Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Final Chapter

Bradford City toast their play-off victory
   This was it. The last leg of the marathon. The culmination of everything since August. 46 league games. Goodness knows how many cup fixtures. Sitting on the cusp of promotion. Within touching distance of the dream that they’ve spent six years chasing. 
   After their late play-off surge propelled them into the mix, the Bantams snatched a place in the top seven, eventually securing their spot with one game still left to play. After countless woeful attempts at promotion glory, we were nearly there. 
   And we were quietly confident. We had reason to be: we were the form team, after all, and the Sky Sports cameras were there – Burton Albion didn’t know how to handle appearing on TV. To us, Wembley talk wasn’t premature, because City were the favourites.
   The Burton home leg, however, left a lot to be desired. Long balls, hoofed clearances and uncontrolled passes were in plentiful supply, but composure and calmness were sadly not as abundant. Gary Rowett’s team looked like scoring whenever they had the ball and were creating chances from nowhere, but, in contrast, Parkinson’s men couldn’t string passes together for toffee. It was possibly the side’s worst performance of the season, and, considering that the Bantams had spent several months rivalling higher-ranked opposition, it was gutting that City couldn’t pull the magic out of the bag again. 
   A Nahki Wells penalty and a Garry Thompson bullet from 30 yards offered City a lifeline, but, until Reid and Doyle were brought on, the Bantams didn’t really give us much else to cheer about. Evidently, this play-off malarkey was difficult stuff.
   There was still another game to play, but, to have any chance of progressing, Bradford would have to overturn a one-goal debt against a team with the best home form in the division. 
   But given what had already happened this season, who would bet against us?
   The Bantams are highly seasoned at producing when it matters, and the away game was no exception.
   Wells poached early and latched onto a Burton defensive blunder, dutifully flicking the ball home to blow the roof off the away end. The Bantams faithful, who had been in remarkable voice to begin with, were now delirious. We were level. 
   In the second half, James Hanson shot low to blast the Bantams ahead, but the Brewers converted a penalty to equal the tie again. Just moments later, though, unselfish play from the ex-shelf stacker allowed his strike partner to secure City’s place in the final, and, from then on, the Bantams were unplayable. 
   Bradford were cruising back to Wembley for a second time this season. For City, these Wembley trips are like buses – the kind you’ve got to wait seventeen years for. 
   I genuinely didn’t know what to expect from the Northampton match. In my head, losing wasn’t an option: the Bantams had to hoist themselves out of the fourth tier, especially after this remarkable season. It was inconceivable to think that they could stumble at the final hurdle.
   Yet, at the same time, I had an awful, stomach-churning feeling that the tie would be like the F.A. Cup game and keep going into extra time, but that, this time, Northampton would be taking the plaudits and toasting a penalty shootout victory. 
   But who knew? We were talking about something as unforeseeable as the play-offs, and our odd-defying Bradford City were involved. The whole affair would only have been more unpredictable if Mario Balotelli had jumped in the mix.
   And didn’t it just surpass all expectations. 
   I couldn’t believe it when we scored first. Hanson, the local lad, rocked up in the box to start City’s romp with a cool header, and the West side burst into a frenzy of claret and amber as the Bradford faithful held their scarves and flags aloft. McCardle followed with a replica of his Villa goal, and Wells capped off the rout by doing what he’s done all season: making a difficult finish look like child’s play. 
   By this time, I was well and truly in a state of disbelief. 
   “Nahki! Three! Oh, my gosh!”
   I couldn’t believe that this was happening. To us. Against the Northampton side that we’d only beaten weeks prior due to a defensive blunder. At Wembley. In a play-off final.
   The pain of the Capital One Cup final, and the misery and heartbreak from those six fruitless seasons, quickly evaporated during 28 fine first-half minutes. 
   When the players partied on the pitch and the streams of champagne spurted into the sky, their joy was palpable, there for all to see. They understood it. They got it. It meant as much to them as it did to us. They truly appreciated its importance, just as they have done for every single game of this marathon campaign. 
    I’ve called this blog post “The Final Chapter”, but, thinking about it, that might not be so apt.
   Because, really, Parkinson is just getting started…