Wembley: One year on and 176 miles away

Less than a year on from Bradford City’s League Cup final at Wembley it is not hard to see the difference between where the club sat then and where it is now in Yorkshire. In Wales though on the night our opposition that day Swansea City sack Michael Laudrup from his position as manager the improvements in the Principality are under question.

Swansea City’s League Cup win was the coming out party for a club run well by chairman Huw Stephens who has reportedly fallen out with the Dane over his desire, or lack of desire, to sign a deal for next season. Managers had come and gone at The Liberty Stadium but a principal of good football with players who fit the budgets remained.

Giving Stephens the benefit of the doubt it probably still does unless he has – Geoffrey Richmond style – decided that modest success one year must be translated into massive gains the next. Let us hope for our sporting vanquishers of March 2013 that he has not.

Laudrup has performed the brief of Swansea manager this season well. The spell of defeats his team was on was surely not the whole reason for his exit. The campaign in Europe included some impressive wins and the team recorded a first ever victory at Old Trafford in the FA Cup. 12th in the Premier League is nothing to be sniffed at. If the issue is about contract length and signing up beyond the end of the season one hopes that Stephens does not come to regret that decision.

Indeed one recalls the sacking of Colin Todd as City boss after the misanthropic manager suggested he would not be interested in a new deal in the summer. David Wetherall was given a chance and relegation followed. Todd’s team were in no danger of relegation whatsoever and it was the change was the cause of the problems.

The progress Laudrup has made is now in the hands of such a situation. The team he leaves is in the same position this year as last – the middle of the Premier League – but watching them this season they seemed more at home in the top flight. No longer wide eyed they played their brand of impressive passing football not trying to prove that they were worthy of a top flight place but being worthy of it. They were on the verge of being Premier League rank and file.

The new Fulham, so to speak, as the old one beats a path back to the Championship.

Stephens believes what he has done in removing Laudrup has made that more likely, one worries that it has made it less.

The Return of the Boy from Brazil

Fukuda Denshi Arena, Chiba, Japan, June 2013

We had come all this way, but there was no Boy from Brazil.

Valley Parade, Bradford, England, November 2012

Chesterfield are a stern footballing side and Bradford City are struggling to break them down. I’ve moved seats for the night parking myself next to Nick – young Nick if you will – who apologises for the frequent, violent bursts of swearing from one of his seat neighbours. “He is always like that,” my host says wearily and I nod full in the knowledge that were positions reversed I would end up saying the same thing about the people who sit around me.

“We fucking need to be fucking winning fucking games like this if we are not going to be shite.” The linguistics are laughable, the sentiment anything but supportive.

Wembley Stadium, London, England, February 2013

I will confess, dear reader, that there had been a time that I was partial to things Danish and in those few weeks of 1986 when the red shirted Scandinavians were enthralling in the late night glow of the World Cup in Mexico that Michael Laudrup was everything a footballer should be. The second round 5-1 exit to Spain derailing what seemed to be the birth of a new footballing power from the tiny Northern European democracy.

That defeat seemed to be born of a Danish belief that they were the anointed team that a thirteen year old in Bradford thought they were and was an object lesson in the beautiful game and how it rewards completeness. Six years later when the Danes won Euro 92 their most notable player was John Jensen, a holding midfielder.

That lesson that all games had to be won seemed to have settled in the mind of Laudrup. His Swansea City team were adorable on the ball and worked peerlessly hard off it. The victory over Bradford City – a handsome 5-0 – was made easy to take by virtue of the elan of the opposition.

Laudrup gathered his players into an honour guard to greet Gary Jones’ and his side on the way down the Wembley stairs. At least half the City fans had left Wembley when Ashley Williams lifted the Capital One Cup, deserved champions that they were. They will regret that.

Fukuda Denshi Arena, Chiba, Japan, June 2013

To suggest there is a manufacturer air to football in Japan is to mistake the construction of palaces for the tilling of gardens.

Arrive at Soga station, some forty minutes from central Tokyo, on the evening of a match is to better understand the idea of the sea of support. The yellow floor rises to the station which boasts a burger bar on one side of the corridor and profiles of the players along the other. Indeed the staff of the station have broken with the cliche of reserve and are wearing football shirts belonging to the home side. Make no mistake traveller, you are in JEF United country.

JEF United, founder of the J-League but now in its recently established second tier having failed to win promotion through the play-offs last season, are woven into the fabric of this part of Toyko’s industrial lands. They play in the Fukuda Denshi Arena, an 18,000 capacity venue a strong stone’s throw from a collection of oppressive looking oil refineries, and even at 75% full it is an impressive stadium. No running track, and the close to the action, the support is fervent without aggression.

The politeness which oils Japan’s societal wheels is evident. The Referee leads the players in a thirty second silent meditation before the match, the players bow to all four sides of the arena before kick off.

It is a derby of sorts. JEF United take on Toyko Verdy and both are chasing play off places. I know this because I have been following JEF United for a month now. The J-League is on hiatus while Japan play in the Confederations Cup and this game offered the closest available match on our tour of the Far East nation. JEF United have been in good form since they gathered my interest. They have won three on the bounce and can move up to fifth with a win against a Verdy side who would overtake them in victory.

In any language, this is a tasty encounter.

The J-League restricts the number of non-Japanese players, part of a plan that the JFA and its clubs follow that aims to create a game in touch with the communities they are based in (the full name of the club is JEF United Ichihara Chiba) and guarantees that the clubs are financially sustainable. The league has come a long way and a burst bubble since the days of Gary Lineker and Hidetoshi Nakata which marked its formation. Those were early years in what is a 100 year plan.

Following JEF United from afar is an abstracted version of football. JEF United’s top scorer – and thus one assumes their finest asset – is physically big striker called Kempes. Each team can have two designated non-Japanese players, and a single non-Japanese Asian player who is most likely a Korean. Like most of the non-Japanese players Kempes is Brazilian.

Taking up seats before kick off the stadium is an array of waving flags. All JEF United fans are given yellow hand flags on the way in and behind the goal the mass of yellow supporters fans are housed behind giant standards to be waved on queue. The singing is led by a megaphoned leader, and is as passionate as any I have seen.

On the other side of the stadium are Toyko Verdy. They have flags, they have songs, they have a singer with a megaphone. Having mingled with Toyko’s supporters on the way to the game I can also attest to the fact that they have nothing to fear. I’m told that fights have been seen at Japanese grounds but they are uncommon, and no one attempts intimidation. There are songs I understand: “Chiba, Chiba, Chiba”; and ones I do not but there is no aggression in the voices.

The hair on the back of my neck stands up. I catch my breath as the first ball is kicked. I listen for the voices of those around me. There is passion, but not aggression. No fists are shaken and when hands are raised the palm is open. It is football with a partisan edge but without an aggressive one and for the first time in weeks, in months, in over a year, I feel like I am home.

Looking at the line up though – and unable to understand the discussion as to why – there is no Kempes in the JEF United side tonight. We had come all this way, but there was no Boy from Brazil.

Back at Valley Parade, Bradford, England, November 2012

Chesterfield frustrate, causing the aggression, and ultimately take a point away from a City team which already look tired in a campaign that will include an historic run the League Cup, a good stint in two other competitions and victory in the play offs.

In six months time the league table will show Bradford City in the final play off place with 69 points, Chesterfield a place below with 67. A reversal in this game would have switched though positions.

If there is a reality to supporting football it may be on nights like this. The final reckoning will make this the keystone game in the season but how many would walk away from Valley Parade having enjoyed the match. If voices are raw and sore the morning after it is from those who shouted abuse, not support, through the game which would end up being decisive.

The reality of supporting football clubs is that these steps are the significant ones and, it seems, as much as the destination of Wembley (twice) and a victory parade in an empty fountain in the middle of Bradford was celebrated that was an antipathy on the journey.

The Pirelli Stadium, Burton, England, May 2013

One am, Friday night or Saturday morning. Queue for tickets in the bowl of the stands at Valley Parade. A line is drawn at about seven and no one who comes at what might be called a reasonable hour will get tickets. The queue is somber.

Having lost 3-2 in the first leg, and not playing especially well at Burton it seemed that Phil Parkinson’s team’s run was in danger of ending. Burton’s backline was repelling James Hanson’s strength and pushed Nahki Wells wide nullifying him. Burton Albion manager Gary Rowett had paid City the respect of doing his homework, and in doing so had found a way of snuffing out the threat that City poised.

And then there was a poor back pass that was too close to Wells, who has a turn of pace to surprise even those who feel ready for it, and then everything was as it was supposed that it should be.

Molineux Stadium, Wolverhampton, England, May 1999

After Robbie Keane scored for Wolves on the day that would end up with City winning 3-2 and getting promoted to the Premiership it seemed that the entire support had concluded that this was a bridge too far for the Bantams. That this noble effort would end in failure.

There was a core of strength in the players though, a belief which transcended the terraces and it was that which turned the game around.

Wembley Stadium, London, England, May 2013

It is easy, and rather lazy, to say that Bradford City put in three goals while Northampton were still taking photographs and waving at their families in the League Two Play Off final. Put that City team up against a side that had been the the National Stadium ten times and the result would have been the same. It was a belief, a belief in each other’s abilities and in the unit as a whole which was the DNA of Phil Parkinson’s side and the reason why the Bantams were victorious.

A long time ago Parkinson told a story about how he once let a player – a player some would have called the best at the club he was at – leave because he did not fit into the mentality that the manager was looking to build.

Toyama Athletic Recreation Park Stadium, Toyama, Japan, July 2013

And there he was: Kempes; The boy from Brazil.

Toyama is 263 miles from Chiba but we’ve come from Hiroshima via Kyoto because one of the things about wandering around a country with a backpack is that you need to find a destination. Hiroshima is about the distance from Bradford to Portsmouth four times over away. The Shinkansen is a thing of beauty.

We pull into Kataller Toyama. Its a big town or a small city. No skyscrapers but the odd tall building. Its hot but everywhere is hot in Japan in July and I’ve given up worrying about it. I have no idea what we are going to find but looking down the main street at the shops boasting with pride the local dish it is, evidently, Chickentown.

JEF United, away. There were ten thousand or more at the home match but around two hundred at this athletics stadium. Cups of barbecued chicken are available for very few yen under the stands. Going up to the away section you can see the kind of stunning mountain view that takes breath away in the midst of an oncoming shower. The chicken tastes good sitting on the grassy bank behind the goal before the rain and we attract a few glances. Being six foot two in a claret and amber shirt will do that. This is Japan and reticence and politeness are a culture. No one interferes.

The game is played out in an welcome shower of warm rain that cools the blood. A song comes up – the man with the megaphone is there again – and the songs are about Kempes. He will finish the J-League 2 season as top scorer but he is off the pace today and unimpressive. His first touch is woeful and he strolls through the game. To counter this the group of around sixty singers wave banners, sing songs and get behind their team, and the Brazilian.

They are rewarded and so am I. Yusuke Tanaka – number six – darts out of midfield and is found by a diagonal ball into the middle. He checks over both shoulders and he runs and completes and side footed lob from an angle over the home keeper who did not realise he was stranded until he saw the ball nestling behind him in the goal.

I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of better goals I have seen with my own eyes. It is beautiful. The acceleration from midfield, the precision of the finish, the ambition, the craft, the subtle magnificence.

The game ends 2-1 with and by the time it does I’ve joined the JEF support bouncing, singing songs in a language I do not understand, being welcomed having transitioned from interested outsider to lifetime supporter. #winbyall we like to say.

There was a bus back to Toyama – the stadium about forty minutes walk away – and not many people talked on the way back because even after the ebullience of football this is still Japan and there is a reserve to these things. I pick up words pulled out of few conversations like the old Fast Show sketch.

“Something something something Kempes.”

Kempes was withdrawn after about seventy minutes and unimpressive on the night. JEF United would finish the season fifth on to draw in the play-offs (lower team plays higher and has to win to progress). They will spend another year in J-League 2, a fifth out of the top division they were founder members of in 1994.

“Something Kempes something something something something.”

Valley Parade, Bradford, England, January 2014

James Hanson scores in the first minutes and Nahki Wells has gone to Huddersfield to be replaced in the first team by the son of one of my friends. Seventeen and eager his name is sung in support not just of the player but of the spirit which had emerged in the supporters of the club.

Something bigger than one player or than one person, bigger than bad results and bad performances. Something that speaks of an opposition to apathy and cowardice dressed as pessimism.

Something that sounds like support should. That sounds like belief.

BfB watches the play off finals: Part three, Reading v Swansea

Football is regularly referred to as a soap opera and, as Reading and Swansea today battle it out for a place in the Premier League next season, one can take comfort in the fact that, for all the cliff hangers we go through, it apparently will never end.

Aside from the occasional doom monger declaring there are too many teams in the Football League and it should be cut – plus the very real threat at times of some clubs going bust – the ongoing narrative of football, with its up and down snakes and ladders system, keeps us enthralled and keeps us believing in the sentiment “there’s always next season.”

The idea that Bradford City could be one day back in this position, looking to return to the Premier League, seems ludicrous after the season just gone. Yet when we were enjoying our brief spell among England’s elite a decade ago, Reading and Swansea fans would scarcely have expected to be in this position today.

10 seasons ago, the Royals and the Swans were playing each other in England’s third tier. Whereas this afternoon both clubs completely fill Wembley, the attendances for the two league meetings that season were 11,003 at the new Madejski stadium and 5,073 at the old Vetch Field. Reading lost the play off final to Walsall that year, while Swansea dropped into the basement league. In the following two seasons, the Welsh team were almost relegated from the Football League.

Only 3,000 or so fans were turning up at their low point, but in their attractive new stadium they are now looked upon as a big club. Although they’ve gone through a number of managers climbing back up the leagues, they’ve maintained a certain philosophy of always playing attractive passing football which has shaped their management choices. While City seem to change what they’re looking for in a manager every time they get rid of the last one, the Swans have worked out a plan that today sees them on the brink of the Premier League.

Reading too have done superbly. Making it to the Premier League in 2006 and successfully reversing the decline so many clubs can’t get out of when they are relegated from the top flight. The internal appointment of Brian McDermott – ironically replacing now-Swansea boss Brendan Rodgers – has worked wonders and their overturning of Cardiff in the play off semi finals was joyous. Especially given the less than ethical way Cardiff have gone about their business this season.

As the two Premier League hopefuls march out into a deafening Wembley stadium, it’s worth pausing to consider how unlikely this all – City in League Two included – would have seemed a decade ago. And, as motivating as the Reading and Swansea stories should act to us and others now, how much their ascent might have initially been inspired by the manner City had made it from Division Two to the Premier League at the end of the millennium. The soap opera never ends.

Today’s instalment unsurprisingly begins in cagey fashion, and the tension is aided by a certain amount of needle between the two clubs that sees fouls reacted to angrily and referee Phil Dowd routinely surrounded by complaining players. One such incident five minutes in sees Reading’s Zurab Khizanishvili harshly go in the book, following long and loud Swansea protests. It would become an interesting talking point not long after.

Reading start the game better, with winger Jimmy Kebe causing plenty of problems down the right flank and some panicky defending seeing Swansea players uncharacteristically hoofing the ball down the pitch. Reading are clearly more pragmatic and physical in style, and you begin to wonder if they will bully the Welshmen into defeat.

But then a rare Swansea foray forward ends with Khizanishvili flooring Scott Sinclair in the box, leaving Dowd with an easy choice in awarding a penalty. More difficult is what to do about the already booked Reading defender. It could be argued it’s a straight red offence; at the very least it should be a yellow. Dowd elects to take no action; perhaps balancing out the dubious early booking for Khizanishvili. Still Swansea don’t seem to mind as Sinclair converts the penalty to put them in front.

36 seconds after the re-start, it’s 2-0 and might already be game over. Stephen Dobbie bursts down the right, exposes Ian Harte’s lack of pace as he drives into the area and Sinclair is eventually left with a tap in. The club’s record signing, at £1 million, could have – depending on which over-hyped media story you read about the value of this game – earned the Swans between £60 and £90 million with his double strike. Three quarters of the game to go, but it’s a long way back for Reading.

Their reaction is limited, with the occasional attack lacking in purpose and belief. The Swans fans “ole” every pass from their players, who now look in control. The game goes quiet again, but then five minutes before the break Nathan Dyer races past the immobile Harte before pulling the ball back for Dobbie to stroke home. Reading’s misery is compounded by sub Jay Tabb and assistant manager Nigel Gibb being sent off on half time following arguments with the officials about a penalty claim rejected. They might have been second best for 20 minutes, but at the interval it’s difficult to begrudge Swansea their 3-0 lead.

Reading need a response, and immediately pull a goal back in the second half through Noel Hunt’s deflected header. Seven minutes later the always impressive Matt Mills heads home another corner and the game wakes up from its dreamy like state into a nerve-wracking hum-dinger. While Tabb and Gibb argued with Dowd for no obvious reason, McDermott was clearly giving the team talk of his life.

The physical and height advantage Reading enjoy is finally proving a factor, though they can play football too as Kebe and Jodi McAnuff attack down the flanks. Jem Karacan’s shot hits the post, with Hunt’s rebound effort brilliantly blocked Swans defender Gary Monk. Royals corner follows Royals corner as the pressure builds, but in time Swansea’s fluster is replaced by composure and they begin re-gain control.

A daft and unnecessary challenge in the area by the experienced Andy Griffin floors Fabio Borini, leaving Swansea and Sinclair with a second penalty of the afternoon to kill the game off, with 12 minutes to go. Sinclair’s effort is almost kept out by Adam Federici, but ends up in the back of the net to seal a hat trick. Reading pile everyone forward in the final stages, but Swansea’s defence has seemingly sorted itself out and they keep clearing the ball. Reading are defeated by the better side, but have been too much the architects of their own downfall to avoid a summer reflecting on what ifs.

So Swansea will become the 45th different club to play in the Premier League – for which next season will be its 20th following its formation in 1992. For all the justified criticism the top flight receives for keeping all the money and not caring about the rest of English football, that almost half of the 92 league clubs have played in it demonstrates it’s not the closed shop so often portrayed.

That, however, is more due to the enduring competitiveness of the Football League rather than anything Richard Scudamore is responsible for. And for all the glamour and success the Premier League isn’t shy of congratulating itself for, the numerous great stories newly promoted clubs – City included – have provided is still an essential backbone to the top end of this sport.

Whether Swansea can take Blackpool’s place in the heart of neutrals next season remains to be seen; but whatever happens, the majority of the 72 Football League clubs can dream with conviction – rather than delusion – of one day emulating them.

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