By Paul Firth
There is simply no point in going over the reasons why this has been a totally extraordinary season for Bradford City and their fans. The only relevant thing to be said today is that the season is not yet over and that there is still one more week to wait for the final game; a second Wembley trip in one season. Yes, truly a memorable end to an exciting season.
Although some supporters may find it hard to believe after the last dozen years, City have had other successful end-of-season matches – at Wolverhampton in 1999, at home to Liverpool in 2000 and two games in three days at the end of the 1996-97 season against Charlton and QPR that kept the newly-promoted City in the second tier and laid the foundation for promotion to the top league. Some of us can even remember promotion from this division back in the 1960s, the 1970s and, the last time we went up from here, in 1982. We can also remember the odd failure at the end. Just mention Workington to some older fans.
But City have actually won a league title on only three occasions – 1908, 1929 and 1985. Each of these championships was memorable in its own way. The first because the club was only five seasons old. The second because City scored 128 goals in 42 league games, averaging almost four a game at Valley Parade. And the third because – well, it doesn’t really need saying, does it?
Even I wasn’t around for the first two title wins, so I can be excused not being able to remember anything about them. I can remember all sorts of odd details about each of those other promotions, but I still have to confirm from my trusty Terry Frost book that our leading goalscorer in the 1968-69 promotion was Bobby Ham and that Joe Cooke topped the list in 1976-77. I need no reminding of who was top scorer in the 1981-82 promotion side. He’d kill me if he thought I’d forgotten!
So, no matter how ‘memorable’ some seasons are, sometimes we need reminding about what happened in the last game or, as was the case in 1996-97, the last two games. (For those who need a nudge, on that Thursday night against Charlton Athletic, Nigel Pepper scored the only goal and Richard Liburd got himself sent off in almost the last minute. At least that’s how I remember it!) But there’s one last day that none of us who witnessed it need any reminder about.
May 11th 1985 was set for the celebration of City’s winning the third division title at Bolton five days earlier. Even for those supporters not yet born in 1985, so many names from that team trip off the tongue. McCall, Campbell, Hendrie, Jackson, Ellis, Abbott, McManus, Evans and Withe all started forty or more league games, the first three playing in all 46 and in another seven cup ties (no JPT or its equivalent back then). McCall and Campbell played every minute of their 53 appearances. Despite the mammoth 64 games this season, only Rory McArdle can possibly match that number of starts.
But however many of those 1985 names may be known to supporters under thirty years of age, they cannot truly say that they remember those players and how well they played in those 53 games. Still less can younger fans truly remember what happened that day just before half-time, any more than my generation can remember either of the two world wars. Even so, just like the Remembrance services that are held on November 11th, we have our own service on May 11th. Some of us will be remembering; others will be paying their respects.
Some of those who can remember that day 28 years ago wish they could forget. They need no reminding. Its aftermath is with them every day of their lives – mentally, emotionally, physically. For those who can just about bear the pain of thinking back, there is the enormous comfort that young fans keep us in their hearts, that they offer their silent thoughts to the injured, the bereaved and, most of all, those 56 supporters of two football clubs who never returned home.
This year the anniversary of those deaths falls on Cup Final day. Perhaps the Football Association will mark ‘football’s less-remembered disaster’. Whatever happens at Wembley tomorrow afternoon, the tragedy will already have been marked earlier in the day in Centenary Square, not in a fanfare of publicity, but in silent contemplation and with claret and amber flowers at the foot of a beautiful memorial. Everyone is welcome, especially the younger fans.
And a week later, the team in claret and amber can ensure this particular unforgettable season ends with nothing but the happiest of memories.