By Jason McKeown
Forget Manchester United, forget Newcastle. When it came to the League Cup second round draw, Bradford City were handed the best possible tie when they were pulled out of the hat to play Leeds United. It ensures a near-full house that will do wonders for the club’s financial strength, particularly in view of Sky’s decision to broadcast the derby encounter live. The Hand of Aaron at Morecambe has paid huge, huge dividends, and off the field at least this is a big victory for Bradford City.
For everyone connected with the club, the still-fresh memories of the League Cup miracle two years ago provides extra enthusiasm going into this clash. Those home games against Arsenal and Aston Villa have gone down in folklore for the achievements of slaying giants, and the superb attendances that produced incredible atmospheres. Until the day I die I will always treasure the memories of Valley Parade erupting to goals from Garry Thompson, Nahki Wells, Rory McArdle and Carl McHugh. We’d had year after year of watching City play in front of a half-full stadium, even with the commendable season ticket offer, and so it made you feel proud to take in the scene of a bulging ground, with all four stands packed out.
I always prefer it when Bradford City are the underdogs. It brings out the best in us supporters, ensuring the players are backed to the hilt without question, showing just what a passionate bunch of fans we really can be. The BBC 5Live commentator, Alan Green, stated that the experience of commentating on the City-Arsenal game was one of his favourite games of the 2012/13 season, remarking how he had rushed to the toilet at one point, only to hear a deafening roar that he believed must surely be a City goal. In fact, he would discover upon his quick return to the press box, we had merely won a corner.
Of all the things that appeals to me about playing Leeds United this week, it is the idea of recreating such an energetic and positively charged atmosphere that excites me the most. On Wednesday night, the Bradford City players can be guaranteed of being backed fervently from the first whistle to the last. Every tackle, every set piece won, every shot on goal.
And part of the reason for this is what are once again underdogs. The 2014 version of Leeds United may not be the formidable force that they once were, but make no mistake they are favourites to win this tie. The smart money will be placed on them squeezing through. In that sense, the pressure is off the home players. Simply because of who they are playing, the expectation level is lower. We do have every chance of triumphing on Wednesday night, but victory should not be assumed. This is, in many ways, a free hit for the players.
Yet equally, the rewards for winning are considerable, and how the players fare this week could go a long, long way to defining their Bradford City careers. You need only look at what those Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa victories did for the 2012/13 squad, and the high regard that they will be held in for decades to come. When bumps occurred during the promotion battle later that season, and when the one win in 21 was played out the year after, the past heroics of this group of players afforded them leeway and understanding from the crowd. This was a team deeply loved by its public, and the pay back for what they did, in reaching the League Cup Final, occurred through the majority of City supporters standing by them during sticky patches. And when many of these players were moved on during the summer, they were affectionately waved goodbye with the warmest of wishes, for what they had done for us.
Which is all fantastic to see, but does present a problem for the players who replace them – how do you follow that? Jason Kennedy and Mark Yeates could certainly argue, with some justification, that their personal struggles last season were treated very differently to those of Garry Thompson and Nathan Doyle. If they had been part of nights like Arsenal and Aston Villa, would their poor performances in 2013/14 have been met with greater patience? They were lower league players signed to compete with, and replace, lower league players. Only the latter group were superheroes for what they had done the year before.
And it will be the same for this summer signings. Let’s just imagine, for a moment, that when City welcome Notts County on December 28, recent results are indifferent Garry Liddle and Billy Knott are struggling for form. Along come County with Gary Jones and Thompson, who are guaranteed to receive the warmest of welcomes. Inevitable comparisons would be made to the current, struggling players that would not do the latter group any favours. When Jones endured a run of poor games in December and January last season, he was largely supported through them. In similar circumstances, would Liddle be afforded the same backing if he was struggling?
The answer, of course, is no – but here is why the Leeds game offers such a big reward. It provides these players with the opportunity to become heroes very early into their City careers – which will stand them well over the subsequent months. The confidence they would acquire from a victory on Wednesday night could take them a long, long way, just as it did with the 2012/13 squad. Stephen Darby and Rory McArdle became true warriors after the Wigan game. Thompson’s City career was transformed by his Arsenal goal. Carl McHugh, Matt Duke, Will Atkinson, Zavon Hines, James Hanson – all these and others were able to lift their overall performances following their achievements over the League Cup journey.
That is the prize on offer. The players can go down to defeat bravely, giving everything, and they will be appreciated for that. Or they can go further. Triumph against the odds. Give their supporters a night they will never forget. And then reap the rewards of what it will do their City careers.
As for six of the key figures from the 2012/13 season who are still at the club, what a chance to build their standing even further. Phil Parkinson, Darby, McArdle, James Meredith, Andrew Davies and Hanson are already guaranteed their Youtube tribute reel featuring numerous highlights when they eventually leave, and in this game they have the opportunity to further cement their status as some of the most celebrated players in the club’s history.
Imagine if Hanson could add to his famous goals against Aston Villa, Burton Albion and Northampton with a winner against Leeds? I doubt that he ever has to buy his own drinks when out in Bradford anyway; but if he could claim this cherry on top of his remarkable City career, he could probably look forward to the Freedom of Bradford.
This is what is at stake for the players. They can lose on Wednesday and no one would be upset at them for it, or be majorly surprised. But if they could win this match…We Made History Mark II. A place in the folklore would be assured. Their names forever recalled.
Hero status is on offer this week. They know what they need to do.