By Jason McKeown
The final whistle had long gone. The season – effectively over by February – was coming to an end. And yet a couple of thousands of us City supporters were still there, weirdly prolonging our own pain.
Stoke City had just defeated Bradford City 2-0 at Valley Parade, to finish off a dreadful 2003/04 home campaign where they only won six times in front of their own supporters. The club, in administration, had been relegated to League One, and were facing a hugely uncertain future. The players had under-performed and failed to come close to overcoming considerable odds.
And yet many of us stayed behind at full time, ready for the traditional end of season lap of appreciation. The players assumed we’d all gone home and didn’t come out. The minutes kept ticking by, and our frustration grew. The players were keeping us waiting to give them an ovation they didn’t even deserve. Eventually someone told them what was going on outside. They sheepishly reemerged from the dressing room to take the hollow applause.
That was the farcical way that the last Second Tier game at Valley Parade ended, 13 years ago. The club had spent nearly a decade playing in the top two divisions, enjoying thrilling times and scaling modern day heights, before the big financial crash. The 2003/04 season was City’s centenary year, but celebrations were put on hold as the club spent the campaign slumped in the relegation zone and fell back into administration.
Nicky Law was sacked after 12 winless games. His replacement Bryan Robson fared little better. A £750 per week wage cap meant neither manager could bring in the quality players that were needed. The chairman Gordon Gibb resigned, and then had a very public spat with Julian Rhodes. Relegation was eventually confirmed by a pathetic home defeat to bottom club Wimbledon. The club looked set to go out of existence.
They survived that summer. But this was a huge price to pay for the financial recklessness of 2000. Bradford City, so progressive in the 1990s, bowed out of the Second Tier in the most miserable fashion imaginable. It has proven to be a long, long journey back.
For 13 years, City have remained in the bottom two divisions. Below the Championship, which is widely considered their natural level. Valley Parade is the 36th biggest ground of the 92, and attendances this season are the 32nd highest in the top four divisions. On paper, City should not have spent the last 13 years making regular trips to Accrington, Yeovil, Morecambe and Rochdale – even though there are financially driven reasons for such underachievement.
Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp want to take Bradford City to the Premier League. It’s debatable whether we supporters agree with that aim. The top flight is out of touch with reality, and the noncompetitive nature of the division means City could never hope to do more than just survive in it. But playing back in the Championship is an ambition we all aspire to realise. The greater glory and prestige that comes with this status is something we all want to taste again.
Through the dark times that followed 2004’s relegation, that Championship dream has been clung onto. Even when it seemed like a million miles away, as we spent Saturday afternoons in shabby away ends at Barnet and Dagenham, we kept hoping for a dramatic change back up the ladder. The club’s rise and rise since 2012 has been outstanding, but its big finale is always getting to the Championship. The journey has been wonderful, and now we’re closer than ever to reaching our destination.
Over the last 17 years we have endured misery and heartache; and along the way learned some incredibly painful lessons. We have sunk to the lowest level in the club’s history since the 1960s, hovered over the trapdoor to non-league obscurity, and now we have come back fighting.
The fanbase is stronger. The infrastructure of the football club has been torn down and rebuilt. The owners have a strategy for the next level. The time is ripe for City to return to the Championship.
It won’t be easy on Saturday, but the prize on offer is massive. The financial rewards could change everything for the club. The next chapter in Bradford City history could be defined by these next 90 minutes.
Defeat and it’s back to entertaining Fleetwood, Oldham, Walsall, Bristol Rovers, MK Dons, Gillingham and Shrewsbury for another season. Win, and City will host league fixtures against Middlesbrough, Sunderland, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Derby County and Norwich City.
Back to where the club once was. A full recovery from the financial nightmare of 2002-2004. The confidence and belief has soared over recent weeks. The mood is buoyant after Fleetwood.
Win at Wembley, and the lap of appreciation that the players receive will be something else.
Categories: The 2016/17 play offs