Friday 11th January 2013 at 4:48PM
My son was born at Bradford Royal Infirmary one damp, cold November day in 1995 and quickly clutched tightly to the beating heart of this decrepit Sunderland fan.
However much our dreams for him coincided, there was one I held that probably hadn’t entered my wife Ana’s thoughts. Yep, that first trip to Roker Park. And we were in a hurry too, because work had already started on the Stadium of Light. A personal ‘brick’ would have to be purchased, a shirt procured to be adorned with his name (I think it was the Avec-sponsored one-sleeve-different-to-the-other replica kit) and a visit to the seagull-splattered shrine where I first heard the loud guttural roar from the Fulwell End and thought that real life had kicked in.
I probably didn’t expect my son to play for the Black Cats, but I did hope that over the years an affection for the Club would be our bond, so that just like for my Dad and I before him, we’d use discussions about Joe Bolton, Phil Gray, Marco Gabbiadini, John Kay, Gary Rowell, Kevin Phillips or even the late lamented Mel Holden in place of the words ‘I love ya, Dad / Son’ (so we wouldn’t have to be American and actually say it). And, being a faithful son, for his first few years of sports consciousness (let’s say from 4 to 7) he’d be sympathetic to the Mackem cause, in spite of the clear absence of any prospect of winning anything.
But another seed had been sown: a love for his local club. He told me in 2002, with a wisdom that belied his young age, that he should support his local club and, as he was born within spitting distance of the ground, it should be Bradford City AFC.
Betraying my professed belief that winning isn’t everything, I drew a heavy sigh. City had just embarked on an attempt to set a record for the biggest collapse of any Premier League Club. When Luis, my son, began his affection, they’d already left the giddy heights of the top of the pyramid and were heading south at an alarming rate of knots.
By 2007, when we decided to treat him to a day when he’d be mascot and lead the team out, they were about to draw 2-2 at home to Millwall and drop into League Two. By this point we were having existentialist debates about the true meaning of football and given the likely continued absence of sporting glory in each of our lives, professed to believe that football was only really, to quote a friend, ‘a collection of memories’. As that phrase left my lips I could recall my first trip to Roker Park in October 1969, driven there with my Dad in my Uncle Ken’s Ford Capri. I could remember trying to find an obliging neighbour with a colour TV on that May day in 1973 and that ridiculous string of results in 1977 when after not scoring for something like 9 games we beat Boro 4-1, West Brom 6-1 and West Ham 6-0 in consecutive games (and still managed to get relegated).
Luis pointed out that he didn’t have any good memories. Bradford weren’t the sort of team who helped you on that front. All he’d had since 2002 was the mental equivalent of a tickly cough you can’t shake off. No joy for him. And when I did take him to the Club Museum, the events of 1985 and that tragic fire consumed our thoughts and he left with a stronger conviction for his Club, but still sceptical about the idea that he’d have a future as a Bantams fan characterised by wonderful memories of the past.
Until the events of the last few weeks, of course. As some of you will know, our work takes us around the UK at weekends, visiting different stadia. Our recent destinations have been Dingwall, Dundee, Preston, Fleetwood, Morecambe, Derby, Doncaster and Winterton, so we haven’t been able to see our beloved clubs. That was put right back in October when I took him to see City play Burton in the League Cup. Thanks to their prodigious penalty shoot out feats, Bradford had drawn the only other remaining League Two in this season’s Capital One Cup. A chance to get to the last sixteen beckoned. What could possibly go wrong?
Within 20 minutes Bradford were 0-2 down. Burton had advanced up the pitch twice during a period where City were mostly camped in Burton's half. With five minutes to go, my son’s stoical commitment to his club almost broke. ‘Memories?’ Not a chance. And, as if heard by a distracted Angel, looking to play a prank, his prayers were heard by Nahki Wells, who scored twice in the last 5 minutes to force extra time, during which Stephen Darby scored from a full 200 yards (well, it did seem far at the time) to win the tie.
Cue Arsenal (after an unlikely penalties win at Wigan): the peak of joy as Garry Thompson put the Bantams ahead followed by the pits of despair as the Gunners equalised three minutes from the end and then the scenes of Dad and Son jumping up and down and hugging each other as the Arsenal goal scorer obliged by finding the post with the last penalty.
‘Now you’ve got a memory’ I told my son and he agreed. ‘It won’t get better than this.’ He seemed to agree, but then learned the other half of the equation. It’s not just about memories, but dreams too. Quietly – and without sharing this with me – he began to outline a semi-final draw where a fragile, young Villa would come to Valley Parade and be outplayed and outgunned by his beloved Bantams. This was before Villa’s Christmas Collapse, but a scenario that was just about imaginable.
There was a significant investment in hope, with the aim of a dream becoming fulfilled and, as we walked back down Manningham Lane on Tuesday night, he became just like his Dad: the memories you have now are the dreams you once saw come true. Neither of us care if we ever have an experience like that again, because now we’ve got a couple of conversations that will ensure we can avoid being American and having to tell each other how much we love each other. I’ll just say ‘Porterfield?’ and he’ll say ‘McHugh’.
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