"You've no idea what you're doing, Parkinson!" FFT at Bradford, this time last year...

Just over a year ago, FourFourTwo sent a shivering Nick Moore to a miserable Bradford, to sit with fans who understandably couldn't see the cup run coming…“It’s time we admitted that there is more to life than money. It’s time that we focused not just on GDP, but GWB: general well-being” – David Cameron If the Prime Minister’s boffins ever did manage to create a contraption that measured misery, the meter readings in The Bradford Arms pub – situated a goal-kick’s distance away from Valley Parade – would be off the scale on this bleak December Saturday afternoon two weekends before Christmas.

Not only are the conditions outside ideal for a good moan – Yorkshire, an almost-visible recession, three degrees above freezing and a sheen of irritating rain – but the two sets of football supporters huddled inside have been dealt world-class levels of woe over the last decade. In the green corner there’s Plymouth Argyle, heavyweights of hardship, currently lying rock bottom of the Football League. Wearing claret and amber are the followers of Bradford City – sitting 90th in the table, the lowermost position of any club to have played in the Premier League.

Their sides clash at 3pm, but inside the boozer, the play-off for England’s most put-upon fans is already well under way. It’s a perfect storm of grimness, a terminal velocity of tragic tales, a nirvana of nark.

Valley Parade on the day of the Plymouth match

“I just can’t believe how low we’ve sunk,” says Victoria Partridge, a Bantam from nearby Shipley, over a lager. “I think we’ve got a good chance of getting relegated. And if that happens, the club will probably go bankrupt. I can’t get my head round it. It seems only yesterday we were playing Man United or Arsenal every week.”

“At least they played at the top level,” counters Brian James, one of the many Pilgrims who’ve travelled for nearly seven hours to attend. “We’ve spent the last couple of years wondering whether our club is going to exist the next week.”

“I wouldn’t want to ever go back into the Premier, though,” chips in City fan Chris Young. “The top league ruined us. We were the perfect example of what’s gone wrong with football, and the country – living on credit and living beyond your means.” It’s such a neat précis of the world’s current problems, it’s a wonder that BBC economic vulture Robert Peston isn’t lurking outside with a pie graph.

If there’s one short-term glimmer of hope, however, it’s that both sides suspect today’s rivals are worse than them. “They’re terrible, while under Phil Parkinson, there’s some evidence we might be turning a corner,” reckons City fan Michael Long.

“Wer’ve got a new owner and some new players at last, so I think we’ll win today. Bradford really aren’t very good,” adds Plymouth native Thomas Smart.

“Christ,” mutters a nearby Bantam as he swigs at his Guinness. “Pity from a Plymouth fan. Things must be bad.”

“We thought the good times were here to stay”Blame Gunnar Halle and David Wetherall. At 3.12pm on May 14 2000, the Norwegian defender swung in a cross towards the big Yorkshireman. His target met it beautifully, heading unstoppably home past Liverpool goalkeeper Sander Westerveld. Shortly before half-time, Halle performed further heroics, brilliantly clearing what seemed like a certain Michael Owen goal. On the whistle, Valley Parade erupted: the Bantams had beaten the Reds 1-0. Thousands of supporters galloped across the pitch.

May 14 2000: Wetherall keeps Bradford up

The result meant Bradford had avoided relegation during their first season in the Premier League – a fate some had thought inevitable. Sky TV pundit Rodney Marsh had considered relegation so certain that he agreed to shave his head should they stay up, a promise he fulfilled at the first home fixture of the next season. Newly-bald on the pitch, Marsh quipped: “I was responsible for you avoiding relegation. I’m not going to mention you any more, so you’re on your own now.”

They were heady times. “I don’t think I can remember ever being as happy as a supporter as I was that day against Liverpool,” remembers Bill Rowe. “The atmosphere in the pubs afterwards was incredible – a proper party. We thought the good times were here to stay.”

But that glorious afternoon, it transpired, would trigger a Sliding Doors-style series of catastrophes that would ultimately be City’s undoing. Emboldened by his club’s survival and backed by local investors the Rhodes family, Geoffrey Richmond, club chairman since 1994, decided to splash the cash.

Italian trickster Benito Carbone, Romanian defender Dan Petrescu and unpredictable genius Stan Collymore were snapped up. Carbone was paid around £40,000 a week. Bradford’s wage bill was suddenly gargantuan. “You wouldne’t find many fans disagreeing with what he did, mind,” says Rowe. “Richmond was a hero back then. It was our first spell in the top flight since the 1920s. Everyone got carried away.”

"We'd chased the dream. And we failed"Finances were also poured into the stadium. Back in 1996, after 30,000 Yorkshiremen had headed to Wembley to witness Chris Kamara’s Bradford vanquish Notts County in the 1996 Division Two Play Off Final, Richmond concluded that Valley Parade wasn’t large enough to house his ambitions.

A new 4,500 capacity stand was built on Midland Road. It seemed canny: gates increased fourfold thanks to new boss Paul Jewell’s on-pitch excellence, and the Scouse gaffer won Bradford’s first promotion to the top flight in eight decades in 1999 via the runners-up slot.

Richmond and Kamara at Wembley

And when you’re got posh types like Manchester United over to visit every other weekend, further home improvements were deemed necessary. The board decided 18,000 fans wasn’t enough for the Premier League, and nipped down to the bank to borrow around £7m. The Kop End was converted into a 7,500-seater showpiece; an upgraded main stand was added a year later, taking capacity to over 25,000.

Richmond had bet the ranch on success. But despite – or perhaps because of – their big signings, the Bantams didn’t gel. Jewell walked out of the club after disagreements with Richmond, and Bradford played poorly throughout 2000-01.

The directors began prodding the panic button: Jewell’s successor, Chris Hutchings, was sacked after a dozen games. Jim Jefferies lasted under a year. Bradford were relegated. Richmond went on to describe the spending spree as “six weeks of madness. I will never, ever forgive myself for spending the money we did. I hold my hands up.”

Bradford had overstretched in haste; a decade of repenting at leisure lay ahead. City’s first season in the second tier saw them finish 15th, and with debts of around £13m, the club was forced into administration. Richmond departed. “I cleared my desk,” he says. “As I drove away, I was in tears. It had been my life, and I’ve never been back since.”

Keeping up with the Premier League Joneses had killed them. “I think a lot of the players that we signed looked at Bradford as one last big payday,” says supporter Mark Scully, who blogs at www.wearegoingup.co.uk. “We’d chased the dream, and we’d failed. If you don’t bounce back straight away, it’s very difficult to recover. The parachute payments dried up, and ITV Digital going bust dealt us another blow.”

A second spell in administration and further relegation came in 2002; a year later the ground was sold to Gordon Gibb, a former Bradford director who owns Malton-based theme park Flamingo Land. The managerial merry-go-round revolved fast than ever; Bradford went down to the bottom division for the first time in 26 years in 2006-07.

Flamingo Land: Where people rapidly plummet

The chopping and changing continues. Stuart McCall left in February 2010. Since then, Peter Taylor and Peter Jackson (as well as two caretaker bosses) have failed to stop the rot. “I thought we’d hit rock bottom last season,” says Scully, “but it looks like I was wrong.

"We’ve been very unsettled this year and used over 30 players. Jackson left a few games into the season and then current boss Phil Parkinson came in with new players. There’s been no time to settle – it’s as if we’ve had two pre-seasons. He needs time, but that is limited. We pay rent of around £700,000 a year to Gibb, and if we go down, that will become unsustainable. These next few games are huge.”

It may only be mid-December, but the match with Plymouth is already being billed as a six-pointer.

“We could all be in the soup kitchen soon”To Valley Parade – now known as the Coral Windows Stadium – for the game. There’s a schizophrenic feel to the ground, reflecting its past: the mighty Main Stand and Kop loom large over the pitch as imposingly as that of any top-flight club, while the tinpot TL Dallas end has a more lower-league feel. Plymouth’s impressive travelling support mass in a corner of the medium-sized Midland Road stand on the other side. We settle among the Bradford mob, enjoying the vistas of the city (picturesque hills studded with houses and mosques) as they belt out “Hi, Ho, Braford City”.   

The atmosphere is fairly muted apart from the visiting lunatics’ relentless “green army” mantra, and two things immediately become apparent. Firstly, we’re about to witness a dreadful game of association football: both sides, perhaps understandably given their league positions, are playing with fear.

Secondly, we’re sitting in front of a gaggle of Geoffrey Boycott-alike Yorkshire miserablists who make Private Frazer from Dad’s Army seem like Graham Norton. A couple of fellas in front of us give them a run for their money (“this pitch is bloody useless”), and then there’s the moustachioed Eeyore next to us (“garbage, this. Bloody garbage”), the sweary loudmouth a few rows back... basically, they’re everywhere.

The locals soak up the atmosphere

Bradford seem more likely to break the deadlock, swinging in the odd decent cross, but there are scant clear chances. The grumbling – in classic style – is addressed directly to manager Phil Parkinson, as if he is listening intently to their advice.

“It’s not good enough, Parkinson.”

“Reid shouldn’t be playing, Parkinson.”

“They can barely kick the ball, Parkinson.”

“Parkinson! They’re not helping each other, Parkinson!”

Bradford boss Phil Parkinson emerges for more fun

It’s a first period mainly notable for its impressive amount of injury time, and even FourFourTwo’s photographer isn’t immune from the sage advice. As he heads towards the goalmouth Bradford will attack in the second half, a fan mutters: “I wouldn’t bother going up that end mate, there won’t be any f***ing goals.”

One of the Boycotts returns to his seat with a half-time Bovril and an announcement: “I’ve done my good deed for the year, fellas. I gave the Salvation Army woman a pound. Good thinking. You never know when we’re going to need them.”

“We could all be in the soup kitchen sooner than we know,” replies another.

“I love soup.”

“Me too. Great stuff.”

It’s perhaps the first positive statement we’ve heard all day. But 13 minutes into the second half, Pilgrims captain Simon Walton converts a corner: it’s 1-0 Plymouth. The Parkinson complaints line starts to ring off its hook.

“Horses**t, Parkinson!”

“You’ve no idea what you’re doing, Parkinson.”

“Are we even watching the same game, Parkinson? Change it!”

“The basics, Parkinson, you can’t even teach them the basics!”

Plymouth score, just to make the locals happier…

Bantams skipper Flynn also receives a hearty tongue-lashing thanks to his habit of cleaning the football before throw-ins. “Stop wasting time with your stupid little towel, Flynn, you knobhead,” rasps a surprisingly middle-aged lady. “Captain my arse, Flynn,” adds Eeyore.

But perhaps Parkinson is listening. City’s game sharpens considerably after the goal, while Argyle seem to lose composure. They waste time: groomed goalie Jake Cole takes off his gloves to meddle with his boots before a kick. “Why don’t you do your hair and scratch your b*ll*cks while you’re at it, mate? There’s no rush,” hollers a fuming Boycott.

But on 90 minutes, City make their pressure pay. Kyel Reid – oft-derided throughout the game – whips in a classy cross, blasted home by big forward James Hanson. The Coral Windows stadium produces a shriek loud enough to shatter one the sponsors’ beautifully-designed, expertly-installed and fully-guaranteed conservatories. With five minutes of added time, can Bradford actually win it?

Wallop!

The answer is no. The jitters seize both sides (who both look like relegation fodder) nobody can string two passes together, and the game ends amid a chorus of boos and a symphony of tutting. At the TL Dallas end, the nastier element of the home support congregate by the tunnel to hurl abuse at their departing heroes. A couple of players respond with choice obscenities of their own.

n“Well, that was dire,” concludes a Boycott. “Merry Christmas, see you all on Boxing Day.”

“My five foot one mum can jump higher than him”The fun is over. FourFourTwo trudges towards Bradford’s Forster Square with both sets of fans. At the station, the final few minutes of their bad-time play-off continues. “A point is worth naff all to either of us,” says Plymouth follower Peter Wynne. “I knew we’d throw it away.”

“That papered over the cracks for us,” adds ‘Big Dave’, an appropriately hefty Bradfordian. “Hanson is crap, and he knew very little about that goal. He was lucky. He’s the least scary six foot four man in the world. My five foot one mum can jump higher than him. And they strut round like they’re something special. We need to sell 20 of that lot.”

So, given a time machine and the ability to distract David Wetherall, would they go back to May 14 2000 and send his fate-changing header over the bar? “I probably should say yes, but you’re a football fan for the good times, aren’t you? The game is about those moments of glory. It ruined us, but I wouldn’t change it.”

So why come back at all, when it’s all so miserable? Dave ponders for a moment, then delivers the same answer FourFourTwo has received at homes of footballing ineptitude from Stockport to Doncaster over the last decade. “There were over 10,000 people there today, which is bloody impressive, and I reckon most of them were avoiding shopping. That was bad, but it can’t be as bad as the town centre two weeks before Christmas.”

And that – as well as the excellence of soup as a foodstuff – is surely one thing we can all agree on. Bradford v Plymouth pictures courtesy of Gary Prior

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