When Bradford rose to the top level of football in 1999 they earned the right to play Arsenal at least twice a season not just in a one-off cup tie as tonight. Richard Sutcliffe talks to four ex-Bantams and records their memories of the four league meetings.
February 5 2000
Bradford 2 (Windass 10 Saunders 57) Arsenal 1 (Henry 13)
I WAS 35 when I joined Bradford on the eve of the club’s first season in the Premier League and it turned out to be a really special time in my career, if a little different to what I was used to.
I’d been at Benfica the previous year, where we were expected to win 3-0 every week. It had been the same when I’d been with Galatasaray, and to a slightly lesser extent at Liverpool. I’d also been fortunate to play for Aston Villa when they were chasing the title.
So, going to a team that was always going to struggle was a bit of a culture shock. The thing that appealed, though, was that while I knew I couldn’t turn Bradford into a top-10 team on my own, I did believe I could help make them better. And I hope the fans think I did my bit as the club avoided relegation against all the odds.
I had a dream start to my time at Bradford when I scored the winner at Middlesbrough on my debut. I came off the bench and scored right at the death, and then did a celebration in front of the Bradford fans with an imaginary walking stick because we’d been written off by the press as ‘Dad’s Army’.
Things just went from there and, along the way, Bradford beat some very good teams. Newcastle, Liverpool and Arsenal all lost at Valley Parade that season, while we also had that opening-day win at the Riverside plus a 1-0 victory at Sunderland over Easter.
That was the one that kick-started our run-in as we went on to win three of our last four matches to finish fourth-bottom and earn ourselves an open top bus tour around Bradford in celebration, which was definitely a first in my career.
I got the winner at Sunderland, no matter what the record books say about John Dreyer scoring with a header. ‘Tumble’ might have knocked it down but the ball went in off my knee. Unfortunately, no one but me noticed.
As for the Arsenal game, Dean Windass had put us in front by taking a cheeky free-kick when they weren’t expecting it. By the time David Seaman had reacted, the ball was in the net.
Unfortunately, just a few minutes later, Thierry Henry equalised and that was a blow. A few sides might have crumbled after that but Paul Jewell had put together a resilient squad packed full of experienced players who never gave in. We stuck at it and continued to match Arsenal.
It was still 1-1 at half-time and we really fancied our chances of getting the winner, especially as we’d got the impression Arsenal didn’t really fancy it.
In that respect, Valley Parade was a big weapon for us. A lot of visiting teams just didn’t fancy playing there.
The dressing rooms and toilets were basic, to say the least. I think opposing players took one look at them and thought, ‘What sort of place is this?’
I realise as professionals, that shouldn’t happen. But human nature means that when you are at a big club, then you feel you are a big player.
You deserve to be on the higher stage, not at somewhere like Bradford where the corridor from the dressing rooms to the pitch was so narrow there was barely enough room to fit the two teams in it.
Because I’d played for the big clubs in the past, I knew that could happen and that some of the visiting players from the big teams would that season be thinking, ‘What the hell are we doing here?’
That day against Arsenal we got the impression they didn’t like the look of Valley Parade one bit. Then, once we were out on the field, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira would go up for a header or a challenge and suddenly realise we were snapping away at them. We pressed and pressed them, and they just didn’t like it.
The winner came in the second half, when the ball was played down the side of Martin Keown as Arsenal tried to play offside. I set off running and that gave me a vital start on the defence, meaning I was soon through one-on-one with Seaman.
In those days, goalkeepers had just started to try to make themselves big in one-on-ones by doing what equates to a star jump. Peter Schmeichel had introduced it to this country and, soon, every ’keeper was trying it.
So, as Seaman tried that, I just fired the ball between his legs and into the net. It was a great feeling, and after that there was no way we were going to let them equalise again.
Experience was one thing we didn’t lack and I think that carried us through. Paul Jewell, who did a great job as manager in Bradford’s first year in the Premier League, was younger than several of us.
Most of us had been round the block a few times, too, but Paul wasn’t fazed.
We knew there would be times when we might not win for five or six games. That was inevitable, considering the resources Bradford had compared to others.
But as long as we never allowed ourselves to get too down no matter how bleak things looked, then we thought we’d be okay come the end of the season. Which, of course, is what happened. Happy days.
August 25 1999
Arsenal 2 (Vieira 8 Kanu 17 pen) Bradford 0
THE thing I remember most about that first game against Arsenal is Thierry Henry playing wide on the left and missing loads of chances.
Now, we all know he went on to become one of the best players the English game has seen but at the time of our visit in 1999 things hadn’t really clicked.
That much was clear as he played like someone feeling the pressure, even though Arsenal were in total control against us.
It didn’t matter what Henry tried, the ball just wouldn’t go in for him. He must have had 12 chances and it was unbelievable that he never scored as the ball hit my arm, my knee, my body and even my shoulder.
As he kept missing, I decided to have a bit of banter with him. Or I tried to, at least, as he wasn’t having any of it.
As I was saying a few things to Henry, he just stared straight ahead and ignored me – though I could see from his face that I was winding him up even more.
That was great as I figured he would snatch at the chances even more, which was exactly how the night panned out. It was good fun, even if we were never really in the game as a team.
To be honest, there is not a lot you can do when you’re getting battered like that other than have a bit of banter. Having said that, Henry got his own back several times over the next few years as he scored quite a few times against me. The game itself saw us get battered. It was attack after attack after attack. They scored twice early on, one from a corner and the other a penalty. But after that, we did okay and managed to keep them out.
They had all the big names out – Henry, Bergkamp, Vieira, Kanu, Overmars – and we couldn’t lay a glove on them. It was only our fourth game since winning promotion and almost like a ‘welcome to the Premier League’.
What brought home to me just how good a squad Arsenal had was when they brought Overmars and Davor Suker off the bench. How many teams in the world would have been able to do that? So, really, I suppose a 2-0 defeat wasn’t too bad a result. And at least Henry didn’t score.
September 9 2000
Bradford 1 (McCall 10) Arsenal 1 (Cole 66)
I FOUND out on the eve of the game that Patrick Vieira hadn’t travelled to Bradford so when Emmanuel Petit failed a fitness test on the morning of the game, I think it is fair to say I wasn’t overly disappointed.
When we’d been playing against those two the previous season, it was like being an extra in Land of the Giants.
Mind, Arsenal’s midfield that day at Valley Parade was still a strong one as we were up against Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Ray Parlour and Giles Grimandi. But Vieira and Petit were something else, so I was glad I didn’t have to chase those two all afternoon.
We’d actually started our second season in the Premier League well and beaten Chelsea a couple of weeks earlier. So, we went into the game with plenty of confidence and were ahead quite early on.
Martin Keown headed the ball clear and ‘an unbelievable first touch by McCall allowed the experienced midfielder to drill an unstoppable shot past David Seaman’, who nearly lost a finger trying to keep the ball out. Or that’s how I remember it, at least.
Unfortunately, Ashley Cole, who I didn’t realise until recently when watching an old tape of the game with my son was playing only his second game for Arsenal, scored the equaliser from a cross by Thierry Henry and we had to settle for a point. But I am still proud of that goal, one of my two in the Premier League after I also scored an equaliser against Spurs.
January 30 2001
Arsenal 2 (Parlour 17 Lauren 26) Bradford 0
IN our first season after winning promotion, the visit to Highbury had been quite early in the season and it proved to be the moment when we fully realised what we were up against in the Premier League.
Walshy had an unbelievable game that night and somehow kept the score down to 2-0 when it could have been eight or nine. I played on the right side of midfield that night, which meant I had to mark Thierry Henry.
Can you imagine what trying to keep up with him was like? The worse thing, though, was that he was eventually substituted in the second half. I thought, ‘Thank heavens for that’, only to then look across to the touchline and see who was coming on to replace him. Marc Overmars.
By the time we went back at Arsenal in our second season, things had changed and we were struggling. We’d lost Paul Jewell in the summer and the dressing room had changed.
The new arrivals were all good lads, but things weren’t as much fun and we were beaten quite easily at Arsenal. Like a lot of teams that year, Arsenal had worked us out.
We were never really in the game down there, which was a shame as in the two previous fixtures at Valley Parade we’d taken four points off them.
It turned out to be one of the last games of my first spell at Bradford as I left a few weeks later to join Middlesbrough.