It really is one of the oldest footballing clichés, but almost every football supporter dreams of one day pulling on the shirt of their club and gracing the hallowed turf of their home stadium. On Saturday 12th May that dream became a reality for myself and 36 other Bradford City supporters.
It all began with an advert on the Telegraph and Argus website which offered supporters the chance to ‘Be a Bradford City player for a day’. Initially I was sceptical; it really did sound too good to be true. In exchange for a donation to the club’s Youth Department, fans would be given the full professional player experience including a pre-match meal, coaching from a club legend and a 90 minute match on the Valley Parade pitch alongside a selection of ex professionals.
After some gentle persuasion from various family members I decided to sign up to take part as my Mother made it clear she wanted to buy me a place for my birthday present; I could hardly say no to that offer! A few days after sending my application in I received a phone call from the organisers saying I had been awarded a place in midfield on the ‘away’ team, who were to be known as ‘The Bantams’ for the day. I was hugely excited but also nervous at the same time. As a footballer of moderate ability who hadn’t even kicked a ball for some months I was worried I could show myself up on the day; what if everybody else taking part was a footballing superstar?
As the weeks passed and the day drew closer I began to get increasingly excited. A week or so before the event I was called into the club to have my photograph taken on the pitch in the Voltage Cherry away strip. It suddenly began to feel very real. In the final lead up to the big day, various articles were appearing on the club website introducing the players and providing details for supporters who wished to attend the match. It was a genuine thrill to see my picture under the headline ‘City Unveil Their New Signings’ on the main news section of the official website.
Before I knew it, the day itself had arrived. After a restless night’s sleep I awoke early with incredible mixture of nerves and excitement. My stomach was churning. Upon talking to my teammates for the day it became evident I wasn’t alone with these feelings; one player was up at 6am mowing his lawn in an attempt to combat his own nerves!
I arrived at the club at 12pm as instructed and walked into reception to be greeted by a couple of other players and Wayne Jacobs who was to be the manager of ‘The Bantams’ for the day. We were taken into one of the executive boxes where we were to be held prior to the pre-match meal. I introduced myself to my teammates and immediately began to feel more relaxed. There was a good mixture of people, young and old, and everybody was really welcoming. We flicked through the matchday programme while chatting about the game and about Bradford City in general, particularly how sad many of us were to hear Lee Bullock had been released from the club early that morning.
Wayne Jacobs entered the box and immediately fined the whole squad £1 each for failing to wear a suit! He warned us further fines would be issued should any of us be caught using mobile phones after 1.45pm. Jacobs also made it clear that David Wetherall would be receiving a fine for his failure to arrive on time and we were instructed to ‘hammer him’ on his arrival!
Wayne Jacobs handed over to the Head of the Youth Department, Peter Horne, who thanked us for taking part and said that he had been overwhelmed by the interest in the event. He was clear the money raised would be of huge benefit to his department and it gave us a sense of pride that we had been able to assist with this.
The opposition were held in the adjoining box and the general consensus of our team was that the other squad looked considerably younger and fitter – I feared we were going to get thrashed!
After around 45 minutes we were told lunch was ready. I opted for a mixture of pasta and baked beans which would provide vital energy. We helped ourselves to the food and took it back to the executive boxes to eat in view of the pitch. After we had eaten it was only around 1pm and there was still a wait of 45 minutes before we were due in the dressing rooms. A few of us decided to have a ‘walkabout’ at pitch-side to soak up the atmosphere. I walked across the pitch and it began to feel very surreal. The stands really do seem to tower over you when stood underneath them! After about 25 minutes I got a call to say my family and friends had arrived, 12 of whom had booked an executive box with a pre-match meal included to really make the most of the day. I went up to greet them and everybody remarked at how excited they were – I suddenly felt real pressure to perform!
At 1.40pm I walked back down to pitch-side and up the tunnel to the dressing rooms. The tunnel was incredibly cramped and seemed to house a maze of corridors. I found the tiny away dressing room and immediately saw my shirt hanging from a peg with ‘ROCHE 6’ on the back; what an amazing feeling! The rest of my kit was neatly laid out on the bench, which included a warm-up top. It really was a tight squeeze to fit everybody in the dressing room and Jacobs revealed that during our time in the Premier League the corridor outside would be filled with bags as the large squads always brought huge amounts of kit which couldn’t fit in!
Whilst we were getting changed David Wetherall walked in and he was suitably berated by the team for his lateness. One teammate remarked “What gives you the right to walk in late? What have you ever done for this club?” which was greeted by howls of laughter from the entire dressing room. As he was wearing a shirt and tie, Jacobs agreed that Wetherall had avoided a fine for his appearance but would still have to pay up for his lateness!
Once we were changed we made our way out onto the pitch for a warm up. There was a slight ripple of applause from the Main Stand as a few supporters had already taken their seats. We kicked some balls around in front of the Kop for a while before Jacobs gathered us together and began to conduct a gentle warm up of jogging, stretches and ball control. I recognised many of the drills from watching the warm ups at Valley Parade over the years and Jacobs stressed their importance to us, even pointing at the ‘home’ side standing with hands on hips as an example of how not to warm up! I watched how Wetherall undertook the drills as I felt it would be a good idea to follow his example! While we were playing a small game of ‘two touch’ it felt extremely surreal to be calling for ‘Wethers’ to pass me the ball!
The warm up felt good and any lingering stiffness I had in my legs had disappeared. We made our way back to the dressing room for our final preparations. Jacobs sat us all down and asked for 3 minutes of total focus while he read us a motivational story with a humorous twist. Unfortunately he had to contend with a boisterous Dean Windass trying to enter the dressing room at the same time! It was quite comical to see Jacobs trying to hold the door shut while Windass was pushing it from the other side!
After his reading, Jacobs reminded us what an honour we were about to have by playing on the Valley Parade turf and he advised us to give the game ‘our all’ and not leave with any regrets. He went through our starting positions and I was asked to play on the left wing which, despite having virtually no footballing left foot, suited me fine; I was just happy to be starting! Finally, Jacobs asked us what the one thing we wanted to do today was. “Win!” we all replied in unison. Jacobs had us repeating “Win!” over and over again until we were shouting it at the top of our lungs.
The match referee entered and advised us that this was a normal game and that we could be subject to yellow and even red cards if we stepped out of line. This advice was heeded by all present. He left the dressing room and shortly afterwards a buzzer sounded. That was our cue to assemble in the tunnel.
We lined up in the tunnel and the opposition joined alongside us. There was hardly room to move and I began to think about how ‘interesting’ it must have been in there following the Crawley game earlier this season! We were kept waiting for what seemed like an eternity and I began to feel increasingly nervous. One of my teammates patted me on the shoulder and wished me luck which immediately made me feel better. Suddenly the ref shouted “Let’s go lads” and we heard the familiar instrumental entrance music begin. Before I knew it we were out on the pitch!
The first thing I noticed was the size of the crowd – there were a lot more people than I had expected to be there. I heard my name being called and looked across to the side of the pitch where my girlfriend had come down to take a picture. I gave her a smile and waved up to my family and friends in the Executive Suite; by now I was absolutely buzzing inside and I just couldn’t wait to get started.
We lined up for the pre-match handshake and then gathered for a team photograph. As we faced the Main Stand it was amazing to see the faces of the people in the crowd; they looked to be as excited as us players were! We then were ushered to the centre circle where a minute’s silence was to be held in memory of the 56 people who lost their lives in the 1985 fire. I was glad that we were given the chance to pay our respects in this way and it really hit home to me how lucky we all were to be experiencing such a wonderful occasion.
The silence was ended by the referee’s whistle and we moved to our starting positions. The crowd roared and the game was underway! My team immediately surged forward and moved towards the opposition area. The ball somehow looped into the air leaving James McCarrick to nod it over the despairing Eliot Broome in the home side’s goal at The Kop end.
The roar of the crowd was unbelievable and we all celebrated wildly, not least the goalscorer who ran towards the fans. Surely that must have been one of the quickest goals ever scored at Valley Parade?! As we walked back to our own half the Madness song ‘One Step Beyond’ was played over the tannoy and confirmation of the goal flashed up on the scoreboard. I was winning at Valley Parade!
After that the game became a bit of a blur. In terms of my own performance I had a few decent touches, saw one shot go wide and one saved by the goalkeeper. I also played one ball across our box which bounced just too far ahead of our strikers and went agonisingly wide. The ‘Oooh!’ of the crowd confirmed what a decent chance it had been to go two up!
After about 10 minutes I jumped to control a ball and felt my right hamstring pull. It wasn’t a serious injury by any means but it just felt slightly uncomfortable. It began to ache when attempting to sprint so I was glad to be given the chance of a rest when the first group of substitutes were brought on after 15 minutes.
I had been off the pitch a few minutes when a nasty incident occurred. Two players contested a high ball near the touchline in front of the Main Stand and the home side’s number 2, Tim Rogers, fell in a heap on the floor. It was a totally accidental clash of heads but I could see immediately that he had been knocked out. Somebody on the touchline asked for an Ambulance to be called and Tim was looked after by various medical staff while we waited for it to arrive. Dean Windass was even lying on the floor next to Tim at one point and seemed to do a brilliant job in keeping him relaxed.
The ground was now extremely quiet as people realised the severity of the situation. A few of us decided to move away from the touchline and walk back out onto the pitch. We saw the ambulance arrive and Wayne Jacobs came out onto the pitch and told us to keep warm. One of our players led us through a series of stretches. We paused and applauded as Tim was taken away on a stretcher and it was a relief to see him wave to the crowd as he left.
As a significant amount of time had elapsed the scoreboard clock was reset to 20 minutes remaining and the game restarted in quite a subdued atmosphere. I was brought back on for the last 15 minutes of the half on the right wing and found myself up against former City captain Mark Bower at left back. At one point I nearly caught him in the head with a high boot as we jumped for a ball but luckily he laughed it off! My only other notable contributions to the half were a couple of long passes and two corners which came to nothing. Defensively, our team had a more solid look about it as Jacobs had brought himself and David Wetherall into the action.
The half time whistle blew and we made our way back to the dressing room happy to be 1-0 up. Once we were settled down Jacobs told us he was pleased with our performance but reminded us we still had 45 minutes to go and that we’d not won anything yet. We went through the team line up for the second half and I was asked to play up front to which I readily agreed.
The second half kicked off at a decent pace. I didn’t have much of the ball as the home side mounted a number of attacks at our goal. Following a corner from the left a goalmouth scramble ensued and Jack Sutcliffe equalised for ‘Bradford City’. I was gutted and began to fear that the younger legs of the home side would now see them to victory.
The game continued and our defence became subject to more attacks. Luckily for us, our goalkeeper Daniel Thornton was in inspired form and made some excellent saves. He was aided by a dogged defence, in particular Mark Young who looked unbeatable at the heart of our backline.
Midway through the half the ball broke to Andrew Shorey who was playing in ‘the hole’ between midfield and myself up front. As he ran with the ball I was desperately trying to get myself onside to enable him to play a pass to my feet. He didn’t need me though; as he drove forward he unleashed a fantastic shot from around 25 yards which left the goalkeeper with no chance as it looped into the top corner.
The crowd erupted. Shorey ran over towards the fans and deservedly took the acclaim for a goal that could be considered one of the best seen at Valley Parade this season. We’d retaken the lead and I began to feel confident we could go on and win it.
As it was time for the next group of substitutions I made my way off the pitch, applauding the crowd as I went. I had been struggling with my sore hamstring for much of the 2nd half and both Jacobs and Wetherall enquired as to how it was feeling. I was glad of the rest and sat down to hopefully watch my team see the game out.
Unfortunately a certain Mr Windass had other ideas. He ghosted in at the far post to make the game 2-2. We felt deflated although we could hardly blame our defence for falling victim to Windass’ supreme finishing as many Premier League backlines had done so in the past!
There were now around 15 minutes to go and it looked as though the game could swing either way. Windass lined up a free kick on the edge of the area (baring his backside to the crowd as he did so) which was well defended by our wall. With 12 minutes to go Jacobs announced the entire squads would be brought onto the pitch for the final stages. What followed was an 18-a-side free-for all which included Lenny the City Gent and 3 goalkeepers on the pitch!
There was now a party atmosphere both on the pitch and in the stands but the game continued with both sides searching for a winner. Windass was pulling the strings for the home side and urged all his teammates to pile into the box; he decided he could mark our 4 frontmen on his own!
With seconds remaining and the score still at 2-2 my team launched an attack forward. The ball went out to the left wing and as it was crossed in it took a deflection which sent it high into the air. It fell towards me. I managed to control it and strike a powerful volley towards goal. The ball flew past the diving goalkeeper….and skimmed the top of the crossbar. The reaction of the spectators showed how close it had been.
As the ball nestled in the lower tier of the TL Dallas Stand I held my head in my hands. My chance to score the winner at Valley Parade had come and gone! I was happy enough with the way I had struck the ball but it was just a fraction too high. A couple of my team mates told the ref it should have been a corner but he pointed for a goal kick. Seconds later the final whistle blew; it was all over!
It was quickly decided that the game would end on a penalty shoot-out in front of The Kop with all players having a kick each. I stepped up second for my team as I wanted to get mine out of the way early! The pressure as I walked up to the spot was unbelievable and I really felt like all eyes were on me! I ‘d made my mind up while waiting in line that I was going to go to the goalkeeper’s left and that’s exactly where I put it. Luckily he stayed rooted to the spot as the ball sailed into the net.
Unfortunately for my team, Eliot Broome excelled himself in the shoot-out and made a string of fine saves to seal a 12-5 victory for ‘Bradford City’, earning himself the Man of the Match award in the process.
After a brief speech from Peter Horne a trophy was presented to the winning captain, Steven Sutcliffe, who led his team in celebration on the pitch. We trudged back to the dressing room slightly disappointed to lose but elated to have taken part in such a fantastic event.
Later that evening an event was held in the 1911 Club at Valley Parade to celebrate the day. We were treated to a meal, presented with trophies and took part in an auction led by Peter Horne and Dean Windass which added significantly to the amount raised during the day.
Windass made a brief speech in which he thanked everybody for taking part and also said that he still feels honoured to be allowed to play on the Valley Parade pitch. It was clear he had enjoyed the event just as much as we had which made it even more special for me.
The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly when Peter Horne informed us that Tim Rogers had been released from hospital and had made it to the event. He walked into the room to be greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Apart from a nasty black eye he seemed fine and it was a great way to end the day!
My day as a Bradford City (or should I say ‘Bantams’) player was over. It was an unbelievable experience and I would love to do it all again. Even as I write this, two days after the event, I still feel on an incredible high and it all seems very surreal! It gave me a greater understanding of what our players go through on a weekly basis and it was certainly an eye-opener! Playing at Valley Parade really was a dream come true.