Even more memories, hopes & dreams (final instalment)

Wednesday 26th June 2013 at 6:43PM

I wrote the first instalment of this in December 2012 just after Bradford City beat Aston Villa 3-1 in the first leg of this season’s Capital One (League) Cup semi final. I didn't think I'd be adding to it.

I wanted to explain how a throw-away remark from my son had led to a quite astounding course of events that would serve to underline Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous ‘Football? Bloody hell’ observation and say something about the emotional currency of memories, hopes and dreams.

Then, 5 months later, on the 40th anniversary of my own team’s greatest day and a few hours after my son’s beloved Bantams have qualified for Wembley for the second time this season, it seemed like a good time to bring it up to date.

With City now preparing for their return to League One now, I can finally bring this tale to a close. 

* * *

My son was born at Bradford Royal Infirmary one cold, damp November day in 1995 and quickly clutched tightly to the beating heart of this decrepit Sunderland fan.

However much our dreams for him coincided, there was one I held that probably hadn’t entered my wife Ana’s thoughts. Yep, that first trip to Roker Park. And we were in a hurry too, because work had already started on the Stadium of Light. A personal ‘brick’ would have to be purchased, a shirt procured to be adorned with his name (I think it was the Avec-sponsored one-sleeve-different-to-the-other replica kit) and a visit to the seagull-splattered shrine where I first heard the loud guttural roar from the Fulwell End and thought that real life had started.

I probably didn’t expect my son to play for the Black Cats, but I did hope that over the years an affection for the Club would be our bond, so that just like for my Dad and I before him, we’d use discussions about Phil Gray, Gary Rowell, Kevin Phillips or even the late lamented Mel Holden in place of the words ‘I love ya, Dad / Son’ (so we wouldn’t have to be American and actually say it).  And, being a faithful son, for his first few years of sports consciousness (let’s say from 4 to 7) he’d be sympathetic to the Mackem cause, in spite of the clear absence of any prospect of winning anything.

But another seed had been sown: a love for his local club. He told me in 2002, with a wisdom that belied his young age, that he should back his local club and, as he was born within spitting distance of the ground, it should be Bradford City AFC.

Betraying my professed belief that winning isn’t everything, I drew a heavy sigh. City had just embarked on an attempt to set a record for the biggest collapse of any Premier League Club. When Luis, my son, began his affection, they’d already left the giddy heights of the top of the pyramid and were heading south at an alarming rate of knots.

By 2007, when we decided to treat him to a day when he’d be mascot and lead the team out, they were about to draw 2-2 at home to Millwall and drop into League Two.  By this point we were having existentialist debates about the true meaning of football and given the likely continued absence of sporting glory in each of our lives, professed to believe that football was really, to quote a friend, ‘a collection of memories’.  As that phrase left my lips I could recall my first trip to Roker Park in October 1969, driven there with my Dad in my Uncle Ken’s Ford Capri. I could remember trying to find an obliging neighbour with a colour TV on that May day in 1973 and that ridiculous string of results in 1977 when after not scoring for something like 9 games we beat Boro 4-1, West Brom 6-1 and West Ham 6-0 (and still managed to get relegated).

Luis pointed out that he didn’t have any good memories. Bradford weren’t the sort of team who helped you on that front.  All he’d had since 2002 was the mental equivalent of a tickly cough you can’t shake off. No joy for him. And when I did take him to the Club Museum, the events of 1985 and that tragic fire consumed our thoughts and he left with a stronger conviction for his Club, but still sceptical about the idea that he’d have a future as a Bantams fan characterised by wonderful memories of the past.

Until the events of the last few weeks, of course.  As some of you will know, our work takes us around the UK at weekends, visiting different stadia. Our recent destinations have been Dingwall, Dundee, Preston, Fleetwood, Morecambe, Derby, Doncaster and Winterton, so we haven’t been able to see our beloved clubs. That was put right back in October when I took him to see City play Burton in the League Cup.  Thanks to their prodigious penalty shoot out feats, Bradford had drawn the only other remaining League Two in this season’s Capital One Cup. A chance to get to the last sixteen beckoned. What could possibly go wrong?

Within 20 minutes Bradford were 0-2 down. Burton had advanced up the pitch twice during a period where City were camped in the opposition half.  With five minutes to go, my son’s stoical commitment to his club almost broke. ‘Memories?’ Not a chance. And as if heard by a distracted Angel, looking to play a prank, his prayers were heard and Nahki Wells scored twice in the last 5 minutes to force extra time, during which Stephen Darby scored from a full 200 yards (well, it did seem far at the time).

Cue Arsenal: the peak of joy as Garry Thompson put the Bantams ahead followed by the pits of despair as the Gunners equalised three minutes from the end and then the scenes of Dad and Son jumping up and down and hugging each other as the Arsenal goal scorer obliged by finding the post with the last penalty.

‘Now you’ve got a memory’ I told me son and he agreed. ‘It won’t get better than this.’ He seemed to agree, but then learned the other half of the equation. It’s not just about memories, but dreams too. Quietly – and without sharing this with me – he began to outline a draw where a fragile, young Villa would come to Valley Parade and be outplayed and outgunned by his beloved Bantams. This was before Villa’s Christmas Collapse, but a scenario that was just about imaginable. 

* * *

Preparations for the Villa match began promisingly. A friend offered us two seats in hospitality. Luis was minded to decline, to be with the troops, but decided to take up the offer. He was pleased he had, since among the people he met that evening were Dean Windass and the Brownlie brothers.

What then transpired on the pitch was what he hoped - dreamed - would happen. Like the Arsenal game before, the miracle outcome was almost snatched from his hands, as a late Weimann goal turned an impressive, barely credible 2-0 win into the kind of result any Premier League club would feel comfortable bringing home.  Step forward Carl McHugh, a Donegal youngster, with a header that only previously had been seen in the pages of Roy of the Rovers and complete strangers were hugging each other at Valley Parade.

Luis didn’t go to Villa Park for the semi final. There was even some doubt it would take place, so poor were the weather conditions. But looking back, the snow that fell throughout reminded me of the Christmas episode of your favourite TV show, with festive ‘snow fall’ adding a layer of excitement and joy to the usual 30 minutes. With Villa’s early goal, my son’s demeanour changed. I could barely watch and it’s not even my team! It looked like a hiding was on the cards, so I stole downstairs and got on with some work. A few minutes into the second half I heard a shriek from upstairs.

The barely credible had happened again. Hanson: 1-1.  From then on, according to the commentators at least, Bradford were comfortable. My and my son weren’t though. I could hear my heart beating in my throat. Weimann’s late goal (again) threw us into a state of nervous exhaustion and when the final whistle blew, there was a sense of disbelief. 

You dream it but you know it won’t happen. We both ran up and down the stairs several times. I felt like I was 10 years old again, listening to Sunderland beat Arsenal 2-1 at Hillsborough on the transistor radio and realising my team would be in the FA Cup Final.  For my son, from being 0-2 down to Burton Albion in the 3rd round of the Cup and that sigh of despair (‘I’ll never have a memory, never mind the chance of us winning anything’), a trip to Wembley.

Though I’ve since tried to put the result in to the back of mind, my son grew quite comfortable – proud even – with the outcome. His fellow Bradford fans outsang the Swansea fans and I have to say that when Gary Jones walked over to take his side’s only corner, a few minutes from the end, the sound of 32,000 West Yorkshire souls in proud acclaim reduced me to tears and, I’ve said it before, it’s not even my team!

That, we thought, would be the end of the journey. There were League games to make up and, initially, some confidence that the team could mount a challenge for the play offs. However, after a 1-4 collapse at Exeter City, that was that. ‘You’ll never EVER have a season like that’ I reassured my son. ‘League One would be great, but I guess you’d never swap that for the Cup run.’

He kept his counsel and hoped beyond hope. But by the time he went off skiing with the school to Vermont (I used to get to go on Catholic Retreats to Minsteracres in County Durham when I was his age) I think he’d mentally prepared himself for next season.

By the time he’d returned, there’d be three unlikely victories in a row (and I’d pick Aurora’s Encore for the Grand National) and by the time Bradford faced Burton at home again, a win, combined with a defeat for Exeter City at home to Cheltenham, themselves chasing automatic promotion, would see City into the play offs.

This time we went on the £20 pie, pint and match ticket deal (highly recommended to anyone of the parish) and, remarkably, a comedy goal, a Burton dismissal and a Robins away win at St James’ Park, kept the emotional roller coaster rattling along even further until, of course, the cruel reverse of the 3-2 against Burton (yes, them again) in the first leg of the Play Off Semi Final.  Again, I kicked into encouragement overdrive, caught between the fact that they only needed to win by a goal to put the tie into extra time and the realisation that after 60-odd games, Bradford were physically and mentally shot.

This weekend, we were in Scotland. We saw Inverness Caley Thistle beat Motherwell 4-3 in a brilliant encounter: a missed penalty, a sending off, a hat trick and the first game in which Michael Higdon has scored this season that Motherwell haven’t won. But it didn’t keep my son’s mind of the second leg of the Play Off semi final. While driving back this morning we decided to address our nerves by agreeing upon a period of radio silence. Once home, he got out of the car first and I quickly sneaked a look at the BBC website on my iPhone.

We were going to Wembley again. 

* * *

At the beginning of March I happened to be at the Football League Awards Dinner, where Cardiff City were awarded Family Club of the Year for the second time in 3 years: a club who have revolutionised our understanding of football and what it means to people.

Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Gary Jones, Bradford City Club Captain. We had a brief chat, during which I told him about how my son’s comment about ‘not even having a memory’ had set into motion such an astonishing series of events. Gary took my Awards Programme and wrote on it: Thanks for the support Luis. You’ve got a memory now! 

* * *

The League One Play Off Final took place on Saturday May 19th. Trouble loomed. After having conceded five to Swansea on the previous unlikely visit to the home of football, as true northerners, Luis and I feared the worst and settled back to see who could make the most creatively ominous comments about the disaster that was about to unfold.

But none of this was needed of course. Within 28 minutes the Bantams were 3-0 up and even though we weren’t entirely convinced of the win until there were 2 minutes left (based on my oft-mentioned ‘you only need a second to score a goal’ mantra), it was possibly the most relaxed we’ve ever been at a football match.

The sense of calm seemed surreal, especially as I cast my mind back to that 3rd round Capital One Cup tie against Burton, when, at 0-2 down at home in 20 minutes, my son’s frustration played out. ‘At least you have a memory’ he told me.

At the full time whistle, after briefly celebrating on the pitch, Bradford’s players, led by Gary Jones began the ascent to collect the trophy. At this point I noticed that we weren’t actually too far from the steps themselves. ‘Go and give him your scarf’ I shouted to Luis, half in jest. Not an outgoing fellow, he hesitated. ‘Go on’ I pushed. He made his way along the aisle, just as his hero passed. I saw a flutter of claret and amber and then, a coupe of minutes later, looked on as Bradford’s captain held the trophy aloft, with my son’s scarf around his neck.

For many top-flight teams, Wembley may have lost a little of its lustre. But for those of us who don’t have an over inflated sense of entitlement and for whom a rare away win is a cause for ecstatic celebration, this was some journey. A League Two club, condemned to struggle against dropping out of the League beat 5 times from divisions above them (including 3 Premier League clubs), playing more games than any League Two club has played in recent memory, falling off the pace naturally and then gathering themselves for a final push, culminating in a happy day with an even happier closing memory – and promotion.

I’m taking him to Sunderland’s first Capital One Cup tie next season. And if we’re a couple of goals down at the interval, I’m already rehearsing my lines. And that’s the wonder of football. If it can happen to Bradford, it can happen to everyone. Roll on next season. Me and my son. The sport we love.

POST SCRIPT

The night we came back from the Villa game - one of the happiest moments in my son's life to date - we received the news that a good friend had little time left with us, following a courageous battle against lymphoma. This is dedicated to Andrew Baker. 

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