By Jason McKeown
It’s incredible to think that it’s 20 years ago this week that Bradford City defeated Wolves to seal promotion to the Premier League. Given the grim modern-day struggles of the club, such halcyon days feel eerily distant. As though they happened in another lifetime.
But in the blink of any eye I can still vividly remember my view at Molineux Stadium on Sunday 9 May 1999, in the lower tier of the side stand, level with the goal frame that Paul Simpson would rattle with that thunderous free kick. I can still feel that knot in my stomach as nerves paralysed me during those final stages. From my angle, Simpson’s free kick flew past City keeper Gary Walsh and was destined to nestle in the back of the net. Amazingly, it bounced back off the woodwork.
Promotion sealed by the tightest of the margins. By the width of a post. A good name for a website, that.
The final whistle that eventually followed was a truly hedonistic, wildly celebrated moment. I can remember dancing and hugging with strangers on the gangway steps. Singing myself hoarse. Jumping up and down for what seemed like hours. Lauding the players as they jigged on the pitch in front of us. Incredible scenes that you wanted to bottle up forever. The greatest moment of my time as a Bradford City supporter.
It was a feeling that will never be beaten as a football fan. For sure, Bradford City might one day make it back to the Premier League again. But it’s unlikely to feel as unique and special as May 1999. It had been 77 years since the Bantams had last played in the top flight. There were few City fans, if any, who were still alive to remember it. In those near eight decades, football had irrevocably shifted and it seemed City were destined to be lower league underachievers forever. The formation of the Premier League in 1992 only reinforced this. Those at the top were closing the drawbridge on everyone else. And that was that.
Part of the glee at Molineux on Sunday 9 May 1999 was in realising City had scaled new heights. They smashed through the glass ceiling. And as a club, no one knew just what would happen next. The opportunity in front of us was so big you couldn’t grasp its full enormity. The only comparable moment since was at Villa Park on Tuesday 22 January 2013, celebrating the fourth-tier Bantams astonishingly reach a major cup final.
That day at Wolves was one of the greatest of my life. Getting married, having kids – they’re obviously wonderful moments too. But it was a very different sensation at Molineux. Something to be treasured forever.
It was an incredible finale to a quite wonderful season for Bradford City. They famously recovered from a poor start to shock everyone by challenging for automatic promotion. A quite brilliant football team that combined flair and adventure with grit and structure. They were expertly managed by Paul Jewell, who built a team full of quality and determination. There were leaders everywhere. Character was in abundance. And it took the club a long way.
That said, it would be wrong to claim that promotion came from nowhere. In January 1994 and with City muddling in third tier mid-table, the Scarborough chairman Geoffrey Richmond engineered a swap deal with David Simpson that saw him take the reins at Valley Parade. At his first supporters meeting, Richmond famously declared City would be knocking on the door of the Premier League in five years’ time. That no one believed him didn’t matter a jot. Richmond had a plan and an unquenchable drive to deliver it.
After a couple of false dawns, City were promoted to the second tier in 1996 via a first Wembley appearance in the club’s history. They narrowly survived relegation a year later, and over 1997/98 seemed to be edging up towards being a top half team. Chris Kamara, the manager of the 1996 promotion, was a popular figure with supporters and players alike.
But after a poor run of form, in January 1998 Richmond sacked Kamara. It sent shockwaves around the footballing world. City were 11th – 10 places better off than the season before. Fans were split about the dismissal; albeit recent results were fuelling rising dissatisfaction. It put Richmond under pressure, as he was raising the stakes. Kamara’s replacement, Jewell, seemed to be a stop gap until the end of the season. City finished 13th, losing four of their last five games. The sacking of Kamara had brought no improvement.
To everyone’s surprise, Richmond gave Jewell a two-year deal to stay on. He had seen something in Jewell that most supporters had not. Jewell recalls just how badly the news was received, “I was very unpopular with Bradford City supporters. I remember sitting in Geoffrey’s office and he took a phone call from this guy who said to him that he and his three mates would never come to a game again if they gave me the job.”
Jewell wasn’t naive about the situation, having become used to Richmond’s over-bearing style. “I know why Geoffrey gave me it. He didn’t want a Joe Royle coming in. He wanted someone he could control to a large extent. He tried to pick the team, he tried to do things. I couldn’t tell him to f**k off, because I’d be out the door. I had to do cleverer things than that. I had to massage his ego to a large extent, but never allow him to affect my thoughts on football.”
With the extra financial clout of the Rhodes family – who, after coming on board the summer before, borrowed and injected an extra £4 million – Jewell was handed a huge transfer budget. Bradford City – viewed outside the city as one of the smaller clubs in Division One – were the division’s big spenders. They broke their transfer record twice in a matter of days. Julian Rhodes explains, “My dad and Geoffrey borrowed the money off a bank, and the backstop was my dad put up his Filtronic shares to secure the loan.
“At the time, the money put in to fund the promotion push wasn’t a huge proportion of my dad’s wealth, really. It was a gamble, but it was one he was comfortable to take for a club he had supported for a long time. To be fair to Geoffrey, and Paul Jewell, they spent it wisely, didn’t they?”
Indeed. Lee Mills, the first £1 million player in the club’s history, would go on to score 25 goals. He was strong in the air and clever with the ball at his feet. A powerful forward. Gareth Whalley, a £650,000 arrival from Crewe, was a cultured central midfielder who became one of the team’s most creative forces. Stephen Wright, a free transfer from Rangers, was a dependable right back. Ashley Westwood, another signing from Crewe (costing £150,000) competed well at centre back. Lee Todd, a £250,000 left back from Southampton, and Isaiah Rankin, a £1.3 million buy from Arsenal, were less effective. But they played their part.
On club record buy Rankin Jewell recalls, “I wanted to buy Isaiah Rankin for £50k when I was caretaker. I watched him at Highbury in a reserve match, and I sent someone to watch him at Wimbledon. He was quick. Geoffrey wanted big names. But all of a sudden Arsene Wenger picked up the phone to Geoffrey, told him how good Isaiah was, and he went and paid £1.3 million for him!”
But arguably the most significant summer signing of all was Stuart McCall. The ginger-haired midfielder had emerged through the City youth ranks in the early 80s, writing himself into Bantams folklore with season-after-season of terrific displays during the first era of Bantam Progressivism. He eventually left for top flight Everton in 1988, following the heartbreak of the nearly season failed promotion bid. After Everton, McCall moved to Rangers, playing a key role in their famous nine-in-a-row side. McCall was also capped 40 times for Scotland, playing in World Cups and European Championships.
In 1998, McCall was 34 and told he could move on from Rangers. He was on his way to Barnsley to have talks with Danny Wilson, when out of the blue he got a call from City. McCall recalls, “With no disrespect to Barnsley, or any of the other clubs interested in me at the time, I really wanted to come back to Bradford, but nothing had been mentioned.”
It was an inspired move. Many feared the second coming of McCall risked weakening his legendary status – Peter Jackson, another hero of the 80s, had returned for a second spell at Valley Parade that went sour. And given McCall was a year older than Jewell, conspiracy theories abounded that Stuart would soon be installed in the hot seat. But McCall was simply magnificent. His leadership, his boundless energy, his terrific tackling, his wonderful passing ability. What a footballer Stuart McCall was. In a team full of high performers, McCall would be crowned player of the season.
The season began woefully. Four of the first six league matches ended in defeat. Even the one solitary victory, at home to Birmingham, was lucky. An early September 3-0 thumping at Ipswich Town suggested City would have their work cut out just staying in the division. Supporter doubts about Jewell were being far from dispelled, and many expected Richmond to wield the axe.
McCall reveals, “We had been beaten 3-0 and got back really late, I remember Jewell getting off the front of the bus and saying to the players ‘I will see you all on Thursday, if I’m still here’. I got a call the next day, through a third party, asking me if I would consider becoming manager of the club, if the job arose. I categorically, 100% said I had no intention of taking over. I wanted to play and that was all that I was focused on. That there was plenty of time to turn the season around and I was focused on that. My answer got filtered back to whoever was originally asking the question.”
Jewell remembers the pressure he was under, but is grateful Richmond stood by him, “It was tough, because I knew that the fans didn’t want me. But I had that steely determination in those days to prove people wrong, and a lot of energy and a lot of faith in my ability. I enjoyed working with those players. They weren’t just good players, they were good guys in the main.
“I knew fans weren’t very happy. But to be fair, Geoffrey stuck with me. Maybe I was one game away from the sack. Geoffrey has told other people that the professor [David Rhodes] wanted me sacked. Whether that’s true or not I don’t know, and I don’t care to be honest.”
But the chairman stuck by his man, and the new-look team belatedly started to gel. A 2-2 home draw with Sheffield United saw the Bantams produce some promising attacking football, and a week later I and around 200 other City fans watched them achieve a surprise 2-0 win at West Brom in a game screened live on Sky. On both sides of that win, the Bantams defeated neighbours Halifax Town over two legs of the league cup. Something was brewing.
The real moment it took off came the Saturday after, and the visit of Barnsley. The Tykes took an early second half lead through Ashley Ward, but City attacked non-stop and in stoppage time struck twice to win it. Both goals were scored by Gordon Watson. A previous record signing, who had suffered a horrific broken leg in only his third appearance. After going to hell and back recovering over 18 months, his return and two-goal burst only added to the unbridled joy inside Valley Parade that day.
Watson smiles, “Well you couldn’t write it. I just wanted to get on and do what I did. I was always confident that if the ball falls to me I’m going to have a chance. It was instant. It was goose-bumpy. It was loud. Even though I hadn’t played for 18 months, those fans had been with me. The well-wishers, everything. You just couldn’t write it, because it was a togetherness thing.
“Some people say that’s the loudest Valley Parade’s ever been. They say it was just complete and utter bonkers.”
From that point on, form really took off. The next four home games saw City hammer sides – 4-0 against Port Vale, 3-0 against Bury, 5-0 against Bristol City and 3-0 against Swindon Town. They absolutely battered Portsmouth away, and picked up a credible point from a trip to eventual champions Sunderland. By the end of October, City had climbed from the relegation zone to the play offs.
It wasn’t just the impact of the new signings, but the improved performances of those who had struggled the year before. Peter Beagrie was the prime example. A 1997 arrival from Manchester City, Beagrie’s first season at Valley Parade was a frustrating affair that ended with him being loaned to Everton. There was no end product to his game. But surrounded by better players over 1998/99, Beagrie was rejuvenated and contributed 15 goals. His performances on the left wing were brilliant.
At the back Darren Moore and John Dreyer shook off injury problems from the year before to produce a string of solid displays. The young Andrew O’Brien also did well, if finding the competition for places a struggle at times. At left back, everyone had expected Todd to usurp Wayne Jacobs, but the long-serving defender relished the challenge, kept his place and grew in confidence. Jacobs and Beagrie struck up a very strong understanding on the left side of the field.
And on the opposite side was Jamie Lawrence. Initially dogged by a few injuries, Lawrence became a mainstay in the side, winning huge acclaim from supporters for his direct charges forward and terrific work rate on and off the ball.
Lawrence explains, “We had some really resilient characters in the dressing room, and a lot of them felt like they had a point to prove because of experiences at other clubs before, where they’d had knockbacks. We all stuck together. To be part of that team was incredible.
“The way we tackled, and we played really good football too. I think when we went onto the field we would be prepared to battle, and would earn the right to play. What we also had in that team were really strong characters and a lot of honesty. If someone in the team wasn’t doing their job, they would be told by the rest of the team, and the gaffer, and they would take it on board and try to recover.”
Jewell beams, “Some of the games that season were outstanding. The players were just outstanding. It was great to watch. It was the year the Kop was being done up, and there was a great atmosphere. There was something about the place.
“Mills was big. He scored goals with his head, his left foot, his right foot, from 25 yards. Blake was on fire, he was so clever. Beags chipped in with 15 goals. Many times we’d go a goal behind, and I don’t think even fans were getting worried. Because we all knew we had Mills, we had Blakey and we had Beags.
“There was a feel-good factor. We were just a really good side to watch. The relationship between the fans and the players was definitely there. There’s a lot of people where Bradford City means more than a football club. It’s where they’ve lost loved ones. They all know someone who died in the fire or was affected by it, so it’s a unique club in a way.
“There was a real togetherness about it, that’s what we had.”
In part two, the story of how Bradford City emerged as shock automatic promotion contenders and why Stuart McCall really fell off a car.