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Friday, 20 March 2015

Does playing at Wembley still matter? It does for Bristol City

Wembley Stadium.

The White Horse, Stanley Matthews, Wimbledon, Pearce’s redemption, Live Aid, Broken goalposts, Gazza’s knee, Coventry, Gazza’s flick over the Scots, Ricky Villa, Queen, Liverpool’s white suits, Di Matteo, Gazza’s screamer, 4-1 v Holland, Moran’s red card and, of course, some people who were on the pitch.

If anyone tries to tell you Wembley has lost some of its old magic, that the multitude of club level games now played there means the mystique has somewhat disappeared, then try telling that to the 40,000 Bristolians who will be on the march up the M4 this weekend to watch our fifth appearance at the stadium. Let alone the nearly 30,000 Walsall fans who are delighted and overwhelmed to be making their Wembley bow.

And yes, it’s ‘only’ the JPT, isn’t it? Well maybe, but to become the first team to win this competition three times would be a great achievement, albeit one soured by the evidence it offers that we have spent far too many recent seasons playing in the bottom half of English football’s professional structure.

Yes, the twin towers may have gone and a Hot Dog now costs £8.50. And true, in 1986, when we first got there, it was far more of a rare event. There were no play-offs, Villa Park and Old Trafford amongst others regularly played host to FA Cup semi-finals and the lower leagues cup competition had only just commenced.  But the magical bounce in every City fans’ step since that first leg of the area final when Matt Smith almost single-handedly got us booking up the coaches and trains, proves that Wembley – and indeed the JPT – still has a huge amount to offer.

Our debut in 1986 was a special day, made even more remarkable by a slightly surprisingly comfortable 3-0 Freight Rover Trophy win against Phil Neal’s Bolton Wanderers. Then, remarkably, we made a reappearance a year later. That old London buses saying springs to mind! This time, however, we lost out to Mansfield Town as the first instance of our penalty shoot-out phobia hit hard.

Since then of course we’ve lost to Stoke City in the final of the Auto Windscreens (as it was then) and suffered that heartbreak at the foot of Dean Windass.

So does it still matter? Those who earlier in the season were advocating a lack of interest in the tournament and almost hoping we’d get knocked out so we could concentrate on promotion are all going to Wembley, I bet? My view on this – and other cup competitions – is that it can never be a bad thing to keep winning. Cup games create excitement, interest and memories like no individual league game can, especially for youngsters who get wrapped up in the big occasion.

Think back to our one truly great team in living memory. There’s a long history of teams having cup success just prior to achieving top flight status, and our run came just a couple of years earlier when the bulk of the side who went on to get us promoted, defeated star-studded Leeds United at Elland Road, before running the great Liverpool team close in the quarter-finals. Ask any 6-12 year old who was at Elland Road whether they remember that match more or an important league game from that season and I’m pretty certain what their response would be.

Think of Hereford and Bolton in '86, of Robbie Turner beating Chelsea, of Jacki’s starring role on Match of the Day and, of course, of Anfield in ’94. 

These are the games, the occasions, that bring on a generation of new fans. These are the games that might just persuade a few dozen kids to support their local side rather than go off and buy a Chelsea shirt.  The club have cottoned onto that superbly following a successful season with the billboard adverts for season-tickets currently showing around town, and as far afield as Newport. Launching them this week was perfect timing; grab everyone now whilst they’re caught up in the excitement of a Wembley trip.  That’s future thinking. That’s smart as they know full well that sort of investment for life is invaluable to the club, worth tens of thousands of pounds per child.


There is no doubt in my mind that part of my devotion to City over the years has come about from that Wembley appearance in 1986. I’d been going to games, on and off, for a couple of years prior, and much of my family were big City fans, but they were the first moments I remember vividly.

The coach journey up. The sea of red and white. Flags, scarves and those silly 80’s bobble hats everywhere, even on a sunny day in May. Being lost in the vast concourses at Wembley, a stadium of the like I’d never seen before, seeing Glyn Riley pull his hamstring in celebrating the third, wonderful goal and the pictures afterwards of 12 men sat celebrating in a tiny bath together, as the way those days!

With one win in four appearances to date (and none in the last three) one might be forgiven a bit of dread heading into this weekend’s match-up, but that underlying sentiment would be to belie the form and sheer belief this remarkable team seems to have in abundance.

There was never any doubt Cotterill wouldn’t take this competition seriously, and the teams he’s selected throughout have proven that he just loves to win games of football, whatever competition they’re a part of. In a week where tiredness has been blamed in some quarters for our ailing, star-studded top flight clubs’ exit from European competition and the dreaded winter break has again reared its ugly head, it’s worth noting that many of City’s players have already played well in excess of 40 games this season. It’ll be nearly 60 by the time May comes around.

And with Cotterill’s mantra to keep the pressure on throughout each game, very few have been substituted for any length of time or allowed to ease off. Despite all this, I haven’t seen many signs of tiredness, indeed, almost the opposite. On Tuesday night against Crewe, the oldest member of our team, Aaron Wilbraham, was piling pressure on one fullback, and moments later running their opposite full back into touch on the other side of the pitch. This was in the last ten minutes.

With the undoubted stamina comes some genuine class. The end of season review will outline what’s made for such a productive season in more detail, but solid and virtually ever-present defending, flanked by two jet-quick wing backs and protected by the awesome Korey Smith have allowed Luke Freeman to become the league’s most creative player in terms of assists, whilst all four main strikers have contributed a number of goals, whichever partnership is preferred or available.

The danger with being so successful is that the hawks start circling, and we can but hope that this Wembley appearance, and the much hoped-for subsequent promotion, isn’t the crowning glory of this team before its diamonds are snatched away.

It would be dangerous to overlook Cotterill’s admirers, too. Only a couple of years ago he was seen as top Championship material. No manager at any level gets to have the sort of success he has had, especially in such a short time, without attracting some covetous glances. The fact he’s English should keep him off most Premier League clubs’ radars given the tendency to appoint unheard of foreign coaches, but a trophy win on Sunday would add significant shine to a cv which would already state the building of the Burnley team that got to the promised land.

These concerns are for another day, however. For now we’ve got the red and white (and purple and lime) convoy up the M4 to enjoy, the walk up Wembley way and the sight of 40,000 fans cheering the team on. It may only be the JPT, and Wembley may have lost a tiny bit of its aura for some, but Sunday is a day to look forward to and enjoy to its maximum.

A win – and a trophy to take home – would make it all the sweeter.


The Exiled Robin

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