Monday, 24 February 2014

We saw it through no matter what

“I wanted you to see something about her – I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do…” – Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

   I love that quote. If my quote wall was an actual wall, rather than just a series of haste scribbles on the back of a refill pad, that one would be wedged firmly atop my diamond nine. I could write a whole essay on what I love about To Kill A Mockingbird, but I don’t think it’s difficult to work out why I picked that quote out for this article.
   For me, that sums up City’s cup final. To a letter. In that paragraph, you can find everything about that game against Swansea. In many ways, there’s really no point in me writing this now. What I need to say is right there. The score? It didn’t matter. Most of us – admittedly, not me – knew the result weeks before a ball was kicked, even if we’d allowed ourselves, for a moment, while we were whipped up in the middle of the media tornado, to dream up a happier scenario. We didn’t win, but we had a go. We were under the cosh, but we mustered a shot on target towards the end and celebrated like we’d actually qualified for the Europa League. We felt hurt, dejected, betrayed and ruthlessly deserted by the football Gods as a lonely Duke slumped off the pitch to a veracious reception, but we kept the flags waving long into the night.
   We saw it through no matter what.
   Looking back on it is odd. It’s not so much that it was a year ago – the time feels about right. It’s more that it happened at all.
   I’d long accepted that City would never reach a cup final. I’d dreamed of the play-offs, of my club reaching the national stadium, but even the JPT final, the most plausible of all the annual Wembley showpieces, had almost always seemed an utterly outlandish prospect, so how could I have possibly envisaged this? My brother’s team, Liverpool, were the side that blessed our house with grandeur and glory and major cup finals, so how had we stumbled into this world? What kind of mad foray had brought us here? Surely we would be rumbled, caught out, shown to be the impostors? I stepped off the coach tentatively, half expecting to look out along Wembley Way and see the blue and white of Chelsea, or the red and black of Manchester United. Seeing the claret and amber brought a wave of stunned relief. It seemed an hour or so before the Swansea clan rocked up.
   When we were on the concourse, I was confident. Being at Wembley felt… right. We were there on merit. There was no reason to be scared. Even as I ran the pole of those now famous flags between my fingers (I genuinely didn’t believe they were free), I felt relaxed. ‘Claret and Amber’ blared from the speakers and I felt even more at home. Even when the teams lined up in their black tracksuits, I was bizarrely composed. When Swansea got their first, for crying out loud, I still thought we’d pull it back.
   What I remember about that goal, though, is the pain. To this day, I’ve only seen the goals back once (my dad tactfully deleted the game from the Sky planner as soon as we got back from London, in a bid to protect me from some semi-repressed memories), but I can recall someone losing their marker and knowing the worst was to come. Dyer prodded. Duke stretched his arm to the side. McArdle threw himself forward. But that was it. Dyer celebrated in front of us as we struggled to believe City were trailing. An ebb of doubt flickered in my mind and, for the first time, I genuinely feared for the result. This wasn’t a part of the dream.
   Five goals against, a red card and one meek shot on target was never part of the dream. One foray forward was never part of the dream. Watching City chase shadows for 90 minutes, recklessly made human and demoralised before our eyes, was a concept dismissed at the drawing board. But I couldn’t have been prouder.
   Because we saw it through no matter what.
   In that final half an hour, I didn’t want to be anywhere else. As I stood up and waved my flag, nothing else on the pitch mattered. I knew most of my friends would have turned off their televisions by now, but some would still be watching – and this is what they would be seeing.
   Us. Here. Trapped in this moment.
   In that period, I felt more affirmed than I ever have as a football fan. We stood, unified, united, together, the vocal and proud – so, so proud - personification of the mantra and mentality that had carried the team since Burton.
   It’s only a cup.
   At the time, though, it hurt. I burst into tears in the stands, sobbed away in the toilets, sighed all the way back to the coach. Women in the queue scowled at me, muttered those words of consolation that never actually offer any consolation – “It’s only a game”. I thought back over the months of media coverage and blasted fate for not giving us what we’d been rightly entitled to – reality, it seemed, bites hard. It was a selfish way of looking at the cup run, but I feared my time supporting City had already reached its apex; that the next few games would be the hangover, some desperate, contrived attempt to rekindle the magic of something that would never happen again. I slipped into the darkened Wembley night ironically humming ‘Premier League? You’re Having A Laugh!’, not particularly thinking anything other than that I had to keep my emotions in check or risk my mum would veto my plea for play-off tickets should City make the season finale. My auntie reminded me I had the bread and butter delight of Dagenham and Redbridge to look forward to just days after. The elitist part of me died inside.
   And then the coach driver tipped me over the edge by playing Emeli Sande, which is the last thing you want to hear (after Adele) when you’re stuck behind 20 coaches in a London car park and wallowing in the self-pity that comes with witnessing your team fall victims to the heaviest cup final defeat of all time.
   You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
   And we did. We were winners by just reaching that stage. A cup final? We’ll never dp that again. Swansea might. Liverpool will. Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City - easily. A Championship team? Maybe. But someone from the fourth division? No chance. That’ll never, ever happen again. The cup final has become the preserve of the elite once more.
   A cup final. And I was there. I’ll have to put up with some stick at school tomorrow, and this car park will undoubtedly take an age to get out of, but I was there. I was at Wembley. I was waving a flag. I was there when Gary Jones tamely flashed the ball towards goal. I was there on the day that Bradford City reached a major cup final.
   I was there when we made history.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Bradford City 3-3 Crewe Alexandra

He's Magic, You Know! City Wizard Casts Almighty Charm That Spells A Draw For Resilient Bantams


   It was a clinical effort.
   He powered forward from the centre, the ball at his feet, the mud sloshing at his ankles, McLean waiting for the reception. He played it through. McLean flicked it into his path. The ball fell to his feet. He arched his back, swung his foot, and pulled the trigger.
   Textbook stuff.
   The ball flashed forwards, as powerful and unstoppable as its sender had been for the previous 59 minutes. It was ambitious from that distance. Ben Garratt dived low. Valley Parade paused and prayed. The keeper’s arms stretched out, but it was too late. The ball slipped under and the net bulged.
   That was all the confirmation we needed.
   I can’t tell you how happy I was to see him get that goal. I hadn’t celebrated that wildly in a long, long time. There was screaming, squealing, manic jumping, hoarse shouts, first pumping, a Gary Neville goalgasm, a temporary flit to Mariah Carey vocal range, shaking, hugging – the whole works. My vision may have blurred. I don’t know. In any case, I had to sit down for a minute afterwards and collect myself together, rediscover the composure that had disintegrated in an eyeblink following 15 minutes of pure rampancy from my heroes. A 0-2 deficit crushed after 15 minutes of unrelenting pressure, effort and hard work.
   You can say whatever you like about this team, but you can never, ever, ever criticise their spirit. Gary Jones - in all his impassioned, valiant, knee-sliding glory - is the one-man embodiment of everything Phil Parkinson ever set out to do and has done for this club. If I wanted to, I could run an entire series based solely upon the City supremo’s managerial credentials and the improvement to individual players since he’s been here (Episode one, the rise and rise of James Hanson, is coming soon), but you need look no further than the Bantams’ Captain Fantastic to find what this club is really all about.
   As Parkinson said after the game, the second half was a proper Bradford City performance. 
   Which compensated for a mixed first half. Some of Bradford’s passing play was accurate and impressive, and the game was fairly evenly paced, but the hosts struggled against the conditions and lacked the prowess to really take the game to Crewe. Debutant Matty Dolan failed to convert a James Hanson knockdown and Gary Jones came close with a ferocious strike from the edge of the box, but Crewe inched in twice in a difficult opening quarter.
   It was the visitors who opened the scoring on twelve minutes. Carl McHugh and Jon McLaughlin became entangled as Uche Ikpeazu raced forwards, and the striker cleanly lobbed over as Davies scrambled backwards to cover. It was sick, deflating and saddening – City, once again, had left themselves with it all to do.
   The back four struggled against Crewe’s imposing and hugely organised forward three, who, as well as bearing physical resemblance to three Akinfenwas, were all neat flick ons, clean runs-in behind and slick, insightful movements. The deluge of rain did little to lift our already dampened spirits, and, though there were some positives to take from the first half – most notably, no reversion to directness when the circumstances could easily have forced a leap into hoof-ball – it was largely 45 minutes to forget for the Bantams.
   But City really came out of the blocks in the second half. From the off, it was urgent, convincing and persuasive, the Bantams creating a flush of chances in the final third. Adam Reach’s cross was met by a Hanson header, but Garratt somehow flicked the danger away with an impressive fingertip save. The winger’s blistering retort moments later was blocked amidst the goalmouth melee and Dolan slid the rebound just wide, while Darby powered down the right flank to deliver a teasing cross that blinked just an inch in front of McLean. Hanson again saw a header denied and McLean’s smooth stab was blocked from close range. It was City, City, City, the Bantams on top and refusing to allow Alexandra to breathe. Something had to happen now.
   Crewe goal.
   The visitors broke quickly in a desperate relief from Bradford pressure, and Ikpeazu added a second to his tally after firing home McLaughlin’s parry. 0-2 – surely City couldn’t salvage anything from this game now.
   But less than four minutes later, City were back on the front foot. McLean squared the ball perfectly to Hanson and the forward fired low to put the Bantams back in the contest.
   It was a fightback that had been led by the Bantams’ captain, so how apt that Gary Jones found himself coming to a dramatic knee slide in front of the Kop, and toasting drawing the Bantams level. How had this happened? How had this really happened? It would seem that, importantly, and in the face of any number of insurmountable and disheartening challenges, the effort of this team never, ever falters – no matter how horrendous the football becomes, one can always take comfort in the passion coursing through the veins of every player donning the claret and amber right now.
   Yet, there were more twists and turns to come for a narrative that looked to have already climaxed. In what seemed like a final, crushing blow for the home side, Crewe found the net with just ten minutes remaining. It all looked over as Mathias Pogba fired past McLaughlin.
   But no one had told that to Gary Jones.
   The 36 year old gladly received McLean’s lay-off and slotted home in an exact carbon copy of his earlier goal. Come on, City.
   Naturally, questions were raised today. The passivity of the first half and the readiness of the defence to ship three goals in such a way, both present problems that need to be addressed sooner, rather than later. The ‘one win in however many games it is this week’ quota still remains, hovering over this team and staunchly refusing to be banished. It’s worrying, but it shouldn’t consume us.
   Because the second half suggests that win is not too far away. In fact, it looks to be in touching distance. What today showed, above all else – what it dispelled and exhibited, rather than unearthed – is that City have enough to claw their way convincingly out of this nadir. Gary Jones - the lifeblood, the heart and soul, the public face, the figurehead, the Dumbledore in a team of Hogwarts alumni – is back to his best. You can’t even begin to argue otherwise. Aaron McLean and Hanson look to be working well – McLean, particularly, was hugely impressive today. You can choose to get bogged down in that now infamous statistic, or you can choose to keep the figure in context and marvel at the pros of what was a marvellous second half showing. Don’t bury your head in the sand, but, for tonight, celebrate that point and pay homage to Gary Jones with the biggest fist-pump you can muster.
   He’s sure earned it.

 Bantams Blogger’s Top Three:
1st: Gary Jones: A typically lionhearted performance from the cult hero. When the backs were against the wall, the captain made sure the team salvaged something. An inspired display in every aspect.

2nd: Aaron McLean: Hand in all three goals in an engaging shift. Looks a more intelligent and assist-making player than his predecessor, and there should be more to come from him as he gels with Hanson.

3rd: Stephen Darby: Another quality showing from the defender – give him a 60 billion year contract right now, please.