By Jason McKeown
It is one year ago today since Bradford City took part in only the second – and in all likelihood the last – major cup final in its history. 33,000 Bradfordonians filled one half of the vast Wembley bowl, taking part in an occasion that none of us would ever believe we would be invited to.
Bradford City – our Bradford City. Slumped at the time in 12th position of English football’s fourth division. Taking on the might of Premier League Swansea and looking for another top flight scalp. One game away from qualifying to play in the Europa League. 90 minutes away from lifting a major trophy. It is wonderful to look back and reflect upon how excited and proud we all felt as the teams marched out onto the pitch. That even though we strongly suspected we were going to be defeated, there was nevertheless a glimmer of hope that our name was on that cup.
It wasn’t just about that wintry February afternoon in the capital, but the whole build-up to the big match which was like nothing we had ever experienced before. When City defeated Wigan in the last 16, the October before, the national media mentioned us only in passing, behind Arsenal’s remarkable 7-5 victory over Reading. Come December when the Bantams and Gunners met, the incredible penalty shootout victory over Arsene Wenger’s men sent shockwaves around the football world. Then came Aston Villa and the even bigger achievement of defeating Premier League opposition over two legs. The Villa Park celebrations eventually subsided, but the international spotlight would not be dimmed.
There were four-and-a-half weeks in-between that barmy night in Birmingham and walking down Wembley Way, and being a Bradford City supporter had this centre-of-the-universe feel. The media went to town covering every angle – not only looking at the football club, but the city of Bradford itself. The week before the game was especially memorable, as Sky Sports News featured City heavily each day, BBC Radio 5Live hosted a special supporters forum at Valley Parade and on the Friday evening you could watch back-to-back TV programmes devoted to the Bantams.
When earlier that day the players set off from Bradford’s Cedar Court Hotel down South, the moment was captured live on Sky Sports News. It must have been thrilling for the players, many of whom had never received such media attention. There was a wonderful story to tell about City’s cup final opponents, Swansea, but they were completely overshadowed by the exploits of the fourth tier side.
My main memories of that period are how hectic it all was. We went to town with our Width of a Post coverage, which required a lot of planning and hard work from many different people. We received numerous emails from supporters pleading for help getting a ticket to the game and tried to help those who we could. We assisted TV and magazine researchers by providing background information on the club which helped them to shape their stories. We helped Bantams Banter get permission to broadcast at Wembley.
And like other City sites and fan groups, we received our own media requests. I spent one afternoon at Valley Parade meeting BBC Yorkshire’s Paul Hudson (a top bloke) for a documentary, appeared on college radio in the USA, wrote an article for the When Saturday Comes website, contributed to a special League Cup magazine and Mahesh Johal was interviewed for New Statesman magazine. Proudest of all, on a personal level, was being interviewed on BBC Two’s Newsnight, with the caption ‘widthofapost.com’ appearing on national TV.
It was hard to take in all of the attention bestowed on Bradford City. Our Bradford City. You tried to read as many newspapers articles as possible, watch all the TV specials and listen to bits on the radio, but it was all very wonderfully overwhelming. I was regularly stopped in the office by people wanting to chat about City (“Are you going to the game Jason?” Stupid question) and it was strangely enjoyable to listen to people who three months ago knew nothing about the club share their opinions on your players.
“You’re going to win” a completely trollied Geordie told us on the train journey from Kings Cross back to our hotel, the night before the match. That expert judgement will do me.
Game day brought panic and terror. I barely slept a wink the night before, as I had become so nervous about it all. Knowing that the rest of the world was watching our Bradford City made you proud, but also apprehensive. What if we seriously embarrass ourselves? What can we realistically expect from our team today?
The morning saw us share a champagne breakfast with Archie Christie and then spend a few hours in the Hilton Hotel by Wembley stadium, supping drinks in the same room as several Bradford City directors. You tried to enjoy it all, but it was difficult to focus on anything beyond those fears about the game. I loved walking up and down Wembley Way, and we set foot inside the stadium at around 3.20pm. The atmosphere was already incredible. When, with 10 minutes to go, Rudimental’s ‘Feel the Love’ came over the PA system and everyone waved their flags frantically, I unexpectedly burst into tears. The nerves giving way to pure happiness.
It seems needlessly painful to go over the game, but equally it has long haunted me. It’s not that I thought we would win, but I expected far better than for us to wait until the 86th minute to have a shot on goal (and a rubbish shot at that). I’ve reflected back so many times on what Phil Parkinson might have done differently and how we could have given Swansea a better game, but there really was nothing that we could do.
Swansea were simply outstanding.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t one of those supporters who could shrug it off and merely be happy with the non-stop chanting for the last 25 minutes. I joined in of course, and I felt proud of the way we supporters responded to such adversity. But for all the times in the build up that I told myself we had no chance of winning, part of you still clung onto the hope. Even the most pessimistic amongst us wanted to win the game. It was a cup final, something we will probably never experience again in our lifetimes. And so it was devastating to watch that impossible dream be ripped up in front of our eyes in such clinical, brutal fashion.
It hurt. A hell of a lot. Rationale and reason simply go out the window at moments such as Matt Duke’s red card. I stayed at full time and applauded our players – they deserved it no matter what had happened on the pitch. I cheered them up the steps to collect their losers medals and applauded Ashley Williams as he lifted the trophy. Then we walked out of the stadium and into the London night, feeling empty.
The bubble popped so quickly; and to go from all the giddy excitement of the build up, straight to feeling crushed, was difficult to take. I remember thousands of us City fans walking back to the train station in near silence. The party was just getting starting inside the stadium behind us, but we had been locked out.
The national media dropped us like a stone. In the post-game coverage they focused solely on Swansea’s brilliance – good on them, they deserved it – and we went back to life in League Two, with the most unglamorous fixture possible to look forward to in three days time: Dagenham & Redbridge.
Being honest, it took me weeks to get over the cup final defeat. I shared in the pride of how we supporters stuck with the players and loved the amount of praise that came our way for it; but for a four-month period it seemed that the League Cup miracle had completely dominated our lives. To have all those glorious moments come to end in such miserable fashion was unbefitting. Getting back to reality was hard. The struggles of the players over the subsequent weeks suggested they felt the same way, too.
As we look back a year on, the pain has long since faded and the return to Wembley for the play off final three months later exorcised the demons. It was our turn to dominate the opposition to the point they didn’t have a shot on goal until the final minute; it was our turn to lift a piece of silverware in the royal box and to dance around Wembley. And if, a year ago, we’d have been asked to pick which of the two Wembley games we’d prefer to win, I dare say 99.9% of City fans would have voted with me in choosing the play off final.
I’ve watched the League Cup Final back on my Sky box several times. The heartache dulled, I just enjoy the fact we were part of such a wonderful occasion. Proud of such an incredible cup run, one that we will never experience again. Relieved that the story was to have a happy ending in the shape of League Two promotion.
One year ago today was one of the proudest days of my life. It’s just a shame that the day didn’t end at 4.01pm.
Read our look back on the League Cup miracle