By Jason McKeown (all images by John Dewhirst)
Valley Parade, on a Saturday afternoon, has a magnetising effect. Across the city, from 2pm, groups of people pour out of pubs, leave behind the shops, and begin the walk towards BD8. They’re joined by others. Parking up their cars, hopping off the train, leaping off the bus, falling out of taxis. Groups of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 people, merging into other small groups, all walking along the pavement in the same direction. It becomes a snake of people, trudging towards Valley Parade from all corners.
It’s Saturday 29 February 2020 – one year ago this weekend. And Bradford City are hosting Plymouth Argyle in a League Two fixture. Whilst other parts of the country are stocking up sandbags in response to yellow warnings about floods, Bradford brims in afternoon brightness. It had been raining for days in West Yorkshire, it seems, putting this very fixture in doubt. But after surviving two pitch inspections, it’s game on and the sun is out. Although the multiple layers of shirts, jumpers, jackets and coats sported by those venturing to Valley Parade underlines the still freezing temperatures.
The chitter chatter down Manningham Lane, along Midland Road, up Thorncliffe Road is reassuringly ordinary. Stories swapped of recent drunken nights out, gossip exchanged about what’s going on in the office or amongst friends, family and neighbours. “What did you get up to last night?” “I’ve got tell you this story about what the wife said the other day!” “Did you watch Man City beat Real Madrid in Spain on Wednesday?” “They reckon Callum Cooke might be back today!”
Banter goes back and forth between groups of City fans who have shared the same matchday routine for years and years. Your dad, your mum, your brother, your sister, your kids, your best mate, your friend who you only see when City are playing.
They file past the Tesco Express, where people are sat drinking cans of lager or scoffing down packaged sandwiches. Past the badge seller on Manningham Lane. Or the sweet shop stall on Midland Road. The various programme sellers. The hotdog van. Everyone joins the queues at the turnstiles. Queues that grow in length as 3pm draws nearer.
If anyone was talking about current events on the way into Valley Parade, they might be discussing a still barely known illness called coronavirus. That morning, it was reported the UK had just recorded its 23rd case of the disease. We’d seen news reports of localised shutdowns in parts of China and Italy, which seemed like an alien concept. Imagine what it must be like to be told you have to stay at home?
Big gatherings – like the one at Valley Parade today – remain as ordinary as butter on toast. Only the day before, tens of thousands of kids had skipped school to go and see Greta Thunberg speak in Bristol. Tomorrow, Man City were playing Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup Final – an occasion played in front of 82,145 spectators.
Inside Valley Parade, everything was routine and normal. The PA system blasted out a selection of indie tunes chosen by club sponsor the Record Café. The pitch looks absolutely dreadful, and both sets of players have to navigate large puddles of mud as they warm up. It’s Stuart McCall’s third home game since returning as manager at the start of the month. And after back-to-back away defeats, the buoyant mood has been dampened. City are drifting away from the play off picture, and they really need to win today.
By the time the game kicks off, a commendable 14,219 supporters are inside Valley Parade to roar on their respective teams. Plymouth have brought a decent following from Devon – some had set off in the supporters coaches at 6am that morning – encouraged by the fact they’d only lost one of their last 11 fixtures. Argyle are progressively climbing the league after a slow start to the season.
Not that they take their momentum into this match. Just six minutes in, Connor Wood swings over a cross and Ben Richards-Everton gets free at the back post to head City in front. It is his first – and will also be his last – goal at Valley Parade. As the City players race over to hug the big defender, home fans in the Main Stand, the Kop and the Midland Road Stand leap to their feet and cheer. A communal outpouring of joy. A big goal in a big game.
The match proves a cracking advert for lower league football. Plymouth are going for automatic promotion and have turned up to attack. The action swings end to end, and the tackles are full blooded. Five minutes before half time, Argyle defender Gary Sawyer takes out Dylan Connolly. There is outrage in the home stands, and on the City bench. After a long consultation with the assistant, the referee Carl Boyeson brandishes a red card. Argyle manager Ryan Lowe and his players dispute the decision, but it’s done now.
Within minutes, a City corner is half cleared to Connolly, and the Irishman produces a stunning curling effort that flies into the top corner. City fans are once again on their feet, hugging and high fiving each other about the now-commanding Bantams lead caused by a wonder goal. Smiles are on the faces of everyone connected with the club.
Half time brings the usual mix of tunes over the PA system. Long queues at the concourse bar. Pints of beers quickly supped. Pies munched down. The TVs fixed to the walls beam out Sky Sports News, which show a vast array of scores from up and down the country. West Ham 2 Southampton 1. Blackburn 1 Swansea 1. Blackpool 1 Ipswich 0. A few yards away from the large groups gathering around the monitors, the toilets are creaking under the heavy demand.
City are in a great position, but the recent change of manager from the pragmatic Gary Bowyer to the adventurous Stuart McCall means the ambition is to still score more goals rather than sit back. The 10-men of Plymouth are on the ropes, as City attack the Kop end with purpose. Connolly, Shay McCartan and Lee Novak have glorious chances to make it 3-0, but can’t take them. Then Connolly charges down the wing, pulls the ball back to Clayton Donaldson for a tap in, but somehow the veteran striker screws his shot wide.
In the Kop behind the goal Donaldson where has just missed, heads are in hands. Groans fill the air. Before there is a belated applause for the great City build up play. It’s an action-packed encounter that you can’t take your eyes off. Plymouth are still attacking, but City should have finished them off. Get a third, and the floodgates could really open.
The sky begins to grow darker. Sunset is approaching. The clock is running down and it will soon be time to go home. But the drama of the game doesn’t let up. Antoni Sarcevic is already on a booking when he goes into Connolly. It’s not a great challenge, and Boyeson gives him a second yellow. Argyle fans are booing Connolly, who they perceive to have now got two of their players sent off. “He was throwing himself around like a baby,” Lowe claimed about Connolly after the game.
Plymouth are down to nine men, and surely now it’s game over. Yet within three minutes, they’ve scored. Jake Reeves gives the ball away weakly. Ryan Hardie skips clear of fellow substitute Adam Henley, cuts inside and hits a low shot. Richard O’Donnell somehow fails to stop a relatively tame effort, and the ball trundles over the line. 2-1. Five minutes of stoppage time are signalled. It’s a nervy ending.
At some home games, with the outcome is clear cut, the crowd begin to file out to beat the rush. But there’s very little sign of early departures going on here. The home fans roar their team on, urging them to keep the ball from Plymouth. To not throw away a vital three points. Everyone starts to whistle, to urge Boyeson to do the same. Eventually he does blow for full time, and the cheers of victory are mixed with relief. A very poor ending to the game for City, but they’ve held on. “It was relief when the referee blows his whistle because we have not managed the game properly, like we should do,” McCall would later reflect.
The game over, we file out into the Bradford night. Get back to our cars, catch our train, or head to a pub. Conversations rumble on about the match. Grumbles about the way we were hanging on. Smiles at recalling Connolly’s wonder goal. The gap to the play offs is now just two points, and next week City are off to Salford City. Can we do it?
There will be another home game in two weeks, or so it seems. But little did we know that this would be the last time we would set foot inside Valley Parade for 12 months and counting. That Covid would completely turn life on its head. That, for many of us, the will-we-won’t-we push for the play offs would pale into insignificance, against a backdrop of keeping safe from a deadly virus.
The struggles of managing to get by on furlough pay. Or sadly even losing our job. Or the mixed bag realities of working from home. Of not seeing friends and family in person. Of Zoom calls and Tiger King marathons and baking bread and daily walks and Jo Wicks fitness sessions and daily Amazon deliveries and Clap for Carers and Downing Street Covid briefings and “you’re on mute” and so, so many cancelled plans.
It’s been a rollercoaster 12 months. A period that none of us have ever experienced before. And though City have come back to play games and are in the midst of the 2020/21 season, every match is played behind closed doors. We’ve swapped our season ticket seats for a spot on the sofa, watching games through the lens of iFollow. There are people who we normally go to watch City with who we’ve not seen in person since. And, sadly, won’t for some time.
None of this seemed plausible one year ago, as we marched out of Valley Parade after a typical Saturday afternoon watching our team. This week’s government announcements suggest we’ll definitely be back next season. Still, it’s going to be a while until we’re all together to enjoy a matchday routine.
But when that day finally comes, it will feel all the more special for everything we’ve endured through the pandemic. All whilst denied the simple, comfortingly familiar pleasure of going to the football.