By Jason McKeown
The intensity and passion that comes with supporting a football club inevitably leads to extreme reactions. “Player x is a club legend”, “The team’s performance today was the worst in years”, “X’s goal was the greatest ever”.
When it comes to quantifying the last two-and-half-years of stunning progress at Bradford City, there is an obvious temptation to rewrite history and to laud the current manager, players and achievements as the best of the best. To state that as a football club we have never had it so good; and that past periods of success pale into insignificance.
But just how does the present truly stack up to the past? Width of a Post has put together an esteemed panel of judges who have witnessed decades of highs and lows and taken a keen interest in club’s history, going back to its 1903 formation. We asked them to compare different elements of the last three seasons with the 1910s, the 1980s, the 1990s and beyond.
In the first of a two-part series, here is what they had to say…
As part of the Football League’s 125th anniversary celebrations, in 2014 a poll was run to find the most popular manager for each of the 72 clubs. Phil Parkinson won the Bradford City vote, and his standing amongst supporters has been subsequently boosted by the heroics of Leeds, Chelsea and Sunderland. But beyond the obvious, what has made Parkinson so successful with supporters?
David attributes Parkinson’s achievements to the way in which he developed a deep understanding of the fabric of the Bantams. “To take a club that was on the brink of relegation from the Football League, and most importantly, bereft of hope, to a major cup final, promotion and an FA Cup quarter-final has been an astonishing achievement. However, his greatest achievement has been giving the club its soul back.
“Parkinson quickly realised that the home crowds would back a team that gave its all. Where Peter Taylor’s teams appeared to be frightened of playing at Valley Parade, Parkinson has turned that completely on its head, all via a simple observation.”
Ian is similarly enthusiastic about Parkinson’s record, with only the achievements of the man who steered the Bantams to the 1911 FA Cup success ranked higher. “I have to place Parkinson in second place behind Peter O’Rourke. The man took a club less than 10 years old and during his time got a promotion and, most of all, an FA Cup win – which at the time was a bigger achievement than a Championship win.
“O’Rourke then kept the club in the top league despite the turmoil and carnage of WW1. When he was called back in 1928 in City’s hour of need, he achieved another record-breaking promotion before retiring.”
John Dewhirst added of O’Rouke, “Peter was the club’s longest-serving manager and in terms of silverware the most successful. He also led the club to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup on three other occasions in 1912, 1915 and 1920.
“O’Rourke was a dominant character and he enjoyed greater autonomy than Parkinson. He came to be seen as a father figure at the club and exerted strong personal influence over the team – his style was clearly effective.
“He also benefited from the momentum that he had established by 1908 when there was an expectation of further success – not unlike the mood at Valley Parade in 1997 or 1998. Parkinson arguably didn’t have that momentum at the end of 2013/14, and few expected success this season given the budgetary constraints and the poor form as recently as last October.”
John Wade is in no doubt that – over his considerable time following the Bantams – Parkinson is the greatest. “Paul Jewell did very well, but there is no doubt that, whatever the future brings, Parkinson is the best.”
In the 1910s, Bradford City became one of the top teams in the county. In the 1980s, they were on the brink of the top flight again, and they finally reached the Promised Land at the turn of the millennium. Yet whilst the achievements of the last few years are not on this scale, the panel still believe they are amongst the club’s greatest times.
“For excitement and thrills, this period has got to be up there with the best,” stated Ian. “Phil has brought the pride and enjoyment back to watching our team.”
David added, “It’s all about context. The early successes should not be underestimated. The club had not so much as kicked a ball when they were elected to the Football League in 1903. Just eight years later they had established themselves as one of the top five teams in the country and had won the FA Cup. That was without doubt the greatest period in the club’s history.
“Fast forward to the 1980s and Bradford City was a very different beast. Decades of underachievement, a ground falling to pieces and financial troubles that meant just keeping the club alive was a major achievement. To run away with the third division championship in 1984/85 against such a background was a fantastic feat. It also, arguably, set the tone for the modern history of Bradford City.
“The era of ‘bantam progressivism’, the solidarity, and sense of togetherness, in the wake of the Fire meant that the club would never be quite the same again. And while the success of the club on the field has waxed and waned, Bradford City, and in particular its supporters, has never returned to being just another run of the mill club.
“In truth we may not be all that different from fans at a whole host of clubs, but the important thing is that WE think that we are different. It is the stories we tell to ourselves that can shape the culture of the football club.
“City’s appearance in the 2013 League Cup Final was probably one of the most insane football stories of all time. Doubly so given the enormous financial imbalances of modern football. Our cup dream illustrated the soft underbelly of modern football. Faced with heart, passion and desire our Premier League opponents wilted.
“It was notable that the club who felled us at the final fence was Swansea City – a club who knew exactly what it was like to be in our position, a club that was desperate to win its first piece of silverware and a club whose guard of honour at the final whistle wasn’t some patronising empty gesture. They got it.
“Just two years later we are at it again. Whatever happens in the quarter-final, the FA Cup run has been another incredible adventure. Parkinson has done it again, and in doing so he has ensured that Bradford City will be remembered as one of THE great cup teams of all time.”
John Wade is similarly enthused about the current era, although he rates the late-90s Premiership promotion team as the best ability wise. “The 1980s teams were, of course, dear to us because of the fire and the fact that Stuart McCall played for them. The 2012-15 teams will never be forgotten because of the giant-killings. How can a lower league team defeat both Arsenal and Chelsea, as well as Wigan, Villa and Sunderland?
“But I have to say that 1998-2000 really has the edge. I have always believed that Jewell would have kept City in the top flight had he not left.”
John Dewhirst believes that the 12-year decline that the club endured prior to 2012 gives the recent success greater perspective. “In 2011 I organised the Glorious 1911 centenary dinner at the Midland Hotel and at the time it felt as though the glory years would never return and that all we had was a long distant history.
“The recent success has been all the more satisfying because it came from the depths of despair and few of us expected it.
“I guess that the 1910s has always had a magic because it was such a glory era, but the achievements of the last few years are no less significant or momentous – in some ways against greater odds.”
Prior to 2012, most supporters were split between Blackpool 1996 or Wolves 1999 as the best City match they had ever attended. Now, that debate can be widened to include Villa Park, the Wembley play off final, and Stamford Bridge.
David was at all of these matches and is in no doubt over which is the greatest. “The Chelsea match topped the lot. To come from 2-0 down at probably one of the top three clubs in Europe to, not just beat, but to thrash Chelsea, was mind-blowing.
“Chelsea were the Premier League leaders, with a 100% home record, they’d just thrashed the team that demolished us in the League Cup Final 5-0 away from home, they had £100m worth of substitutes on the bench … the stats just keep coming. It was completely bonkers but completely deserved. One of the greatest FA Cup matches of all time.”
John Wade has his own top six all-time City games, spanning different eras. “Although Chelsea was the best game ever, I personally am only commenting on the games I saw. Firstly, Burnley at home in the FA Cup fifth round in 1960. Burnley were champions that year, and only equalised in the last minute.
“Then there was Arsenal at home in 1999. To have reached the pinnacle of English football, playing Arsenal on level terms and actually winning was a real highlight. The Cup Final against Swansea in 2013 – in spite of the result – speaks for itself. It was the highlight of my City career.
“Charlton Athletic in the penultimate match of 1997, the day of Tony Blair’s first election win. City needed to win their last two matches to stay up. Charlton blitzed us, we hung on, we stayed up. Probably the most exciting football match I have ever seen. There is also Sunderland a few weeks ago, which I need not comment.
“City almost went out of business in 2004. They survived and their first match was a friendly against Harrogate Town. Wayne Jacobs played and Colin Todd was the manager. The 5-0 winning result was immaterial – there were a lot of City fans there, and the experience of seeing them play when I thought I never would do again was emotional.”
In part two, the panel continue to compare the present with the past by looking at players, chairmen and atmosphere around the club.