“Halle takes it… Oh, Wetherall’s free! Fantastic header! Bradford City lead Liverpool by one goal to nil! Unbridled joy at Valley Parade!” Those were the words of Martin Tyler, as Bradford City pulled off the great escape in 2000 to stave off relegation from the Premier League.
It was ‘great’ in more ways than one. The Bantams had spent just ten of their 97-year existence in the top flight of English football, breaking a 77-year wait in 1999. But they had won just six games on their return to the big time, only for a run of three wins from four – capped with a victory over their illustrious rivals – to complete the survival mission, as Bradford lived to fight another day.
But salvation isn’t a feast to dine on, and soon enough, City’s chickens came home to roost. Relegation was confirmed just a year later, as Chris Hutchins, Stuart McCall and Jim Jeffries tried, but failed, to keep the strugglers up for a second straight year. But falling through the trap door isn’t always the worst thing to happen to a club, nor is it something to be ashamed of. But things can turn south when the rot fails to stop there.
In a bid to stave off the drop again, north of £6m was spent on a host of players who didn’t stick around long (or at all) beyond the 00/01 season. The splurge included club-record signing Dave Hopkin for £2.5m, while Dan Petrescu, Stan Collymore and Benito Carbone all commanded healthy wages – namely £40,000-per-week on the latter. The summer spree in which most of those players joined would later be dubbed as ‘six weeks of madness’ by then chairman Geoffrey Richmond, who turned a loveable squad of scrappers and nomads into a flashy team lacking any sort of cohesion.
Richmond may have made his money when turning around a lighter company, but now he was sending this flaming ship down to the First Division. An unremarkable 15th-place finish barely scratched the surface of what issues lay beneath. They failed to shift all of Carbone’s hefty wages with loan moves the best they could do with the Italian, while ITV Digital’s collapse lost the club some much-needed investment.
The Bantams were struggling for air below board as debt anchored the West Yorkshire side into administration by the end of their first season after relegation. The dream of the Premier League had quickly unravelled into a nightmare, while Wetherall’s goal – which inadvertently sparked the huge spending – became the root of all evil.
But from out of the dark, Carbone came into the light. As push came to shove and the administrators tried what they could to balance the books, the Italian waived the remainder of his contract (worth a reported £3m) to ensure the club could fight another day and achieved hero status among City fans.
They weren’t extinct but Bradford were still struggling and two further years of hardship brought another spell with the administrators before relegation to League One was confirmed at the end of 2004 under Bryan Robson. Bradford had reached the top of the mountain but were tumbling back towards its base at an alarming rate, snowballing quicker still with each passing manager, ownership debacle, and set of players who couldn’t pull City out of the mire.
Before they knew it, Bradford were now embroiled in a League One relegation scrap with Wetherall the man tasked to save the club from the drop in February of 2007 – but he couldn’t repeat his heroics of 2000. Two wins from 14 games turned the once seemingly unsinkable Bradford into the abyss of the unthinkable – a first relegation to the fourth tier in over a quarter of a century.
It all stemmed back to his goal in 2000. The club went down and between 2002 and the summer of 2007, they didn’t spend a single penny on transfers – solely relying on freebies and loans to survive. Some fans have even suggested they wish Wetherall hadn’t scored that day, due to the mismanagement that came after it. But many fans will argue that football is about the moments, and there is no guarantee Bradford wouldn’t have sunk even if they did go down at the turn of the century.
The most important thing was ensuring that the rot stopped there. They may have been in the basement, but League Two is an unruly beast who doesn’t care for status and the abyss of non-league isn’t too big a drop for anyone. They plodded along in midtable to begin with but a disastrous 2010/11 season under Peter Jackson resulted in an 18th-place finish, as City scrambled away from the trap door in the season’s final knockings. But after the reign of Peter Jackson came an unexpected journey.
Current Wrexham boss Phil Parkinson was announced as the club’s 14th manager since Paul Jewell in August of 2011, tasked with ending the slide and rebuilding City from the ground up – a task he most certainly achieved. Another 18th-place finish was far from ideal but Parkinson’s men only lost five games by more than the odd goal and only one by more than two. He lost just five home games that season and the squad began to take shape with the likes of Nahki Wells, James Hanson and Ricky Ravenhill.
The summer of 2012 changed everything for the club. A mammoth 16 players joined but, on this occasion, it was calculated madness down at Valley Parade. In came Gary Jones, Will Atkinson, Steven Darby, Garry Thompson, Rory McArdle, Nathan Doyle, Curtis Good, Andrew Davies and Zavon Hines, among others. They opened the season with a League Cup tie against Notts County which took 95 minutes to decide when Hanson notched the only goal of the game.
By the end of the month, they were 4th – their highest league position since 2008 – and set to do battle with Championship side Watford in the next round of the cup. A goal down with five minutes to go, their fleeting trophy hunt seemed to be coming to an end. But an 84th-minute Kyle Reid strike levelled it at Vicarage Road before Thompson scored a last-gasp winner. The competition had barely even started and the Bantams were already lucky to be there.
A home tie against fellow League Two outfit Burton Albion was next on their radar but once again they were staring down the barrel, two nil down with just seven minutes to go this time around. But Wells hit a brace to take the game to extra time where Darby found the winner, and Braford found a way to round 5.
Premier League side Wigan would end the dream there, though. Or so many thought. With 57 places between them and with home advantage, the Latics ought to have wiped the floor with their basement-dwelling opponents. But Parko’s men stuck in there, got to penalties, and ran out as improbable victors.
Bradford were like Wigan in more ways than one. The Latics had more or less replaced Bradford as the Premier League’s surprise participant when they came up, under Jewell, in 2005. They enjoyed a better debut campaign and reached the League Cup Final beating Watford and Arsenal along the way, before losing 4-0 to Manchester United.
The symmetry continued, as the Gunners rocked up to Valley Parade looking to end an eight-year trophy drought – the club’s longest since the 1970s – armed to the teeth with talent. Bradford led for more than 70 minutes through Thompson, before Thomas Vermaelen spared the Londonder’s blushes in the dying embers of the game – but he was only delaying the inevitable. They defeated Arsenal at home in the 99/00 season and repeated the feat with another penalty shoot-out victory. Wembley was now just two games away.
By the turn of the year, the Bantams were sat 7th and had Aston Villa in their sights in the cup as Valley Parade welcomed another English giant to West Yorkshire. It was horrible, wet, and anything but pretty, and that was just Paul Lambert, as Bradford ran out 3-1 winners. Goals from Wells and McArdle put the home side ahead before Carl McHugh did his best David Weatherall impression to fire a towering header into the net in front of the Kop.
Villa might have won the reverse leg 2-1, much like Arsenal did to Wigan in ‘06, but Hanson’s consolation at Villa Park was enough to land Bradford a place in the League Cup final – the first League Two side to manage that in 61 years. They took on another top-flight side in Swansea City in the final, but that is where the fairytale ended. Two goals down by half-time, Bradford couldn’t stop the ruthless Swans who eventually ran out 5-0 winners. The dream had ended, but it ignited a new flame inside everyone’s favourite underdog.
It fuelled a promotion push that threatened to falter in the early part of 2013. They took back the 7th spot on April 9th with a 4-1 win over Bristol Rovers and stuck it out to the end. The king of cup ties effectively needed to get through three more to return to League One, starting with Burton Albion – one of the sides they defeated en route to the cup final. A 3-2 loss at Valley Parade mirrored the scoreline of the cup tie but in the visitor’s favour. But Parko’s side dug deep and came away from the Pirelli with a 3-1 win to ensure a second trip to Wembley in three months was on the cards.
Northampton Town stood in the way but Bradford were unbeatable on the day. Goals from Wells, McArdle and Hanson – just like over the two legs against Villa – sunk the Cobblers and sealed a 3-0 win. Bradford City, a club in terminal decline and without a promotion in over a decade, were on the rise again.
They made it to the quarter-final of the FA Cup in 2015, defeating Premier League champions-elect Chelsea 4-2 at Stamford Bridge in a barmy cup tie which saw Parkinson’s rag-tag bunch of misfits come from two goals down. Valiant play-off pushes in 15/16 and 16/17 ended in play-off heartbreak, but when Parkinson moved on, he largely took the good times with him. Stuart McCall once again entered the dugout, but failed to build on Parkinson’s good work and by 2019, Bradford returned to the basement of English football.
A string of talented, promotion-winning managers have tried their hand at awakening the club from its gentle slumber, but none have managed it. The club needed to show ambition and attract a manager who could drag the club kicking and screaming back up the football league pyramid. Perhaps they have found that man.
Mark Hughes became the latest gaffer to take the reins in February 2022, but the first with a CV from the very top drawer. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but 466 Premier League games managed places him 7th on the all-time list, while six clubs managed places him second only behind Sam Allardyce.
Now, after 9th and 15th place finishes, Hughes has led the club to the play-offs, armed with the league’s top marksman in Andy Cook. They beat Carlisle 1-0 via a goal from Jamie Walker and will be traveling to Carlisle for the second leg on Saturday. If they win, they will face the winner of Salford City and Stockport in the League Two promotion final, with Salford winning 1-0 at home in the first leg.
They may not return to League One this summer, but after two tumultuous decades, a foundation of stability and ambition should see Bradford rise again once more.
By: James Pendleton / @Jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / James Gill – Danehouse / Getty Images