Playing to be playing for something

By Jason McKeown

When you’re a football fan, there’s always a way to be haunted by your past. There are those away grounds where you suffered a painful defeat many years ago. An opposition club who once denied you promotion or relegated you. A set of circumstances where it all went horribly wrong. The memories fade, but the emotions can be easily triggered again. Especially when events conspire to return you to the scene of a previous dark place.

For Bradford City, playing Crewe Alexandra away in the penultimate game takes me back to my first season supporting the club, and a trip to Gresty Road in April 1998, that also came with two games to go. It was an absolutely awful experience. City – then in what’s now called the Championship – went 1-0 down in the 20th minute, 2-0 behind by the 26th, 3-0 by the half hour mark. It was 4-0 to Crewe before half time. All of these goals scored directly in front of those us suffering in the away end.

Crewe would ease up slightly in the second half, only adding one more. But the 5-0 defeat City endured was as wretched and pathetic as any subsequent performance I’ve ever seen from a Bradford City side. A starting XI that included future promotion heroes Gary Walsh, Wayne Jacobs, Andy O’Brien, Jamie Lawrence and Robbie Blake were absolutely hapless. Even now, the name of City’s right back that day – Steve McAnespie – invokes an involuntary shudder from me.

In time, that thumping to Crewe would be looked back on as a pivotal moment in City’s history. Paul Jewell was in charge until the end of the season, having taken over when Chris Kamara was controversially sacked. It was not going well, even before they stepped out onto the field at Crewe. And as fans, we all expected a summer managerial change given the colossal ambition of chairman Geoffrey Richmond. Especially after that horrendous first half performance.

Yet what we didn’t know then was Richmond had told Jewell the day before the Crewe game that he would remain in charge next season – with one slight caveat. “Geoffrey pulled me on Friday, said he was going to give me the job on a two-year contract – and the throwaway line from him was ‘as long as we don’t get beat 5-0 at Crewe’,” Jewell told me when I interviewed him for my book Who We Are.

What saved Jewell’s managerial career was how he reacted to City’s first half humiliation. Utterly livid, Jewell threw his players out of the dressing room. He ordered them to go back onto the pitch, where they spent the half time break sat inside the centre circle, facing the wrath of us City fans.

Richmond would later state that the manager’s strong half time response convinced him that Jewell was the right man to lead the club next season. Jewell added, “I was so angry. I just thought I can’t be seen to be soft. I don’t know if some supporters thought I was just one of the lads and went easy on them, so I had to prove I wasn’t. I was embarrassed by the performance, and I wanted them to be embarrassed too.”

Not that any of this registered on the day. Sat in the Crewe away end, I felt angry and cheated by a group of players who looked like they didn’t care.

City were sat in midtable and had nothing to play for, but to perform so pathetically felt like a direct insult – given all the effort it took for us fans to be there. This would prove to be part of a run of four defeats from five to see out the campaign. It still stands out as one of the worst endings to a Bradford City season I’ve ever experienced.

25 years on, this Wednesday, Bradford City have a chance to go to Crewe and create a new memorable moment in their history. In front of another sell out City away end, they can not only seal a play off finish, but keep their automatic promotion hopes alive, going into the final game of the season. Whatever might happen on Bank Holiday Monday, if City are to go into their last match, against Leyton Orient, with a chance of automatic promotion, it will feel special.

And rare.

The crazy element of our modern history is that we’ve not gone into the season’s final game with something to play for since the 1999/00 campaign. 23 years ago. Twenty-three!

That last occasion was the one where Bradford City, then in the Premier League, beat Liverpool to stay up. Amazing scenes at Valley Parade, as one of the best atmospheres the ground has ever seen helped the Bantams to confound the considerable odds and remain in the top flight. There was a gleeful pitch invasion at the final whistle, and the celebrations went on for some time.

Weirdly, at the time it was the fourth season in five that City had gone into the final day of the season with something major to play for. Hull away in 1996, to seal a play off spot. QPR in 1997, to stay up. Wolves in 1999, to make the Premier League. The Liverpool game in 2000 was thrilling. But at the time, kind of normal.

Since then, City have got to their final match of the season with their fate always sealed. Sometimes for good reasons, such as a play off spot having already been rubber stamped in game 45 (2012/13, 2015/16 and 2016/17). Occasionally the last day has proven a sad state of affairs, namely the relegations that were already mathematically confirmed (2000/01, 2003/04, 2006/07 and 2018/19). But more often than anything else, City have gone into the final game sat in the middle of the league, with nothing riding on their last day result.

It’s not that we haven’t had our share of drama over the years, but at this time of the year – when football fans up and down the country are biting their nails over a huge prize like promotion or survival – we’ve habitually watched on passively, our club doing nothing extraordinary. The closest we’ve come to last day drama has been playing a supporting character role in another club’s last day drama. But it’s never us City fans who are glued to our phones to check scorelines elsewhere. It’s never us with reason to celebrate.

Is it going to be different this season? Perhaps, if City can go to Gresty Road and win (or lose and leave us still not 100% certain of a play off spot, but let’s stick to a positive outlook here). Win on Wednesday, and we can all go to Valley Parade next Monday with an outside chance of glory. Reason to be nervous. Reason to dream. Reason to wonder ‘what if?’. Reason to be there, singing our hearts out for the lads.

And that has been the beauty of these past few weeks. Because as much as we begin pretty much every season with the good intentions of challenging for promotion, our fate has usually been sealed long before now (with the exception of those play off finish seasons, which were always exciting). So often, our end of season run ins have been devoid of tension and purpose.

But this year, we’ve had all the apprehension. All the hours spent studying the league table. All the sharper highs of huge end of season wins. And all the added misery of late season dropped points. We’ve remembered what it feels like to wake up on matchday feeling a bag of nerves. We’ve adopted stalker levels of awareness of other clubs’ fixture lists. And we’ve become temporary fans of any team who could stop our promotion rivals.

Every game has had huge meaning of late. And Crewe away this Wednesday will be the same. Not since 2000 have we played a league fixture in May with something significant riding on the outcome. This is something to savour. And even if you believe that beating Crewe would still make it highly unlikely we’d go up on Monday, the lack of pressure and expectation on City gives us something of a free hit. We can turn up on Bank Holiday Money with the knowledge that, if we don’t achieve it, we wouldn’t be shocked or too devastated.

To achieve that, there’s a big job to do on Wednesday first. Win, and the celebrations will be huge. For long-serving City fans, a late season trip to Crewe is a scenario to invoke stories of infamy. But this time, we’ve got a chance to make Gresty Road the scene of one of the most special occasions in the club’s recent history.

Categories: Opinion


12 replies

  1. Looking at the goal difference
    Maybe we can win 5-0. !

  2. Draw minimum. Away win give us hope. There is no guarantees in this world. We have to play with desire. If we do not get the desired outcome we have to win the next 2 matches. This will put us onto the front foot moving forward into the play offs.

  3. Tomorrow’s match only the third time since the fire disaster 38 years ago that we’ve gone into the penultimate game of the season with a chance of automatic promotion – after 1987-88 (the ‘Nearly Season’) and 1998-99 (promotion to the Premiership)?

    • Remember the 5-0 thrashing away to Crewe well. I was playing in a tennis match that day, but was eager to know the score. When I found out I thought it would be the end of Jewell as manager. So glad it wasn’t!

      Tomorrow is a HUGE game for us. Winning tomorrow would be massive physiologically. We would have secured a play-off spot at the very least and go into the final game with nothing to lose. Like you say, it would be a free hit.

      Lose and it’s the play-offs, which is what we would all probably expect. Therefore the team can just go out there and play with freedom and go all out for the win. Secure it and we have an outside chance of autmotics, but we would be reliant on both Northampton and Stockport dropping points. I think that is unlikely, although not impossible.

      Let’s focus on tomorrow and secure that win first.

  4. Absolutely buzzing about tomorrows match. It’ll be only my second away game as a city fan – the previous being the 3-2 win at Mansfield last season when Cook scored in the last couple of minutes. Hopefully it will be a similar outcome – although perhaps not quite as close would be good!

    P.S. can anyone confirm what the etiquette is for sitting in your assigned seat for away games- do you have to stick to it, or is it a free for all?

    • It’s invariably a free for all. If you want to sit down, find a seat at the front or you’ll see nothing, because everyone bar the first few rows will be standing all game.

  5. “We’ve adopted stalker levels of awareness of other clubs’ fixture lists”….hahahaha! Its funny because its true!
    Up early Thursday morning Perth Australia time zone to watch the match with crippling anxiety as always, lets get it done 🐓

  6. I well remember that 5-0 day.
    We mercilessly took the piss out of a Crewe bloke in a pink shirt – and he gave it back to us in spades!!

  7. Just imagine, after winning at Crewe, Bank Holiday Monday we go one nil up and Stockport and Northants both go one nil down. Pandemonium! Let’s dream. Come on City!!

  8. I was at Crewe in April 1982 supporting City in the old Division 4. Bradford were on the cusp of promotion and our supporters made up over half the 2,000 fans. City were awful for most of the game; Crewe had so many chances but couldn’t hit the target. Late in the game Dave Staniforth crashed a powerful shot off the Crewe bar from 20 yards and the great Bobby Campbell hammered in the rebound. It finished 1-0 to City and we went up.

    • Couldn’t help but smile at this. Imagine history repeating itself but swap Walker for Staniforth and Cook for Campbell.

      Cheers, Jon!

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