By Jason McKeown
On this day 20 years ago, I was a nervous, spotty 16-year-old, up early to do a morning paper round. Outside the newsagents I worked for, I got talking to three friends who told me they were venturing to Bradford City that afternoon. I thought about it all morning and finally, after coaxing from my mum, rang them up and invited myself along.
A bus and train ride later and I was taking in my first ever view inside Valley Parade, from the back of the old Kop stand. It was a life-changing moment. Just like Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch, one intake of the scene in front of me brought overpowering feelings of instant love. I flicked open the programme I had just bought to look up the date of the next fixture. Tranmere in two weeks. I would be there. And the game after that. And after that. In that moment, I became a Bradford City supporter.
That first game was a Division One encounter with West Bromwich Albion which ended 0-0 and yet was anything but boring. Both sides were near the top of the league and played well, with numerous opportunities on goal. The atmosphere was fantastic, boosted by a drummer at the back of the Midland Road stand. Darren Moore instantly stood out as centre back. The well known Gary Walsh was in goal. In midfield the industrious Shaun Murray on one flank and Peter Beagrie the other. Up front Swedish international Robert Steiner, partnered by my first City hero, the Brazilian Edinho.
Up until that day, I was – to my almost sudden embarrassment – a Manchester United fan. I had no connection with the city, save for my parents and grandparents being born and bred in Manchester. As a kid I was dissuaded from the sport by my football-hating dad, and only caught the bug in 1994 after watching the USA World Cup. I needed a club to support. Manchester United were the best team in the country then. Go figure.
But after 90 minutes of raw live excitement stood inside Valley Parade, I instantly knew how hollow and futile the armchair fan existence was. I know plenty of City fans had a similar introduction to football and retain affection for their top flight team, but I honestly have none towards Old Trafford. They annoy me as much as they do all right-minded football fans. I knew no better, but still question what on earth I was thinking.
So down came the posters of Eric Cantona, and up went pictures of Edino, Nigel Pepper, Jamie Lawrence and Eddie Youds. I was present for the next home game – a 1-0 defeat to Tranmere – and in game three finally saw my first goals and City victory, as a Rob Steiner double earned a 2-1 win over Norwich (the visiting goal scored by a certain Craig Bellamy).
Football and life at Valley Parade was very different back in 1997. The Kop was at the time Britain’s largest remaining terrace. I absolutely loved standing on it in a regular spot near the front, to the right of the goal. Me and my friends got friendly with people around us. It was a community that you just don’t quite get anymore. And as much as I love the current two-tier seated Kop, if there is one thing I could change about the club it would be to restore the terraces as they were.
City were playing in shirts produced by Beaver. There were no squad numbers, with players from both teams decked out in numbers 1-11. Only three substitutes too. No board to tell you how much injury time there would be. As well as the Kop being a terrace, the main stand had only one tier and there was a gap where the North West Corner stand is now situated, enabling you a glimpse of the pitch as you made your way to the Kop turnstiles before kick off.
TV coverage consisted of the brilliant Goals on Sunday on Yorkshire TV, or the middle of-the-night Nationwide League Extra if you videoed it. The internet was in its infancy and certainly not a way to follow the club. You had to buy the Telegraph & Argus or the City Gent for Bradford City content.
We went to nearly every home game for the remainder of that season, and my first away match was a 2-0 FA Cup third round defeat to Man City at Maine Road, which got Chris Kamara the sack. We also travelled to Sheffield United, Norwich and Crewe Alexandra that season. The 5-0 defeat to the Alex has retained notoriety as one of the worst Bradford City performances of all time. It was certainly hardship by my inexperienced standards.
At the end of that season I sat my GCSEs, before the glorious era of 1998-2000 was played out whilst I completed sixth form. My first ever season ticket cost £66 and coincided with promotion to the Premier League. It was an astonishing season from start to finish, as a team of genuine heroes triumphed in front of our eyes. The return home of Stuart McCall, who quickly won over a new generation of fans like me. The brilliance of Beagrie, Robbie Blake, Lee Mills, Gareth Whalley, Lawrence, John Dreyer, Moore, Andy O’Brien, Wayne Jacobs and Walsh.
The football was outstanding. A thrilling season climaxing in an incredible victory at Wolves that I and 3,000 other City fans were fortunate to be at. The promised land was reached.
As a relatively young person myself, I looked up to that 1999 team so much. After a 4-1 thumping of Norwich during the run-in we even met them all after waiting outside the dressing room at full time to collect autographs. Our clumsy small talk with Paul Jewell and Lee Mills must have been awkward to endure on their part, but meant the world to us.
Being part of the Premier League was surreal but elating. The atmosphere went up another notch. The entertainment was immense. The game is played at a much quicker pace, and some world class players demonstrated their value. But City competed at times. We attended almost every game – home and away – especially after Christmas. The thrill of turning around a hopeless situation with victory at Sunderland on Easter Monday only eclipsed by the last day win over Liverpool that ensured survival.
At that point I moved away to Sunderland University for three years, and it all fell apart at Valley Parade. Relegation from the Premier League, and 12 months later administration. It was strange to watch from a distance, although University was such a blast I quickly learned to accept only rarely getting to games. In hindsight I enjoyed myself too much, emerging with a mediocre journalism degree and a thinbare CV. The world of job hunting is an unforgiving arena, and tough times laid ahead.
Returning to watch City on a regular basis again was poorly timed. The 2003/04 season is the worst I’ve ever experienced, as the Bantams fell to another relegation and another bout of administration. As they attempted to get going again over 2004-early 2006, my own attendance was hampered by being so poor from job hunting and the costs of getting married at a young age. Living in Skipton and not being able to go to home games just down the road was as tortuous as it gets. Even though I didn’t evidently miss much over this period.
In 2005 things started to change as I finally got a writing job. My wife Rachel eventually started to enjoy going to games after a rocky start of City being awful every time she came, and since 2006 we’ve been season ticket holders once again. For a few years we swapped the Kop for the Midland Road, but the atmosphere just wasn’t the same. Returning to the Kop in 2011 was overdue and provided a much louder backing track to the glory that followed.
With a decent wage coming in after becoming a copywriter in 2010, and for a time no kids, City became an all-consuming, affordable hobby between 2007 and 2013. I travelled all over the country watching them, often with painful results. City were largely poor over this period, playing in the bottom tier of course. But I have fond memories of trips to the likes of Morecambe, Accrington, Macclesfield, Oxford, Luton, Wycombe, Barnet and Dagenham. I was there for the club during some of its darkest hours. I earned my stripes.
Eventually success returned, with the club’s rise since 2012 well-documented. It is not the same as 1998-2000 in the sense that I’m now older and so my perspective is different. The class of 2013 will be long celebrated but I was too old to hero worship them and too experienced to overlook the fact they were still mortals. Gary Jones was the last prominent Bradford City player who was older than me when he took to the field. I’m four years older than the current club captain, Romain Vincelot.
In the summer of 2013 I became a dad, and that curtailed my commitment levels and probably will continue do so for years to come. But whilst it is sad to miss out on away trips like Portsmouth, missing out on time with the family would be worse. I now have two daughters and everyone older and wiser keeps telling me to enjoy this period while they are young, as you will never get it back.
Besides, my eldest – Georgina – has now attended 12 City games since her induction against Scunthorpe last season. She’s not once hated the experience, fallen asleep or begged to go home. She doesn’t fully understand what’s going on, and can be scared when City score and everyone roars, but she follows the action and enjoys her trips out to Valley Parade with her dad. Promising signs that she can develop into a genuine football fan. This year she has a season ticket and has only missed two home games so far.
The last 20 years have seen so much drama and excitement. The most memorable games I’ve attended are all the obvious ones – Barnsley at home in 1998, Wolves away 1999. Arsenal and Liverpool home in 2000. The Benito Carbone-inspired 5-1 thrashing of Gillingham in 2001. The Bryan Robson-led 3-2 victory over Millwall in 2003. Lincoln City away in 2007/08, when nearly a thousand of us produced one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever experienced. Arsenal, Aston Villa (twice), Burton and Northampton in 2012/13. Leeds United in 2014 – that Billy Knott goal never gets old. Sunderland in the FA Cup in 2015. Last season’s victory at Northampton – one of Georgina’s first games.
Aside from Edinho and the class of 1998/99, my favourite City players include David Wetherall for his dedication, and Dean Windass’ second spell where he was a class above every other player on the pitch. Benito Carbone was the most talented player I’ve ever seen (my personal favourite Beni moment was when he ripped Lee Dixon to shreds). The Colin Todd-led Jamaican revolution was fun, and I retain soft spots for Omar Daley and Donovan Ricketts. Peter Thorne was a wonderful talent. Gary Jones and the deadly strike partnership of James Hanson and Nahki Wells also merit a mention. Mark Marshall was a joy to watch last season.
When we were kids, I would often flick through my Leeds United-supporting brother’s club magazine, which had a regular interview feature with supporters that included two questions I loved – which game do you regret missing, and which game do you wish you had missed? For the regret missing, Chelsea is the obvious answer for me. I could have gone, but put family first and went to the zoo instead. The miracle at Stamford Bridge was a bittersweet moment.
As for game I wish I had missed, it’s much tougher to answer. Defeats can really, really hurt and watching a forlorn-looking Stuart McCall come to away fans to apologise at Dagenham away in April 2009 was as horrible as it gets. But I always believe that enduring misery makes the moments of glory even more special.
But what I have disliked is when the football got really, really boring, and even if City won it wasn’t much of a consolation. So the final few weeks of Peter Taylor – the Stockport finale aside – were certainly a waste of everyone’s time. I also thought parts of Phil Parkinson’s final season – when he went utterly pragmatic – proved a test of endurance. That said, no one can ever take away what a wonderful job Parkinson did for us.
Supporting City – and writing about the club for the last 14 years – continues to be an incredible ride. I might be a fully fledged adult now, with kids, a mortgage and a full-on job, but I still waste far too much of my days daydreaming about goings on at Valley Parade. My weekend mood can still be dictated by the level of competence displayed by 11 players in claret and amber. When City score, I go just as crazy as I did when I was 16.
Ever since that life-changing day of 1 November 1997, I have wanted to say that I have supported Bradford City for at least 20 years. Health willing and all that, this is still only the beginnings of a lifetime of dedication. I’m City till I die, and I couldn’t be prouder to be amongst this wonderful community of supporters, fighting together for this noble cause.