Issue End of the ride

As told by Jason Mckeown

Bradford City’s Johnstone’s Paint Trophy interest ended at Carlisle tonight and I’m gutted. I’m gutted about the manner of the defeat, and I’m gutted about the agony of coming so close to a mouth-watering two-legged semi final with Leeds United.

But I’m also grateful for the adventure.

Progressing four rounds in a lower league knockout competition might not seem much to shout about, but against a backdrop of years of Bantams cup feebleness this season’s JPT run has been a memorable experience. Each encounter along the way to last night has been laced with drama and ultimate jubilation, with the prospect of City standing in the Wembley Royal Box lifting a trophy seemingly far from fanciful.

It certainly beats year-on-year hoping for progression to the FA Cup 3rd Round and the prospect of a glamour defeat to a Premier League reserve team.

The dream died at Brunton Park tonight, where once again the Bantams were left questioning the officials. Long-serving referee Anthony Bates decided to issue a second yellow card to City’s Simon Ramsden after the defender got into an argument with a home player which seemed to spur on the home fans nearby into screaming for action. It was one where, viewing from across the opposite side of the pitch, it was difficult to see if Ramsden had provided ample cause to trigger an early bath, but it tipped an evenly-matched encounter in favour of the team from a division higher.

City tried to hold out until half time, bringing on Jonathan Bateson for the unfortunate to be sacrificed James O’Brien, but the deadlock was broken with even more controversy as the impressive Vincent Pericard clearly handled the ball in the area, unspotted, and fired a low shot which Simon Eastwood did well to palm away only for Richard Keogh, looking very offside, to fire the rebound home. City behind, and with a mountain to climb.

Falling behind was a regular feature of City’s JPT run. At Rochdale in the first round, highly-rated home defender Craig Dawson hooked the ball into the net after picking up a stray clearance from a free kick. We slumped back in our seats a bit, groaning at the prospect of another defeat at Spotland and another fourth consecutive JPT first round exit, with weary resignation.

But City, recovering from that poor start to the season, didn’t throw in the towel and soon after Michael Flynn belted in a screamer of a free kick and Scott Neilson’s impressive full debut was capped off by a thrilling run and deflected shot which looped over the back peddling Kenny Arthur and into the net. There were only 315 of us City fans their that night, had Wembley being reached this season we should have been awarded our own little royal box. There was a small slice of fortune in the win, with City’s equaliser coming from an attack where Rochdale should have had a free kick, but from that stroke of luck a great win was achieved.

At Brunton Park we spend half time once again bemoaning our lack of luck. The number of decisions to go against City in recent weeks is startling and is playing a far greater impact on the club’s fortunes than any season I can remember. Everyone has a theory so here’s mine, after much bellyaching about Stuart Attwell following the inexperienced official’s decision to dismiss Gareth Evans at Morecambe, the failure to follow up those complaints by appealing the red card may have backfired. Perhaps other referees have interpreted Stuart McCall’s outburst but lack of action as that of a manager too eager to pass the blame for failings elsewhere. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but the standard of refereeing City have since received suggests officials are taking charge of Bantams games with certain pre-judgements.

Still hope remained tonight, despite the 1-0 half time scoreline. City had played some good stuff in the first half. Neilson, James O’Brien and Ramsden had all gone close and though the Cambrians had dominated possession Eastwood was no more busy than home keeper Lenny Pidgley. One scare had seen City twice clear the ball off the line after Eastwood misjudged a corner, but despite Matt Clarke and Zesh Rehman struggling with their distribution City remained solid.  So even with 10 men and a goal deficit to overcome, the glamour tie with Leeds still seemed a realistic prospect.

There was a touch of glamour in the air for the second round encounter at home to Notts County. Despite only being a fifth full, the queue to get inside Valley Parade prior to kick off snaked around the corner as heavy rain flung down. Finding a seat in the packed Main Stand was a challenge, but we were quite grateful to have sat at the back when at half time we realised Sven Goran Eriksson was sat a few rows behind us in one of the exec seats.

By that point each team had traded a goal with the early threat of another Notts County thrashing receding after Michael Boulding’s well-placed low finish from Flynn’s glorious through ball cancelled out their lead. It seemed to take an age to roll in after it had passed Kasper Schemiecal’s outstretched arm, the second of three goals in a week for the inconsistent forward.

Boulding is now injured for a month, and with 10 men City looked especially short in the final third as the second half resumes at Carlisle, with James Hanson deployed on his own and Neilson and Gareth Evans eager support workers when claret shirts have the ball. Just like on Saturday, McCall’s half time words clearly inspired the team and for 20 minutes it was all City. An almighty scramble from a corner sees Carlisle players clear the ball off the line three times.  Soon after, Evans’ shot was parried by Pidgley and Hanson rushes in to attempt to head the ball into the net. Pidgley gets back onto his feet in time to claw it out, Hanson has another go and when it’s blocked again it was Evans’ turn to strike the ball goalwards, but a blue shirt just manages to get in the way. The pressure continued to grow, City are impressing,

Sven didn’t look impressed when Graeme Lee was sent off for one too many hacks at Boulding back in the second round, his thoughts were probably occupied by questioning the judgment of his then-manager Ian McParland ,who had signed the defender been given the run around by former team mates. Yet with 10 men County grew strong and re-took the lead with five minutes to go. We’re out, what a shame but hey it’s only the JPT.

But then City get second wind and Chris Brandon equalised from a corner in stoppage time. It was one of those moments where it’s at the other end to where you’re sat so you wait for reaction of fans around you to judge if it has gone in, but this rare time I’m the first one to cheer and a split second later everyone around me follows. Time for penalties.

We’d certainly settled for penalties again back at Brunton Park with City pressing hard, but then completely against the run of play substitute Scott Dobie scores Carlisle’s second. There is again a hint of offside, but the fact Lee Bullock had cheaply coughed up possession in his own final third to set up the chance to play Dobie through is the most damaging. It will now take a miracle for City to stay in the competition, but hey City did go 2-0 down and recover in a previous round.

A penalty shootout against County, a penny for Sven’s thoughts. The stakes are hardly the same as Portugal ’04 or Germany ’06, but the memories must stir. Sven is stood up talking to an elderly City fan in the row in front while the players get ready; it’s the type of story oft-reported around League Two that, as ridiculous it is he is with us, Sven is at least making an effort everywhere he goes.

The penalties look like going County’s way when Kasper saves from Peter Thorne and the visitors are 2-0 ahead, but City dig in and start finding the net and Eastwood starts saving. The game is decided by Kasper lining up against Easty and the sometimes-City hero prevails, sparking a somewhat over the top pitch invasion and Kasper to smash a hole in the dressing room wall. Sven looks unmoved. What a night.

If there are any fairytales at Carlisle tonight they would surely involve Omar Daley, who makes the long-awaited return to first team action by coming on as a substitute with 18 minutes to go. His name is sung excitedly and nearby team mates run over to shake his hand. It’s a special Bradford City moment on a night looking increasingly forgettable, it could prove a significant moment if his gradual return to fitness heralds an improvement in Bantams league form.

Daley soon gets his first chance to run at a full back, playing a quick one-two before his cross is put behind for a corner. Daley takes it himself, but it barely reaches the near post and is cleared towards Matty Robson. Despite two defenders staying back he has all the time in the world to charge towards Eastwood and slot the ball into the corner. It truly is good night now.

It was Port Vale in round three, 999 visiting fans and the lower tier of the Kop closed to deter pitch invasions. We went into the top tier this time and chanted like we haven’t chanted at a home game for years. 1-0 down yet again, but coming back strongly in the second half with Flynn and Hanson scoring. Me and my friend start talking about the next round draw but then Vale equalised. Penalties again, does lightning strike twice?

The sense of disappointment at Brunton Park is nearly added to after a defensive slip up allows Dobie in, but Eastwood makes a good save. There is still a spirit to City’s efforts, but this is a beaten side. How we’d love a consolation, something to cheer on a cold night, some reward for the endeavour shown on the pitch. Hanson and Flynn don’t come far away, but the only cheering comes from the Carlisle supporters as they mock.

The penalties against Port Vale lasted forever. Score, score, miss, miss, miss, miss, score, score, score, score. Every adequate-looking City penalty taker has gone and what’s left are defenders who struggle to direct their clearances as intended never mind smashing home a penalty. Oh god Luke O’Brien, he’s going to miss…phew. Clarke? Deary me…phew. Then Eastwood saves a third penalty on the night and the winner is scored by the unlikely figure of Steve Williams. We go mental, we’re through to the quarter finals, bring on the draw and lets make it another home one.

And as the game at Brunton Park comes to an end it is the one factor of luck we could do nothing about which sees the JPT run end unsatisfactorily here. If only the luck of the draw had seen City at home to Accrington, or even at home to Carlisle. If this was to be the round progress was to be halted, it would have been nice, if painful. to have gone out to Leeds and at least have enjoyed the occasion and boasted the club’s finances. Instead it’s all over, and the final whistle brings Stuart McCall over to us to applaud. Not a cross word has been uttered about the possibly-under-pressure manager tonight, and while that doesn’t mean no one here doesn’t want him replaced this was not the occasion to air it.

That’s been a difference with the JPT run; because as memorable as it has been to some supporters like me, the majority of fans who turn up to league home games have not witnessed a single minute of this adventure. Low away following at Rochdale, low home turnouts against Notts County and Port Vale. And while this doesn’t make those of us who have attended better supporters than those who have not, the atmosphere each time has been a refreshing change from the usual afternoons of little but singling out players for criticism, moaning about when subs should be made and booing. The JPT adventure has been positive, we’ve all strongly got behind the team and whatever the failings along the way they have not been made too much of in the heat of the battle, as this can so often be to the detriment of the team.

What a shame it can’t always be like this, but despite the crushing disappointment of tonight I’m sure I’m not the only supporter looking forward to starting it all over again next September.