2011/12 review: the joy of cups

For the penultimate article of the Width of Post’s 2011/12 review ‘essay’ series, Jason McKeown looks back at the Bantams cup adventures.

There are three minutes of stoppage time left at Vicarage Road last January and – at the opposite end of the ground to us – Ross Hannah has headed the ball into the net to seemingly make it Watford 4 Bradford City 3. A linesman’s flag cuts short our celebrations and sudden hopes of an improbable comeback. And now it really is game over – all good things come must come to an end.

An end to the Bantams’ outstanding cup exploits, which during the first half of the season provided a very welcome distraction to the difficulties on everyday life in League Two. City acquitted themselves superbly in all three cup competitions, while we supporters seemed to relish shedding our uncomfortably held identity of ‘big fish in small pond’ to instead adopt the status of underdogs.

Here’s where probably three quarters of the club’s best moments of this season came about.

Living the moment

Elland Road in August personally provided two of my greatest moments supporting City for several years – the celebrations triggered by Jack Compton and Michael Flynn’s goals against Leeds United. By admitting this to non-City football fans at the time I was ridiculed, but I really didn’t care – to be in amongst the packed away following which was going absolutely mental each time we scored is something that will stay with me for a long time.

They were both out-of-body experiences, where for a few seconds the ecstasy is so great that you have no idea what you’re doing or who you are hugging. After Flynn’s magnificent strike that put City 2-1 up, I eventually ‘came to’ at the bottom of the stand – around 15 rows from my seat. This was truly special.

Leeds won the game in the end – they always do on these occasions – but it almost didn’t matter. Two divisions below our neighbours, we had turned up expecting little – only to witness an outstanding attacking display from the Bantams. We were so proud of our team, and so proud to be part of this special atmosphere.

Defeating those who could not be bothered

Half time in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy game with Sheffield Wednesday, and I am in the concourse of the Valley Parade Main Stand watching the Sky coverage of our match on a nearby monitor. The main talking point from the first 45 minutes was the bizarre decisions of the Sheffield Wednesday manager, Gary Megson, substituting his goalkeeper after just 30 seconds and making his other two allowed changes on the quarter of an hour mark. As Sky pundit Peter Beagrie talks about it at half time, we see pictures of Megson’s smug grin and substituted players laughing on the bench.

Megson had got around the JPT rules of having to field six first team players, or be fined, by picking a sufficiently strong starting XI and then making these early substitutions. He had no respect for the Bantams, or the competition, and it set the tone for an evening where his team could not be bothered and allowed City to boss them.

Under caretaker manager Colin Cooper for the final time, the Bantams dominated the second half and were very unlucky not to win the match. Penalties ensued, and Oscar Jansson – incredibly in what turned out to be his last game for the club – was the shootout hero, saving two spot kicks. Jansson raced to the touchline in celebration, with his team mates piling on top. Meanwhile the Wednesday players walked off disinterested.

I guess it all worked out for Wednesday in the end, although not for Megson.

Beating the dog botherers – at last

If the Leeds game did not provide us with the right result, getting drawn to play Huddersfield in the next round of the JPT ultimately made up for it. Like Wednesday, Town probably didn’t take the game as seriously as they might have – though Phil Parkinson’s decision to play a number of fringe City players showed we had other priorities too. After a first half where we were second best, shortly after half time City took the lead through an own goal. We were pegged back, then Luke Oliver scored, then we were pegged back again.

The celebrations for the two City goals – Oliver’s especially – were not far off the experience at Leeds. As is usual when we play Town, the atmosphere inside the stadium had a nasty edge with home fans attempting to charge into the away section when we went 1-0 ahead. In the end we were hanging on for penalties, hoping for another memorable spot kick success.

We weren’t disappointed. This time Matt Duke was the hero, while Nialle Rodney netted the decisive penalty that put us through. Cue bedlam in the packed away end, with the obligatory hugging of strangers. We always seem to have such a poor record against Town, so this evening meant a lot.

The never-ending shoot out

Bramall Lane – like Elland Road and the Galpharm – holds miserable memories for City fans. But once again it was worth the Tuesday night trip, and once again the Sky cameras captured a thrilling City performance.

Sheffield United took the lead, but Flynn equalised on the stroke of half time with a long distance strike. We were giving as good as we got, and could easily have snatched the win. At the other end Jon McLaughlin – brought in for his first game of the season as Duke’s form got worse – made a crucial late save, to trigger penalties for the third round in a row.

Part of another huge City away following, I personally felt that we were surely due a shootout defeat after all the successes of this season and two years before; and when Flynn missed early on that seemed likely to be the case. But McLaughlin had made a great save from the first Blades’ spotkick and it eventually went to sudden death. It seemed to go on forever, but the City keeper made two more outstanding saves which set Chris Mitchell up to score the winning penalty. Bedlam again – this doesn’t mean as much as beating Huddersfield, perhaps, but it’s a great feeling nonetheless. Just two rounds from Wembley now.

The Boy from Bermuda

I love going to Rochdale, and I’m personally delighted one of the best away trips of the season is back on for 2012/13. Back in November, when the Valley Parade clock showed there were five minutes to go in this FA Cup 1st round tie and we were drawing 0-0, the prospect of a replay at Spotland held plenty of appeal to me.

Then up stepped Nahki Wells. Introduced from the bench as City recovered from a slow start to dominate the match, the Bermudian picked up the ball just inside his own half and drove forward with energy and poise. 40 yards out, Nahki looked up and decided to shoot early – the ball flew into the top corner at considerable pace.

What a moment. A star was truly born, with a goal that would be repeated on TV many times over the next few weeks. Wells’ goal won national attention, and the regard with which he was held at Valley Parade was on a steep, upwards curve. We did not get a night at Spotland, but a place in the 2nd round draw was a far greater prize.

Fagan’s rubbish penalty

Boundary Park has a reputation for always being cold, and it’s not hard to see why when one of the sides has been knocked down – inviting in the wind and the rain. It is a horrible wet December night for football, but with 2,500 City fans having made the trip over the Pennines for this JPT quarter final, it’s only place in the world you would want to be.

The atmosphere is fantastic, we give the players tremendous backing. Tonight, however, they finally fall short, with a mid-table League One Oldham side, clearly taking the competition more seriously than our previous conquests, deservedly 2-0 up by the midway point of the second half. We have our moments, but are second best. Such a shame.

Then in the final minute we earn a penalty for handball. Too little too late perhaps, but if Fagan scores we are set for an interesting final couple of minutes. He blazes the ball over the bar and into the away end. Time to go home, though it’s been a fun ride in this competition – again.

The (lack of) luck of the draw

I couldn’t make it to City’s FA Cup 2nd round match with Wimbledon; but after what sounded like a comfortable victory, the following day’s televised 3rd round draw holds huge excitement for us City fans. As the balls are drawn out, we are offered the possibility of our name following a huge one. Man City will play… (sigh, not us), Chelsea… (nope), Newcastle… (oh come on!), Liverpool… (will play Oldham! That’s not fair), Sunderland… (even that would do). We end up with Championship Watford. Away.

What a let down. But still, once the game comes around there are 1,200 of us who descend on Vicarage Road hoping for further cup heroics. We quickly go 1-0 down, but a minute later equalise through James Hanson right in front of us. We can do this!

Sadly Watford score right on half time, then get two more goals in the space of a minute early in the second half. With plenty of time to play, the game is already up, but the atmosphere is still incredible and we are having a good time. Wells nets late on for 4-2, then there is that Hannah moment where we think it’s 4-3. The conversations on the supporters coach home all seem to feature the comment “I’m not sure Hannah was offside, you know”. It is our way of keeping alive the cup dream by bigging up the what-might-have-beens. But it’s all over – back to the bread and butter of League Two.

Postscript – Macclesfield Town at home

City are 1-0 up against the division’s bottom club in April, with the three points we are set to claim guaranteeing survival. But there are no wild celebrations at full time, there are no hugging of strangers and there is no buzz which lasts into the following morning.

Instead we have a soundtrack of moaning during the game and after. Hanson is ridiculed non-stop for 90 minutes, Kyel Reid is criticised whenever his runs down the flank don’t end up with a pinpoint cross, and Fagan is screamed at for being lazy.

Back at Watford in January, a bloke two seats from me stood up and started yelling similar abuse at Fagan. He was quickly shouted down by everyone around him. “They’re two divisions above us, support your team” was the cry from more than one person, and the guy shut up. The positive chanting from everyone else recommenced.

That seems to be the difference between the joy of our cup exploits and the normality of League Two life. We don’t like where we are division-wise, and we don’t consider staying in the bottom division – even if the alternative is something far worse – to be something to celebrate. We don’t get behind Fagan when he is playing against mediocre footballers, but do cheer for him when he faces players better than him.

That makes sense of course – Fagan leaves City this summer with both player and club tagged as underachievers, and we want far more than we have seen from City in League Two this season. But there’s a lot of fun in getting behind your players and seeing them exceed your expectations, and this season the cup competitions provided numerous opportunities for both of these occurrences to happen.

Categories: 2011/12 season review

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