By Mahesh Johal
Walking down Wembley Way after the League Cup Final was one of my proudest moments as a Bradford City fan. In the dark London sky, the Wembley arch stood bright. Looking at this monument to football, I took a moment to reflect on the club’s achievement. I never in my lifetime thought I would see City at the famous ground, so to be going there again only three months later is an amazing feeling.
Whilst our cup exploits will be remembered by the common football fan, the journey back to the national stadium has been equally exciting and traumatic.
“If, at the end of those 15 games, we haven’t got where we want to be, we’ll hold out hands up.” Phil Parkinson, February 2013
Much was said by Phil Parkinson regarding the way City would attack the 15 league games remaining after the Cup Final. Incredibly, the players have been able to overhaul a 10-point deficit and we are now preparing for another Wembley trip. However, I was initially left frustrated and unsure if we could achieve our goal.
I looked specifically at the games against Aldershot and Plymouth as a case of argument. Against two teams fighting for league survival, City were unable to break down their opposition. In no way was I angry towards the players or manager, but instead irritated that things weren’t clicking. The team tried valiantly, but I was unsure why we weren’t converting these draws into wins.
I kept thinking that on another day we would have beat Aldershot convincingly. But it’s this point that sums up City’s six-season tenure in League Two. Next season is always ‘our season’. In all honesty, I was frustrated that we were seemingly not going to seize our best opportunity in years to get promoted.
These draws felt more like defeats. I remember struggling to celebrate in the manner which one should after Alan Connell’s 98th minute penalty equaliser against the Shots. By the time we had lost to Exeter in March, a 10-point gap had been opened between us and the 7th place. It seemed too big. Questions were raised of whether the cup run had taken too much out of the players. Others pointed to Parkinson’s squad rotation.
With the squad’s talent, there was no doubt that performances would pick up. Our only problem was the lack of games left. Quite frankly I felt we had missed the play off boat.
“We’ve got a squad capable going on a good run” Parkinson, February 2013
One aspect of these 15 games that I undervalued was the worth of a draw. I felt that we had wasted the games in hand because of our inability to kill teams off. But with every point gained, and game unbeaten, the team slowly started to pick up the momentum needed to make a move up the table.
The gritty draw against Southend started a run of three consecutive wins, but it was the victory over Northampton that made me really stand up and take notice. Without resorting to clichés, there was something in the air that day. It was a tense affair against a physical and well drilled side.
In previous years I am convinced we would have succumbed to the pressure, but this just felt different. The crescendo of ‘Midland Road’ coincided with the belief that the play offs were back on. The louder the chant, the more we seemed to believe that the top seven could be achieved. Luck may have something to do with it, and the results of our rivals that day added to this air of optimism.
This buoyancy was at a fever pitch at Chesterfield and there was a genuine sense that victory in Derbyshire could propel us into an automatic promotion battle. I remember travelling to the game amazed that we had been able to pull ourselves into this position. Even more so, we were justified in the belief for automatic promotion. The team were now playing with confidence and, all of a sudden, we had ‘clicked’. Maybe it was the rediscovery of Nahki Wells’ form or Ricky Ravehill’s doggedness in midfield, but something happened and it got the Bantams playing.
Most importantly (to me) was the fact that City were playing for something in April. We haven’t had this buzz in years. I am always nervous watching City, but this was a nervous energy and anticipation that I kind of liked the feel of. The fact that every game was so important gave games an electricity that has rarely been felt at Valley Parade in recent years. Even when results like Rotherham did not go our way, there was still a yearning to come to the ground and support the team to victory in the next game.
Beating Burton to seal the last play off spot was a special moment for all connected to the club. It made the six years of suffering in League Two seem worth it. There was a euphoria knowing we were two games away from Wembley. These emotions went into overdrive after beating Albion over two legs the play offs. If anything, the way the semis unfolded were similar to these 15 games. We did not start off great, but somehow were able to do enough to be in with a shout.
When it mattered the most, we turned it on and achieved our goal. Last Sunday, the goal was to get to Wembley. This Saturday, the goal will be to win at Wembley.
I will again look at the arch after the game on Saturday, hopefully as the supporter of a League One club. Of course victory is the aim and taking this opportunity is imperative. But if we take a step away, the progress this club has made this season is phenomenal. When some of us, including myself, started to waver in hope, our manager and players battled on and have put us in an incredible position.
Win or lose, we are extremely lucky to be going back to Wembley. This Saturday will be uncomfortable, but with Parkinson at the helm, we hopefully won’t be looking at next season as ‘the season’. With his team in place, we could and hopefully will get the job done this time around.
Play off final: Width of a Post build-up