By Phil Abbott
There are fanatics the world over who travel inordinate distances, splashing exorbitant cash, to enjoy the exhilaration of the world’s fastest, longest and most white-knuckle generating rollercoasters imaginable. These apparently eccentric, irrational and somewhat maverick thrill seekers often give their right arm for dream trips across the globe to experience the best of the best, ultimately ending in a feeling of utter satisfaction and a ‘I survived the ……..rollercoaster’ car sticker as a material souvenir.
When you think about it, many parallels can be drawn between these high-octane sybarites and many thousands of pleasure seeking football fans. This week has been a perfect time to draw such a comparison.
Like the libertine coaster-holics, Bradford City fans have been dragged through the most incredible gut churning feelings in the two play-off semi-final legs with Burton Albion. The four-day ride has given Bantams fans many incredible ups and downs, some that we saw coming, others that came out of nowhere.
At times, you’d be forgiven for thinking the wheels had come off, or the brakes had failed, and at other times, you’d be shouting in ecstasy on top of the world. For many, the contemplation of a ride cut short in its prime was too much to contemplate after such a magnificent season, but following the monumental efforts on Sunday, the coaster-cars have driven straight through the station in anticipation of one more gripping sortie on the incredible journey this season has taken us on.
In the run up to the first leg at Valley Parade, there was huge optimism and even greater anticipation of another extraordinary push for Wembley glory. In truth, and I still believe it, I was sure that City were the best team left once Rotherham sealed their well-deserved promotion via the automatic route. The previous week, I was unimpressed by a promotion chasing Cheltenham side who had offered a stuttering, low energy performance against a City side who had already secured a play off berth. Having had the better of Burton and Northampton during the season, I was quietly confident that this year would be ‘our year’.
As seems to have become a habit, my trip from Nottinghamshire to evening fixtures at Valley Parade was only punctuated by a quick stop off for a pre-match bite, before dropping down into Bradford for the opening gambits of the League Two play offs. The guy who served me asked of my thoughts for the game, and flippantly I explained that I thought we’d win through in the end, but such is the wont of the celestial script-writers, we would do it the hard way. He looked at me strangely! But, how right such prophecy was!
A big City crowd waited patiently, with audible excitement for the Bantams to emerge from the dressing rooms at Valley Parade in the first leg, but unlike the rollercoaster aficionados waiting for their ride, City’s course had still to be plotted and nobody had a clue what was going to happen next. The teams paraded onto the pitch to a triumphant chorus, the home crowd in unison, rhythmically accompanying ‘Take me home’, much akin to the sounds of a rollercoaster climbing its first slow ascent.
The whistle blew, the screams hurled and we were off, racing down the track at 100mph. The opening salvos were a blur, with excitement and nerves getting the better of City in particular. The Bantams were dealt an early blow as Calvin Zola outleapt the bamboozled defence to bury a powerful header, and the tie was alive.
City needed a shake up, and if that sudden baulk wasn’t enough to rattle them into action, a 2nd goal for Burton left Valley Parade in almost silence, apart from the 600 or so Burton fans who could hardly believe their eyes.
When Burton defender McCrory went down like Gordon Banks to block Garry Thompson’s powerful drive, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that City were deserving of a penalty and had been thrown a huge lifeline in the fixture. For this moment, there was real hope that City could get back into the game, and indeed Nahki Wells coolly slotted the ball home to draw the Bantams to within one goal.
Was the comeback on? We all hoped so. But no sooner had the City faithful enjoyed an upturn in fortune, than they were picking themselves up again when Robbie Weir plunged in a low cross to restore Burton’s two goal advantage and stun the Kop once again as half time arrived. I was shaken, I have to admit. It was like I’d been dragged through the loop the loop with my hands tied behind my back.
The City fans needed some extra impetus from somewhere. This was not a ride that anyone sporting the claret and amber colours was enjoying. It was clear that a two goal deficit was, even by Bradford standards, a seemingly insurmountable task. With City’s backline leaking like a dismembered brake pipe, there was a danger that the rollercoaster ride would stop halfway through, the passengers disembarking, not to return to the queue for the next pass. Then, halfway through the second half, a moment of brilliance from Garry Thompson immediately restored the waning faith and City’s bandwagon was back on track.
The final minutes, despite constant City pressure, yielded no extra goals, and so, feeling like we’d in some way escaped a catastrophe, off trudged city fans to contemplate the game and mull over our strategies for acquiring the golden Burton away tickets.
Anecdotally, the highs and lows in emotion for those beating the harshly cold and uncomfortable overnight queues are remarkable in their own right. It was only when the holder of ticket number ‘three hundred and something’ was ushered onto the Sunwin stand concourse and the doors slammed shut behind him, just under two hours before tickets went on sale, that the level of support this club enjoys was truly quantifiable. One would be forgiven for thinking that this was some sort of holding pen at Sangatte!
The tableau of impeccable patronage was strewn across the concourse, deckchairs, sleeping bags, empty food containers and cold, tired bodies littering the well-ordered waiting lines. It was all in search of a golden ticket – the ticket that would see the City charges plot and execute a tremendous ‘job’ on Burton and begin the trek onto Wembley for a second time. No big dipper the world over could come close to matching the thrills of the unprecedented chapter still to be told.
After exchanging equal blows in the opening stanza, there was little to separate the two teams, and even less to suggest to the fans of either side that their team was in the ascendancy. The tension was high and it was no surprise that it was a mistake that allowed the next phase of this epic tie to take another course. With Nahki Wells stealing in on an increasingly familiar defensive slip up, the City fans went delirious, suddenly daring to believe that they could be visiting Wembley for the 2nd time this season.
There would be many City fans who would have broken the heart rate or blood pressure monitor had they have been plugged in at the stage when James Hanson fired in a delightfully crisp half volley to put City two up, and, for the first time, ahead in the tie. However, with the way things had gone in the first leg, many around me were still cautious, if not a little more optimistic. They knew that, like the most temperamental pleasure park ride, the well-oiled machine could, at any time, come grinding to a halt.
Indeed, there was to be a temporary fault that had the potential to put the City machine out of service. When Stephen Darby missed a tackle on the wing and the outstanding Jacque Maghoma was allowed to run towards the penalty area, a tenacious Garry Thompson came haring back in defence, only to bring him down, for a penalty. The undulations in this epic trip were beginning to come too quick and my stomach was feeling physically churned. The successful strike brought the game back to evens and did nothing but add to the torture the City fans were going through.
With tension at an all-time high in the away stands, so soon after the team had been victims of their own tenacious tracking back, Wells eased some of that tension with his second goal of the game and at that stage, it seemed that finally, the Burton challenge had been thwarted. Whist there was far from a relaxed attitude amongst the City faithful, it was clear that the goal, so soon after their penalty lifeline, knocked the stuffing out of a quickly tiring Brewers team. With time running out, the pendulum had, perhaps, for the first time swung well and truly in City’s favour.
Unable to see the clock count down behind the goals, the majority of away fans were supplied with regular time updates by a very accommodating steward. Time seemed to stand still, and even though City were well in control, the thought that there were yet more twists in this crazy season to manifest themselves before the clock ran out tempered nobody’s heart rate.
After the shrill blast of the final whistle, delirious celebration erupted both in the stands and on the field. Voltage Cherry shirts were launched into the crowd, proud chests displayed by the Bantams hero’s sapping every moment of adulation from their terrific fans. It was to be the first time I had seen a team respond to an encore call and only a full 30 minutes after the final whistle did we leave the ground to begin to rack our brains as to where we had left the car in our pre-match haze of excitement.
On getting back to the car, physically exhausted, I had the white knuckle feeling. Prizing my tightly bound fingers away from my palms, I reattached them around the steering wheel and gently – ever so gently – hit the road for home. Dazed.
No sooner had we arrived home, news broke of the ticketing arrangements for Wembley, and, with many still suffering the blur of a hangover, fans embarked on the conundrum of gaining tickets online with a distribution system that could teach even the best timewasting goalkeeper a thing or two about time management!