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Bradford City produced one of the all-time great Premier League escapes as they defeated Liverpool by a single goal to stay up on the final day of the 1999/00 season. Going into the game few people gave Bradford much of a chance as they needed to defeat the might of Liverpool and other results to go in their favour. There have been many dramatic final day escapes in the history of the Premier League and this game ranks up there as one of the very best. Indeed, the vast difference in size between the two clubs could see it described as a giant killing in itself.
The 1999/00 season was Bradford’s first in the top flight of English football for 72 years. They had won promotion to the Premier League by finishing as runners-up to Sunderland. Under the management of the inexperienced Paul Jewell many pundits expected Bradford to struggle. Perhaps the Bantams’ greatest strength was the experience in their squad with the likes of David Wetherall, Lee Sharpe, Stuart McCall, Peter Beagrie and Dean Saunders all used to playing at the highest level. In fact, some pundits dubbed them the Dad’s Army due to all the over thirties in their team.
Bradford made the perfect start to the new season with an opening day win over Middlesbrough. But reality soon hit home for the Bantams and they were quickly in the relegation zone – a spot they would occupy for most of the season. In January they were 18th but recorded successive wins over Watford and Arsenal. City provided some great entertainment during the season with an amazing 5-4 defeat at West Ham and a 4-4 draw against Derby. Just as relegation was looking a certainty Bradford recorded wins against Sunderland and crucially against Wimbledon in a massive six-pointer. A defeat to Leicester City in their penultimate game meant that, as football purists love to see, everything would come down to the last day of the season.
By Liverpool’s high standards they had had a disappointing 1999/00 campaign. With Gerard Houllier in his second season as manager the club was going through a transitional phase. They suffered some poor results that season, not least losing to newly promoted Watford at Anfield. With the club a long way off a dominant Manchester United in the league and having a poor run in the cups, a Champions League spot was the final aim to save their season.
With Watford and Sheffield Wednesday already relegated there was one relegation place to be decided on the final day. Wimbledon and Bradford were level on points but the Dons had a much better goal-difference. This meant that the Bantams had to better whatever result the Londoners achieved. Wimbledon were facing Southampton away and Bradford had home advantage – albeit against the mighty Liverpool. To complicate matters further for City, Liverpool were chasing a place in the Champions League. Leeds were sitting third, one point ahead of Liverpool, so the Reds needed a positive result and for Leeds to slip-up at Upton Park.
Going into the game Bradford were boosted by having a fully fit squad to choose from. Peter Beagrie was a doubt but he took up his customary position on the left of midfield and Dean Windass led the attack alongside former Liverpool star Dean Saunders. Liverpool were boosted by the return of hitman Michael Owen and midfield general Dietmar Hamann. Goalkeeper Sander Westerveld and defender Sami Hyppia also made the starting XI after overcoming ankle knocks.
In front of a sell-out crowd at Valley Parade Liverpool made a bright start – Michael Owen almost bursting free of the Bradford defence. With only 12 minutes gone Bradford went in front with a crucial goal for their season. Gunnar Halle flighted a free-kick from the right flank into the Liverpool penalty area and centre-back David Wetherall rose highest to power a header past Sander Westerveld into the top right-hand corner. The goal gave Bradford fans belief that their side could beat the drop.
The rest of the first half was relatively uneventful as both sides tried to overcome their nerves. Liverpool’s best chance of the half fell just before the interval – Michael Owen made space for himself in the Bradford area and then rounded goalkeeper Matt Clarke, but his goal-bound effort was cleared off the line by some desperate defending. Bradford were given a double boost at half-time with the news that Southampton were drawing with Wimbledon.
Liverpool made a bright start to the second half with midfielder Patrick Berger having a free-kick tipped over by Clarke. The Reds were beginning to pile on the pressure with Emile Heskey and Michael Owen denied by desperate blocks in quick succession. Bradford hopes were raised even further 15 minutes into the second half with the news from Southampton that Wayne Bridge had scored against Wimbledon.
Bradford had a great chance to double their advantage midway through the second half but Windass was denied by a Dominic Matteo block. When Marian Pahars put Southampton 2-0 up it meant a draw would surely be enough for Bradford. They still had a scare when Owen and Vladimir Smicer both went close for the increasingly desperate Reds. Substitute Isiah Rankin had a chance to put the game to bed but chipped agonisingly wide of the post.
When referee Dermot Gallagher blew the final whistle on the season the Bantams had achieved the great escape. Thousands of relieved fans swarmed on to the pitch to celebrate with their heroes. The result meant that Wimbledon were relegated after 14 years in the top flight and also that Bradford’s Yorkshire neighbours Leeds United had qualified for the Champions League.