In 2020, Bradford City AFC compete in the bottom division of the football league, playing against the likes of Exeter City, Newport County, and Morecambe. However, a couple of decades ago they spent two surprise seasons in the Premier League in what must now seem like a distant dream. During this period they also attempted their very first – and only – European adventure: a summer fling with the much derided and confusing Intertoto Cup.
Before we cover this European dalliance, first we need to establish Bradford City during this period. In 1999 they achieved promotion to the top flight – for the first time in 77 years – under the shrewd and transformative management of Paul Jewell. The first season in the Premier League in 1999-2000 was one filled with an equal measure of angst and joy, with the team managing to stay up on the final game of the season (a victory over Liverpool).
The strain of keeping Bradford in the top division clearly took its toll on Jewell, who resigned in the summer of 2000. He was replaced by his assistant, Chris Hutchings, and during this time of instability they decided to apply for a slot in the UEFA Cup by playing a series of summer games in the Intertoto Cup.
The Intertoto Cup: Forgotten & Unloved?
The Intertoto Cup is now remembered – if remembered at all – as a derided European tournament. The competition had a long history stretching back to the 1960s, but it was only in the mid 1990s that it grew in importance with the possibility of entrance into a proper UEFA tournament. The actual qualification process was confusing, however, with different tiers and various “winners” in any given year. But the competition’s best feature was enabling smaller clubs and also-rans a round-about way to actually mix it with the big teams in the UEFA Cup.
Clubs applied for a place to compete in the Intertoto Cup, rather than achieve one through league position. For this reason, Bradford was able to obtain a place in the 2000 edition of the tournament. The biggest problem with the competition was its placing on the calendar: the summer months. The months of June and July remain critical in the resting of players and preparation for the new season, which placed a notable strain on the clubs who played in the Intertoto. As such, Bradford needed to start the 2000-01 much earlier in order to prepare for their first Intertoto games in early July.
Bradford’s first European match was against the Lithuanian team FK Atlantas. The team had been Lithuanian league champions several times in the late 1970s and 1980s during the Communist era, but Atlantas weren’t the type of team to excite the fan-base or get pulses racing. The first leg took place in Lithuania on 1st July in front of a crowd of 3,500; Bradford won 3-1 with goals from Rankin and Windass, along with a penalty from Blake. It was enough to provide a strong cushion for the return leg in England a week later, when Bradford obtained a 4-1 win to make the tie 7-2 on aggregate. The attendance was higher than the first leg, but even at 10,012 it highlighted the lack of enthusiasm for the Intertoto.
However, such an attendance figure was a couple of thousand more than those who turned out for their next opponents on 16th July. Bradford hosted the Dutch team RKC Waalwijk picked up a 2-0 first leg win (both goals courtesy of Dean Windass). A week later, in front of a small crowd of a 3,700, Bradford completed the job to win 1-0 in order to make the aggregate score 3-0.
These efforts led to to the semi finals: the club was only one successful tie away from competing for a place in the UEFA Cup. However, their relatively successful run in the competition came to an end when they came up against Russian giants Zenit St Petersburg (who would go on to win the UEFA Cup in 2008). Bradford lost 0-1 in Russia, followed by a more comprehensive 0-3 home defeat a week later.
After the European exploits
Unfortunately, Aston Villa – the other English representative – also fell in the semi-finals. Zenit St Petersburg themselves failed in one of the three “finals” and lost to Spanish club Celta Vigo, whilst the other “winners” were Udinese and Stuggart. These three teams had earned their place in the 2000-01 edition of the UEFA Cup, having battled for weeks across the summer months for the honour. In terms of their success in that season’s UEFA Cup: Udinese went out in the second round whilst Stuggart made it to the fourth one. Stuggart’s victors were Celta Vigo, who managed to make it to the last eight, where they lost on away goals to Spanish rivals Barcelona. Barcelona themselves were knocked-out in the next round by eventual winners Liverpool (with the UEFA Cup comprising on third of their historic treble in 2001; cruelly derided by some as the “poor man’s treble” when compared to Manchester United’s more glamorous trophy haul in 1999).
As for Bradford City, things would never be as good again. They struggled during the 2000-01 season, and Hutchings himself failed to last until Christmas. It could be argued that the summer exertion in the Intertoto was too much for a fragile squad. Bradford were relegated in 2001, and their big spending ways during the summer of 2000 left them with a legacy of debt; they were placed in administration and eventually dropped down the divisions. Most of their recent history is one of misery, bar the exceptional League Cup run in 2012-13 when they defeated Arsenal and Aston Villa on their way to Wembley. They became the first club from the bottom division to reach the League Cup final since 1962; however, they finally bowed down to a superior force in Swansea City, losing 0-5.
However, with the cup run aside, the past two decades have been at distinct odds with the ambition of the club to achieve a place in European competition in the summer of 2000. They may not have mixed it with the big boys of Real Madrid or Juventus, but their summer dalliance against a Lithuanian, Dutch, and Russian club still represents an interesting chapter in the club’s history.