Promotion Tales: Bradford's City's Top-Flight 'Fairy Tale'
Continuing this series of posts on clubs promoted to the top-flight of English football after a considerable gap or, in some cases, the first time ever, Michael Wood turns the clock back to the year 2000. The location? Bradford.
Frances Griffiths knew about fairy tales.
In 1917, when she was nine years old, she went to the bottom of the garden at a house in Cottingley, Bradford, and something remarkable happened. With her cousin, Elsie Wright, she took photographs of fairies.
The Cottingley Fairies were big news. The Daily Express printed the photographs and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, took up the case by sending the photographs to Kodak for verification. The photographs of two girls and their tiny friends looked as harmless a scene as could be imagined.
Perhaps it was the nation’s need to believe in something purely wonderful and uplifting after the horrors of the First World War that suspended credulity.
The fakery of the photos was not exposed until the early 1980s but that could be because there was no need to expose it. The girls never used the resulting fame for any real purpose, and only kept quiet for so long because they felt embarrassed after fooling the (supposedly) brilliant Conan-Doyle.
The photographs were a curio of an age where people wanted to believe in fairy tales. Believing those fairytales warmed the spirit, so to speak, but in believing them the public of the day failed to see something which was perhaps more impressive.
The fairy tale
In the year 2000 another fairy tale happened in Bradford. Bradford City had been promoted to the Premier League in the previous season, and it was keenly anticipated they would be relegated a season later. But that was not what happened.
What happened instead was Bradford City beat Liverpool 1-0 at home on the last day of the season. A win for Liverpool would have meant that they’d finish third and qualify for the Champions League but a headed goal by City’s David Wetherall in the first half, followed by dogged defending of that single goal lead, ensured that Bradford City retained a place in the top division.
It was a strange and unexpected end to the season. At various points throughout the year it had seemed inevitable that the Bantams would be relegated, but three wins in the last four games, coupled with an eleven game run of mostly defeats for Wimbledon – who would be relegated – changed the outcome of the season.
There was something about how sudden the turnaround in Bradford City’s fortune seemed that caught everyone off guard. Rather than City’s season being a footnote of the year, it became the focus of the Premier League spin doctors who were looking for a story that could make for a dramatic end to the year. Manchester United had waltzed off with the league title, and everything else seemed settled, with the exception of this business at Valley Parade.
There was a need for some romance and in the finest traditions of folk stories it was after the hero had seemingly been vanquished that he rose to his full height and reclaimed the crown.
And Bradford City were that fairy tale. A team talked of as no-hopers who suddenly got the chance to upturn the apple cart, and did. This was the image portrayed to the world.
The reality, however, was somewhat different.
Bradford City won nine games out of thirty-eight in the 1999-2000 league season. They won on the first day of the season at Middlesbrough, and they won on the last. Arsenal, Newcastle United and Liverpool all lost to Bradford City.
City won at Sunderland in the last four game stretch of the season. It was that win, coming only three days after a 4-4 draw in a “must win” game at home to Derby, that was probably the most satisfying of the season and also the most educational exhibition of how Paul Jewell’s side approached their entire year in the Premier League.
Jewell isolated every game as if it were the first day of the season without form and with an equal league table. Jewell built his team to understand that a defeat last week made victory this week no less unlikely.
What is it like to be a Bradford City fan in the Premier League?
The overwhelming emotion which followed watching most of the games Bradford City played in the Premier League was pride: that of watching a group of players play very, very well. Context is a relative thing, but if you imagine the best spell in the best season a team has ever had and stretch that out to around eighteen months. That was what watching Bradford City’s ascent from the foot of the First Division to the Premier League and on was like.
Watching players with character and honesty, playing the game as if it were utterly unimportant if the game was lost whilst simultaneously playing as if nothing could matter more than victory was as close to a definition of what is good and pure in football as I’ve ever found.
A mistake that cost a goal did not see resentment and fallings on the field but rather encouragement. Tired legs in the last minute were overcome to just – just – sneak that extra undefinable which in the end would be decisive and was in seasons defined by the thinnest margins.
Stuart McCall led the team by example and his example, as a player, was the most capable holding midfielder I’ve ever seen with an unerring judgement as to where play would go. Peter Beagrie was a hummingbird of a winger with the heart of a lion. Lee Mills and Robbie Blake would never be this good again. Darren Moore was a huge figure in all senses of the word at the back.
And in McCall, City had something genuinely unique. The captain had been involved in the fire of 1985, his father had been one of the injured, and he seemed to take the role of captain of the club as being the servant of the team, and of the supporters.
Every time it seemed the spirit that permeated the team would come to an end, it did not. Every time it seemed that the spirit within the club had been lost it reconstituted itself to something stronger than before.
When there was an extra mile to be run by a player, the other ten guys in claret and amber encouraged that mile to be run. McCall had been through the fire, Wayne Jacobs had come back to the team days after his infant son had died, Blake had been in the team during the painful death of his father.
I have concluded in the years since that this spirit I talk of was the sum of the connections between these people who were involved in Bradford City. That is all there is in football: The people and what they do.
And then it was over.
When does the hand become the wrist?
You can, dear reader, try to locate the time and date when that team and its spirit ended: signing Benito Carbone, Paul Jewell leaving the club, appointing Jim Jefferies, Peter Beagrie leaving, signing Stan Collymore.
When Collymore signed for City, the BBC donated the one and only time Bradford City have been the main story on Football Focus to a lengthy montage of a Cowboy Collymore arriving at a Saloon rather unsurprisingly named “Last Chance” along with a few sentences of (rather inaccurate) analysis. This illustrates the hot air balloon effect as well as anything else I could say.
Bradford City’s second season in the Premier League came after Paul Jewell had left for Sheffield Wednesday following a “pep talk” from chairman Geoffrey Richmond which included the words “I would have sacked you”. Richmond’s attempts to show that he could do without Jewell proved the opposite. Decline set in.
There was a single moment of respite. A 2-0 win over Chelsea which represents one of the best results in the club’s history. It was a good performance, but it was not a performance of the same character which had been seen in the previous season. For sure City were a better team than Chelsea that evening, but the energy from the players seemed to have subsided, and in the weeks and months to follow was found to be lacking.
The extra mile was not run. Players did not emerge from the treatment room as quickly as they had. New recruits seemed disturbingly comfortable in being second best.
The popular view was that players like Gary Locke and Eoin Jess were “not good enough” without reference to the players they were replacing. The concept of the quality of players set in too, and has never left Bradford City since.
The football media told supporters that the reason Bradford City were relegated was that the players were not good enough.Yet players like Benito Carbone and David Hopkin were better than Lee Mills and Gareth Whalley whom they replaced. But the ‘better’ players did not work as hard and so the results weren’t as good, and so it continued downwards.
Once started, the decline of Bradford City carried on through two spells in administration which almost killed the club. Combined with a series of woeful decisions by woeful decision makers, City found themselves at the foot of League Two. When current manager Phil Parkinson arrived there was nothing much left of the Premier League club.
A smart and pragmatic manager, Parkinson places character above all else. His captain, Gary Jones – filling in for McCall – has players working as hard for each other as Jewell’s side had for their peers. Parkinson seems to have found an echo of the spirit that had been lost, and took Bradford City to Wembley in the League Cup final. The word used to describe this run was entirely predictable.
And in Cottingley something was missed
The Cottingley fairies are a fraud of course, but one which was believed for some time and seemed not to be dispelled since spelling it benefited no-one.
What was missed though was the ingenuity of two girls in a back garden in Bradford who crafted the figures, who created the scene, and who understood the medium of photography. The delicate work of cutting out figures, carefully developing them in darkrooms, creating something that tested the notion that “the camera never lied.”
But there were no fairies, and there never was a fairy tale, just an impressive level of hard work.
Created with Kären Kenobi.