By Jason McKeown
When Bradford City welcome Mansfield Town to Valley Parade on Tuesday they could achieve a fifth straight win. It’s been a truly remarkable upturn in form. And if it continues, they will surely climb into the promotion places very soon.
One of the aspects that has made the recent run of form so uplifting is just how grim things have been for the club of late. The decline from the 2017 League One play off final to slumping to 23rd in League Two is well documented. It has been a truly miserable period to be a City fan. With the struggles over the first half of this season coming against a backdrop of Covid-19 lockdown restrictions that have tested everyone’s mental wellbeing.
The recent revival has been a belated bright spot in a sea of despondency and uncertainty. Offering some much needed joy when life is tough for every City supporter.
There are similarities in the backdrop to City’s stunning recent resurgence in form and the last time they managed five wins in a row, which occurred 17 years ago, in October 2004. Back then, Bradford City had been enduring a wretched few years. Relegation from the Premier League in 2001 was followed 12 months later by a first spell in administration that almost put the club out of the business.
They survived and limped on, but the 2003/04 season was one of the worst in the Bantams’ history. City were relegated after losing 30 of their 46 matches, whilst going back into administration to compound the gloom. The events over the summer of 2004 really did suggest it was the end for City. At the eleventh hour they were rescued again, but they began 2004/05 in the third tier for the first time in nearly a decade whilst still technically in administration.
The initial results, in League One, were mixed. City did record decent wins over Doncaster, Stockport, Hull and Bristol City. But over September form slumped with four defeats in five. They went into the month of October sat 15th in League One, looking more over their shoulders than up at the top. Colin Todd – who had taken over as manager in the summer after Bryan Robson opted to walk away – was scathing in his assessment of recent performances. “I will protect the players and look after them but if they aren’t going to show the commitment I’m looking for, then there is going to be a rude awakening,” he fumed.
The words were heeded within the dressing room. As it all changed in spectacular style.
The first of the five straight wins was the most unassuming of the lot. Barnsley were in town for a Yorkshire derby that was low on entertainment. Dean Windass missed a hat trick of chances in the first half; but the Tykes – playing a front two of Michael Chopra and a certain Barry Conlon – offered little at the other end.
Eventually, just after the hour Chopra conceded a penalty after denying Wayne Jacobs’ charge at goal by handling the ball. Windass missed the penalty, but Barnsley keeper Nicky Colgan was adjudged to have come off his line too soon, meaning Windass got another chance. This time he made no mistake to earn City a 1-0 win.
“Deano had the courage to take it again, not many people would have done that,” noted Jacobs of the twice-taken penalty after the game. Captain David Wetherall felt it was a pivotal result, “It was a season-defining game. Before kick-off we were three points off the relegation places.”
Next up was a trip to Milton Keynes and the strange National Hockey Stadium that Wimbledon – just renamed MK Dons at the start of this campaign – occupied temporarily. Under the lights on a Friday night, the Dons struck first through rising-prospect-who-ultimately-did-little Izale McLeod. But in the second half Nicky Summerbee’s corner was headed home by Mark Bower, and in injury time the on-loan targetman Dele Adebola picked up the ball just inside the visitors half, charged into the box and smashed a low shot into the net. A brilliant 2-1 win. Match-winner Adebola summarised, “We kept plugging away and showed we’ve got the capability of always scoring a goal. We were patient and it paid off.”
It wasn’t to be the last game of the run featuring last minute drama. The following match, away to Tranmere, proved to be one of the craziest afternoons in City’s history. It all seemed fairly run-of-the-mill when Adebola set up Steven Schumacher to put City in front with his second goal of the campaign. Tranmere equalised from the spot through future Wigan and Newcastle star Ryan Taylor, and the teams went in at half time 1-1.
Cue a second half of utter chaos. Summerbee’s piledriver of a shot put City 2-1 up before Iain Hume equalised. Then in the 70th minute Windass tapped home for 3-2. When in the 81st minute Ben Muirhead scored a stunning goal after a solo run from the halfway line, victory seemed certain for City. But David Beresford and Hume both scored to make it 4-4 in the 87th minute. Two points surely dropped.
Then, in injury time, Summerbee floated over a free kick that David Weatherall was free to head home. Cue wild celebrations from the City fans in the goal behind. Todd enthused of the 5-4 success after, “That’s the spirit and character we have in the side and the ability. I would settle for performances like that every week.”
Schumacher, who was born in nearby Liverpool, chuckled, “Ryan Taylor, who scored their penalty, is a good mate of mine and I’ve known him since school. We were going for a drink afterwards anyway but I didn’t need to say anything, I just sat quietly in the corner and smiled happily!”
Three wins in three, and the good times rolled on the following Tuesday when Blackpool came to Valley Parade. After having two attempts at goal blocked, Adebola tapped City into the lead on 36 minutes. But the Tangerines – with Simon Grayson playing in defence – came on strong in the second half. They won a controversial penalty that Scott Taylor converted with 76 minutes on the clock. Grayson hit the bar with a header as Blackpool piled on the pressure. City were hanging on, the winning run seemingly over.
Yet again, there was late drama. This time City won it in the 89th minute. Muirhead’s run forward drew a foul. And with the resultant free kick, Summerbee swung over a cross-come-shot that sailed past a sea of bodies and into the bottom corner.
The Kop celebrated frantically another memorable moment. Only two months earlier – the first home game of the season – the crowd had booed Summerbee every time he touched the ball. And though he remained a player curiously unpopular with a section of City fans, the veteran winger’s performances were winning most people around.
Todd was bullish about the big three points and the continuation of the winning run, “I think there will be a lot of people disappointed at the moment with how we are doing because we are up there. Whether it’s other chairmen, pundits, whatever, there are those out there looking for Bradford City to fall down.
“They predicted that we would struggle and we have to keep disappointing them and ramming it down their throats by getting results. We may have surprised other people but we haven’t surprised ourselves and we deserve to be up there.”
It all set up another Yorkshire derby – this time against Sheffield Wednesday no less. Such was the demand for tickets, City took the decision to house some Wednesday fans at the back of the top tier of the Main Stand, as well as the Bradford End and a couple of blocks of the Midland Road stand. The Main Stand allocation was a never-to-to-be-repeated mistake, as late on in the game unhappy away fans in this area would pelt missiles down towards City fans nearer the front. But the presence of a large away following helped to trigger a terrific atmosphere.
13,717 fans were present – 5,000 more than who had attended the Barnsley game. This was an occasion that seemed far bigger than a third tier football match.
The first half was a dull affair, with neither team creating much. But the game pinged into life on the hour. Summerbee played in Michael Symes – who had been brought on to replace the injured Adebola – and the young City forward struck his first Bantams goal with a heavily deflected shot. Three minutes later Summerbee (who else?) played Windass in to make it 2-0 with a glorious lob over Ola Tidman.
The Owls – with a line up that featured Paul Heckingbottom and future Bantam Graeme Lee – hit back when Lee Bullen struck at the far post when a corner wasn’t cleared properly. But City weren’t to be denied. Five minutes after Wednesday had reduced the arrears, Wetherall headed the ball to Muirhead out wide, and the former Manchester United winger expertly pulled the ball back to Symes to lash home for 3-1.
“It was 100 miles an hour,” reflected Tom Kearney later. “But in the second half our quality showed.” Colin Todd proudly beamed, “The players have done remarkably well and they are enjoying it. We’ve shown a lot of people our capabilities and I think we are capable of sustaining that. Our supporters have seen that we can go somewhere. But they have got to be patient like myself.”
Five fantastic wins in a row, lifting City all the way up to 2nd place in League One. And the next fixture was a trip to leaders Luton. It was all too rare 1st vs 2nd clash involving Bradford City, although it proved to be an almighty crash back to earth. Luton – who would go onto win the league that season – raced into a 3-0 lead before half time. They added a fourth in the second half, ruthlessly exposing how far City still had to go.
Still, it had been a heck of an October, with Colin Todd earning the manager of the month award.
It was a run of form that suggested the team could go a long way. Paul Henderson was proving a revelation in goal – he would go on to play in the Championship for Leicester City. Bower and Wetherall had formed a formidable partnership at the back, with Schumacher going onto enjoy an excellent breakthrough season. The old stagers Summerbee and Windass were superb – Windass would finish the league’s top scorer with 28 goals from 44 appearances.
The problem was the lack of depth in key areas. Schumacher apart, central midfield wasn’t brilliant, neither were the full backs – Jacobs, such a great servant to the club, was largely sidelined and left the following summer. Most crucial of all perhaps was the lack of a decent partner for Windass. Adebola’s loan spell was very impressive and he worked well with Windass, but his form was so good it got his career back on track higher up the leagues. Parent club Coventry recalled him, and he became a regular at Highfield Road in their Championship battle. Abebola would go on to play for Nottingham Forest and Hull City.
Those five straight wins set expectations to a level City never managed to live up to. They didn’t actually win another home game until the following March. With an overall run of just four wins in 21 games game dropping them out of promotion contention and down to mid-table – ultimately finishing 11th. Todd’s subsequent two seasons at Valley Parade were filled with a similar sense of treading water, with squad building efforts hampered by a lack of playing budget to truly build a promotion-standard side.
Julian Rhodes reflected to WOAP in a 2013 interview, “Colin was a victim of his own success. That first year he was in charge, at the end of October we were second. And because we missed out on promotion, people said it was narrow failure. But it wasn’t. We were in admin when that season started, with just five players under contract, so he actually did quite well.
“After that, I think expectations were much higher. Colin did well to keep us in the top half of the division for quite a while. But, he wasn’t popular with a section of supporters and ultimately they are the people who pay the money.”
Todd was eventually sacked in February 2007, and three months later City were relegated from League One. They’ve never since bettered the second place League One position they held after the October 2004 Wednesday win.
Until this week’s opportunity, City have only once come close to winning five league games in a row again. That was on the home straight of the 2015/16 season, as Phil Parkinson’s City staged a successful late play off push. From late March – Millwall, Crewe, Scunthorpe and Swindon were all dispatched 1-0. In the fifth game, at Shrewsbury, City were once again a goal up. But, alas, in the 87th minute the excellently named John-Louis Akpa Akpro equalised for the Shrews after a mistake by Ben Williams.
City’s all-time record consecutive league victories? 10 games between November 1983 and February 1984. A glorious purple patch of form that began with a 4-1 win at Brentford, and featured 5-2 hammerings of Bournemouth and Wimbledon, a 6-2 thrashing of Wigan and 2-1 win at Burnley. City finished that season 7th, paving the way for the 1984/85 campaign where they won the league.
The amazing, 10 in a row run of form of 83/84 had come just months after the 1983 financial crisis that looked set to see the club wound up. Then, just like in 2004 and just like now, City treated supporters to a stunning, uplifting run of form after some truly bleak moments.
It’s these upsurges in results that reward us for keeping the faith during the difficult times.