On each of the final three Mondays of 2013, Width of a Post is looking back on an unforgettable year. In part one we reflect on the two visits to Wembley – not from the viewpoint of Bradford City fans in the West end of the stadium, but what two opposition supporters made of their respective days.
Swansea City 5 Bradford City 0
League Cup Final
By Huw Richards
There is visual evidence of how I felt before the League Cup Final. A picture on page 67 of Huw Bowen’s book ‘Swansea City: Road to Wembley’. A group of fans including Prof Bowen posed on Wembley Way, all smiles of anticipation. Well, nearly all. Second from left is a bearded, bespectacled 50-something in a brown leather jacket whose expression might be termed pensive. The caption reads, in best West Walian demotic ‘C’mon, Huw Richards, mun. Cheer up, it’s a blydi cup final!’.
But that was the trouble. When your club has taken 101 years to reach its first major final, there’s no reason to believe it will happen again in a hurry. To win a real trophy is the fulfilment of every football fan’s dream, cherished perhaps most fervently by those of us who spend most of our supporting lives with no realistic hope of it happening. It had to be now, or very likely never.
Bradford had inevitably, and quite rightly, dominated the build-up. To get to a final while playing at level four was an achievement deserving all the acclaim it got, and had the additional merit of diverting even the most trivial of mass media away from That Bloody Ballboy.
Nor was Bradford’s status any reason for complacency. The last time we played a League Two team, Shrewsbury in late 2011, had also been the last time we lost a League Cup tie. Our closest call on the trek to Wembley came at Crawley, lately of the same league.
Both of us had recently played Aston Villa. Bradford won over two legs, while we scraped a last minute draw at home. Bradford had knocked Arsenal out of the League Cup. Arsenal knocked us out of the FA Cup.
There would have been no disgrace in losing. A palpable air of mutual goodwill, summed up by Jason McKeown’s When Saturday Comes musing that ‘I’d be supporting them, if they weren’t playing my team,’ hung over Wembley Way. It was a contest of clubs and cities with much in common.
But we would inevitably have gone down as the Premier League club who blew their best chance of a trophy against a team from three leagues lower. However much goodwill you feel, nobody wants to be the fall guy in somebody else’s happy story.
Hence perhaps the difference in collective miens on Wembley Way. Bradford colours are much more vivid than our own, but this also seemed a rare occasion when the Swans fans were beaten for decibels per capita. Bradford’s good cheer seemed unforced, our own underlain by an edge of apprehension.
But that was also Bradford’s chief misfortune – that they ran into a rare Premier League team to whom the occasion mattered just as much. Their best chance would probably have been against one of the oligarchs, absent-mindedly chasing a trophy they see as, at best, a consolation prize.
We perhaps got lucky to be playing a lower division team whose instinct was to play football. A traditional up-and-under, stick-it-in-the-mixer-and-see-what-happens battler might have been more of a problem. But that doesn’t mean Bradford were wrong to play the way they did. Wembley isn’t the place to start playing against instinct.
So the match followed a template laid down in the first minute, when the Swans passed and passed and Bradford’s first touch was a clearance for a corner. With Bradford evidently under instructions not to dive in and commit themselves, it increasingly resembled a training session – the Swans passing, moving and switching while Bradford chased, covered and hoped to pressure them into mistakes.
Being in possession was reassuring – one element most pundits miss about Swansea’s style is that having the ball a lot is our first line of defence – but barely steadied underlying nerves. That only happened as the goals came, and it was not until number three went in on 50 minutes after a build-up featuring two superb dummies from Michu that it was really safe to believe the cup was coming our way. The ecstatic leap by Michael Laudrup, usually an impassive touchline presence, suggested he felt the same.
Then came number four, and a different sort of anxiety. I certainly didn’t want to see Matt Duke sent off in a match that was already decided, still less to see Bradford humiliated. Subsequent interviews have suggested that the Swansea players felt the same. Four was plenty, the fifth an afterthought when the risk of real humiliation had passed.
The remainder had a dream-like quality. Part of me believes that we entered a parallel universe some years ago and that in reality we’re still getting beaten 4-0 at Rushden and Diamonds. The idea that we were about to take a real trophy still seemed barely graspable.
Those closing stages belonged to the fans – the Swans exultant, Bradford still proclaiming pride in their club and its achievement. There was a hint of call and response in the Swans answer to chants of ‘Stand up for the 56’ and a glorious gallows humour in Bradford singing ‘All we are saying, is Give Us A Shot’. The applause when Gary Jones, recalled by some of us as a raw, angular midfield Scouse recruit to the Swans in another millennium, gratified that minimalist desire in the final minutes was worthy of a winning goal.
The unmatchable moment post-game had to be Ashley Williams lifting the trophy. Status, as supporters of both clubs know, is temporary. But we’ll have this for ever, just as Bradford have their 1911 FA Cup and, it can be argued, Manningham’s inaugural Rugby League championship.
But a close second was the guard of honour Swansea’s players gave to their Bradford counterparts. Whether it was planned or spontaneous, or whose idea it was, I have no idea. Laudrup made clear his respect for Bradford’s achievement ‘This match was history – a small part because of us, but mostly because of Bradford’. But if asked to guess, I’d suspect that Ashley, remembering his own years in the lower leagues, might have been the author of this gesture of respect. And while seeing your team win a trophy offers pride enough, to see them as good winners, honouring a worthy adversary, redoubled that feeling.
One problem with being in the Premier League is that the cacophony of witless chatter around it cuts out most other experience. It is easy to lose sight of the lower leagues. But I’d imagine that many Swans fans took rather more notice than usual of the later stages of League Two last season, and were delighted to see Bradford promoted. I’d not bet against us meeting again as league opponents, and sooner rather than later.
That sense of February 24th as a bit of a dream lives on. I’m unlikely to have a better year as a football fan than 2013. Three linked events stand out – the semi-final victory at Chelsea, Wembley and the Europa League win at Valencia. It was mind-blowing just to be playing Valencia, never mind winning. All three were in Cups and I’ll remember them as long as I live. But as to 2013 in the Premier League, the ‘Promised Land’ where you ‘Live the Dream’, that giant 24/365 generator of cash, bombast and bullshit in equal quantities – most of that has gone already.
There’d be a message here somewhere, if only Sky, 606 and other culprits too numerous to mention would turn down the volume so I could hear myself think.
Huw Richards is a third generation Swans fan who saw his first match in 1966. Since then he has seen Swansea lose on more than 90 different grounds (including Valley Parade). A freelance journalist based in London and well-known for contributing regularly to When Saturday Comes, Huw was also a writer on cricket and rugby for the International New York Times, former (1995-2009) rugby correspondent of the Financial Times, author of several books including The Swansea City Alphabet and co-editor of the Cambridge Companion to Football, into which he smuggled references to the Swans and to Ivor Allchurch, who he still ranks as their greatest player.
Bradford City 3 Northampton Town 0
League Two Play Off Final
By Danny Brothers
18 May 2013…a day that we, as Cobblers fans, were hoping never to forget. It ended up being a day that we wanted to rid our memories of as soon as our feet stepped back on Wembley Way. As we trooped back down the famous walk way the fact that there were just claret shirts heading for Wembley station told the whole story – the Bradford supporters were starting a party that gave them their dream ending to a season that will go down in their history.
And didn’t they just deserve it. My experience of Bradford up to that point was that they were a true sleeping giant at League Two level, always high in the betting for promotion candidates yet never fulfilling their potential. It is to their enormous credit, then, that their fantastic supporters were out in force for their second Wembley appearance of the season for a play off final of the basement division.
Not only that but they were up for it. Since the whistle blew on their fairy tale adventure to the League Cup Final a few months before they had been on a run of form that would have frightened anyone coming into the play offs, and I for one was hoping that they would finish in the top three – I fancied us against any of the other play off candidates but not the Bantams, who had used the cup final defeat to spur them on to a morale boosting finish to the league season.
Burton Albion threatened valiantly to almost bring their tale to an end but after a turnaround victory for Bradford in the other play off semi-final, coupled with the Cobblers’ narrow wins over Cheltenham, we knew how tough the final would be.
The big day came and from the moment I arrived I felt that I was there more in hope than expectation. Bradford had a real balance to their team sheet that any League Two club would have died for whilst the Cobblers had amazingly dropped Bayo Akinfenwa. The City fans were well and truly ready and confident with the Cobblers end shrouded in nerves.
That feeling spread to the pitch as well and so it was that half an hour ended any hopes at all of a glorious chapter in our history books being written. We were simply blown away across the pitch and in the stands and had no answer. James Hanson and Nahki Wells were tearing us to shreds whilst Kyel Reid was causing endless problems.
Hanson and Rory McArdle sunk us before we’d even settled and, of course, Wells got his obligatory goal against the Cobblers. After twenty eight minutes we were dead and buried with a good run of defensive form shattered by a front line gagging for more.
Pride was the only thing at stake for us in the second half with Bantams fans already planning their evening celebrations that were starting at the other end of Wembley. Bayo was brought on far too late and his final acts as a Cobblers player were minimal. Bradford had come, seen and conquered in ruthless style.
I remember sitting in my seat for an age after the final whistle – partly to reflect on how close we had come pre-Wembley but mainly to make sure I applauded the winning team as they made their rightful way up the steps to lift the trophy. In a morbid way I think I stayed to make any successes that do come one day on days like this that bit sweeter, but the Bantams were worthy of congratulations from both teams.
It was a day that I can’t ever fully erase from my memory – it was a stunning first half an hour in so many ways and Bradford completely knocked us into submission before we’d got into any stride. Their supporters were a credit to their club and I’m sure continue to be just that in League One. It’s no surprise to any Cobblers fans how well they are doing and I genuinely hope that they can make it back to back promotions come May 2014.
We will meet again one day and, though there will always be the Wembley banter, I hope that there’s a new level of respect between the two sets of supporters. Next time, though, please warn us before you smash us to smithereens!
Danny Brothers is the editor of the fantastic Northampton Town blog, A Load of Cobblers. He juggles writing his site with caring full time for his amazing daughter and keeping his house on the outskirts of Bath relatively clear of mice. Danny is very happy that City donated Matt Duke to Northampton, and is hoping Ricky Ravenhill’s loan move is soon made permanent.