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Bygones: Dream comes true for Gordon Watson in memorable season for Bradford City

Bradford City's Gordon Watson, in action.
Bradford City's Gordon Watson, in action.
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THE season that ended with Bradford City back in the top flight after a 77-year absence had many iconic moments.

Stuart McCall falling off a car in the Valley Parade car park, drink still in hand, a few hours after promotion had been clinched is most definitely one.

So, too, is Paul Jewell miming the smoking of an imaginary cigar to Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Colin Lee as the clock ticked down at a snail’s pace on the final day with Bradford 3-2 ahead and the Premier League tantalisingly close.

And then there is Gordon Watson wheeling away in delight after netting twice in the final three minutes of a pulsating derby against Barnsley that, with the benefit of hindsight, changed everything for Jewell’s Bantams.

To score twice in front of a sell-out crowd after being brought off the bench at 1-0 down is the stuff of dreams for any striker.

But this was so much more than just getting the better of a local rival. Watson’s cameo against Barnsley was his first appearance at Valley Parade since being stretchered from the same field with his career hanging in the balance 18 months earlier.

Bradford City's Gordon Watson, second left in training with his team-mates, including Stuart McCall. right. Picture: Steve Riding.

Bradford City's Gordon Watson, second left in training with his team-mates, including Stuart McCall. right. Picture: Steve Riding.

A horror tackle from Huddersfield Town’s Kevin Gray had left the Londoner’s right leg broken in two places. He later won more than £900,000 in damages after bringing a civil claim against the Terriers.

But, as Valley Parade erupted in joy after the second of those late, late strikes against Barnsley in September, 1998, he admits to being lost in the moment.

“I know ‘a dream come true’ is a massive cliche, but that day really was like that,” recalls the former striker, now 47 and living on the south coast, to The Yorkshire Post.

“We were 1-0 down in a local derby, there were five minutes left and we weren’t doing great in the league.

The first one came after the ball ran loose and I side-footed it in, via the post. Then, after a shot had been saved, I followed the ball in - as all strikers are told to do - and got the rebound. What a feeling. I had been through a tough time, tougher than most can probably imagine.

Gordon Watson

“So to come on, as the club’s record signing, after 18 months out and score twice felt like the stars had aligned. If I could have written the script of my perfect return that was it.

“The funny thing is a good friend of mine had an accumulator on that day with the bookies and Bradford were the only team letting him down by losing.”

Asked if he received a ‘cut’ of his mate’s cash bounty, Watson laughs before replying: “No. But I didn’t mind as I would have paid money to experience the feeling those two goals gave me.”

Wednesday will mark the 20th anniversary of Watson’s dramatic double against Barnsley. There have been some memorable moments for City on home soil over the intervening years, such as the nights when Aston Villa and Arsenal were beaten in the League Cup en route to Phil Parkinson’s side reaching the final in 2013.

Bradford City manager Paul Jewell

Bradford City manager Paul Jewell

Few, though, can compare with the sheer emotional outpouring that greeted Watson’s double against the Reds.

“I remember the goals well,” says the striker whose career-threatening injury had come on only his third appearance in Bradford colours.

“The first one came after the ball ran loose and I sidefooted it in via the post. Then, after a shot had been saved, I followed the ball in – as all strikers are told to do – and got the rebound.

“What a feeling. I had been through a tough time, tougher than most can probably imagine.

“The fans, though, knew what I had been through and were buzzing at me being back. So were my team-mates and they were the same, willing me on.”

Those dark days on the sidelines meant Watson was in demand after the game with the media desperate to speak to the hero of the hour.

The man himself, though, had other ideas and within a few minutes of the final whistle being blown he was on the motorway and into the long drive south to his home in Southampton.

As I was working for Bradford’s evening newspaper at the time this was far from ideal. But, having struck up a good relationship with the man everyone at the club knew as ‘Flash’ during his time out injured, I did have his mobile phone number.

Which is how yours truly came to be sitting on the floor outside the old players’ bar at Valley Parade, notepad nestled on lap, as the rest of the press corp huddled around as I asked Watson to try to articulate his emotions.

“The big thing for me afterwards was to get the hell out of there,” he says two decades on. “I just wanted to go home to my family, who had been through everything with me.

“I remember being halfway down the M1 when you called. The chairman wasn’t happy and had a go at me a few days later, saying I had missed out on some great PR for the club.

“But that wasn’t what it was all about. I had been out for 18 months and not even sure I would play again, so I wanted to be back home.

“I felt totally drained on the drive home. Not euphoric, as you might expect, just drained by what had happened.”

What often gets overlooked when talk turns back to that dramatic finale against Barnsley is the impact Watson’s double made on a City side who had started the season slowly.

Had Ashley Ward’s well-taken earlier goal settled the derby in the favour of the Reds then Jewell’s side, put together at a substantial cost the previous summer, would have been in the bottom six with just eight points from nine games.

“I joined Bradford on the understanding they would sell me if I helped keep them in what is now known as the Championship,” adds Watson.

“Obviously the injury killed that off. It was a long road back afterwards and I didn’t play as much as I hoped.

“But I did still play a part, not just with those two goals against Barnsley. I also got the winner against Barnsley away and scored in another win at QPR.”

That strike at Loftus Road, on a pivotal late April afternoon when promotion rivals Ipswich Town suffered a shock defeat at home to Crewe Alexandra, proved to be Watson’s last action in a City shirt.

A few weeks later, and in the wake of winning his case for damages against Huddersfield, the striker left at the end of his contract.

“I wanted to stay, but the club wanted £100,000 from my settlement after supporting me with the court case,” he says. “But this meant I would have been paying to play as that was the club’s contract offer.

“So, I said, ‘Keep your money and I will keep mine’. It was a shame, but that is football, sometimes.”

Watson, who would later play for Bournemouth and Hartlepool United, still recalls fondly his swansong with Bradford.

“I partied for about three days after we won promotion,” he says. “I was on the roof of a van that was just behind the car Stuart McCall fell off. I must just be better at holding my drink than him.”

Court costs: Never the same player again ...

GORDON WATSON was 26 and had six seasons of top-flight football to his name when he joined Bradford City in January, 1997 for a then club record £550,000.

The Bantams, promoted to the second tier the previous May under Chris Kamara, were struggling and Watson netted on his second appearance to clinch a 1-0 win against Port Vale.

Four days later, however, his life had been turned upside down by a shattered right leg that, in time, would require several operations and the insertion of metal plates.

Watson was never the same player again – a point accepted by a High Court Judge in May, 1999, during a civil case brought by Bradford and their striker against Huddersfield Town over the tackle from Kevin Gray that had caused the injury.

Mr Justice Taylor, who found in favour of the striker in his claim for negligence against the Terriers and Gray, accepted “there was every likelihood” that Watson would have returned to the Premier League but for the injury.

The award against Huddersfield was calculated as £202,643 for the player’s loss of earnings, and £730,500 for future earnings had he joined a top-flight side.

An additional £26,000 was also awarded to cover medical treatment.