|Bradford City 2|
|Angol 32, 90+8 (pen)|
|Oldham Athletic 1|
Written by Jason McKeown (all images John Dewhirst)
It’s the things you forget you remember. The way the Valley Parade main stand creeps into view over the roof tops as you walk along Manningham Lane. The greenness of the grass when you catch a glimpse of it from the concourse. The sharp speed your seat recoils back into upright position when you stand up for a moment.
Walking inside Valley Parade for the first time in 532 days, the swelling of emotions inside was overpowering. At last, and after so much anticipation, we reacquainted ourselves with our football club. With our stadium. With our home.
It all seemed so surreal to be setting foot inside Valley Parade. After all this time, and after such a period of struggle for all of us, to actually be here again felt so special. To be doing something so beautifully normal. A routine that you’ve been denied for so long.
We can, finally, now see people we couldn’t see. Do things we couldn’t do. Go places places we couldn’t go.
It was such a strange but lovely feeling. Taking in the sights and sounds that seem so distant and yet feel so familiar. You know every nook and cranny of the walk to the ground, to your usual turnstile, along the concourse and to your seat.
There’s always something so uplifting about emerging into the bowl of the stadium and the vastness of the stands around you. The noise and energy coming from all different directions. But when you’ve not been able to do it for so long, it takes your breath away and requires you to pause for a moment to regain your composure.
On your way to the ground I watched as friends, who had clearly not seen each other since before the pandemic, embraced each other. Some hugged, some fist-bumped. Some smiled, some had tears in their eyes. There was an awkwardness in many not knowing quite what to say to each other after so long. A sense some people were trying to rein in their emotions and disguise how pleased they really were to see old mates again. Their efforts to play it cool were betrayed by their body language filled with awkward joy.
There was no two metre rule. Very few people wore masks. The recent norms of social distancing simply do not work in confined stairways on the Kop, or mingling with people near your seats. And in some ways it was a bit uncomfortable – but in others it was beautifully mundane.
This is what it’s always like in crowds. You’re surrounded by hundreds of different groups and conversations. Your efforts to walk to a certain place slowed down by a sea of bodies to navigate past. You have to queue up for the toilet and to get a drink.
It’s not anything we’ve not been used to over years and years of coming to Valley Parade and supporting Bradford City. But it’s strange to experience it again, after long periods of only being allowed to mingle with your own household.
With 20 minutes to kick off the atmosphere inside Valley Parade was already electric. The players completed their warm ups to a huge ovation, and the brand new atmosphere section of the ground – who were absolutely magnificent throughout the afternoon – led everyone through a sing-along of classic chants. In no time at all ‘Take me home’ was booming out over the sound system and the players took to the field to a cauldron of noise.
Oh wow. I’ve missed this. So, so much.
I’ve only ever cried twice during my 24 years supporting Bradford City. They came in quick succession at Villa Park, in January 2013, and at Wembley stadium, in February 2013, when our football club defied all odds and every piece of logic you thought existed to reach a major cup final as a fourth tier club. Just before the teams came out against Swansea that day, as the atmosphere turned into a frenzy, I found myself – without warning – crying tears of joy from feeling so proud.
That moment today, when the teams came out for kick off and we applauded them onto the field for the first time in 18 months, was as close as I’ve since got to shedding a tear at the football. And looking around me, there were plenty of others who were similarly on the verge of crying – or who could not hold back.
For all we’ve been through since the world came to a stop because of Covid, this was a moment that truly confirmed life, as we know it, is back. That a sight which years of often weary football supporting meant we took for granted was once again here to revel in.
I make it there have been 76 Saturdays since we were last here at Valley Parade, together, to watch Bradford City in competitive action.
All those empty afternoons, many when weren’t supposed to leave our homes for more than an hour. We struggled to fill that void of endless time with great meaning. The walks around the neighbourhood. The Netflix binge watching. The baking attempts, that went well or were a disaster.
Nothing could truly compare to an afternoon at the football.
After referee Steve Martin blew for kick off and another roar of encouragement for the players filled the air, there was another moment to pinch yourself and reflect on the landmark occasion.
Live football truly has returned.
In the middle of this sea of emotion, a football match took place and it was rather a good one. Befitting the occasion, Bradford City would ultimately triumph in the most dramatic of manners. Achieving a hard-fought victory with the very last kick of the match.
That the outcome was defined on such fine margins was the story of a game in which the home side recorded a bucket load of chances and yet had just 35% possession over the 90 minutes.
Oldham Athletic had endured a troubled build up to this game but were full of spirit and played well for large periods. The visitors’ 3-4-3 formation saw wide forwards Dylan Bahamboula and Jamie Hopcutt attempt to drag City centre halves out of position with clever running, whilst wingers Nicky Adams and Jack Stobbs hugged the touchlines and gave the home full backs a tough time.
At times when Oldham came forward – especially in the second half – they had the overload of an extra player to City’s backline. Yet for all the promising short passing, Oldham were too often let down by a poor final pass. “We’ve let them off the hook”, rued Oldham stand-in manager Colin West.
It’s clear that Derek Adams is not a manager who cares much about possession. His Morecambe side promoted last season had the lowest average possession in the entire division, and his first three games in charge have followed a similar pattern.
Instead, Adams favours a more direct approach. Getting the ball up the park quickly, winning flick ons and registering shots at goal. It is not football for the purists for sure but it is exciting to watch. The early indications are this is not the turgid style of play he deployed for Morecambe over the play offs. That with greater resources that come from managing Bradford City, he has a desire to play on the front foot and in turn get supporters off their seats.
Early, early days so far. But – encouragingly – this is looking more Phil Parkinson type of pragmatic football than Peter Taylor or Gary Bowyer.
The opening goal in this contest personified the direct approach perfectly. Richard O’Donnell – who had a fine afternoon in goal – delivered a long punt up the middle of the park, Andy Cook flicked the ball on to Lee Angol. And the summer signing from Leyton Orient struck a powerful shot that the hapless Danny Rogers somehow allowed to creep into the goal.
What a noise. Valley Parade erupted as it let out one huge collective cheer. It is moments like this that remind you why football is the greatest sport in the planet. Goals have such an element of unpredictability, and a rarity value that other sports simply cannot match. One moment all was relatively calm, the next pandemonium. As Angol was mobbed by ecstatic team mates, the sights and sounds of 16,000 home supporters going absolutely wild are joyous to soak in.
You forget how good this feels.
I watched, I think, every single home game last season through the lens of iFollow. I saw, through my laptop, Bradford City players scoring goals during a troubled campaign. But being back here, I just can’t begin to imagine how hollow those players must have felt celebrating inside an empty arena.
Without fans, football is completely devoid of its heart. But my goodness its soul has returned.
City were, in truth, slightly fortunate to go in front at that point, given Oldham had just enjoyed a decent spell on top. But the team is set up expertly to take advantage of the breaks and gain more than it will sometimes merit. The opposite, in so many ways, to a Stuart McCall side who could dominate games but fail to win.
In the second half, City continued to play on the counter attack. Winning turnovers and quickly getting the ball forward to create chances. Angol could and should have had a hat trick, wasting two presentable opportunities charging through on goal, where he failed to hit the target. Cook, who was excellent leading the line, might have done better with a couple of efforts too. Adams will be concerned that only four of his side’s 19 shots on goal were on target.
Oldham would not lie down and continued to pass their way forward. Pushing City back for spells, and creating a few jitters. Whilst the inclusion of Gareth Evans in the Bantams’ midfield might have brought some pre-match groans, he did a good job at winning back possession and tracking Oldham runners. When he was forced off through injury early in the second half, City were less effective during periods out of possession.
Callum Cooke once again had to drop back, which limited his effectiveness coming forward. And though Evans’ replacement – Charles Vernam – was hugely impressive going forward, City struggled with less defensive cover. Nevertheless, on the chances they created they should have been out of sight.
1-0 is always a dangerous lead though. And Oldham netted an equaliser deep in stoppage time through the talented Bahamboula. The sizeable Oldham away following celebrated wildly, as home supporter heads slumped into hands.
It was, seemingly, a bum note to end such a brilliant day. And the sharp pain it caused you inside was a reminder of just how much live football can hurt. I experienced lots of misery and frustration watching City online last season, but somehow the agony feels more cutting when you invest time and effort in being there rather than switching on a laptop.
And then, even deeper in stoppage time, Angol helped to create a final attack and was tripped in the box. Penalty to Bradford City!
The pause waiting for a spot kick to be taken is pure agony. The longer it goes on, the more the pressure on everyone seems to build. Everyone was stood up in the Kop. I had my two young daughters with me – an eight-year-old who has been coming quite regularly since 2016, and a three-year-old, who today was attending her first ever football match. Neither could see with everyone stood up, so I lifted them both up – one in each arm.
As Angol’s penalty somehow crossed the line despite Rogers’ best efforts, the noise inside Valley Parade was incredible. And there I was, stood right in the middle of all this. My 8-year-old in one arm, my 3-year-old in the other. The three of us cheering and embracing.
It is a special, special moment – especially given the backdrop of the last 18 months. And it is something I will never forget.
There was no time even for Oldham to kick off. And as the City players, Adams and coaching staff celebrated on the field, and the crowd warmly applauded their efforts, the fact we were facing the agony of failing to win just moments earlier seemed hard to believe.
This is football and why we love it so much.
Valley Parade was absolutely rocking and no one wanted to go home. Eventually we have to head out into the Bradford evening – me and my wife’s voices both sounding gravelly from all the chanting – we walk to the car and we hear snippets of other conversations about how amazing that ending was. Smiles are fixed on everyone’s faces. It will take some effort to wipe them off.
Meanwhile a beaming Adams was making it clear to the local media just what an impact the crowd had – “The atmosphere was electric and we fed off that.”
When I first fell in love with Bradford City 24 years ago, it wasn’t because of a great player, amazing goal or a wonderful victory. It was the intoxicating experience of Valley Parade. Of walking into a stadium and my jaw dropping to the floor, as I took in the wonderment of this fabulous place.
The noises, the chanting, the closeness to the action. But more than anything else the fact there was the wonderful community of people who all shared the same hopes and goals, and that you could rock up and join them – no questions asked.
I feel in love with Bradford City because of that feeling of belonging to something.
As we’ve all had to make our own separate ways through this pandemic, some of us having it much tougher than others, we’ve not had that same sense of collective belonging. It has been fragmented. Lacking that central focal point of all being at Valley Parade together. And at some points, as we’ve had to mainly communicate through the divisive world of social media, arguing and falling out non-stop, it’s not always felt like we were that same community.
But here, today, at Valley Parade, at our home, the warmth was here again. The sense of belonging was restored. We supporters were back at the heart of Bradford City Football Club. Actively playing our part. Creating something just as special for the players to perform in as it was for us to be a part of. And for that and so many other reasons, this is one Bradford City game that deserves to be remembered and cherished fondly for many years.
We’re Bradford City. It’s great to be back.
Categories: Match Reviews