You might say that this is the perfect weekend to be a Bradford City supporter. On Saturday, the 2012/13 heroes continue their adaption to League One with a home game against Colchester United. Then on Sunday, the other widely-celebrated modern-era Bradford City team – the 1998/99 promotion winners – are reunited for the first time for a charity game to mark the opening of the Valley Parade free school. The game has been organised by Wayne Jacobs, with proceeds for the game against a Celebrity XI going to the highly commendable One in a Million charity.
Width of a Post will be providing coverage of both weekend matches and, from tomorrow, initially focusing on the Colchester game. Before then, and to hopefully help you get in the mood for Sunday, we present an extract from editor Jason McKeown’s book ‘Paying on the Gate’ recalling how that famous 1998/99 season saw City turn around a difficult start.
It’s the August bank holiday and we’re walking the usual path from Forster Square railway station to Valley Parade for a home game with Birmingham City. While I usually do this walk in excitement and anticipation, today I was feeling miserable and full of dread. Three days earlier we had disappointingly lost at Crewe as the miserable start to the season continued. That came after the home game with Bolton, an encouraging 2-2 draw where we had twice come from behind with first league goals from our new strikers Isaiah Rankin and Lee Mills. I got to go to that game, and then listened to the Crewe defeat on the radio. The result felt like a massive set back which left me feeling really concerned about the team’s prospects, as the early league table showed us near the bottom. We wanted to exit this division, but not that way.
Things weren’t looking good and the pressure was growing on manager Paul Jewell. I met Alan, Stephen and David at the bus stop as usual as we headed for the Birmingham game and their first words referred to their excitement that Kenny Dalglish had just been sacked by Newcastle and that we should replace Jewell with the dour Scot. Apart from how ludicrous it sounded to think Dalglish would come and manage City, I also thought the idea was terrible given how he had turned the Magpies into a dull and miserable side. I also didn’t want us to sack Jewell, especially after just four games.
With Birmingham heavily fancied for promotion and the memory of their impressive display at Valley Parade last season still fresh, I expected them to continue their excellent start and consign City to another defeat. It was hard to see how City could win and it was the last fixture we needed at this stage. It hardly left me feeling in a confident mood and I was bracing myself for another defeat which I knew would be hard to take.
55 minutes into the game, those fears were being realised. After an even first half, Peter Ndlovu put Birmingham into the lead and they looked set for three points. Then, remarkably, City turned it round. First Lee Mills glanced home from a corner on the hour mark and then, with 15 minutes on the clock, Darren Moore headed the ball powerfully into the net from another corner. Both goals came at the opposite end to the Kop, so we didn’t have the greatest view, but still we were celebrating wildly at the prospect of a first win of the season. Despite late pressure, we held on for a victory that just might get our season going. It clearly meant a lot to everyone, including the players. At the final whistle, Gary Walsh come over to us behind the Kop and threw his gloves into the crowd.
It was fair to say the journey home was happier than that to the game. It wasn’t a great performance, but the fact we had beaten a very good side gave us all a huge lift. It didn’t prove to be the end of our poor start, a 3-0 defeat away at Ipswich followed. But even this loss didn’t feel as bad as the Crewe one had, as I was now more confident the team was capable of playing better football and winning matches. The word ‘relegation’ had been uttered before kick off against Birmingham, it wouldn’t be heard again all season.
The next home game was against Sheffield United and, after conceding a really poor opening goal, we played some excellent football to lead 2-1 with goals from Robbie Blake and Mills. It was Blake’s first appearance after a three-match suspension was carried over from last season. He was excellent in this game, playing out wide, and the team began to play with the attacking fluency that would become the hallmark of the season. Sheffield United did equalise in the second half to leave City still with just one win, but I walked out of Valley Parade feeling further more confident about our chances.
The following week we were away at West Brom and, despite the game been live on Sky, we made our first away trip of the season. There was barely 200 other fans who did the same, but how we were rewarded. West Brom were another team well-fancied, but 15 minutes into the game Mills had struck twice to give us a 2-0 lead. No more goals followed, and our first away of the season was earned after a very professional display. I had asked my mate to tape the Sky coverage and when I watched it back the pundits in the studio agreed we had played like play off candidates. Our league position was still low, but things were definitely looking up.
The Barnsley home game, the Saturday after, was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments and easily my best City game so far. During midweek we had completed a two-leg Worthington Cup win over Halifax Town and the draw for the third round took place while we were making our way to the game. We met David outside the ground, as he was already in Bradford as part of a friend’s stag do, and he told us the first piece of great news of the day, we had drawn Leeds away! We arrived on the Kop to a noticeable buzz and anti-Leeds chants going around – clearly we weren’t the only excited fans. We instantly agreed we were going to the game, no doubt about it.
Having just come down from the Premiership, Barnsley were still a good side and took the lead early in the second half through Ashley Ward. Despite the setback we kept attacking and began to really get on top. Barnsley were reduced to ten men after a horrible challenge on Peter Beagrie, who was looking especially threatening. Despite laying siege in the closing stages, it appeared as though they were going to hold out. By now we were playing with four strikers as Blake was pushed forward and Rankin and Gordon Watson came on. Watson had broken his leg 18 months earlier and was slowly making his return to fitness with a few sub appearances. Right in front of us in the Kop, he was able to release some of that frustration by firing in a late equaliser. Huge celebrations followed, we’d saved a point.
Incredibly there was more to come as the players continued to pour forward. Blake went on a jinxing run, cut inside and shot from distance. The keeper could only parry the shot into the path of Watson, who gleefully rammed the ball into the net. In my short time supporting City, I had celebrated some great goals and gone crazy, but none had carried as much drama and significance as this one. I can’t really remember the celebrations too much, all I know is I completely lost it and so did everyone around me. We all went crazy, jumping on each other, hugging strangers and screaming for joy at the top of our voices. In one moment I lost any sense of what was around me, what was going on and probably even where I was.
To go from staring defeat in the face to unbridled joy in the space of two minutes is something I will never forget. I’ve experienced bigger victories and celebrated wilder since, but this game is one that will always make my top five all time City games. Two goals at the end, celebrations more manic than I had ever being part of before, a City win AND we were going to play Leeds in the cup! It took a long time to come down from the clouds.
Many supporters looking back on this season point to this game as the turning point. They are probably right, although the win and performance against West Brom was probably the moment were it turned for the players. Still just a couple of hundred of us had been there to witness it. The incredible fightback against Barnsley was seen by all and meant that we supporters could realistically start to believe that promotion was a realistic objective.
The book Paying on the Gate suffered some issues, not least the publisher failing to include final amends made after it was proof-read, but it is still available to buy as an e-book from Amazon and iTunes.