By Jason McKeown
I have supported Bradford City for almost 18 years now. And over those near two decades of climbing up, down and back up the divisions, I honestly thought I had experienced every emotion that it was possible to feel about winning and losing.
But last Saturday’s game with Chelsea delivered a whole new type of sensation, one that felt uncomfortable and disturbing: the bittersweet victory.
For whilst 6,000+ Bradford City fans were going completely bonkers at Stamford Bridge, I was nowhere near to the scene of this staggering victory against the country’s best team. I was one of the unfortunate supporters reduced to following events from afar. And they really did seem afar. As every Bradford City goal flew into the net, the joy was tempered by the despair of not being there to see it. History was taking place, but I wasn’t a part of that history.
And in 18 years of following the club, this had never happened to me before. I missed going to the FA Cup fourth round tie at Newcastle United in 1999 due to tickets selling out, but at least got to watch the glamorous occasion via the beam-back of the game at Valley Parade. I wasn’t there for the balmy August 2000 evening when the Bantams defeated Chelsea 2-0 in the top flight, or the club’s first-ever Premier League game at Middlesbrough in 1999. But as celebrated as both those matches are, they were part of a league campaign and had less unique value.
I was at Wolves in 1999 to see City get promoted to the Premier League. I was there for the Barnsley Gordon Watson game earlier that season, which has gone down in folklore. I saw the last day Premier League survival over Liverpool in 2000. The Bryan Robson debut 3-2 win over Millwall in 2004. The Peter Taylor 3-1 over Rochdale in February 2010. Gareth Evans vs Stockport. Beating Huddersfield in the JPT. The League Cup miracles against Wigan, Arsenal and both legs against Aston Villa (that night at Villa Park, wow). The Burton play off semi final second leg. The two trips to Wembley. And Leeds United, earlier this season.
I have been incredibly lucky, I know that. But that was only of small consolation when, last Saturday afternoon, Bradford City were having the time of their lives, and I wasn’t involved.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t get a ticket to Chelsea. I have a priority card, so it was mine if I wanted it. It wasn’t that I was tied up to other plans like attending someone’s wedding, Saturday remained disappointingly empty.
Let me give you a brief history of myself, in case you don’t know me too well, valued reader. I have been married for 10 years now, to an American called Rachel, and we have had a blissful first decade living together.
And Bradford City were a part of that. Despite the ineptitude of Darren Holloway threatening to put her off forever, I eventually got Rachel interested in watching the Bantams – and we both had season tickets for many years.
We travelled to away games too. Rachel only did the Northern and Midlands-based ones, not fancying the long distance trips, but she was certainly a committed supporter. Enduring the disappointments of City’s seemingly endless slump down the divisions, experiencing the tedium of defeats at awful grounds like Chesterfield’s Saltergate, Accrington’s Crown Ground and Macclesfield’s Moss Rose. She often talked of her wish that City would one day play at a big Premier League ground, but the club’s woeful cup record meant it never looked a possibility.
In June 2013 – three weeks after promotion from League Two was achieved at Wembley – we became parents for the first time, to Georgina. It has been life-changing and magical. I am one of those annoying parents who posts endless pictures about how cute my child looks. I don’t mind if people hate me for it, she is very cute. I love that kid to bits.
And I have been incredibly lucky; because Rachel has continued to allow me to have a season ticket at Bradford City (she has become a flexi-card holder). And I have rarely missed a home game since Georgina was born. I have cut down on my away games, but that has been mainly my choice. Working Monday to Friday, I no longer saw the sense in spending 12 hours of my Saturday driving to grounds hundreds of miles away.
I want to spend time with my daughter, rather than spend time missing her.
Rachel still went to watch City on a number of occasions during the first half of the 2013/14 season, when my parents could babysit. But then my mum had to have a serious heart operation in December 2013. And there were major complications in her recovery. And then last March the worst possible thing happened. And it has been incredibly hard for the whole family. And we are still getting through it.
My dad dearly loves his granddaughter, and looks after her on his own one weekday afternoon a week. But without my mum around to help us, it’s harder for Rachel to get to watch City as often. Her parents live back in the States so can’t help either. My brother lives in Newcastle. We simply don’t have the support network that other parents are lucky to have.
I got home from the 4-0 replay thumping over Millwall feeling proud of the team’s performance, but worried about my likelihood of getting to Stamford Bridge. Rachel was still up, and we talked about the Chelsea tie at length. She wanted to go, and she deserved to go in my eyes. I had always said that if and when City got a glamorous tie away in the cup, she could have priority in going over me.
I’d seen Bradford City’s Premier League years and gone to grounds like Old Trafford, St. James Park and Stamford Bridge. And I got to go to Villa Park in 2013, when she had to make do with watching the cup semi final on TV at home.
She wanted us both to go to Chelsea, but it was hard to see how we could both go down to London (setting off early doors and getting back very late) and entrust my dad with a full day on his own with Georgina (at a difficult phase of tantrums, really bad separation anxiety, and her not understanding her limitations). Putting her to bed when he had never done so before. Feeding her three meals when he struggles with one. He would have said yes, but that’s not the point. You don’t take the mick with family.
And besides, only I had a priority ticket. We could have got one Chelsea ticket with that and then joined the queues outside Valley Parade for the other one needed, but we wouldn’t have been sat together.
We talked of her going on her own, and even me and Georgina coming down with her on the train and finding something to do while she went to the game. But in the end, she didn’t want to go without me, and so it was decided that it was fairest that neither of us would go. (I could hardly respond to her “I don’t want to go without you” with “Okay then, can I go without you?”)
There was no sensible way around it. We are adults now, and sometimes being an adult means accepting your hand and dealing with it.
Almost every single Bradford City-supporting friend in my group wanted to go to the Chelsea game, and they all got a ticket. Every other Bradford City supporter that I know was seemingly going too. It hurt to see these discussions going on, but you can’t begrudge them of course.
I tried to stay away from such conversations, but it is hard when your Facebook wall is full of people posting photos of their Chelsea tickets. Or asking out loud where was the best place to go for a pre-match pint. Or just going on and on about how excited they were. I don’t blame them, I’d have been the same. There’s a bitterness, but it’s not directed at anyone. You just have to grin and bear it.
The emails I received from several people, desperate for help getting them a ticket, got a bit too much given my own circumstances. But on the other side of the coin, a friend offered the services of his CRB-checked mum to babysit Georgina for the day, so we could both go. Such thoughtfulness was appreciated, even though we had to say no as we couldn’t leave Georgina with a stranger.
As Saturday neared, I realised I was getting more and more angry and depressed about the situation. I just wanted the game to be over, to move on and look forward to more mundane matters like Colchester United at home. I felt jealous at everyone else going and I hated myself for it, but it didn’t seem fair that I was missing out.
I was desperate to shut the world out. On the morning of the game, I decided to give myself a blanket Facebook ban to avoid seeing all the inevitable photos from people on their way to London. And I made sure that we as a family kept busy, so I didn’t stew at home.
It was only when we got there that I realised I had set up such a cliché of a day out. Instead of going to the football, Daddy had taken Daughter to the zoo. Whilst 6,000 City fans congregated in Chelsea’s Shed End, there we were at the South Lakes Zoo, wrapped up in several layers. Georgina was initially completely indifferent about the animals – the least she could do was feign interest.
In the end we had a great time, but setting off home just after 3pm probably wasn’t the best idea. For it meant the hour and a half drive home would be spent listening to BBC Radio 5Live.
City were a goal down before we left the zoo car park, and I wasn’t sure whether to feel disappointed or slightly relived that I wasn’t missing anything special. Then it was 2-0, and it was sad that Chelsea were seemingly out of sight so quickly. Jon Stead made it 2-1, the 5Live reporter was full of wholesome praise about City’s performance. This game was not over just yet. The ordeal of missing the match was not over either.
And as we neared our home in Skipton it all happened. 2-2, Rachel was cheering loudly. My mixed feelings overtook my ability to join her. Still, a replay at Valley Parade would be amazing – we’d go for sure. 3-2 City, wow! But also…wow, what I have missed out on? 4-2 City, and 5Live are going crazy. I tried to crack a smile, but inside a part of me just wanted to cry.
The biggest FA Cup shock in history, and I missed it. And it feels like it could take a long time to get over this. I wish that at least Rachel had gone, so I could have felt pleased for her. Shared in her joy.
What I have learned from this experience is just how child-like and selfish we football supporters can be (or at least I can be). One of the club’s greatest days in the 18 years that I have followed them, and I was left wallowing in self-pity. If I wasn’t at Villa Park in 2013, would I have been frowning? If I had not been at Wolves in 1999, would I have felt unhappy about promotion? (No is the answer to both questions, given each of these games had mega-prizes at stake and were at least shown on TV.)
The fortunes of the club are far more important than my own needs, yet because you are not there to see the achievement you feel you have played no part in it, and that it doesn’t belong to you. I don’t have a right to be happy about City beating Chelsea, was how I immediately felt. You’re on the outside looking in, rather than part of the scene. I’m sure that other fans, who also didn’t go, don’t feel this way and are proud of their team. They should feel that way. I should. And deep down I suppose I do.
Rachel told me that I was punishing only myself and she was right. To not enjoy this incredible moment was to cut off the nose to spite the face. We made our decision about not going, and it was the right one to make. There’s no bitterness to anyone else who went, and who were subsequently bragging about it, because why would there be? Still, I don’t want to see my friends who went to Chelsea, at least not until they are back to talking about something else.
I know that feeling miserable about one of the club’s greatest ever results is stupid, child-like and completely irrational, but on Saturday night at least I couldn’t help it. Bittersweet is a tough emotion.
The consolation? There will always be other Bradford City matches. That 18 years supporting the club has shown to me that mega-highs will keep occurring now and then. And even more importantly, that I now have an FA Cup fifth round tie to look forward to. Rachel is adamant that I will go to it.
She is an amazing woman.
By Sunday I could finally muster the strength to shrug the shoulders. “Let it go”, as that woman sings on Georgina’s Frozen DVD. Nothing can change the fact that I missed the match, so what value is there in remaining upset?
Enjoy the fact that the whole country is talking about Bradford City. Feel proud that everyone thinks your football team, and your fellow supporters, are amazing. Feel proud of all the support you have given Phil Parkinson over the years when many others withdrew theirs for a period. Feel proud.
Take your slice of the glory too. You deserve it.
And later on Sunday, Georgina had a playdate with a friend whose dad, Kev, supports City and went to Stamford Bridge. And of course we talked about it. And doing so didn’t feel nearly as painful as I feared it might prove. I actually enjoyed the conversation about his day at Stamford Bridge, rather than felt jealous. Let it go.
But then on Sunday night I finally plucked up the courage to load up Facebook. And every single post was someone bragging about going to Stamford Bridge and about having the best day of their life. And I had to give up within two minutes. Some things will take time.
Unless you are one of those uber-fans who goes to every game, missing matches is a part of life that we all learn to deal with. And when you don’t go to a City game and they lose, most of us will feel grateful that we didn’t bother. And when you don’t go to a City game and they win, the joy is less sustaining compared to how you would have felt being there to witness it.
The Chelsea game magnified this mindset like I have never experienced before. It wasn’t just another game. It wasn’t something you could find crumbs of comfort over not attending. If City had lost 6-0 I would still have wished I could have been there. The fact that they won it and won it with incredible style heightens the regret. If I hadn’t been going to away games so often over the last eight years, it would have been easier to accept.
My only therapy has been to write this article, and to keep the world shut out. The latter is the wrong approach I know, and I wish that in these situations I could be more like the mature 33-year-old person I am supposed to be. But please don’t judge me too harshly.
Deep down I do know and believe that beating Chelsea really was sweet, it just that for me it also tasted bitter.
Editor’s note: for the sake of balance, this miserable article will be followed by the positive accounts of other WOAP writers who also didn’t attend the game, later on the site this week.