Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Do You Remember... Luke O'Brien?

Part two of the Do You Remember? series focuses on Luke O’Brien. The left back made over 100 appearances for City, but left for Exeter as starts began to prove rare.


O'Brien playing for Bradford City

   Luke O’Brien is up there on my (admittedly rather short before the 2012/13 season) list of all-time favourite City players. A bold statement to make, maybe, but one that few supporters who saw him play would struggle to justify.

   O’Brien was a product of City’s youth system, having been on the club’s books since the tender age of eight and rising through the ranks to bag himself a professional contract. Equally endearingly, he was a boyhood Bradford fan: a former season ticket holder, O’Brien had grown up with the Bantams, claret and amber the only colours he’d ever known. He was one of us. The passionate fan. We cared about him. He was living his dream as he pulled on the City jersey and took to the Valley Parade turf on a matchday, and there were never any qualms about his effort or motivation.
    No wonder he rapidly became a fans’ favourite.
   2007 marked his first season of senior football, although, initially, it seemed as though a sniff of first team action would be hard to come by for the young O’Brien. Paul Heckingbottom had established himself as the first-choice left back, and he was a good performer, bringing an air of experience to the role that rookie Luke couldn’t offer. As Heckingbottom excelled, O’Brien was confined to the bench, watching on as McCall’s team aimed to assault the promotion spots. Heckingbottom was reliable, and there were few grumbles about his performances. After all, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
   But the system did break. Eventually. Because Heckingbottom got suspended. The left back spot became vacant. The gauntlet fell to Luke O’Brien, and this was his chance. Would the teenager be able to produce?
   His first start came in the form of a 0-3 defeat to Tranmere at Valley Parade. It was a sobering afternoon: City struggled all over the park and were shoddy and uncomfortable, and it soon became a game to forget as the gulf in class – 32 places on the league ladder – quickly showed. O’Brien, however, enjoyed a solid debut, suppressing their speedy winger. He filled in for Heckingbottom again when City took on Brentford, and even cleared a shot off the line to salvage a point from the clash.
   That was it, but the hype was growing. A composed, tidy youngster who also possessed the attacking intent needed to drive forward, with years to develop and blossom into a first team regular. Keep an eye on him, they said. This one’s got potential.
   And potential that McCall recognised when he offered O’Brien a contract.
   In spite of this, it was Heckingbottom who started the first nine games of the 2008/09 campaign, before being dismissed in shame following two bookable offences.  McCall turned to O’Brien, and his protégé produced. From then on, there was only one candidate for the left back slot.
   It was total role reversal: Heckingbottom was the one sidelined and twiddling his thumbs on the bench while O’Brien flourished to become the name on everybody’s lips. Good one-on-one, not bad at set pieces and never wasteful in possession, O’Brien grew and prospered into one of the strongest and most able players in McCall’s squad, his hunger and desire compensating for any lack of experience. It became a common sight to see Luke overlapping with his winger as he charged forward, whipping crosses into the box and hitting curling balls in for the strikers. What a player. What a find. What a success story for the youth team.
   That pristine season was capped off in brilliant style, and O’Brien won four trophies at the club’s awards night. Paul Heckingbottom departed, and that said it all – we had a keeper in O’Brien.
   O’Brien went on to feature in 49 of City’s games the following season, and survived the cull as Peter Taylor implemented his changes. Taylor quickly became a fan, with O’Brien making 46 appearances under him - an achievement made even more remarkable when one considers the number of players fielded during Taylor’s reign: there weren’t many who started as regularly as O’Brien.
   Like David Syers, O’Brien was one of the few entertaining players in the side. Workrate never wavering, passion never faltering, mistakes few and far between. We all liked him. End of story.
   So, O’Brien retains his place in the squad and is involved in the cup run and the play off final victory and eventually succeeds Jones as captain to lead the side through another promotion and picks up accolade after accolade after accolade at the Player of The Year awards over the years and makes over 300 appearances to become a club legend. Right? Not exactly.
   O’Brien featured little under Peter Jackson and Phil Parkinson as a string of other players were favoured. A spot in the starting eleven proved elusive, and the name ‘Luke O’Brien’ rarely graced the teamsheet on a Saturday.
   To me, the final nail in O’Brien’s coffin came against Sheffield United during the J.P.T. It was a penalty shootout. Penalty number twelve. The next taker just needed to score, and that would be it – City would storm through to the next round.
   Luke O’Brien stepped up, and the pressure was on. One penalty, that was all. Just score, and he’s the hero for the night. One kick away from being the man who won the match.
   O’Brien aimed for the right corner and put height on the ball, but his shot missed by inches and ricocheted off the post. Instead, Chris Mitchell became the side’s saviour, and Luke was left wondering what could have been – and what effect that mistake would have on his chances. 
   Soon, Luke O’Brien left for Exeter, but couldn’t save the team from relegation to the bottom tier. A stint at Oxford United followed, and he’ll start the next season with Gateshead. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to be a part of a Bantams promotion, which was a massive shame for himself and the supporters: he would have loved to represent his beloved City at Wembley, and we would have loved him to lift that play off final trophy. But, sentiments aside, we’ve got James Meredith now, and he’s turned out to be a cracking defender. There’s no doubt that he’ll relish the challenge of League One football next month.
   I’d still go as far as to say that, even with the current squad factored in, O’Brien is one of my favourite City players ever, but, having seen Meredith dominate the left hand side and run riot with Reid, and learnt how Parkinson’s style differs from Taylor’s, I understand why we didn’t keep Luke on.
   He may no longer be lining up for his Bradford City, but Luke will be getting games next season. And, as a young footballer with his best years still to come, that’s exactly what he needs.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Do You Remember... David Syers?

 As part of the pre-season coverage, I’ll be looking back at some of the players who represented City during the six seasons in League Two. First up is David Syers, the non-league gem who ran rampant against Leeds United before injuries plagued his second season.

Syers locked in a challenge
   The Peter Taylor era doesn’t hold many happy memories for City fans, and it’s not too difficult to see why. Hoof-ball tactics and a quantity over quality philosophy were employed, and what was the result? Disapproval, outrage and a mediocre side that offered very little to shout about.
   And yet, there was David Syers, a complete contrast to the rest of the squad.
   Plucked from obscurity in the form of a non-league outfit and with Tommy Doherty reportedly commanding a large fee for his services, no one was burdening Syers with too many expectations. He wasn’t the big money signing, the player portrayed as our catalyst for promotion.  He didn’t bring a fanfare with him.
   Which was odd, given what he’d turn out to be.
   Syers was your classic box-to-box midfielder, with a desirable work ethic and the eagerness to make those clever runs as he surged forward. He was endowed with ball keeping ability and a technical flair rarely exhibited so uniquely in the fourth division, and his control and pace made him a fresh alternative to the ugly, long-ball style that so quickly tainted our perception of Taylor. A different attacking outlet to the combination of the winger and the overlapping full back, Syers was one of the only things worth watching in Taylor’s creativity-sapped team.
   He set the benchmark for the other members of the squad to aim for. Only a handful of players – such as Luke O’Brien, Lee Hendrie, Michael Flynn and James Hanson – ever matched the blonde midfielder for effort and/or ability, and so Syers became the shining light. Our beacon of hope amidst the growing gloom and despair of Peter Taylor’s reign. The saving grace of an otherwise forgettable season. The one thing to hang onto and retain as Peter Jackson aimed to wash away the bad memories.
   One could argue that our fondest memory of Syers will always be the Leeds game at Elland Road. The midfielder was at the centre of nearly everything City did, pulling all the strings and acting as a key driving force to nearly prompt Leeds to throw up their hands in surrender. Syers hounded every ball and was constantly snapping at the heels of the Whites. It’s total testament to his involvement in the fixture that Bradford only stumbled when he left the field. Injured.
   Syers had broken and was rampaging forward. But his touch was heavy. Leeds goalkeeper Andrew Lonergan went to collect as Syers chased, with the pair clattering to send the Bantams dynamo tumbling to the ground.
   He was out for around three months.
   Eventually, Syers recovered, and came on as a substitute during the Boxing Day clash with Crewe. By the Shrewsbury game six days later, he was showing signs of returning to his spectacular form of the previous campaign, but (such was City’s luck at the time) a seemingly legitimate challenge was met with a sending off, and a Bradford appeal was unsuccessful. As for the dreaded second season syndrome - Syers never got a chance to see if he’d suffer from it. The darker forces of injury and suspension took care of that.
   For the remainder of the season, Syers’ appearances came largely from the bench, as Ritchie Jones and Ricky Ravenhill forged a strong midfield partnership to secure City’s place in League Two for another season. The set up was not ideal for a player of David’s age or calibre, and Parkinson allowed the midfielder to look elsewhere.
   Syers was offered a contract, and one that Mark Lawn described as ‘good’. But he never signed. Couple some ill-advised remarks on a social networking site with a few misinterpreted comments to the press, and that was it: everything fractured and Syers left for Doncaster Rovers.
   And the questions remain. Were we hasty to let him go? Should we have put in more of an effort to keep him? Could we have developed him into our key midfield engine, like Stuart McCall before him and Gary Jones afterwards? Not then at his peak, Syers could have served us in this role for years to come, perhaps eventually becoming captain and maybe even a legend.
  But you can torment yourself for years about what could have been.
  We’re left to speculate, and perhaps we’d be thinking about Syers more often if Parkinson hadn’t recruited such an impressive midfield unit in Jones, Doyle, Thompson and co.
   Maybe we could have moulded Syers into our little midfield spark, but that’s an issue for another day. Currently, Jason Kennedy seems set to provide us with the same longevity in midfield that retaining Syers would have given us, and that lack of long-term thinking appeared to be the main issue where Syers’ departure was concerned.
   Will we regret releasing him? Only time will be able to tell us that.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Bantams Blogger Chats To... Michael Nelson

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: City defender MICHAEL NELSON on why he’s relishing donning the claret and amber.


   Everyone loves an old-fashioned centre half, and they don’t come much tougher than Michael Nelson. Strong in the tackle, strong in the air and a natural leader, he’s the perfect acquisition for a City squad that embodies the ‘never say die’ attitude, and the idea of McArdle, McHugh, Oliver, Davies and Nelson all vying for those two starting centre back spots next season is almost as exciting a prospect as playing Sheffield United.
   Signed by Parkinson in January, Nelson was brought in not just as emergency cover at a time when an injury-riddled defence was at its knees, but also as part of a longer-term strategy, as indicated by his 18-month contract. He began to frequent the starting eleven more often as the season progressed, most notably against A.F.C. Wimbledon, when he confidently partnered Andrew Davies to stamp out one of the Wombles’ key players. Several weeks later, Nelson was solid again, and fiercely stood up to Calvin Zola to help the Bantams bag three points from the final home game of the season.
   With a consistent start under his belt and the tune of ‘Midland Road, Take Me Home” still ringing in his ears, it’s no wonder the big defender is loving his stint with City.
   “I've really enjoyed my time so far,” he says. “I mean, it’s been hard not to with two trips to Wembley. I was a little frustrated at not playing as many games as I wanted towards the end of the season, but the lads were playing so well that there was nothing I could do about it.”
   Nelson was a key figure as City rushed to make up the distance lying between them and the top seven, and looked one of the more comfortable players during the poor 3-2 home defeat to Burton. Although he wasn’t on the pitch at Wembley, he still joined in with the celebrations and picked up his deserved medal.
   “To get promoted at Wembley was brilliant,” says Nelson. “I've been promoted automatically before [with Hartlepool United and Norwich City], but the day at Wembley was special. It was good that so many fans and all our families could enjoy the day with us.”
   It was the Bantams’ huge potential, on top of other factors, that lured Nelson to Bradford.
   “It just seemed the right time,” he explains. “The club seemed to be going places, not only in the Capital One Cup, but also in the league. I thought there was a great chance to get promoted. The size of the club played a big part with the amount of support we get home and away, and it also made sense for my family, as it meant I would be able to spend more time at home with them.”

“I think the club has a real opportunity to keep moving forward, but we can’t just expect it to happen.”

   A quick scan of his track record reveals that Nelson is no stranger to success. Promotion with Hartlepool. The League One title with Norwich. The Scottish League Cup with Kilmarnock. On an individual level, he climbed from playing non-league football to sweeping up every gong going at Bury’s awards night in 2003, which is a remarkable feat. An enviable football history, and one that Nelson is looking forward to building on with City.
   “I'm really excited about next season,” he says. “I think we have a real opportunity to do well and move forward as a club, but we can't just expect it to happen. It is going to be harder than last season, so we all need to pull together and work hard.
   “I'm not going to make any predictions - it's just the old cliché of one game at a time – but hopefully I will be doing an interview with you this time next year, talking about similar success.”