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 tweak

“After a 3-0 drubbing at Valley Parade even the most ardent, optimistic Bradford City supporter would have to write off the club’s chances of automatic promotion.” (para)

Losing at home is never a pleasant experience but it becomes more unsettling when it lacks frequency. The 3-0 home defeat to Rochdale is not City’s first reversal at Valley Parade this year but this type of home reversal was more common four or five years ago than it is now.

The opening paragraph – an assessment of the Bantam’s chances following defeat – was ultimately untrue. A paraphrase from about this time of year eleven years ago when City trooped off the field from a game with Queens Park Rangers having been on the wrong end of three goals.

That team – managed by Paul Jewell and featuring current City boss Stuart McCall in midfield – was of course promoted in May the following year and the QPR match remains a curious footnote noted as the final game on the “old kop” at Valley Parade but saw what ultimately became a pivotal change in the Bantams season.

City had gone into that game off the back of an unbelievable 2-1 defeat by Huddersfield in which the Bantams squandered chance after chance and then saw Town switch to a 433 and end the game victorious. For the QPR game the Bantams midfield of Peter Beagrie wide left, McCall and Gareth Whalley in the middle and Robbie Blake on the right wing behind Isaiah Rankin and Lee Mills.

Rankin – who Jim Jefferies described as “Not being able to finish a bowl of cornflakes” – was profligacy personified squandering enough chances to win a month of matches in the two games but at the time no doubt I would have recalled the words of Brain Clough: He got into the positions to miss them.

Jewell did not subscribe to that point of view – or if he did he had gone past a point where he no longer had faith that the chances would find the net – and following that match with QPR the £1.4m striker Rankin’s days were numbered.

City were written off in terms of automatic promotion and there were calls for a revolution in the side just as there is in the wake of the Rochdale defeat – one recalls that one solution was to follow Town into the 433 while another was to add Paul Bolland to the side – but rather than look at drastic solutions Paul Jewell made a tweak.

A tweak to his side that went on to claim promotion. Rankin went out, Blake moved forward and Jamie Lawrence came into midfield. The team held the ball more and spent less time watching a forward’s heels has he sprinted away and the rest truly is history.

Jewell’s choice to resist revolution in the light of defeat turned out to be correct. This was not unique for Jewell – his reaction to a 3-0 defeat in the Premiership to West Ham United was similar – nor is he alone. When Sir Alex Ferguson watched his Manchester United team beaten 4-1 by Liverpool last season – kamikaze defending which links Vidic to Williams and all – his reaction was to do very little in the face of calls to change and sure enough another Premier League title arrived in due course.

McCall looks at his side and had two options for changing: Personnel and Formation.

Looking around the City side there were plenty of players who could have had fingers pointed at them be they the likes of Luke O’Brien and Gareth Evans who after great seasons so far were made to look hapless, the likes of James O’Brien and Steve Williams who are young and struggle for consistency or the James Hanson and Michael Flynns of the side who struggled against a side who impressed.

On the bench wait Peter Thorne, Chris Brandon, Michael Boulding, Matthew Clarke et al. These players were the problem three months ago solved by the younger team who were beaten by Rochdale. One might question if they offer a solution now. Likewise younger replacements like Jon McLaughlin, Rory Boulding, Luke Sharry or Jonathan Bateson could be deployed but in doing so the Bantams would replace like with like and that is certainly no guarantee of massive alterations.

From a formation point of view McCall’s 433 is a relatively new addition to the Bantams arsenal and the City boss played a 442 for the first two years at Valley Parade. Switching from the one to the other did not provide a great return against Accrington Stanley two weeks ago.

The grace of 442 is that it is the most adaptable formation available to a manager having a limitation or two but no weaknesses as 433 has on the flanks which was so exposed by Rochdale. Fluidity between positions, six second counter attacks and flooding areas with possession favoured by Jose’s old Chelsea can be the beating of 442 but how many League Two teams are able to do that?

That said two teams playing 442 make for a much less interesting game and earlier in the season there was a thrill of the Bantams playing such adventurous, attacking football. I have a theory that since Ramsey’s Wingless Wonders English teams veer back to the 442 formation eventually and that sooner or later McCall will bite the bullet and sacrifice a strikers for a midfielder.

Which is perhaps where the tweak is.

Moving to a four in the middle with Scott Neilson next to Michael Flynn/Lee Bullock and a wide midfielder on the left supporting James Hanson and Gareth Evans gives the Bantams a more robust layout and as this article is published in a field in Oldham Omar Daley returns to reserve team action suggesting himself in the wide midfielder role.

Daley’s return in a 433 would see him alongside James Hanson and Gareth Evans which would offer little other than Simon Whaley did in the Grimsby and Rochdale matches – strength one week, weakness the next – but perhaps there is an irony that the opposite of the tweak that was a solution to Jewell’s problems – removing the speedy player up front – could be solution to McCall’s.

McCall though is charged with the same choices as Jewell had at Valley Parade. QPR were better on the day than the Bantams and won the battle, but in the end the Bantams won the war and did so by standing steady behind his tweaked team. Had Jewell panicked and broken up that side would City have been successful?

How to move forward retaining what was good on Tuesday afternoon but learning from the evening. That is McCall’s charge now.

What Price Win For The Man Who Gets What He Wants?

City winger Peter Beagrie (right) snatched a last minute penalty to give the Bantams a hard fought win over the physical London side and Bradford Chairman Geoffrey Richmond can afford himself a wry smile as his team moves four points clear in second place in the first division.

The game started slowly with Palace looking to score on the break and the excellent David Tuttle marshalling Bradford’s 19 goal man Lee Mills but as the game drew towards half time City fans memories had started to drift back the disappointing afternoon against QPR some two months ago with Palace soaking up pressure just as their London rival had done. As with the QPR game, Palace took the lead in the second half with Tuttle squeezing a shot in as Jacobs attempted to clear. The final outcome renders the question of whether the ball crossed irrelevant.

Jewell removed Steven Wright and pushed Blake out wide right with Isaiah Rankin in the forward line. While Lawrence looked shaky as a full back, Blake’s wing play teased Palace’s left back Sun Jihai, already on a yellow card, and City began to force many corners. One of these corners, delivered by Gareth Whalley, went across the goal and, after a time, was struck into the net by Ashley Westwood, scoring his first goal for the club.

City banged on Palace’s door and a second goal had a certain inevitability. Issy Rankin took a tumble in the box after he was felled by Palace keeper Kevin Miller following a barrage of shots on the Londoner’s goal. Palace complained, naturally, but the award seemed clear enough with Rankin having danced his way to glory only to have his legs taken away by the keeper. Ice cool Peter Beagrie right footed the ball into the net.

Sun Jihai was sent off later as Palace lost control and Clinton Morrison, frequently caught off side by the effective City back line, should have seen red for an insanely high foot towards Gary Walsh as the game drew to a close.

All of which added to Palace’s woes. Manager Steve Coppell said after the game that he expected to be in control of the club until the end of the season, reminiscent of last season’s antics in which absent winger Atillio Lombardo was put in charge of the club despite the fact he can not speak English. Chairman Mark Goldberg, who came into the club with a promise of cash and promotion now finds himself having to sell players and facing up to another season in division one. Richmond, labelled by the Sunday Mirror as “The Man Who Gets What He Wants”, must smile. He has given City the funds, although less than is commonly thought, but the girt and determination to come back from a goal behind on a muddy pitch on a cold Tuesday night in January can not be bought, much as Goldberg must wish they could.

Bradford City: Walsh, Wright (Rankin), Jacobs, McCall, Moore, Westwood, Lawrence, Blake, Mills, Whalley, Beagrie. Subs: Rankin. Subs Not Used: O’Brien. Man Of The Match: Stuart McCall- Kept the team going to the bitter end.

Crystal Palace: Miller, Burton, Jihai, Fullarton, Moore, Tuttle, Foster, Zhiyi, Bradbury, Morrison, Rodger. Subs: Rizzo, Austin, McKenzie. Palace Man Of The Match: David Tuttle- Not hard to see why Jewell wanted to spend 800,000 on him.

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