Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Bantams Blogger Meets... Darby and Jones

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: One’s Mr. Consistency and the other is magic. Bantams Blogger meets City’s STEPHEN DARBY and GARY JONES to talk promotion hopes, the League Cup final and playing against some of the Premier League’s most accomplished stars.

   As the season begins to draw to a close, things couldn’t be much more exciting for Bradford City. This fantastic campaign has seen City enchant the nation on the journey to the Capital One Cup final, and, when the final whistle blows after Saturday’s game at Whaddon Road this week, the Bantams will finish in seventh spot, giving the side an opportunity to win promotion to League One.
   Two players who have been instrumental parts of City’s achievements this year are Stephen Darby and Gary Jones. The latter has been a dynamo in the centre of the park, and the likes of Arsenal and Aston Villa have been despatched at the hands of the midfielder’s set pieces. Meanwhile, Stephen Darby has dominated the right-hand side of the defence, with his cool demeanour not giving City’s opponents a prayer.
   Both players are still in their first year at the club, and what a fantastic campaign for them to be a part of. The current season has entailed multiple highs so far and the pair say that they’re relishing playing for the Bantams.
   “I’ve loved every minute of it,” says Jones. “It was a wrench to leave Rochdale but this was the best club I could have possibly come to. They made me feel so welcome, so I’m happy and probably playing my best football. I’m absolutely delighted.”
   “I’ve really enjoyed it,” Darby comments. “Making the League Cup final at Wembley was beyond our wildest dreams and it’s still not over yet. We’ve still got three massive games to go and hopefully we can really push on.”
   What has been the highlight of this incredible season?
  “I think it’s got to be the League Cup final, hasn’t it?” Darby says. “I think the cup run leading up to that was massive and Wembley was a good day out. Obviously, it was disappointing with the result, but getting to the final and the cup run were brilliant.”
   Stephen and Gary quickly established themselves as fans’ favourites. Darby’s calm and composed performances, as well as his ability to create time on the ball, have proved to be a pivotal part of City’s success, and the full back’s defensive heroics against Arsenal ensured that the Gunners’ offensive endeavours yielded few rewards.
   “You train really hard day in, day out, and you want to perform at the highest level and the best level that you can,” Darby explains. “In the big games, you’ve got to be more switched on and I think we raised our game, especially against Arsenal.”
   Similarly, Jones received a warm reception from Bantams fans alike. Through his unfaltering energy and enthusiasm, the 35 year-old immediately endeared himself to the Valley Parade faithful, cementing his position at the heart of the midfield and, incidentally, as a cult hero for many City supporters. Bradford fans quickly grew to admire Jones’ dedication to the cause and how he gives 110% every time.
   “When you’re playing and see the support Bradford City have got, I think it spurs you on a little bit more, ” Jones says. “I want to win every game as well, so combine the two and I think it’s quite a decent combination. Every time I step on the field, I want to win, and I try and wear my heart on my sleeve.”

   The City players more than deserve to soak up their well-earned plaudits. In a marathon season in which the Bantams have taken centre stage in a Wembley showpiece and still gone on to snatch a top seven finish, Bradford have faced as high calibre opposition as you’ll ever get without venturing into the Champions League, including two of the best passing teams in the Premiership. With the Arsenal game being one of the most eagerly anticipated City matches for more than a decade, it must have been difficult to calm the nerves and still produce such an empowered and inspiring performance, especially with the world watching.
   “To be fair, in the cup run, we just took it game by game,” Darby says. “We never really got ahead of ourselves and we kept our feet on the ground. Before the game, when we got the team news and the gaffer and Steve Parkin put the team on the board, we had a bit of a laugh about it because it was a really strong side that they put out, but we just prepared as normal and did what we did in the previous games.”
   I think when we saw their team sheet, we were like, ‘Oh, God, we could be in for a long night here,’ because they had their full strength team out,” recalls Jones. “But it’s a cup game and it’s eleven men V.S. eleven men. I think, on the night, we showed we can match them, and our penalty shootout record is quite good, to say the least. It was a great night for everybody and put us on the road for that amazing cup run.”
   How did preparing to face Arsenal – one of the world’s most famous teams, bursting with millions of pounds worth of talent and the club of choice for the likes of Vermaelen, Rosicky, and Arshavin  – differ to gearing up for a League Two clash?
   “I think when you go to play any team in our league, everyone expects to win, but when you’re playing against Premier League teams, no one expects you to win. It’s a different mentality,” observes Jones. “It’s funny, because we got beat by Barnet on the Saturday and ended up beating Aston Villa 3-1 on the Tuesday, so football is a strange, absolutely strange game. But, as I say, we deserved that cup run, we deserved to get to the final and it was just unfortunate that we came up against a brilliant Swansea team.”
   Getting the opportunity to watch world’s elite contest with Bradford City is something that so many supporters will never forget. As for Jones and Darby, playing with these millionaires was an even more memorable experience.
   “Oh, [it was] amazing. You want to play the best players you can and we were fortunate that we could do that,” Jones says.
   “When you see them on telly, you think they’re good, but when you play against them, you find out how good they really are, and they are quite unbelievable. They get paid a lot of money, and good on them,” he laughs, “because they are top, top players.”
   Darby agrees.
   “It’s been brilliant. You want to be playing against the best players in the world, and to play against Jack Wilshere and Michu has been brilliant.”
   At the moment, City are going into the final day with their play-off spot secure. Regardless of what happens against Cheltenham on Saturday, the Bantams cannot be caught, and Jones and Darby are excited about the forthcoming battle for a place in League One.
   “I’m really looking forward to it and we are on a good run of form,” says Darby. “We’ve had a lot of games this season but we’ve just got a few more to go. We’ve just got to keep pushing on, keep our focus, keep giving it 110% and keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
   “Yeah, [I’m feeling] very confident,” says Jones. “A few weeks ago, no one would give us a chance of getting into the play-offs, so it’s a massive bonus for us - the season goes on for another month. We’ve got a good squad, we’ve got a bunch of fit lads who want to win and we’ve got a good manager, too, so combine them together and I think we’ve got a really good chance.”
   As Jones admitted, many City fans had given up on the Bantams’ play-off attempts after the Exeter game, deeming the subsequent eight-point deficit too great a gap to be bridged. Did the players ever worry that they may not have been able to get into the top seven?
   “No. We always thought that it was possible,” says Darby. “Obviously, it was getting tougher because the games were running out, but, after the Exeter game, we had a meeting as a team, and we knew what we had to do and the way we had to play. From then on and up until now, we’ve done that, got on a good run of form and managed to make the play-offs.”
   “I think, with the squad and players we’ve got, we knew we could put a run of results together,” Jones says. “I think, after the Exeter game, people wrote us off. I think we were 8pts, 9pts behind them at the time when they were seventh, but we knew if we put a run together we could be a match for anyone and that’s how it’s proved because we’ve scraped into seventh place. Hopefully, we can push on for promotion.”
   With Bradford aiming to book a return trip to London, those of us who went to the Capital One Cup final will be getting nostalgic, reminiscing about that amazing day. But what was it like for Jones, who lead the team out onto that hallowed Wembley turf?
   “Walking out into a full Wembley stadium, 90,000, with 30,000 Bradford City supporters, it’s… words can’t describe how good it is,” he says. “But it’s an experience I’ll never, ever forget, and I’m sure that probably most of Bradford City’s supporters will never forget it, as well.”

Monday, 8 April 2013

Let Battle Commence

Bradford can’t afford anything less than the best as late play-off rivals Bristol Rovers rock up at Valley Parade

The battle for promotion is intensifying
   23 minutes. Garry Thompson’s lofted delivery fell into the opposition’s half. The Northampton goalkeeper came out to collect the ball, but a communication breakdown between him and his defender saw it propelled into the path of a lively Nahki Wells.
   It was as though time slowed down. The goal was empty. To grab the lead, Nahki just needed to chase and convert, but would he be able to get there? Could get that essential touch? It was a difficult angle and the ball was rapidly spinning away. It was as much a will-he-won’t-he chance as you’ll see all season.
   But Nahki stretched. And Nahki scored.
   Valley Parade erupted. Finally, City had scored first, and against the physical, bullish Northampton who had been a nightmare down the right side. The Cobblers were left scratching their heads, wondering how costly their defensive blunder may prove to be. The Bradford City fans, though, didn’t need telling how valuable that mishap was.
   Last Monday, before Bradford took on Torquay, the Bantams were eight points off of the play-offs. Now, City sit in eighth, invitingly close to that vital seventh space. A place in the end of season showpiece lingers temptingly two points away. We are so nearly there.
   City’s habit of coming from behind has foreshadowed the club’s promotion charge, in which they have done exactly that: crept up on the leaders to really add substance to the play-off bid.
   Tomorrow, Bristol Rovers, who are, like City, chasing promotion, will face Bradford. The Bantams must continue their excellent midweek home form, and take advantage of the fact that Exeter and Rotherham are locking horns with each other: regardless of whatever happens at the New York Stadium tomorrow, a Bradford win would see Parkinson’s men sneak into the seventh spot.
   All of Bradford’s remaining five games involve contesting their fellow promotion contenders. City have still yet to play the aforementioned Bristol Rovers, as well as  Chesterfield, Rotherham, Burton Albion and Cheltenam. Every game is, effectively, a six pointer.
   Pile up victories, and City’s position amongst the pack is strengthened. Anything less, though, and the chances of another trip to Wembley will rapidly slip away.
   As the season draws to a finish, it’s clear that the stakes couldn’t be any higher.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Looking Back

How a rare room tidy lead to a trip down memory lane

Luke O'Brien was once a regular for the Bantams
   Tidying my room is a mammoth challenge that I undertake once in a blue moon. It involves being ruthless, being resourceful and being reminiscent of football seasons gone by, as it is seemingly inevitable that an old City programme or newspaper cutting will be unearthed.
   This time, it was a stack of football cards from the 2007-08 season that entertained, as a certain City talisman was at the centre of the pile.
   “No! Is that… Our Andrew Davies?”
   The blond hair had been shaved off, the trademark beard was nowhere to be seen and he was sporting the red and white strip of Middlesborough, but it was still the very same Andrew Davies who is now such an instrumental part of Phil Parkinson’s squad.
   I knew of his Premier League history, but I had no idea that he’d been immortalised on a football card.
   There was one of Kasper Schmeichel in his Manchester City days, and Glen Johnson as a Portsmouth player. A floppy-haired Gareth Bale, who is now Tottenham’s shining light, was a three-star defender with an “attack” rating of merely 40.
   The moral of the story? Football is fickle. A lot changes in six years.
   In terms of Bradford City, the guarantee of change has been the only certainty throughout the League Two stint, with McCall, Taylor, Jackson and Parkinson all bringing their own plans to the club in hope of securing that evasive promotion. Hanson and McLaughlin have been the closest things to constants, and each reformation has seen new talent drafted in and other players released.
   Bradford under Stuart McCall, for example, differs greatly to the present incarnation of the club.
   Joe Colbeck and Omar Daley paced down the flanks, and Mark Bower shaped the defence alongside David Weatherall and Paul Heckingbottom. Ex-City dynamo Luke O’Brien is at Oxford, but Bantams fans still fondly remember his time in the team and the way in which he charged up from left back and whipped crosses into the box. The teenager who clinched the winner when City took on Macclesfield, David Brown, now lines up for Bradford Park Avenue. Scott Loach is currently plying his trade for Championship team Ipswich Town.
   Dean Furman, such a superb player for City in the McCall era, has since captained Oldham (though, at the moment, he's on loan with Doncaster) and represented South Africa at international level. He may be returning to Valley Parade if Athletic survive the drop and the Bantams win promotion, or if Bradford stay in this division and Oldham don’t avoid relegation.
   More recently, tough-tackling Michael Flynn waved Bradford a fond farewell, joined by Craig Fagan and Chris Mitchell. Personally, I always felt that the latter was unlucky not to figure more in the line-up – 3 assists in one match clearly indicates a footballer of calibre – as he could create chances and knew how to exert influence on the game.
   Yet, Mitchell wouldn’t fit into Parkinson’s squad, and that is why he was given the chop at the end of last season. Under the League Cup miracle man, the team play more flowing, passing football. Gary Jones catalyses City’s offensive efforts. Kyel Reid and Zavon Hines whiz up and down the wing to create chances. Will Atkinson’s link-up play with Jones can perplex defences, and it certainly did cause trouble for Paul Lambert’s side in the Villa home leg. The team is entirely different.
   Football evolves and changes so fast, and is begs the question: is there room for sentiment in football?
   Yes, one could argue. Players will always have their favourite clubs and the magic of representing their boyhood team will never fade. Passion, emotion and spirit drive a team to success – the Bantams team that we’ve got now always admirably give 100% to every game; players like Jones and Ravenhill are a credit to City in terms of work rate. However, players don’t know how long their time in the first team will last, let alone their tenure at the club, and they’ll have to be ready to face the possibility of a move.
   When the transfer window opens and Parkinson makes changes to the team, we’ll all have our personal pick of who to keep and get rid of – just like my room tidy, coincidentally. I’d quite like to retain this whole squad, because we’ve enjoyed so much success this year and we are in possession of a set of players who are capable of beating any side. I expect to win every game, and I’ve never really felt that about City before.
   Bradford City is a magnet for players, especially after the publicity generated through the club’s part in the League Cup final. Phil Parkinson himself is a massive draw, and the huge fan base, the one that was out in such voice at Wembley and which dwarfs the number of supporters of nearly every team in this division, is even more of a pull.
   Thanks to the cup run, we’ve got the money to keep our assets and to recruit that extra talent to strengthen our bid for success next year.
   We’ll have to wait with bated breath to see what Parkinson has planned for the team, but, until then, there’s a promotion battle to fight.

Oh, and if you’re curious about that Andrew Davies football card, here it is: