Looking back on Bradford City’s Premier League adventure, 20 years ago.
By Jason McKeown
City 1 Liverpool 0
14 May, 2000
It was a piece of hyperbole that Geoffrey Richmond had used before.
He said it a year earlier, ahead of Bradford City’s promotion decider at Wolves. He’d uttered it only two weeks prior, when talking up the Bantams’ relegation six-pointer with Wimbledon. But few would have disagreed that he was right to say it again. Previewing the final Premier League game of the season against Liverpool, the chairman declared that it was “The biggest game in Bradford City’s history”.
The stakes were absolutely huge. Since the advent of the Premier League in 1992, the top flight had accelerated clear of the rest of the Football League. The influx of lucrative TV deals – the revenue from which the Premier League clubs kept between themselves, rather than sharing out – was creating an ever-increasing gap between the haves and have nots. Yet here were City, dining at the top table. With a chance to keep hold of a place amongst the wealthy elite.
Back in 1999/00, conventional wisdom was that if you could survive the first season in the Premier League, you’d done the hardest part of the job. 10 of the 19 previous clubs to be promoted to the Premier League had gone straight back down, and it was becoming more of a common occurrence.
“Over the last five years of the Premiership, 15 clubs have been there all the time,” Dan Jones, a football analyst with accountants Deloitte & Touche, explained at the start of the 1999/00 season. “There’s a core who stay there, and it’s very difficult to know how to get in and break that cycle.”
If City could just cling on, they’d be in a really strong position to establish themselves as a top flight club for years to come. To be financially stronger than they’d ever been.
The odds were stacked against them. They went into the final round of fixtures needing to better Wimbledon’s result, but facing the tougher game. Yet there was such a strong mentality at the club. A depth of experience at handling the unique pressures of the final day.
It was the fourth time in five seasons City had gone into the last game with promotion or relegation at stake – and in the previous three they’d been victorious. It had become part of the DNA of the club.
Wayne Jacobs had played in all three last-day victories. Paul Jewell was either part of the coaching staff or managing the club. Richmond too had been through the white knuckle ride. The biggest game in the club’s history was a line designed to galvanise fans, and ensure they turned up to Valley Parade in full voice.
They were going to be needed. It wasn’t just that the Bantams were up against the might of Liverpool, they were facing a Liverpool side desperate to win themselves. From 1998, UEFA had granted the Premier League a third Champions League slot for the following season. Liverpool were nowhere near claiming this extra prize in 1998/99, finishing seventh and 21 points shy of third-place Chelsea. But in 1999/00, Liverpool were looking much stronger, blossoming under the management of Gérard Houllier.
Five straight wins in April had left the Reds closing in on a place in Europe’s premier competition – and one they’d not played in for 15 years. But then form had suddenly stuttered, and they travelled to Valley Parade winless in four.
They had fallen one point behind Leeds, who had climbed into the all-important third-place slot. Just as City had to better Wimbledon’s result, Liverpool had to better what Leeds achieved from a trip to West Ham.
So an afternoon of high stakes lay ahead at Valley Parade. Sky Sports opted to screen both the City-Liverpool and Southampton-Wimbledon games live simultaneously, with John Helm also present at Valley Parade to commentate on the game live for the Premier League’s overseas broadcast feed. The football world was watching Bradford City. Not only was it the most important game in their history, it was also the highest level of exposure the club had ever received.
“It was an awfully long week before the match arrived,” Jewell recalled. “With the match being on a Sunday it seemed a long time before it got to matchday and when we it did we were just glad to be getting on with it.
“I asked the lads for one last effort. I told them ‘I know you’ve had a long hard season but I’ve been proud of all of you’.”
Jewell’s team selection had centred on two key decisions. Jacobs had gone off injured at Leicester the week before. And although he was declared fit, Jewell opted to play Lee Sharpe ahead of him at left back – to benefit from his attacking qualities. Meanwhile Robbie Blake – who like most of his team mates had under-performed at Filbert Street – was left out on the bench. This allowed Jamie Lawrence to start. The winger was just back from injury at the end of March and had been missed.
It was a hugely emotional moment for Lawrence. In the build-up to the game, he had received the awful news that his step-dad had bowel cancer. Jewell’s man-management skills came to the fore, as he helped Lawrence to deal with his emotions. “Paul Jewell couldn’t have been more honest and understanding,” Lawrence wrote in his autobiography. “He put my mind at ease and said he knew how I felt because his dad had died of a brain tumour.”
Lawrence would go on to be arguably man of the match. His performance was absolutely immense. “Jewell said that performance was for my dad,” Lawrence added.
There was an inner steel about City right from kick off. A deep sense of unity, that ran through the Valley Parade stands. A sell out City crowd cheered every pass and every tackle. They made a tremendous noise, and the team responded by settling down quickly into the game and striking the first blow.
In the 12th minute, a Dietmar Hamann foul out wide allowed Gunnar Halle the opportunity to whip over a free kick. The Norwegian’s cross was superb, and David Wetherall got free of his marker to plant a bullet header into the top corner. “Two goalkeepers and you wouldn’t have saved it,” was Sky Sports co-commentator Andy Gray’s assessment of the quality of Wetherall’s header. The City defender raced to the corner flag in celebration, as three sides of Valley Parade erupted in celebration.
242 miles away at Southampton, the news of City’s early breakthrough increased the pressure on Wimbledon. Before kick off, they knew that a point or even a defeat might be good enough for them to survive. But as things stood, they now had to beat Southampton.
Meanwhile City were in a fantastic position, and able to deploy a gameplan of bodies behind the ball and counter attacking when the opportunity arose. Dean Windass went close with a free kick effort, and for all Liverpool’s possession they struggled to create meaningful chances. The legendary Barry Davies, commentating for Match of the Day, summarised, “Bradford certainly aren’t playing like a side fighting relegation.”
Houllier had brought Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard back into the side but opted to leave the crafty Robbie Fowler out of the matchday squad entirely. There was a lack of cutting edge to their play, as Wetherall and Andy O’Brien were outstanding. Although right on half time, Liverpool almost broke through to equalise.
A long ball send Owen through, and the England international rounded Matt Clarke. But just as all hope seemed lost, Halle raced back to scoop Owen’s shot off the line. Halle’s heroics were greeted by another huge roar from City fans.
The half time whistle was a relief, and as it stood City were going to stay up. But there was a long way to go. A false rumour that Southampton had scored floated around the Kop just before the break, and there was some disappointment when the monitors in the concourse confirmed there was no goals at the Dell yet. City could still be relegated should Wimbledon score, even if they held on to defeat Liverpool.
12 minutes into the second half, another cheer erupted around Valley Parade – and this time there was no false alarm. Southampton had won a free kick on the edge of the box, and young full back Wayne Bridge smashed home a beauty to put Wimbledon behind. But as City fans cheered, O’Brien was momentarily distracted by the noise and almost let Owen in for an equaliser.
Houllier threw on two extra strikers on the hour, but City continued to defend heroically by throwing bodies in front of shots to deny Liverpool. “They’ve never let Liverpool get into their stride,” commented Barry Davies. With 11 minutes to go, more good news from the Dell flooded in. Marian Pahars had broken clear and smashed the ball past Neil Sullivan to put Southampton 2-0 up. Again, the cheers around Valley Parade almost led to a Liverpool equaliser.
McCall reflected, “The things you remember about that day are the goal of course, and Andy O’Brien was marking Michael Owen. And the two best chances they had was when Southampton scored their two goals against Wimbledon, our crowd went wild, and Andy O’Brien – who had a great game – stopped and stared at the crowd. The next second Owen’s through on goal and nearly scores. Twice Andy did that! Their best chances. We switched off.”
The last 10 minutes were incredible. With Wimbledon 2-0 behind, City could in theory concede an equaliser to Liverpool and still stay up. No one wanted that to happen, but it was a cushion at least. And as Liverpool continued to pour forward in numbers – Leeds were drawing 0-0 still, so they knew they had to win – gaps at the back presented three big opportunities for City.
First Dreyer came forward with the ball, teed up Windass, who teed up Lawrence, only for his shot to be blocked by Gerrard. Then substitute Isaiah Rankin broke clean through on goal, but his chipped effort bounced agonisingly wide of the post. In the 88th minute, Windass picked up the ball just inside his own half and noticed Sander Westerveld had strayed off his line. Windass produced a superb chip from distance that rivalled David Beckham’s famous goal in 1996, only Westerveld got back to just tip the effort over the bar.
As the game went into stoppage time, the final whistle was confirmed at Southampton and Wimbledon were all but down. At Valley Parade, referee Dermot Gallagher blew for a throw in and some home fans wrongly believed it was the end. They began racing onto the pitch prematurely.
It took a minute or so to clear up, but soon enough Gallagher was blowing the final whistle for real. City had survived. Fans raced onto the pitch in joyous scenes. “They’re celebrating as if they’ve won the Premiership,” bellowed BBC Radio 5Live commentator Alan Green.
“The initial feelings are just of relief,” Jewell told the Telegraph & Argus. “It has been a long season so it was good to do what we set out to achieve. We had been receiving so many negative vibes, both from outside Bradford and within the city, it was a very satisfying moment.
“This is an example of everyone pulling together because they all want to help the team.”
The defeat for Liverpool meant they missed out on Champions League football. “I’m happy for Paul Jewell – at least there’s one Liverpudlian who will be celebrating tonight,” was Houllier’s graceful post-match reaction. Leeds had crawled over the line, drawing 0-0 at Upton Park. They were grateful – or at least should have been – for City’s helping hand.
“Us winning got Leeds into the Champions League,” McCall stated. “And when I got home, David O’Leary’s missus, who lives a few doors down, brought down a bottle of champagne for us. I remember listening to David O’Leary on the radio saying ‘it’s what you do over 38 games that matters’. The interviewer said ‘you must say thanks to your neighbour’s Bradford?’ ‘No, no – we’ve done our bit’. But his missus brought us the bottle of champagne anyway.
“The Liverpool fans were so brilliant. They gave us a round of applause. One of my really good friends when I was at Everton was a Liverpool fan, and he had come over to watch the game. I had got him player’s lounge tickets. And I remember saying to him after the game, ‘we’ve done you a favour today, your team is not good enough for the Champions League. You go into the UEFA Cup, you’ll probably win it’. Next year they won the four cups! I always remind him we did you a favour that day.”
City fans – and players – celebrated long into the night. Against all odds, and after such a tough campaign, they had survived in the Premier League. It was a remarkable achievement for a group of players hastily dismissed as Dad’s Army. Written off and ridiculed by elements of the national media. The Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday pundit, Rodney Marsh, was so confident City would fail, he had pledged to have his hair shaved off if the Bantams stayed up.
“Are you watching Rodney Marsh” was chanted by jubilant City supporters on the pitch, before everyone joined in with the Liverpool fans in singing ‘You’ll never walk alone’.
In amongst the celebrations, Jewell looked relieved but also a little angry. He had been drained by the experience, with his relationship with Richmond strained and potentially past the point of no repair. But his achievements at Valley Parade were valued outside the club.
For whilst City stayed up, Yorkshire neighbours Sheffield Wednesday had been relegated with Wimbledon to the Football League. They’d sacked their manager, Danny Wilson, and needed someone with the know-how and expertise to get promotion to the Premier League. Wednesday wasted no time in pursuing Jewell.
“I was offered the Sheffield Wednesday job in my car going home the evening after the Liverpool game,” Jewell revealed when I interviewed him for my book Who We Are. “I said no, because we’d just stayed up and they’d gone down. If you want speak to the club through Geoffrey Richmond, go and do it, but I’m not going behind anyone’s back.”
Meanwhile Richmond, ever the showman, was arranging for Bradford City to go on an open top bus parade around the city the day after. In truth it was an over-the-top celebration for a team that had finished 17th. But the chairman wanted to milk the moment. “It’s our finest hour,” he beamed. “One of the greatest days in football.”
In six years since buying the club, Richmond had completely transformed Bradford City from lower league underachievers to an established member of the elite. Richmond exclaimed, “This club has moved out of all recognition in the last six years, but in the next four or five years it will move as far forward again. Of that I have no doubt.”
Richmond deserved all the credit that was coming his way. But sadly was to lose sight of the value of those who had helped him to achieve what he had.
City: Clarke, Halle, Wetherall, O’Brien, Sharpe, Lawrence, Dreyer, McCall, Beagrie (Jacobs 81), Windass, Saunders (Rankin 78)
Categories: Premier League Years