In praise of Bradford City 1998/99

This article first appeared in the excellent football website The Two Unfortunates in February 2011.

The Crumbling Terrace: Pre-amble One
Towards the end of the 2008/9 season

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 line’s flag twitch – the doubt going to Morecombe’s on loan Rene Howe – 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: Pre-amble Two
Late 1998

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 struggle. 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 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 has the character and desire that was sadly lacking from the man as a player.

Two goals were scored in injury time, both by Gordon Watson a player who 18 months early had almost lost his leg after a tackle 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 tackled six minutes into a local derby with Huddersfield Town. Kevin Grey’s “tackle” came when City were already one down and while an equaliser was scored the whole game was overshadowed by an horrific injury. Then manager Chris Kamara had burst onto the field in anger, his face turning sickly on seeing the wound. Everything was overshadowed.

Now he was back and in five minutes Gordon Watson scored two goals and turned a blank return into two points. Moreover though he maintained the belief that seemed to have dripped into the club under Paul Jewell. The manager from nowhere brought a belief from somewhere, and it had changed the club.

Two goals in five minutes. It seemed fated, everything seemed fated.

The Promise

May 1999

On the 9th of May at around 2:17 on a bright May afternoon Bradford City were promoted to the Premier Division of English football as runners up to Sunderland following a season which had threatened nothing at all.

The opening day – a defeat to Stockport – saw returning club legend Stuart McCall injured and was followed by two points in six games and suddenly it seemed that the team that cost a staggering £3.5m to build and included City’s first two £1m plus signings in Issiah Rankin and Lee Mills was going to achieve very little.

Hope came after a 2-2 draw with Sheffield United where the Bantams looked more than capable and belief came from that, or so it seemed, and that belief was cemented by the return of skipper McCall and a gradual climb up the table that included Barnsley, 2-1, and Gordon Watson.

Watson’s story seemed to typify the playing squad who had all come back 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 and so as he anchored the side using the wealth of experience that comes from an FA Cup final, World Cup goals, multiple titles with Rangers he made good on that promise.

When City were promoted – a 3-2 win at Wolves on the final day of the season securing it – it was very much McCall’s promise manifest. Certainly a season of performances represents something precious to any football supporter. We know, as supporters, that players are more mercenary than we would like to admit and when a player seems to match us for how much he cares we cherish that player.

And that group of players, in this case. Players who seemed invested in the outcome of the season which offered a deliverance for many. Watson from injury and the ghost that haunted him, McCall from the previous failure.

Peter Beargie had arrived a summer before under allegations – and later convictions – to do with a 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 have focused the 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 for Sunderland and then Leicester City but that novelty had faded and Lawrence wound his way to Valley Parade which seemed to be another step in a career of wandering but once again Jewell seemed to focus the mind, tell 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 costing target man Mills and grow into the type of player the manager himself felt he could have been had he had 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 problems with drink 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 £1m bid and secure the player. Belief, it seemed, was the watchword.

Another player who suggested much for some season and was anointed by Jewell’s belief was midfielder Gareth Whalley. Whalley, a £650,000 recruit from Crewe, became a midfield partner for McCall adding a sly pass to the captains 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 exude 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 Teeside revolution but in Bradford City he seemed to have found a place where his achievements would be recognised on the merit they had.

As a keeper Walsh was something to behold. Possessed of an unerring sense of positioning Walsh was the type of goalkeeper who seemed to suck the ball into his hands. Not for Walsh the need for acrobatics but rather a calm sense of seeming to play the next few second of an attack out and conclude where the best place to be to gather the ball at the end of it would be. A belief, if you will.

Late on in the season £1m brought Dean Windass to the club – a perfect match or 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 seemingly 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 all his career – saw off the challenge to win back his place. More obvious though was the £1.3m spent on Arsenal’s young prospect Issiah Rankin – a player of whom Jim Jefferies remarked “could not finish a bowl of cornflakes”- which proved profligate in excess.

A player with lighting quickness Rankin struggled for goals and after a fruitless pair of games at Huddersfield and at home to QPR was dropped for Blake to shift from the right hand side and Lawrence to join the team. Rankin never looked forward again.

Belief, it seemed, was lacking.

And It Was About Belief, Of Course
May 1999 and onwards

All these things eclipsed: The players, the manager, the belief; and they eclipsed in a game at Wolves that lead 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 continued much of what had been good about promotion but the sense of hunger that Jewell used to feed the belief had gone. Within a month Watson was gone, Blake and Moore on the transfer list, and slowly things fell apart.

Those years continue to define the club – the financial fallout ruins the club 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 failing 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 having seen such a thing, and the wanderer waiting for its return.

The Crewe joke and how not to be the butt of it as the Alex come to Valley Parade

There was a joke in football in the eighties that went along the lines of asking who the strongest team in British football was to which the answer was, hilariously enough, “Crewe, because they hold the rest of them up.”

That such a jest is outmoded is largely down to the opposition manager Dario Gradi who took charge of that laughing stock club and in a near two decades made alterations which changed the public perceptions of the Gresty Road club.

Crewe, the Football League’s shining example of a well run club to writer David Conn in his 2003 book The Beautiful Game, became synonymous with the development of young players with a series of high profile internationals either coming through the ranks or were picked up following release and turned around.

Gareth Whalley, Stuart McCall’s midfield partner in 1999, came from Crewe.

This track record is largely credited to Gradi and his youth development skills but credit is shared by a whole club prepared to rise or fall on the strength of the talent unearthed. A poor crop of youngsters could see a bad season or relegation but that was never considered a failure of the system which brought rewards on and off the field and certainly not a reason to change that system.

Gradi moved upstairs after his sixtieth birthday but has been called back to the job as caretaker following the dismissal of one of his successors. Crewe, it would seem, have staggered from the light of what they did well for twenty years and perhaps that is why they find themselves back near the position of mirth.

City’s attempt at continuity in management seem to be more faltering with manager McCall given a break from the attempts to oust him as his team continue a run of ten games without defeat that was made more impressive by the changes made in the midweek penalties victory over an unamused Notts County who once again employed the technique hence forth known as “If not a win then spin.”

Ian McPartland tells the vast majority of County fans who were not at the game that they were robbed and that Graeme Lee should not have been sent off and it is not true but creating the suggestion takes some pressure off him.

To be clear City got everything they deserved on Tuesday night.

That this was the case came from a squad capable of fluidly filling in roles in a formation and take responsibility for the performance. Leon Osbourne has yet to win me over but he let no one down on Tuesday for the majority of the game and can take pride in his display.

The winger will no doubt be dropped with James Hanson ready to come back from illness but Michael Boulding is becoming increasingly hard to displace in the side and when Gareth Evans returns from suspension – and the Ref who sent off Evans would have had cause to red Graeme Lee three times despite the Magpies manager’s protestations – Stuart McCall might have to pick between Boulding and Scott Neilson on the right hand side providing an interesting pointer to the longed for day that sees Omar Daley back in claret and (reduced amounts of) amber.

Michael Flynn put in an outstanding performance on Tuesday as he continues to be the ball winning and passing midfielder of our dreams while James O’Brien is starting to look equally impressive. Lee Bullock will return pushing Chris Brandon back to the bench.

Jonathan Bateson is unlucky to have to step down following two good displays and a switch for Simon Ramsden to the middle is not out of the question but Zesh Rehman and Steve Williams are likely to return at the expense of Bateson and Matt Clarke.

Luke O’Brien has been a joy to watch of late and one recalls the Crewe idea that a team might rise and fall on the strength of it’s young players.

If Huddersfield Town rise on the back of goalkeeper Simon Eastwood then it is because of Tuesday night’s two penalty saves which galvanize a player who was mobbed coming off the field.

Mobbed with the rest of the players. Slowly building, improving, not losing. Dario would be proud.

Are City the real deal?

The papers were full of it, “OK 4-0, but don’t think this makes you any good”.

It seems that the boys of the press are sticking by the mid-table, 10th, bottom half, probably not go down predictions that they had tagged City with despite the thumping of Barnsley on the first day. No surprises there. The paper don’t need a memory, if they had one they might ask why the man who they said would not be at the club at Christmas if things were going bad scored an overhead kick for us in division one.

But the question remains. Are City the real deal or is this just opening day delight before the averageness that awaits?

Personally I thought City looked a class above Barnsley and I did not think Barnsley looked that bad. The discipline that saw Gareth Whalley on the goal line to clear Kevin Gallen’s shot just after Ashley Ward had scored his first penalty was the best example of what City have got and the other sides have not. Barnsley attacked pretty well, but defensively they and a lot of other teams in the division are a shambles.

David Wetherall, Robert Molenaar and on his day Andy Myers are good enough to get into any back four in this league but there is more to it than that. City are post-war London. The blitz has gone but the spirit is still there. The oneness that repelled some very good teams for the past two years is a sponge for the Nationwide league’s better forwards.

Whoever the members of the back four are, now that the cursed Ian Nolan has gone, will not matter because the motto and the mindset will be the same. For all the headlines of Benito Carbone’s overheads or Ash Ward’s Man of the Match display, its at the back that City separated themselves from Barnsley.

So if you are going to stay strong at the back and your forwards are likely to create you something, and lets face it Carbone, Ward, Blake, Jess et al are all creative Peter Beardsleys before they are deadly Gary Linekers.

The next 45 games are going to tell us if City are the real deal or not, but yesterday should have seen the guys at the papers reassessing the Bantams. They have us pegged as a Watford, bounced out of the Premiership with tails between our legs, but we had confidence build up by the solid back end to the season (Leeds excepted). It will take winning until March before they sit up and take notice of us on Fleet Street.

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