By Jason McKeown
It will take a lot more trips to Wembley before the novelty of going wears off.
The huge sense of occasion, the massive prize always involved, and the relatively huge build up that sweeps through the district. Years of mediocrity and underachievement have taught us harsh lessons in the importance of savouring the moment. Three visits in four years maybe; but more tellingly this was only a fourth Wembley trip in the club’s 114-year history. You don’t take days like this for granted.
Watching your entire fanbase decamp 200 miles to London is extraordinary. Whether its train, supporter coach or car, the community feel of being part of a mass emigration South for the weekend feels really special. On the M1 it seemed that every other vehicle contained Bradford City fans. Scarfs draped across the boot parcel shelf, or hanging outside the car window. Flags and stickers on the front and back. Coaches full of people decked out in claret and amber.
It was a takeover of the roads, best illustrated by packed out service stations. At Watford Gap people in yellow bibs were on traffic control, helping people find a parking bay with demand exceeding supply. An enterprising couple had set up a stall outside the main service station building, selling Bantams hats, flags and airhorns. Inside, the building was awash with City colours. “We’re on our way” was chanted in the car park.
It was the same story at other service stations along the way; and as we parked up close to Wembley City fans initially vastly outnumbered their Millwall counterparts. Indeed it was only an hour before kick off that cockney voices and blue and white shirts significantly grew in number. For Millwall Wembley was no less special, but it was only a short skip across London. An afternoon, rather than day, out.
Having done Fleetwood away in the play offs with the lads, this was a family occasion for me. My wife and my 3-year-old daughter, Georgina, plus a friend and his 5-year-old girl. The four hour journey in the car tests the patience of the best of us, but both kids coped really well and enhanced rather than hindered the day.
I was really proud to take my little girl. Georgina’s first game had only been five months ago; the Boxing Day visit of Scunthorpe. A forgettable 0-0 draw, but she enjoyed the sights and sounds of Valley Parade enough to want to go back. I’ve taken her a further five times including a couple of away games. We go to football training in Keighley Saturday mornings, which she loves. Georgina enjoys playing football in the park, singing City songs in the bath, and Mark Marshall is her hero. She likes to pretend to be Elsa from Frozen and Belle from Beauty and the Beast, but she also pretends to be City’s number 7.
It’s easy to sneer at Wembley for the mass-commercialisation and eye-watering prices, but they definitely do a massive amount for kids. A playground next to the City fans park was a welcome bonus. On the concourse at half time we found not only the usual hot food on sale but a pick and mix sweet stall and a popcorn vendor. It wasn’t a cheap day, and three-year-olds have a special talent of wasting expensive food, but the facilities added to the day out.
The game itself was a typical Wembley final. Tight, cagey, and with only a handful of decisive moments. Billy Clarke forced a brilliant save from Jordan Archer, but he took one too many touches and probably should have scored. Rory McArdle couldn’t make the most of two big headed chances. Deep in stoppage time, Tony McMahon hit the side netting when he should have squared the ball for a Timothee Dieng tap-in.
It was a nerve-wracking, tense game to watch, but our kids stuck with it in the second half especially. When Millwall scored the celebrations were confusing to them, but they joined in with roaring on the team in their vain attempts to come back.
Georgina was confused by the scenes at full time, as the City players slumped to the floor and the other team went wild. “Why are they sad daddy?” I tried my best to explain that our players were sad because they had lost the game and the other team had won the big shiny cup that we saw before the match. I added that our team had tried their best and we should be proud of them and give them a clap. My friend’s daughter understood what defeat meant better and burst into tears.
Just as we headed to go home, Georgina asked that we go down to see Marshall, so we headed to the front row and right by the devastated-looking City players, who were slumped on the pitch watching Millwall go up the steps to collect the trophy. Tony McMahon was the last City player to head to the dressing room. He looked every inch a man who will be haunted all summer.
As we turned and left, the City end was empty save for the odd person sat by themselves, deep in their own thoughts. The sense of collective pain we all felt inside and outside the ground after the game was palpable. Football is such an incredibly emotional game, but losing in these circumstances is as raw as it gets. The feeling of misery compounded by torturing yourself by going over the what ifs and maybes. It was such an even game, although Millwall did come on strong in those final 20 minutes. Still, I don’t think we deserved to lose.
The one consolation was that it is a long time since I have felt this low watching City. That just shows what a brilliant few years this has been following the club, where the positives have far outweighed the set backs. This season has been an absolute joy. The return of Stuart McCall, the more adventurous football, the continued great atmosphere around the club, and – for me – bringing my young ‘un into the Bantams fold.
As a parent you don’t have long to wallow in self-pity. Within half an hour of leaving, we’re crawling in traffic towards the M1 and the two kids are singing “Let it go” in the back. They’ve had a great day, and we’ve all enjoyed ourselves too. It will take a long time for me personally to get over this defeat, but each and every one of us had been respectful and fearful of the strengths of Millwall. It wasn’t a shock to lose, even though it was an utterly heart-breaking experience.
The club will have to pick themselves up and go again next season. Nothing daft should happen in the inquest. Stuart McCall should be entrusted to pick up the pieces and work with the transfer committee to rebuild. Players like Rory McArdle, Mark Marshall, James Meredith and Tony McMahon should be offered new contracts to stay. Josh Cullen won’t be back, but the club can find creativity and drive from other sources.
League One will be strong next season but not any more difficult than this. The three relegated teams are weaker than the three who have gone up. Three of the four newly promoted sides could be forces at this level, but will need time to adjust. All season long the narrative has been that City have done well despite the handicap of last summer’s major changes. Well there’s no reason to go through that again. We are strong now and can be stronger come August.
A push for automatic promotion has to be the target for a club with a recently acquired culture of self-improvement. The third chapter of Bantams Progressivism need not end here. The disappointment and misery of Saturday has to be channelled in a positive way. We’re so close to Championship football. We go again in August.
Finishing in the top two feels like an achievable target, but even if it’s play offs again the experience of this season can help us like it did Millwall. Another trip to Wembley a year from now, and the opportunity to put ghosts to bed, is still an enticing proposition. It will be a long time before we get bored of days like this.