By Jason McKeown
Some people just can’t take a hint. Four months after effectively being told his Bradford City career was over – either by accident or design – goalkeeper Matt Duke’s position at the club looks more secure than ever. From unwanted back up to first choice stopper, and goalkeeping coach to boot, Duke’s topsy-turvy first 12 months at Valley Parade have reached a new peak.
And who’d have thought that, when Duke’s name was included amongst a handful of contracted players informed they could find another club last May? Or six weeks before that, when Duke was so far out of the picture he was playing on loan at relegation rivals Northampton Town? His name seemed destined to join the likes of Russell Haworth, Mark Paston and Robert Zibica as quickly-forgotten, unloved City stoppers. However, after helping the club when it was in a hole last April, Duke earned the right to a second chance at Valley Parade. So far, the signs are promising.
Perhaps Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing to Rotherham offered a timely reminder that Duke – along with his team mates – still has some work to do in order to fully convince. As the ball kept flying into the back of his net, you couldn’t help but question whether the 35-year-old might have done better on a couple of occasions. Looking back at TV pictures of Rotherham’s goals, I’d argue that he was only slightly culpable on the fourth. Nevertheless Duke probably stands accused of being the only City goalkeeper – at least in my time supporting the Bantams – who we look to blame when a 30-yard worldly goes flying into the top corner.
And the reasons for that lie in his less-than-impressive start to life at City exactly a year ago, after Phil Parkinson had signed him within days of being appointed manager. With previous manager Peter Jackson robbed of Jon McLaughlin due to a pre-season bout of food poisoning, loanees Martin Hansen and Oscar Jansson were entrusted with goalkeeping responsibilities. You could understand why Parkinson immediately decided he needed his own man for this specialist position, and brought in a goalkeeper he had previously worked with, Duke, who had recent Premier League experience.
Yet Duke’s less than inspiring home debut against Bristol Rovers was immediately followed by a difficult Tuesday evening at Port Vale, where he made a howler for Vale’s second goal in a 3-2 home win. Two weeks later Wimbledon defeated the Bantams at Valley Parade, with the winning goal a decently-hit-but-hardly-unsaveable long range effort. It became a regular pattern throughout October: opposition players taking pot shots from distance and – all too often – finding the net.
Indeed in the middle of the month and – having being kindly handed some opposition scout reports, with strict instructions not to show them to another soul, by then-Chief Scout Archie Christie – I pondered what opposition scouts would be reporting back about Parkinson’s fledgling Bantams side. I asked Christie “will opposition players be deliberately targeting Duke from distance on purpose?” “Totally, absolutely” was his reply.
From day one Duke struggled to build any confidence amongst City fans. His final act was to concede a soft winning goal at home to Cheltenham in November. He didn’t look match fit (and how often do you question a keeper’s fitness?), as a shot stopper he looked hesitant, as a number one he was severely lacking. A fit-again McLaughlin was recalled, became a penalty shootout hero in his first match and didn’t look back.
Until the events of March 27 that is, where – in hindsight – McLaughlin was to become the biggest loser from Crawley brawlgate. Previously viewed as mild-mannered, the way McLaughlin waded into the post-match fight with a series of punches stunned everyone. Great to see him sticking up for his team mates, but the red card he collected in the dressing room, alongside Andrew Davies and Luke Oliver, looked set to tip City relegation-avoiding balancing act the wrong way.
That night, Duke was presumably stopping in a hotel nearby Northampton, after rediscovering his form while on loan at Sixfields and earning positive reviews. The following morning a call was made to Northampton and Duke was back at City. Conceding a goal three minutes into his comeback match at Plymouth was hardly the greatest of starts, but Duke impressed over the 90 minutes and – along with another discarded first teamer, Guy Branston – would go on to help steer the Bantams away from trouble. Duke’s form at this time was good if not outstanding. He didn’t look great at dealing with crosses; but no one was scoring worldlys past him, and the few goals he did concede hardly required an in-depth enquiry. Nevertheless McLaughlin was recalled for the season’s final game, and a few days later Duke got the news he should be looking to move on.
What happened next is unclear. But as pre-season friendlies brought the players back into the spotlight, Duke was still a prominent figure and ended up having more game time than his younger rival. With goalkeeper coach Kevin Pressman moving to Millwall over the summer, Duke was even asked to take on coaching responsibilities. Parkinson spoke of how he considered both Duke and McLaughlin to be equal ability-wise, and when the season kicked off at Meadow Lane in the cup it was Duke on the field and McLaughlin on the bench.
Duke’s early season form has been impressive. He is commanding his area again, and has made a series of excellent saves as the new-look defence in front has curiously given him a little too much to do. McLaughlin’s run-out at Watford in the cup last week suggests Duke is not runaway first choice yet, but even if he didn’t have the greatest of afternoons at the New York stadium on Saturday (not that any of his team mates did either), it would be harsh to drop him now.
Twice it seemed as though Duke’s future lied away from Valley Parade, twice he has turned it around. There may still be plenty of sceptics in the crowd but, if Duke can build on his solid start to the season and continue to impress, there is every reason to believe he can nail down a number one shirt that – since Rhys Evans four years ago – no one has quite been able to keep hold of.