By Jason McKeown
The Bradford City that has bumbled around League Two since 2007 isn’t the Bradford City that I fell in love with.
Don’t get me wrong, the experience of life in the basement league has been a lot of fun. The frayed terraces at Macclesfield, Accrington and Barnet are a closer representation of the true soul of football than Sky hyperbole, transfer windows and Sepp Blatter. What our players of the last few years have lacked in ability, for the most part they had made up for with effort. Moments like beating Lincoln City at Sincil Bank in 2007, equalising in stoppage time at Luton in 2009, thrashing Oxford 5-0 at Valley Parade in 2010, beating Huddersfield in the JPT in 2011 – they are up there amongst the best I’ve experienced as a City supporter.
But this whole City-are-a-big-fish-in-a-small-pond novelty wore thin very, very quickly. Rather than being a big fish, our five-and-a-half years struggling to earn promotion are more akin to an overweight 50-something wheezing for breath, as they try to keep up with small and skinny athletes on a running track. It is not nice to look at what we have become, or to reflect on how we let this happen to ourselves.
This isn’t the Bradford City I fell in love with. The one I did, back in the late 90s, was a medium-size club punching ever so slightly above its weight in the second tier of English football. We had a good group of players you could relate to and get behind. And sometimes we’d win and sometimes we’d lose (and very often we’d draw). The scale of our Geoffrey Richmond-fuelled ambitions seemed disproportionate to how we were viewed externally. Sack Chris Kamara for only being 11th in the league? When we did, the football world queued up to condemn us. Back then, Valley Parade was smaller than it is now, but more homely. It perfectly suited where we were at the time.
And then the odds started to be defied on a much bigger scale. Promotion to the Premier League, when at the start of the 1998/99 season pundits were predicting we would be relegated. Survival in the Premier League, when at one stage we were dubbed the worst team ever to be part of the elite. Europe? Come on now, this is getting silly.
The vision and drive of Richmond, which enabled the club to over-achieve so memorably, would ultimately almost kill it. The fall down the divisions, whilst struggling to rub two pennies together, was a hefty punishment for setting the bar that little bit too high. Today we have a lovely stadium, but don’t come close to filling it. We have a huge level of support (our average attendance for 2012/13 more than double that of 15 of the other 23 clubs), but are regularly beaten to the promotion line by teams with significantly lower resources. We used to taunt opposition with “Have you seen the Premier League?”, but it’s no longer considered a badge of honour – more a huge wart on our face. Pretend not to notice it, please.
And it doesn’t always sit comfortably, feeling like we are a big club. It took a long, long time to reach the point where a League Two home defeat wasn’t considered an utter embarrassment for a club of our stature. We’ve had a bit of an identity crisis for the best part of a decade. Too big to be in the division we are in (League One or League Two). Too big to be settling for mid-table finishes. Too big to avoid being booed off the pitch in defeat. Again and again and again.
The simple truth is that, deep down, we Bradford City supporters have always preferred being the underdogs or proving people wrong. Our current ambition is to get back into the Championship, at which point we would be akin to a Barnsley, a Crystal Palace or a Charlton. Not one of the big hitters, not realistically expecting to challenge for a place in the Premier League. But a side that opposition look upon as a tough place to go; upsetting the odds on a semi-regular occurrence.
Which is why this cup run has been so utterly, utterly enjoyable. We have understood that we have been outsiders in almost every round, and got behind the players as they try to match up to players with far superior technical ability. In league matches it’s a common feature for us to get on the team’s back if they are struggling and to single out players for abuse. In the cup this season, the outlook has been simple: get behind each and every single player, from the first kick to the last.
A strange quirk then, that the unlikelier it is that Bradford City can win the game, the more enjoyable the experience seems to prove. Perhaps the ingrained pessimism that characterises Bradfordians means we subliminally teach ourselves to accept defeat to a superior opposition side, and thus can enjoy anything else as a bonus. Winning League Two matches seems more of a minimum requirement than an achievement. Let us not forget that occasion we booed them off in victory.
The cup run has allowed us to re-invent ourselves, with the help of the national media lapping it all up. We are no longer “massive Bradford City” who every League Two side treats as their cup final, we are “little Bradford City” in the fourth tier of English football. Whereas we talked about this season’s side being expensive to assemble, the media has focused on transfer fees amounting to just £7,500. It makes a welcome change to feel like a small fish, taking a bite out of bigger opponents.
I want to see Bradford City climb up the leagues. To no longer be burdened by high-pressure expectations of winning every League Two game and to be constantly talking ourselves down as underachievers. I want us to fulfil our potential and to enjoy the fact we are doing just that, rather than always feeling disappointed or re-setting the bar ever lower.
The Bradford City that has bumbled around League Two since 2007 isn’t the Bradford City that I fell in love with. But this season’s Bradford City team, which has defied all the odds to reach a major cup final, is every inch the club I first fell hopelessly for. Let us call Wembley our second honeymoon.
Cup Final: Width of a Post build-up
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- Special magazine charts City and Swans stories by Mahesh Johal
- The last time we went to Wembley by Gareth Walker
- So long as a round ball is kicked…dreaming of immortality by David Pendleton
- A fan’s guide to Wembley by Mark Danylczuk
- The Swansea City perspective by Mark Scully
- Doing everything we can by Rob Craven
- Phil Parkinson’s crowning moment by Luke Lockwood