By Jason McKeown
When the chips were down and everyone needed to pull together, last season the Bradford public did not let its football club down. Time and time again, the response to adversity and pressure was positivity. Players and management in need of a pick-me-up were lifted by strong vocal support. It truly was the season of needing – and being able to rely upon – the 12th man.
Recall Tuesday 18 February and, after a dreadful run of just one win 21 games, Port Vale came to Valley Parade with the season hanging on a knife edge. For all the growing criticism of the players and management, mixed in with rising fears over relegation, a united front of defiance was presented over the 90 minutes. As the players battled gamely, there was unrelenting backing from supporters. The Kop leading the battle cry, but all three home stands playing their part.
Carl McHugh’s last-minute winner halted the dreadful run. A triumph for the players’ application and workrate, and kudos to Gary Jones for swinging over the corner that the Irish centre half headed into the net. But the assist deserved to go to the crowd. As the cliché goes, they sucked the ball into the net. A team effort in the truest possible sense.
Fast forward a couple of months and another evening game. It’s Good Friday, and with relegation worries still not put to bed, Peterborough are in town for a must-not-lose game. The players are up for the big occasion, taking a first half lead through Adam Reach’s stunning free kick. Yet they have to dig deep during the second half to hold out for a precious victory against promotion-chasing opponents. Once again, the volume is cranked up and the supporters back their team to the hilt. There is barely a pause for breath, and certainly no awkward silences. Eventually the final whistle sounds and cheering breaks out. Survival is all but guaranteed, and once again the supporters deserve a huge pat on the back.
They were just two of many highlights from last season. The greater moments on the pitch were played out to a soundtrack of thunderous support. In 2013/14, the atmosphere at Valley Parade was its best in years. Forget the minor fall-out over the club’s decision to hand away supporters the Bradford End, the back of the Kop became the heartbeat of the entire stadium. The source of so much good. Even during terrible days at the office, such as Walsall and Oldham during the run-in, the chanting was kept up. It wasn’t blind loyalty and there were still moments where boos rang out, but no one who played for Bradford City last season can have any complaints about the way supporters backed them.
If there a particularly glorious period it coincided with the best part of the season – early doors. August and September victories over Carlisle, Sheffield United, Brentford and Shrewsbury were as memorable for the atmosphere within the ground as the powerful football on display. Valley Parade was bouncing, with the range of songs easily accessible to everyone. If you were a young kid coming to watch Bradford City for the first time, you would have been instantly hooked. In my near 20 years following the club, I can only recall the atmosphere during the first Premier League season as comparably good, over a sustained period.
There were many contributing factors to this outbreak of positivity. The jubilation of promotion the season before was an obvious one, and indeed it was as though the celebrations had continued all summer with no one wanting to bring an end to the party. That after six years of frustration in League Two – where home games were so often played out in near-silence, or to grumbles and boos – there was a collective outlook of making the most of finally escaping. The 2012/13 History Makers had yet to look fallible, and opposition teams were being turned over with ease.
After the Carlisle home game, joint-Chairman Julian Rhodes told me, “I couldn’t believe how we’ve kept it going and how good the atmosphere was for the Carlisle game. I always felt that there were a number of things that, if we got back to League One, would be completely different to last time, because we are going back in the right direction. And for me, the atmosphere against Carlisle reaffirmed that. It was fantastic support.”
Yet as glorious as those late summer days felt, the novelty of being in League One was only ever going to last for a short period. This is not our ultimate destination; a division we are happy to call our home; our natural position in football’s pecking order. This is a stop-off point on the way to something bigger and better. Put our feet up, enjoy and take in the moment. But we don’t want to hang around here for too long, we’ve got somewhere else to be.
The novelty will soon wear off, if he hasn’t already. This year’s fixture list includes games with Sheffield United, Bristol City, Coventry City, Barnsley, Preston North End and Doncaster – games to whet the appetite, when memories of trips to Accrington, Dagenham and co still remain so vivid. But whilst you can argue the toss over a couple of those big names, in our mind all of these clubs are our equals. Clubs of similar size and stature, attracting comparable crowds. And if they are sat grumpily in League One, justifiably believing they belong in the division above, why shouldn’t we harbour similar ambitions?
The fact is that Bradford City should be a Championship club. Our wonderful stadium, our strong fanbase, our improving off-the-field structure. 12 years of falling down the leagues, with barely a penny to our name painfully told us that should is a meaningless word, but we continue to stand tall. Our dreams remain intact. Get into the Championship, and we will be back to where we were before our reckless Premier League overspending caught up with us, leading to our downfall. Back to where we were, only this time without the £36 million debt.
We are so close to it, and yet so far. Getting out of League Two proved to be such a vast and difficult step, that you still worry that the next leap will prove beyond us. We are not a big fish in a small pond anymore. There are many clubs ahead of us in that League One promotion queue that mean we would have to seriously punch above our weight to get ahead of them this season. But we have time on our side, and another year of progress in this division would only leave us stronger.
Whatever the challenges we face over the next 10 months, and however different things look on the field with our new-look team, one thing must remain completely unchanged – our role in making this work. We supporters need to raise the volume back to 11, set a tone of positivity that rings around the stadium, and be the inspiration for a new group of heroes.
This might not be the year we get into the Championship, but so what? We are Bradford City supporters, and we are brave and strong enough to cope with disappointment. What we need to see this season is progress that offers greater hope that the next promotion is within reach. That the highly commendable achievements of the last few years are going to be built upon rather than wasted away. It won’t be easy, it won’t be smooth. But as long as we supporters keep giving our all, there will be no excuse for anyone else connected with the club contributing anything less.
Let’s make some noise, and party like it’s 2013.
Categories: Season Preview