keep calm and take it to penalties. Either – or both – will do just fine.

We are joined by my brother’s friend, Alfie, an Arsenal fan (I treat this with quiet enthrallment, admiring him as you might a curious animal at a zoo – ‘one of them is in our territory’), as we weave in and out the throngs of claret and amber. Alfie is confident. And it’s assured, well-founded confidence, rooted in the fact his team is in the Premier League, is bursting to the brim with millions of pounds worth of talent and comprises entirely of seasoned internationals – not that any of them will play. Wenger wouldn’t waste his prize assets on a cup competition, especially one against a League Two club that has spent the best part of the last ten years struggling down the slippery slide from the top flight.

Still, the thought of losing is a sobering one. I don’t want to get knocked out tonight. I don’t want to have to be consoled at the final whistle. I don’t want to be the one rueing missed chances during the post-mortem at school tomorrow. I don’t want to have to ultimately concede that the magic of the cup shrouded me in ignorance and left me prone to delusion, my ill-advised optimism just a means of protecting myself from the inevitable. We’re going to give it everything, I decide. It’s written in the stars.

A crisp layer of frost coats the turf as winter grips the stadium, the Valley Parade night enfolded in a sheet of bitingly cold December air. A harsh chill is afoot, and one that will regress to sub zero by the time the additional half hour rolls in, but it doesn’t matter – we won’t be staying long. Arsenal will brush us aside, and that will be it. We take the short walk to our seats and gasp at how perfect our position is: metres from the press box (a source of quiet fascination for an aspiring writer and avid Bantams Banter listener), metres from the tunnel and just centimetres from the pitch.

Touching distance. Poised for an upset.

Wenger’s side warm up in front of us. The media were wrong; there are some big names on that pitch. Flipping heck! He’s not been conservative, that Arsene Wenger, and his oddly flattering team selection sets the heart racing: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Coquelin, Podolski, Gervinho. His bench alone could pass for a first-string Champions League side.

We take pictures of all four stands, of the scoreboard, of random Arsenal players, and film the fans as they chant, “Bring on the Arsenal!” This is the best atmosphere I’ve ever witnessed at City. The raucous roars exuded by the Kop, complemented perfectly by the unrelenting crackle of applause from the fans housed in the TL Dallas stand, is magic. As the stadium announcer runs through the teamsheets, it’s clear the shiver down my spine can be attributed to more than the low temperature.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be kicking off in just under five minutes.”

Five minutes? That went quick! The air is rife with anticipation now, the suspense building with each foreboding pound of the infamous Valley Parade drum. Bradford City and Arsenal. This is really happening.

Then, that’s it.

Crunch time.

Only at the shrill ring of the referee’s whistle do I realise what I’ve let myself in for. The butterflies lurch around violently in my stomach and I pin my eyes to the pitch, too scared to glance away, to blink, to look at anything other than the battle between the megastars and the minnows that’s playing out before me. Thankfully, City are holding their own. Wells looks threatening. Doyle and Jones are controlling the middle, giving Arsenal a tough time of it. The back four look sharp. But, most significantly of all, Hanson is terrifying Mertesacker. He’s winning headers and the defender’s giving him a wide berth. I think Alfie’s quietly impressed.

Suddenly, Wells breaks free down the right. He rages into space. The Arsenal midfielders trail in the slipstream. He’s sent tumbling down. Valley Parade pauses. The stadium waits. The referee points to the floor.

Free kick.

Gary Jones raises his arm to the sky, charges and swings his boot. His perfectly executed cross finds the head of a rising Will Atkinson. Garry Thompson, stood beyond the far post, unmarked, hands in fictional pockets, just chillin’, suddenly springs to life, and fires home with a sweet left-foot volley. 1-0.

This is mad. This is just mad. We are leading. We are leading. WE ARE LEADING! This is our second in the spotlight! This is our glorious underdog moment! This is why we kept faith through every relegation battle, every failed promotion campaign, every defeat to Accrington, every disparaging comment from Leeds supporters.

Garry Thompson, the man who had been panned a month or so ago for looking lacklustre on the wing, has just smashed City in front against Arsenal. A-R-S-E-N-A-L. People will tell their children, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren, about this moment, about that man. Garry Thompson, cemented in our history books: our new cult hero, inaugurated on what’s quickly becoming the greatest night of our history. I imagine this is what the Premier League days must have felt like: powerful, intoxicating, an emotion verging on euphoria. All those tiny teams I’d willed through the cup over the years – Barnsley, Havant and Waterlooville, Histon… We are now among them.

We are giant-killers.

It takes just a minute before the chanting starts. Brash, bold, confident, the product of the ethereality leaking from every pore.

“You’re getting SACKED in the morning! You’re getting SACKED in the morning. SACKED in the morning! YOU’RE GETTING SACKED IN THE MORNING!”

I can’t believe it. We’re singing that to Arsene Wenger. The Arsene Wenger. The one more used to frequenting the Emirates, and trudging up and down the touchlines of Anfield and the Etihad. The one who wears that coat. The one on television every day. The one who’s now scowling morosely at his players, brow furrowed, arms folded, staring at the pitch in subdued embarrassment.

“YOU’RE GETTING SACKED IN THE MORNING!”

The chant is intensifying, growing louder with each word. Before tonight, I didn’t know you could sing that loudly and that passionately about a team, that a goal could mean that much to that many people. But now I do. And I’m joining in with every single song.

City continue to hold out as the volume is cranked up to full. Arsenal are enjoying the lion’s share of the possession, but they’re failing to capitalise on their dominance. The ball goes over, wide, against Matt Duke, anywhere but actually in the net. Promising play from Jack Wilshere undoes the Bantams midfield and the Gunners look set to score, but the ball skirts past a hapless Gervinho in potentially the most comedic miss ever. The Kop heave a collective sigh of relief.

Arsenal throw everything forward, exploring every avenue, simply refusing to lie down. Chamakh to Duke. Wilshere to Duke. Gibbs and Sagna and Oxlade- Chamberlain to Duke. Cazorla strikes the upright. Meredith wins a challenge. Darby follows suit. McArdle belts it forward. City are clinging on by their fingertips and I don’t know how much more I can take.

Arsenal corner.

Cazorla crosses in from the flag and the ball is knocked clear. But it’s not good enough. It’s swung back in, and Vermaelen hops through the cluster of defenders to fire home.

“NO!”

This isn’t happening. No. This isn’t how it’s meant to be. It can’t end like this. Please. Not after everything.

Two minutes from time. Just two minutes. Practically over the finish line. Nearly clasping the upset we’d been craving. And now we have to endure half an hour of Arsenal scoring for fun. This isn’t fair; this is cruel.

And what makes it even crueller is that the Bantams could’ve won this. They genuinely could have. To come this far, to defend as well as they did, and to leave with nothing, is criminal – anyone will tell you that. But the Gunners had been playing with us all along: teasing us, taunting us, tricking us into believing we had a chance. I resign myself to a loss and slump in my seat.

But it starts. The infamous chant that’s been following the team since Burton. The one they’ve been unable to shake off. A slow rumble, at first, coming from the Kop. Then, from the Bradford End. And, before we know it, it’s sweeping across the Main Stand and we’re all united together in a passionate, all-engulfing wall of noise, determined to see this one through.

“IT’S ONLY A CUP! WHO GIVES A F**K? WE’RE SUPER CITY AND WE’RE GOING UP!”

The noise is unrelenting, Arsenal also. It’s all blue shirts. How they’re not finding the net is beyond me.

Slowly, the seconds die away. The clock begins to tick down. 3, 2, 1, 00:00. It’s all over. The referee blows his whistle. Cheers, applause, throaty shouts – the promise of penalties celebrated almost as loudly as the Garry Thompson goal. Because City might be bruised, battle scarred and absolutely shattered, but they’ve made it to the shootout.

Which means there’s only one outcome.

Doyle and Jones slot home to give City a confident start, but the impossible happens for the visitors: Duke and the post deny Cazorla and Chamakh respectively. What’s going on? We’re all alive now, daring to believe. We can really do this.

The party stalls as Stephen Darby’s weak penalty is all too easily parried away by Szczesny, and the tension mounts further when Jack Wilshere flashes in with a clean effort. Alan Connell shows both sides how it’s done with an unstoppable smash into the roof of the net, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gladly retorts to put Arsenal back in the contest. Ritchie Jones’ feeble effort is then brushed away.

By now, I’ve lost count of what means what, who has to score and who doesn’t. So, when Thomas Vermaelen begins the long walk to the spot, I don’t know what’s happening. I see him step back, run and hit it. Duke dives the wrong way. An open net gapes invitingly before the Belgian.

He hits the post.

The celebrations are delayed for me. It is only when I see the players sprinting over to Matt Duke, the fans invading the pitch, Jack Wilshere flopping to the floor, that I know what’s just happened.

“WE’VE JUST BEATEN ARSENAL!”

The hurt of a thousand fruitless seasons suddenly begins to pale. All the pent-up anger, pain and frustration are exorcised in one big, cathartic release. The elation is mind blowing, incomprehensible. You can’t buy this. You really can’t. I don’t know where I am, what’s just happened, if what I’ve just seen was real. But it is, and I don’t want it to end. I am in a glorious bubble of Bradford City and Arsenal, oblivious to the rest of the world. Tonight, nothing else matters.

Tonight, we have just beaten Arsenal.

______________________________________

Read our look back on the League Cup miracle

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

Bradford City 3 Burton Albion 2

The early rounds

League Cup miracle, one year on: the early rounds

10 Dec

wigan

On Wednesday it will be exactly one year since Bradford City’s incredible victory over Arsenal. Width of a Post will be continuing its ‘one year on‘ retrospective series with a piece on the Gunners victory, but first David Howker recalls his memories of the road to the quarter finals. 

Round one – Notts County 0 City 1 (AET)

I’m not really a big fan of Fairport Convention, I’m not even really much of a fan of most ‘Folk Music’ in its truest sense. But it has become a tradition for my wife and I to attempt to recapture the live music of our courting years by watching bands and musicians from our era who still tour after all these years.

Or, as is the case with the Fairports, support a band who actually stage and host an annual three Day Open Air Music Festival in a beautiful setting in Oxfordshire with a fairly wide ranging mix of musical styles over a weekend in mid-August. My CD and Vinyl LP collection is fairly extensive and includes a fair smattering of Robert Plant, Squeeze, Little Feat, Status Quo, 10cc, Seasick Steve and others who have all performed in recent years at Fairport Convention’s Cropredy Festival.

So there I am, spending a Saturday afternoon along with 20,000 others enjoying a band called Brother and Bones relaxing in the sun in a farmer’s field (surprising given the weather in 2013) – only I am not relaxed, and I’m only vaguely listening to the band. The football season has inexplicably started early and it’s the first round of a Cup competition we have traditionally been spectacularly mediocre in – ever since I can remember.

Every two or three minutes I have to crank up my ancient Nokia mobile; a device which would draw hysterical guffaws from anyone with a mobile bought in the last 10 years. In comparison to modern phones, mine looks similar to one of those bricks you see slick young executives in movies from the early nineties holding to their ears. In fact mine runs on gas it’s that old.

So while the other 19,999 people in the field applaud the last song I’m sweating on (very slow) updates on a football match taking place before the season proper has begun. Yes Saturday afternoon August 18 is strange. I’m physically in Oxfordshire, but emotionally in Nottingham. The band get a warm ovation at the end of their set, but I’m on tenterhooks due to a certain footballer who used to work at the Co-op having scored an extra-time goal and I don’t know how close it is to the end of the game.

My updates are all about 10-15 mins slow. The match must have finished – but my updates tell me there are still 10 minutes to go. On stage they are making announcements about various events relating to the festival. Can they give us the full-times ? Nobody else is concerned – our friends we sit with are Pompey supporters so they have their own concerns. Finally it comes through, probably when most City supporters are halfway back to Yorkshire: the result.

For the rest of the concert I sit in blissful comfort. The sun feels warmer, the ale tastes fresher – even Fairport Convention sound like a band whose new album I might just consider buying…

Round two – Watford 1 City 2

Back in January I hadn’t thought this one through. Anyway, this is usually a round which is of minimal significance for me. Usually it just involves checking to see how the team who beat us in the first round have got on. This time, however, we are involved, and so a few days up on the West coast of Scotland at the end of August is not good timing when City are playing in the South East of England against a Championship side based only a few miles from an overnight stay at our nephew and his wife’s apartment.

Still, as the legendary Eric Morecambe once said ‘c’est la gare!’

So it’s picking up the text commentary on my mobile. But this is the West of Scotland! Getting a signal is about as straightforward as convincing Sky-watching Premier league ‘fans’ that interesting, exciting, thrilling, etc, etc.  games don’t of necessity involve South Manchester and North London teams.

In the old days I could at least have relied on the BBC/ITV reading out the night’s football scores after the late night news. (The 70s were a different era, I realise that now.) So, wait for the next day when we go to Loch Lomond for a cruise on the lake. Nearer to Glasgow and a transmitter. My wife sits in amazement as we screech into a municipal car park and I almost fall out of the driver’s seat, already getting my mobile settings on t’internet.

I forget the exact headline on the Official Site – but it reads along the lines of Garry Thompson choosing a great time to open his Bantams’ goalscoring account. Result!

Round three – City 3 Burton Albion 2 (AET)

Having managed to be at opposite ends of the country for the first two rounds (well, far enough away for it to feel like opposite ends) we really went for it this time. How about being on a different continent in a different time zone? Brilliant!

Yes, we’re in Michigan as part of a five-week tour of the States. I have to be honest, this was booked as a special holiday celebrating retirement from teaching for both my wife and myself. Anyway, there was no chance City would be involved in the third round of the League Cup – it never happens!

In a way it could be worse. Mid-afternoon for most of the five weeks meant we were somewhere on a Freeway or Highway or mountain path miles from a possible signal for our tablet. But no, we’re at our relatives for a couple of days, just hanging around. So it’s not really odd behaviour to keep disappearing every five minutes from the conversation around the table with assorted relatives, sneaking back to our room for a surreptitious look at the official website for updates. Getting more and more morose each time I go back to the conversation. It just doesn’t appear to be happening – 1-0 down, 2-0 down, time rapidly running out.

And then …

We’ve pulled a goal back. Not even a bit of consolation really. Still we’re having a brilliant time in the States, we’ve driven through 24 different States – seen some great sights and had blooming good weather (generally speaking).

Oh well, better go back and check the Nexus…Extra-time! What?

And (here’s timing) an update ….3-2 City!

Now it’s just nail-biting time for the next 20 minutes or so.

Our American cousins are incredibly polite – or they’re convinced I have an incredibly weak bladder! The next 20 minutes seemed like 20 hours.

I had a great evening that night though.

Round four – Wigan 0 City 0 (AET, City win 4-2 on penalties)

We’re going to be back in England for the fourth round.

It’s Wigan – away.

Perfect, we live about 10 miles from the DW Stadium. Home games are a bit of a trek. This is brilliant.

Only, when I get home, to get on the website for a ticket – all 5,000 are gone.

‘Don’t Panic, Mr Mainwaring !’ I’ll bite the bullet and buy a ticket from the Wigan ticket office and sit with them. I’ll feign polite appreciation as Wigan knock the goals in through clenched teeth – at least I would be there!

‘Sorry, lad, if tha’s not bowt tickets from th’ticket office at stadium before tha’ can’t have one for this match!’

Gutted!

Then, on the Monday morning before the game, a phone call from a former colleague at work. (We were both made redundant the previous year.) ‘Am I going to the match?’ I explain it hasn’t panned out. So, he asks, do I want him to get me one – he’s a season ticket holder at Wigan and he’s going down that afternoon to get tickets for himself, his son and a couple of other mates.

Should he get me one? You can’t really bite someone’s hand off over the phone, but it’s something on those lines.

So here I am, settled in ready to watch our plucky cup run come to an end, albeit with a, hopefully, not too embarrassing defeat at a Premier League club. The sense of anticipation around me is a bit unnerving, knowing that my allegiance is with the 5,000 crammed into the stand at the other end of the ground. It’s a good view though, roughly in line with the penalty spot. So I’m geared up for a good perspective on how our probable backs-to-the-wall first 45 is going to go.

Sure enough, 10 minutes or so in, it seems the first goal of the evening has gone in. The guys around me can’t believe it is disallowed. (If I’m totally honest, where we’re sitting we have a clear view and I think they have a point – but I’ll take anything we’re given!)

After that my abiding memory of the game is quick glances at the football whilst focussing on the interminably slow progress on the clock display on the scoreboard above the stand opposite. Can we keep them out for another five minutes, another five – it’s getting towards half time, can we keep them out? Second half – more of the same. Even the Latics supporters around me seem to be more focussed now on the remarkable game unfolding at the Madejski Stadium. Maybe the same is true of the Latics players. Penalties are appearing on the horizon. Surely not!

Sitting where I was, when Duuuuke made that saving penalty it was almost as if he was running directly over to me to celebrate before the team engulfed him. Surely I hadn’t made my emotions so obvious during that shoot-out ?

Finally, all credit to the Latics fans around me – it may have been shock, or at the very least disbelief – but there was little or no barracking of the Bantams players as they celebrated, a phenomenon which all too regularly is disappointingly visible on TV coverage of many Premier League fixtures.

We Made History 2012/13 DVD – available soon

4 Nov

By Jason McKeown

Bradford City’s 2012/13 season will never be repeated. For a fourth division team to reach a major cup final – defeating three Premier League teams along the way – and then to come from nowhere to win promotion was the most incredible of stories. Against a backdrop of 12 years filled with misery, financial problems and relegations, 2012/13 was all the more special for us long-suffering supporters.

But as those incredible memories inevitably start to dim over the years, the importance of having mementos and keepsakes of the historic season will grow. The kindest thing to say about BBC Radio Leeds’ Dave Fletcher’s book, Bantams over Wembley, is that it is factual. But for re-living the emotions of what we experienced in 2012/13, it doesn’t scratch that itch.

It’s therefore fantastic news that Bradford City Football Club has produced a commemorative DVD of the 2012/13 season – We Made History – which will shortly be available to buy. Width of a Post was extremely grateful to be given an advanced copy to review, and it is much a relief as it is a joy to confirm that the club has made a very good job of it. The disc – which features over two hours of footage – is a superb record of a superb season.

For many years, I always bought the club’s ‘Goals of the Season’ video/DVD; even the ones covering those relegation seasons. Produced by Cavasport and featuring the commentary delights of Keith Coates, they had always made for a great watch, before sadly declining in quality and then been stopped altogether. The away game footage they showed looked taped from the TV, with the crowd noises obviously taken from a different match and dubbed over (unless Dagenham really did play Tom Hark every time we scored at Victoria Road).

The care and attention taken by Fruition Media and the club to create We Made History is obvious. There have been mumblings of discontent from supporters over how long production has taken, but it’s far better to get it right than to rush something out substandard. The wait is worth it.

We Made History is split into two parts. The first, a 45-minute documentary based on a programme produced by Pulse FM at the end of last season, tells the story of the season. It begins with a horror collection of bad goals conceded over previous seasons, which provides some context of just how wonderful 2012/13 was to be. Goals from the majority of games feature within this documentary; plus in-depth reflections of the Wigan, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Swansea, Burton and Northampton matches. I still have many of these games on my Sky planner and have watched them several times, so it surprised me just how emotional I felt re-living those great moments during the documentary.

What helps the enjoyment of We Made History is the decision to use Pulse commentaries from the time over the goals. The worst thing City could have done would have been to hire a commentator to talk over these matches months later, as it would have lacked the raw emotion. To hear Tim Thornton’s screams of delight (oddly Ian Ormondroyd laughs a lot whenever City score) really takes you back to the feelings of ecstasy we experienced at the time. However, it is Dean Windass who steals the show. Employed by the Pulse to co-commentate for the big cup games, he makes no attempt to hide his partisan support for City and his reactions are hilarious.

The documentary also includes Pulse interviews with Phil Parkinson immediately after certain games, which are great to listen back to. And with the happy ending of promotion at Wembley, you can’t fail to have a beaming smile on your face as you watch this documentary.

Part two features action from all 64 matches of City’s historic season, again with Pulse commentary added. In the main this is a run-down of all the goals for and against, but there is also footage of 0-0s and in-depth highlights of the cup and play off games. The pictures from some of the away games are not great quality (was Accrington away filmed on a mobile phone?), but it’s still great to see all the goals. I guess you wouldn’t want to watch both parts of the DVD in one sitting, as there is plenty of repetition; but the option of sitting down to watch either part will give this DVD plenty of longevity and ensure you keep re-watching it.

We Made History is due to be available to buy this month, with the exact timings due to be confirmed shortly. Those people who pre-ordered will receive an email when it is ready for them to either collect or have delivered. If you haven’t pre-ordered, get yourself down to the Valley Parade club shop to buy it as soon as it comes out, so you have a permanent record of a season that we will all be talking about for decades.

If you don’t buy it, you may regret it for a long, long time.

dvd

_______________________________________________

logo1

If you like what Width of a Post do, please vote for us in the Football Blogging Awards.

We have been shortlisted for ‘Best Football Club Blog’ and ‘Best Established Blog’.

League Cup miracle, one year on: Wigan Athletic

30 Oct

wigan

Width of a Post continues its look back on last season’s incredible League Cup run, as Jason McKeown reflects on the shock victory over Wigan, which occurred a year ago today.

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

The impending bleakness of winter sharply falls into focus at this time of the year. The clocks have gone back, which suddenly means that, come 5pm, it is already pitch-black outside. For those of us who have 9-5 jobs, the psychological effect of this sudden jump to darkness can leave you feeling miserable. As you leave the office, it already seems as though the day is long over.

Tonight at 6pm, I am fighting through the dark and the M6 traffic to get to Wigan Athletic’s DW Stadium, having finished work early to make it in good time. The ground’s floodlights shine brightly to act as a homing beacon, and after getting past numerous traffic light junctions we find ourselves in a retail park with the stadium a centre piece, immediately surrounded by a raft of mini car parks that are numbered for who is allowed to use them. The visiting supporters’ parking section looks difficult to get out of and the fee to park leaves you gasping for breath in shock. There is no prospect of street parking, so the three of us reluctantly split the cost. Welcome to the Premier League.

The set up around the ground seems impressive, but in the blackness of 6pm it’s difficult to locate anything useful like somewhere to eat and a place to drink. We wander around aimlessly looking for any building with lights on, finding only a giant supermarket that is scarily busy with Wigan folk doing the big shop. We seem to walk around for an hour with no luck in finding anything of use; just a giant fish and chip place with long queues. Reluctantly, we give up and go inside the ground extra early for food and beer.

That we are here tonight at all has become something to savour following initial groans. The fourth round reward for getting past Notts County, Watford and Burton had not been an exciting trip to Old Trafford or the Etihad, but the relatively unglamorous, I-don’t-get-how-they-stay-up-every-season, Wigan Athletic. We’ll lose for sure, in an empty stadium, to a group of players who are hardly the household names a more favourable draw could have seen us pitted against. But hey, it’s only an hour’s drive away. So obviously we will go.

A remarkably sensible ticket pricing policy – just £10 to get in – encourages many others too. Conversations with different City friends confirm that almost everyone you know, of a claret and amber persuasion, is going. It’s soon announced that City’s initial allocation has been snapped up; and shortly afterwards the extra tickets have all gone too. A 5,000 away sell out that will guarantee a raucous atmosphere if nothing else.

Having gotten over the disappointment of a seemingly poor cup draw, there’s a growing sense of excitement in the build-up to the game. Three days earlier we were in league action at Burton – the side we beat to make the fourth round – and taunted the home fans about how we were going to Wigan and they were not. Possibly the only occasion in the history of football that a group of supporters have bragged about playing Wigan Athletic.

Which is not to be disparaging of the Latics. Their rise up the leagues and eight years of Premier League participation are an inspiration to clubs like ourselves. True, their incredible adventure had been funded by the millionaire Dave Whelan; but in the top flight that have retained a sensible policy of bringing in young players who can eventually be sold for a profit, while in the meantime benefiting from their services. And under Roberto Martinez, they play some wonderful football. Too open, perhaps, for a club who will always be battling relegation, but more preferable to the dourness of someone like Stoke. Everyone seems to look down their noses at Wigan, but they have every right to hold their heads high.

Their stadium is certainly impressive – much more so than it appears on TV. Far removed from the identi-kit grounds built over the last two decades, the steepness of the stands provides you an unexpected on-top-of-the-pitch feel, and the roof offers good acoustics that we will later exploit. Having supped food and drink on the excellent concourse, myself, Stephen and Alan make our way to our seats amongst the early arrivals, who have already begun chants that will not stop all night.

Before we can feel as excited, though, we are still digesting the shock news – revealed by a friend on the concourse – that on route to Wigan it had been announced that Luke Oliver’s season was over and that Andrew Davies would miss five months of action, after the pair were injured in that game at Burton. We already knew they were out for tonight – a fact that had increased the unlikeness of a cup exit – but to discover they would be missing in league action for so long suddenly dampened promotion expectations.

Tonight Rory McArdle – who had been playing at right back and not fully convincing – would be moved to his natural centre back position and 19-year-old Carl McHugh brought in for only his third game. What a test for them.

Early stages, it seems that the game will go true to form. Wigan start well. City can’t get hold of the ball. Pass, pass, pass. Forwards, backwards, side to side. What is in effect a reserve Wigan team look confident and there is a purpose to their play. Nine minutes in, the home fans are cheering as Wigan put the ball into the back of the net. This could be a long night.

Yet the linesman comes to City’s rescue, disallowing the goal. And as the minutes tick by with Matt Duke still to concede, the League Two side grow in stature. By the midway point of the half, the Bantams – attacking the packed out away stand – get forward on an increasingly regular basis. A patched up central midfield of Will Atkinson and Nathan Doyle – the returning Gary Jones only fit enough for the bench – impress greatly. Nahki Wells is the star of the show though. His touch, his dribbling and his on and off-the-ball running: Nahki looks every inch a higher league player.

As half time arrives you wonder why we were so pessimistic going into the match. City were the better side for the half’s final 25 minutes, and the question is raised for the first time: can we win this?

Wigan get better after the break, and it seems as though most of the game is played in City’s half. But their determination to stay true to their passing ethos means that clear cut chances are few and far between. Tonight makes men out of Darby, McArdle and McHugh – they are simply outstanding. The on-the-deck approach of Wigan suits McHugh’s style of defending and he makes countless interceptions and tackles. One of the best individual displays of the season.

After soaking up so much pressure, City suddenly break out with the impressive Zavon Hines able to run at his full back in possession. He beats his man, finds the angle a bit too narrow but nevertheless forces home keeper Al Habsi into a tip over the bar.

The atmosphere is even better than you’d imagine. The chanting never lulls, the range of songs extensive. Wigan’s most vocal lot are positioned to our left, next to us; but they don’t have the numbers to match our noise. We are, undoubtedly, that fabled 12th man and are helping our players. It feels special to be here, contributing and part of the noise. When was the last time City had such a big away following, anywhere? Off the top of my head, not since Leeds in a League Cup tie back in 1998.

The referee brings the game to a close, and we have extra time. The pattern is similar in City retaining their shape and discipline, whilst Wigan continue to try and carve us open with patient passing. The spectre of penalties – that scenario we so love – looms larger, but there is still time to see out. With five minutes to go, Jordi Gomez is played clean through and it seems as though heartbreak is inevitable. But incredibly, the Spaniard places his shot wide of Duke’s post. We cheer as though we are celebrating a goal.

Penalties are taken at the opposite end of the stadium. In front of an empty stand. Goodness knows who makes these decisions, but it probably gives Wigan a better chance compared to facing up to 5,000 City fans booing them. The first two penalties for each side are converted, before Darby scores and Shaun Maloney misses. Soon after City are 4-2 up, and Wigan have to score their fifth penalty to stay in the game. Gomez’s tame effort is brilliantly saved by Duke, cueing the memorable scenes of his team mates chasing him to the corner flag to pile on him in celebration.

Something most of us only see after watching clips from the game on TV later. We are lost in a sea of emotions as we go crazy revelling in the most incredible of victories. I jump on my long-time City watching friend Stephen, and we hug for a good few seconds. In a flash, memories of dour and dreadful away days run through your mind to offer perspective of how good this moment is. We’ve seen so much crap and endured so much pain, but tonight belongs to us supporters. Everywhere you look people are jumping on top of each other and cheering loudly.

Eventually the players de-mob from Duke’s back and come over to join the party. We’ve not seen full time scenes like this for many, many years. It is as though we have won promotion. It’s probably the best moment supporting the club in over a decade.

When we finally have to leave the DW, we pass TVs in the concourse reflecting on Arsenal’s live TV 7-5 victory over Reading. They will get tomorrow’s headlines, not us, but it doesn’t really matter. We will be in the hat alongside Arsenal and six other sides. We are in the last eight of the League Cup. Astonishing stuff.

We get out of the car park easily, and onto the M6 in no time. We are riding on the crest of a wave. Scarcely believing what we had just seen and struggling to comprehend the scale of the achievement. 24 long hours to get through before the draw for the next round of the cup is made. I just want us to play one of the big guns, at home. We are due that glam tie now. Surely.

Read our look back on Bradford City 3 Burton Albion 2

___________________________

Ilogo1f you like what Width of a Post do, please vote for us in the Football Blogging Awards.

We have been shortlisted for ‘Best Football Club Blog’ and ‘Best Established Blog’.

10 years of writing about Bradford City

15 Oct

photo02541

By Jason McKeown

It was only a 1-0 defeat, but the scoreline flattered the beaten Bantams. Ipswich Town had played us off the park and should have won by three or four goals, with only a 10-minute rally at the end offering any encouragement that the relegation battle which Bradford City had become embroiled in could be won. I was angry, I was disillusioned, I was fed up.

And so after that Division One (Championship) game, 10 years ago this week, I wrote my first ever article about Bradford City.

The piece was published on the hugely popular City website boyfrombrazil.co.uk. Three months earlier, I had graduated from Sunderland University with a middle-of-the-road Journalism degree and a desperate need to gain some writing experience. I had, in truth, not made the most of the three-year course and was not exactly the most employable graduate of the thousands entering the job market that summer. I had failed to build up much writing experience beyond the University magazine, and so a need to rectify that – and the fact I was returning to watching City on a regular basis – prompted me to get in touch with BfB’s editor, Michael Wood, to see if he would let me write for his site.

That first article was very much out of keeping the hundreds I have produced since: I was slating the manager. Nicky Law’s excuses for City’s dreadful performances had failed to impress me, and the piece stated that it was time that he proved himself. Cringeworthy looking back – Law had more than proved himself up to that point, guiding the club through Administration One, and did a decent job overall – but at the time it was a proud moment to see my byline appear on a site that I loved so much.

One article soon became a few and before long I was contributing pieces on a regular basis. As I struggled to hold down a temporary job and spent most evenings scouring various websites for journalism-related vacancies, writing pieces for BfB was light relief and a godsend for sharpening my writing skills. These days – based on emails I receive from University students – Journalism undergraduates are encouraged to start their own blogs and practice, practice, practice. It’s excellent advice, and I was lucky that Michael allowed me to use BfB as a playground to get better and better as a writer.

Article number three had been to reflect on the inevitable sacking of Law, and article four reviewed one of his first games in charge, another 1-0 home defeat (West Brom), but this time with City playing well.  New manager Bryan Robson brought improved performances if not results, and I backed him strongly. Improbably retaining belief that relegation to the third tier could be avoided.

By February I wrote my first ever match report, a 2-1 defeat to West Ham. I made the mistake of planning my intro before a ball had been kicked that afternoon, meaning a disjointed start to the report that didn’t really fit in with how events panned out. For the rest of that season I wrote about every game I attended. Michael wrote reports also, meaning BfB would often carry two per game. A bit strange looking back, but it helped me no end.

I’ve always taken a review type approach to match reports for BfB and latterly Width of a Post. I am mindful that I am writing to a selective audience, but one that has a huge amount of knowledge on the subject matter. Most people reading my reports have attended the match also. They don’t need me to tell them what happened because they saw it for themselves. Even if they didn’t attend, they will already know the score and – these days – have probably seen the goals. So I don’t go into detail of what happened each minute, and instead focus on attempting to tell the story of how a game was won, drawn or lost.

Back in 2003/04, the web was a different beast, with the phrase ‘social media’ not yet invented. That meant no interaction or feedback from readers. No one telling you if they agreed or disagreed with what you wrote. The first time I received any kind of response to an article came in August 2004 when, after our first home game following Administration Two, City drew 2-2 with Peterborough and Nicky Summerbee was booed by his own fans. I wrote my disgust at the reaction he had experienced, and when I checked my emails that evening I had four from City fans – two agreeing, and two very angrily disagreeing with my stance. It felt a bit disconcerting, but also nice to know that people were reading my stuff.

That match came at the start of Colin Todd’s reign as manager. I was, until the bitter end, an advocate of what Todd was trying to achieve at Valley Parade. For a while so were most people and the 2004/05 campaign was a fun one to write about, especially those five straight wins in October that put the Bantams second. One year on, Todd was being heavily criticised by a growing section of support and BfB came under fire. I and most of the other regular writers supported the City boss, leading to accusations of the site failing to offer balance and cover the anti-Todd view. This was despite Michael always welcoming articles from anyone.

By this stage I had the boost of securing a writing job. My first day in the role was the week before the 2004/05 season ended at Oldham. In many ways BfB had served its purpose in that my original reasons for writing for it – to get a full time job as a writer – had been achieved. But I was having so much fun and still gaining a great deal from writing up my views on City’s endeavours in League One that there was no doubt about continuing. Writing about Bradford City had become a hugely enjoyable hobby.

I’d like to think that I was developing a reputation amongst City supporters as a decent writer with fair and considered views, but the polarised opinions that Todd’s reign triggered across the fanbase meant those angry emails appeared a little more frequently in my inbox. I rarely read message boards, but one day I stumbled upon the City Gent website’s board (run by the now defunct company, Rivals) and was left shocked by numerous postings about me. Some praising me, others absolutely slating me and my views. I vividly remember one: “I’m sick of the utter s**t that Jason McKeown writes” (asterisks my edit). Ouch.

At least they weren’t trying to shut us down, however. That was what a Southend United supporter threatened both myself and Michael with in December 2005, after we wrote articles defending goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts when he was sent off at Roots Hall for gesturing to the crowd – the Jamaican claiming he was being racially abused. This supporter obviously didn’t believe the Don’s accusation and was upset that his fellow supporters had been questioned by me and Michael. So he sent us both long and angry emails informing us that he was taking steps to get BfB shut down. Eventually he calmed, but somehow Michael’s contact details made it to a Southend message board, with nasty results.

It wasn’t an easy time for Michael, and by October 2006 he made the decision to take a break and stop BfB. I found out just like every other reader – by logging onto the site one morning to read a statement. I was gutted. This was still the days before blogs were as easy as they are now to create, and I had no skills or knowledge to start my own. I didn’t want to stop writing about my beloved Bantams, so approached Mike Harrison of the City Gent and began a column – Midland Road Mutterings – which I continued for five years. As a long-time reader of the fanzine, this was a great privilege.

BfB returned at the end of that season, but the landscape had changed considerably. Todd had been sacked, Dean Windass departed and City were in free-fall. My first article back writing for BfB was a match report of relegation being confirmed at Chesterfield.

The site was very different on re-launch, and behind the scenes Michael set it up so I could upload and publish articles directly myself, easing his own workload. BfB became a blog format, rather than news site. A lot of people didn’t like it at first, but with City in the basement league the simple fact was there wasn’t as much going on around the club to make daily news reports fulfilling. What was Michael to do, simply repeat Simon Parker’s interviews with players for the T&A? Even in the present, nothing really happens at Valley Parade in-between matches.

So BfB became all about opinions. Which suited us fine, as both Michael and I were rarely short of them. The Stuart McCall era certainly provided plenty of material as City adapted to League Two. If Todd had my measured support, McCall was a different level altogether. I’ve long held the view the managers need to be given years not months to build something, and so the presence of my greatest City hero in the dugout was a continuity I wanted to see maintained despite the difficult moments of his tenure.

It was a mixed time, response wise. Many people shared our views and BfB’s readership grew substantially; but when form suffered and other elements of support turned on McCall, we too found ourselves in the firing line of the anger. I had many a heated exchange with other supporters as I argued passionately for the manager I believed in. It was not nice to watch McCall eventually be driven away by supporters and members of City’s board. In truth, I found myself disenfranchised with all things City for almost a year after his departure.

By now Peter Taylor was in charge. A good appointment on paper that did appease me, but my enthusiasm was not what it was. It was a strange period, as I went from being slated for backing one manager too much, to being criticised by the same people for not supporting the next one strongly enough. By January 2010 I’d had enough of Taylor and wrote a heartfelt piece about my loss of support for him as manager. I was far from the only one, and a month later he was gone.

That year – 2011 – must rank as BfB’s best, at least until its abrupt ending in November. In that January (and before Taylor went), I had nervously sent an email to David Baldwin asking if Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn would be willing to be interviewed by myself and Michael. To our surprise, they said yes. In the end Rhodes couldn’t make it, but the two hours we spent speaking to Mark Lawn inside a box at Valley Parade was a wonderful experience. We received a great reaction for the two-part interview we published and I think that it helped Lawn’s reputation too.

A month or so later, we were to get wind that City were looking to talk to Valley Parade landlord Gordon Gibb about reducing the rent, and got to break the news exclusively. A testing period for the board and supporters – where the prospect of moving to Odsal was raised – saw me write some in-depth pieces about club finances and the like. I felt like the David Conn of Bradford City. It was good fun, and it even culminated in a couple of appearances on BBC Radio Leeds. My writing had widened to producing occasional articles for When Saturday Comes magazine (for which I get paid) and the excellent TwoHundredPercent website. A year earlier I had moved jobs to become a copywriter. On top of all this, I was writing a book about Bradford City which was published in December 2011.

Then came Archie Christie. A quiet September evening at home was interrupted by a phone call from Michael saying he’d had an email from the club’s new Head of Football Development. We were invited to spend the day shadowing him, during which we met and spoke to players, management and chairmen. As we chatted to Phil Parkinson at the training ground, I felt like we’d won some once-in-a-lifetime competition. It was an incredibly insightful day. We later heard that several national newspaper journalists had read our three-part story and expressed jealousy at the level of access we had been granted.

That series of articles was well received in the main, even though some of the stick Christie had been receiving from a minority of City fans had now trickled over to us. Lots of long and unresolvable arguments by email with people ended with a line being drawn under. It was undoubtedly an exciting period as Christie – delighted by what we had produced – regularly confided with us on City matters. It was a nice feeling to be aware of new signings a day or so before they were announced, and we always kept what we were told to ourselves. Talks were underway to interview players and Phil Parkinson, before it all suddenly stopped and BfB closed.

Let’s leave that horrible period to one side.

I had come to love writing about City so much that stopping forever just wasn’t an option. In the American version of the sitcom ‘The Office’, one of the characters, Creed, talks about how he writes a blog. He’s old and clearly not up with technology, and straight after his blog revelation the show cuts to another character, Ryan, who reveals he helped Creed set up what he thinks is his own blog, but is in actual fact just a Microsoft Word document. Ryan is protecting the world from the unknowing Creed, stating, “I’ve read some of his stuff. Even for the internet, it’s pretty shocking.”

If it came to it, I would write a blog like Creed’s: a word document that no one would ever see. Anything to continue writing about my favourite subject matter. So after BfB’s end, I went it alone, got around my technophobia and – after weeks of trying to think of a name – on 28 December 2011 launched widthofapost.com

There was a big change, going from co-writer, only concerned with my own articles, to website editor. Thanks to a network of talented writers that Width of a Post has built up over the past two years, a lot of my time is now spent editing and publishing other people’s articles, in addition to focusing on my own. It is an amazingly humble feeling when anyone takes the time – unpaid – to write and send something for you to use on your own site. My thank you replies to the writers must come across as pathetic in how grateful I sound, but I am genuinely appreciative each and every time. Width of a Post is strong because a number of people care about making it strong.

I am grateful, because I appreciate how much effort goes into writing a piece. On a good day, when something is very topical and I know what I want to say, it can take me two hours to write and edit an article. On other occasions it can take considerably more time. My recent match report of the Colchester United draw took over six hours. That was my Saturday night after that game: getting increasingly frustrated and stressed that it wasn’t flowing.

I can’t begin to imagine how many evenings and mornings I have sacrificed to write match reports and the like. City’s slump to League Two in 2007 coincided with suddenly being able to afford to go to more away matches and, for the last six years, I have probably seen 80% of all City games. Travelling to far-flung places like Plymouth, Dagenham, Barnet and Wycombe, sitting in traffic, and then getting home and spending hours sat in front of a computer writing about it – I am extremely lucky to have such an understanding wife!

The 2012/13 season was a dream to cover, right from the first of the 64 matches, at Notts County. It was campaigns like this that made up for years of writing about dismal away defeats and attempting to defend under-pressure managers. Being editor of the site meant I could award myself the job of covering those amazing nights against Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa. There was a sense of responsibility to do a good job recording the emotions of those occasions, knowing these matches would be talked about for years and years to come.

As the club shone brightly under the national media spotlight during the 2012/13 cup run, the likes of City Gent, Bantams Banter and Width of a Post benefited too, and I received numerous media requests. I’m proud of the coverage our team produced last season, which included a report of every single match. Talks had been held with a publisher to produce a best of WOAP 2012/13 book to raise money for the Burns Unit, but this has now stalled.

Phil Parkinson has been fantastic to write about. That day following Archie gave me opportunity to speak to Phil for 15 minutes, and he imprinted on me his values and the importance he placed on bringing in footballers with character. The promotion-winning side clearly had his stamp all over it and it so wonderfully mirrored what we supporters had been crying out for in our players for many years. Like others, I had my doubts about Parkinson during 2011/12 – but he has done, and continues to do, a magnificent job. I’ve always held Paul Jewell to be my favourite City manager, but now I’m not so sure.

Also in 2012/13, the relationship I had with the club was restored. Unlike when Archie was there I don’t have that day-to-day closeness, but a healthy professional distance is good and gives me the scope to be critical as and when I feel the need arises. David Baldwin has been wonderfully supportive of the site and we plan to meet up to do another interview soon. In August, Julian Rhodes sat down with me for a very revealing chat. I do enjoy interviewing people, and I hope to continue working with the club in order undertake many more over the coming months and years.

Things changed this summer on a personal level with the birth of my first child. That makes it harder to balance working, watching City and writing about the Bantams with family life, but so far so good in maintaining Width of a Post. I’m proud of what the site has achieved in a short space of time (being interviewed by BBC Two’s Newsnight, two days before the League Cup final, with the caption ‘Jason McKeown: Widthofapost.com’ was arguably the peak moment).

Writing is everything to me. I’m very lucky that I get to do it professionally, with my day job including writing for national newspapers most weekends. And through Width of a Post, I also get to write for fun. One decade completed, and I can’t imagine giving up covering the fortunes of my beloved football club for a long, long time.

The Width of a Post

Speaking to Julian Rhodes – part two

27 Aug

SAM_0359

Continuing from part one, Julian Rhodes talks to WOAP editor Jason McKeown about the historic 2012/13 season, the future of Nahki Wells and the renting of Valley Parade.

WOAP: How important is the youth set up?

Our youth system is very successful. Not so much in getting players to play for the first team, but very successful in generating money to help us through the bad financial times and enhance the first team budget.

Since the year 2000 we have had 29 players come through our youth system to play for the club, but not many of them who left have done anything. I think that if they get through to our first team, we are never going to sell them for a lot of money because they have not been picked up along the way.

If you can generate serious amounts of money from a lad who is aged between 12 and 15, and use that to put it into the first team, as opposed to putting them in the first team when you’re in League Two, it works out better financially. How many League Two players ever move for big money?

Also, managers are reluctant to play youth players in the first team. So you look at this list of 29, and then the lads that we sold on at a young age – Fabian Delph, Tom Cleverley, Andre Wisdom, George Green, Danny Ward, Ben Gordon – who all generated us serious amounts of cash. I think that’s the policy we will keep going. You’ve got to maximise these deals and let these players go. Then you get sell ons and stuff.

WOAP: Phil Parkinson had a tough first season in charge. Was there ever any doubt in your mind about keeping him?

No there was never any doubt. I said to Phil when he joined the club – and I don’t want to be disrespectful to other people – I said to Phil “We have a terrible squad”. I didn’t pull any punches with him. I said “If you can keep us in the division this season, your job is done”.

I explained that we knew we would have to spend money to achieve that objective. We had a relatively low budget under Peter Jackson, but we were going to up it because we knew the George Green deal was in the pipeline. So don’t worry, Phil, we will fund the strengthening. We need to stay in the league.

Phil actually said a week later “I’m not sure if this squad is actually better than what you think”. Two weeks after he said “No you were right, we need to strengthen”.

I thought Phil got a lot of unfair criticism that season, because it was always going to be a really hard job. And when you actually look at what he did that first year – in our last 15 home games we only lost once. That’s not bad for a squad that was not great at the start of the season. I thought he did very well.

WOAP: 2012/13 was obviously a spectacular success. What was the Board’s strategy going into it?

It was a bit similar to the strategy of the 1998/99 season. We thought the league was there for the taking, let’s expand the budget and have a go. Phil had done well: let’s give him a decent budget and let’s have a go.

And it also does help when you know you have the Andre Wisdom contract. We were on big money every game he played for Liverpool. So we thought we could have a crack at promotion and it worked!

WOAP: Just how much has the cup run changed the club’s finances?

Perhaps not to the extent that people think. But what it did for the club, with the fans and everything, was fantastic.

We probably ended up – after you have paid the bonuses and everything – with the largest wage bill in League Two. You took out all the cup bonuses and it was still in the top three.

I think the income we took in from the cup was in the region of £2.5 million. But by the time that we had finished with all the wages and everything and the overspend on the original budget, which was substantial, the net result of everything was a profit of about £1.4 million.

We paid Mark his £1 million loan back straight away. And let’s be right, Mark probably thought that he would never see that money again. I was anxious to get it to him because I always said to him that the whole idea of if we ever had a cup run or sold a player for a fortune, that was how he was going to get his money back. So that’s why I was keen to repay him. That left us with £400k.

We also made a small profit on the shop and offices, which we sold through our holding company. So that’s gone back into this year’s budget. The net effect of all that is that, if we don’t have a cup run or we don’t sell a player, we’re probably a £1 million above what we can afford this year. But again, it’s something that we want to do because we want to have a good season. And we think that we have enough in the background that we can cover those debts if need be.

But a fact of life is that we might need to sell a first team asset if all else fails. You know, we did get knocked out of the first round of the Capital Cup. It’s all about balancing the books.

WOAP: Watching that cup run was thrilling for us fans and I’m sure you too. Were you sat watching the penalty shootout vs Arsenal or semi final against Villa with your supporter head on or your chairman financial hat?

Firstly I’m watching as a fan. They were fantastic games and I never thought we’d see nights like it. I have to say that I have never celebrated a goal like I did James Hanson’s at Aston Villa. When that went in I thought “My god, we’re going to a major cup final!”

But also it was nice to then start looking at your cash flows and your profit and loss and realise what it all means. And you think what a fantastic season. We get to a cup final, we cleared the biggest debt we had left which was Mark’s loan, we get rid of the shop and office building – which was the final drain on resources – and we go back to Wembley and get promotion. It doesn’t get much better than that!

The thing that got me last season was just how nice it was to see the smiles on people’s faces. Because it has been absolutely incredible how people have stuck with us. I know we do the cheap season tickets, but look at the crowds still. Wherever you go everyone always says “what fantastic support”. So to see the complete look of disbelief on thousands of faces was unbelievable.

I’ve got a mate who is a Leeds fan and he came along to the Burton play off game at home. He said he has never seen an atmosphere like it. And that was a game we lost.

I couldn’t believe how we’ve kept it going and how good the atmosphere was for the Carlisle game. I always felt that there were a number of things that, if we got back to League One, would be completely different to last time, because we are going back in the right direction. And for me, the atmosphere against Carlisle reaffirmed that. It was fantastic support.

WOAP: After the Swansea game and we’d dropped to mid-table, did you think promotion was beyond us?

I thought it was beyond us at that point. We drew the next few games and the result that seemingly killed it was Exeter away. I thought, after that, forget it. If someone had said at that time, “You’ll get into the play offs with a game to spare” we’d have rightly thought they were stupid.

But we went on a great run. We actually had a great run at the start of the season and a great run to end the season.

WOAP: Given all you have endured in 16 years with your money tied to the club, how did you feel when the final whistle was blown against Northampton at Wembley?

A massive relief. Because, going into that game at Wembley, the outcome of that game would determine whether we had a fantastic season or not. Because if we had have lost, we’d still have been playing Dagenham & Redbridge in League Two. So I was very nervous before the Northampton game. I wasn’t nervous at all for the Swansea game. I didn’t really think we’d win it. It was just fantastic to have got there.

To be 3-0 up against Northampton after half an hour, I still felt this was too good to be true and waited for it to go wrong! So I was just relived at the end. It was great for all supporters and particularly for the players, who were rewarded for all the hard work they’d put in over the season.

Was it the best season in the club’s history? Probably.

WOAP: Giving Parkinson a new deal was a no-brainer. You’ve worked with so many managers. What makes him different from the others?

I don’t think many people can argue with the appointment of Phil after last year, although I do think a lot of people unfairly criticised him the year before that.

I get on well with Phil. The thing I’ve always liked about Phil is that he is very receptive to other people’s ideas and comments. He is a very mature manager. Some football managers can take the attitude “What do you know?” I always think the best managers in any walk of life seek other people’s opinions and then decide what they are going to do.

It’s very easy to have a conversation with Phil. He works hard, he expects his staff to work hard and he expects his players to work hard. And I think that is the main thing about Phil which everyone has bought in to: the effort that his teams put in.

He’s always pushing it. He always wants to spend more and more. But in that respect he’s no different to any manager. He normally will justify it with a reason for doing it. He’s never happy unless he is squeezing every last pound out of us – it’s become a bit of a standing joke! But so be it, if we are being successful that is not a problem.

WOAP: What are your expectations for this season and beyond?

I don’t know. It’s still early days. I was a little bit surprised how expensive everything is – certainly a lot more expensive than last time we were in League One! The wages seemed to have spiralled substantially. So you don’t get as much for your money. We have had to spend quite a lot just keeping the squad that we had last year.

So I really don’t know. We do want to kick on and get into the Championship, but I’m not saying that will be this season. But we just need to keep the momentum going in the right direction. I do think that we are going to find it hard. I do think there is a bit of a jump up from League Two to League One. We’ve only got a small squad, but if we don’t get injuries we will go alright.

WOAP: The transfer window closes soon. Is there the potential for Nahki Wells to be sold?

We’ve knocked back a decent offer for Nahki. But other than that, no one has been knocking which I have to say has surprised me a bit. We don’t have to sell Nahki, we don’t want to sell him. So I think it is highly unlikely he will go. But every player has a price and if someone offered us silly money and he wanted to go, that’s life and you have to move on.

But we would have to have something lined up. We couldn’t afford for it to happen on transfer deadline day because we couldn’t replace him. But I don’t think he will go. Knowing Phil he will just want to add rather than sell anyone.

WOAP: Is there money to strengthen the team, either in this window or January?

I think the plan was to try and keep some back for January. But like I said, it’s all proven a bit more expensive than we thought. Let me put it this way: in League One you are allowed to spend 60% of your income on wages. If you spend anything above 55% you have to certify that you can afford it. We’re in that phase already.

If we had an FA Cup run or something, we could spend more. But you’ve always got that eye on next season, and sometimes, if you’re in mid-table, what’s the point of spending money now that could be better saved for next season? So in January it will depend where we are.

We always do seem to find the money for whatever we need to do. I don’t want to blow our own trumpet but I do think that we are a pretty well run football club.

WOAP: Finally on money matters, there is the unresolved situation with Mark Stewart’s fee. What is the latest on this?

We’re appealing it. You had to pay just to receive the explanation for FIFA’s decision, so we’ve had our legal team looking at it. And it’s going to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. I don’t know how long it will take. We did go there once before and lost, when Crystal Palace signed David Hopkin and Matt Clarke from us.

WOAP: Season ticket sales have been excellent. You pioneered the cheap season ticket scheme in 2007. It must be something that you are really proud of…

Yes I am. And I want to continue it for as long as we possibly can. I know that prices have inched up a little over the years, but it’s still under £200 which is pretty good and that’s now for League One football. But I think the only way that these schemes work is if people take you up on it. Bradford fans have been so receptive to it.

Bradford is not a rich area. If you want people to come and watch the local sports team I think you have to do things like that. I think the whole thing has worked a treat.

I think the Flexi-card idea is also really good and I can see a lot of other clubs doing it as well. The Flexi-card was something we had to come up with because the numbers had got to the point where the normal sales and income had fallen to a level where it was no longer acceptable to carry it on. That’s boosted it again. So we will carry on.

WOAP: Does it annoy you that only a few clubs have tentatively tried such a wonderful idea?

I just don’t think that they did it very well. I think they copied it badly. The way that ours was marketed was important and we were lucky that the Telegraph & Argus was so great in supporting us with front cover articles. If it doesn’t work for other people I’m not bothered. I’m only really bothered what we do.

WOAP: A few years ago there were efforts to re-negotiate the rent with Gordon Gibb over Valley Parade. What is the future for City and the ground?

The biggest problem we had was the shop and office. That’s now gone. I personally don’t think the rent is bad when you actually look at this stadium. The rent is £380k a year. We more or less cover that from catering and stuff. I don’t think it’s that bad.

There was an idea raised about why we don’t get the rent structured so it is less in League Two, more in League One etc. Well, now we are in League One, and we are paying exactly what we were in rent when we were in League Two: £380k. And we’d be paying that if we were in the Championship or the Premiership.

I think it’s a decent rent and I think we’ve just got to get on with life. Pay the rent like we do and concentrate of moving upwards.

WOAP: How is the club run on a day-to-day basis?

Before Mark came I was running everything really. I now try to focus on the football side of things, which is the biggest part of the business. Mark is more on the commercial side of things nowadays, and David Baldwin does all the operational things. Pretty much everyone reports to David!

WOAP: And how do you and Mark get on? You seem like chalk and cheese!

We get on great. We’d get on better if he bought me out! But he won’t do it. He keeps asking me to buy him out!

We are chalk and cheese, but a lot of the best relationships are like that. When you’re different you look at things differently and you meet in the middle. We are very open with each other. I’ve got on well with him from day one and had very few disagreements. I think we do alright.

WOAP: Do you enjoy being joint-chairman of this club?

Yes. Definitely. I hated it for the first few years, it was terrible. I was drinking too much, not sleeping. We were always one day from disaster for so long.

So of course I enjoy it more now, as we don’t have that kind of pressure. There is still pressure and you want to do well for our supporters and for the city of Bradford. This is a big focal point of the city and it would be nice if we could do a good job for everybody. It’s all about keeping people smiling.

The one thing I never wanted was any kind of publicity. The joint chairmen thing works very well because Mark is the public face of the club.

WOAP: Finally, what are your favourite memories of Bradford City as a supporter?

Bobby Campbell scoring against Liverpool in the League Cup in 1980. I was a ball boy back in those days!

Two of my favourites have been 5-4 away wins. Preston away on 25 November 1992, on their plastic pitch. And then in October 2004 we beat Tranmere when Wethers scored.

One of my favourite games, which we touched on earlier, was that Stockport game (the 3-2 win in Peter Taylor’s last game in charge). Just because the atmosphere was fantastic and to come back and win from 2-1 down was fantastic. It sticks in my memory as the best, because I was seriously concerned we were going out of the league and that win turned it round.

The two trips to Wembley last season were special too, of course!

Post script

The interview over, Julian kindly continued chatting to me for another 45 minutes about Bradford City matters. It was the type of conversation that is carried out between regular supporters all over the region. Because first and foremost, that seems to be what Julian is: a regular supporter.

A regular supporter who was fortunate enough to be in a position to invest into the football club back in 1997 and finance the never-to-be-forgotten promotion to the Premiership. Geoffrey Richmond was hailed as one of the heroes behind it and rightly so, but it would not have been possible without the Rhodes’ family borrowing the money that financed the likes of Lee Mills, Stuart McCall and Gareth Whalley.

Fast forward 14 years to City’s next promotion, and once again another person – Mark Lawn – is enjoying his moment of adulation, whilst Julian stays in the background. That is the way that Julian chooses to have it. After our interview I asked if he would mind me taking a photo of him to include in this article. He refused, before joking about how much he enjoys the fact there have barely been any photos taken of him over the last 10 years. “People still think I’m that 30-year-old!”

His reasons for declining a photo are revealing. He talks about how club chairmen nearly always ultimately depart in sad circumstances and then are rarely able to continue watching their football club. Julian is realistic enough to know that he might one day step down as chairman in less than happy circumstances, and if that day ever occurs he doesn’t want it mean he has to stop watching City. If no one knows what he looks like, that will be easier to accomplish. “I love walking around the ground and no one having a clue who I am” he smiles, before recalling his horror at being recognised by a City supporter outside Wembley last season.

In many ways this sums him up. There seems to be no ego about him or desire to share in the acclaim. Julian has done incredible things for this football club over the past 16 years – not least ensuring its ongoing existence – and though he often doesn’t get the credit he deserves, he doesn’t seem to mind or seek to address that. He is a down-to-earth, laid back type of person. Undoubtedly there is a steel about him that those who have worked with him will no doubt testify to, but he left me with the impression he would be a great person to work for and his revelation of ex-managers still wishing us and him well seems understandable.

Last season, Mark Lawn enjoyed a resurgence in popularity that being a successful club owner will provide. For some reason, there was little comment or praise about Julian. I don’t think that we supporters think any less of him (indeed many hold a higher opinion of him compared to Mark), but his chosen cloak of invisibility seems to leave his name absent from such discussions.

Yet the front row seat that Julian has held for the past 16 years makes him arguably the most influential person connected with the club over the past two decades – at least in a positive context. He helped to take us to the top flight, he cleared up the massive problems left over from Geoffrey Richmond’s six (or, as Julian claims, four) weeks of madness, he saved the club from oblivion, he pioneered the wonderful season ticket initiative, and he and Mark have finally helped the club bounce back from years of gloom.

Somewhere, you hope there’s a photo of Julian proudly holding the League Two play off final trophy and looking every bit a part of the success that he helped to deliver last season. But I bet such a photo will remain hidden under lock and key, destined never to be seen by anyone but his own family.

Just the way he likes it.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,643 other followers