By Jason McKeown
I’m used to turning up at Valley Parade riddled with nerves, but this was a different experience. Instead of fretting over the outcome of a Bradford City match, I arrived feeling anxious about whether I was about to walk into a deserted room.
This was the Valley Parade 30th anniversary celebration evening last Thursday night – the first time I have ever organised an event beyond a surprise gathering for my wife’s birthday a couple of years back. There was a lot more to this one than texting friends and stocking up on Pringles. The last few weeks had been dominated by booking guests, writing scripts and selling tickets. I wanted this to be a special night.
Fortunately there were already plenty of people inside the 1911 club as I walked in at 6pm, and there’s no better sign of exceeding expectations than the fact we had to scramble around to find extra chairs to accommodate all the people who showed up. There was a buzz in the air and a friendly atmosphere. Before it all kicked off, the panel of guests were interviewed live on BBC Radio Leeds by Gareth Jones, head of sport. Then it was on with the show.
A landmark occasion
We were all here on the night to honour our home. 30 years ago this December, Bradford City made an emotional return to Valley Parade following an 18-month hiatus. As the club came to terms with the tragic events of May 11 1985, it had to play away from Valley Parade. Initially that meant staging ‘home’ games at Leeds United’s Elland Road and Huddersfield Town’s Leeds Road, before setting up camp at Odsal stadium.
There were no guarantees that Bradford City would ever return home. Valley Parade remained in limbo, with plans to rebuild the ground continually pushed back. The Bradford Council were keen to persuade the Bantams to remain permanently at Odsal, and unveiled plans to significantly improve the site of Bradford Northern (now Bulls). But the will of the Bradford City community – who hated Odsal – meant constructing “The Wembley of the North” never happened. Finally, Valley Parade was rebuilt, and the club returned home in December 1986. The first game was a friendly match against an England XI managed by the late Sir Bobby Robson.
So this evening was to look back on these remarkable times, and to reflect on the club’s eventful modern history that has followed the return to Valley Parade. The Nearly Season, Blackpool, Wembley, Premier League promotion, double administration, and the more recent cup heroics. As every City fan of the last 30 years can attest to, there’s rarely been a dull moment.
After finishing his live Radio Leeds bits, Gareth hosted the night with the help of Tom and Dom from Bantams Banter. A word of praise for all three, who were excellent. No one was getting paid for this, and for them to give up their time to prepare for the night and do such a great job was really impressive.
In some quarters Tom and Dom get unjust stick for their jokey personas, when in reality they are as committed and passionate about the club as the rest of us. On this evening they adopted a more serious tone and I hope it further adds to their credibility. They were very good, in front of an audience of die-hards.
Over more than three hours (including a half hour break for pie and peas), Gareth, Tom and Dom went through the last 30 years with the help of our panel of special guests. There was far, far too much discussed to cover here, but here’s a flavour of what each guest had to say.
I interviewed Terry for my book, Reinventing Bradford City, and he was tremendous value with his views. Thursday was the same, with Terry speaking plainly about the difficulties the club experienced playing at Odsal, and warmly about his time as manager.
Terry took over as caretaker manager a few weeks after City’s return to Valley Parade, following the sacking of Trevor Cherry. He instigated a sharp turnaround in form and was made permanent manager, steering the club through the 1987/88 nearly season – a year affectionately remembered by many in the room as including some of the best football they have ever seen from Bradford City.
Terry spoke about the qualities of that team, which came so close to promotion to the top flight for the first time in 66 years. The pain of losing the final match at home to Ipswich – which cost City automatic promotion – was obvious in Terry. But he cited the play off semi final defeat to Middlesbrough as the worst moment. He also spoke about the fall out with the board over the lack of signings, and the significance it would have on City’s fortunes for the next few years.
After being sacked as City manger Terry remained a supporter from afar, later covering games for Radio Leeds. He described the difficulties of finding the balance between staying upbeat but being honest about the club’s post-millennium struggles, and how Peter Taylor once took huge exception to his views in the summer of 2010, going as far as to report him to the LMA for being critical of the players!
On the fact that one of his old players, Stuart, is now manager, Terry feels the experience he picked up in Scotland will stand him in really good stead and that the club is on the up, “I’m a positive person and I think the future for this club is very bright.”
I’ve never before heard Ian Ormondroyd talk about his playing career, and he provided a fascinating insight into how he emerged through the youth ranks to play a part in Terry’s successful City side. Ian was very modest all night, saying he was “not a natural goalscorer” and admitting he did not want to leave for Aston Villa when the club received a big money offer that they couldn’t turn down. He felt City lost its way in the late 80s/early 90s because it moved away from bringing through young players like McCall, and instead signed older players with no ties to the club.
Ian also spoke about his second period at the club under Chris Kamara, revealing that the larger-than-life TV personality mirrored how he was as manager. Ian played a big part in the 1996 promotion season, including setting up the second goal at Wembley. “I’ve never known a game like that, because the feeling in the camp the two days before was that we couldn’t lose that game. There was no way in the world anyone was going to stop us winning that game, and we battered them. It was a fantastic game.”
The club’s Football in the Community officer since 1999, Ian also talked about his perspective on what the club became in the Premier League (Ian was not a fan of Stan Collymore!), the periods of administration, and the more recent cup heroics which he covered as co-commentator on the Pulse.
A lifelong City supporter and author of several books on the club’s history, John talked starkly about the Odsal experience and the battle to get the club back to Valley Parade. The co-founder of the City Gent, John covered the club’s fortunes closely in the 1980s and talked warmly about the wonderful team and the tremendous spirit of that era.
Flash forward to the new millennium and the spells in administration, and John’s working life collided with his personal when he was asked to look over the Bradford City books and assess the viability of the club. An experienced accountant, John confessed he had never seen such an under-performing balance sheet from a business, and talked in general terms about the terrible financial state it was in back then.
You could have heard a pin drop inside the 1911 club at this point in the evening, as everyone listened intently. In John’s opinion, there was no other option than to have sold Valley Parade to the Gordon Gibb family pension fund, and that Julian went above and beyond to save the club. “I said to him in private ‘this is bonkers, you are putting your neck on the line’. But I hold my hat out to him, because if he hadn’t have done what he did do, there would be no football club. I’m not entirely sure I would have done it if I were in Julian’s shoes.”
Signing on a free transfer from Rotherham in 1994 and remaining at Valley Parade for the next 11 years, Jacobs was a key man in the club’s extraordinary late 90s rise to the top. He talked about what Geoffrey Richmond was like as chairman, and the job Kamara and Paul Jewell did as managers.
Asked about the Blackpool play off matches, Wayne revealed that as the players trooped back to the dressing room after the first leg defeat, the Tangerines’ Andy Morrison started taunting them. This fired up the players for the second leg, which – aided famously by the Blackpool programme notes – led to the remarkable 3-0 second leg victory.
On the 1998/99 promotion season, Wayne admitted to having reservations about the signing of Stuart McCall – who up to that point he had never played with – and so watched him very closely in pre-season to check he wasn’t just coming back for a last contract. “I hoped he had more than that in him, and fortunately I very quickly saw his passion and what he was about.”
On that team he said, “Whether Jewell was a genius before his time or simply played players in their best positions I don’t know. We had Beagrie on the left who would play all over the place, Jamie tucked in on the other side, me overlapping Beags, Stuart and Gareth Whalley sitting in front of the back four, Robbie Blake dropping back in the number 10 role, and big Lee Mills on his own up front like a battering ram – it’s not unlike how big clubs play today.”
On becoming a Premier League player, Wayne spoke with pride about the first season and the way the team rallied together to stay up. He shared the story of when John Hartson self-imploded at Valley Parade in a crucial end of season game, fighting with Stuart, Wayne and other players in the tunnel before the match against Wimbledon began.
He explained how Benito Carbone told the other players the story of how he joined the club the year after. Carbone had agreed to sign for Coventry City for a wage of around £26k a week, when his agent rang to say Richmond wanted to speak to him. Carbone said he had already shaken hands on a deal and was a man of his word, but his agent replied “You don’t understand, this man’s crazy. He’s not even going to barter with you, he’s going to give you £42k a week!”
Wayne also talked about Stuart McCall’s first spell as manager, when he was his assistant. He revealed the struggles they experienced over the lack of infrastructure to support them, which included trying to persuade people to work as fitness coaches in return for a free season ticket, as they couldn’t afford to pay for one. He admitted it was a really emotional time for both of them, with them both finding the failure to achieve success difficult to take. He said, “I’m not ashamed to say there were tears in our coaching room at times. It was absolutely gutting.”
The T&A’s Simon Parker has reported on Bradford City for more than 16 years, and he provided a brilliant insight into the chairmen, managers and players who he has reported on over this period. He does a hilarious Geoffrey Richmond impression, and he offered a flavour of the turbulence behind the scenes over the final few years of the chairman’s time in charge.
Simon’s arrival coincided with the club’s sharp decline, and he spoke about the mixed fortunes of having plenty to write about – “there was always something happening but it was always negative”. He cited the club’s relegation to League Two as the low point – “there was a horrible game at Chesterfield where it happened, a really toxic atmosphere” – although the McCall era was tough.
Simon clearly thinks a lot of Stuart, and recalled interviewing him straight after the painful defeat to Dagenham in April 2009 (which meant City weren’t going to make the play offs). Simon ended up turning off his tape recorder after five minutes and then spent half an hour just sat talking to a devastated Stuart. Understandably, he is really pleased that McCall’s return is going so well.
On other managers, Simon felt Peter Taylor was a challenge but good value for providing interesting stories, and that Peter Jackson did a great job keeping City up at such a difficult moment. On more positive times, Simon greatly enjoyed the Parkinson era and cited the Arsenal game as his favourite ever Valley Parade moment. He told a story of how Rory McArdle spent a lot of that game talking to the Arsenal players about how cold it was that evening, and how this helped to demoralise the illustrious Arsenal team, who didn’t fancy it.
Head of Operations James Mason was an engaging listen as he talked about growing up supporting Bradford City, following his passion for journalism, and about taking over from David Baldwin in 2014.
James has seen plenty of good times and played his role in making them happen. For example he spoke about his push to get Valley Parade packed out for the Millwall cup game in January 2015, which had the carrot of Chelsea waiting for the victors. For the first time the club harnessed the power of social media to attract an above-expectations-attendance, helping the Bantams demolish the Lions. He added his fond memories of the Chelsea and Sunderland cup games, and the Tifo displays he orchestrated. James talked passionately about how much he is enjoying his role, and that these are some of his best times supporting Bradford City.
James rightly gave Phil Parkinson a lot of credit for the job he did, but is clearly delighted by how well Stuart McCall is faring. “Stefan, Edin and Stuart are all of the same view that they want to play attractive football, and if there’s an opportunity to win they will go for it. I think Stuart and his backroom staff deserve all the plaudits they are getting.”
In addition to the presenters and panel, a massive thanks goes to Mike Harrison of the City Gent who brought along a DVD of TV news pieces from the 80s, including the reopening of Valley Parade. Katie Whyatt did a great job on the night tweeting updates for Radio Leeds. James Mason was really helpful in making the night happen.
A special thanks especially to Emma Tillotson from Friends of BCFC, who worked really hard with sorting the tickets and logistics of the night.
Most importantly of all – thank you to everyone who came along and made the night so special.
The feedback on the night has been really positive and some have already asked about the next one, so it’s something I will think about.
If you attended and would be interested in going to another later in the season (say next Spring) or didn’t go but might want to next time, please register your interest by sending me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will mail you details first of anything we get off the ground.
To read more about the club’s modern history, my book Reinventing Bradford City is still available to buy and would make an excellent Christmas present – click here to find out more.