Bradford City AFC vs Reading FC
FA Cup Sixth Round
Saturday 7th March 2015
Valley Parade, Bradford, West Yorkshire
“Our biggest game of the week is Bolton,” said Reading manager Steve Clarke last week. “Next week, it will be Brighton at home.”
And so, along with 4,500 Berkshire-based fans hitting the motorway for the 200-mile journey north, I made my way to Valley Parade for Reading’s third most important game of the week.
You might suggest the rather transparent mind games of a man who made his name as a coach alongside Jose Mourinho would provide more of a motivation for the side who ended Chelsea’s cup run this season. A sell-out crowd were certainly hoping so.
For extra inspiration, BT Sport repeated Bradford’s incredible Fourth Round win at Stamford Bridge ahead of today’s game; no such treatment for Reading’s 2-1 victory at Cardiff City.
It was pointed out on Twitter this week by the excellent Bantams Banter that Bradford beat the FA Cup winners on their League Cup run a couple of years ago and, after last weekend’s result at Wembley, have now knocked out the League Cup winners on this season’s FA Cup adventure.
There’s something in the West Yorkshire water when it comes to cup runs; so much so that the bookies make promotion-chasing City the smart money today against a side sat 18th in the Championship. That Bradford had beaten more Premier League sides than Everton so far this year further adds to their credentials.
Despite any argument over who was the underdog, I was in the away end for good reason. A public apology from the home team for not restricting season ticket holders to one purchase each meant that many missed out. With demand high, seats were listed at £200+ on trading sites despite warnings from the Club that fans would be suspended for profiteering on the back a second incredible cup run in three years.
The quarter final draw had again been unkind for underdog ties, renewing old rivalries in two equal looking match-ups. Manchester United vs Arsenal and Aston Villa vs West Brom would be broadcast live on BBC One, with the lopsided looking trip of Blackburn to Liverpool on BT Sport. With Blackburn previously employing a ticketing policy more stringent than Matalan’s old membership scheme, there was only ever one option.
That’s not to say it was last choice. For me, this was THE option. With the Beeb getting flak for choosing to broadcast a West Midlands derby that they’d already covered in the league just a few days earlier on Match of the Day, the Bantams were again left slightly aggrieved not to be showcased to a primetime audience in their first FA Cup quarter final since 1976.
Similarly, Reading were chasing their first semi-final since 1927 in a competition they’ve surprisingly never won. With this their third quarter-final in six years, though, The Royals have quietly lived up to their own decent cup record of recent seasons with impressive away wins at Huddersfield, Cardiff and Derby to reach the last eight.
It’s been a difficult couple of years for Reading. Relegated from the Premier League two seasons ago, they missed out on a play-off place in the dying minutes of last season to Brighton and Hove Albion. They’d started the day in the top six.
Since then, Nigel Adkins lost his job following a 6-1 drubbing at Birmingham, and several of the Premier League squad members have left for new pastures, leaving Reading marooned in midtable. They’re seemingly safe from the drop, but a long way from repeating last season’s challenge.
Bradford, meanwhile, are a team on an upward trajectory. Back in the third tier for a second season after six years in the basement division, they’re maintaining a strong play-off challenge alongside another fine cup run in the hope of a Championship return for the first time since 2004.
Backed by bumper crowds for the division, the club’s cheap ticketing policy has seen attendances regularly exceed 12,000, with that number doubling to capacity for the visits of Arsenal, Aston Villa and Sunderland in recent seasons.
There was a time when such visitors to Valley Parade were more commonplace. Two seasons in the Premier League in the late nineties and early-2000s under Paul Jewell, and later Chris Hutchings and Jim Jeffries, saw the likes of Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore, Dan Petrescu and Lee Sharpe all pulling on the claret and amber.
I can still remember willing Bradford towards the 1-0 win at home to Liverpool that secured their Premier League status in 2000. I seem to remember Dean Windass hitting a speculative shot from 50 yards that hit the crossbar but I’ve possibly made that up – can any Bantams confirm?
Relegated alongside Manchester City the following year, the glorydays were shortlived. They plummeted back down the divisions, finishing 18th in League Two just a few short seasons ago, before Phil Parkinson put his stamp on the side to guide them back towards the top half of the football league ladder.
The Bradford boss is a popular figure with both sets of fans. Twice voted player of the year at Reading, he spent most of his career in Berkshire, representing the Royals on 361 occasions. It’s just another remarkable subplot of the two lowest ranked sides left in the competition battling for a place at Wembley.
And that’s exactly why this game is more attractive to the neutral. I’m more interested in finding out which team will be the guaranteed representation of the Football League next month than the Tim Sherwood random cliché generator. Even the obvious attraction of Manchester United vs Arsenal is dimmed by the likely placing of the FA Cup in priorities when balanced against a place in the top four.
I managed to get hold of two tickets earlier this week in the Reading end. After selling out their initial allocation, an extra batch sold a little more slowly before eventually being snapped up on Friday. We were all set.
The plan was to attend with my fiancée, and soon-to-be wife, Lynsey. March 7th is a fairly special day for us in that it represents our 11th anniversary. Last year, we marked our decade with a weekend away in London’s West End. This year, it’s Bradford’s East Stand.
Like so many best laid plans around this blog, though, it didn’t quite happen. Late problems over babysitting left me with a spare ticket that couldn’t be claimed. With Hadders itching to join me from Cambridgeshire, we decided it probably wasn’t the best idea given that his wife is now officially overdue with their firstborn. I’d be heading to West Yorkshire on my own.
It seemed ironic to be going solo for such an exciting quarter final having found company for every round since First Qualifying. I resolved to make friends with my surrounding Reading fans and linger around like I was waiting for someone if, at any point, anyone should think I looked like a stray Bradford fan who’d sneaked in.
Valley Parade sits high and proud on a hillside visible for several miles on the approach. After visiting England’s highest ground in the Fifth Round, The Hawthorns, I’m disappointed to discover that Bradford isn’t even in the top ten. I actually googled this. I park up near the ground and join the crowds up a gradual hill in the direction of the ground.
“I don’t remember hiking up a hill towards Spotland, which I’m pretty sure I’ll later discover is fourth on the list,” I say, hopefully in my own head, as my iPhone tries to work out whether to record this as being a flight of stairs.
Like most rounds this season, this is a ground I’ve never visited before. I almost came along for a Third Round replay, then regretted not doing so when Bradford thumped Millwall 4-0 at a time when The Underdog Blog curse was really kicking in.
For fans of a certain age, memories of this ground are tinged with tragedy. Three decades have passed since the Valley Parade Fire, and with the FA Cup Final taking place just a few weeks after the 30th anniversary, it’s another reason why Bradford’s run seems all the more fitting.
Approaching my own 30th birthday, I realise I was born six days after one of football’s darkest days. For fans like me, familiar with the event yet detached from it by time, it remains unimaginable in scale and horror.
Sir John Madejski, Reading’s co-Chair and the man who oversaw their rise to the top flight before selling his majority stake after nearly quarter of a century, laid a wreath at the memorial outside the ground pre-match. It was a heartfelt gesture on behalf of the Club in memory of the 56 people who lost their lives that day.
I glance around in hope more than expectation to see if anyone is looking for a spare ticket before heading through the turnstiles. I feel like the new kid at school trying to find someone slightly less popular to sit with at lunch but it looks like I’m on my own.
Making my way up the stairs, I walk behind an elderly gentleman who appears to be having trouble with his knees. The two flights of stairs probably aren’t helping in a stadium that must be circa 11th in the ‘distance above sea level’ league table. Must be.
Heading out to my seat, I find myself two rows behind the same man. He’s easily in his 80s, but joins in enthusiastically with every song. Despite half of the ground still being empty, there’s still plenty of vocal support.
I heard someone from Bradford City’s Commercial team on Five Live talk about how they’ve promoted the game to fans on the drive here. With the game long sold out, supporters were encouraged to wave scarves and sing loud at kick-off. As the seats fill and the teams head out, the noise is phenomenal.
With a modern day record attendance, thanks to an additional 300 seats installed for this match, almost 25,000 make Valley Parade a cauldron of noise by kick-off. The ‘away end’ runs along the length of the pitch and the view couldn’t be much better. Considering my ticket was one of just 50 remaining on Wednesday, I’m on the halfway line around 10 rows back from the pitch.
I’m stood by a lad in his teens who also appears to be on his own and two blokes around my age. We all join in the attempt to drown out the home fans but it’s no use. As the PA is turned up loud, a Bradford fan/artiste blasts out an impassioned and localised version of Take Me Home. While he might not be auditioning for The Voice any time soon, it certainly raises the temperature further, especially when he reaches an encore of several more choruses.
I’ve been to big local derbies, Wembley finals and Champions League matches and I can’t remember an atmosphere quite like this one. With the Reading fans in full voice and doing their best not to be drowned out, the noise sounds at least double the headcount, as the stands opposite turn Valley Parade into a sea of waving scarves.
While I do understand the commercialisation of football, and why naming rights revenue is important to a club in Bradford’s position, I can’t bring myself to call it the Coral Windows Stadium. Besides, if you’re flogging conservatories through an affiliation with a football club, you might as well go the whole hog and build one in the ground.
The Reading players huddle as the home side gather to kick-off. The noise ups again and the gentleman a couple of rows in front asks the fans in front of him to sit down. They gesticulate towards the whole stand remaining stood before turning back towards the game. The man argues his point to a disinterested steward before joining in with the singing.
I’m a big supporter of safe standing areas being reintroduced and, hopefully, it will only be a matter of time. That said, it’s difficult for elderly or junior fans to enjoy the match when no other option is given. With ticket prices higher than ever, it’s the kind of issue those TV deal millions should be being invested into fixing.
Both sides show commitment without too much quality in the early stages. Parkinson spoke of Bradford using the atmosphere to their advantage to make a quick start, as they did against Sunderland. While their commitment to the cause is clear in a couple of early crunching tackles, neither side really threaten in the opening ten minutes.
I notice the large screen to our left displays a clock that counts down from 45 minutes rather than towards it. I’m certain this must be a tribute to Bradford-born Richard Whiteley.
The home team create the first opportunity of the match. James Hanson’s looping header from Meredith’s whipped cross bounces harmlessly towards Federici’s goal. The home crowd, whose noise has so far been unabated, show fresh encouragement.
Reading look to be adjusting to the pitch and the atmosphere in the opening quarter of the game. It takes 24 minutes for them to really threaten. Stephen Kelly, an ex-Spurs player I must admit I’d forgotten existed, looked to be a threat from right full-back.
His throw from McCardle’s clearance out of the ground (impressive, given the height of the stand) saw him release Williams into the box after some neat interplay and his deflected cross was saved by Ben Williams. They’d threaten again a few minutes later.
Scottish international Jamie Mackie broke down the right hand side and, according to the linesman at least, narrowly kept the ball in play before crossing for Pogrebnyak. The big Russian striker took a touch before firing a low shot onto the far post before Bradford get the ball away to safety.
Pogrebnyak is perhaps the embodiment of the current Reading squad to the neutral. A player of undoubted quality, he’s chipped in with just four goals this season. Alongside Hal Robson-Kanu, a man of fine pedigree given his adopted parentage of Bryan Robson and Nwankwo Kanu, he’s a player the Reading fans need to see more from if they’re to challenge again at the right end of the Championship.
Bradford come closer still on 35 minutes. A dangerous Gary Liddle cross from the left evades everyone, including the head of Andrew Davies, and bounces away via the post. The Valley Parade pitch isn’t in the best condition and the more direct route to goal is starting to look the most effective. The excellent Michael Hector’s clearance from Meredith’s dangerous cross, with Jon Stead lurking, is the final real chance of the half.
I opt against a half-time snack and chat to the bloke next to me instead. We’re agreed that it’s been very equal so far and that a draw would be far from a bad result. I bottle admitting that I’m not really a Reading fan at the last.
The half-time draw causes some pronunciation based fun in the away end as upbeat half-time music plays.
“The winning ticket is nine won won four,” blasts the PA announcer. “It’s pronounced ONE,” shouts a displeased fan in a Home Counties accent a few rows back. I secretly hope the next song will be Chesney Hawkes.
The second half kicks off as two ladies on the row in front of me find their seats. One of them looks a little bit like a primary school teacher; she has a kind face and has looked around at me several times during the first half to share the drama, although I have to say at fairly strange times. I have a feeling she might be a Bradford fan that’s sneaked in and has possibly that I’m an outsider too. I make a mental note to check her reaction closely if there’s a goal.
“Steve Clarke’s Blue and White Army!” sing the Reading fans, finding their voice again.
Clarke is the second Chelsea cup winner from 1997 that we’ve encountered this season. His defensive partner Frank Sinclair was eliminated seven rounds ago at the rather more modest surrounds of Warrington. We can only hope they’re more generous with the toilet roll in Bradford.
Perhaps unlucky to have been disposed of by West Brom after guiding them to 8th in the Premier League, Clarke is back in the managerial hot seat after a year out of the game. After largely successful spells as an assistant at Chelsea, Liverpool and West Ham, his appointment at Reading looks to be a shrewd one for a side looking to make a quick return to the top flight.
It’s another cagey opening 20 minutes for both sides after the break, as strong defensive lines dominate and the forwards feed off scraps. Jamie Mackie poses the greatest threat for Reading, while Billy Clarke works hard to try and bring the closely marked Stead into the game.
The former Blackburn man breaks through in the 65th minute, almost finding space to unleash a shot beyond his two defensive markers before a superb last ditch tackle from Stephen Kelly clears the ball for a corner. He’s chasing an unlikely record of scoring in every round of the competition after vital goals in this run so far.
Bradford push forward again in the 70th minute, winning the ball and getting it forward to Stead who crosses for Hanson. His narrow shot wide under pressure is another close call for Reading and the away fans voice their frustration as Bradford begin to dominate. Their frustration soon turns to vocal support as they try to encourage their team back into the game.
“Feed the Yak, feed the Yak, feed the Yak and he will score!” sing the travelling support on sight of their Fifth Round match winner. The former Everton, Portsmouth and Blackburn man is just a few goals short of joining the Premier League’s illustrious list of centurions and, still only 32, you could argue there’s still time.
Bradford’s own final tactical change to bring Francois Zoko on for the hard-working Billy Clarke has little impact. Clarke is due to get married on Cup Final day, but he’s put a shift in that his soon-to-be bride can be equally proud of and concerned by.
A Bradford fan leaps the barriers unchallenged and makes his way onto the pitch to goad an entire stand of Reading supporters before being dragged away in the final ten minutes. He screams obscenities as he’s ejected from the ground for possibly the final time. I’m sure it was worth it.
“That was embarrassing, that was embarrassing!” chant the visitors, and most Bradford fans seem to applaud.
Yakubu looks eager to make an impact and is involved almost immediately. A few minutes later he holds the ball up well and finds Pogrebnyak who breaks down the left and wins a foul. The resulting freekick floats over a crowded box and off the post as Reading almost nick it in the final minutes.
It’s the last real chance of the game, as the tension dissipates to acceptance that both sides will be in Monday night’s draw. A nasty looking injury to Alex Pearce in injury time stops play for almost five minutes as the defender receives lengthy treatment on a facial wound. I barely notice anyone leaving the ground during this; if anything, it’s an excuse to start singing again.
As the final whistle goes, the travelling support show their appreciation. Reading are in the semi final hat, if nothing else. It’s not been a classic by any means, and maybe the BBC got this one right after all.
As I walk back down the hill, which is so steep that I struggle not to break into a light jog, I begin to reflect on it being quite fitting that two unfancied underdogs should fight out a stalemate to stay in the hat for the last four.
Either Bradford City or Reading will be at Wembley next month, playing for a place in the FA Cup Final some eight months and eleven rounds on from the warm late summer sun of Salford City’s Moor Lane. Whether I’ll be joining them remains to be seen but, as is true for Worcester, Warrington, Blyth and Bradford, it’s been one hell of a ride so far.
The Underdog Blog Record 2014/15
P 12 W 4 D 3 L 5 F 12 A 20 GD -8
Bradford City AFC vs Reading FC
FA Cup Sixth Round
Saturday 7th March 2015
Valley Parade, Bradford, West Yorkshire
|Bradford City AFC 0 –||0 Reading FC|
Bradford City: 12. Williams, 2. Darby, 23. McArdle, 5. Davies, 3. Meredith, 8. Liddle, 20. Morais (25. Halliday – 76′ ), 11. Knott (14. Yeates – 83′ ), 10. Clarke (13. Zoko – 83′ ), 9. Hanson, 16. Stead
Substitutes: 1. Pickford, 6. Sheehan, 15. Mackenzie, 18. Routis
Reading: 1. Federici, 3. Kelly, 5. Pearce, 15. Hector, 11. Obita, 19. Mackie (20. Yakubu – 80′ ), 23. Williams, 14. Chalobah (16. Akpan – 83′ ), 6. Norwood, 9. Robson-Kanu (12. McCleary – 66′ ), 7. Pogrebnyak
Substitutes: 2. Gunter, 10. Cox, 1. Andersen, 35. Cooper
Referee: Neil Swarbrick