When Bradford go into battle at Villa Park tonight, they won’t just do it for themselves, they won’t just do it for the people of their city, they’ll do it for supporters of crap football clubs everywhere. They ride to avenge our broken dreams. We few. We crappy few. We band of brothers.
I say this as the very worst kind of Southend United supporter. I haven’t lived in Essex for nearly 20 years and my…erm… Saturday job keeps me away from Roots Hall, but I still hold dear my illogical emotional bond to the Shrimpers. There are others, however, whose bond is rather more substantial than a soft spot in the heart and a compulsion to wait all the way to the end of the classified football results.
Indeed, there are those who travel up and down the country, always flying the flag, always remaining positive in spite of the fact that they have essentially dedicated their lives and a significant portion of their earnings to an ever-changing cast of perpetual failures who will never, ever care as much as they do about the club. For Bradford’s contingent of die-hards, the travellers, the ones who have stood in small groups in enemy territory, outnumbered by brightly coloured seats, this is their moment.
It takes a certain kind of person to support a lower league football club. The sort of person who doesn’t require the vicarious glow of success. Or indeed, any kind of success. The sort of person who can watch game after game after game without the promise of a title challenge, or a place in Europe, or a cup run, or anything really, except continued survival. This is what it’s like…beyond the wall.
Bradford, of course, will have two years-worth of supporters who never intended to exist here, and perhaps felt that they were getting in at the ground floor of something special. Football is cruel sometimes. They came for Paul Jewell and the Premier League at the turn of the century; they ended up staying for the fourth division (don’t polish the turd), lashed to the wheel like cursed sailors. But no matter how they ended up here, tonight could make it all worthwhile.
The fact that Bradford even made it to the semi-finals beggars belief. For them to be two goals up against Aston Villa with 90 minutes to play is so implausible that there’s a suspicion this is just a glitch in the matrix and that at some point tonight a man in a black suit is going to pull the plug out of Phil Parkinson’s head.
This isn’t how football is supposed to be now. This sport isn’t supposed to be for clubs like Bradford. Since 1992, the TV money has been hoarded for the few while the many are forced to fight in the dirt for the scraps. Promising young players are lured away from provincial clubs before they’ve even played a game, a dangerous trend legitimised with the controversial EPPP scheme. Football Association bigwig and Bolton Wanderers chairman Phil Gartside has even fought for a two-tier Premier League with no relegation, locking clubs like Bradford out forever. Incidentally, should Bolton ever slip out of the second flight, and they’re not exactly safe right now, I will devote my life to making Gartside’s dream a reality.
I bear no malice to Aston Villa or their fans, but when Bradford take to the Villa Park pitch this evening, they’ll do so with my full support, and I suspect the support of many like me. With everything against them, they’re just 90 minutes away from a major cup final. No matter how crap we are, they give us all hope tonight.
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