By Jason McKeown
Final league position: 2nd (W26 D9 L11)
Manager: Paul Jewell
Top scorer: Lee Mills (25)
Player of the season: Stuart McCall
Geoffrey Richmond could wait no longer. Scanning the list of Division One opponents for the season ahead, the Bradford City chairman became more and more convinced that it was a relatively weak division. That there was little to fear.
In 1997/98, Division One had featured Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Charlton competing at the top. And the fallen giants of Manchester City and Stoke struggling at the bottom. Only Sunderland now remained in the division, and the three sides coming down from the Premier League – Bolton, Crystal Palace and Barnsley – were far from strong. Timing is everything, and the 1998/99 season presented a real opportunity for an ambitious club to challenge for the Premier League.
In some ways it seemed like a year too soon for the Bantams. In 1997/98, City had finished 13th. Going from the bottom half to expecting to push for promotion was a big leap forward. But Richmond would have felt some pressure too.
When taking the reins in January 1994, Richmond had vowed to deliver Premier League football in five years. Most fans didn’t take him seriously enough to put a gun to his head if he didn’t achieve that goal, but Richmond’s drive would have meant he would consider himself a failure if he fell short. To make it in five years meant getting promoted this season.
So sensing the big opportunity, Richmond approached professor David Rhodes – who, with his son Julian, had bought just short of half the club 12 months earlier – and persuaded him that with extra investment in the playing squad, the club could really go places. Rhodes injected some £5 million, and manager Paul Jewell was handed a playing budget beyond his wildest expectations.
Cue a close season of frantic transfer activity. The club legend Stuart McCall was persuaded to return after he departed Rangers. Gareth Whalley was signed from Crewe for £600k. Most notably of all, the club broke their transfer record twice in a matter of days, spending £1m and £1.3m on Lee Mills and Isaiah Rankin respectively. They were the biggest spenders in Division One that summer, shocking even their own supporters.
The statement of intent was clear. But with the unproven Jewell at the helm, there were plenty of doubts. Would Richmond’s biggest gamble to date pay off?
The story of the season:
It all looked very bleak, early doors. The expensively assembled squad struggled to gel, with just five points gained from a possible 21 by early September. It left City languishing in the relegation zone and Jewell under pressure.
The early season defeats included an opening day loss at home to Stockport, and pointless trips to Watford and Crewe. City did draw 2-2 at home to Colin Todd’s Bolton live on Sky – thanks to a last minute equaliser from Lee Mills – and beat a much-fancied Birmingham 2-1 at Valley Parade.
But after a 3-0 midweek thumping at Ipswich, even Jewell appeared to be expecting the sack. At the end of a long coach journey home, Jewell said to his players, “See you on Thursday, if I’m still here.”
The conspiracy theorists saw Jewell as a sitting duck, soon to be replaced as manager with McCall. The City captain himself was approached by an anonymous source to see if he would be interested taking over, after the Ipswich defeat. Whoever was behind the mystery call to McCall, they were informed that Stuart wanted to be a player and a player only.
So Jewell kept his job amidst rising supporter discontent, and very quickly things improved. They drew the next game, at home to Sheffield United, but the performance was much better. Jewell found joy from bringing in the forgotten Robbie Blake to play out wide. Blake made a real difference.
It was followed by five straight wins, including a two-legged Worthington Cup victory over neighbours Halifax. In the league, they travelled to high flying West Brom for a Sunday Sky game, where an early Mills double earned a surprise 2-0 victory.
That was probably the turning point, although the 2-1 home win over Barnsley the following Saturday is more fondly remembered as the crucial moment. City were trailing 1-0 with three minutes to go, only for Gordon Watson to put 18 months of injury hell behind him with a quickfire double in front of the Kop. The scenes of celebration will never be forgotten.
There’s no doubt there was a greater swagger to City’s play from that moment on. They won their next two home games 4-0 and 3-0 – whilst in between earning a credible 0-0 draw at runaway leaders Sunderland.
Towards the end of October, they played Portsmouth off the park to win 4-2 at Fratton Park, before smashing Bristol City 5-0 at Valley Parade. It lifted them into the play off spots for first time.
There was confidence to take, also, from a Worthington Cup exit at the hands of bitter rivals Leeds. Being drawn away at Elland Road prompted huge supporter excitement and a big City away following. The Bantams gave a good account of themselves, dominating the first half hour and ultimately bowing out to a deflected Harry Kewell goal.
The good league form continued into November, with wins over Tranmere and Swindon, but a set back of two straight defeats strangely unlocked the final piece of the jigsaw. City were defeated 2-1 away to Huddersfield – despite playing them off the park – and 3-0 at home to QPR. Up front, Rankin missed crucial sitters in both games. So Jewell left him out, pushing forward right midfielder Blake to partner Mills.
Cue an avalanche of goals – and wins. Eight of the next nine games resulted in City victories, and 15 of the 19 goals rattled up were netted by either Mills or Blake. It was one heck of a pairing.
That run of wins included a superb 4-1 away thrashing of Swindon, a hugely entertaining 2-1 home win over Wolves, an FA Cup third round win over Grimsby, and a 2-1 victory at Stockport through stunners by Blake and Peter Beagrie. The run of wins lifted the Bantams into the automatic promotion places. After a dramatic 2-1 Tuesday night home victory over Crystal Palace, City were four points clear of third place.
The positive vibes fuelled a journey to the North East, where City came up against Premier League Newcastle United in the FA Cup. Hopes were high of an upset, but Mills and Blake missed good chances and City went down 3-0. They lost back in the league the week after, 2-1 to promotion rivals Birmingham. But performances were still excellent, and optimism was soaring.
February saw decent wins over Watford and West Brom, sandwiching a pair of draws in-between. This included a 0-0 at home to Ipswich, who were emerging as the biggest contenders to the second automatic promotion place.
March was more mixed, as injuries began to disrupt momentum. The extra signings of Dean Windass and Lee Sharpe also caused some issues, as Jewell struggled to integrate them into the side. At the end of the month, City were beaten 1-0 at Crystal Palace after a poor performance. It was getting very nervy.
The final eight games saw all sorts of twists and turns. City rattled up wins over Grimsby, Bury and Portsmouth, but the free-flowing football was disappearing.
A 1-1 draw at Port Vale offered scant encouragement, and then City looked like they’d thrown it all away when they lost 3-2 at home to Huddersfield of all teams. With three games to go, Ipswich were three points clear.
But it all changed on an amazing late April afternoon. City were away at QPR – a ground they’d never won at – whilst Ipswich were at home to bottom club Ipswich. Goals from Beagrie, Ashley Westwood and Gordon Watson earned City a 3-1 win. And, astonishingly, Ipswich lost to 10-men Crewe.
Both teams slipped up over the penultimate weekend, with City drawing 0-0 at home to all-but-relegated Oxford. Ipswich were beaten 1-0 at Birmingham the following day. With one game to go, City were one point ahead. They just had to match Ipswich’s final day result to seal top flight football for the first time in 77 years.
Cue that unforgettable afternoon at Molineux, as the Bantams came from 1-0 behind to beat play off-chasing Wolves 3-2. Beagrie, Mills and Blake struck the all-important goals. It was a nervy last 10 minutes, given Ipswich were winning their game 4-1, but City held on to seal promotion.
Five years on from Richmond’s bold promise, City had delivered. It was the fastest rate of progress since the club’s early heyday.
There was a really settled feel to the 1998/99 side. City were fortunate with injuries, as eight members of the squad played 39 or more times.
The goalkeeper situation was a good example of this. Gary Walsh was ever-present, he even played all the cup games. To play every minute of a season is a feat no subsequent City goalkeeper has since achieved. And in the modern era of squad rotation, it’s unlikely to ever be repeated.
Walsh was outstanding all season. Organising the backline superbly, and producing a string of crucial saves. Whilst the promotion plaudits naturally went to the forward line, terrific Walsh stops against Barnsley, Ipswich and Oxford – to name just a few – were as valuable as any goal. Mark Prudhoe remained back up and never got a look in.
The right back situation was more disruptive at first, before settling down. Stephen Wright had been signed on a free from Rangers, but had injury problems, especially early doors. Wright missed a couple of weeks at the end of August, the whole of October and November, plus a two-month absence from mid-February.
Several players filled in at right back, including youngster Paul Bolland, centre back Ashley Westood, left back Lee Todd and right winger Jamie Lawrence. But City were never quite as strong.
Wright still played 27 times, and when fit he was a solid, dependable right back. Always earning a 7 or 8 out of 10. It was a shame he didn’t get a single opportunity to play for City in the Premier League the season after, as Wright found summer signing Gunnar Halle impossible to dislodge.
The left back position was more straightforward, despite greater competition. Jewell signed Todd from Southampton for £250k, but he had a debut to forget, conceding a last minute penalty to former club Stockport. He would improve and did a decent job filling in at right back.
Wayne Jacobs ultimately made the left back slot his own. He was going through a tricky time with the crowd, and after a couple of bad mistakes in October was the target of some serious stick. But Jacobs showed typical character to bounce back. Jacobs struck up a tremendous partnership with Peter Beagrie on the left side of the pitch. He played a big part in City’s success.
At centre back, Jewell was blessed with four strong options. Darren Moore was undisputed first choice. He’d made a big impact the season before but suffered injuries.
Moore stayed fit, and was outstanding all season. He did lose his place briefly at the end of the campaign, after an uncharacteristically poor display in the defeat to Huddersfield. But came roaring back to impress in the final two games. Moore also made the Division One PFA team of the season.
Alongside Moore, Jewell opted to give a centre back a run in the team until they got injured or were suspended, at which point someone else would get a turn. So John Dreyer, Andy O’Brien and Westwood got in bursts of games, without ever quite feeling confident enough to rest on their laurels as first choice.
All three did a good job and there was little between them. All probably wanted more game time, but evidently added to the strong spirit in the camp even when not playing. O’Brien’s performances earned him a call up to the England Under 21s squad.
The 98/99 side is famous for its four-man midfield of Lawrence, McCall, Whalley and Beagrie. They were all absolutely sensational. Each with their own slightly different roles, but working brilliantly as a quartet.
All four played more than 40 games. Lawrence was slightly more stop-start in appearances, after a few injury problems. He missed all of September and virtually all of October. When he came back, Jewell picked him at right back until Wright was fit.
Whilst the moving up front of Blake to partner Mills evidently took City onto another level, Lawrence being pushed to right wing in Blake’s place also had a very positive effect. Lawrence put in a series of terrific displays and netted memorable solo goals against Grimsby (FA Cup) and at home to Norwich.
Lawrence got injured in mid April and only returned as a sub in the penultimate weekend. His starting position for the Wolves game was the biggest question mark going into the crucial decider. Jewell later revealed that selecting Lawrence ahead of Lee Sharpe was one of the toughest decisions of his career. Lawrence repaid him handsomely with a tremendous display at Molineux.
McCall’s return proved to be a fairytale. Just over a decade after leaving in the wake of City narrowly failing to win promotion to the top flight, McCall was able to lay those ghosts to rest.
There had been some fears from long-term supporters that re-signing a 34-year-old McCall would prove a big mistake – the memories of how badly Peter Jackson’s City return had gone remained fresh. But McCall blew away the doubts. If anything, he was now an even better player than 10 years earlier.
McCall was a hugely inspirational captain, and produced a series of superb displays full of quality. He was crowned player of the season against some tough competition. His work-rate was incredible, and he was also a brilliant passer of the ball. To watch someone so visibly inspire the players around him was something special. Only Gary Jones, in 2012/13, comes close the impact McCall had.
Whalley was less celebrated but no less vital. A gifted passer with an excellent vision, the Crewe summer signing settled in very well at Valley Parade. Whilst he attracted a small bit of criticism for his lack of ball-winning skills, his creativity more than than offset it.
And there was Beagrie. After his 1997/98 season had gone sour and his loan to Everton, Beagrie seemingly returned a different player. He clearly benefited from playing with higher quality players – both in terms of getting the ball to Beagrie in better areas, and in getting into the box to get on the end of his crosses.
Beagrie hadn’t scored a single goal in 1997/98, but netted 15 times in the promotion season, including six penalties. The Beagrie somersault became a regular feature of the season, as he won over the crowd to become a huge favourite.
With such a strong four in the middle, it was slim pickings for City’s other midfielders. Nigel Pepper was a victim of the McCall-Whalley partnership. Whenever Pepper did get game time, he performed really well. But it was never going to be enough to make him first choice.
Pepper was too good a player to settle for playing in the reserves, and in late November was sold to Aberdeen for £300k.
This left Craig Ramage and Paul Bolland as central back ups. Ramage was well out of the picture, restricted to just four sub appearances – none after January. Young Bolland played a few games early doors, filling in for injuries. He was loaned out to Notts County for half a season.
In late March Jewell opted to bring in Sharpe on loan from Leeds, to provide cover. An injury to Beagrie in late February probably influenced his thoughts. Whilst City won two of the three games that Beagrie missed, they were less than convincing and struggled to fill his void.
Sharpe played a part in the run-in, scoring a couple of goals and filling in for the injured Lawrence. He was clearly a player of immense talent but blew hot and cold.
Up front, Jewell began the season with an abundance of forward options – at one stage he had nine strikers on the books. Some quickly fell by the wayside. John McGinlay – the record signing of the year before who helped get Kamara the sack – departed for Oldham early doors. Rob Steiner started a league Cup tie at home to Lincoln, but that was all he featured as he was loaned and eventually sold to QPR, where he did pretty well.
Edinho started the opening day defeat to Stockport, but after that made just a couple of sub appearances. He was loaned to Dunfermline for three months but didn’t have much of an impact, so returned and languished in the reserves for the rest of the season. With City faring so well, there was no supporter clamour for Edinho’s inclusion. But it was still sad to see a fans’ favourite be left behind. Young forward Gareth Grant got some game time but this was a year he had to stay patient.
Isaiah Rankin – the £1.3 million record signing – found it a mixed year. There has been plenty of speculation about why City paid so much money for the unproven Arsenal forward. Chris Kamara had Rankin on his radar the year before and Jewell was certainly keen, but the story goes he was only prepared to pay £200k. Richmond, it is claimed, was keen to impress Arsenal and probably got caught out by paying way over the odds. It certainly wasn’t City’s greatest piece of business.
Rankin started okay and had netted five times by early November. His problem was he didn’t score again after that. After losing his place to Blake, Rankin effectively became fourth choice. In what turned out to be his final home game of the season, a 1-0 win over West Brom in February, Rankin came on as sub for the injured Lawrence early doors. But he missed two sitters in the second half. It summed Rankin up. A pacy player with plenty of effort and a great attitude, but not a good finisher.
Rankin ultimately slipped behind Watson as back up striker option. Watson had just recovered from the horrors of his 18-month broken leg nightmare. After that amazing two-goal burst against Barnsley, Watson got a run in the team. But with his court case against Kevin Gray taking place in October, Jewell made the tough call of leaving Watson out.
From then on his appearances were infrequent, but Watson did pop up to score important late season goals at Barnsley and QPR.
By the closing months Jewell had signed Dean Windass for £1 million to compete with Blake and Mills. Windass has netted 18 goals for struggling Oxford, and his arrival pushed Watson and especially Rankin down the pecking order.
Windass was in and out the side. He scored three goals (two officially, as his first goal in City colours – away at Bury – was later ruled to be an own goal), but missed a crucial penalty in the home defeat to Huddersfield. City fans were far from convinced, although over the subsequent years Windass would emphatically prove his worth.
That all just leaves Mills and Blake. A remarkable partnership that provided so much joy to City fans that season. Mills’ arrival for £1 million from Port Vale had raised eyebrows, but after getting off the mark in his fifth appearance he never looked back.
Mills was a big striker with very good feet. He had more skill than he is arguably remembered for, and was also brilliant in the air. The 25 goals he scored were by some distance his career best. It’s a shame he couldn’t quite prove himself in the Premier League the year after. He never once hit double figures in a season after that, and a fading career was ended prematurely through injury.
Still, nothing will ever take away what a brilliant player Mills was for City that season.
Blake was perfect foil for Mills. Playing just off the targetman, he would make the most of flick ons and run at defenders. Blake scored several eye-catching goals. He was adept at scoring from distance and his superb solo goal at Sheffield United in February put him in the shop window. Like Mills, Blake didn’t fully take his Premier League opportunity – but what a talent.
No set of fans would have had a more thrilling year than Bradford City’s, although Manchester United might dispute that. This was the season of the famous United treble, capped off by the last-gasp victory over Bayern Munich to win the Champions League.
The blue half of Manchester had something to celebrate too, albeit on a different scale. Languishing in the third tier and midtable at Christmas, Man City stole a late march to finish in the play offs, beating Gillingham at Wembley on penalties after trailing 2-0 going into injury time.
That Man City were promoted back to Division One, along with big spending Fulham, further validated Richmond’s argument that the weaker Division One of 1998/99 was a real opportunity. Blackburn Rovers and a well-run Charlton were relegated from the Premier League, which also added to the toughness of the second tier of 1999/00. Had City failed to beat Wolves and lost in the play offs, it would have been hard to seeing them going one better the year after.
But whilst Richmond could celebrate his big gamble paying off, his former club Scarborough – who he swapped to take over the Bantams – had a very sad end to the season. They were relegated from the Football League, thanks to the incredible heroics of Carlisle United’s on loan keeper Jimmy Glass, who scored a stoppage time winner to save the Cumbrians. A dark and difficult path lay ahead for Scarborough.
Five 1998/99 league gems:
We were truly spoilt for choice this season, so let’s focus on five, less celebrated victories.
– A late September midweek 4-0 home win over Port Vale. Three days after the famous Barnsley triumph, the Bantams showed some real swagger in hammering Vale, with Mills netting twice against the club he’d joined from.
– Whilst the final day victory away to Wolves is regularly celebrated, the home game against Wolves that season – in December – wasn’t bad either. Lawrence and Mills got the goals in a 2-1 City win, with Blake producing a sensational individual display.
– Smashing Crewe 4-1 in January, courtesy of a Mills hat trick and wonder strike from Blake.
– Another 4-1 home win in March, this time against Norwich. The Bantams were 4-0 up at half time through a stunning display, capped off by Lawrence’s wonderful charge down the middle to score.
– A late March 3-2 victory at Bristol City. The Bantams were 2-0 up through Mills and Jacobs. The bottom club Bristol City came roaring back to 2-2 late on, only for the Bantams to go straight back up the other end and win it through Whalley. A great demonstration of the spirit in the camp that season.
Categories: Seasons re-reviewed
Great review Jason, what a fantastic season that was.
21 years ago, will we ever see their like again?
Simply the best season I’ve ever witnessed. Great players, superb performances and a side that simply demolished team after team. The only small negative was the fact the kop was being re-built. Imagine the noise if the covered terrace had been left alone.
What a season! I still can’t believe we lost twice to the Dogbotherers…
What a superb team we had that season.I’ve just watched The Pathway To The Premiership on YouTube in fixture order and thoroughly enjoyed reliving a fantastic season.Robbie Blake was awesome that season and scored some worldies!
I would say that on his day (and there were many) that Robbie Blake was the most naturally talented player to wear the claret and amber in the modern era. He had very fast feet and could shift from left to right with ease as he wrong footed defenders. He was also An excellent finisher, who should probably have achieved more in his career.