***THIS PIECE WAS PROMPTED BY AN EXERCISE FROM MY CREATIVE WRITING CLASS. WE HAD TO USE SEVERAL RANDOM PHRASES AND WORDS TO INSPIRE US TO WRITE A PIECE. MY PHRASES AND WORDS FELL KINDLY FOR ME AND BROUGHT A DAY FROM TWENTY YEARS AGO BACK TO MY MIND.**
Saturdays in January are very special for football fans. Especially the first Saturday of January. That’s Third Round Day. A magical day for fans of the game of association football. The day when teams from the top two divisions in English football, the Big Boys, enter that season’s FA Cup competition.
For fans of teams lower down the leagues, in Divisions One and Two and, for a few feted clubs from the non-league scene still surviving at that stage, it is the day when their lowly clubs might get drawn against of the giants of the game. A “glamour tie”. A money spinner. For players it’s the opportunity to test their skills against better players; to see if they can match them, compete against them, maybe even beat them. For fans it’s a the chance to witness, live and in the flesh, those teams and players that they only ever get to see on TV or read about in the Sunday papers.
Third Round Day brings the hope of a money spinning tie and the tantalising, undreamable, unlikely chance to cause a cup upset. For many smaller clubs, reaching the third round doesn’t happen that often and is a rare and wonderful thing. The big clubs fear Third Round Day, for who wants to be Goliath lying at the feet of David? The hopes, the dreams, the anticipation and expectation. The fear, the excitement, the chance to gamble and win it all or to fail and lose. The compact grounds, not worthy of the title of “stadium”, with fans just few yards from the field of play. Where the shouts and cheers of the packed terraces ring out loud, proud and coarse around the twenty two combatants on the field. Cheering their teams onwards, berating their opponents. The cries and screams from the fans rallying, driving their idols to greater endeavours.
Oh, the magic of the FA Cup.
On January 5th 1997, my team travelled to Wycombe Wanderers for our Third Round tie. Wycombe, recently promoted from the non-league Conference in 1994, were the minnows. My beloved Bradford City, my Bantams, were in the division above and, due to our higher league placing, were the giants for that tie. Our season was a struggle and, when May came and the season ended, we narrowly avoided relegation in the final games. However, on that Saturday, we avoided the ignominy of defeat by a lower team and prevailed 2-0 at Adams Park. Both City goals coming from the most unlikeliest of players. Thirty one year old defender, John “Tumble’ Dreyer, getting both goals that afternoon.
If the first Saturday in January is special, then the last Saturday of each years first month has extra meaning. Especially if your club won their third round match and were safely into the fourth round. A home draw is always preferred. Obviously. Get a home draw and you stand a chance. Well, you might stand a chance. Or, half a chance at least. If you can’t get a home draw the next best thing is an away tie at a big club. No one wants to travel to play at a small club, someone like Barnet, in the fourth round. If you have to play away from home, then you want a big club.
So, what about a trip to Goodison Park for a fourth round tie in the FA Cup against Everton, one of the giants of English football? Yes, please.
The third round victory at Wycombe aside, we’d had a poor season. A terrible December saw City claim just two points from our six league matches that month. And our first league win in eight matches, and only the sixth of our campaign, didn’t come until early January with the defeat of Oxford United at Valley Parade. We weren’t expected to have a chance against the mighty Everton and we were expected to come unstuck against the Toffees.
Bradford City, my City, my adored Bantams, were the underdogs for this game. We were David facing the might and power of Goliath. Sandals, a slingshot and a pebble pitted against armour and a gleaming sword, its blade honed to deadly perfection. Everton were two divisions above us and with a host of better players, much, much better, players. International players, players with quality and pedigree. Players with exceptional skill. Everton’s squad was choc full of quality right throughout the team.
To the match. Halftime at Goodison Park and, with forty five minutes played, it’s all square. Nil nil the score. Deadlock. Honours even. The dream is still alive. Well, David hadn’t been killed by Goliath. Not yet. David still breathed and fought. David’s slingshot had yet make its mark.
But surely Everton’s quality would ensure the bog boys prevailed? Their class would show through, their LED brilliance would dim the weak light from our 40 watt tungsten bulb as the second half unfolded. Surely?
Four minutes into the second half. Bradford attack down the right flank, the ball at the feet of City’s winger Chris Waddle. His pace diminished, his talent unsurpassed, Waddle checks and steps inside his two Everton markers. His left foot, that beautiful left foot, exquisite and sublime, delivers the ball into the box. Mark Stallard, the Bradford City striker, knocks it down to the edge of the Everton penalty box where it is met by another left foot. A left foot attached firmly to the onrushing City defender John Dreyer. Tumble hits it first time. The strike is perfection and the ball arrows beyond Neville Southall into the Everton goal.
The ball nestles in the net. The City players turn in celebration.
The home fans silent. Stunned faces. Disbelief.
The away end erupts. Stunned faces. Disbelief. Dawning realisation. One nil to City. Astonishment. Pandemonium. City fans delirious.
One nil to City. One nil? To City? ONE NIL! CITY!
Can we hold on? It’s a long way to full time.
How Chris Waddle was even playing in the claret and amber of Bradford I will never fully understand. It is incomprehensible. But, for a brief period, Waddle was a Bantam. Between October 1996 and March 1997, thirty six year old Waddle graced our club, playing twenty five times and netting six goals. Waddle and his magic.
Two minutes go by in the match. Fifty one on the clock. Everton’s Andrei Kanchelskis on the half way line, City’s Rob Steiner chasing, harrying, haunting him. Kanchelskis forced toward his own goal, Steiner in pursuit, snapping at him, terrorising him, forcing the error. Kanchelskis plays the ball short. It falls mid way inside the Everton half, right in the centre of the pitch. Waddle arrives within moments, scampering onto the loose ball, his socks around his ankles.
That’s when it happened. And I still can’t believe it did. Not really. That’s when Waddle flicked the switch and magnified our 40 watt halogen bulb with his diamond light.
Waddle hits the ball first time. He doesn’t take a touch. He doesn’t pause or look up. He doesn’t thump it or bang it hopefully forward. The wizard waves his wand, Waddle’s left foot caresses the ball. It arcs into the darkening sky, its path predetermined by footballs Gods. Its route clear. Its destination certain. Waddle hits the ball and he knows. He just knows. He turns, the ball still in flight, his celebrations begin.
Neville Southall knows too. Near the penalty spot as Kanchelskis backtracked, anticipating the back pass, Neville knows. By the time the ball is dropping, Big Nev has only made it back to his six yard box. He knows. He turns and stoops in vain. He’s too late. The ball drops behind him. He stands, bewildered.
Instinct. Class. Talent. Call it what you want. We called it two nil.
Magic. Sheer magic from Waddle. The master dribbler, the wing wizard. Skills learnt at Newcastle, forged by Tottenham and graced at Monaco, were now displayed on a heavy, grass bare pitch in the colours of little Bradford City. Waddle the England legend, now Waddle the Bradford hero.
Bedlam in the away end. City fans up and jumping, leaping. Arms aloft. Fists pumping the air. Hugging one another. Clasping brothers. Embracing strangers. Cheering. Disbelieve again. Disbelieve not only at the score line – two nil to Bradford – but disbelief at that goal. Did that actually happen? That moment of wonder? Did that simple, yet amazing touch from Waddle, and it was just a touch, really happen? A look at the scoreboard. Everton 0. City 2. It happened. Insanity.
Is it enough though? There are thirty minutes left. Can we, will we, hold on?
And then, just minutes later, another goal from another City player. This time from Bradford born and Bradford bred Andy O’Brien. OB to the fans.
But it’s an OG from OB. Everton under pressure, harried and harrassed, play the ball long. It’s knocked down into the box towards an Everton forward. O’Brien stretches to clear the danger but diverts the ball and it’s a goal for the home team. 1-2 in the fifty fourth minute.
Goodison Park erupts as the home fans sense they can salvage the game. After all, City are two divisions below them and are bound to panic and run out of ideas and steam.
Everton hit the ball long again. Route one worked once, it’ll suffice again to get them back into the match. This time City head the ball away and it is turned forward to Steiner on the centre spot. He plays the ball short to Waddle and turns, running towards the Everton goal. Waddle’s left foot again as he pings it first time back into the path of Steiner.
The Swede outpaces two blue and white defenders. He controls the ball with his first touch, left footed. And with his second touch, curls it, right footed, beyond the stranded Southall. Steiner doesn’t stop running, he simply wheels away, sliding and somersaulting in joy. The ball is in the net and Steiner is forever in our history, in our records. In our hearts.
Cue crazy scenes. Well, crazy scenes on the pitch among the City players and on the City bench. Crazy scenes in the away end among the Bradford faithful. No such crazy scenes with Everton fans, players and staff. They are shell shocked. But, then, so are we. But, unlike them, we are three one up.
Everton 1. City 3. Three. THREE!
The noise is deafening. The cheers and shouts. The singing of the Bantams. The boos, oaths, curses and whistles from the Toffees.
Injury time. Hanging one. Everton pressing, City defending deep. Holding on, holding out. Now it’s the Bradford fans who are whistling. Shrill noises, imploring the referee, Mr. Reid, to blow. It’s gone ninety. Come on, blow it. Call time. Blow the whistle! JUST BLOW IT! BLOW!!
An Everton throw in. The ball runs to Gary Speed on the left. He knocks it past his defender and thumps a cross into the box. But it doesn’t reach a teammate. Instead, the ball, whipped with devilish pace, flies into the net and Everton have a second goal. They have a lifeline.
But it’s the FA Cup. And we all know about the magic of the FA Cup. And Waddle is a maestro on the flanks, a wing wizard. And Waddle the Wizard cast his magical spell that day.
***The video is grainy. The memories are clear. The emotions intense. Have a watch of it.