The play offs previewed: Remembering the night of the impossible

chapter 4 - Blackpool awayreduced

By Jason McKeown

When Bradford City walk out onto the field for the play off semi final first leg against Millwall on Sunday, it will be 20 years ago to the exact day since the Bantams produced one of the most incredible victories in their history. They had lost a third tier play off semi final first leg at home to Blackpool a few days earlier, but turned it around at Bloomfield Road in spectacular style.

In an extract from my new book – Reinventing Bradford City – here is the story of that incredible night, told with the help of people who were there to witness it first hand.

Chris Kamara sunk into yet another pint, as he sat slumped in the corner of a Wakefield pub with his chief scout Andy Smith, the weight of the world upon his shoulders.

Earlier that day, Bradford City’s first leg play off game with Blackpool had proven majorly disappointing. With eighteen minutes left to play, the wily veteran striker Tony Ellis had given the Tangerines a crucial lead in a game the visitors were dominating. Ellis had managed to get on the wrong side of Nicky Mohan, before finding room on the edge of the box to curl home an effort that flew into the bottom corner. Just two minutes later, Mark Bonner popped up at the back post to easily head a second goal for Blackpool. It meant they had a colossal 2-0 advantage to take back for the return leg at Bloomfield Road. The manager, Sam Allardyce, had out-thought Kamara, by playing Andy Morrison in front of his back four in order to cut out the service to City’s target man, Ian Ormondroyd. But more painful than that was the knowledge that his players had frozen on the big occasion and not turned up, going down to a first home defeat in ten matches. The walls around the Valley Parade fortress had crumbled. “A towering task” was the Blackpool-inspired headline of the Telegraph & Argus match report, with David Markham declaring, “The truth was they were beaten by a better team on the day…The effort was there – there can be no complaints on that score – but no one player will be happy about his performance as City failed to produce the form that has taken from mid-table into the play-offs.” Reflecting back on events now, David Markham added, “After seeing Bradford City under-perform in the first leg of the play-off semi-final at Valley Parade, and go down 2-0, I don’t think many supporters gave them much chance of over-turning that deficit in the second leg at Bloomfield Road.”

Kamara was full of bluster to the press after the game, stating that “the tie is far from over…don’t write us off just yet”. But he admitted in his brilliant autobiography, ‘Mr. Unbelievable’, that privately he took the result very badly, stating, “I just couldn’t understand how and why it had gone so wrong. Mam and Dad were at the game, but afterwards I couldn’t talk to them. I was inconsolable, and I knew I had made mistakes.” Eventually he had to tell his parents to go home because he was no company, and ended up going for a few drinks with Andy Smith, in an attempt to come to terms with what had happened. “Boy, did we sink a few beers, but all we could talk about was football,” Kamara wrote. “I dissected and analysed the entire game, but Andy and John Allott, an old pal, helpfully steered me away from the previous 90 minutes and we started to plot for the next 90.”

Sentiments shared by Richmond, who in the 2006 book ‘The Pain and the Glory’ stated, “Chris came into the boardroom close to tears, and told me ‘I’m sorry, I’ve made a mess of it, we’ve blown it’. I told him that in the second leg our tactics were easy. We need three goals. We’ve nothing to lose. Go for it.” Back in the O’Donohue’s pub in Wakefield, an epiphany occurred at around 9pm. As Kamara bemoaned how predictable his team had been in knocking the ball long towards Ormondroyd, he realised that the best way to beat Blackpool was to ensure that his players only crossed the ball from the last third of the pitch, rather than deep – and so would remove the temptation to target Ormondroyd, by leaving him out of the side.

A team meeting was called for the following morning, where the new plan was announced. Kamara recalled in his autobiography that Ormondroyd took the decision well. The gameplan agreed, City used the gap between Sunday’s defeat and the second leg on the Wednesday to practice the tactics. Part of the execution was to draw up an imaginary line, 20 yards into the opposition half of the pitch, that only after going past were the players allowed to cross the ball. Another key part was making sure the players believed they still had a chance. Lee Duxbury recalled to me, “I definitely thought it was all over after the first leg. They had a strong team and they had a really good home record. For the second leg, you were thinking we had nowt to lose. Let’s just go there and at least compete this time.”

City were ready. And far from being downhearted after Sunday’s potentially terminal set back, they made the short journey to Blackpool with renewed confidence and quiet steel that, this time, they would demonstrate their true potential. Kamara had pledged to the Telegraph & Argus, on the day of the match, “Blackpool will see a different Bradford City tonight.”

And after arriving at Bloomfield Road, Kamara was able to detect signs that their hosts already believed they had booked their place at Wembley, and that the second leg was nothing more than a formality. The story has gone into folklore. Leafing through the programme whilst killing time before the team talk, Kamara found a page advertising the Wembley play off final ticket prices for Blackpool fans, complete with a phone number to book travel to the game. Kamara raced out and found a programme seller in order to buy another ten copies, and pinned them up all over the visitors’ dressing room. In his autobiography Kamara states, “I wanted them to see the booking form. My team talk was virtually done for me. ‘This lot think they’ve reached Wembley already,’ I said…It did the trick. They were like wild animals waiting to be unleashed on the Blackpool public.”

Duxbury added, “Those promotions about coaches going down to Wembley – that was more or less the team talk. Kammy said ‘look at that guys, they already think they are at Wembley. Just get out there’. Kammy is a great man-manager. He had a good technical coach in Martin Hunter, and Paul Jewell was also there ticking things over. I think Jewell had a big say in a lot of things. I think getting the best out of you was Kammy’s strength, because he was that type of player himself on the pitch when you were playing with him. He did that as a manager too.” David Markham stated to me, “Blackpool as a club, interestingly managed by Sam Allardyce, were guilty of over confidence in that they famously advertised trips to Wembley for the final even before they completed the semi-final second leg. Chris Kamara made this the basis of his team talk and the rest, as they say, is history.”wembley 96

On the night City were backed by a reasonably decent support of 1,482 fans – but many others had opted not to make the journey to the coast, as they believed the tie was over. Even those who did go surely travelled in hope rather than with expectation. The away following included Joanne Golton who, amazingly, made the 331-mile journey up from Southampton for this midweek game. She explained to me, “I didn’t go to the home game. I couldn’t get up from Southampton for some reason. And so when we lost, I thought to myself ‘I need to be there for the away leg, my team needs me!’ I drove up from Southampton to get to the away leg in a Morris Minor! I got back to Bradford and got a lift over to Blackpool with my dad.

“There was about 1,700 of us there, perhaps a bit less than that. I always go with my friend Fiona, and her dad and my dad. And Fiona’s dad wouldn’t come, because he thought after the first leg that was it. And he was so nervous he stayed out in his garden all night, pretending to do the gardening, just so he didn’t have to listen to it on the radio. We were on the away terrace, which wasn’t covered, and there was a great atmosphere. I remember looking to the left and seeing that the players [unused that night] were in with the crowd as well, people like Richard Liburd. I still believed we could do it. The team had been all about not giving up and I believed in them.”

That faith looked well-judged when City started the game on the front foot. An early shot from Duxbury trickled wide, but set the tone. Carl Shutt and 20-year-old midfielder Des Hamilton both passed up good opportunities to open the scoring, as Blackpool seemed to be caught in a dilemma of whether to defend their considerable advantage, or go out to attack once more. The first goal was always going to be vital, and it came six minutes before half time – for the visitors. A long throw in from Duxbury was flicked on by Mohan, and there was Shutt with an opportunity on the edge of the six-yard box that he gleefully buried. Blackpool 0 Bradford City 1. Game on.

It could have proven only a token resistance, had City not benefited from a huge slice of luck just a minute later. Blackpool finally roared into life, and Tony Ellis found himself up against his rival Mohan, with an opportunity to shoot from a position strikingly similar to the one that he had scored from at Valley Parade, in the first leg. This time Nicky Mohan got tighter, but nevertheless Ellis still got a shot in. It cannoned off the City defender’s back, changing the direction of the ball. Goalkeeper Jonathan Gould was beaten, but amazingly the deflected shot bounced back off the crossbar. Such thin margins were crucial, and meant the Bantams could go in at half time a goal to the good, and with Blackpool’s nerves fraying. Joanne added, “We went for Blackpool, especially just before half time. We came out and we had nothing to lose. It was just a really good game.”

In the second half City continued to knock loudly on the door. They had the momentum, they smelt blood. Kamara’s gameplan was working, with wingers Andy Kiwomya and Des Hamilton stretching the play, and central midfielders Duxbury and Graham Mitchell dominating the middle of the park. Following the instructions beautifully, Kiwomya went on a jinking run midway through the second half that resulted in him getting free of his full back, Marvin Bryan, and into the area, with team mates charging into the box. Kiwomya timed it all wonderfully, sending a low pass into the path of Hamilton in the middle of the box. Hamilton showed the composure of a veteran to steer the ball into the bottom corner. 2-0 to Bradford City, 2-2 on aggregate. At the opposite end of Bloomfield Road, the City fans went wild on the uncovered terrace.

Writing in the City Gent in the following issue, future editor David Pendleton stated, “The scenes on the visiting terrace were utterly insane: arms and legs everywhere; strangers were hugged and kissed; fences swung on; bodies rolled past in bear hugs – total, joyful, mayhem. The home terraces were a complete contrast; stunned silence. Fans who had earlier taunted us with their gloating Wembley songs couldn’t even bear to look in our direction.”

Amazingly Blackpool hit the woodwork for a second time just after. Andy Preece was played through one-on-one with Gould and dinked the ball over the City goalkeeper, only for it to bounce down onto the top of the crossbar and out for a goal kick. Blackpool were falling to pieces, and the fine margins kept going against them. Sam Allardyce must have been praying for the full time whistle and a chance to calm his players down prior to539302_10151509297480242_735141364_n extra time. City were in no mood to left their hosts off the hook quite so easily. With eleven minutes to go, they completed the job.

After the home side gifted the Bantams possession all too easily, Mark Stallard brought the ball forwards just inside the Blackpool half, before spraying it out wide to the flying Kiwomya. Bryan cleared for a throw in, which enabled Wayne Jacobs to get forward in support of the attack. The ball was worked to the City left back, who sent over a hanging cross from just past Kamara’s imaginary line. Hamilton tried to head it towards goal, as keeper Eric Nixon rushed out to try and claim it, and the ball rolled untidily into the path of an unmarked Mark Stallard, who fired a low shot past a sea of defenders and beyond the scrambling Nixon, and into the bottom corner. Blackpool 0 Bradford City 3. On the pitch, the City players all piled on top of Stallard – who would later tell the Telegraph & Argus, “This is easily the proudest moment of my career.” On the City bench, Kamara and his coaching staff punched the air and hugged each other. On the away terrace, absolute pandemonium. The impossible had been achieved. The miracle was about to happen. Eat your heart out, Roy of the Rovers.

David Pendleton described the moment, “Scenes of utter madness ensued, groups of fans huddled together in almost unbelieving, bouncing, screaming, joy. One or two just stood there rooted to the spot, staring motionless at the pitch, their senses overwhelmed. The celebrations just went on and on, a continuous roar, wild eyed fans went from one to another, hugging and leaping, all of the while continuing a mad primeval scream.”

The final few minutes ticked by slowly as Blackpool poured forward in desperation. Gaps were left at the back, and Stallard should have capped off an incredible night for City with a fourth goal. Instead, he blasted the ball into the home crowd behind the goal, with just Nixon to beat. It didn’t matter one jot. Within 30 seconds, the final whistle was sounded. The City coaching staff raced onto the field and, along with their players, charged over to the away end, where a mini pitch invasion began. The Blackpool fans loudly booed their team, who were slumped on the floor in disbelief. They’d done the hard bit by winning at Valley Parade, but they’d been punished in devastating fashion for believing they had reached Wembley, when it was only half time in the tie. Bradford City had been priced at 40-1 to win 3-0. If anyone had taken on that bet, they’d have ended that night considerably richer. David Markham enthused, “I cannot recall many better constructed performances by a City side. To have a hope of winning the tie they had to get a goal back before half time which they did and then scored twice in the second half to go through to the final 3-2 on aggregate.”

It was the first time in Bradford City’s history that the club would be playing at Wembley stadium. The moment has been immortalised by the local radio commentator for Pennine Radio (later renamed Pulse), Chris Cooper, screaming over the airwaves “The Blackpool tower is a mile down the road, but the Twin Towers beckon for City now”. Joanne Golton recalled of a night that she ranks as her favourite supporting the Bantams, “When the final whistle went some chap picked me up. Everyone was hugging everybody else. There were loads of cheering and shouting. It was incredible.

“The reason why it’s my favourite ever game is because I had never been to Wembley before, and a month or two before this game my dad had said ‘if you like we can go to watch Bradford Northern [who that year had reached the Challenge Cup Final] at Wembley’ and I turned it down. I remember saying to him that I never want to go to Wembley unless it’s to see my own team. And that night, when that final whistle went, everyone was looking at each other and going ‘oh my god we’re going to Wembley’. It was amazing! City had never been before, and back then people didn’t even go down to London that often – when you did, it was a treat. It was just an amazing feeling to think that we were going to go to Wembley for the first ever time. It hadn’t happened to City fans before, and so the whole feeling in that away end was incredible. Everyone was so excited, not so much at the thought of promotion, but the simple fact we were going to Wembley. It was such a big thing.”

Inside the dressing room, Kamara and his players celebrated one of the most amazing results in the history of the club. Unbeknown to them, in the home dressing room, Blackpool manager Sam Allardyce had forced his players to sit in silence and listen to the jubilant noises next door. Outside Bloomfield Road, angry Blackpool fans gathered to call for Allardyce’s head. They got their way, as he was sacked shortly after the game. A tough lesson, but one that Allardyce clearly used to good effect, as he has subsequently gone on to achieve notable success as a Premier League manager. reinventing-cover-shop-soft-080316

Lee Duxbury reflected of the way he approached the game, “I remember the last game of the season at Hull, that Blackpool game and the final – they were massive games. I just wanted to be a seven out of ten player in them. To do my job, stop my player and to help our players; not do anything flash, just play to my strengths. I think the atmosphere inside the dressing room after we beat Blackpool was electric. And then we stopped over at a hotel after, and I remember playing pool all night. There were supporters who found out where we were stopping and joined us. It was just a really good night.”

City fans celebrated on the Bloomfield Road pitch for a long time, before making their way back to Bradford, slowly, to keep the party going. Joanne Golton recalled how even this moment was memorable, “For some reason there was a queue on the M55, I don’t know what it was, and all these City fans were leaning out of windows and honking the horns. It was just brilliant. There wasn’t that many of us who went, but for the ones who were there it was fantastic.”

The Telegraph & Argus journalist and City fan, Sarah Calvert, was another who was present, writing about the night for the paper, “The traffic jam on the M6 could have been tedious, but instead, with traffic at a standstill and City fans hanging out of sunroofs and windows, the motorway just echoed with choruses of “There’s only one Chris Kamara” and “Wem-ber-ley”. A small pub on the A59 was descended on by a few hundred City fans in search of a well-deserved pint after a night of exhausting support. With everyone on a high, the pub buzzed with songs, chants, and shouts of “See you at Wembley”.”

The front page of the Telegraph & Argus, on the following morning, featured a photo of a bare-chested and smiling Chris Kamara, surrounded by gleeful fans. “Brilliant!” was the headline. Geoffrey Richmond, the catalyst for the reverse in City’s fortunes, told the paper, “What a wonderful occasion tonight has been for those supporters who have stood by the club for many years. For most of that time, they’ve not had a lot to cheer about.” Kamara beamed, “I have had 22 years in the game but this was the best moment of my footballing life…Even after Sunday’s disappointment I knew we were a better team than Blackpool and all we had to do was to play.”

The Independent newspaper also carried a match report of the game the following day, stating, “Blackpool is the home of the outlandish and the fantastic, but it has seen few sporting turnarounds to rival the way City pursued the unlikely vision of a place in the Second Division final.”

This 3,000 word extract is taken from Reinventing Bradford City, published by BantamsPast in April. The full book is 135,000 words in total and tells the inside story of 12 of the biggest Bradford City matches from the past 30 years.

Reinventing Bradford City is now available to buy from Amazon and Bantams Banter – more detailshere, and the 12 featured games here.

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