Football / Fan's Eye View: Grown men dancing: No. 17: Bradford City

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The Independent Online
A YEAR ago today Frank Stapleton was appointed manager of Bradford City, then floundering in the depths of the old Third Division. I heard the news on Radio Leeds in my lunch break at the school where I teach. It was difficult to make out his thick brogue over the airwaves but it was something like, 'I prefer to do my talking on the field.'

Just as well, Frank, I mused as I sipped from the claret and amber striped mug which occupies a permanent place on my desk - a testament to my caffeine addiction and football loyalties, and an object of derision among the kids who, eyeing the stencilled letters BCAFC, would remark, 'Where d'you get that, sir, the Reject Shop?' or 'Mind it dun't choke thi, sir.'

This time last year Valley Parade was indeed a sorry place to be. Since the horrifying May day in 1985 when we celebrated the old Third Division championship only to see our main stand burn down with 56 lives lost, City managed five seasons in the Second Division before relegation loomed again. Terry Yorath gave way to John Docherty. It didn't help. Universally unpopular with the crowd for his hoof-it-and-run tactics, his Millwall imports and his baseball cap, he was sacked last November after a run of miserable results.

His stand-in, the coach Leighton James, was having a disastrous time picking up the pieces and the early season reached its nadir when we entertained the bottom club, Swansea, who hadn't scored away from home all season. Bradford's four goals would have looked respectable if they hadn't let in six.

At half-time the customary penalty competition between local school teams took place. On this occasion, no doubt to preserve the goalmouth from further abuse, a second set of full-size nets was carted on and erected beside the permanent ones. The cheers which went up from the Kop, this being the end City were to attack in the second half, need no interpretation. At full-time the old man in front of me with the pipe shook his head in bewilderment. Even the thin-faced man whose favourite expletive is 'Toilet]' (as in 'Ooh, Dowson, you Toilet]', 'That was a bloody Toilet pass, City]' or simply, 'Give it some Toilet]') had shouted himself hoarse.

And so after a Welshman and a Scotsman, it was the turn of the Irishman. But those who were looking for the punchline to a bad joke were mistaken. Stapleton's first two games in charge were against promotion-seeking West Brom and neighbouring Huddersfield Town, where he had just been on a week-to-week contract as player-coach. Both were gritty 1-1 draws, and with Stapleton controlling things from midfield there was a new determination. City were playing real football, keeping the ball on the turf, making space, defending as a team, features which had become distant memories to most of the fans.

The remainder of the season was by no means easy. City became the division's draw specialists but slowly edged up the table. In 28 games under Stapleton only 30 goals were conceded. Towards the end of the season we started scoring, too. On 14 March, City played the division leaders, Brentford, away. I was peeling spuds for dinner, listening to the classifieds at five. 'Brentford 3. . . '

'Oh, no,' I moaned. 'Bradford City 4' A wet potato pirouetted out of my hand and did two circuits of the draining board.

Now, a year since his appointment, Frank Stapleton has established Bradford as a leading Second Division side. His hard work, with his assistant, Stuart Pearson, on the players' strengths and his shrewd signings have transformed the team.

The interplay between the roving Tinnion and tireless Duxbury in midfield and strikers McCarthy and Jewell, is slicing open defences with cheerful regularity.

When, towards the end of the Fulham game four weeks ago, the Tannoy crackled out that West Brom were losing and it dawned that City were about to go top, grown men danced on the terraces.

As Stapleton says in his downbeat way, there's a long way to go, but he has done his talking on the field, and Valley Parade is filling up again. New dads are leading their kids past the little round lady's woolly-hat stall and the hotdog man engulfed in steam.

The old gent with the pipe is lighting up vigorously again and the 'Toilet' specialist reserves his vitriol for the referee. And now, when a new kid spots my claret and amber mug and says, 'Bradford City, sir? Who are they?' I look him in the eye and say, 'Great team, lad. Great team.'

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