Part two of our look back at 20 years since Bradford City’s promotion to the Premier League (part one is here).
By Jason McKeown
Bradford City started the 1998/99 season in terrible fashion, with only four points from a possible 18. But then the Bantams found their feet, winning 10 and losing only two of their next 15 league and cup matches. Paul Jewell, under huge pressure early doors, was quickly awarded an enhanced contract. Crowds began to increase, as word grew that something special was beginning to happen at Valley Parade.
City’s progress up the Division One table hit a large bump at the end of November. They went to local rivals Huddersfield and were beaten 2-1 despite playing them off the park. A week later, a struggling QPR side earned a shock 3-0 win at Valley Parade – the last game played in front of the full terrace Kop, before work began building the all seater stand that remains in place. Both games were a tale of missed City chances as much as poor defending. And club record signing Isaiah Rankin was the main culprit.
Jewell responded by dropping Rankin and pairing Robbie Blake with Lee Mills. Blake had arrived at Valley Parade from Darlington in March 1997, but suffered off the field problems that stopped him producing his best form. The Mills-Blake partnership began unassumingly with a 1-0 win at Oxford (Mills scoring). But the week after City recorded a superb 4-1 victory at Swindon, with Mills and Blake netting a brace each. And from there, the greatest strike partnership in the club’s modern history was born.
Including the Oxford and Swindon matches, City scored 19 goals in nine games (winning eight) – Mills and Blake netted 15 of those 19 goals. It propelled the Bantams from the edge of the play off spots to the dizzy heights of second place.
So many great memories. The 2-1 home win over Wolves, where Blake produced the best individual display of the season. A 2-1 victory at Stockport, where wonder goals from Blake and Peter Beagrie allowed me to forget the fact I’d foolishly turned up at a freezing Edgeley Park without a coat. A 4-1 thumping of Crewe, with a Mills hat trick and Blake goal of the season contender.
When three days later a stoppage time Beagrie penalty earned a 2-1 win over Crystal Palace, the first genuine nerves at what was at stake kicked in. We were the real deal. Automatic promotion contenders. Exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. What an opportunity.
Stuart McCall says, “When I look back to that team we had a really good mix of players. We could play football and score goals, but we could also mix it physically when we needed to. If there were any games where the opposition thought they could bully us, we proved that we could also battle when it was needed.
“The key was we had three forward type players who could score goals. Beagrie had an outstanding season, and Mills and Blake were terrific. I used to tell people that if you edited and put together a video of Blake’s best bits of skill and goals of that year, you could have sold him to Real Madrid. He was fantastic.
“We had lots of little partnerships, like Bruno and Tumble – Bruno would attack everything that came in the box and Tumble would sweep up behind him. Jakes and Beags had a great understanding. Jakes would do the overlap whilst knowing that he wouldn’t get the ball from Beags – he was just unselfish! Beags, for all his ability, was a team player. He would work hard and track back. On the other side you had Jamie who was so committed. He might not be the best player but he was full of pace, strength and could score. Gareth Whalley was just a really good footballer. Others played their part too. It was an all-round, well-balanced squad. Once we got on a roll, we were excellent.”
Bar the odd hiccup like unluckily losing to Birmingham and a home loss to Sunderland, the wins kept coming. Play off chasing Watford were bettered 2-0 at home. Blake got two more brilliant goals in a 2-2 draw at Sheffield United shown on Sky. Gordon Watson scored against Barnsley once again to earn a win at Oakwell.
Best of all was a 4-1 thumping of Norwich City where Jamie Lawrence scored with a direct run down the middle from inside his own half. Lawrence reflects, “I was never renowned for my goalscoring, but I did chip in with a goal or two here and there. Against Norwich, I picked up the ball in the centre of midfield and just kept running forwards, then I got one-on-one with the goalkeeper and ended up slotting it into the net.”
Watson adds of the team spirit, “It was also a great squad when you weren’t playing, because you were actually always cheering them on. If I wasn’t playing, or I was sub, at no stage was I think anything other than ‘Well if I get on let me do my bit; but if I don’t get on, let’s hope we still win 3-0’. I think that was the team spirit. It was old school team spirit. We used to go to the Park Hotel on a Tuesday if we had Wednesday off. There’d be nine of us. It was unheard of. It was a thick, thick team spirit. We had Blakey, Beags, Millsy, Jamie – there was goals throughout the squad.
“I’m a massive NFL fan and follow the New England Patriots. Their big saying is ‘Next Man Up’. So you have no stars. And if one person isn’t doing it, then the next man’s ready to do it. And that’s how I felt under Paul Jewell. Every player came in and did their job.”
As the final run-in came into sight, the ghosts of 1987/88 – the last time City had come so close to top flight football, only to blow it at the final hurdle – began to surface. Ipswich Town, the side who defeated City on the final day in ’88 to cost them automatic promotion, were now the chief rivals for the second automatic promotion spot. And there was the small matter of a home game against Huddersfield, four games from the end. In the 87/88 run-in, a home defeat to Huddersfield proved a crucial blow.
The criticisms of the City board in 87/88 was they didn’t back manager Terry Dolan with insurance signings. Richmond would not allow history to repeat itself, and sanctioned the arrivals of Dean Windass for £1 million from Oxford, plus Lee Sharpe on loan from Leeds to bolster the squad. Neither played huge roles in the final weeks, but they did chip in with crucial goals that kept City going.
Performances became less thrilling towards the end. More workmanlike. It was about getting the points rather than the plaudits. But with Ipswich not letting up, a nervous cloud hung over Valley Parade. There was so much at stake.
Huddersfield – managed by Peter Jackson – did their bit to damage promotion hopes. They had nothing to play for when they rocked up at Valley Parade with four games to go. They used the home jitters to their advantage to record a disputed 3-2 victory. I can still remember the overwhelming sense of despair when Windass missed a late penalty for City. Ipswich now held the advantage with three games to play.
Amazingly, they threw it away by losing at home to bottom club Crewe the week after, on an afternoon that City defeated QPR 3-1 through goals from Beagrie, Ashley Westwood and Watson. With two games to go, the Bantams and Tractor Boys were level on points. At the time goals scored, rather than goal difference, was what mattered. So City were ahead of Ipswich on goals scored. A slender advantage.
On the penultimate weekend, City hosted relegation threatened Oxford United, but tension got the better of them again. The Us should have won, with Gary Walsh – another huge hero of that City side, he was simply outstanding all season – producing two vital saves. Deep in stoppage time, McCall suddenly had a chance to head home a late winner. Amazingly he put the ball over the bar. A 0-0 draw. We’d surely blown it. McCall reflects, “I was down for a couple of days, and the rest of the lads had to bring me up.”
But Ipswich, playing the day after, were beaten 1-0 by Birmingham. There was only one game left now. City were one point better off, and just had to match Ipswich’s final day result to ensure promotion. The only issue was that the Bantams had to go to play off chasing Wolves – beaten only once at home all season – whilst Ipswich were at home to a Sheffield United side with nothing to play for. It was a long, tortuous week thinking over the scenarios. I can remember barely sleeping.
I was one of the lucky 3,300 who got a ticket for Wolves. The coach journey to the Black Country seemed to take forever, and the atmosphere from the home fans was outstanding. Wolves had to win, and the 27,589 crowd produced a cauldron of noise.
The game started so badly for City. Havard Flo headed Wolves into a 12th-minute lead, and minutes later news came through that Ipswich were winning. Fortunately Beagrie netted a 25th-minute equaliser after a slip from Keith Curle. Ipswich were 2-0 up, and soon after 3-0. If City were going to go up, they had to win the game.
Five minutes before half time, Blake danced clear of his marker and produced a stunning pass through the heart of the Wolves defence that enabled the on-rushing Mills to fire past Mike Stowell. 2-1 City. It was cue for bedlam in the away end that barely calmed down over the half time break. I remember having a walk around the concourse during the interval to try and release the pent up nervous energy. The wild range of emotions from everyone around me was something else.
Just after the hour mark, Blake was able to find space to fire home City’s third, and that might be that. Ipswich would win their game 4-1, but when late on Lawrence was brought down in the box by former Bantam Dean Richards, City had a chance to go 4-1 ahead themselves. Alas, Beagrie’s penalty was saved by Stowell. And within a minute Simpson had cut the arrears to 3-2. Cue the longest 10 minutes of my life.
“Bradford, are you s**ting yourselves?” chanted some 24,000 Wolves fans, as their team won a free kick on the edge of the box. Yes, yes we were.
McCall remembers of the famous Simpson free kick that hit the post, “I was stood there in the wall praying that he didn’t score, I can remember saying ‘I’ll do anything lord, I’ll go to church, but please don’t let them score’. Paul Simpson steps up and we knew what he was capable of. His shot hits the inside the post and we scrambled it away.
“My missus couldn’t bear to watch the last ten minutes. She went down to the concourse and there must have been at least a hundred City fans who had done the same, as they couldn’t watch the game. They sat on steps, biting their nails.”
Paul Jewell adds, “It was typical of the season, Beagrie got a penalty that could have made the final few minutes comfortable. Then of course they hit the post. My mum, who’s not long passed away, used to watch the video of that game a lot. And the sight of Blakey and Beags on the bench, watching the last few moments like they were watching a horror movie on the couch, sums it up.”
When the final whistle eventually sounded, the enormity of what had been achieved slowly began to sink in. The celebrations went on for what seemed like hours, and the party continued back in Bradford.
In a moment that has gone down in folklore, McCall climbed onto a car roof with a can of beer in hand to celebrate – and promptly fell off! He grins, “There were thousands of City fans there, and we started going on top of buses and cars to thank the fans. And then a Sky cameraman was there, and – with an incredible piece of timing – actually started recording just as I fell off the car.
“To this day I argue that it wasn’t the amount I had had to drink that made me fall off the car, but it was my trainer getting caught on the windscreen wiper causing me to trip! After I fell off, the wife came over to me and told me to get a grip of myself! That was about seven o’clock at night – I was still up at two in the morning, putting people to bed! I had calmed down and moved onto the coffee. I wanted to take everything in.
“The next morning we had the parade and reception, and Gareth Whalley and his wife came round to my house saying ‘Get Sky on, it shows you falling off a car’. I had no recollection of doing so, but my neck had been hurting all morning. Suddenly I realised why it was hurting!”
Jamie Lawrence adds, “I will never beat that day! I’ve had promotions and won a cup at Leicester, but Wolves beats all of them because I felt like I’d played such a big part in getting to that point. It was an absolutely tremendous day.
“I went out for about three days! I said to the Telegraph & Argus that, later that night, you’ll probably find me drunk in a gutter somewhere. I was true to my words!”
All quotes included in this piece are taken from interviews I conducted when writing Reinventing Bradford City (2016) and Who We Are (2018). Both books are still available to buy – more details on Reinventing Bradford City are here and Who We Are here.