By Nikhil Vekaria
What has made the current era so special, is what came before it. I first fell in love with football when my dad took me to Stuart McCall’s testimonial back in 2002. I was only four years old at the time and despite the fact I spent most of the game looking over in awe at the 10,000 travelling Rangers fans, I managed to convince him to take me back again.
I vaguely remember attending the final game of that season, when Portsmouth ran riot on the Valley Parade turf and put five past a City side who by that time, were on the decline.
However, my dad was so delighted that I’d chosen to support my local team that for the next season, 2003/04, we bought a season ticket together for the first time.
I have been in love with City and football in general ever since, although for the first decade or so that I supported the club, success was hard to come by. City suffered two relegations and even flirted with dropping out of the league altogether on a number of occasions.
For much of my ‘childhood’, I remember Valley Parade being a relatively bleak place to visit. Attendances weren’t anywhere near what they are today, the teams on field performances tended to be pretty awful and all the optimism seemed to have been sucked out of the Bantams faithful.
However, that all changed in the 2012/13 season, when the third era of Bantams Progressivism began…
2012/13: the beginning of the latest era…
Back at the start of the 2012/2013 season, I had just began Year 11. I think in all my time following City, it was probably the first time that I was quietly optimistic before the start of a campaign. Although we had finished 18th in League Two the year before, Phil Parkinson had taken us on a decent cup run in the then JPT, defeating both Sheffield clubs and Huddersfield on the way to a Northern semi-final appearance.
Parkinson’s side seemed to have a bit more about them than those of previous seasons, and in Nahki Wells, City had a striker who looked full of potential.
We had a decent, albeit not sensational, start to their league campaign. A 3-1 defeat at Gillingham on the opening day and a 4-0 defeat at Rotherham in the clubs first ever trip to the New York Stadium marked the first two away trips of the season, but the Bantams won both their opening home games, including a 5-1 win over AFC Wimbledon.
However, the stand out result from the start of the season came as City picked up a 2-1 victory at then Championship side Watford in the second round of the Capital One Cup. Not only was the result itself impressive, but the nature of it. City had come from 1-0 down with just over five minutes remaining, as goals from Kyel Reid and Garry Thompson sealed the win and a place in the third round.
As ridiculous as it seems now, it was probably one of the best results the club had achieved over the past few years, and proved that this side had something a lot of City teams that’d come before it lacked; character.
Suddenly, the club found itself into the third round of the League Cup. Although it wasn’t something to quite make fans believe that this season would be anything particularly special, City were fourth in the league by the time the game came around in late September and had experienced one of their best starts for a good few years.
And this is where many would argue that the magic of that season truly began. I remember being at school that day and even my mates who weren’t big City fans had decided to come along to the game that evening, against Burton Albion.
Now it might have had something to do with cheap tickets and the fact that people wanted to better their chances of getting a ticket if we faced a big club in the next round, but it stands out in my mind as the first time in my life that people who weren’t necessarily City fans were so up for coming to Valley Parade for a game.
Despite an attendance of just over 4,000, it felt like most of my school year were stood at the top of the Kop that evening, as City went into a game that they would probably expect to win.
However, at 2-0 down to a team in the same division (Burton), it appeared we’d blown a superb opportunity to reach the last 16 of a major cup, something which would’ve been pretty much unthinkable just a year before.
This City team had character though; two goals from Nahki Wells and a long-range winner from Stephen Darby took us through to the last 16.
I remember being fairly disappointed when we drew Wigan away in the last 16, as it was a game I thought we’d probably lose, and I wanted the chance to see City play one of the ‘big boys’.
My main memory of that game is arriving late due to terrible traffic and having to hotfoot it to the ground from a random parking spot we’d found, although I still missed the opening 10 minutes or so.
However, my initial disappointment at the draw turned to absolute ecstasy when City won on penalties, and Matt Duke running the length of the pitch to celebrate in front of the City fans is something that will live long in the memory.
The cup run had almost distracted from what had been a decent start to the league season, with City claiming seven wins from their first 15 games.
That distraction felt even greater when City were drawn to host giants Arsenal in the quarter-finals. By this time, I’d spent around a decade following the club and I can’t remember a game ever having as much build up as this one, whether it be amongst my mates at school or in the city.
Walking into Valley Parade that night, hearing the stadium announcer reel off a list of internationals, I didn’t really give us a chance.
Around two hours later, I’d witnessed what was at that point, my greatest night following City. Thomas Vermaelen hitting that post is something I shall never forget.
We were in the last four.
However, it wasn’t just in the cup which City were performing. Phil Parkinson had said at the end of the season before that he believed the club could have a real promotion push in 2012/13, and he was being proved correct.
The Bantams went into the Arsenal game in 4th place in League Two and for the first time in my life, we looked like genuine play off contenders come Christmas.
By the semi-final against Villa, City had fallen off a little, dropping to eighth in the league and out of the play offs.
In fact, the club would go six games without a league win from late December to early February, which saw them drop down to 12th.
But in the middle of that run, two games happened which would change the history of the club.
On January 8 2013, City beat Villa 3-1 at Valley Parade. Two weeks later, James Hanson scored the goal at Villa Park which made City the first fourth tier club to reach a major cup final since Rochdale in the 1960s.
That evening in Birmingham is one that I’ll never forget. I had a GCSE Chemistry exam in the morning and came down in the car with my mate’s mum, before meeting my dad down at Villa.
For someone who’d supported City for a large proportion of my life, the moment that James Hanson’s header hit the back of the net made years of following the club worth it – it was our night.
City would go on to lose 5-0 in the final against Swansea, but to watch the club I’d loved since I was a boy walk out at Wembley was certainly the best moment I’d had following football.
Never have I felt so proud in a football stadium, even at five goals down.
Three months later though, City would walk out onto the Wembley turf again and earn promotion to the third tier. A superb run of form after the League Cup Final saw us lose just twice until the end of the season and sneak into seventh place.
After a 3-2 home defeat to Burton in the first leg of the play off semi-final, City were in trouble.
That still didn’t put me off queuing for the away leg and that infamous Burton queue was one of the strangest experiences of my life. Sat in the concourse of the main stand on a camping chair, whilst people drank, sang and slept around us. It was worth it.
With the return of the previously suspended Andrew Davies in the second leg, who gave what is still one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a City shirt, goals from Nahki Wells (2) and James Hanson led the Bantams to Wembley for the second time in one season.
Just months later, on the same turf, City put right the wrongs of the League Cup final as they terrorised a Northampton side who simply couldn’t deal with them. Three first half goals from Rory McArdle, James Hanson and Nahki Wells meant that The Bantams were promoted – for the first time in my experience of watching the club.
2013/14- 2015/16: Progression
The next three seasons marked a real era of Bantams Progressivism. After promotion, the club comfortably survived in League One and despite a long run from late November to mid to late February without a win, ended the season in 11th place, without ever looking in any real danger.
Attendances gradually increased too, with the club now often hitting the 13,000+ mark for home games. For the first time in a long time, it felt like the club could be going places.
The next season, 2014/15, saw City improve even more, finishing the season in seventh, just four points off the play-offs. It also saw Parkinson’s men go on another stunning cup run and reach the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, as well as recording a stunning comeback win over rivals Leeds United in the second round of the League Cup.
In my time watching City, that win over Leeds is one of my favourite ever games. To beat your arch rivals for the first time in your life is something special; to do it from 1-0 down with five minutes left is something else.
I still believe that if we hadn’t had the FA Cup run that season, we’d have reached the play offs.
However, the memories it gave me as a supporter will stay with me forever. The comeback victory at Chelsea, which surely is the greatest cup shock of all time, playing Premier League Sunderland off the park at Valley Parade on a pitch so bad it was hilarious and the bloke doing front-flips in front of the away end at Reading.
Now, being in my second year at University, I think it is that cup run which put City back on the map. When I mention I support Bradford, it tends to be the Chelsea game which gets people talking. I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated a goal as much as Filipe Morais’ equaliser, but playing a Premier League side off the park in the next round was just as special.
Looking back, the game at Halifax Town in the first round of that FA cup run had as big an impact in this third era of Bantam Progressivism as any other. A poor run of league form saw City go into the game in 14th place and it appeared that Parkinson’s job was under threat.
However, two second half goals dragged City through and this was followed by a seven game unbeaten run which saw us move up to fifth.
Juggling the FA Cup and the league ultimately saw City finish the season in seventh, four points short of sixth. This was another season of improvement however, and The Bantams went into the 15/16 campaign looking like real play off contenders.
High expectations would proven correct, as City finished in fifth place, despite a poor start which saw us not win until our fifth game of the season.
However, from mid February, City lost just two games out of 17 and rose from mid-table to fifth.
Personally, it was probably one of the first periods in my life (bar a year I spent living in Australia) where I didn’t see City play that much, due to being in my first year at University. When I did however, I was impressed by our ability to scrape out wins whilst not playing particularly well and I was confident of us turning over Millwall in the play offs.
However, a first half capitulation at Valley Parade which saw us concede three before the break left us with too much to do in the return leg and for the first time in this era of bantam progressivism, City suffered a major setback: play off heartache.
Looking back, it might’ve been for the best for City to not actually earn promotion that season. That night at Millwall was one of the fiercest atmospheres I’ve ever experienced. I felt nothing but pride come full-time for what had been a superb season, but it didn’t make it hurt any less.
2016-17 onwards: A different era of progressivism?
By the start of this season, City had seen four years of successive progression, which had seen us visit Wembley twice, beat five Premier League clubs and move from League Two strugglers to genuine League One play off contenders.
All was well. Or so it seemed. On June 9th last year, City were dealt a hammer blow. Shortly after changing ownership and being taken over by German businessmen Stefan Rupp and Edin Rahic, Phil Parkinson, the man who had led City through this period of Progressivism moved over the Pennines to League One rivals Bolton.
Just months before the new season began, City were left with no manager, hardly any backroom staff, a threadbare squad. Rupp and Rahic had been thrown into the deep end.
When they turned to Stuart McCall, it must be admitted, there was a fair bit of apprehension amongst supporters. McCall is a City icon, a man who is universally loved by the fans and someone who we’d love to see succeed more than anyone else.
However, his first managerial spell in charge of the club hadn’t ended the way anyone wanted it too, with McCall leaving, unable to deal with the stress of the job.
This time though, it would be different. Although City had lost a lot of players, we’d still managed to keep hold of a core of experienced professionals and this, coupled with some clever acquisitions meant that we entered the season with a strong side.
January saw another big change, as James Hanson swapped claret and amber for the red and white of Yorkshire rivals and eventual champions Sheffield United.
I was never really Hanson’s biggest fan in a footballing sense, but his departure felt like the end of a personal era of following City. He’d led the line for the club for much of my childhood and gave me some great moments, with his goals at Villa and Burton standing out in particular.
It was fitting that his final goal for the club came against Northampton on the night that Valley Parade remembered Bobby Campbell.
However, this move felt like it was the best for both parties and the money was well reinvested with the signings of Alex Jones and Charlie Wyke helping City solve some of the goal scoring issues which had been prominent earlier in the season.
Despite a turbulent summer, City had progressed yet again; finishing in fifth for the second year in a row and going an entire season unbeaten at Valley Parade.
The standard of football had been excellent throughout the season, with 18,000 season ticket holders being treated to an attacking, exciting brand.
That’s around 10,000 more than the 2012/13 season when this latest era of Bantam Progressivism began, helped by the £149 season tickets introduced by Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes and carried on by Rupp and Rahic.
The play offs would pit City against Fleetwood Town and Uwe Rosler, a man so many had expected to take over City after Parkinson’s departure to Bolton.
This year, we wouldn’t crumble under the pressure. Although a dominant home performance only saw The Bantams record a 1-0 victory, that would be enough to take the club to Wembley for the third time in just over four years, as City played out a 0-0 at Highbury.
And here we are. Since 2012/13, City have given me moments I couldn’t have dreamed of when I fell in love with the club as a kid. Arsenal, Villa, Burton, Leeds, Chelsea, Sunderland; the list goes on.
Now we stand on the brink of the second tier for the first time since 2003/04.
When City walk out at the home of football on Saturday, it will mark an era of Bantams Progressivism which has seen the club rise from battling relegation in League Two to three Wembley trips in just over four years.
Whatever happens on that pitch, it would take a brave man to bet against this era of Progressivism continuing, as under Rupp, Rahic and McCall, City look in good hands both on and off the pitch.
Play off final: Width of a Post build-up
Pushing back to where we belong by Jason McKeown
The first era of Bantam Progressivism, 1981-88 by John Dewhirst
Speaking to James Mason by Jason McKeown
The second era of Bantam Progressivism, 1995-00 by Kieran Wilkinson
Bradford City’s 1996 play off final remembered by John Dewhirst
Categories: The 2016/17 play offs