Published 08/01/18, The Times
A few days before Christmas, an email drops into my inbox: “FA Cup mission”, is the subject. We’d like you to find some hardy souls making a trip to see a tie no one else cares about in a competition they won’t win, was about the gist of it. Not an interminable search for the magic of the FA Cup; a tale about the cup testing devotion to its limits.
OK then. A scroll though the Saturday third-round fixtures drew the eye to Yeovil Town v Bradford City, right at the bottom of the pile, which somehow felt fitting. The Sky Bet League One club Bradford, whose ultimate David v Goliath fourth-round slaying of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in 2015 remains fresh in the mind of many of their fans, were to travel to the lowest-ranked team left in the competition — but one without any interesting quirk or non-League novelty, just 275 miles, one division and 39 league places between them: quite possibly the least alluring draw of the round.
To Bradford, then. And Yeovil. Oh, and back to Bradford again. Then home. I’m going to have to embrace my moniker this week . . .
It is 6.30am on Saturday morning, outside Woodbottom Working Men’s Club, in Shipley, on the northern edge of Bradford. It is dark, bracing, but 23 bleary-eyed claret and amber-clad supporters are huddling by the bus stop, waiting for their carriage to arrive. Harry, the photographer, takes a few snaps: bemused faces impart a look of, “What on earth are you doing here?” Well, trying to answer the same question of you as it happens. Up pulls the bus, “Shipley Bantams on Tour” illuminating the window. On we get. Plenty of time to find out . . .
Fandom is a peculiar thing. There are some who may be inclined to question the sanity of those embarking on a 550-mile, 17-hour day-trip to Yeovil, in a competition in which they are far from guaranteed to see their strongest starting XI take to the field. But, somehow, at the same time, their devotion is also deeply admirable.
Steve Gorringe, a 65-year old retired fireman, organises trips to every single Bradford away game. He has missed eight games in 25 years, he says: a trip to MK Dons in October being the most recent. “My wife had an op — well, she had half a lung out to be fair, so I thought, ‘I’d better not,’ ” he says.
Two more pick-ups take the number on board to 34, and we’re on our way south. Sitting in front of me is Mick Holmes, a burly 66-year-old retired engineer. “People ask me, ‘Why do you do it?’ I just do,” he says. “I always have. I say to Steve, if ever I don’t make the bus then it’s because I’m not well. When I sing ‘City til I die,’ I mean it.”
Bradford’s extraordinary run to the 2012-13 League Cup final, followed by their charge to the FA Cup quarter-final, in 2014-15, has undoubtedly brought new perspective here. This third-round game with Yeovil may not be “a prime tie but it’s a game we want to win,” says Andy Demkowicz, an eternally optimistic 51-year-old flooring contractor sitting behind me. “It could be a stepping stone to a plum tie: Tottenham at Wembley, Arsenal at the Emirates . . .” Plus, there is more to football than the game. “We’re on the bus, 7 o’clock in the morning, laughing, joking — it’s the social aspect too,” Andy says. “When I’ve got a trip booked, I look forward to it all week.”
After a services pit-stop on the M5, for teas, coffees and bacon butties, Steve hands out the pens and paper for an FA Cup-themed quiz. One question asks for the attendance of a game en route to Bradford’s 1911 FA Cup triumph. Seriously. “I can’t get a signal, pull over!” Lisa Cade, the social events organiser — wearing a cast on her arm that I daren’t ask about — quips. Thankfully I’m not the only one who doesn’t know the answers.
The Shipley Bantams took twice as many supporters on a double-decker coach to the 2-1 win away to Fleetwood Town in League One on Monday night. There is an acknowledgement here that, to some, the FA Cup no longer means quite what it once did; that the greed or fear that grips many clubs, leaves priorities elsewhere, and has diluted its appeal.
Here, though, there is hope that, what felt like a once in a lifetime occurrence in 2014-15, might — just might — seize them once again. “It’s been good to us recently,” says Jake, who works in insurance and is celebrating his 20th birthday. His cousin, Matthew, sitting beside him, “queued for tickets [for Chelsea] in the snow from about six in the morning”, he says. But before Stamford Bridge there was a trip to Halifax in round one. These ties are part of that journey. “If you do get a big tie, you’ve gone through the long slogs to Yeovil, standing out on the terrace, then you get a Chelsea away, and it just makes it all worthwhile,” says Adam Baker, 27.
Somewhere on the M5, Lisa comes round with a sheet of paper on which, for a pound, you can guess the minute of the first goalscorer. The winner takes home a tenner, and the rest will go to a fund to be donated to Bradford City and local charities. The group, Steve says, has sponsored new goal nets, a sprinkler system and an artificial lighting rig to improve the playing surface at Valley Parade. “We’ve raised about £30,000 for the club in the last three years,” he says.
On every trip, Steve plans a stop at a pub en route, for some lunch and a few pints. They are a “Family”, of sorts, Steve tells me when we stop in Taunton: different characters from all walks of life. There is “Deaf Geoff”, 71: whose first away game was a FA Cup fifth-round replay at Burnley in 1960.
“I was terrified,” he says. “I ended up in the Burnley end. I said I’d never go to an away game again. But that didn’t last long.” There is Joe, whose flowing ponytail means he is referred to as “Status Quo Joe”. “It’s a good craic,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just the football that spoils it!” There is 16-year-old Heather, in her second season following Bradford with her grandmother, Mary, 71; there’s Ron Carney, with one leg, who never misses a game, and many others.
For many of the Shipley Bantams, their sense of place in life is built around their identification with Bradford City. For a few, though, following Bradford is simply a manifestation of their love of football. Like 82-year-old Julian Kenyon, who has been to about 4,000 games: an average of “Sixty-five games a year for 61 years,” he says. He has kept a record of visits to about 500 clubs, along with the score, the attendance, and a brief report on the game. Where, I ask, does his love for football come from? “I don’t know, it’s a drug,” he says. “I can’t give it up.”
When we arrive at Huish Park there is a dash for programmes, a memento of the day. But soon enough, Bradford’s supporters cut a forlorn picture perched on the roofless terracing, such was the frailty of their team’s performance. Bradford made four changes to their starting XI, though all were enforced, and the League Two side thoroughly deserved their 2-0 win.
“They were hungrier, stronger, and wanted it more,” Stuart McCall, the Bradford manager, said: words that grated more than any could for 465 disconsolate travelling fans.
Back on the coach, the mood is solemn. Sandwich wrappers and crisp packets rustle. “Well that was bloody s***,” Steve says, succinctly. There will, in all likelihood, be more Yeovils — days like Saturday — before Bradford fans taste the saccharine joy of a Chelsea again. But as Adam says, supporting Bradford is just “something you have to do”. His father, Ian, 58, concurs. “You’re in it,” he says, “you’re involved, part of it: it sort of becomes your life.”
It is just before 11.30pm as the coach rolls back into Bradford. Steve shuffles down the bus one last time, takes a collection for the drivers, holds open a bin bag for rubbish. Then, farewells. Back here for Bristol Rovers away; a weekend in Plymouth on the horizon.
Their FA Cup journey is over for this year. But hope springs eternal.