Dave Jennings witnesses a feisty encounter between two favourites for promotion from League Two who have struggled in the early stages of the season
At the start of this season, Bradford City and Gillingham were among the bookies’ favourites to win promotion from League Two. With six weeks of the season gone, both teams still looked to be in with a fair chance of leaving the division, but now the bottom exit into the Blue Square Premier seemed the more likely escape route for both clubs. City had managed just four points and one win from their opening half-dozen League Two games. The team were even booed off the Valley Parade pitch after that solitary victory – a 1-0 success against Stevenage achieved thanks to a penalty and a lot of frantic defending. Bantams manager Peter Taylor complained bitterly about the booing, but readily admitted that the better team on the day had lost.
The Bantams’ early season also included two fine displays at home to Championship opponents in the Carling Cup: a 2-1 win over Nottingham Forest, then a battling defeat by the same scoreline against Preston. But, in a sense, that only made matters worse. Those cup games showed the City fans that this squad could raise its game for big occasions, so they were entitled to ask why so many of City’s other performances were so poor. Doubts about the players’ commitment and Taylor’s ability to motivate them steadily grew as the club sank to third from bottom in the league table.
The mood among the Bradford supporters by the time of this fixture is perfectly captured in the current issue of the club’s venerable fanzine The City Gent, in which three separate articles contain lengthy discussions about the rights and wrongs of booing one’s own team. The cover cartoon, by WSC’s own Dave Robinson, depicts Taylor in the dressing room proposing to drown out the noise of the fans’ dissent with vuvuzelas, while the players study motivational self-help books or undergo hypnotherapy.
It’s a light-hearted illustration of what must by now be serious pressure on the former England Under-21 manager. Taylor had previously had an excellent record as a manager in the lower divisions, winning promotions with Brighton, Hull, Wycombe and today’s visiting club. He came to Bradford last February as the replacement for local hero Stuart McCall; with the club languishing in the lower reaches of the League Two table, McCall had finally been forced to concede that he could not boost Bradford as a manager the way he had during his two fondly remembered spells as a player. Taylor successfully steered City out of trouble. He wasn’t expected to need to do so all over again this season.
Gillingham had likewise sunk to an unexpectedly lowly position in the bottom division, following their relegation from League One. They failed to win any of their first five league games of this season, which included three draws and a defeat at Bury by the odd goal in nine. However, the previous Saturday had seen the Gills record an impressive win over League Two leaders Shrewsbury, while City had stuttered to a draw at Stockport. Those results must have boosted Gillingham’s confidence before the battle of the underachievers that pitted current Gills boss Andy Hessenthaler against the man who managed the club during one of its best-ever seasons, 1999-2000, when Hessenthaler played in the first Gillingham side ever to win promotion to the second tier of the Football League. They did so by beating Wigan 3-2 at Wembley in the play-off final. It would be Taylor’s last match in charge of Gillingham; he left to join Leicester during the close season, whereupon Hessenthaler stepped up to become player-manager.
But 1999-2000 was a pretty special season for Bradford City, too – the first of the two they spent in the Premier League, before financial problems exacerbated by expensive signings pushed the Bantams into a decade of decline. Last season’s leading scorer was James Hanson, acquired during the summer of 2009 from Guiseley. The fee of £7,500 was arrived at by a tribunal after long and acrimonious negotiations between City and their non-League neighbours, and the start of Hanson’s career as a professional footballer was slightly delayed when the management of the Co-op shop where he had been employed insisted that he worked his week’s notice before joining his new team-mates for training. It was all rather different from those comparatively recent days when City recklessly splashed out on the likes of Benito Carbone and Dan Petrescu.
Bradford’s home stadium reflects the levels of ambition at the club in those heady times when the opposition might be Zenit St Petersburg, the visitors for an Intertoto Cup tie in August 2000, or Chelsea, who were beaten 2-0 in a Premier League game later the same month. Fans are rarely heard to use its official name, the Coral Windows Stadium, preferring the traditional title of Valley Parade, which evokes the ground’s scenic location on a hillside just outside the city centre. The stadium is a curiously asymmetrical structure. Behind one goal is the towering Carlsberg Stand, whose capacity of 7,492 is more than four times that of the modest little TL Dallas Stand at the other end, although the latter sometimes generates more noise – it houses some of City’s more boisterous supporters. The main stand is also strikingly larger than the one on the Midland Road side opposite. The imbalances are a legacy of those ultimately thwarted ambitions from the Bantams’ better days; the capacity was greatly expanded during the 1990s, and at one stage there were plans to increase the capacity to 35,000. Decline and administration intervened with only some parts of the hoped-for expansion completed.
But for all its eccentricities, Valley Parade is a mightily impressive arena by the standards of the Football League’s bottom division. One of the many excuses that have been offered for City’s frequently poor home form is that visiting teams may feel inspired to raise their games by the excitement of playing at a relatively big ground. Another is that the comparatively large size of City’s stadium and home support puts a special pressure on the players in claret and amber. Despite the club’s downward mobility in recent years, City have retained a level of support unmatched at League Two level. They’ve managed it largely by offering exceptionally cheap season tickets, with some seats being made available for £110 in a special offer last Christmas.
Away supporters are accommodated in a couple of blocks of seats in a corner of the ground, and today that area looks sparsely populated with 290 Gillingham fans scattered around it. But the unquenchable optimism of those who still regularly follow the Kent club on their travels can only be admired. Their relegation last season came at the end of a campaign that didn’t include a single away win.
With Hanson out injured, City’s striking options are severely limited. In the absence of a regular target man, big defender Luke Oliver is pushed into the role up front. Twice in the early exchanges he towers above his markers to head for goal, only to miss the target. The boos are silenced for a change as City create chances, but the home fans’ early enthusiasm steadily drains away as Gillingham hold firm. The biggest cheer of the first half comes when City’s Robbie Threlfall is involved in a heavy collision with one of the assistant referees, leaving both in an undignified heap on the turf. Home fans gleefully demand the official’s dismissal for his “foul”, but the incident seems less funny when it becomes apparent that the popular, effective ex-Liverpool defender has been injured in the clash. Oliver is joined up front by Jake Speight and Louis Moult, summer signings from Mansfield and Stoke respectively, but Gills keeper Lance Cronin is rarely troubled. Towards the end of a tense first half, Gillingham become bolder. A Cody McDonald shot is deflected narrowly wide. Mark Bentley unsuccessfully claims for a penalty after hitting the turf in the area under a challenge from City’s Lewis Hunt. The prospects of Gillingham finally achieving that elusive away win seem to be increasing.
Taylor has to do something. The injured Threlfall and the ineffective Speight are withdrawn. One of the substitutes is young winger Leon Osborne. The other is the nearest thing City have had to a big-name signing for some time – Lee Hendrie, former Aston Villa midfielder and a full England international for roughly 15 minutes, having made his sole senior international appearance as a substitute in a friendly against the Czech Republic in 1998. Like the club he’s just joined, Hendrie has endured disappointment and humiliation of late. Last season he struggled with injury and had few chances to shine at Derby. After they released him, trials with Aberdeen and Reading came to nothing. Today’s League Two encounter may not be quite as glamorous as the times when Hendrie played under Taylor for the England Under-21 side, but the 33-year-old midfielder looks happy to be out there and keen to impress. He sprays around some useful passes and isn’t far away from scoring with a header.
As the game draws to a close, substitutes from both sides have opportunities to win the game. Stanley Aborah makes a late appearance for Gillingham and a Danny Spiller cross gives him a great chance which he spurns by heading straight at City keeper Jon McLaughlin. An anxious silence descends on most of the Bradford fans. A few of them despair of seeing a goal and the small Gills contingent can be heard happily singing: “We can see you sneaking out.”
But then, in the second minute of stoppage time, Tommy Doherty lofts a high, looping cross towards the Gills’ back post. Cronin seems to have plenty of time to get into position and catch it, but he hesitates and the game is lost, as City’s Steve Williams steals in to guide home a header. The goal celebrations on and off the pitch are a frantic outpouring of relief, and there isn’t time for the euphoria to fade away before referee Oliver Langford ends the game. The victory hardly ends Bradford’s troubles, and the City team still looks badly in need of further strengthening, but at least, after this unconvincing 1-0 home win, there is applause and not booing for the Bantams. That, surely, must count as progress
From WSC 285 November 2010