Part one of our summer series looking at less celebrated moments in Bradford City history (see the ‘about’ note here) sees Jason McKeown recall the story of the club’s one (and only) foray into European competition, in 2000.
“We’re disappointed not to qualify for Europe” quipped Paul Jewell to a Sky Sports interviewer, as he reflected on Bradford City’s three wins from the final four games which sealed Premier League survival. How the increasingly disgruntled manager must have wished that European football could have remained a punchline, instead of quickly becoming a shock reality that accelerated his resignation.
For just six weeks after the Bantams defeated Liverpool to avoid relegation on the final day of the 1999/00 season, the 2000/01 campaign was kicking off 916 miles away from Valley Parade in Klaipėda, Lithuania in the Intertoto Cup. Bradford City were surprise participants in the summer competition, which offered the winners the lucrative prize of a place in the upcoming season’s UEFA Cup (Europa League in new money).
You could understand Jewell’s horror, in view of how much of a joke the Intertoto Cup was considered to be. Although it has been in existence since 1961 for mid-size European clubs, in 1994 concerns about flagging interest prompted UEFA to revamp the competition and introduce its UEFA Cup incentive. Although the English FA agreed to enter three teams, no Premier League club wanted to forgo their summer break to take part in what still seemed a very dubious competition. But with a degree of arm twisting, Tottenham, Wimbledon and Sheffield Wednesday eventually agreed to take part.
All three clubs refused to play at their own grounds (Spurs and Wimbledon relocating to Brighton’s Goldstone Ground and Sheffield Wednesday playing at Millmoor). Spurs and Wimbledon fielded weakened teams, which included signing lower league players on loan. They would earn a UEFA ban for their actions.
By 2000, Intertoto Cup participation was reduced to one, usually reluctant, English club. West Ham United ‘won’ the Intertoto Cup in 1999 (there were three winners rather than an outright one) and their sharper fitness levels, over other Premier League teams, saw them begin that domestic season well. Something that Bradford City chairman Geoffrey Richmond must have observed with increased interest.
For the May 2000 Liverpool survival celebrations had barely died down when it was announced that City would be playing in the Intertoto Cup. Aston Villa – the highest-ranked team to request to play in the competition – were supposed to be English football’s sole representatives. But with the help of Arsenal chairman David Dein, the Bantams were accepted too after an Italian club pulled out of the competition.
The story goes that Richmond failed to consult with Jewell until after the decision was made. Already upset about the lack of recognition he’d received for Premier League survival from his chairman, Jewell promptly quit the club and rocked up at Hillsborough. On the Intertoto Cup argument, he later revealed, “It was one of the reasons why I left and I would have been on holiday for the first leg anyway.”
It meant that City’s first round tie, away to FK Atlantas of Lithuania, was also the first match in charge for Jewell’s former assistant, Chris Hutchings. Yet it wasn’t just the now-former manager who had been left surprised by Richmond’s European plan, the players – understandably taking a well-earned break – were caught on the hop too. Many had already made holiday plans that meant they would be unavailable for the revised start to pre-season training, or even the first match (seven first teamers would miss the FK Atlantas trip).
It made for a disjointed beginning to life as manager for Hutchings, who admitted, “The players would have liked a longer rest.” In his autobiography, Jamie Lawrence could not hide his frustration at the club entering the competition. “The Intertoto Cup is one of those pretty worthless ones and hardly registers as something to be proud of winning,” he wrote. “It must have been solely about the money.”
Richmond seemed to care little for what others thought, stating at the time, “Five years ago, I would have had someone committed if they’d said this would be happening to us. But if it was good enough for Juventus a couple of seasons ago, it is good enough for us.”
For all the player and management controversy, Bradford City supporters themselves were largely enthusiastic by the prospect of European football. Richmond revealed, “Our supporters are excited by the fact we are in Europe and will want to travel to see the team play. Once we found out we were in Europe, the switchboard at the club lit up like a Christmas tree.”
The club laid on a special charter flight from Leeds-Bradford airport to the first tie in Lithuania, although problems with the plane led to the players and staff travelling separately ahead of the fans who, in addition to getting a full refund, were eventually flown over in a private jet. This video captures the excitement of such unexpectedly luxurious travel, with a young(ish) City supporter named Mark Lawn stating, “You can’t help the plane breaking down can you? And we’ve got our money back, so you can’t complain.”
City’s debut in Europe could not have gone better, as they recorded a 3-1 first leg victory against a hard-up FK Atlantas outfit who, according to a Sky Sports report, “Had seen their scoreboard, floodlights and most of the seats stolen in the close season.”
Former record signing Isaiah Rankin took a place in City’s history by becoming the Bantams first-ever scorer in Europe (it was his first goal in 20 months and would ultimately be his last for the club). Bantams Past’s David Pendleton, then City Gent editor, was one of 70 City fans to attend the game and wrote, “Izzy shot City one up to momentarily halt the racist abuse and whistling he’d been receiving from, not just the skinheads, but all parts of the ground.” Although FK Atlantas equalised, a Dean Windass free kick and a Robbie Blake penalty sealed the victory.
A look at the City line up for the match reveals just how short of first-teamers Hutchings was. No Stuart McCall, no Peter Beagrie, no Matt Clarke, no David Wetherall, no Lawrence. Third-choice keeper Aidan Davison kept goal, Lee Todd (who didn’t play a minute of City’s previous Premier League campaign) was at left back and a young defender called Mark Bower was also in the back four. In midfield was Scott Kerr. The six substitutes were all youth trainees.
In his autobiography, Windass recalled of the game, “It was a s**t hole of a place to play in but the fans loved it. Spending their time going into the local brothels where it was 50p a pint…we were trying to prepare for a serious game and they were all out getting blathered.”
The second leg, a week later, may have been a formality, but Valley Parade’s first-ever European match attracted a 10,000+ crowd. I was amongst them, hugely curious about the occasion and unsure what to expect. The pace of the match was more akin to a pre-season friendly, but the competitive element made it much more entertaining. City raced into a 4-0 lead, but the main memory of the match was the last-minute consolation goal from FK Atlantas’ Martynas Karalius. After bending a free kick around the wall and into the goal, Karalius ran up to the Kop with his finger over his lips, raced to the dugout to hug his manager and finally charged over the far corner of the Midland Road stand where he jumped into the jubilant away section. Valley Parade has probably never witnessed a goal celebrated so wildly.
Bradford City supporters took their FK Atlantas counterparts under their wing to ensure they enjoyed a memorable visit to West Yorkshire, yet on the morning they were due to fly back 22 visiting supporters ‘disappeared’. They turned up a month later in London, claiming to be sightseeing. As David Pendleton wrote, “Yet another first for the Richmond era – visiting fans claiming asylum after visiting Valley Parade!”
Round three (the second round for City) saw the Bantams paired with Dutch club RKC Waalwijk – a minnow domestically in comparison to Ajax and Feyenoord. In the first leg of this contest – a 2-0 City home win with both goals coming from Windass – the Bantams’ newly acquired record signing, David Hopkin, came off the bench. A quiet start for the £2.5 million man, who looked tidy on the ball but was barely involved in anything of note – it would sum up his short City career.
The second leg saw City complete the job with a 1-0 victory in Holland, Lee Mills getting the game’s only goal, nine minutes from time. The Bantams were seemingly enjoying the adventure, and Richmond – in a quote that hinted of the club’s mistaken belief they were now an established Premier League club – stated, “The players are enjoying it, the supporters are loving it, and if we have an opportunity to enter the competition next season then we will most certainly take it.”
City were now into the semi finals; alas, opponents Zenit St. Petersberg (Europa League winners in 2008) were on a different level to City’s previous opponents. A 1-0 first leg defeat in Russia wasn’t so bad for the Bantams, who were backed by 12 Bradford City fans (including that Mark Lawn chap, whatever happened to him?) But back at Valley Parade they were brushed aside in comprehensive fashion, 3-0. A little-known Russian named Andrei Arshavin made his debut for St. Petersberg. In his match report for the Guardian, John Wardle wrote of City, “Worryingly for their new manager Chris Hutchings, they succumbed in a manner which indicates they will face another season of struggle.”
David Pendleton took a more positive view, writing in the City Gent, “It was a pleasure to watch the Russian side in action at Valley Parade – the way they counter-attacked at pace was breathtaking. Of course, they were in the middle of their season and fully match fit, but it was a joy to see such a magnificent side at Valley Parade.”
Out of the cup but with a few weeks until the Premiership season was to begin, City hurriedly arranged some pre-season friendlies to fill the unscheduled gap. Holland and Russia was swapped for Altrincham and Grimsby; although there was one final glamour moment as Italian giants Fiorentina came to town for a friendly that saw Benito Carbone make his City debut. The six weeks of madness were in full swing. City in Europe. Even now, that seems madness.
As we all know, the aftermath for City was not a happy one. Perhaps the sharper fitness levels helped the players in the Premier League, as they began their Valley Parade season with an impressive win over Chelsea, before drawing with Leicester City and Arsenal. But a feeble relegation would follow. Cue the administrations and relegations. The Intertoto Cup itself fared even worse – scrapped in 2008, at which point there were 11 winners (qualifying for the UEFA Cup) per season.
Understandably, we all thought that such heady days of needing a passport to follow City were behind us forever. But then in 2012/13, City were one game away from a repeat – all they had to do was beat Swansea in the League Cup Final, to earn a place in Europe.
While Jamie Lawrence moaned that the 2000 adventure was to make money, this time around Mark Lawn revealed that the club would probably incur losses by taking part in the Europa League. As it happened, Swansea City crushed us at Wembley and won the honour of playing European football during the summer. Still, who needs such glamour when we get to visit Guiseley and Bradford Park Avenue every July?