Football: Saunders jets in for flying start
Welcome to the Premiership: Watford and Sunderland given a rough ride as Bradford make history
Sunday 08 August 1999
Half-time: 0-0 Attendance: 33,762
IT WAS the sort of script Bradford's most famous son, JB Priestley, might have written for one of his morale-boosting wartime radio talks. The underdogs most people had written off before hostilities began were hanging on grimly with their backs to the wall. Then, cometh the hour, cometh the man.
The man in question was Dean Saunders, the much- travelled mercenary who the Premiership newcomers Bradford signed on a free transfer from Benfica less than 48 hours earlier in the hope of confounding the Jeremiahs who were forecasting a swift return to the Nationwide.
Saunders started the match on the bench, and, as he watched Boro confine his new side to their own penalty area for most of a one-sided first half, he must have wondered if he had made the right decision. But with 82 minutes gone and the Bantams at last beginning to show signs that they might not be too lightweight for this division after all, their manager Paul Jewell put Saunders on.
Six minutes later another old warhorse, Paul Gascoigne, who had himself been hoping to steal the headlines, gave the ball away in midfield. Lee Mills, Bradford's other striker, who had been ploughing a lonely furrow up front for most of the match, knocked it forward to Saunders who controlled the ball on the edge of the box and slotted it calmly beneath the diving body of former Bradford goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer.
"It is a great day for the club but we won't get carried away," said Jewell. "We won't take the division by storm but we are going to surprise one or two people."
Yet for long periods the only surprise was that Boro could not turn their dominance into goals. Bradford approached their first match back in the top flight for more than 70 years as though they were learning to ride a bike again after a similar period - with the greatest caution.
They pulled almost everyone back behind the ball and let Boro take the game to them - a tactic that would have proved disastrous had not the defender John Dreyer made three superb tackles when Boro's young striker Andy Campbell was clear on goal.
Bryan Robson's own debutant, the German international wing-back Christian Ziege, signed for pounds 4m from Milan, was also a constant, if wayward, threat. He thumped a free-kick against the defensive wall before hooking the rebound over the bar and he also hit the side-netting from an acute angle. Another debutant, Dreyer's fellow central defender, David Wetherall, had to clear a Campbell effort off the line before Bradford raised the siege in the second half.
Robson's explanation was that the lack of an early goal made his side increasingly jittery against what they thought would be easy meat, and thus undisciplined in the second half. The other way of looking at it is that Bradford shed their nerves and started passing the ball about as though they really belonged in the Premiership.
Their captain, Peter Beagrie, showed flashes of his old speed and control down the left wing as the Middlesbrough defence began to wilt, and it was the full-back Dean Gordon's turn to clear off his line before Saunders entered to score the winner which, in the end, Bradford thoroughly deserved.
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