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 comingÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs time we admitted that there is more to life than money. ItÃ¢ÂÂs time that we focused not just on GDP, but GWB: general well-beingÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ David Cameron
If the Prime MinisterÃ¢ÂÂs boffins ever did manage to create a contraption that measured misery, the meter readings in The Bradford Arms pub Ã¢ÂÂ situated a goal-kickÃ¢ÂÂs distance away from Valley Parade Ã¢ÂÂ 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 Ã¢ÂÂ Yorkshire, an almost-visible recession, three degrees above freezing and a sheen of irritating rain Ã¢ÂÂ 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 thereÃ¢ÂÂs Plymouth Argyle, heavyweights of hardship, currently lying rock bottom of the Football League. Wearing claret and amber are the followers of Bradford City Ã¢ÂÂ 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 EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs most put-upon fans is already well under way. ItÃ¢ÂÂs a perfect storm of grimness, a terminal velocity of tragic tales, a nirvana of nark.
Valley Parade on the day of the Plymouth match
Ã¢ÂÂI just canÃ¢ÂÂt believe how low weÃ¢ÂÂve sunk,Ã¢ÂÂ says Victoria Partridge, a Bantam from nearby Shipley, over a lager. Ã¢ÂÂI think weÃ¢ÂÂve got a good chance of getting relegated. And if that happens, the club will probably go bankrupt. I canÃ¢ÂÂt get my head round it. It seems only yesterday we were playing Man United or Arsenal every week.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂAt least they played at the top level,Ã¢ÂÂ counters Brian James, one of the many Pilgrims whoÃ¢ÂÂve travelled for nearly seven hours to attend. Ã¢ÂÂWeÃ¢ÂÂve spent the last couple of years wondering whether our club is going to exist the next week.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂI wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt want to ever go back into the Premier, though,Ã¢ÂÂ chips in City fan Chris Young. Ã¢ÂÂThe top league ruined us. We were the perfect example of whatÃ¢ÂÂs gone wrong with football, and the country Ã¢ÂÂ living on credit and living beyond your means.Ã¢ÂÂ ItÃ¢ÂÂs such a neat prÃÂ©cis of the worldÃ¢ÂÂs current problems, itÃ¢ÂÂs a wonder that BBC economic vulture Robert Peston isnÃ¢ÂÂt lurking outside with a pie graph.
If thereÃ¢ÂÂs one short-term glimmer of hope, however, itÃ¢ÂÂs that both sides suspect todayÃ¢ÂÂs rivals are worse than them. Ã¢ÂÂTheyÃ¢ÂÂre terrible, while under Phil Parkinson, thereÃ¢ÂÂs some evidence we might be turning a corner,Ã¢ÂÂ reckons City fan Michael Long.
Ã¢ÂÂWerÃ¢ÂÂve got a new owner and some new players at last, so I think weÃ¢ÂÂll win today. Bradford really arenÃ¢ÂÂt very good,Ã¢ÂÂ adds Plymouth native Thomas Smart.
Ã¢ÂÂChrist,Ã¢ÂÂ mutters a nearby Bantam as he swigs at his Guinness. Ã¢ÂÂPity from a Plymouth fan. Things must be bad.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂWe thought the good times were here to stayÃ¢ÂÂ
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 Ã¢ÂÂ 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: Ã¢ÂÂI was responsible for you avoiding relegation. IÃ¢ÂÂm not going to mention you any more, so youÃ¢ÂÂre on your own now.Ã¢ÂÂ
They were heady times. Ã¢ÂÂI donÃ¢ÂÂt think I can remember ever being as happy as a supporter as I was that day against Liverpool,Ã¢ÂÂ remembers Bill Rowe. Ã¢ÂÂThe atmosphere in the pubs afterwards was incredible Ã¢ÂÂ a proper party. We thought the good times were here to stay.Ã¢ÂÂ
But that glorious afternoon, it transpired, would trigger a Sliding Doors-style series of catastrophes that would ultimately be CityÃ¢ÂÂs undoing. Emboldened by his clubÃ¢ÂÂs 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 ÃÂ£40,000 a week. BradfordÃ¢ÂÂs wage bill was suddenly gargantuan. Ã¢ÂÂYou wouldneÃ¢ÂÂt find many fans disagreeing with what he did, mind,Ã¢ÂÂ says Rowe. Ã¢ÂÂRichmond was a hero back then. It was our first spell in the top flight since the 1920s. Everyone got carried away.Ã¢ÂÂ
"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 KamaraÃ¢ÂÂs Bradford vanquish Notts County in the 1996 Division Two Play Off Final, Richmond concluded that Valley Parade wasnÃ¢ÂÂt 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 JewellÃ¢ÂÂs on-pitch excellence, and the Scouse gaffer won BradfordÃ¢ÂÂs first promotion to the top flight in eight decades in 1999 via the runners-up slot.
Richmond and Kamara at Wembley
And when youÃ¢ÂÂre got posh types like Manchester United over to visit every other weekend, further home improvements were deemed necessary. The board decided 18,000 fans wasnÃ¢ÂÂt enough for the Premier League, and nipped down to the bank to borrow around ÃÂ£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 Ã¢ÂÂ or perhaps because of Ã¢ÂÂ their big signings, the Bantams didnÃ¢ÂÂt 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: JewellÃ¢ÂÂs 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 Ã¢ÂÂsix weeks of madness. I will never, ever forgive myself for spending the money we did. I hold my hands up.Ã¢ÂÂ
Bradford had overstretched in haste; a decade of repenting at leisure lay ahead. CityÃ¢ÂÂs first season in the second tier saw them finish 15th, and with debts of around ÃÂ£13m, the club was forced into administration. Richmond departed. Ã¢ÂÂI cleared my desk,Ã¢ÂÂ he says. Ã¢ÂÂAs I drove away, I was in tears. It had been my life, and IÃ¢ÂÂve never been back since.Ã¢ÂÂ
Keeping up with the Premier League Joneses had killed them. Ã¢ÂÂI think a lot of the players that we signed looked at Bradford as one last big payday,Ã¢ÂÂ says supporter Mark Scully, who blogs at www.wearegoingup.co.uk. Ã¢ÂÂWeÃ¢ÂÂd chased the dream, and weÃ¢ÂÂd failed. If you donÃ¢ÂÂt bounce back straight away, itÃ¢ÂÂs very difficult to recover. The parachute payments dried up, and ITV Digital going bust dealt us another blow.Ã¢ÂÂ
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. Ã¢ÂÂI thought weÃ¢ÂÂd hit rock bottom last season,Ã¢ÂÂ says Scully, Ã¢ÂÂbut it looks like I was wrong.
"WeÃ¢ÂÂve 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. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs been no time to settle Ã¢ÂÂ itÃ¢ÂÂs as if weÃ¢ÂÂve had two pre-seasons. He needs time, but that is limited. We pay rent of around ÃÂ£700,000 a year to Gibb, and if we go down, that will become unsustainable. These next few games are huge.Ã¢ÂÂ
It may only be mid-December, but the match with Plymouth is already being billed as a six-pointer.
Ã¢ÂÂWe could all be in the soup kitchen soonÃ¢ÂÂ
To Valley Parade Ã¢ÂÂ now known as the Coral Windows Stadium Ã¢ÂÂ for the game. ThereÃ¢ÂÂs 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. PlymouthÃ¢ÂÂs 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 Ã¢ÂÂHi, Ho, Braford CityÃ¢ÂÂ.
The atmosphere is fairly muted apart from the visiting lunaticsÃ¢ÂÂ relentless Ã¢ÂÂgreen armyÃ¢ÂÂ mantra, and two things immediately become apparent. Firstly, weÃ¢ÂÂre about to witness a dreadful game of association football: both sides, perhaps understandably given their league positions, are playing with fear.
Secondly, weÃ¢ÂÂre sitting in front of a gaggle of Geoffrey Boycott-alike Yorkshire miserablists who make Private Frazer from DadÃ¢ÂÂs Army seem like Graham Norton. A couple of fellas in front of us give them a run for their money (Ã¢ÂÂthis pitch is bloody uselessÃ¢ÂÂ), and then thereÃ¢ÂÂs the moustachioed Eeyore next to us (Ã¢ÂÂgarbage, this. Bloody garbageÃ¢ÂÂ), the sweary loudmouth a few rows back... basically, theyÃ¢ÂÂre 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 Ã¢ÂÂ in classic style Ã¢ÂÂ is addressed directly to manager Phil Parkinson, as if he is listening intently to their advice.
Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs not good enough, Parkinson.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂReid shouldnÃ¢ÂÂt be playing, Parkinson.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂThey can barely kick the ball, Parkinson.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂParkinson! TheyÃ¢ÂÂre not helping each other, Parkinson!Ã¢ÂÂ
Bradford boss Phil Parkinson emerges for more fun
ItÃ¢ÂÂs a first period mainly notable for its impressive amount of injury time, and even FourFourTwoÃ¢ÂÂs photographer isnÃ¢ÂÂt immune from the sage advice. As he heads towards the goalmouth Bradford will attack in the second half, a fan mutters: Ã¢ÂÂI wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt bother going up that end mate, there wonÃ¢ÂÂt be any f***ing goals.Ã¢ÂÂ
One of the Boycotts returns to his seat with a half-time Bovril and an announcement: Ã¢ÂÂIÃ¢ÂÂve done my good deed for the year, fellas. I gave the Salvation Army woman a pound. Good thinking. You never know when weÃ¢ÂÂre going to need them.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂWe could all be in the soup kitchen sooner than we know,Ã¢ÂÂ replies another.
Ã¢ÂÂI love soup.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂMe too. Great stuff.Ã¢ÂÂ
ItÃ¢ÂÂs perhaps the first positive statement weÃ¢ÂÂve heard all day. But 13 minutes into the second half, Pilgrims captain Simon Walton converts a corner: itÃ¢ÂÂs 1-0 Plymouth. The Parkinson complaints line starts to ring off its hook.
Ã¢ÂÂYouÃ¢ÂÂve no idea what youÃ¢ÂÂre doing, Parkinson.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂAre we even watching the same game, Parkinson? Change it!Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂThe basics, Parkinson, you canÃ¢ÂÂt even teach them the basics!Ã¢ÂÂ
Plymouth score, just to make the locals happierÃ¢ÂÂ¦
Bantams skipper Flynn also receives a hearty tongue-lashing thanks to his habit of cleaning the football before throw-ins. Ã¢ÂÂStop wasting time with your stupid little towel, Flynn, you knobhead,Ã¢ÂÂ rasps a surprisingly middle-aged lady. Ã¢ÂÂCaptain my arse, Flynn,Ã¢ÂÂ adds Eeyore.
But perhaps Parkinson is listening. CityÃ¢ÂÂs 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. Ã¢ÂÂWhy donÃ¢ÂÂt you do your hair and scratch your b*ll*cks while youÃ¢ÂÂre at it, mate? ThereÃ¢ÂÂs no rush,Ã¢ÂÂ hollers a fuming Boycott.
But on 90 minutes, City make their pressure pay. Kyel Reid Ã¢ÂÂ oft-derided throughout the game Ã¢ÂÂ 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 sponsorsÃ¢ÂÂ beautifully-designed, expertly-installed and fully-guaranteed conservatories. With five minutes of added time, can Bradford actually win it?
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.
nÃ¢ÂÂWell, that was dire,Ã¢ÂÂ concludes a Boycott. Ã¢ÂÂMerry Christmas, see you all on Boxing Day.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂMy five foot one mum can jump higher than himÃ¢ÂÂ
The fun is over. FourFourTwo trudges towards BradfordÃ¢ÂÂs Forster Square with both sets of fans. At the station, the final few minutes of their bad-time play-off continues. Ã¢ÂÂA point is worth naff all to either of us,Ã¢ÂÂ says Plymouth follower Peter Wynne. Ã¢ÂÂI knew weÃ¢ÂÂd throw it away.Ã¢ÂÂ
Ã¢ÂÂThat papered over the cracks for us,Ã¢ÂÂ adds Ã¢ÂÂBig DaveÃ¢ÂÂ, an appropriately hefty Bradfordian. Ã¢ÂÂHanson is crap, and he knew very little about that goal. He was lucky. HeÃ¢ÂÂs 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 theyÃ¢ÂÂre something special. We need to sell 20 of that lot.Ã¢ÂÂ
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? Ã¢ÂÂI probably should say yes, but youÃ¢ÂÂre a football fan for the good times, arenÃ¢ÂÂt you? The game is about those moments of glory. It ruined us, but I wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt change it.Ã¢ÂÂ
So why come back at all, when itÃ¢ÂÂs 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. Ã¢ÂÂThere 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 canÃ¢ÂÂt be as bad as the town centre two weeks before Christmas.Ã¢ÂÂ
And that Ã¢ÂÂ as well as the excellence of soup as a foodstuff Ã¢ÂÂ is surely one thing we can all agree on.
Bradford v Plymouth pictures courtesy of Gary Prior
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