Burton Albion 1
Maghoma 55 (pen)
Bradford City 3
Wells 27+57, Hanson 50
(Bradford City win 5-4 on aggregate)
Sunday 2 May, 2013
By Jason McKeown
Supporting Bradford City has never been easy. You are mocked and pitied by others. You endure lots of terrible football. Disappointment becomes second nature, because it seems like, wherever you place the bar of expectation, the club will usually fall well below it. The glory days had become something from a different era. We’ve experienced some very difficult and dark times.
Which makes days like today so much more special. After enduring years of failure, testing your faith and testing your sanity, today City got their day of celebration. Today, years of frustration, heartbreak and so, so many home defeats has been rewarded. Today, every reason for supporting Bradford City was vindicated. Today.
The scenes at full time, after Bradford City had defied the odds, once again, to book a second trip of the season to Wembley, will live in the memory forever. They were every bit as electrifying as the best ever moments supporting the club. Some who were there for Blackpool 17 years ago stated this was on a par. Being at Villa Park in January may or may not have shaded this, but it’s all academic. For a club that has achieved no success since 2000, to have two occasions like this in one season is astonishing.
Astonishing because of how good it tastes. The memories of Wolves, Blackpool, Liverpool etc were beginning to fade. The mind plays tricks – were they really that good, or have we just built up a halcyon recollection of emotions that we could never possibly hope to relive again? The truth is we’d forgotten what this felt like. How amazing it is to feel this happy following your football club.
Supporting Bradford City has never been easy, but on days like this it is impossible to imagine ever wanting to do anything but.
All of which masks what was, in truth, a terrifying ordeal. Three days on from seemingly throwing promotion hopes away with that dismal first 45 minutes at Valley Parade, hope had been allowed to grow and theories of how we could turn it around given wings to fly. Beforehand I was hugely confident that we could do it, but as soon as the match kicked off I instantly questioned my stupidity in what I had been thinking. Have I just set myself up for another terrible let down? As Burton charged forwards in the opening minutes, the temptation to run out of the stadium and go home there and then was strong.
Even when City took the lead 27 minutes in, my nerves only increased when they should have eased. A horrendous misjudgement by Burton defender Marcus Holness – an attempted back header to keeper Stuart Tomlinson falling well short – allowed Nahki Wells to steal in and tap the ball home. Everyone went barmy. I could not jump up down myself, as I was hugged by people either side of me and from the row in front. Manic, but brilliant. From being 3-1 down at half time on Thursday, City had pulled the aggregate score back to 3-3. That’s why my anxiety grew. It was now in our hands. That was scary.
The goal had followed a half hour of nothingness. Andrew Davies, back from suspension, handled the still-strong Calvin Zola excellently, and Jacques Maghoma was kept quiet by a much improved Stephen Darby. Jon McLaughlin made one good save, but Phil Parkinson would later talk about the huge psychological advantage City gained from Burton resorting to 4-4-2 mid-way through the half, as the Brewer’s first leg tactics were nullified.
Indeed Burton were on the ropes. Wells’ goal unravelling their composure and revealing their insecurity. A few seconds later a scramble in the box resulted in the referee Graham Scott blowing for a City penalty and it seemed like we had one foot at Wembley. Alas, Wells was ruled to be offside in the build up and the linesman persuaded Scott to award a Burton goal kick instead. But it was still a blow of some sorts to Burton. They were hanging on, and we had nearly exposed the thinness of the margins.
Five minutes into the second half, and Gary Jones – back to his magnificent best after a no-show Thursday – sent Wells away down City’s right. He was challenged, but the ball ricocheted central towards the edge of the penalty area where James Hanson was charging forwards. A powerful low finish – Tomlinson could not get near it – and the back of the net ruffled. A huge roar. The celebrations were immense both on and off the pitch. In a season of incredible moments, this was right up there with the best.
A fitting goalscorer too. Hanson had played well Thursday but was widely criticised, as usual. Today he was unplayable. Sensational. For how much Zola has been praised over the last few days and Hanson compared unfavourably, today James’ critics must once again eat their words. He and Wells gave the performances of their lives, and Burton could not cope. Hope was turning into realism. Wembley on the horizon.
A scare came five minutes later when the home side finally came to life. Maghoma got away from Darby, and Garry Thompson’s desperate lunge to deny him a shot on goal resulted in a penalty. It is claimed that the challenge was outside the box. It is also claimed Thompson was the last man and should have gone. After the handball antics of the first leg, Burton were in no position to take the high ground on the latter point.
So just like on Thursday, the 2-0 down home side pulled one back from the penalty spot – Maghoma doing the business – but just like Thursday, the away side responded quickly. It took all of two minutes for Wells to restore City’s lead with a clever turn and shot that Tomlinson might have made a better fist of keeping out. The ball trickled slowly over the line and we were in dreamland.
Looking from the outside, the last half an hour must have seemed curiously routine for City. Burton were shot to pieces. Their attempts at coming back lacked confidence or conviction. A couple of half chances were dealt with by McLaughlin, but for the most part City reduced them to pot shots from distance that were so wayward they flew out of the ground. Meanwhile City continued to attack in a measured way, looking more likely to score.
Being on the inside, however, the last half an hour was utter torture. Burton only needed one goal to force extra time, and the minutes ticked by painfully slowly. My heart was beating so fast. My breathing got heavier and heavier. At times I had to turn the other way and stop watching the game. From being all over at half time on Thursday to the brink of Wembley, the prize was too important for anything but total devastation to occur if we let this slip from our grasp. City had two very, very strong penalty appeals turned away that might have made it safer. Where six minutes of injury time came from is a mystery.
But we were magnificent. Nathan Doyle’s return to the starting XI bringing calm and rational-thought to City’s play. Davies – complete with a head bandage in the second half – sensational at the back. Jones, Meredith, Darby, Reid, Thompson, Rory McArdle – pillars of strength. For how brilliant Burton were on Thursday, City were doubly impressive today. For how much we froze on Thursday, Burton were now the ones who had bottled it.
Finally, the final whistle. Cue the celebrations. Me and my wife hugged each other and I realised that she was in tears. The last time she had cried at City, we were 4-0 down to Swansea at Wembley. I started supporting City in 1997, so have seen some good times at least. She saw her first City match in 2002 and unfortunately could not join me at Villa Park. I’m so glad that she has at last experienced this kind of magical moment.
Some fans invaded the pitch, but the police’s heavy handiness discouraged others from joining. Instead the players were able to party in front of us. Dancing up and down to our chants, throwing their shirts into the crowd. The highlight for me – and it was possibly the highlight of the whole day – was Parkinson’s pumped up celebrations as he ran around the pitch. It’s no secret that I am a big, big Parkinson fan to the point I irritate others. I’m so pleased for him. He endured some strong criticism post Wembley that was undeserved. Please, dear reader, join me in rugby tackling Parkinson and not letting him back up until he signs that bloody contract.
The players went inside, but we were not going home until they came back out. In the meantime Mark Lawn leapt from the director’s box to pitchside and was hugged by fans at the front of the stand. Finally our heroes came back. It was still early afternoon, and the party was just getting started. Talk of Wembley is great, but let’s enjoy this achievement first.
“We’re proud of you” was the chant from the City fans and how well deserved it was. As fans we’ve spent years booing and jeering, singing “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” and, once, “love the club, hate the team”. “We’re proud of you” is praise indeed and the players and management deserve every bit of credit coming to them and more. Magnificent. Thank you.
But football supporting is, first and foremost, a selfish thing, and today belonged to us, the fans. It has been an incredibly difficult 13 years supporting Bradford City. The bad times have completely outweighed the little good. That we still have a club to support has been our biggest – neigh, our only – achievement. And it is for days like this that we put in all their effort, spend all that money, and sing all those songs following the club up and down the country.
Days like this, when, for once, the sun shines on our wonderful football club.
City: McLaughlin, Darby, Davies, McArdle, Meredith, Thompson, Doyle, Jones, Reid (Atkinson 73), Hanson, Wells
Not used: Duke, Nelson, McHugh, Ravenhill Hines, Connell