By Jason McKeown
“I don’t talk about my playing days very often,” Mark Ellis admitted to me, as we sat down to chat about his 10 years and 200+ games for Bradford City, back in the 1980s.
We had met at the Cedar Court hotel at the top of Bradford, on a night of howling rain, 11 months ago. Ellis had got in touch with me about meeting up to discuss the news of RIASA taking over the Bradford City reserve team, and young American striker Jon Lewis signing the Bantams upon his recommendation, with a view to me writing about these developments for Width of a Post.
I’d wanted to speak to him anyway. I had a new book to begin writing.
And so the last part of our interview turned to Ellis’ playing careers and, specifically, his memories of City’s recovery from the Valley Parade fire and the infamous nearly season. Ellis was open and honest, and particularly came alive when it came to talking about his team mates of that era. It was clearly a special time to play for Bradford City.
I returned home that night dripping wet but with more than an hour’s worth of audio content to transcribe.
Reinventing Bradford City was getting started.
The big idea
We’d talked about doing it for almost a year. The entire 2014/15 season took place with regular conversations between myself and John Dewhirst. John is the author of the superb A History of Bradford City in Objects book, and co-creator of BantamsPast, which for more than a decade had done a terrific job retelling the history of the club.
John was keen that Objects became the first of a new series of quality books on Bradford sport – books that could stand the test of time. A series that people would want to collect. He had ideas for another couple of books himself, but was keen to get me involved too.
We spent the first half of 2014/15 bouncing back and forth ideas. Initially, I thought about starting a book about Phil Parkinson’s time at Bradford City, and the amazing feats that have occurred under his management. But Parkinson’s reign shows no sign of ending. And even when he does leave, the perspective of time is surely needed before approaching such a subject. One day Phil, I hope…
The area that I kept coming back to was the modern era of the club. It has been such a remarkable period – the 80s, the 90s and, of course, the History Makers. When in January 2015 City produced that amazing victory at Chelsea, the topic of the book was sealed.
It was an era I felt confident was correct to write about after spending time with City fans of all ages, over the years, and hearing and debating the big games that mattered to them. Games like Ipswich in 88, Blackpool in 96, Wolves in 99, and the more recent cup heroics, are ones that will be forever talked about and remembered. Even the lowest moments of that period are still argued about endlessly.
Bradford City’s modern history has featured so many incredible moments, and it was time to put those stories into writing.
Structuring the book
I quickly decided that the best way of telling the story of 1986-2016 was to select the most significant games from that era. I whittled it down to a 12-game shortlist that is both spaced out over those 30 years and tells the tale of the highs and lows that occurred.
Some games were obvious to select – the game at Wolves that sealed promotion to the Premier League in 1999, the epic night at Villa Park where City reached the League Cup Final in 2013 – whilst others were chosen for how they represented a certain period. The strange time of City playing at Odsal is covered in a chapter about the Leeds game that saw a Bantams win and significant crowd trouble. The story of John Docherty is told around a 6-4 home defeat to Swansea. The return of Stuart McCall as manager, and launch of the cheap season ticket offer, is centred around the Macclesfield game that kicked off his time in charge.
It’s important to stress that the book is not match reports of these 12 games. As wonderful to relive as some of these matches are, lengthy details about attempts on goal or dodgy penalty calls does not make for a thrilling book. The games are the anchors around telling the story of what was happening at the club at the time, and this is what I mainly focus on. Each game is significant not purely for the 90 minutes of football, but the events surrounding it.
And it meant I could avoid going down the more obvious route of a straight narrative. I’ve read plenty of other books on the history of Bradford City – some really good ones – and most tell the story of events in a straight, chronological order. This is great and very important, but invariably leads to a lack of prominence to the really big moments.
I wanted to write only about those headline events from the past 30 years – good and bad. The kind of moments where the club’s fortunes would have been splashed on both the front and back cover of the Telegraph & Argus, and made a national newspaper or two. The type of occasions that we truly remember, rather than nothing mid-table seasons that are half-forgotten.
In my head, I saw it as a conversation in a pub between a group of City supporting-friends. The games and occasions you would reminisce about, both with fondness and anger/despair. The Colin Todd years will have to be covered in another book…
To truly bring the stories alive, my ambition was to interview lots of people. That time in the Cedar Court Hotel with Mark Ellis was one of around 30 interviews that feature in the book. Through writing WOAP for more than four years, I’ve made a few football contacts and tapped into them in an attempt to get interviews on the games and events I wanted to write about.
Securing a chat with Andrew Davies on the phone felt like an early big moment. He’d just left City for Ross County and was brilliant to speak with. He was disappointed by the manner he had been allowed to leave Valley Parade and was honest about it, before reflecting on happier times at the club. Through the help of Mark Ellis’ lovely assistant, I was able to interview Terry Dolan. A friend of mine knew Lee Duxbury.
I kept tapping into leads. Some interview requests fell on death ears, but most responded and were positive about being involved. Keen to talk about Bradford City.
It was obvious right from the start that there were two people who simply had to feature in the book, given their influence on the past 30 years: Stuart McCall and Phil Parkinson.
Getting hold of the latter involved formally approaching the club, and being kindly given permission to attend a pre-match press conference with the local media, before the Oldham game last September, where Phil agreed to spend some time talking with me one-to-one.
Parkinson forgave my clumsy first question and talked openly and engagingly about his time so far at City. He explained his intentions when he took over, how he implemented his long-term strategy and the need to bring in the right players. We reminisced about Wigan, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Wembley, the play off push, Wembley again, Halifax and Chelsea.
I was also able to interview James Hanson that day, about his time at the club and his views on the different managers he has worked under. Not surprisingly his favourite City goal was his one at Villa Park. He is a confident yet humble person. I wish his critics in the stands could spend some time with him and get to appreciate his passion for the club.
Getting Stuart McCall was tougher but achieved in the end. A contact gave me his mobile number. I sent a text asking for a telephone interview and initially got no reply, but then a few days later he responded that he would be up for it, but that – with so much to go through – it would be better to do it face-to-face the next time he was in Yorkshire to see his family. Meet Stuart McCall? Not a problem!
And so in November, and with McCall in the area to conduct the FA Cup first round draw at Thackley, I met him in a hotel three hours before he was due to join the BBC crew. They say you should never meet your heroes, but McCall the person proved to be everything I hoped he’d be and more. An absolute gent, with such an admirable level of love and affection for Bradford City. (And, I later found out, a WOAP reader too!)
We chatted about his breakthrough in the 80s, the fire, Odsal and the nearly season. Of how painful it was to him to leave Bradford City in 1988. We moved on to talk about his glorious return 10 years later, with promotion to the Premier League. As someone for whom the 1998/99 season means the world, I will forever treasure this opportunity I was given to reminisce about that team with one of the central characters.
I then started to ask McCall about his time as manager. He jumped to his feet, shook my hand and said goodbye, before running towards the exit…and then returning, laughing. It’s good to see that Stuart has a sense of humour about that difficult third spell at the club. When we finally went through this period, the frustration and pain he felt at not succeeding was obvious. Nevertheless, you could tell that he had long since found closure and moved on.
I was keen to interview more than players and managers – specifically board members, journalists and fans. Highlights included a couple of hours in a Keighley pub with Simon Parker – the evening flew by – speaking to North East journalist Mark Douglas about the Premier League years, and hearing from Richard Wardell about the incredible efforts of the Supporters Trust to save the club in 2004.
Everyone I spoke to was friendly, open and enthusiastic. It is a pleasure to be able to hear and now tell their stories.
For the foreword I was delighted that Ian Dennis, the chief football report at BBC Radio 5Live and Match of the Day commentator, accepted my request to write it. He grew up in West Yorkshire and was a regular at Valley Parade before his career took off. He wrote a lovely piece about what the club means to him, which kicks off the book.
I can’t think of a better way for Reinventing Bradford City to start.
The joys of microfilm
Another person that would have been to have interviewed was Geoffrey Richmond. I emailed him, I sent him letters, but there was no reply. Just like that Phil Parkinson book which one day must be written, The Richmond Years is a story that needs to be published.
The next best thing was to focus a lot of the research that went into the book on his time at the helm, and especially his early days. John showed me the ropes of Bradford Library and the microfilms that they have of Telegraph & Argus’ from years gone by. I made several trips, going through editions from the 80s and 90s in particular.
Geoffrey Richmond’s first interview in the T&A ran under the headline “I’m no Santa Claus”, which made me chuckle. It was fascinating to read through years and years of newspaper coverage of City, which gave a real sense of the mood of the time without the application of hindsight.
Other people also provided research help. At the Farsley Celtic friendly last August, WOAP writer Kieran Wilkinson presented me with a dossier on John Docherty – City Gents from that period and a scrap book of T&A cuttings. It was an amazing read, and you got a true sense of just how much the crowd hated him. Rick Cowling lent me City Gents from the mid-90s, which now sit proudly in the National Football Museum. Before a midweek home game last October, Adam Pickles brought along some old programmes that included a column from Geoffrey Richmond tearing into his under-performing players, two months before Administration One hit.
I went into my loft and dug out my own collection of cuttings, programmes and videos. I steered conversations with City supporting friends towards events from the past, to see if they remembered anything that I had missed.
I must admit that, over the first half of this season, only half my eye was on City’s fortunes. I was enjoying researching the past and interviewing people too much.
Reinventing Bradford City was launched at the Record Café over the Easter weekend. It is on sale in the Record Café plus Waterstones, WH Smith and Salts Mill. Online you can buy it via Bantams Banter, Amazon and Waterstones.
The next book in the BantamsPast series – Room at the Top – will be published in the summer. Written by John, it tells the story of the nineteenth century origins of football in Bradford. John will also be publishing volume four in the series in a couple of years’ time.