By Jason McKeown
The 1996/97 FA Cup season was a belter. It culminated in Chelsea defeating Middlesbrough 2-0 in the Wembley final (meaning Boro had reached and lost both major cup finals, and been relegated from the Premier League, in one season). Chelsea lifted the cup following Roberto Di Matteo’s famous goal after just 42 seconds.
Earlier in the competition, Chelsea had defeated Liverpool in thrilling circumstances – coming from 2-0 down to defeat the Reds 4-2 live on BBC One. Fellow Premier League side Wimbledon went all the way to the semi finals, beating Manchester United en route.
But as ever, it was all about the upsets. Leeds United lost at home to Division One side Portsmouth. Wrexham knocked West Ham United out at Upton Park. Chesterfield astonishingly went all the way to the semi finals, contesting a memorable 3-3 draw with Middlesbrough at Old Trafford in which Spireites defender Jamie Hewitt snatched a dramatic equaliser in the final minute of extra time. After the 1996/97 FA Cup season, no football fan wasn’t aware that Chesterfield’s main church featured a crooked spire.
And then there was Bradford City, who created shockwaves of their own in round four, following a stunning 3-2 victory over Everton at Goodison Park. The game’s biggest moment was undoubtedly one of the greatest goals in the competition’s history, as City midfield maestro Chris Waddle lobbed Neville Southall from just inside the Everton half. Southall was rated one of the finest goalkeepers of his generation, yet Waddle made him look foolish.
Waddle claimed the headlines, and it felt as though the FA Cup fifth round draw was centred around him. For Bradford City were not simply pulled out of the hat to play fellow Yorkshire side Sheffield Wednesday, then still a successful Premier League club – the tie provided Waddle with the chance to take on his former club. It gave him an opportunity to prove a point. For Waddle had begun the 1996/97 campaign at Hillsborough.
Having made his name at hometown club Newcastle United before successful spells at Tottenham and French side Marseille, Waddle returned to England in 1992 with Wednesday and won the Football Writers Player of the Year for the inaugural Premier League season. He remained an impressive player and, in January 1996, Sheffield Wednesday rejected a £500k bid from Waddle’s former club, Newcastle United, who are the time were top of the Premier League. Wednesday demanded £1 million for the 35-year-old.
Yet just nine months later, and following Sheffield Wednesday’s strong start to the 1996/97 season, manager David Pleat deemed Waddle surplus to requirements and released him. Somehow he ended up at Scottish first division Falkirk and scored on his debut, in a 2-0 victory over Clydebank.
Bradford City manager Chris Kamara sent his chief scout, Andy Smith, to watch this game, and the following verdict was returned “he can still play”. And so Kamara lured Waddle back to Yorkshire, and the player made a huge impact for the second tier strugglers. Stunning strikes against Barnsley and Huddersfield are still fondly remembered. Waddle was a class above everybody on the field.
And his incredible goal at Goodison, in the FA Cup fourth round, firmly put Waddle back in the national spotlight. 36 he might have been, but his class and ability remained fully in tact. Was Pleat correct to get rid of him? Could he still cut it at the highest level?
Interest in the Bradford City vs Sheffield Wednesday tie was sufficient for Sky Sports to screen it live. With the new Midland Road stand having recently been opened, a capacity crowd of 17,830 people turned out for the contest.
Kamara had been able to use the Everton success as a catylst for strengthening the team. In the three-week period between winning at Goodison and the home tie with Wednesday, he has signed Gordon Watson for a club record fee, but almost instantly lost the former Owl for 18 months due to a broken leg. Another striker, the Brazilian Edinho, was also recruited. The cup tie with Sheffield Wednesday saw the future cult hero make his debut.
City were set up in a 4-5-1 formation designed to contain their higher league opponents, whilst getting Waddle on the ball. But as an attacking force they were feeble and the bravery of the Everton game was absent. Stalemate ensued. A Wednesday side featuring Des Walker, Mark Pembridge, Andy Booth and Benito Carbone were frustrated for long periods. A home defence that included Mark Schwarzer, Wayne Jacobs, Andrew O’Brien and John Dreyer dug in deep. Both sets of fans created a lively atmosphere.
The tie was heading to a lucrative Hillsborough replay. But then with five minutes to go, Ritchie Humphreys got clear on the wing and crossed into the box, and the unfortunate Bantams defender Nicky Mohan couldn’t prevent himself from turning the ball into his own net. 1-0 to the visitors. A cruel, cruel blow for the battling Bantams. Wednesday were through to the quarter finals. They would lose in the next round, at home to Wimbledon, but enjoy a respectable seventh-place Premier League finish. Heady times, considering the lower league struggles they have experienced post-millennium.
As for City, the shining of the spotlight on Valley Parade had its short-term issues. Schwarzer would be sold to Middlesbrough for a tidy profit, and Waddle himself would get a top flight move. Sunderland made a £75k offer and City lived up to their gentleman’s agreement of letting him leave. Despite this twin-set back, more Kamara wheeling and dealing left him with a team that would narrowly avoid relegation on the final day of the season. City too could reflect upon a good 1996/97 campaign, one that was lit up by the cup.
It has taken the club 18 years to reach this stage of the FA Cup, and the achievement is greater this time around, given City’s lower status means they had to begin from round one rather than round three (as was the case in 1996/97). But there are similarities in how the fourth round saw a tough away game against a Premier League team wearing blue, with City achieving a stunning away victory. And the fifth round draw each time saw the Bantams paired at home for what looked a tough but not impossible-to-win fixture.
If it’s 0-0 with five minutes to go on Sunday, let us just hope that any low Sunderland cross into the box doesn’t trip up a wrong-footed Bradford City defender.