Best of the Bantams #2

The second match in our Best of the Bantams series is surely one of the most famous and exhilarating afternoons in the history of the club. That day, in typical Bradford City fashion, the team took the supporters to the gates of hell, the edge of heaven, and the cardiology ward before the game was finished. It will forever be known as one word, a word that causes the average City fan to go all misty-eyed and wobbly. Molineux.

Wolves 2 – Bradford City 3

The referee blows the full time whistle. The world flips on its axis and is turned upside down and inside out. A roar of delight and relief reverberates around the place. A mass of claret and amber bounces up and down, pinching itself. Whites of the eyes everywhere you look. A savage bear hug. Another hug and then another. Screaming in my ears. A man faints to my left in disbelief. Tears flowing. What on earth have we just done?

What we have just done is achieve promotion to the Premier League – the really hard way. Bradford City – hapless dwellers of the lower leagues have just entered the Promised Land. In one blow of a referee’s whistle, trips to Vale Park, Gigg Lane and Edgeley Park have become a thing of the past and Old Trafford, Highbury and Anfield beckon. You can forgive a few bear hugs and tears. Especially after that game.

This really was mother of all emotional rollercoasters. Even Charlie Dickens would have struggled to squeeze in more plots, sub-plots, twists and drama into one story. This game had everything. It actually had too much at the time. Trying to capture it is a nigh on impossible task, but it’s a fun one. Here goes.

We arrived at Molineux on the last day of the 1998/99 season in second place behind runaway leaders Sunderland, and in an automatic promotion place. The usual end-of-season permutations had been calculated but we all knew one thing – win and we would be promoted to the Premier League. Events at promotion rivals Ipswich Town would be completely irrelevant should we keep our side of the bargain and win. 

No problem then, we’ve been winning all season. (Well, actually we hadn’t. Not everyone remembers but we actually lost four of our first six games). Wolves are chasing a playoff place and have an impressive home record. Any chance of the home side taking it easy and letting us live the dream? Not a prayer. Wolverhampton Wanderers put us through the rinser and them some that day. I’m not sure I can forgive them for it.

The first fifteen minutes are, to be honest, pretty much a primeval nightmare. City look nervous and tentative, whereas Wolves are on it. Watching helplessly, fingernails taking a battering, all we can wish for is for City to weather the storm. Fat chance. Harvard Flo heads Wolves in front after the ball rebounds to him off the bar. Surely Gary Walsh was fouled in the build-up, surely he was impeded, surely the whistle will blow, surely…

Nothing. The goal stands and there is a collective gulp from everyone associated with Bradford City. 1-0 down and suddenly the best day of our lives is turning into the worst. Take me home.

One thing that sets the best Bradford City sides apart over the years is a never-say-die spirit in the face of adversity. This group had, in the words of Jose Mourinho, big balls, and they complemented that with wonderful talent. Nobody had more talent than the brilliant Peter Beagrie and it is he who puts us back on the road to wonderland with his equaliser. After twisting City old boy Dean Richards inside out, Beags fires low and hard into the far corner and in that instant the despair vanishes. 1-1. It is a classic Peter Beagrie goal. I love him for it.

That goal inspires everyone. It inspires the fans who find another 100 decibels of noise. It inspires the players, shaking them out of their nervy state into the rampant one we’ve seen almost all season. The Bantams are strutting again, and on 40 minutes Robbie Blake carves the Wolves defence apart with a sublime pass to Lee Mills who finishes first time. Ant & Dec. Lennon & McCartney. Mills & Blake. That wonderful duo mean City disappear down the tunnel at half time in the driving seat. We are on the cusp of something special.

I have a theory that most sides would have shut up shop at this point. I also have a theory that City may well deliberately send us to the edge of breakdown. This theory is partly born out of what happened in the second half at Molineux, for this is the half where things got, well, a little crazy.

Wolves come out and pile on the pressure. City are dropping back and Mills & Blake are a little isolated. Walsh makes a great save. The heart rate is pushing something like 200 BPM and everyone in the City end has bitten through their nails and is now chomping their way through the skin on their knuckles. Step forward Robbie Blake who does his trademark wriggle on the edge of the box. With that wriggle he makes some room for himself. Bums come off seats. He shoots, and feet come off the ground and heads disappear into the clouds. Everything is on the verge of being perfect as we leap and scream and dance and shake our heads in disbelief. 3-1. Are we Premier League? Pretty much.

We are almost definitely Premier League when Dean Richards bustles over Jamie Lawrence in the box to give City a penalty. Beagrie doesn’t miss these and his experience is bound to send us 4-1 up and into dreamland. Up he steps, fires it goalwards and at that precise second everything starts to go pear-shaped. Stowell sticks out the strongest of hands and keeps it out.

Just a hiccough we all say. It’s fine. Keep them out and all is fine. We don’t keep them out though do we? The City way. Simpson breaks the offside trap and scores. 3-2. Heart rates back up to 200 and the skin on the knuckles is pretty much exposing bone by this point. Heads are down from the clouds and are in hands. Silent apologies for believing that we were up are being sent skyward to the Bradford City Gods.

Incredible games and achievements often have ‘that’ moment. The first ascent of Everest had the Hillary Step. England winning the World Cup had the Russian linesman. At Molineux, Beagrie’s equaliser was one of those moments and John Dreyer’s clearance is another. Simpson smashes a brilliant free kick from 25 yards which beats Walsh all ends up and hits the post. Time freezes. The ball bounces out invitingly for a Wolves player to smash it in. We all expect a Wolves shirt to rush in and score when John Dreyer, thank the Lord for Tumble, appears and he belts the ball clear. Take me home. Please take me home.

From having a penalty to go 4-1 up, to a lick of paint from being pegged back to 3-3. All of that happened in just minutes. No other club would do that. I’m absolutely and utterly convinced of it. It’s the City way.

We all know what happens after that. Beagrie on the bench almost in tears just before the whistle blows. Unbridled pandemonium at the final whistle. Jewell’s cigar impression. Stopping to think ‘We are Premier League’ and not really being able to believe it.

All of the craziness of that unbelievable 90 minutes makes promotion at Molineux very very special, but the fact is at the time it felt like hell. It was the scariest, most nerve-wracking game to sit through. Shutting up shop would have been amazing and finishing them off by going 4-1 would have sent us into dreamland. But to do it the way we did makes promotion that day at Molineux so much more memorable and fantastic.  

When we remember promotion to the Premiership we are incredibly lucky in that we all remember not only the joy of promotion, but we also remember a game in which we experienced every emotion under the sun, yet rounded off the day with nothing but the most amazing of them. 

Now excuse me. I’m off to watch the clips all over again, and to find a car to dance on.