On the eve of England’s second group game in the World Cup, Rob Craven recalls the story of when Bradford City signed one of the most famous England internationals of all time.
Some will remember him for this , others for this, some might even remember him for this and some unfortunately will remember him for this. At the height of his game he was one of the best midfielders this country has produced – famed for his gangly flair play, his unorthodox technique and his ability to create a moment of magic seemingly from nowhere. Our pocket of West Yorkshire will forever remember him for this – but how did England legend Chris Waddle come to play for Bradford City and how was his time with the club?
The thought of such a player signing for City still makes the butterflies go wild inside. I remember the day he signed like it was yesterday. I was at Hanson Upper School and on the morning in question was walking towards the Art and Tech block, probably to make a never-to-be-viewed MDF clock, down the long windowed corridor from the social science dept. As I approached the main hall half way on my jaunt I had a chance encounter with Dave the Scarborough supporting school caretaker who quite flippantly informed me that we had signed Chris Waddle. Me: “Chris Waddle? Signed for City? … What?”
As this was October 1996 I had no way to check that this was true and not just a wind up. I was three years away from owning my first mobile phone (BT Cellnet if you wondered) and WOAP was just a twinkle in Jason’s eye, so I would have to wait until either the evening edition of the T&A or listen to Radio Leeds when I got home to find out. Luckily, it was true (thanks Dave) and I was on cloud nine for days and weeks as a result and – evidently as I write this – still am. Despite him only signing on a free short term contract, as of 11th October 1996 it was recorded in the history books that Chris Waddle was a Bradford City player.
Chris Waddle’s illustrious career began humbly at Tow Law Town in Bishop Auckland following unsuccessful trials at Sunderland, Coventry and Newcastle – yet it was Newcastle that eventually signed him for a princely sum of £1,000. His next move, some five seasons later, took him to North London in a high money transfer to Tottenham Hotspur for over half a million pounds. And at the height of his career, a move to French club Olympique de Marseille – for a British transfer record of £4.5 million – saw him win three league titles and pick up a loser’s medal in the European Cup final (now Champions League, for those of you too young to remember).
In 1992, after four years on the continent, Waddle returned to England and signed for Premier League club Sheffield Wednesday; where he reached the final of both domestic cup competitions in the same season and also won the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
Alongside his exceptional club career Waddle was a stalwart of the late 1980s England International team, where he made 62 appearances scoring six goals. He played in three international tournaments, including Euro 1988 and Mexico 1986 – where he helped England to the World Cup quarter finals. Chris Waddle’s most famous competition though was England’s most successful World Cup campaign since 1966 – Italia 90. He helped us to the epic semi final against West Germany – and unfortunately missed that now infamous penalty.
A mixture of age, injuries and a change of manager at Sheffield Wednesday meant that after four years service in South Yorkshire his contract was not renewed at the end of the 1995/96 season. The beginning of the following season, as a free agent, he moved north of the border for a month to play for Falkirk; before the move which would light up the lives of Bradford City’s fans came to fruition.
In Waddle’s biography it states, “In a career spanning some fifteen years, Bradford was only his fourth English club. There were all sorts of rumblings in the press as to why he set his sights so low, but as far as Chris was concerned, he was joining a sleeping giant. Even as they struggled, their crowds were well above the likes of Wimbledon and most other first division teams. The potential was there. And, best of all, he could travel from home each day to training. If the rest of the world outside Bradford saw it as the end of his career, Chris saw it as a challange and one to which he was determined to rise.”
Chris Kamara was the man that managed to secure the incredible signing as part of the squad that he was assembling throughout the 1996/97 season to cope with the demands of the new environment of the First Division (now Championship), following promotion via the play offs the previous season. Chris Waddle was one of 43 different players that Kamara fielded during the season to try to avoid the drop straight back down to Division Two. Amongst many future club legends (Darren Moore, Robbie Blake, John Dreyer and Edinho amongst others were all signed during this season), Chris Waddle was by far the highest profile signing made by Kamara, he explains in his biography.
“What a player he had been throughout his career for Newcastle, Spurs, Olympic Marseille, Sheffield Wednesday and England,” recalled Kamara. “He was still a great footballer when I signed him, but unbelievably he was playing for Falkirk in Scotland. I asked my chief scout, Andy Smith, to head off north to watch him. Andy reckoned he was fit enough to handle the game in England, and he was certainly technically gifted enough to have a go for us in the First Division. I was chuffed when we convinced him to sign for us on a six month deal for free.”
“All eyes were on former England international Chris Waddle” reported the T&A following his first game in Claret and Amber, away to Birmingham City. “When he had the ball at his feet he showed all the class that won him 62 England caps. His famous body swerve sometimes mesmerised his opponents and he put his colleagues into some dangerous positions with his astute passing.”
Another away game and a second defeat followed a few days later at the hands of QPR, but the City fans’ love affair with Chris Waddle was soon to begin thanks to his home debut the following weekend. Peter Rowe of the T&A wrote that the City faithful, “Turned up to watch a master craftsman at work – and they were not disappointed.” And the headline ran “Star of the Show – Waddle stunner but City blow it”. The game, against Barnsley, ended in a 2-2 draw with Waddle scoring a 9/10 in the T&A match ratings. A “Stunning Home Debut”, scoring a 25-yard half volley and turning provider for the 2nd goal.
For the next few months Bradford City fans would no longer be walking to games – they would be Waddling. And it wasn’t just the fans that were cooing; Chris Kamara said in his T&A column, “Chris added a whole new dimension to our side. His enthusiasm and ability proves he is still a top class player and the crowd on Saturday against Barnsley responded magnificently to him. How many times at Valley Parade have you heard the crowd chanting “Ole, Ole”. That is what they did when Chris got the ball and used his immense skill to mesmerise defenders”.
All of this hype around Chris Waddle came as a welcome relief, as we were having a torrid time in the league and managed only two wins in 13 games between 5th October and 11th January. Waddle describes, “There was no magic wand waved over Valley Parade. By Christmas, Bradford were still occupying one of the relegation spots.” During this period Chris Waddle scored three goals, including one live on Sky against our arch rivals Huddersfield Town direct from a corner kick that further aided his quick climb to legendary status, helping us to a 3-0 first half lead, which we somehow ended up drawing 3-3. Waddle said, “Every time they took the lead or threatened to win a match, they seemed to pluck a draw or defeat from the jaws of victory.”
A further relief from league football was the third round FA Cup tie away to Wycombe Wanderers. Unfavoured to win, two goals from new signing Dreyer were enough to see City through into the fourth round. Waddle believed, “It was the FA Cup that finallly kick-started their season. Drawn to play Wycombe in the third round, they came through comfortably, and I was begining to feel the old excitement that only the FA Cup could bring”. The FA Cup victory over Wycombe saw an upturn in league form too that would lay the foundations of survival, as City gained 11 points from the next 18 available – and on top of this positivity we had our sights set on the next round of the FA Cup in a glamour tie against Everton at Goodison Park.
The events of the game versus Everton have been well engrained into the folk lore of our club and quite rightly so – indeed I could write a whole article entirely around THAT goal alone, and some have because not one of us fans in the old Bullens Road stand that day could have imagined the events that were to unfold in that second half.
Firstly we took the lead thanks to some neat work on the right wing from Waddle who crossed in for John Dreyer to strike a floating half volley into the top corner, right in front of us fans, sending us into pandamonium. The celebrations seemed to go on for eternity and just as we composed ourselves and sat back on our wooden seats, we looked up to see Andrei Kanchelskis dithering with the ball somewhere near the halfway line…
Step up Chris Kamara, “Before the game, their keeper, Neville Southall, asked if Chris was fit, ‘He is indeed,’ Kamara said ‘Better stay on your line, Nev.’ Nev just sneered, ‘Yeah, right, good luck,’ and headed out on to the pitch. I had been doing my homework and Neville was beginning to play more like a sweeper, so I had said to Chris, ‘if the ball falls to your feet anywhere around the halfway line, just whack it.’ When I saw Chris I made sure to tell him what had been said. I’m sure he had a cheeky twinkle in his eye as he trotted out. Sure enough, when big Nev did come off his line, Chris chipped him on the turn from the halfway line.”
Once again pandemonium ensued and we were in dreamland. A lapse of concentration and an own goal by Andy O’Brien set us off with the jitters, but soon after an immaculately placed through ball again from Waddle sent Rob Steiner through on goal to score a third and clinch the game for City, despite a late Gary Speed wonder strike.
We had done it, we had beaten the FA Cup holders from two years previous on their own patch, we were flying sky high and Chris Waddle was the pilot.
By now we were in January 1997 and Chris Waddle, at the age of 36, was coming back into some really good form with City and loving life at the Valley Parade. Chris Kamara even had visions and ambitions of Waddle finishing his career with City. The T&A headline read “Roaring Forties” and the story ran “Now Chris Kamara would like Waddle to sign a four-year deal with City… I think he could play until he is 40 because of his ability” Chris Waddle retorted, “I am enjoying my football with City. I have played 22 games and loved every minute. If Chris is serious about giving me a four year deal I might just take him up on it” Chris Kamara had built his system around Waddle and was reaping the rewards with an away win against Port Vale and a home draw against Huddersfield Town where Waddle scored another important goal to help the club climb another point closer to survival.
The 16th February arrived and romance was in the air, as FA Cup finalists of recent years, Sheffield Wednesday, rocked up to Valley Parade in the fifth round of the Cup. This was Waddle’s chance to stick one over his ex club and show the world what we City fans knew that, despite being an elder statesmen, he still had what it took and they were wrong to let him go. Could the romance of the cup see City through to quarter finals of the cup for the first time since 1976?
Unfortunately for us and Chris Waddle it wasn’t to be. Sheffield Wednesday came to nullify City, and took the game thanks to a late own goal. Waddle had a few half chances, but the difference in leagues really told and our cup dream was over for another year – and unbeknown to us, so nearly was our time with Chris Waddle.
There were already dark clouds over the future of Chris Waddle and Bradford City prior to the fixture against Sheffield Wednesday. West Bromwich Albion were looking for a new and high profile manager to coincide with the club being floated on the stock market, and saw Waddle as their ideal man. Waddle went for an interview but wasn’t blown away with the “far from generous offer” that was shown to him plus “Had already grown to love Bradford and everybody associated with the club” so with the added bonus of the next FA Cup tie he turned the position down.
Waddle wrote in his biography that he was “not able to remember ever having been happier at a club” as he was at Valley Parade, and that it would have taken something very special to turn his head away from the club, especially given our precarious position in the league. This time it wasn’t necessarily the club that turned his head but his former agent who had taken up a new role at Premier League club Nottingham Forest and fancied taking Waddle with his new found fitness and form to the City Ground. Talks went well at Forest and – thinking he had the option to leave City (providing it was to a Premiership club) – Waddle agreed to sign with them for the remaining months of the season. However, before anyone at Valley Parade could be contacted the news was leaked to the press and all hell broke loose.
What followed made the front pages of the T&A for two consecutive days running the headlines “Waddle Quits” on 13th March followed somewhat humorously by “Waddle Forced to Stay” on 14th March.
Geoffrey Richmond, the man charged with “forcing” Waddle to stay was a notoriously hard businessman and near impossible negotiator, put a price tag of £500,000 on Waddle’s head despite the fact Chris Kamara had already agreed with Waddle that he was fine to leave for Forest. Richmond “categorically denied that there was any escape clause for Waddle to leave” and threatened Forest with legal action for an illegal approach.
The media circus formed and demands between Bradford City’s hierarchy and Nottingham Forest made for a very uncomfortable situation for all involved. As the nation became aware that Waddle might be unsettled, he received an offer to join Peter Reid at his boyhood heroes Sunderland in the Premiership, and put to rest this embarrassing debacle and – unfortunately for us – his time in claret and amber. The dream was over. Although this time Geoffrey Richmond managed to wrangle £75,000 (or £100,000 depending on who you believe) out of Sunderland plus a pre season friendly (with the all proceeds coming to Bradford – naturally), we had lost a genuine legend of the game and no money in the world could replace that.
Kamara wrote, “I eventually lost Chris Waddle. He left in March 1997, just before the end of the season and was snapped up by Sunderland boss Peter Reid for a fee of £100,000. He wanted to help the club he and his late father had supported. As it worked out, Sunderland went down from the Premier League in their last season at Roker Park, but it was the right time for Chris to leave Bradford.”
As gutted as we were, the focus for the remainder of the season was survival in Division One and, in typical Bradford City fashion, we left it very late. The final game of the season was at home to QPR who luckily for us had nothing to play for. Thankfully we won the game through a goal from Tommy Wright and two from Nigel Pepper (including one of the greatest free kicks you are likely to see), sealing survival. Chris Waddle ended his season as Bradford City’s joint top scorer but was ultimately relegated back to the First Division with Sunderland despite scoring the last ever goal at Roker Park.
What Chris Waddle gave to our club and supporters doesn’t occur every day and, when it does, it stays with you for life. There are only a handful of players that have played for City that I can remember who have given me such excitement when they have had the ball at their feet. As he was inducted into Bradford City website Boy from Brazil’s hall of fame in 2001, the author summed up my feelings perfectly, “Waddle amazed – when Waddle wore a City shirt you felt special because Waddle was special.” Bradford City fans were not alone in our adoration of the Chris Waddle – whilst researching this article it became apparent that every club that he played for the fans took to him and loved him as though he was one of their own. He played for seven clubs professionally before he retired, and was highly regarded at each of them.
Chris Waddle went on to manage briefly on the dark side of the pennies at Burnley, before moving onto Torquay. He eventually found his place in punditry for the BBC – where you are likely to see him throughout the World Cup in Brazil. As Bradford City sit pretty in League One this summer following promotion a year ago, it is worth reflecting on the last time we climbed a league through the play offs and consolidated in the division, and consider our progress over the years that followed – and where we would have been (or not) without the influence and goals of Chris Waddle.