Our close season Width of a Post ‘Midweek Player Focus – Close Season Special’ series has arrived back in 2004/05, as Jason McKeown reflects on the local hero who came of age.
On a corner, by a road junction, next to the train station in Shipley, there is an estate agents named Hamilton Bower. Its website carries the tagline “local people selling local houses”, and the photo of the two partners features one local person very familiar to Bradford City supporters.
It is Mark Bower, still only 32-years-old, who made 325 Football League appearances for four different Football League clubs. Who, for a period, was captain of his hometown team, Bradford City. Who was a key figure as the club struggled to emerge from the dark days of double administration. Who in 2004/05 was crowned the Bantams’ Player of the Season after an ever present campaign featuring some outstanding performances. Just 32. By rights, he should have another five years professional football in him and be playing for as long as his mentor, David Wetherall. Just 32, and he’s selling houses.
Of course Bower is not yet finished as a footballer – you’ll find him at Nethermoor every other Saturday, doing the business for Guiseley, two divisions below City. And if he really wanted to, I’m sure Mark could still be a full time professional. Running an estate agency business could only work by opting to play part time. But still, 32. There was surely plenty of time for all that.
“Local people selling local houses”. Previously, Bower was a local hero to a community. Bower’s City career had in truth not started too positively; his debut for the club coming as long ago as April 1998 at Carrow Road. As Bradford City challenged for and achieved a place in the Premier League, a teenage central defender was never going to get into the side and spent much of the two years that his club was amongst the elite playing on loan for York City in the basement league. Had City established themselves in the Premier League, Bower would have no doubt been released in time, rarely thought of ever again.
But as City slumped and financial woes began to take hold, there was suddenly a place for Bower after all. He emerged as a regular fixture at the back end of the 2001/02 season, and made 39 appearances the year after – the first post-administration campaign. A daft season (2003/04, relegation to League One), where managers Nicky Law and Bryan Robson somehow considered Jason Gavin a more favourable option to Bower, aside, he had made it at last.
Which brings us to his personal crowning of glory, 2004/05. Administration Two had arrived the February before, threatening to close the club forever once more. City eventually survived some extremely close calls, but the state of the club which crawled up to the starting line for this season was not great. We needed some inspirational players to carry us and stem the decline – the quartet of Paul Henderson, David Wetherall, Dean Windass and Bower in particular provided that.
Gavin was still around, but newly installed manager Colin Todd was not for making the same foolish mistakes as his predecessors when choosing his two central defenders. Bower in the past had stood in for Wetherall when the City skipper was injured, but now the two would become the backbone of the club and enjoy an outstanding season.
A quick word here, first of all, about Windass. In 2004/05, City’s 4th highest goalscorer of all time netted a career-best 28 goals for the club. He was sensational that season, scoring some truly remarkable goals while we fans hero worshipped him. Come the Player of the Season awards dinner for this season, you can imagine Windass turned up with a thank you speech folded up inside his pocket. He seemed such a shoe-in to win the award.
Instead it went to Bower, and although he was a strong candidate and deserving of recognition, for Windass to be overlooked seems curious when you reflect back. Perhaps it says a great deal about what we City supporters value most of all – a good defender. Indeed, looking back at the player of the season award winners for the past 15 years, it is remarkable that 7 were defenders (3 strikers, 4 midfielders and 1 goalkeeper make up the rest).
Bower, 24 at the time, had come of age. He played in every single match that season, netting a couple of goals (including during City’s first win of the season against Doncaster). The City side of that year, for once, confounded expectations and missed out on the play offs by only six points – we expected to be relegated again. Under Todd, who as a player was one of the finest defenders of his generation, City were organised and tough to beat. Bower was a big reason for that.
Over the next two seasons, that form continued and we feared that – so impressive were Bower’s performances – he would be leaving upwards. During one summer there were strong rumours of Burnley being interested in him. We hoped we’d keep Bower, and the four year contract he signed at the end of 2004/05 suggested the local boy could be a mainstay for years to come.
It began to go wrong for Bower – and City – in February 2007. A third season tredding water in League One was no longer in keeping with raised expectations, and Todd was replaced by Wetherall until the end of the season. Needing to concentrate on managerial matters, Wetherall withdrew himself from the starting eleven and Bower was entrusted with extra responsibility and made captain. It did not work out for player or club as hoped, and City sunk into League Two.
At this point, Bower no longer looked the assured presence of old. The greater physicality of League Two forwards was something he could not cope with and, under new manager Stuart McCall, Bower lost his place to Matt Clarke. The next 18 months heralded a never-ending debate over which of the two should be picked in defence – but for however ungainly Clarke often looked, he could not be bullied like Bower was. It was also rumoured that McCall – captain of the club when Bower was that teenage defender back in the late 90s – had long been unimpressed with his attitude. The writing was on the wall.
Bower was loaned to Luton in 2008/09, released that summer at the end of his four year contract and rocked up at basket case outfit Darlington, who headed out of the Football League. Perhaps after such a difficult few years football wise, Bower decided he’d had enough and it was time to pursue other interests. At a time when we might have expected him to be able to find another League Two or at least a Conference club, Bower opted to go part time at FC Halifax and move into property.
He still retains an obvious affection – and links – with the club. Bower was part of the supporters’ match at the end of last season, and will line up against the real Bantams when Guiseley host a pre-season friendly in August. It will be great to watch him in action again. Recalling the local person who made a significant contribution for his club during its hour of need; and whom seemed set to achieve much more in the game than he ultimately has.
I’d buy a house from him.