Great Football League Teams 15: Bradford City, 1998-9
In his first dedicated piece for the two unfortunates, Michael Wood of the beautifully designed and written Bradford City website Boy From Brazil, treats us to a snapshot of his Bantams-supporting life over the past fifteen years. If you’re anything like me, then you’ll have wondered from time-to-time how exactly City fans feel as their club continues to reap punishment from those two Premier League seasons. Here’s a little window.
The Crumbling Terrace: Preamble One
There we are, on the crumbling terrace of Morecambe’s old Christie Park ground, watching Bradford City and wondering how it all came to this.
It turns out in the game that City will be robbed a winning goal when Peter Thorne bundles in from close range and that a linesman’s flag twitch will bring defeat and more so bring to an end Stuart McCall’s expensively assembled side’s promotion push. Those things are for the future though because the more pressing problem is that the police are taping up a barrier in front of us telling us that we can’t lean on it because “a bit or pressure and it will be over.”
How did it come to this? Why did it come to this?
The Man Who Would Not Walk Again Takes Flight: Preamble Two
Ashley Ward has scored for Barnsley – recently of the Premier League – and they are going to sneak a 1-0 win at Valley Parade despite having only ten men. But something in the Bantams psyche seems to suggest otherwise. Let us not kid ourselves, we have watched Bradford City team edged out of games, losing 1-0 and being a dash unlucky about it, for decades now.
There is something in Paul Jewell’s side, however, which seems to denounce that idea. Jewell is a rookie, younger than his captain McCall at 32, but he seems to have built a team which possesses the character and desire that was sadly lacking in the man as a player.
Two goals were scored in injury time, both by Gordon Watson; a player who 18 months earlier had almost seen his playing days come to an end after a challenge described as “the worst I have ever seen in football” by Chris Waddle. This is his comeback game.
Watson had been taken from the pitch to hospital where he had almost lost his leg to a tackle six minutes into a local derby with Huddersfield. Kevin Gray’s “challenge” came when City were already one down and while a draw was subsequently achieved the whole game was overshadowed by that horrific injury. Then manager Chris Kamara had burst onto the field in anger, his face turning sickly on seeing the wound. Everything else paled into insignificance.
Now Watson was back and within five minutes he had scored two goals and turned a blank return into three points. Moreover, though, he maintained the belief that seemed to have dripped into the club under Paul Jewell. The manager from nowhere brought a sense of belief from somewhere, and it had changed the club.
Two goals in five minutes. It seemed fated, everything seemed fated.
On May 9th at around 2.17pm on a bright afternoon Bradford City were promoted to the Premier Division of English football as runners up to Sunderland following a season which had initially threatened nothing at all.
The opening day – a defeat to Stockport – saw returning club legend Stuart McCall injured, which was followed by two points in six games. Suddenly, it seemed that a team that had cost a staggering £3.5m to build and included City’s first two £1m-plus signings in Isaiah Rankin and Lee Mills was going to achieve very little.
Hope returned after a 2-2 draw with Sheffield United where the Bantams looked more than capable. That belief was cemented by the return of skipper McCall and a gradual climb up the table that involved Barnsley and Gordon Watson.
Watson’s story seemed to typify the playing squad who had all returned from some kind of injury or – in the case of McCall – exile. A key figure in the club’s failed push for promotion in 1988, McCall always had “unfinished business” with City; as he anchored the side using the wealth of experience that comes from an FA Cup Final, World Cup goals, and multiple titles with Rangers he made good on that promise.
When City were promoted – secured by a 3-2 win at Wolves on the final day of the season – it very much marked the manifestation of McCall’s promise. Certainly a season of performances represents something precious to any football supporter. We know, as fans, that players are more mercenary than we would like to admit, so when a player seems to match how much we care, we cherish that player.
That group of players, in this case. Players who seemed invested in the outcome of the season which offered deliverance for many. Watson from injury and the ghost that haunted him; McCall from the previous failure.
Peter Beagrie had arrived a summer before under allegations – and later convictions – of sexual assault while he was at Manchester City. Beagrie faced prison when he arrived in his first, ineffectual, season but the change of manager from Kamara to Jewell seemed to focus his mind. Everything Beagrie did seemed to have a point to it; every cross made to perfection, hanging impressively for Lee Mills to arrive onto. At the end of the season three quarters of the club’s goals came from Beagrie, Mills or fellow striker Robbie Blake.
If Beagrie had faced prison then fellow winger Jamie Lawrence had been there. A convicted bank robber Lawrence had been something of a novelty on his release, signing first for Sunderland and then Leicester City. But that novelty faded and Lawrence found his way to Valley Parade, which appeared to be another step in a career of wandering but once again Jewell seemed to focus the mind by telling the player that his achievements were limited only by his belief.
This became Jewell’s hallmark with Bradford City and was a trick he repeated at Wigan Athletic. His ability to take a player and make him perform seemed to border on the magical and no more was this true than with idling forward Robbie Blake.
Blake was a bit part player, transfer listed for being pulled over for drink driving in the week Diana died, and incapable of nailing down a place in the starting line-up despite the odd impressive performance. He was a slow right winger, able to show tricks but without the traction to stick in the team, until Jewell’s intervention.
Jewell got under Blake’s skin – famously they used to have bust ups with Jewell offering him nowhere to hide and dubbing him a “sulker” – but whatever the means the ends were impressive. Direct, skilful and cunning Blake formed a partnership with Lee Mills which tormented the division.
Blake’s anticipation allowed him to feed off the £1m target man Mills and grow into the type of player the manager himself felt he could have been had he possessed the application. The man who used to lay out Kenny Dalglish’s shorts, Jewell’s playing career was a cautionary tale used to motivate the strikers he managed.
As a signing Mills – sadly – turned out to be a one season wonder after drink problems cost him his place in the Premier League, but for that season he represented some canny business for the club. Chris Kamara had been keen on Mills while the player was at Port Vale but it took Jewell’s determination to put in the seven-figure bid and secure the player.
Another player who had previously promised much was midfielder Gareth Whalley. A £650,000 recruit from Crewe, Whalley became a midfield partner for McCall adding a sly pass to the captain’s driving heart. Darren Moore seemed too big, too cumbersome, to be a Premiership player but Jewell made him the defensive rock partnering him with one of Jon Dreyer, Andy O’Brien or Ashley Westwood on the basis of the opposition.
Gary Walsh, veteran of the Manchester United bench, was as sure as one could imagine between the posts. He had a calm confidence about him that seemed to radiate throughout the team. Walsh had left Old Trafford after collecting a lot of medals while hardly getting his kit dirty and ended up at Middlesbrough where he had been a small part of Bryan Robson’s Teesside revolution. However, in Bradford City he seemed to have found a place where his achievements would be recognised on actual merit.
As a keeper Walsh was something to behold. Possessed of an unerring sense of positioning, he was the type of goalkeeper who seemed to suck the ball into his hands.
Late on in the season, £1m brought Dean Windass to the club – a perfect match of player and team – but Windass’s contribution was minor although not insignificant. One Bank Holiday Monday at Bury with the team running on empty it was Windass who – like Watson before him – pulled three points out of nowhere.
Not that every signing Jewell made worked well. Full back Lee Todd was signed to replace club man Wayne Jacobs but Jacobs – as he would do across his entire career – saw off the challenge to regain his place. More obvious though was the £1.3m spent on Arsenal’s young prospect Isaiah Rankin – a player of whom Jim Jefferies remarked “could not finish a bowl of cornflakes” – which proved profligate in excess.
Despite being lighting quick, Rankin struggled for goals and after a fruitless pair of games against Huddersfield and QPR was dropped for Blake, who shifted over from the right. Lawrence joined the team, and Rankin never looked forward again.
And It Was About Belief, Of Course
May 1999 and onwards
All these things coincided: the players, the manager, the belief; and they did so in a game at Wolves that led to two seasons in the Premiership; Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore and the story which is too often told. The first season in the top flight witnessed the continuation of much that had been good about promotion, but the sense of hunger that Jewell used to feed the belief had gone. Within a month Watson had departed, Blake and Moore were placed on the transfer list, and City slowly disintegrated.
Those years continue to define the club – the financial fallout ruins us to this day. We are the footnote in discussions about a Paul Scholes wonder goal – but seldom is the making of those days, how we got to a point where we could throw it all away, considered.
So a crumbling terrace in Morecambe and the failure of a promotion campaign and everything seems so far away now. Much further than the positions in the league and the comparison of Christie Park to Old Trafford or Anfield.
The reality of football is that most Autumns turn into hard Winters and joyless Springs. Most players want to achieve but fall short, most teams lack collective belief. This is not the game’s tragedy; the tragedy are those years spent having witnessed such a thing, and the wanderer waiting for its return.