Three years ago, Bradford City supporter Jason McKeown told us the story of his club’s lost decade. Last season, however, the Bantams came back, and here’s Jason again on a most extraordinary season for his club.
I can remember the exact moment when the song ‘Feel the love’ by Rudimental changed in my mind from run-of-the-mill drum and bass chart hit to one of the greatest songs of all time. I was stood inside Wembley stadium, alongside 30,999 fellow Bradfordonians, for the League Cup Final. 15 minutes before kick off, this song was blasted out over the PA system and – when the beat kicked in – myself and everyone around me began to go a little crazy. We danced about the aisles, frantically waving flags that had been placed at our seat by the cup’s sponsors. The atmosphere was electric; the excitement levels had blown through the roof; the feeling of pride overwhelming. I smiled, I danced, I waved my flag, and then I broke down in tears. The full scale of League Two Bradford City’s achievement had truly kicked in.
I’ve always dreamed of being part of an occasion like a major cup final, but my head had long since told my heart that there was absolutely no chance of it ever occurring to Bradford City. It’s not included in the brochure when you sign up to support an underachieving lower league club. Such days are meant for the big teams and their fans. To the rest of us, it’s a TV watch that leaves you feeling envious. One day Bradford City will make a major cup final, just as one day pigs will sprout wings. Yet incredibly we got a day like this. And as I glanced up to the wintry sky on that February afternoon, there were no four-legged animals flying above Wembley stadium. Being here, being part of this, was more special than I could ever have believed it could be. Rudimental’s Feel the Love is now the soundtrack to one of the greatest moments of my life. I can’t listen to it without breaking out into a huge grin.
Yes, of course, the game itself was a dreadful anti-climax. Opponents Swansea City exposed the three division gap in the cruellest of fashions, not even affording us a shot on target until Gary Jones trickled through a weak effort in the 87th minute. By that point we were 4-0 down – minutes later it would be five. And it hurt like hell. It was humiliation of the highest order. Just when supporting Bradford City had a centre-of-the-universe feel and you knew that everyone was watching us, we froze and folded tamely. But the reaction to such adversity told you everything about the passion of lower league football. We supporters did not slump off home in despair before the final whistle, nor did we turn on our outclassed players and boo. We stood to our feet, continued to wave our flags and chanted non-stop. Days like this aren’t meant to belong to lowly clubs like ourselves – and Swansea sadly proved that – but seen as we’ve made it to the party, we’re going to make sure that you remember us. And besides, there was still so much to celebrate. City’s League Cup run had come to an end in harrowing circumstances, but what a run. Bradford became the first fourth tier club to reach a Wembley final of a major cup competition. Along the way we knocked out clubs from all four divisions. This included Wigan in their own backyard, Arsenal at Valley Parade for the quarter finals – both via penalty shootouts – and then Aston Villa over a two-legged semi final. A hat trick of Premier League scalps takes some doing. For perspective, bottom Premier League club QPR achieved just four top flight victories over their full 38-game season.
The memories of that cup run now firmly belong in Bantams’ folklore. Moments such as Garry Thompson opening the scoring against Arsenal, Carl McHugh putting City 3-1 up over Aston Villa in the first leg, and James Hanson’s tie-clinching header at Villa Park in the second leg will be treasured forever. The national and international media went potty for Bradford City. The whole experience was intoxicating, utterly memorable and more than worth the trade off of the cup final humiliation to Swansea. Bradford were back on the map. Just short of three years ago, I wrote an article for this site about the 10 years of despair we Bradford City supporters had been subjected to. That decade saw City go from beating the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool in the Premier League to struggling to mount a meaningful promotion challenge out of League Two. It got worse after my piece, with consecutive seasons fighting relegation to non-league – a scenario that would surely, after two spells in administration in 2002 and 2004, have proven too much for Bradford to survive. That we stayed up was a relief of course, but hardly the most satisfying of feelings. Still, finally we have got past rock bottom. The League Cup Final may have ended on a bum note, but fittingly such a spectacular season did have a happy ending. A marathon campaign, which saw the Bantams play 64 games, culminated in a second visit to Wembley Stadium, this time for the play off final against Northampton. Going back so soon to the national stadium was amazing, but the day felt that much more business-like.
Whilst Northampton’s players and fans were busy with their cameras, City’s players adopted a “being-there-done-it” mantra and turned up in regular tracksuits, blowing their opponents away with a stunning first half performance. 3-0 up at the interval and, after seeing the second half out, Bradford City were promoted. For the players. a second walk up to the Wembley presentation balcony in three months – this time as winners. I didn’t cry this time, but many others did. To have a season of such highs was a stunning reward for keeping the faith and still bothering to support Bradford City, following 12 years of misery. That loyalty shown by Bantams supporters should not be underestimated. It’s not so much the losing almost every week, but the negativity that brings with it. The players would be routinely booed off, managers would come under pressure following a couple of defeats and be chased out, on message boards users would argue over every aspect of the football club. You start to believe that no manager in the world is good enough to turn around the endless decline, and that no group of players will ever match our heroes of old.
It takes a lot to want to remain a part of that community. To continue believing that things will one day get better. That the next manager has the answers. That next season we will get it right. Aided by a commendable cheap season ticket initiative, the decline of Bradford crowds has been relatively small. Not only have we remained the best-supported club in League Two through thin and thinner, our attendances routinely exceeded many in the division above. The legacy of this spectacular season is not just a place in League One, or the huge boost to the financial coffers, but a change in culture. By reaching the League Cup Final Bradford City smashed through the glass ceiling of what a lower league club can achieve, and by doing so offered inspiration for a city that has been hit harder than most by the economic downturn. The decline of Bradford the town can be seen when you walk around the city centre to find a giant hole where a shopping centre was supposed to have been built over a decade ago; or by the number of run-down and neglected buildings such as the beautiful Odeon. As I write this the future of one of our proudest landmarks – the magnificent National Media Museum – is in serious doubt.
For its football team to have a great season does not change those problems, but it has evidently helped to bring communities together. Much of the national media coverage of Bradford’s cup final appearance focused on the city’s multi-culturalism. At the club’s richly deserved open top bus parade four days after the play off final victory, there were people of all races and backgrounds forming a bulging crowd to applaud the players. Claret and amber was everywhere. Football’s role in everyday life is often overplayed – whisper it quietly, but it really is only a game – yet still the team’s achievements evidently invoked huge pride from the city that it represents. As for us Bradford supporters, the feel good factor will continue long into the summer. Even the most loyal of us would admit that watching the Bantams had become as much an obligation as it was something we enjoyed doing. That we have experienced some of our best moments ever supporting the club, and have found a new set of heroes who can match up to some of our biggest, is arguably more important than the fact next season we will swap trips to Accrington and Morecambe with visits to Wolves and Sheffield United.
The dark days are over, Bradford City has its self-respect back.
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