How I almost missed out on Villa Park

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By Martin Gregory

Where to start? No sleep for three days ahead of the night, constantly pacing up and down, less intake of food than usual. No one would have thought this was for a football match.

This is not football though. Football is watching 4th division players lump the ball forward every week at obscure grounds like the Globe Arena and Crown Ground. This was another scale – the 2nd biggest domestic cup behind only the FA Cup. Nights like these do not happen to people from Bradford.

The day started with an unbelievable calmness. My theory being we had a great experience, whatever happened at Villa Park. The day started with a trip to the Shoulder of Mutton at Shelf; where we were on one of the three coaches travelling down with the Shelf Bantams. Various people in the pub were showing signs of nerves as the odd pint in three was supped with the words “we’re going to lose 4-0”. I was mocked after relaying my dream that we drew 1-1, with Benteke scoring early (I was not a million miles away!) I had this air of calmness, a bit like Blackpool away in 1996 – when I thought we would score the three goals needed to get to Wembley.

We hit the road about 2pm after the complementary sausage butties, and made a hasty stop at Birch services for the locals who had one too many nerves. This is when it all kicked in: lorry drivers wishing us well and other people saying “hope you destroy the Villa”. The two hours to our stopping point in Walsall seemed to just fly by. Upon entering the George Stevenson pub, there were cheers from the locals (I have never seen this before). We soon found most were West Brom and Wolves fans. It seemed we couldn’t lose.

The discussion in the pub was mainly centred at Hanson being the hero. This got a few laughs especially from my dad who predicted 1-2 and Wells to net the vital goal (he even guessed 3-1 in the first leg). We had to leave at 6.15pm to beat the M6 traffic – which is where the catastrophe begun.

7.30pm arrived and we were stuck three miles from Villa Park due to stationary traffic, just at the turn for spaghetti junction. Friction was beginning, as the driver would not take a chance in the outside lane. All the while our Villa Park dream is fast becoming a nightmare. After another 15 minutes waiting, we all decided to take our chance and jump the coach – running the last two miles to the ground.

Watching myself, my cousin (who somehow managed to drink and run at the same time) and my dad – who suffers with his legs – struggle through the snow along with at least 70 other fans was like Sly Stallone in Rocky IV, minus the tree logs.

After a couple of falls and slides, we made it to Villa Park – only to be told abruptly that we were on the wrong side for the away fans. We eventually managed to get in, just in time to see Benteke fizz the ball into the back of the net. What followed was 25 minutes of constant tension and pressure. You could see it etched on everyone around us. Once half time came there was an eerie calm. People around were muttering that we need to change, Hanson is a donkey, Wells looks disinterested. Myself? I just thought, hold it 15 minutes and we will be okay. There was nothing to lose.

Then a moment of coincidence. Gary Jones knocked a usual corner across the box and James Hanson somehow broke from Vlaar to head the ball into the top corner. This was marked down as in the 55th minute, but technically the 56th – 56 being the number of the fans we were doing this for. They will smile down with pride.

This unleashed pandemonium in the stands. One lad in front of us decided to crowd surf down seven rows. Two lads were crying. It was heart stopping. Having run all the way to the ground, and to then see City take the away goal, brought on a tightening of the chest (not in a bad way) and then emotion. Never have I screamed so loud. The old voice has not returned yet.

You could see from this goal that the Villa heads dropped. Not only the fans, but the players as well. Now City were on top, despite the claims from Talksport and Sky. Hanson had a chance to make it two but mistimed his header; then Garry Thompson nearly broke the crossbar. Things were going too well for City and the Wembley chants had started – although anyone who had been at Wolves, Blackpool, Liverpool and Everton would have known that we were not there yet!

On 88 minutes the unthinkable happened. A long punt down field from Blair Turgott’s mistimed cross (why did he not put it in the corner?) and Weimann had danced round Duke and scored. The not so noisy Villa fans suddenly come alive, and I could feel the nerves kick in and the expected equaliser to take it into extra time, which somehow did not come.

All I can remember next is Will Atkinson chesting the ball down and Phil Dowd blowing his whistle after 4 agonising minutes. Then Bang. The greatest roar ever. Dancing, shouting, people jumping and getting injured. Grown men crying and telling Gary Jones et all how much they loved them. It was delirium.

Our little 4th Division club were through to play on the grandest stage of them all. Stuff like this does not happen to Bradfordians! Outside the ground everyone was hugging and dancing, while the coaches prepared to set off. Illegal Vendors were knocking out Wembley 2013 City scarves and t-shirts. It was unreal.

We arrived back in Bradford at 1.30am, and the pub was opened for us to drink into the early hours. How many people, across the Bradford district, also stayed up until 5am watching the game over again?!

Dreams do come true!



Categories: Opinion

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1 reply

  1. Great story Martin! I can’t imagine to begin how you felt missing the first 22/23 minutes of the game. I was pleased for James Hanson scoring our goal on the night and I’ve never had such a big hug from my friend as when the final whistle went. The atmosphere amongst the City faithful, even after Villa scored, was superb! Thankfully it all ended well for us Bradford City supporters. Now we need to get back to picking up some league points and getting back in to a play off positon.

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