Bygones: How Bradford City and Middlesbrough overcame tough times to join race for top tier

FOR BRADFORD CITY and Middlesbrough, those bonds forged between players and supporters of their respective clubs in the mid-to-late 80s will never be broken.

Bruce Rioch, pictured as Middlesbrough boss.
Bruce Rioch, pictured as Middlesbrough boss.

Both clubs may have enjoyed their place in the sun for intermittent spells since, but for fans of a certain vintage, the emotional link with two footballing bands of brothers who drew strength out of adversity to provide a beacon of hope for Bradfordians and Teessiders after some truly dark days will always radiate and endure. And probably never be recreated.

Two remarkable stories came together three decades ago when the pair – after heartbreakingly missing out on automatic promotion on the final day of the 1987-88 season – locked horns in the old Division Two play-offs.

The first leg took place at a sun-drenched Valley Parade on May 15, 1988 – with the 30th anniversary arriving tomorrow when Boro are again in play-off semi-final action at the home of a second-tier opponent when they visit Aston Villa.

Terry Dolan

Some three decades ago, it was Boro who would eventually prevail in their play-off sortie, narrowly beating City on aggregate over two legs and then memorably seeing off Chelsea. But the epic journey of both Yorkshire clubs proved the real inspirational tale.

The terrible events of May 11, 1985 formed the backdrop to City’s story that season. After being forced to play home games at Elland Road, Leeds Road and Odsal for their first campaign back in the second tier in 1985-86 and the first half of 1986-87, City made an emotional return home to a redeveloped Valley Parade following the horrific fire.

And after consolidating their Division Two status, City, now under the command of a local lad in Terry Dolan, were spying a promotion push in 87-88.

Chairman Stafford Heginbotham had joined players’ on a close-season holiday in Magaluf to persuade star turns Stuart McCall and John Hendrie – who both played on that fateful day in May 1985 – to commit for another season, despite interest elsewhere as City sought to realise their top-flight dream.

SAY CHEESE: Bradford City's 1987-88 squad, as pictured in August 1987 . Back row (from left): Brian Mitchell, Lee Sinnott, Ron Futcher, Mark Leonard, Ian Ormondroyd and Chris Withe. Centre row (from left): Stan Ternent (coach), Leigh Palin, Dave Evans, Paul Tomlinson, Peter Litchfield, Gavin Oliver, Mark Ellis and Bryan Edwards (Physio). Front row (from left): Aidey Thorpe, Karl Goddard, Stuart McCail, Terry Dolan (manager), John Hendrie, Greg Abbott and Rob Savage.

Some shrewd additions were also made, underpinned by a core group of bonafide characters who coped with the nomadic existence of playing away from Valley Parade and wore their commitment to the City cause as a badge of honour.

That same sense of loyalty was found in another special group of young men at Middlesbrough, who also conjured light out of darkness and will forever be inextricably part of Teesside sporting folklore.

Marshalled by the son of a regimental sergeant major in Bruce Rioch and led on the pitch by a leading lieutenant in Tony Mowbray, ‘Bruce’s Babes’ stayed loyal to the cause when the gates of Ayresome Park were padlocked and the old club was wound up amid a mountain of debt in a desperately grave summer of 1986.

As with their City counterparts, Boro’s players had to cope with considerable disruptions. During that 1986 close season, they trained at all manner of places including Redcar beach and Kirklevington Young Offenders Institute – all the time not knowing whether the club would survive.

It was jumpers for goalposts stuff and a hand to mouth existence at times. But crucially, those players possessed the character to take adversity on the chin and become a fighting unit as the new-look, reborn Boro stormed to promotion from the third-tier in 1986-87.

It was a time when Boro reconnected with a community and the events of the following season won even more hearts and minds over.

City’s early form was strong and commandingly displayed in their first meeting with Boro on October 3 when goals from Mark Leonard and Leigh Palin gave the Bantams a 2-0 win at Valley Parade.

Both sides managed to keep up with the promotion pace alongside the likes of Millwall and Villa and in the reverse fixture at Ayresome Park on February 27, City again excelled.

Against a Boro side who had beaten Villa 2-1 in a memorable St Valentine’s Day encounter in their previous home game – shown to a watching nation on ITV – City, inspired by future Boro favourite Hendrie and Ian Ormondroyd, triumphed 2-1, thanks to the latter’s double.

In the process, it inflicted a first home league loss upon Boro since early September.

A tense run-in eventually ensued and it was Millwall who held their nerve to clinch the title, with the Lions – under the leadership of future City chief John Docherty – securing silverware by winning at Hull City on May 2, heralding top-flight football for the first time.

The battle to be runners-up went right down to the wire, with Boro in second place, one point above Villa and City, who were level on points with a game to go.

A tumultous final-day for the wrong reasons on May 7 saw Boro and City both lose at home, to Leicester City and Ipswich Town respectively, with Villa – despite a nervy showing in a 0-0 draw at Swindon – finishing second.

Villa and Boro both finished on 78 points and a goal difference of plus 27 – with the Midlanders going up on goals scored, having struck five more times.

It was also a shattering day for City, mindful that a victory would have seen them promoted after blowing the first chance when losing five days earlier at Villa Park.

Having badly missed the suspended Hendrie in their final two regular games of the season, the Scot returned for the first leg of their play-off encounter with Boro at a sold-out Valley Parade.

Even accounting for the presence of two sets of players with strong mindsets, competing in the play-offs after seeing their hopes of automatic promotion so painfully extinguished on the final day represented a huge character test for City and Boro.

City, for the third time that season, had the edge, winning 2-1 – ahead of the pivotal second leg three days later.

Boro, who played in an all-new white away kit for the first time, were second best for long spells, but a crucial away goal from Trevor Senior – sandwiched between goals from Karl Goddard and McCall – gave them hope.

Signed on transfer deadline day for £200,000, Senior, despite leaving in the autumn, made two key contributions, also netting in the play-off final first leg against Chelsea.

City by contrast, were left to rue the failure to bring in proposed signings Keith Curle and Andy Townsend to boost the numbers in early 1988 and make a difference to a stretched squad.

The final cut proved the deepest though as Boro, despite losing three times to City that campaign, ended their campaign when strikes from Bernie Slaven and Gary Hamilton earning them a 2-0 second leg semi-final win at Ayresome Park, to clinch a 3-2 aggregate success.

It was somewhat cruel that there had to be tears for one party following two heroic stories which will stand the test of time.