Issue 1999, and all that

As told by Jason Mckeown

It’s 10-and-a-half-years since Oxford United last visited Valley Parade – but the remarkable period in City’s history which that end-of-season game was part of ensures the memories remain vivid.

Oxford home was Bradford City’s penultimate fixture of a Division One campaign on the brink of ending in glory. A week earlier, the Bantams had defeated QPR 3-1 at Loftus Road while promotion rivals Ipswich Town incredibly lost at home to bottom-placed Crewe. Fantastic news for City – lifting them into the second automatic promotion spot on Goals For with two games to go – but the Portman Road result was not so good for Oxford, who were battling with Crewe and five other clubs to avoid the drop.

With City facing Oxford at Valley Parade a day before Ipswich’s tough away encounter at 4th-placed Birmingham, there was genuine optimism this was going to be the weekend that City – with a far superior Goals For total (Goal Difference wasn’t used back then) – would seal promotion to the Premier League. The easy part of the bargain seemed an inevitable victory over a struggling Oxford who hadn’t won in five. What could possibly go wrong?

That day was almost a living nightmare. I still have video highlights of the disappointing 0-0 draw, taped from Yorkshire TV’s Goals on Sunday, and even watching years on you can still feel the tension that was rife among the sell-out home crowd. City struggled to rise to the occasion, Oxford refused to lie down. They even created the better chances, forcing Gary Walsh into a couple of superb saves.

The Valley Parade clock seemed to tick by worryingly fast, the atmosphere was flat – we all just seemed too nervous to even attempt a chant. I felt sick in my stomach as the growing sense of realisation we weren’t going to win – and therefore might have messed up our promotion chances – sank in.

In a cruel and horrible twist, deep in stoppage time Stuart McCall was presented with the easiest of chances right in front of us in the Kop. He headed the ball over the bar, and the split-second we allowed ourselves to believe we’d got out of jail gave way to crushing misery. McCall was inconsolable as he left the field – the TV highlights capturing a shot of a ball boy attempting to hug him, only for the skipper to brush him off.

It all worked out wonderfully in the end of course: Birmingham beat Ipswich the following day to leave the Tractor Boys a point behind. A week later came that stunning victory over Wolves, which sealed City’s promotion and lead to wild scenes of jubilation in the away end and back in Bradford. And in hindsight we could look back on the Oxford draw and feel glad we didn’t win, so we got this never-to-be-forgotten moment at Molineux. Oxford were relegated, despite winning 5-0 against Stockport in their final game.

Although I still look back on that afternoon against Oxford and feel sick at the despair we endured, with each passing year of disappointment there’s part of me that longs to experience such disappointment again. True we’ve had some truly miserable times over the past decade, but for City to be up their fighting for promotion and to have some many sleepless nights hoping they could cross the finishing line is a different kind of emotion – and one we’ve struggled to come close to experiencing since.

It’s impossible to find the words that do justice to just how much promotion meant to us that year, but perhaps things have now become so bad that, if and when success does return to this club, we’ll feel just as happy as we did then.

For much of the club’s subsequent fall, there’s been a feeling promotion should be our right rather than the astonishing achievement 1999 was. As such, if we had achieved promotion from League One in 2006 or League Two in 2009, the celebrations would have probably felt more reserved. A sense of entitlement that we were simply fulfilling our right, rather than delirium that our lives could be blessed with something so remarkable.

Perhaps the ongoing frustrations of League Two life and never-ending despair that we can’t seem to bottom out now mean that a promotion from League Two would leave us feeling just as happy as Wolves 99. While the twists and turns leading up to it would at times leave us as emotionally-traumatised as the last time we played Oxford.

All of which seems a long distance away as City welcome Oxford tomorrow while 20th in League Two. Wins over Barnet and Cheltenham lifted spirits and breathed new hope into a season heading down the pan, but the setback at Burton last week has again dampened the mood. There’s less anger than post-Morecambe, but things still feel very on edge. Another defeat tomorrow – or even a repeat of the outcome when City last played the Us – and the pressure will rise again.

The task in hand is far from easy – the Oxford of 2010 do not represent anything like the home banker to City that the 1999 match-up suggested. Like City the last decade has been hugely difficult for United, with the 1999 relegation quickly followed by demotions to League Two in 2001 and out of the Football League in 2006. For three seasons the club enjoyed the highest gates in the Conference but failed to climb out of a division they appeared too big for – sound familiar, eh? – before beating York in the play off final last May.

The manager is another reason to look in the past. Chris Wilder played 45 times for City during the 1997-98 season, before moving to hometown club Sheffield United on transfer deadline day.

After impressing as manager at Halifax, Wilder guided Oxford back to the Football League and is a name who often crops up when debating a managerial change at Valley Parade. Wilder and Oxford have started well and lie in 11th place ahead of their trip to West Yorkshire – though their recent league form is just as inconsistent as the Bantams.

Jon McLaughlin will continue in goal for City – despite another bout of public criticism from his manager after Burton last week and the added pressure of Lenny Pidgeley arriving on trial. The defence will see two changes as the departing Man United loanees Reece Brown and Oliver Gill leave gaps that will be taken by Zesh Rehman and Luke Oliver.

Steve Williams and Luke O’Brien will keep their places, but the disruption to back four selection throws questions over the value in signing the two youngsters for a month and looking to build with them. Or to quote Rehman, “No disrespect to the two lads coming in (on loan), but I don’t think they did anything that I felt I couldn’t do.”

Lee Hendrie is fighting to be fit after missing last week, with Tom Adeyemi set to return and battle with David Syers to play alongside Tommy Doherty. The early signs are that Syers provides the midfield with greater balance, and his last two performances make him difficult to leave out. Leon Osborne is slowly developing into a decent player, but continues to be the target of some supporters.

Up front, it’s hoped Omar Daley will be trusted to return to the free role position he was performing so well, with Jason Price and James Hanson vying to start alongside him and the other making a very good sub. Price has so far won plenty of praise, but Hanson’s return makes him less needed than he was a few weeks earlier when Oliver had to play up front. Timing is everything in football, and it remains regrettable Taylor couldn’t have signed a loan striker earlier than he managed.

Jake Speight, Louis Moult, Robbie Threlfall and Lee Bullock are all battling to return to the side, and could yet play a significant role in the season. And as the visitors remind us of our enjoyable past, it’s perhaps the last trip City made to Oxford which should provide the greatest inspiration.

City won 1-0 in December 1998, to reverse a two-game losing run. That paved the way for a superb run of form – eight wins from the next nine matches – and solved the final piece of then-manager Paul Jewell’s promotion squad conundrum which had seen the team selection evolve after a dreadful start. Robbie Blake was switched from right winger to partner Lee Mills, it all fell beautifully into place. The immediate challenge for Taylor is to shape his squad in a similar fashion and unearth the right formula that will turn an under-achieving team into promotion contenders.

Tomorrow will hopefully see another positive step towards fulfilling that aim – so in time we can party like it’s 1999.