The Width of a Post is incredibly proud to present a two-part series about the significance of Bradford City’s two-legged semi final with Aston Villa, written by two City supporters of different generations. First up, 16-year-old Joe Cockburn writes about what this game means to him, against a backdrop of following the team through thin and thinner. Look out for part two early afternoon on Monday.
By Joe Cockburn
Bradford City vs Chesterfield. 16 December, 2006. A date and a game which I doubt any reader will remember. Yet without this game, you wouldn’t be reading this article. It was the first time (of memory) which I had been to Valley Parade. The likes of Matt Clarke, Marc Bridge-Wilkinson and Tom Penford gracing the pitch. Nathan Doyle, in fact, lining up for City at right back. Dean Windass scored the only goal of the game, and City won 1-0. As a 10 year old boy at the time, it isn’t a game I particularly remember every detail of, but it is a game that helped form my love for Bradford City Football Club.
You compare that to the next game I will visit, Aston Villa vs Bradford City, in the League Cup semi final, as a 16-year-old currently sitting A-Level exams. The biggest and most important game I will have been to as a Bradford City fan. Potentially the biggest I will ever see.
That win against Chesterfield, and another 1-0 win against Doncaster on Boxing Day were in fact the only City wins I saw that season. At that time though, City were pushing towards the League One play offs. Yes, I hold my hands up, it was my fault City went down that year. But why did I come back? The Bantams hadn’t won at home in 2007. I had seen them lose at Scunthorpe and Huddersfield, as well as go down, incidentally, at Chesterfield.
The truth is I have no idea what made me come back. But somehow, I had formed an affection for this club, and there was no explainable reason for it. I still don’t have one to this day. The passion and the excitement, maybe. The fact I had just found myself wanting the team to win, and feeling bad when the team lost. How glad I am that I did come back.
City – although struggling a bit in the league – are currently in their finest hour. We are the club on everyone’s lips. All my friends talking about how good we are. Barely a day goes by without me hearing the words “Nahki Wells”. I can finally wear my claret and amber shirt around school with real pride. That is perhaps the best thing about it.
But it is the six years leading up to this which have sweetened it even more. With all my friends ‘supporting’ Man United, Liverpool and Leeds, ridicule has been a relative constant. If we won, I would take my programme in for a read on Monday morning, and even then the picture of Stuart McCall would get a laugh, “he looks stupid, who’s he?” Now, I don’t think any of the football fans there will not know who Phil Parkinson is. And, for me, that is almost as good as actually being there and witnessing this happen to my club.
And during those six years, jealousy has been the overriding feeling. It seems like so many clubs do well, or at least better than they should, yet somehow, six managers and god knows how many players later, we cannot. Just to put things into perspective, when City were relegated from League One in 2007, Peterborough were a mid-table League Two side. Millwall, Blackpool, Bristol City, Notts Forest, Brighton and even Swansea were all in League One. Lincoln, Stockport, Darlington, Grimsby, Mansfield, Chester and Boston were still in the Football League. Torquay were relegated out of the League that season. I could go on and on.
Yet we have hardly changed. Still and average League Two side, occasionally showing signs of improvement. Worsened by the fact that Stevenage vs Crawley is now a League One fixture. But we have this run. This magical cup run. The saving grace of the last five years and beyond.
I just cannot comprehend how we are doing this. Most fans will remember the Premier League, will remember the Bobby Campbell-Stuart McCall era. My favourite City players have been Omar Daley and Lee Bullock. That shows my lack of good times. But now there is one. And one to cherish.
Wigan away was good enough. After the dismal draw of Burton in the previous round, we hoped and prayed for a top draw. Truthfully, and no disrespect to Wigan – clearly a much better team than ourselves – it wasn’t the draw that we wanted. It felt a bit like it wasn’t a big team, but that it was a team we could easily lose to.
But the occasion itself was great. All the excitement about getting tickets, selling out our away end, on top of Wigan not having many fans themselves made it more exciting than perhaps it would have been. For a fan who had never been to a really big game before, it was brilliant.
And somehow we won. Well, in all honesty, you would say somehow Wigan didn’t score. And the celebrations were unprecedented for myself. We had beaten a Premier League team. At their ground. We were in the quarter finals of a major cup competition. School were getting told about this.
But there was still the draw the next day. I was sat watching it, and updating it on my own blog, so wasn’t really concentrating. As I typed in Middlesbrough, I looked at the screen. “IT’S JUST US AND ARSENAL” I screamed at the top of my voice. Then we were drawn at home. Unbelievable. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to us, and me with my ridiculed, puny, no-one-else-supports-them football team. Taking on the Premier League giants. At home.
School didn’t need telling about this.
“Can you get us tickets?” “Take me with you.” “You’re gonna get battered by Arsenal.” The cheek of that last one. Around came the game, and as I was climbing the stairs towards the top of the unfamiliarly full Kop at around 6:50pm, the teams were being announced. Arsenal were unexpectedly playing their first team. Arsene Wenger was scared. And that was Phil Parkinson’s team talk.
We thought that was it. A win-win situation. Bradford City pack out their stadium, get plenty of money, and Arsenal are in the semi-final. But that obviously didn’t happen. Even Garry Thompson’s goal. We thought we’d had our moment; delirious celebrations having taken the lead against one of the world’s best clubs. But we held out. And it looked like we had won. It was unbelievably gutting when Thomas Vermaelen equalised late on.
It went to penalties, and after my six years of decay and disappointment, I expected us to lose. Nine penalty wins in a row. That is what everyone was saying. I called the stadium announcer an idiot for saying “we have penalties…does anyone fancy us?” But, thankfully, I was proved wrong.
Wow. This is as good as it gets. It went through my mind that I had to savour this moment, because it could be that something this big never happens to my football club again.
Then something massive went through my mind. We were in the semi finals of one of the two major domestic cup competitions. There are Premier League teams who won’t achieve that in the next 10, 15, 20 years. And the same with being one step away from Wembley. How many teams get to play at Wembley? Only the best.
The draw came out, and Villa was the best possibility. The only doable away trip, and the worst team. But we still went in expecting to lose. Hoping for a sneaky 1-0 or a draw, something to take back to Villa Park. Again, my City-based pessimism told me we had no chance.
At half time I had over 20 text messages and more than that in tweets. The reaction was unreal. Everyone’s team was signing Nahki Wells; Zavon Hines should never have left West Ham; Gary Jones looks like Karl Pilkington.
And when that 2nd goal went in, I went absolutely wild. I couldn’t believe how my little club, who couldn’t beat Barnet the weekend before, were beating Aston Villa of the Premier League. And outplaying them. I wondered if this was better than Liverpool. And in truth, I hardly celebrated Carl McHugh’s goal. I just couldn’t believe that we had scored such a simple yet brilliant goal against Aston Villa. And I just thought “we can easily win this”. And I have rarely thought that in the last five years!
And now, I go to Villa not knowing what to expect. Do we actually have a chance? It’s hard to say. But while this is the biggest game in most of the players’ careers, this is without doubt the biggest game in my turbulent time as a fan.
And why not.
We can do it.