Looking back on Bradford City’s Premier League adventure, 20 years ago.
By Jason McKeown
Leicester City 3 City 0
6 May, 2000
With Manchester United having wrapped up the 1999/00 Premier League title several weeks early, the relegation battle between Bradford City and Wimbledon became the big story in English football. It dominated the backpages and the Match of the Day schedule.
And the public was generally on the Bantams side. Having begun the season ridiculed and dismissed by the national media, and even opposition players, the battling, honest qualities that City were exhibiting had made them plenty of friends. “Bradford…became a second team for football fans all over the country,” The Daily Mail would fondly recall several years later.
It helped that City were up against the widely unloved Wimbledon, whose aggressive approach hardly enthused football purists. John Hartson’s Valley Parade meltdown was seemingly typical of their bullying approach. The fact Wimbledon were tenants to Crystal Palace, playing in front of a half empty Selhurst Park, invited snobbery too. Some Wimbledon home games attracted fewer than 9,000 fans. Out of sync with the increasingly polished Premier League product.
City’s brave push to avoid the drop was also the classic underdog story that people could get behind. In-depth articles about the likes of Wayne Jacobs and John Dreyer appeared in the national press. The stories of their struggles to reach the top only added to City’s likeability. The big question now was whether City could provide a happy ending to the story by pulling off the great escape.
But Wimbledon weren’t just going to take all of this lying down. The inquest into the 3-0 defeat to the Bantams was brutal, leading to Egil Olsen getting the sack. The feeling was that Wimbledon’s famous self-contained family, no-one-likes-us-we-don’t-care mentality just hadn’t allowed for the dressing room to accept an outsider like Olsen coming in. “I thought I would see out the season,” Olsen lamented in the wake of his sacking, “But there has been disloyalty from players.”
The club turned to a Dons legend, Terry Burton, as caretaker for the final two matches. Burton had been a coach at Wimbledon since 1988, and his appointment suggested a club desperately trying to restore its values and draw inspiration from the past.
At an emotionally charged press conference, Wimbledon joint owner Bjorn Rune Gjelsten was defiant. “Relegation is not an option,” he told the assembled media. “Terry and the players are confident we can stay up.” Burton was equally resolute, stating, “To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the club’s death have been greatly exaggerated. There’s nothing we can do to stop you writing the obituaries, but I will not tolerate any questioning of the players’ commitment.”
Hartson was facing an FA charge for his conduct at Valley Parade. But crucially back them, football suspensions didn’t kick in straight away. It meant the Welsh striker was available for one final match – the penultimate weekend game at home to a sixth-placed Aston Villa side with little to play for, and probably saving themselves a little for an FA Cup final appearance in two weeks’ time. On the same afternoon, the Bantams travelled to a buoyant Leicester City side who had already qualified for Europe having won the Worthington Cup.
It was potentially a huge afternoon for City. An away victory at Filbert Street – coupled with Wimbledon failing to beat Villa – and survival would be confirmed with a game to spare. But the occasion seemed to get to the players. They struggled to perform to the level they were capable of. Once again, their poor away form proved a hindrance.
Paul Jewell had taken the same tactical approach that had worked so well at Sunderland, in the last game on the road. Men behind the ball, Dean Windass pushed back into midfield, with Dean Saunders deployed on his own up front. Sunderland manager Peter Reid had tried to remain patient, only for his team to run out of ideas. But Leicester manager Martin O’Neill took a more proactive approach.
Realising the Bantams were not going to take the attacking initiative and cause many defensive issues, O’Neill pushed central defender Matt Elliott up front to bolster his attack. “Twenty minutes before half-time we upped the tempo and I thought we were running the game at that point,” O’Neill would later state.
City got to half time with the game scoreless, but Leicester were the only side who looked likely to break the stalemate. The Bantams weren’t helped by losing Wayne Jacobs to injury early doors. Matt Clarke made a great save to deny Muzzy Izzett and David Wetherall blocked an Elliott effort on the line.
City’s only chance was wasted by Lee Sharpe, who had replaced Jacobs. “We didn’t perform from the first whistle,” Jewell would later lament. “We were lucky to go in level at half time.”
Meanwhile more than 100 miles away down South, Wimbledon were having much more first half joy. Burton took the decision to drop the unruly Hartson to the bench. After 15 minutes, his replacement, Marcus Gayle sent over a cross that Ugo Ehiogu could only head into his own net. 1-0 to Wimbledon, and as things stood at half time the Dons would move a point clear of City again.
There would be a heavy sense of irony in the Wimbledon goal to Stuart McCall, “We had gone down to Leicester on the Friday and we trained at Aston Villa’s training ground. We’re coming in after training, and Villa are getting on the bus to go down to Wimbledon. I remember seeing big Ugo Ehiogu and saying to him ‘Come on Ugo tomorrow, do us a favour, get us a goal’. And he says ‘wee man for you, no problem’.
“So to later find out Ugo Ehiogu had scored an own goal – unbelievable! I looked into the sky and thought that is a joke. 24 hours earlier he had promised me he would score, and he’s gone on and scored an own goal!”
Yet Wimbledon’s joy was tempered by injury problems. Veteran defender Kenny Cuningham had hobbled off after half an hour, and then just before half time playmaker Michael Hughes was stretched off with a serious leg injury. These delays caused the Wimbledon half time whistle to be blown several minutes after City’s, and as a result the second half began later. It would have an impact on the day’s events.
Villa took advantage of Wimbledon’s misfortune, as they emerged with more purpose after the break. Full back Alan Wright sent a cross into the area, Mark Delaney flicked the ball into Lee Hendrie’s path, and the future City winger fired home the equaliser.
The good news for the Bantams was fleeting. No sooner had details of the Villa goal come through, Leicester took a deserved lead when Elliott headed home a corner.
Ironically City had begun to show some attacking intent and Windass, Saunders and Wetherall had chances to put the visitors in front. But Leicester were rampant after making the breakthrough, with Elliott heading home Neil Lennon’s cross four minutes later, before Tony Cottee turned Andy O’Brien and finished past Clarke for 3-0.
McCall rued, “Leicester had Matt Elliott – who I knew from playing for Scotland with – and Tony Cottee, one of my good friends. I said to them two ‘come on, you’re not playing for owt, we’re on the back of a good run and have good away support’. And Matty got two, and Cottee got one. They beat us 3-0. We played poorly. It was their day, they looked after themselves.”
Three Leicester goals in just nine minutes – after City had gone 277 minutes without conceding. “A desperate day on and off the pitch,” declared BBC Radio 5 Live commentator Ian Brown. The Bantams were heading back into the bottom three, but then there was another twist.
Back at Selhurst Park, a long clearance from Villa defender Gareth Southgate went all the way through to Dion Dublin, and the big striker smashed the ball past Neil Sullivan for 2-1 Villa. Both City and Wimbledon were heading for defeat, leaving the situation as it was before kick off – City a point clear outside the bottom three.
There was certainly no sign of an unlikely revival at Filbert Street. A Sharpe effort saved aside, Leicester looked comfortable. As they knocked the ball around to the oles from the home crowd, Neil Lennon took the taunting of City to another level. He decided to sit on the ball in the middle of the pitch, implying the game was so easy he could have a rest.
This mocking action attracted an angry reaction from City fans and players – and wouldn’t be forgotten by the next time Lennon faced the Bantams.
As the final whistle sounded at Leicester, the City players trooped off looking forlorn but at least under the impression that Wimbledon were about to lose. McCall remembered, “We came up the tunnel after the game and Martin O’Neill and John Robertson said ‘it’s alright wee man, Wimbledon have got beat 2-1.” I said cheers thanks for that.” But then came a late, late sting in the tail from Selhurst Park.
For deep in stoppage time, Wimbledon won a corner, David James came out but missed the ball and substitute Hartson – of all people – headed home. “He may have scored the most important goal of his side’s season,” bellowed BBC Radio 5Live commentator Alan Green.
Cue wild Wimbledon celebrations and even a pitch invasion at full time. “We knew time was running out but we spoke about belief before the game and told the players they’d be expected to run until they dropped,” Burton purred after.
Jewell recalled, “When we went into the dressing room after the game we thought at least Wimbledon had lost – then someone knocked on our door to tell us they had scored in time added on. It was a double whammy.”
It meant the situation had become even tighter. Both clubs were level on 33 points, but Wimbledon had a better goal difference by three. So the Dons climbed out of the bottom three, with just one game to go.
As the dust settled for City, they knew that they had to better Wimbledon’s final day result to survive. But whilst the Dons had a trip to lower mid-table Southampton, City faced the daunting task of playing the mighty Liverpool at home.
A long week lay ahead, waiting for a final Sunday afternoon battle that would decide the whole season.
City: Clarke, Halle, O’Brien, Wetherall, Jacobs (Sharpe 10), Blake, Dreyer (Lawrence 60), McCall, Windass, Beagrie (Rankin 71), Saunders
Categories: Premier League Years