By Tim Penfold
It’s the beginning of a new millennium, and Bradford City are top of the Premiership. Amazingly, this isn’t a computer glitch, but the consequence of a quite incredible run of form. A front three of Robbie Blake, Edinho and Lee Mills, backed up by Stuart McCall in midfield and a rock solid back line has the Bantams at the top of the table. Can it last?
New Year’s Day sees West Ham visit Valley Parade. Dean Windass is suspended and we have some injuries and rotation, so Peter Beagrie starts behind a front two of Edinho and Mills. McCall gives us an early lead, but West Ham get a fairly controversial equaliser right on half time. Eyal Berkovic’s first free kick is saved but a retake is ordered and his second one goes in the top corner.
In the second half we struggle badly, so I swap things around in midfield with Michael Standing and John Hendrie on for Gareth Whalley and Beagrie. It works…sort of. Paul Bolland crosses and Lee Mills heads us in front. It had nothing to do with either sub, but I’m claiming the credit. West Ham keep going but Gary Walsh is in inspired form and sees us through to victory.
The following week we welcome Birmingham for the FA Cup 3rd round. I switch things around a bit, giving starts to Alan Combe, Peter Atherton, Isaiah Rankin and Michael Standing. Robbie Blake is also back from injury and starts.
We spend the first half laying siege to the Birmingham goal, but it takes until right on half time for us to go in front. Dean Windass heads it down and Robbie Blake smashes it into the net. Shortly after half time Edinho turns in a Standing cross, then Blake finds space into the box before squaring it for Lee Todd to make it three.
Spurs decide that they want to sign Stuart McCall, but no amount of money could lead to me deciding to sell him.
We go to Middlesbrough and the league has got a bit tighter. Arsenal have won their games in hand and are now level on points, albeit having played a game more. On the plus side, I’m basically back to full strength. Michael Standing takes the one spot in midfield that isn’t nailed down, and he gives us the lead just before half time, when a tackle by future City caretaker manager Colin Cooper runs loose to him in the box. It’s the only goal of a fairly uneventful game, but keeps us ahead of Arsenal.
Liverpool are the next visitors to Valley Parade, and are stuck underachieving in mid-table. There’s no reason for me to make any changes, so I don’t.
We start the game well but go behind when Patrik Berger dribbles past Lee Todd and scores. However, we grab an equaliser right on half time when Blake heads the ball down for Mills to score.
Hang on, is that the right way round?
Turns out it is.
The second half is one way traffic, and we put constant pressure on the Liverpool goal, but we can’t get the winner. In the last minute, Stuart McCall is fouled on the edge of the box. Dean Windass steps up to take the free kick and sticks it in the net!
Every league game from here is huge. We have the chance to emulate Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and win the top flight in our first season up.
Annoyingly, the next game is a cup one. We travel to Bramall Lane to face Sheffield United in the 4th round of the FA Cup, and I take the opportunity to rotate my side.
One of the rotated players, Paul Bolland, gives us a deserved first half lead from an Edinho cross, but we can’t capitalise on this and Paul Devlin gets a second half equaliser. We can’t find a winner, so we end up with an unwanted replay.
Still, the league table looks promising.
We also take the opportunity to strengthen our side for next season, looking north of the border to bring in Juanjo for £525k in compensation.
We start February with a trip to Coventry, and I go back to my league strength team with one difference – Paul Bolland keeps his place in the starting line-up after scoring.
The first half follows a familiar pattern – we’re on top, and take the lead when Alan Rogers goes flying down the left flank before setting up Robbie Blake. Early in the second half we get a corner, which Bolland takes to the far post, McCall heads back and Andy O’Brien volleys a second.
The league games keep coming, and our next game is a trip to London to face Wimbledon. Paul Bolland continues his recent good form by swinging across a corner that the hosts struggle to clear. The ball pings around the box, and eventually O’Brien sticks it in the net for his second goal in two games. In the second half it’s a less messy set piece goal – Bolland’s corner is met by a Lee Mills header.
Wimbledon pull one back via a fine Vassilis Tsartas free kick and the rest of the game is tense, but we hang on.
Arsenal have picked up only one point in their last two games, so suddenly we’re 8 points clear!
We take another break from league action as we face Sheffield United in our FA Cup replay. There’s a bit of rotation, though not as much as there was for the first game. One of the rotated players, Isaiah Rankin, has an early impact when he’s fouled for a penalty, which Lee Todd scores. We’re clearly the better team, but Chris Bettney scores a complete fluke after half time to give them an underserved equaliser.
However, Peter Atherton puts us back in front and Rankin seals the game with a rebound. We’re through to the next round…
…which is against Man Utd the following Saturday. I name a similar team, but the performance isn’t as good as midweek and David May gives Man Utd a second half lead. It looks like we’re on our way out.
With three minutes to go, Lee Todd gets free down the right and swings in a cross. Mills heads it goalwards, but Peter Schmeichel claws it away…straight into the path of Rankin who equalises. We’re still in the cup.
We’ve got another midweek game next, against Newcastle, but before that I have some more business to sort out, signing a provisional contract with Michael Branch who will join at the end of the season.
Against Newcastle I bring back the regular league starters. We go behind early to an Alan Shearer goal, but grab an equaliser almost straight away when Bolland sets up Windass who scores at the second attempt. Bolland isn’t finished here – he’s been the main creator in the team since coming back in, and it’s his cross that’s turned in by Lee Mills to make it 2-1.
In the second half we keep Newcastle at arm’s length, and close out a comfortable win. There’s one problem though – Robbie Blake is injured, and out for a month.
There’s a long game until the next game, which is our cup replay at Old Trafford. I switch the team around a bit – Combe starts, as he has in every cup game, and Isaiah Rankin and Peter Atherton also come in. With Blake injured I move Windass to the top of the diamond and bring Michael Standing into midfield.
There’s another injury early on, as Alan Rogers limps off to be replaced by Wayne Jacobs, but despite the weakened side we keep United at bay. In the second half, Isaiah Rankin gets the ball and starts running. He can’t be stoppped, going past three Man United players and scoring!
We’re hanging on to the lead when Windass decides to make things difficult for us, lunging in two-footed on Richie Wellens. It’s an inevitable and stupid red card, and means the last few minutes are a scramble, but we make it. We’re through to the next round of the cup!
Whilst our cup form has been nice, Arsenal have played another league game and closed the gap to five points at the end of February. Windass has a three game ban, Peter Atherton has a ban for picking up too many bookings and the injuries are mounting up.
It’s going to be a tense end to the season. Can we do it?
Categories: Championship Manager