By James Pieslak
The magnificent Bradford City FA Cup run of 2014/2015 is over. City were well beaten on Monday night by a Reading side that were physically, tactically and technically stronger. After the second goal looped in via a cruel deflection from a lunging Andy Halliday, you could see the legs that have played five matches in 13 days get a little bit heavier.
In previous cup games, claret and amber-clad Energizer bunnies have snapped into tackles, won headers that weren’t theirs to be won, swarmed onto second balls, and harassed the opposition into submission. On Monday night, the tables were turned as Reading took complete control of the game.
Although the effort of the players never ever faltered, there were some vital ingredients missing from a winning recipe – a slice of fortune some might say, but most of all it was quality and energy.
The fans amassed behind the goal knew it. Even though we started a half-hearted ‘We’ve been 2-0 down before’ in response to the celebrations from the home end, it was pretty clear that we were in for a long night.
In the past, performances like Monday’s would have been deemed unacceptable, and I admit to walking away from the Madjeski feeling a deep sense of disappointment and hurt. But this time, rather than dwelling on my own feelings of misery, I was actually hurting for the players.
It’s a funny feeling walking away from the stadium thinking about how the players are taking the result. Normally, that thought is cast aside with a shrug and a ‘you give us 90 minutes, we’ll give you a lifetime’ thought, but with this bunch of players it’s different.
Looking around the crowd after the final whistle, I could sense I wasn’t alone. Looking onto a pitch filling up with Reading fans, isolated specks of claret and amber stood still with their shoulders sloped and their heads down.
‘Get off the pitch’ was my first thought. All it takes is one idiot to create a nasty scene, and the last thing the night needed was a stand full of City fans watching their players get abused, separated from the pitch by a thin blue line of police that inexplicably remained inches from the away end. (It has to be noted that the Reading fans on the pitch all seemed to be acting brilliantly towards our players, patting them on the back, shaking their hands etc).
Then the claret and amber figures starting to move amongst the throng. Not towards the sanctuary of the tunnel, but towards the away fans.
Dancing Reading fans were moved aside by players to get to the away supporters. Groups of Reading supporters dodged aside as the City players headed over with one thing on their minds, getting to their fans. When they arrived, the fans burst into song and applause, and some of the players seemed to burst into tears.
Even though there were thousands of Reading fans running around on a football pitch, the City fans and players were only bothered about acknowledging one another. A kind of mutual exchange of emotions was taking place.
After a terrible night on the pitch, the players and fans were sharing a moment of gratitude for the great FA Cup memories, and a mutual sense of pain at how easily and ruthlessly we had been dispatched out of the competition. A couple of flares arched into the away end, but the scenes continued.
A few Reading fans joined in the applause. I think they saw what I was witnessing – a rare bond between players and fans – which in the era of modern day football and anodyne personalities carrying out their sponsorship responsibilities is not something you see too often. For our players, this was instinct not obligation.
I get that football players are just doing a job, and acknowledging the fans is part of the job, but for me the bond with this squad goes a little deeper. You only have to see Stephen Darby jumping into a minibus to sing ‘Everywhere We Go’ with the fans, Andrew Davies refusing to step up a league when he could leave, or see Filipe Morais’ face when he steps out at Valley Parade.
They know what a special club they are playing for. They know its history. They know what it means to the people who have chosen to support them, and they know that that support is unequivocal and vociferous. We aren’t the biggest club in the world, nor do we want to be. They know they’re lucky to be here and on Monday night they really brought that home.
We may have lost convincingly on the pitch on Monday, but somehow this bunch of players rose in my estimation once again.
For that, and for the cup run, thank you.