The final curtain?

The clock seemed to start ticking by more slowly by the minute. Still over 35 minutes to go, and Liverpool are getting on top. Patrick Berger and Michael Owen have both gone close and the visitors seemed to be working up a head of steam. Could Bradford City, needing to hang on to the 1-0 advantage to seal their Premiership survival, make it to full time?

Another attack and only last ditch defending stops Owen getting in a shot, but the ball is only cleared as far as Dominic Matteo, who charges towards the penalty area. Yet then he is stopped by an inch perfect tackle from Stuart McCall and 16,000+ home fans pause from biting their nails to roar their approval and chant the name of their captain. Just above him, Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler, describing the action to millions of people watching on TV around the world, says, “At Bradford, when they remember the fantastic contribution he’s made to this club they will also recall that challenge he’s just made.”

Tyler was probably wrong, I personally only recall the moment nine years later after watching a re-run of the historic day for the first time on DVD and I’ve never heard anyone else talk about it. Yet there are so many precious memories I do hold of Stuart wearing Claret and Amber – and thousands of us have our own personal highlights too – that it’s pretty much impossible to choose only one that encapsulates everything we loved about him in that number four shirt. The bond between the player and club was far stronger than I’ve ever seen with any other player. We have other heroes for sure, but Stuart’s two spells as player make him a legend to multi-generations of City fans. He’s been part of the good times, he’s also been there for the bad.

Tomorrow Stuart will step into the Valley Parade arena for possibly the final time. As a manager he is the first to admit he has ultimately failed this season and for that he believes he must carry the can. The sight of a choked up Stuart at Dagenham is one that will live me for some time, for it was not supposed to end like this. When he came back just over two years ago the dream of leading City to promotion felt so real but it has almost turned into a nightmare. Stuart didn’t have to come back, he didn’t have to risk tainting his reputation, he didn’t have to face the booing and chants of “you don’t know what you’re doing?”

Whatever the viewpoint on whether he should honour his threat to quit or stay and fight on, it would take a supporter with a heart of steel not to feel sad when looking at the emotional turmoil Stuart appears to be going through. The man telling us supporters he wasn’t good enough at Dagenham was a man seemingly making his resignation speech. No one could argue he hasn’t given everything he can to deliver success this season but, with credible rumours of the stress from failing impacting on his health, his decision to stay or go must first and foremost be made by what’s best for himself and his family. If it is to be the end, no one should begrudge him one last fantastic reception tomorrow.

There is still the slimmest of chances that this season might still have a happy ending. If Dagenham lose at Notts County and if Shrewsbury suffer an unlikely home defeat to Lincoln, then a City home win would mean going to Chesterfield next Saturday with the slimmest of chances still in tact. Should either the Daggers or the Shrews gain at least a point, however, the play off trap door will be effectively closed with the pair due to play each other on the final day. Chesterfield (at Accrington) and Morecambe (at Exeter) can’t be discounted either, leaving City playing for a lot of what ifs.

Stuart’s players, who have been largely sheltered from a heap of justified criticism thanks to their manager, will hope to at least start making amends with what for many could also be their final appearance at Valley Parade. Rhys Evans, hoping for a new deal, will keep goal looking to recover from a rare mistake last week. In front of him will be Zesh Rehman, who has being promised a game in the centre. The stock of the Pakistan international has fallen considerably in recent weeks, though with seemingly no future at parent club QPR I personally wouldn’t object to him making a permanent move here this summer.

He will probably partner Graeme Lee, unless the City captain fails to recover sufficiently from last week’s injury in which case Matt Clarke will keep his place. Something tells me that, if he plays, Clarke is going to get booed by some fans, and he may not be the only one. The full back slots will be taken by Paul Arnison and freshly-crowned Player of the Season Luke O’Brien. Paul Heckingbottom (remember him?) has surely worn Claret and Amber for the last time.

The selection in midfield has been inconsistent and one of the most disappointing factors of last week’s defeat was how poor Paul McLaren and Lee Bullock – impressive in the last home game – were. The latter is hoping for another deal while the former is surely one of last summer’s signings with a clause in his contract allowing him to leave if promotion isn’t achieved. Perhaps like Mark Bower, McLaren looks a better player at a higher level. Considering the excitement generated when he was signed, ‘disappointing’ is a kind way of describing his season. With Dean Furman nearing fitness and Nicky Law benched recently, the chance to recall the on-loan pair for a good send off will be welcome. On the flanks will be two from Steve Jones, Chris Brandon, Joe Colbeck and Keith Gillespie.

Up front the rumours are it could be Peter Thorne’s last home game too. A new contract offer would surely be on the table, but a season of niggling injuries may have taken their toll and the popular forward call it a day. Michael Boulding, another surely with that release clause, will be vying to partner him ahead of Paul Mullin. A place on the bench could be Leon Osborne’s reward for a midweek hat trick in the reserves.

Rotherham will go above City if they win and can look forward to a summer during which they are sure to be touted as favourites to win League Two. Mark Robins the player may not enjoy Stuart-esqe standing with Millers supporters, but the popular forward is a popular manager and seems to go about his job with great dignity. Take away the points deductions and they would be 2nd in the league now, but they are not and they have less to play for than City players – even if there wasn’t any chance of the play offs.

For the players are telling us they want Stuart to stay and the owner is telling us they want him to stay. There are conflicting views among supporters, but the reaction this week has been uplifting with so many people coming out in support of the manager. There is a significant – a seemingly majority – amount of fans who want him to have another go at delivering promotion next season, to continue building up the club and to ultimately take it back to the sort of heights he was a big part of as a player.

It remains to be seen what sort of influence this support has on Stuart’s final decision, but if he is considering making tomorrow his final Valley Parade curtain he will end it knowing most of his audience wants at least another season’s encore.

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