By Jason McKeown
Football emotions are always at their peak when you walk out of the ground at full time; and for me, one departure from Valley Parade particularly ranks as the lowest point of this season – by some distance.
Saturday 1 November, 2014, and Bradford City had just lost 2-1 at home to Doncaster Rovers. It was a fourth defeat in five matches, and a fifth home loss in eight at Valley Parade. The Bantams had slumped to fourteenth. A relegation battle was looking increasingly likely. A tough start to the season was becoming tougher.
And what really depressed me that day was that City hadn’t played badly, yet were still comfortably beaten. That Doncaster were as an ordinary an opposition side as you could imagine, yet still chiselled out the three points. As we made our out of the ground and into the winter darkness, the future looked disconcertingly bleak.
There was a feeling of dread about the next game too – an FA Cup tie at non-league Halifax.
City went 1-0 down to Halifax, and the prospect of a cup exit to non-league neighbours prompted some to declare that Phil Parkinson was on the brink. His team responded brilliantly in the second half, with Jon Stead and Filipe Morais turning around the tie and turning around the season. City have not looked back.
Winning that FA Cup tie was massive for the club, and the FA Cup has proven massive for the club this season.
It has lifted the confidence of the players, who have been transformed from mid table also-rans to play off contenders. It has provided momentum at a point when things were slipping away. It has strengthened Phil Parkinson’s position. It has inspired supporters. It has brought the city of Bradford together. It has given the club huge national media exposure. It has delivered life-changing financial rewards. It has broken records.
And it will never be forgotten.
The Halifax game was huge for two players in particular. Half time substitute Billy Clarke changed the game and in doing so changed his Bantams career trajectory, from fringe player to someone to build the team around. Meanwhile Morais got the winner and the confidence kick led to a superb run of form that, within two months, would earn the Portuguese a contract that lasts longer than every other player on the books.
These two soared, and the team soared with them.
Flash forward to last Monday evening, however, and the many, many positives of the FA Cup were of no comfort as the Bantams bowed out against Reading in bitterly disappointing style.
It hurt. It really did. The players froze on the big occasion. The gameplan was in tatters early doors. Nine minutes on the clock, two goals behind. “We’ve been 2-0 before” chanted City supporters, but there was no prospect of repeating the Chelsea heroics here. The players looked rattled, stunned, robbed of their swagger. Confidence ripped apart. It was going to be a long night.
To bow out so meekly was devastating. I have read and heard comments from others about how proud we should still feel about the amazing FA Cup adventure, but we knew all of that before the Madejski match began. It was scant consolation. Something to ease the pain in time, but not when the pain was still at its rawest.
What happened on the pitch on Monday was not a Bradford City performance.
Dartford at home in round two is the least celebrated game of the FA Cup run, but arguably provided the best example of City’s intensity. They prepared for a game against limited opposition as though it was Chelsea, maintained high standards and completely shut out any possibility of a cup shock.
We’ve so many other Bradford City teams struggle through these sort of games over the years, but the attitude against Dartford was exemplary.
There were echoes of the Swansea League Cup Final defeat in how City bowed out of the FA Cup at Reading. The theory that The Royals were amongst the worst teams left in the competition that we could face – just like The Swans in February 2013 – sadly came to fruition. They were evidently taking the game much more seriously than Sunderland and Chelsea, and by association had prepared properly for the challenge posed by the Bantams.
They respected us too much to let us hurt them.
And in the build up to the replay, it felt like the momentum was slipping away from our grasp. The noise about struggling away ticket sales split opinion. I agree completely with those who say that taking almost 4,000 City fans to Berkshire – on a Monday night, at short notice, when the game was on terrestrial TV – was hugely impressive. But in the media, all we heard was how the club couldn’t sell all its tickets, and moves by sponsors to fund free travel – whilst well-intentioned – sounded desperate.
The point was that in the choice between looking at the glass half full or half empty, the club and local media chose to take the latter. The tone was set.
And then, an hour before kick off, hope drained some more when the team news featured a big shock, which could be summed up by one collective gasp that was uttered across the Bradford district.
We all thought he’d make it, and you suspect that within the dressing room there was a belief he would too. No Davies significantly hindered our chances. We may have produced heroics without him over the past few years, and there is an argument to make that he is not quite the same force of a couple of years ago, but Davies is still a massive player for us.
It hung in the air, and added to the sense of resignation.
Millwall at Valley Parade was an impressive example of the club and supporters coming together to back the players. #Bethedifference went the hashtag, as an impressive five-figure crowd rocked up on a bitterly cold January evening. Millwall were a shambles; their resistance and spirit broken by an early send off. The Bantams were utterly ruthless. Intent, focused, determined to make round four.
Everyone came together on and off the field to make it look easy.
The BBC pundits were critical of the Reading performance. “Shouldn’t Bradford have had a Plan B?” asked Gary Lineker. Unfortunately he missed the point, as the true failing on the night was that the players couldn’t implement their Plan A.
This BBC criticism was aired over clips of aimless Bradford City long balls that had characterised their performance all evening. Whilst the game was on and this was happening, I couldn’t stop yelling at the TV in frustration. Possession was easily surrendered through this ineffective football.
That isn’t Bradford City, certainly not this season. That isn’t why we line up in a diamond formation. The attractive passing style of football that has pushed the club to the brink of the play offs, and which Chelsea and co could not live with, was badly lacking. We are better than that.
We didn’t do ourselves justice. That is what hurt so much. Bowing out of the cup we could take, but we wanted to be beaten after giving it our best. It’s not a criticism of the effort levels of the players, who at times looked dead on their feet. But they lacked the composure, assurance and confidence levels that are usually so evident week on week.
Where was the belief that saw us overcome the best team in the country?
Most lower league clubs would treat a trip to Chelsea as a nice day out for supporters and players, with the ambition simply to avoid a hiding. Not City, not even when they went 2-0 down. They turned up at Stamford Bridge with a gameplan and a belief that they could win. And they executed that plan mightily effectively.
The greatest FA Cup upset in the history of the competition. Proof that belief can take you a long, long way.
Sooner or later, someone was going for an early bath – and the odds were that it would be a Bradford City player. They were shell-shocked to be 2-0 behind so early, and as the forceful tackles came in and the needle was applied by Reading, the visiting players reacted poorly. Jamie Mackie might be a horrible player; but as Alan Sheehan and Gary Liddle confronted him and others, it was obvious they had let their focus slip.
Sheehan was probably favourite to be the one to make an early walk, but in the end Morais capped off a dreadful personal performance with a dismissal for a high boot. It looked worse than he meant it, but if the roles were reversed we’d be screaming red card. You can’t really complain.
Morais came to life at Halifax, and now he needs to get going again. He was rushed back for the first game against Reading, and looked rusty and well off his game. He probably wasn’t ready to start on Monday either, and certainly did nothing to warrant his selection over others.
But then again, no midfielder or forward who started the game did.
Sunderland looked ill-prepared. Their excuses were offered up before they showed up to play on that Valley Parade pitch. Like Millwall, their spirit was smashed to pieces by an early goal. City were completely prepared but what else do you expect by now?
They were magnificent. The crowd were magnificent. One of the best days that Valley Parade has ever played host to.
The visiting crowd kept singing in support of their team at the Madejski, but the look on the faces of those shown in close up on TV told its own story. The game was up. It quickly became an exercise in making the most of the rest of the evening, rather than believing the evening was going to have a magical ending.
Perhaps some complained that Parkinson got the team wrong. That without Davies, Gary MacKenzie was a better option than Sheehan. That Mark Yeates’ recent form merited more than a place on the bench. That Billy Clarke should have continued rather than pushing Billy Knott at the tip of the diamond instead, where he was below his best. That Andy Halliday shouldn’t have started, or that Morais would have made a better impact sub.
It wouldn’t have made much difference, and hindsight is a wonderful thing. For how poor City were, Reading deserve great credit. Like Swansea two years ago it became easy because of how their players applied themselves. The gap between City and Reading was much smaller, but what the Championship club did to their League One opponents was similar to what Swansea did to City, and what City did to Dartford.
Good luck at Wembley against Arsenal, I guess.
Reading were not Chelsea. Reading were not Sunderland. But Reading lived in the same world as we did. They understood the mentality of the underdog, and of standing up tall in difficult circumstances. They came to Valley Parade with a plan. They were happy to play the long game. They did their homework on how to nullify the Bantams. They made it a war of attrition. At full time, Reading were the happier side.
They knew that the hard bit was done, and that they would be ready for the replay.
After Monday’s exit, the focus moves on to the league and Saturday’s game with Fleetwood. It is the first of three home games in a row, offering a great chance to close in on the final play off spot that is still anyone’s to grab.
The run-in is tough. It is filled with massive games. Chesterfield a week Tuesday, Easter games at Doncaster and at home to Preston. Runaway leaders Bristol City in West Yorkshire on a Tuesday night. Sheffield United with three games to go. Barnsley for the final Valley Parade game.
Massive exciting games. And an opportunity to turn disappointment into a cause.
The FA Cup has given Bradford City so much, and the legacy is one that will be debated over the coming months. Financially, the unheralded riches have to be put to good use to develop a stronger and more sustainable club – this time, there is no joint-chairmen’s loan to repay. From a supporter engagement point of view, harnessing the greater interest from the Bradford public is an opportunity that cannot be passed up. The 2015/16 season ticket announcement is going to be very interesting.
And from a playing point of view, the moment has not yet passed. In 2013, Parkinson and his team used the Swansea disappointment as a spur to get promoted. And they succeeded. It might be a tough ask to repeat that feat this time around, but it is certainly a motivation to push on. This season has been too memorable to allow it to peter out now.
The story of Bradford City’s FA Cup season has come to an end. But the story of Bradford City’s 2014/15 season remains untold.