By Matt Rowson
In October 1996, I went on holiday.
The Isle of Harris, the Outer Hebrides. Tenerife it isn't, but very nice in its own way. On the day in question, the plan was to walk from Tarbert to Rhenigidale, but the standard factors (inability to get out of bed, get organised, "flexible" ferry crossing times) conspired, with the result that we didn't leave Tarbert until four. But that was unlikely to be a problem...it only looked like about six miles on the map, shouldn't take more than a few hours.
Except...that six miles as the crow flies translates as considerably more when you take all those funny lines on the Ordnance Survey Map into account. It was a blazingly hot day, every time you stopped the midges seemed to swarm. Due to blisters incurred on a previous leg, I was wearing trainers rather than the less sympathetic walking boots, which didn't help on the steep ascents and descents of the hill path. The cruellest moment was, whilst trying to locate ourselves on the ever-more-baffling map, mis-identifying an outcrop of land in the distance as the last bend before Rhenigidale...only seeing the REAL outcrop when we reached and passed the fraud.
A splendid walk, though...hills, the sea, the sunshine. And moments of quite exceptional beauty, despite our exhaustion... the Golden Eagle which appeared from behind a peak, hovered, then swung away again was like nothing I've seen before or since. And when we reached Rhenigidale, it proved not to be a village but a collection of five buildings, six miles from the nearest village (Tarbert) and two miles from the nearest similar dwellings, it was fabulous. By midnight it was absolutely black outside, the only light emerging from underneath the hostel door. Wonderful.
This is all relevant. Trust me. Stick with it.
Our game at Bradford may not represent last chance saloon, but it's as good a chance as we're likely to get for a while. Just as gloom has descended on Vicarage Road for much of the past few months, so Bradford are coming to terms with the unhelpfulness of gutsy performances and credit as game battlers in the absence of points. Some of the indicators of desperation - from vacant pleas for the club to spend "serious money" to frantic speculation as to whether Stan Collymore might be worth a gamble - are horribly familiar. However, whereas at Watford the glumness has only rarely translated itself through the crowd, the "Bradford and Bingley Stadium" (Valley Parade to you and me) is now reputedly as silent as the grave. Noticeably, Paul Jewell doesn't have the vast stock of trust and brownie points to draw on that GT has here.
Which may even go further than the fans. There's a delicious irony in the listing of the Bradford news stories on the Sky Sports site, with an item quoting Paul Jewell as suggesting that now might be the time to strengthen the squad almost adjacent to another quoting City Chairman Sir Geoffrey Richmond as saying that there'll be no panic buying here thank you very much.
Whatever the truth, the cup defeat at Gillingham and the loss at Hillsborough on Saturday were both shockingly bad results, with City described as "Too old, too slow and too average" by one unflinching correspondent.
City's keeper, in the absence of the injured Gary Walsh, will be former Sheffield Wednesday reserve Matt Clarke who has impressed since he came into the side. His backup is the much-travelled Aidan Davison.
Fullbacks are the experienced Gunnar Halle, and former Chelsea man Andy Myers. That Myers' strengths are in attacking rather than defending has been exposed more at Bradford than it was at Stamford Bridge, leading for calls for the return of old favourite Wayne Jacobs.
In the middle at the back David Wetherall and youngster Andy O'Brien form a solid partnership, the latter's spectacular own goal at Hillsborough notwithstanding. Cover here is however thought to be shaky following the exile of Darren Moore, with former Crewe man Ashley Westwood apparently the first choice alternative.
City have in recent weeks been fielding a particularly venerable central midfield pairing, comprising thirty-four year-old Neil Redfearn and Stuart McCall, one year his senior. McCall still seems to be universally popular, despite the Premiership appearing to have caught up with him this season. His name is widely mentioned as a potential replacement for Jewell. Redfearn appears to be as completely unpopular as he was at Charlton, with opinion split as to whether he is five or ten yards off the pace. Gareth Whalley appears to be out of favour, although few seem to know why.
On the flanks, a consistent weakness down the right side is much bemoaned, but presumably good news for Robbo on Saturday. Jamie Lawrence is the current incumbent. Another veteran, Peter Beagrie, is allegedly the only man in the squad who can cross a ball; his place has been shared with Lee Sharpe, who has also appeared at full-back but seems to be short on confidence.
Up front, one-time GT disciple Lee Mills is very much the main man, and has looked Premiership quality although his fitness is currently in doubt due to an ankle problem. Dean Windass, who has been (mis)employed in midfield, also has questions surrounding his fitness. Robbie Blake, who destroyed us in this fixture last season, is looking slow, sulky and overweight, and Dean Saunders is variously described as "poor" and "awful". Isaiah Rankin, who has featured relatively little since his expensive transfer from Arsenal eighteen months ago, was thought to deserve another chance, more out of desperation than anything else one suspects, but has now been loaned to Birmingham.
Saturday is huge, crucial. But City are not an insurmountable obstacle, and nor is Premiership survival, not yet. Like that walk through the hills in Scotland, we may have left it late, we may be ill prepared. We may have been pissed off by any number of annoying bastards along the way. We may have had our false dawns. But there have been some spectacular bits as well (beating Chelsea, Liverpool, holding off Southampton). And if we stick at the task we can reach our objective, and it will be so fantastic that none of what we have been through to get there will matter a jot.
We won't have to play Wolves again for a start.