By Jason McKeown
Final league position: 13th in Division One (W14 D15 L17)
Manager: Chris Kamara/Paul Jewell
Top scorer: Edinho/Rob Steiner (11 goals each)
Player of the season: Gary Walsh
Ambition seeped through the corridors of Valley Parade during the summer of 1997. The Bantams had just completed two seasons of excellent progression, earning promotion from the third tier in 1995/96 and surviving in Division One on the final day of the 1996/97 campaign. But chairman Geoffrey Richmond had set his sets much higher.
The club was half way through his pledge to achieve Premier League football in five years. Division One consolidation might be a reasonable target for the season ahead, but Richmond did not want City to merely make up the numbers. It was all about moving forwards as quickly as possible.
The club was in a much stronger position to support manager Chris Kamara in achieving that. 1996/97 had been a turbulent year of recruitment, as funds were redirected towards the rebuilding of the Midland Road stand, forcing Kamara down the Bosman route of free transfers from overseas. 42 players were used over the campaign, but now Kamara had the resources to build a more settled, and improved, squad.
It was a year to strengthen the foundations, and make strides towards an all out assault for Premier League football. And if you couldn’t keep up with Richmond’s ambition, there was a heavy price to pay.
The story of the season:
City got off to a flyer, pushing expectations sky high and in hindsight ultimately dooming Kamara. The team won four and drew one of their first five league games. This included an impressive 3-0 away win at Reading. It was followed by a Tuesday night derby victory at Huddersfield Town, courtesy of goals from Edinho and Robbie Blake. The result placed City top of Division One. Exactly a decade on from the famous nearly season, suddenly talk of top flight football felt credible once again.
Yet reality bit hard. Three days later, City welcomed Sunderland to Valley Parade on a Friday night. The Bantams were 4-0 down by the 37th minute, underlining how far they still had to go. They drew 2-2 at home to promotion favourites Middlesbrough the week after, before a 4-1 thumping at Charlton live on Sky.
Nevertheless, City remained in the top six through September and October. They impressively defeated a much fancied Wolves side 2-0 at home, as part of a seven game unbeaten run. Significant money was also made available for new signings, with more than a million spent on bringing in Gary Walsh and John McGinlay.
The McGinlay transfer proved season-defining. Kamara was battling against Richmond’s regular interference, and was unhappy his chairman had arranged a deal to sign Wayne Allison from Swindon Town. Kamara refused Allison, stating he preferred McGinlay. Given the Bolton striker had netted 30 goals in Division One the season before, it seemed a logical signing. But the club record £625k spent on McGinlay proved an expensive mistake. McGinlay struggled badly at Valley Parade. He would score just 3 goals in 18 appearances.
If that was Strike One against Kamara, he wasn’t helped by City’s winter decline in form. They went nearly five games without scoring, before McGinlay finally broke his duck in a 1-1 draw at home to Sheffield United. Over November and December the Bantams won just twice – at home to Norwich and Bury – in 12 games. They fell well out of the play off picture, down to 11th.
The final straw proved to be an FA Cup third round defeat to Manchester City at Maine Road. The Bantams lost 2-0 and McGinlay – a second half substitute – missed three sitters. On the Monday after, Richmond asked Kamara to sack one of his two assistants to save money. Kamara refused, so Richmond sacked his manager. It came as a real shock. Whilst form was poor, fans hadn’t turned on Kamara and he had received a great reception from a huge away following at Maine Road. Richmond held a fans forum to explain his reasoning, quickly winning supporters over.
To the rest of football and the media, managing the outrage was more difficult. 22 years ago, football managers weren’t sacked as quickly as they are today – Kamara’s dismissal was met with aghast. Other Division One managers and pundits lined up to defend Kamara’s record at City. And on BBC Radio 5Live’s 606 show, presenter David Mellor took it further – floating the idea that sacking Kamara might have been racially motivated.
Richmond was furious and spent a week threatening legal action against the BBC. As part of a peace deal, Richmond was allowed 10 minutes airtime on the following week’s 606. He proceeded to have a full on argument live on air with Mellor. It was explosive radio.
Away from all the media outrage, Paul Jewell was handed the caretaker reins and began with an impressive 2-1 away win at a high-flying Stockport. He lost the next game, at Stoke, and drew the next, at home to Swindon. Speculation was rife Richmond wanted a big name manager replacement. Perhaps the treatment of Kamara put off would-be candidates – for in the end, Jewell was given the job until the end of the season.
It seemed the only way Jewell would get to keep it would be if he could revive City’s fading play offs. He started quite well, with a notable 1-0 win at home to third-place Charlton. But poor away form – a problem all season – held the Bantams back. They ultimately just couldn’t find the back of the net often enough, ending the campaign with only 46 goals over the 46 games. West Brom away, in early March, summed it up. Rob Steiner put City 1-0 up, they missed a hatful of chances, and deep in stoppage time West Brom stole an equaliser. City only won four away games all season.
With promotion ambitions all but over, Richmond elected to cut costs when the old March transfer deadline arrived. Eddie Youds and Chris Wilder were sold. Peter Beagrie was loaned to Everton for a fee. The season had been written off. And with it, so too surely was Jewell.
The campaign ended in the exact opposite way it had started. Four defeats and one draw from the final five games. The nadir was a 5-0 thrashing at Crewe, where Jewell famously ordered his players to sit on the pitch during the half time break, to face the wrath of a furious City away following. Richmond was impressed, and would later reveal that his manager’s hardline approach convinced him to give Jewell a two-year contract.
Fans were not convinced by Jewell, and there was widespread dismay when it was announced he would stay on as manager. City had finished 13th, two places lower than when Kamara had been sacked. There was no disputing the statement of ambition behind Kamara’s dismissal. But sticking with Jewell seemed to undermine all of that.
Still, whatever question marks were directed at Richmond in May 1998, he would emphatically be proven right 12 months later.
This was a season where many of the promotion heroes of 1998/99 bedded in at Valley Parade. Offering a glimpse of what they would go on to achieve.
The goalkeeper position was problematic at first. Kamara had brought in Mark Prudhoe from Stoke City for £70k. He started out okay, but wasn’t fully convincing. Kamara also signed Aussie stopper Robert Zabica and he did well for three games, before enduring a nightmare display in the 4-0 defeat to Sunderland – he never played for City again. Kamara went back to Prudhoe for a couple of games, but by late September had secured the services of former Manchester United goalkeeper Gary Walsh on a month’s loan from Middlesbrough. Walsh was a revelation – he only conceded once in his first seven games, and that was penalty. City ultimately paid £500k to keep Walsh, and he went on to win player of the season.
At right back, Kamara brought in Chris Wilder from Notts County for £150k. Wilder was decent, but Kamara still wanted better and in November he brought in promising Manchester United youngster John O’Kane for a month’s loan. O’Kane took Wilder’s place and was outstanding. At the end of his loan, Kamara wanted to sign O’Kane permanently but was blocked by Richmond. It was an early sign the chairman was starting to think about changing manager.
Wilder came back into the side for most of the campaign, before he was sold to Sheffield United on March deadline day – apparently Chris quite likes Sheffield United, in case you’ve never heard. Jewell was only allowed to sign Steve McAnespie as a replacement, on a loan deal. McAnespie was a reserve player for then-bottom tier Fulham. The signing went as well as you might expect – McAnespie was one of the worst full backs I’ve ever seen. There were few issues at left back. Wayne Jacobs was appointed club captain on the eve of the season and played most of the time. In December, Bryan Small had a five-game loan spell from Bolton.
The centre back positions especially were filled by players who would become the bedrock of the promotion-winning side the following season. John Dreyer, Andy O’Brien and summer signing Darren Moore. They were joined by Eddie Youds, who after lifting the 1996 Division Two play off final trophy missed the entire 1996/97 campaign through injury. There were doubts about his ability to come back going into the 1997/98 season, but he had an excellent campaign for City – earning a £550k March deadline move to Charlton, and playing in the Premier League for the Addicks the year after.
Kamara began the season with a central defensive pair of Youds and Dreyer, but after conceding 10 goals in three games during September he gave Moore a debut. ‘Bruno’ took his chance massively. He was outstanding, although suffered injury problems that saw him miss three months of the campaign. Teenage defender O’Brien had to bide his time but got a run in the side and impressed. With Dreyer joining Moore in having injury problems, in February Jewell brought in Andy Melville on loan from Sunderland. He was excellent and Jewell tried but failed to sign him during the summer.
A young defender named Mark Bower was given a debut at Norwich towards the end of the season. After Youds was sold, he was replaced by a familiar figure – Lee Sinnott returned for a third spell, on loan from third tier Oldham. But he was not up to it this time.
In the wide positions, Kamara had made a real effort to make sure he had out-and-out wingers to call upon. Peter Beagrie (Man City) and Jamie Lawrence (Leicester) came in for £50k a piece. Beagrie began very well and set up plenty of goals. But as the season wore on, the crowd became frustrated by his insistence on beating the same man repeatedly, rather than getting the ball into the box quickly. His end product dried up, and he failed to score a single goal. When Everton signed Beagrie on loan, a lot of fans were pleased to see the back of him and hoped the Toffees would want to keep their former hero. It’s fair to say Beagrie returned to Valley Parade a much stronger player the year after.
In contrast to Beagrie, Lawrence started a little slower before really finding his form in the autumn. Kamara was a big fan of the winger, urging Jamaica to consider selecting him ahead of their unlikely World Cup Finals appearance in 1998. Lawrence won plenty of favour with the crowd for his tough-tackling, hard-working style of wing play. He made 45 appearances over the campaign.
When Beagrie was over at Goodison, Jewell deployed striker Robbie Blake on the left wing. The long-serving Shaun Murray was picked out wide sometimes and at others in the centre of midfield. This would prove to be Murray’s final season at Valley Parade, as in the summer he moved to Notts County – helping them to win promotion in 1998/99.
The middle of the park was definitely weaker, although Kamara did have the talents of Murray, Nigel Pepper and George Kulscar, joined by summer signing Craig Ramage, The latter arrived from Watford with a big reputation, but under-performed and was unloved by the crowd. He was billed as a goalscoring midfielder, but only got off the mark in the 87th minute of the final game of the season.
Pepper – who arrived from York at the end of 1996/97, scoring a series of vital goals that kept City in Division One – couldn’t hit the same heights. He did score five goals over the campaign, but also picked up nine yellows and two red cards. Although not always first choice, the solidity of defensive midfielder Kulscar proved valuable and it was another warning Kamara was on borrowed time when the Aussie was sold to QPR for £250k in December, and no replacement was forthcoming.
The lack of a ball winner hindered City over the rest of the campaign, with Jewell resorting to trying out O’Brien and Dreyer in this position. Youngster Paul Bolland earned a few opportunities along the way. Dutchman Dennis Sepp came off the bench three times but couldn’t make the breakthrough.
The striker issues was a constant headache. Kamara and later Jewell were not short of decent options, but couldn’t get anyone to be prolific enough. Consistency was a real problem. Kamara began the season with Edinho and last season’s top scorer, Ole Bjorn Sungot, up front for the opening day game against Stockport. Rob Steiner – a Swedish striker who had a memorable 1996/97 loan spell, before being signed permanently in the summer – was left out, with Kamara stating he hadn’t looked the same player in pre-season. But Steiner would come off the bench to score the winner that day.
Edinho and Steiner struck up a useful partnership and over the season were joint top scorers with 11 goals a piece. Seven of Edinho’s tally came before the end of October, and he didn’t particularly flourish under Jewell. During his early season heights, there was lots of media interest in Bradford’s boy from brazil and Edinho was deeply loved by fans.
Blake – a March 1997 signing from Darlington – had a troubled start to life at Valley Parade. But as the 1997/98 progressed, he became an increasingly useful player. He burst into form just before Kamara was sacked, so Jewell enjoyed the fruits of his upturn – Blake ended the season with eight goals.
The problems around record signing John McGinlay were exacerbated by a run of injuries. The Scot barely played after January. His last appearance of the campaign – and ultimately for City – came when he was substituted at half time against Manchester City in March. Sungot departed mid-season having failed to score all campaign. Young strikers Craig Midgley and Lawrence Davies made a few cameos. Ultimately they were overshadowed by the under 18 side beating Leeds United in the Northern Intermediaries Cup Final, thanks to a hat trick by Gareth Grant. In the last two games, Grant was given a first team chance.
Gordon Watson was also on City’s books. But after his horrific leg break against Huddersfield in February 1997, he sat out the entire 1997/98 campaign.
Also that season:
Division One was really strong that year. Notts Forest pipped Middlesbrough to the title, thanks to the goals of Pierre van Hooijdonk and Kevin Campbell. Boro were promoted too, under Bryan Robson. The future City manager had the likes of Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne in his ranks, and spent millions in the transfer market. They also reached the League Cup Final for the second season in a row.
In the play offs, Eddie Youds helped Charlton defeat Sunderland at Wembley – the tie settled by penalties after an amazing 4-4 draw. Meanwhile Manchester City and Stoke City joined Reading in suffering relegation to the third tier.
In the Premier League, Arsene Wenger’s first full season was crowned by winning the double. Barnsley briefly became everyone’s second team by making a decent fist of their first ever top flight season, but ultimately they went down. Halifax Town were promoted back to the Football League.
In the summer of 1998, the World Cup in France turned Michael Owen into a superstar after a wonder goal for England against Argentina. France were crowned World Champions for the first time in their history.
Five 1997/98 City gems:
– An October 1-0 home win over Crewe earned by a superb Edinho winner and typically hilarious goal celebration.
– Coming from 2-0 down at Champions Notts Forest to draw 2-2, courtesy of a stoppage time equaliser from Pepper.
– The thrilling, come-from-behind victory at home to Manchester City in late March. Pepper and Edinho struck the goals in front of a jubilant Kop, pushing the Mancs closer to the drop.
– In a season of few goals, January’s 4-1 thumping of Reading on a Tuesday evening was fun.
– The final stages of City’s December 1-0 win over Bury, where Edinho triggered a glorious 22-man brawl that saw the Brazilian and Peter Swan red carded.
Categories: Seasons re-reviewed