Wayne Jacobs is certainly a familiar face to many Bradford City fans following success during eleven years as a player here at Valley Parade, most notably promotion in 1996 and, of course, 1999 to the top flight. The 48 year-old is a co-founder of the One In A Million charity who have a secondary school situated adjacent to the stadium and are a community partner of the club, part of the #BantamsFamily. He also co-commentates on City’s games for BBC Radio Leeds. He spoke candidly about his joy at a change of outcome for Stuart McCall after a painfully unsuccessful first spell as manager, and about the 1996 run to the play-offs and eventual unlikely promotion. Ahead of Saturday's Sky Bet League One Play-Off Final, 1996 play-off final success over Notts County for City remains the Club's most recent promotion up into the second tier of English football.
Jacobs said: "During the 1995/96 season the expectations sort of evolved really. There was a change of management during the season with Chris Kamara taking over from Lennie Lawrence and in the second half of the season we gathered momentum. We got into the play-off positions quite late and finished in sixth position; we were outside the top ten for most of the season however, we managed to finish strong and get into the play-offs."
Chris Kamara’s side earned a place in the top six against Hull City at their former ground Boothferry Park. The Bantams were backed by thousands of supporters who had made the trip to East Yorkshire and had been sat in the home end on the request of the local authorities.
Jacobs added: "The Hull City game at their place to get us into the play-offs was pretty crazy really. We’ll talk about the positive side of it first, the goals and the scoreline. There were plenty of goals and the scoreline was the right one for us because it got us where we needed to be, but it was a crazy day in the fact that our fans got the Hull home end. I’ve been in football for thirty years as an adult now and I don’t think there’s many times where you would expect a home team to be told to give their side to the opposition. The home fans were obviously not pleased, so it was a strange day in that sense but you just had to keep your focus, which we managed to do and we got the result."
City left themselves with a mountain to climb last season with a first leg home defeat to Millwall, and the crop of 1996 left themselves with a similar challenge in order to get through to the final. Coming up against a much-fancied Blackpool side, Jacobs and his teammates overcame a two-goal deficit at Bloomfield Road to prove successful, using a certain and much talked about ‘Wembley’ poster as a physiologically beneficial boost.
Jacobs continued: "I think everybody thought that we might struggle in the play-offs. Obviously we’d finished sixth so we were paired with a very strong Blackpool team with Sam Allardyce as their manager. They were a big, strong team, they were organised and I would’ve thought that outside of Bradford, nobody would have given Bradford a chance. We went into the play-offs really looking forward to the games.
"We lost the home leg two-nil and to be fair that day it was a bit of a mismatch, they were stronger than us and dominated the game really. We were walking off the pitch at Valley Parade and we went up the steps and down our tunnel; anybody who has been in the ground knows that the corridor is really quite narrow. The away changing room was halfway up the corridor and one of the Blackpool players who I’ll keep nameless, sort of turned round very arrogantly and shouted towards us ‘we were just too big and too strong for you’. Obviously we were all disappointed, you’re looking around the dressing room and you could see some heads down. However, we knew we were still in the tie and that it wasn’t over just yet, and that remark just made me all the more determined.
"We wanted to quickly plant a positive seed, and then we arrived for the second leg at Bloomfield Road and saw that they had Wembley travel details all over the place and physiologically trying to make us think that the tie was over. Chris Kamara saw the travel posters and pinned them up in the dressing room and said ‘These think they’ve done it, these think they’re there, they’ve disrespected you and think you’ve got nothing to offer’ and he just used it as a whole to do his team talk basically.
"We went out and started the game and interestingly enough we got the first goal that we’d hoped for. It was obvious on the night that they feared us a little bit especially the outstanding pace of our left winger, Andy Kiwomya. You could tell their back line were unnerved by it and they were just stretching themselves too much as a team because their back four dropped deeper which created too much space between them and their midfield. Out of possession they were stretched and you could sense a little bit of doubt in them which we went on to capitalise on and get the result."
A feeling of optimism and belief was certainly present amongst the 30,000 Bantams fans heading south to the national stadium and that was married with an unassailable level of confidence from Kamara’s side going into the winner takes all fixture.
Jacobs said: "As our co-chairman Edin Rahic recently said at the Player of the Year Awards evening, we’re not arrogant at Bradford City because it’s not a good thing to be, but we were confident going into the final. Because we’d overcome a two-goal deficit in the second leg and because we’d got into the play-offs late in the first place, the fans felt as if it was going to be our season. The Bradford fans that went to Blackpool that night still tell me that it was the best night of their lives. Really nicely, the club prepared us well and bought us the matching suits and ties with the flower in the jacket pocket.
"Chris Wilder, who is now the Sheffield United manager and someone I’ve known for a long time, was playing for Notts County; he was injured at that time but was still in the travelling squad. He told me after the game that they looked across the pitch at us coming out and knew they were beat. He said the number of fans we had at Wembley in comparison to them as well as the way the team looked made us seem like a bigger and more professional outfit. Of course, we had to go out and earn the win, but as it showed we did so and it was a fabulous experience. The local lad, young Des (Hamilton) scored first and then Stix (Ian Ormondroyd) came on and played his part in Mark Stallard’s goal. It was a dream come true to win at Wembley."
The current crop are looking forward to a Wembley play-off final against Millwall, but Jacobs thinks first and foremost the achievement to get into this play-offs must be acknowledged in high regard considering the hurdles the football club had to leap over last summer. High on emotion, he admitted it has been an unforgettable season for his friend and former teammate and colleague, Stuart McCall.
Jacobs added: "Before we start wondering if we’re going to win the play-offs or not, what an achievement it has been to get there. Nine players at the first day of pre-season, a change of ownership, a change of management and so many things to settle and to be worked on to restore normality at the club. Not only have we achieved the play-offs but the way we’ve done it with the style of football we’ve played for most of the season has been a phenomenal achievement.
"It’s been an incredible journey. Can we win it? Of course we can. It’s going to be difficult, Millwall are a good side but it’s a different scenario from us in 1996. We jumped into the last play-off spot whereas the current crop amazingly have been up there all season and I have to take my hat off to everyone involved at the club from the owners, James Mason and his staff, Stuart McCall, Kenny Black and the playing staff, and the players and fans alike. It’s going to be tough but of course we can do it. The players have got to feel like they can beat whoever is put in front of them.’
"I get emotional talking about how well Stuart has done this season. Just to watch it unravel and develop for him has been a privilege for me. I know the tears we shared and how much we wanted it to work out last time for the club. It’s been an absolute privilege to be in the ground this season watching him in the technical area knowing what he’s going through. Seeing him get the club into the play-offs has made it the best season of my life really.
"So it’s a privilege to watch it happen for him, absolutely brilliant and I say that because I know the intensity of how he feels about this club, I’ve seen it and witnessed it with him. People might see him on the touchline, and they do see him get animated and they do see his passion. However, times that by a hundred and that will be what he’s feeling inside, so for me it’s already a special season."
Words: Luke Gallagher