As the Class of ’99 reunion game gets fans remembering years past, I wonder where the next fourteen years will take us
It’s scary to think about where you’ll be in the next 14 years. It’s scary to think of how you’ll be and who you'll be, and of what major milestones will have whizzed by. It’s scary to think of dreams: whether they’ll have been broken or achieved, or remained unfulfilled and locked away in some sacred corner of your heart, never to be attempted for fear of failure. It’s scary to think of where Bradford City will be.Surely, no one there on that day in 1999, when the Bantams beat Wolves to secure promotion to the Premier League, could have predicted the dramatic downward spiral that followed. Those days were ones of optimism, promise and chasing the dream. Not of, well, the other stuff. Especially not of the other stuff.
Time has slipped all too quickly by since those heady days of Molineux, promotions, Premiership football and relegation survival, since the days when the club had the world at its feet. Then, there was the fall back down again: the administrations, the heartbreak and the hurt. Life in League Two became a struggle, the club still bearing the scars of the foray into the top flight. Bradford City, once standing toe to toe with Manchester United, were a symbol of shattered dreams.
The years in the bottom division were generally unremarkable and forgettable. The first two seasons were ace, of course: Stuart was there, and there was an odd novelty to being amongst the likes of Barnet and Accrington Stanley. But that all ended. Taylor came in. You know the story. Trips to Valley Parade became a tale of ‘Well, there are 90 minutes of my life I’ll never get back’.
Then, Parkinson entered. He gave us hope. He gave us tactics, strategies and form. He gave us those characters: Hines, the doomed West Ham winger whose tenure with the Hammers was blighted by injury; Stephen Darby, the Liverpool graduate who had been released by the Premership giants; Gary Jones, the midfield powerhouse who never stopped running and the one man embodiment of what this club is now all about. James Meredith, Rory McArdle, Garry Thompson, Alan Connell, Kyel Reid. He handed them a stay of execution. They took it. The rest, as they say, is history.
For the first time in a long time, we cared about the team. They were more than a quick ticket out the division, cannon fodder to plug the gaps, more, even, than footballers. They became brothers, standing arm in arm, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder, on the hallowed Wembley turf, harbouring our hopes, our dreams, our fears. Everything we are, everything we have, everything we’ve ever wanted to be. There. In them.
That, I am told, is how it’s meant to be. The class of ‘99 are just as revered, just as loved, just as appreciated, as the 2012/13 boys. They trigger the same offset of emotions as Matt Duke and Will Atkinson. James Hanson and Nahki Wells hold their own in the same echelon as Stuart McCall’s band of merry men.
And, fourteen years from now, will there be another charity match? Most of the players will have finished their careers by then. Wells’ time as a footballer will be coming to an end. McHugh’s will also be winding down.
It’s hard to picture the scene. A balding Matt Duke, perhaps, in between the sticks, ducking and diving and tipping shots over the bar, and clambering to his feet to deny some daring challenger from the penalty spot? A greying Alan Connell? Gary Jones, though approaching half a century, will still, no doubt, be playing with the youthful exuberance of an 18 year old. A Google search tells me the years have been reasonably kind to most of the 1999 squad, especially McCall, Jacobs and Beagrie. The pressure’s now on our lot to make sure they age just as well.
I’ll probably be there on such a date, if ever there was one, having squeezed into my hooped shirt one last time and sent some hardy soul up into our attic to retrieve my Villa and City half-and-half scarf. Waving one of those Wembley flags. Recalling those days.
And there’ll be a time when I’m grey and old, sitting on some elaborate, gold-encrusted throne as I count my millions and field calls from agents and A-Listers (Pfft! I wish!), and I’ll stop and look back on that season. Look back on the Will Atkinson flick-on and Garry Thompson volley. Look back on Rory McArdle swooping in to double City’s lead in the play off final. Look back on Gary Jones climbing the Wembley stairs, rubbing his hands together with glee and jubilantly holding the trophy aloft as the pyrotechnics glittered and sparkled and the party got into full flow. Dreaming, with a glint in my eye, of a bygone era. Dreaming of Nahki, of Meredith, of Darby, of Duke. Dreaming of Wembley. Dreaming of promotion. Dreaming of Bradford City.
And it still won’t quite seem real.