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AGONY AND THE ECSTASY; BRADFORD 1 LIVERPOOL 0.

HE who laughs last laughs longest - and Bradford City were laughing long and loud after pulling off possibly the greatest escape the Premiership has ever seen.

Maligned as the worst club ever to grace English football's elite, Bradford completed the most miraculous survival campaign ever masterminded.

David Wetherall's 12th-minute header might not have been the prettiest seen at Valley Parade but it was the most important in the club's 97- year history.

Paul Jewell's paupers spent almost all of this century stuck in the bottom three, staring certain relegation in the face.

But their fantastic defeat of Liverpool - which also ended the Anfield men's Champions League pretensions - extended their stay in the top flight and left their fans in a state of euphoria.

As expected, Jewell was delighted. He said: "Someone said at the start of the season that it was a magnificent achievement for us to get up but it would be a miracle if we stayed up.

"We have achieved that miracle and it is thanks to the spirit and desire of my players who have made me proud of them all season, the way they have fought to keep us in this division.

"You could see at the end what it meant to our players and fans but for me, it hasn't really sunk in yet. I don't know what I feel, except immense pride.

"It has been a draining day but at the end of it we have stayed up and that is a fantastic achievement by my players.

"They have shown what they can do and nobody can say anything against them now. We have stayed up by the skin of our teeth and maybe next season we'll stay up with one game to go."

It was somehow fitting that Wetherall - the fans' player of the season - should provide the defining moment of a 38- game adventure spent battling the odds and the critics.

His header sparked the biggest party Bradford has seen since ... well ... last year. And it sealed the fate of the Crazy Gang, exiling them to the Nationwide League.

Meanwhile Liverpool's miserable run of just two points from their final five games will leave Gerard Houllier agonising over what might have been this summer.

A place in the UEFA Cup will only be a small consolation to the Frenchman, given the way his team failed to handle the pressure when it mattered most.

Houllier - who insisted there had been no fall-out with Robbie Fowler despite the striker being left in Liverpool - said: "In the end we paid for a poor start and a weak ending to the season but I told the players not to be too disappointed, or let it overshadow what they achieved.

"We are in Europe, which was the aim, and we are still a very young side."

While too many of Houllier's expensive signings - he spent pounds 40million strengthening Liverpool - looked like they had one eye on their summer holidays, Jewell's Dad's Army were primed for the biggest battle of their lives.

Bradford struck the first telling blow then they were left with another 78 gripping minutes, which would have tested the calmest disposition, before they could start the real celebrations.

Wetherall had been penned deep inside his own half trying to negate the threat of Michael Owen and Emile Heskey when Dietmar Hamman's ill- judged tackle released the Liverpool strangle-hold. It allowed him the rare opportunity to wander into Liverpool's penalty area to cause problems of his own and he did so with stunning effect.

Gunnar Halle provided the perfect delivery on the free-kick and Wetherall - whose goals are usually collectors items - came up with a priceless one.

He evaded Sammy Hyypia with embarrassing ease before powering a precision header into the top corner, beyond the dive of Sander Westerveld.

Bradford keeper Matt Clarke survived a minor scare moments later, caused by Jamie Redknapp's free- kick and then had to intercept Owen's cross before it reached Heskey inside the six- yard box.

Whatever nerves Bradford had they kept well concealed, especially purple- headed Jamie Lawrence who epitomised the fighting spirit within Jewell's troops.

Westerveld had to react smartly to plunge onto Dean Windass' free-kick from just outside the box eight minutes before half- time.

But hearts were never far from Bradford's suffering fans' mouths and right on half- time they had a miraculous escape.

Heskey's flick header from Stephen Gerrard's long ball enabled Owen to outpace Wetherall and Andy O'Brien.

Clarke could only force the England striker wide but he still managed to hook his shot goalward. Halle timed his arrival to perfection to clear off the line.

To add to the nerves there followed another moment of drama when a cheer went around the ground suggesting Wimbledon had conceded a goal at Southampton.

Bradford chairman Geoffrey Richmond, with one eye on the Wimbledon match in the directors box, was forced to signal frantically to Jewell that the celebrations were premature.

They started in earnest in the 58th minute. News of Wayne Bridges' first- ever goal for Southampton at The Dell travelled more than 200 miles faster than the Internet and swept around the ground.

Even then the party could have started too soon as Owen was given too much time to reach Dominic Matteo's cross to produce a looping header which Clarke had to tip over the crossbar.

Matteo then made a wonderful block of his own to stop ex-Don Windass un- corking the champagne bottles as Lawrence set him up eight yards out.

But the bubbly was flowing by the bucketful moments later when news of Marian Pahar's goal filtered north - and some of it will be heading south.

Bradford chairman Richmond said: "A case of champagne will be winging its way to Southampton very shortly."
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:May 15, 2000
Words:961
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