Following the disappointment of defeat v Charlton, in that epic, never-to-be-forgotten but still ultimately heartbreaking First Division play-off final of 1998, our response to such a setback couldn’t have been better, maybe even beyond some fans’ wildest dreams.
For we proceeded to sweep all before us in season 1998-99, playing at time some truly scintillating stuff, scoring goals for fun, and chalking up some great wins. So much so that as the season entered March, and following successive home wins against Portsmouth and Norwich, we held a fairly substantial lead at the top of the First Division.
And as such, it seemed only a matter of time before we could start planning for visits to Anfield, Old Trafford and the like again in season 1999-00.
However, it may have tempting fate had we become too complacent, for there were still some hurdles to be cleared during the remaining weeks of the 1998-99 season with one or two clashes against other sides with the same ambition as ourselves. One such club was in fact our next opponents, namely Bradford City, who lay in third spot in the First Division, twelve points behind ourselves. It may have been asking a bit much of “The Bantams” to knock us off top spot, but they still no doubt had their sights very much on grabbing second place. Indeed, a win against ourselves would have seen Paul Jewell’s side achieve their aim, at least maybe temporarily, thus our visit to Valley Parade was very much a “six-pointer” in the truest sense. And as it turned out, one man in particular would play rather a pivotal role in deciding the destiny of the rather crucial points at stake.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, manager Peter Reid relied on the same side which had overcome Norwich three days earlier. But it was Bradford who started the brightest, and they proceeded to subject our promotion credentials to a rather searching examination, with their top goalscorer Lee Mills and recent singing from Oxford, Dean Windass in particular, proving to be rather potent threats. Mills missed a great chance in only the sixth minute, and then almost embarrassed Thomas Sorensen when our Danish keeper’s clearance from an Andy Melville backpass struck the back of the Bradford forward, but fortunately for us, the ball bounced over the top.
Windass also came close in the opening period, but thankfully he shot straight into the arms of Thomas Sorensen when he really should have done better. Then midway through the half, the same player volleyed over from a good position after being set up by a cross from Stuart McCall. And City continued to apply the pressure, with ex-Sunderland man Jamie Lawrence rather instrumental in most of their moves, and Thomas Sorensen was forced to make fine saves from Dean Windass, and also from a Robbie Blake free-kick.
In spite of Bradford’s overall dominance, the clearer chances of the first-half fell to us. And in fact as early as the fourth minute we could have gone ahead, when a neat ball over the top of City defence by Niall Quinn found Kevin Phillips unmarked on the six-yard line. However, our leading marksman seemed to be taken by surprise, and as such home keeper Gary Walsh was able to smother Phillips’ shot. Undaunted, “Super Kev” was to carve out further chances for himself, the most notable of which was a curling effort destined for the top corner, but which was superbly saved by Gary Walsh as the first period ended goalless.
We then began the second-half in positive fashion, and could have gone ahead within just seconds of the restart when a fine cross from Allan Johnston picked out Kevin Phillips, whose header was well saved by Gary Walsh. Our Scottish winger then set up a similar chance for Niall Quinn, who was completely unmarked, but unfortunately he stabbed the ball straight at the rather grateful Walsh.
The game then developed into a much more even contest, with both sides keen to attack at every opportunity, as was surely to be expected in such an important clash. And Peter Reid’s ex-Everton counterpart Stuart McCall was at the centre of a few threatening Bradford moves, but in the seventy-first minute, we forced the vital breakthrough. A left-wing corner from Allan Johnston was met by Niall Quinn, who scored with the deftest of near-post headers to thus send our travelling contingent wild with delight.
Then almost immediately came a moment of drama, or rather potential disaster, when Bradford raced downfield in search of immediate response. Danger man Lee Mills collided with Thomas Sorensen as the two contested a 50/50 ball, which led to our Danish stopper having to leave the field injured.
Danny Dichio then came on as sub, but the goalkeeping jersey and gloves were entrusted to none other than our goalscoring hero, Niall Quinn, who’d previously acted as an emergency keeper under Peter Reid when the two were at Manchester City.
Big Quinny was to prove he was no mug between the posts, as he dealt capably with what Bradford threw at us in the remainder of the game.
Not that we didn’t have further opportunities to add to our lead, and Danny Dichio had a couple of good chances near to end to seal the three points - though on the first occasion he shot narrowly wide, then when he pounced on a loose ball in side the area he was foiled by a brave save by Gary Walsh. Not that it mattered a great deal, for the game still ended 1-0 in our favour - it had been a fine night’s work and deserved success in what had been a rather stern test v one of our chief promotion rivals, in front of just over 15,000 spectators.
It had course been another tremendous team effort, but there could be little doubt, for me at least, who was our man of the match - Niall Quinn, after a rather unique double, not just scoring the winning goal, but by keeping a clean sheet when forced to take on a rather uncustomary role to help us to another vital win.
Quite an achievement, which helped to make it a night to remember at Valley Parade as we edged a bit closer to the promised land of the Premier League.