By Nigel Hall
I’m writing this in the aftermath of another blow to Bradford City’s promotion hopes after a last minute Gillingham goal knocked the stuffing out of what would’ve been three points and keep our automatic promotion hopes alive. It was akin to being punched in the stomach and the atmosphere of despondency on the way out amongst fans was palpable.
So having already made plans to write something about the final week (now 10 days due to Coronation) of the season. It feels even more relevant to massage the old emotional nodes within supporters and remind ourselves of where we currently find ourselves against the background of the last six years.
Reading the title, you’d be correct in guessing this is about one of our famous endings to a season that ended in success. Maybe examples in 1999 or 1996 would be more fitting, when success seemed to follow the club around like a Genie granting wishes?
But no, I want to talk about May 1997 and the week that ended as most will know, in our survival in the second tier of English Football. There was something about this period of time, not just at Valley Parade, but around the city of Bradford in general. The mid-nineties in Bradford for me and others was a time when it seemed the sun always shined. Like our parents always said about the 1970s. The district buzzed still with promise and the City centre was a busy place. People bustled in and out of shops, department stores of many years standing still held their own against multinational brands and the local sporting teams were on the up as a re-launched Bradford Northern went off at pace in the Super League as the Bulls brand arrived.
Down at Valley Parade, Geoffrey Richmond quietly and carefully made his plans, much like the Martians in War of worlds, for world dominance. As a city, Bradford had seen its nightlife spend 18 months under the spell of Brit Pop with places like the Queens Hall cellar bar heaved with funny walking and fake Manc accents. On one particular night in 1996 post Wembley triumph I distinctly remember a Bulls player jumping around that very bar with us singing “We are going up”.
But I’m not here for a fuzzy self absorbed spin of better times through my own personal lens that probably is rose tinted with the glasses of youth. There is a message here I wanted to get across. And I will, but bear with me for now…
Entering the 1996/97 season, Bradford City Chris Kamara’s squad had just gained promotion from the third tier. The club was in a transitional period still, it’s fair to say, Geoffrey Richmond had rolled the dice on Kamara’s appointment and it had somehow paid off.
The Bantams (as we were once more rebranded as) started fairly well but soon ran into squad issues, especially with depth and its quality. A grand total of 42 players were used, and the strange transfer goings on are well documented elsewhere.
The Midland Road stand had been knocked down at the end of 95/96, the new one hosting Sheff Utd in a big derby in its first game. Later on March 27th 1997, Queen Elizabeth II officially opened it. Crowds were then up to nearly a 13k average, the fanbase had almost doubled in less than 12 months. Despite the performances on the pitch, it was never dull, always memorable and typical Bradford City. We even made it to TV, as Chris Waddle helped remove Everton from the FA Cup and for one weekend the country’s attention was on him as he faced his former club Sheffield Wednesday in front of 17,800 people.
I attended three fan forums that season which still stand out strongly in my memory. As they define well where the club was and the characters within its walls.
Mark Schwarzer turned up at one, fairly unknown at the time but still the best keeper I’ve seen in our famous colours. He explained to the assembled throng that he had turned down Man City and instead chosen the Bradford as “They’d made the effort and didn’t spell my name wrong.” Ha ha!
Paul Jewell had been loaned off to Grimsby in what it seemed at the time was a long goodbye a mere 18 months earlier. He also had recovered from a broken leg at one point and was now sat in front of supporters inside the old Campbells Bar (currently the city hub) looking like he wanted to be somewhere else.
Jewell was never endearing to supporters as a player or manager and always honest, blunt and with a dark humour. That’s my personal impression anyway, or the one he gave off in the public sphere. But as a player and manager he was fearless. And at this public forum he wasn’t shy in getting across his point.
Asked how he’d found the role of Assistant to Kamara he expressed, and I paraphrase “It’s been a nightmare to be honest. I’d go down to training and there would be some new bloke from somewhere or other. And they’ll ask me to take a look at him and tell them what I think. Then he’d be gone again as quick and another turned up.” That sort of no-nonsense style which was Jewell’s trademark would later give us our greatest achievement in promotion to the Premier League.
Earlier in the season, after a choppy month before Christmas, the boss himself – Chris Kamara – was the guest speaker. The place was packed, and I mean really packed. There had been some pretty scathing media coverage about the team’s performance, booing from the stands (yes it’s nothing new folks) and even a fan run on, take off his shirt and throw it at the home bench.
There was a buzz and air of expectation waiting for Chris to arrive. When he did, the compere had a little word, and Chris pulled a chair front and centre, took off his jacket, put it on the seat then rolled his sleeves up as he took the mic. I remember it so clearly even now. The compere I think asked him how he thought the season had gone so far?
Kamara stood ready for a battle it seemed, in a confrontational stance he said how he “felt we were doing well with what we had to work with, and he knew the criticism was out there but fans had only been writing to him a few months ago saying he’d given them the best day of their lives.”
He continued this defensive monologue when a fan raised his hand, “Sorry Chris, I don’t know what you think were here for, but I am sure I speak for everyone when I say, I think you’re doing a great job mate.” The room exploded in to applause, and chants of “there’s only one Chris Kamara”. The compere had to silence us.
Well Kammy physically relaxed before our eyes, “to be honest” he said, “I thought I was coming to a lynching.” Laughter started, and it never stopped from there on. He lapsed into his after dinner routine, ribbing the various players, including our many keepers. And thinking about it still gives me goosebumps.
We seemed to be so solid as a fanbase then, and united in what we were trying to achieve as a club. The atmosphere, even in struggle, was one of determination. At least amongst the stalwarts and regulars. The contrast with our current supporter base is striking.
As the 1996/97 season headed to a climax, hopes of survival seemed to be slim. A disastrous April saw City only take one point and score one goal in their four games that calendar month. Luckily, relegation rivals Oldham and Grimsby were as bad as we were. The hopes of the Bantams rested on our home form. We had won eight home league games and drawn five, going into the last week of the season, compared to only two wins on the road.
Nobody thought we could do it, the only real glimmer of hope we’d had was this game in hand we’d discounted for weeks as a nothing game. Suddenly, Charlton at home on Thursday May 1st 1997 loomed large as an unexpected opportunity to take survival back into our own hands and into the last game.
I may have just taken biggest run up to the whole point of this article since the Alan Sheehan penalty at York. But the fans reading who are new to details of this season can see from above, that even in this frankly awful 96/97 season of football, there was plenty to remember.
Before City survived, most details of the year and the surrounding cultural goings on both national and personal would be instantly forgotten. But because of the end result and the outpouring of joy that came with it, these events become rubber stamped in memory. And there wasn’t a bigger change on the horizon than this one week in May.
On Monday 28th April 1997, Blood on the Dance floor by that Michael Jackson fella was No.1 – pretty forgettable really. But coming up behind in the Top 20 was a song by D-REAM called “things can only get better” which instantly now harks back to that week’s General Election.
So far 1997 had already provided us with the launch of Channel 5, Swampy, John Major’s extra marital affairs and Dolly the first cloned Sheep. There was an air of expectation going into the working week that years of Tory rule were coming to an end. Whatever your political persuasion, it seemed inevitable change was coming.
I’d got roped into helping the Lib Dems funny enough, despite being a Labour voter normally. I wasn’t convinced Tony Blair’s Labour really offered an alternative and despite getting a lot of grief at the time I was vindicated over the years. After finishing work on Thursday 1st May I was picked up and given a lift to the party campaign headquarters, the home of local Lib Dem Councillor and City fan David Ward. I had been convinced there would be no problem getting me into the count despite my ID pass being that of another volunteer not of the same gender. No please don’t ask, I make a very ugly woman.
Passing the armed police on the doors (there had been issues in Bradford with violence at counts around that time) at Eccleshill School and into the bustling array of political bods. My mind wandered to the game at Valley Parade that same evening. I’d been committed to the Election for a month, so I knew already I would be missing the game unfortunately. There were no mobile phones, Twitter or iFollow about in 1997. Just radio.
Someone had one in a back room at the school. I barely strayed further than 6ft from it all night. As the night went on, I heard bits and bats of info about the game. Whilst surrounded by beaming Labour activists and dour despondent Conservative ones. The national exit polls were about to begin when I heard a small commotion and went to investigate.
There had been a goal at Valley Parade, but we didn’t know for which side, “For the love of God someone find out”, I growled. Then, YES – it was City and that Nigel Pepper who had scored. We were winning – we were bloody winning! As full time came, I swooned into the main hall beaming. “They’ve done it!!” I shouted – and, I kid you, not dozens turned round. “Who’s done what?” they asked. Expectation that a big Government figure had lost their seat.
“Citeh” I said. “they’ve beaten Charlton!” – I was on the end of a lot of rolling eyes and people in rosettes of varying colours glared.
The evening drifted into the early hours as I returned home to watch various political heavyweights lose their jobs live on TV. The whole thing was surreal to say the least, a story among dozens repeated across the City, as elsewhere the club took a real step towards survival.
Three days later, live on Sky TV, Bradford City would beat QPR to stay in the second tier on the final day. That afternoon is well documented, but I’ll never forget that week in May, and that Thursday night especially.
The relevance of May 1997 – going into the last week of our current season – is clear to me though. Because back in the present. we’ve another midweek game in hand next Wednesday. Another season defining match we’ve had an eye on for some time. Another Election day the day after, A King’s Coronation – followed by a final match moved to a bank holiday.
Despite Saturday’s set back against Gillingham, people will tell you they are starting to feel it all again. The nerves of a run in, the personal events surrounding it. The stories of the day and the journey all season that got us here.
You can feel it, if you’ve been through it before. It’s so palpable, you can almost taste it. The disappointment followed by hope, then disappointment again. It’s all there to be soaked in and experienced – good and bad.
It’s been a long six years to get back to this stage again. We know the score, this is City – we do it hard, not easy. As we head into a season defining game at Northampton on Saturday, we can choose to enjoy this as best as we can, and accept these times are special. Or we can be surrender monkeys. Give up, and pass that lack of belief on to the players.
IF we succeed, we head to Crewe with everything in our hands. It’s very much still all to play for.
For me personally, the events surrounding the last few weeks will go alongside the other special years. As we beat Sutton at Valley Parade on Easter Monday, I’d just had my final five year scan for cancer. As City prepared to face Rochdale, my first grandson was born. I then flew off to Rome (yes really) and found myself watching us beat Dale 3-0 on a hotel bed, 1,000 miles away. Myself and my youngest gave the locals a rendition of “watching Bradford City putting on a show” after a late Italian Tea.
All this will undoubtedly drift away into memory over time. But should we get promoted, what you were doing and where you were at the end of April 2023 may well stay with you forever. So make the most of these days, because they are undoubtedly the best you’ll experience as supporters.
Great article that takes us down memory lane and reminds us of the highs and lows of supporting a football club. The parallels between the 1997 relegation battle and the current promotion push are clear, and the author’s message of enjoying these special moments and believing in the team is a positive one. Well written and engaging.
Some great memories of yesteryear Nige that hopefully provide the catalyst for this current side to achieve similar success in the coming weeks 🤞🏻
Thanks. I loved your writing.
I have always said that the Charlton match was the most exciting I have ever seen, on a level with the 2-2 draw in FA Cup 5th round v Burnley in 1960.
Charlton had nothing to play for but played as if their lives depended on it.
Memory tells me they were the better team that night, but City prevailed, thanks very much to Pepper and his goal.
I listened to the election exit polls on the way home and didn’t care.
City needed to beat QPR. Which they did with some ease after an early scare.
But Tony Blair’s election-winning night will always be happy for me, and my happiness had nothing to do with him.
I remember the Charlton game well, they came at us giving all they had.
Just prior to Nigel scoring, Charlton had a two gilt edged chances.
Aiden Davison was in our goal, he pulled off a fantastic save low down to his right hand post, then somehow got straight back up and immediately pulled off an even better save low down to his left hand post. The best double saves I’ve ever seen … The rest they say is history
Great article, thank you for taking the time and effort to write it. The 1996/1997 was the season that my friend attended all 46 league games. Playing Charlton Athletic on a Thursday evening, I think that meant we played every day of the week that season.
I am certainly enjoying our end of season run in. Like you say, it’s the first time since the 2016/2017 season that we’ve had an exciting end to our season. I appreciate that many supporters are frustrated that we’ve picked up one point from our last two league games. However, this is Bradford City and we very rarely do things the easy way. I could see us drawing at Northampton Town tomorrow just to ramp up the tension further for the Crewe Alexandra away game. Over the course of this season, I think the highest league position we’ve achieved is fourth and I don’t believe that we have been consistently good enough to be promoted automatically. Let’s enjoy the last three games of the standard season and then let’s hope that we can enjoy three more games after that before our season ends.
Fantastic piece my friend. I’ve felt something about this season myself, even amongst the gloom and frustration at times, it’s still been there. The squad the individuals within it, the gaffer, the away day memories. It’s surely not been for nothing I keep thinking. My son is now an ardent 8year old City fan – in Middlesbrough that gets some head scratching at school 😂 having been mascot for … of all games the bloody Barrow game and he still loves us! I will be gardening and praying tmrw at home and tuned in who knows what will happen ? Probably I-follow will crash again and we will win whilst having to follow it on sky sports news / like what happened to me for the Stevenage away game earlier this year! I remember that season so well, absolutely loved it the times of our lives really compared to the 20odd crap ones between then and now 6 good ones I can count! That Crewe game has lingered in the background for a few weeks now to be fair and I’ve said many times to those I know that we only need to be 3 points adrift on the last day to be in with a chance ! Maybe….maybe .
And congratulations on your personal stuff – Great for you bud
Remember it well, tension and expectations at the Charlton game, then QPR on tv in a bar near Leicester returning from RL final at Wembley previous day. Very happy for you re your personal success te your health