By Mahesh Johal
Kop, Top Tier, Block J, Row K, Seat 48.
Gary Jones raised his hand and swung in the corner. My attention was on Bradford’s main aerial threat James Hanson. Rising above his marker, Hanson won the ball and headed it across the face of the goal. Nahki Wells was first to react to the live ball and ushered it back to Gary Jones. One touch out of his feet, Jones swung another delivery into the box. It was at this point that things slowed down and the stadium went quiet. In the corner of my eye I had seen Rory McArdle hop and peel off two Villa defenders. Unmarked, McArdle met the ball and powered it pass a waving Shay Given.
My cousins and I talk of that moment when you watch a goal but don’t actually see the ball cross the line. It is the ruffle of the net and the reaction of the crowd which gives you the confirmation that a goal has been scored.
Rory McArdle’s header against Aston Villa was one of those moments for me. I saw the net bulge and McArdle celebrate towards the Main Stand. Everything speeded up. The volume of the Kop raised the roof and my cousins bear hug was all the confirmation I needed to know that we had just gone 2-0 up in a League Cup Semi Final.
Regardless of what happens in the rest Rory McArdle’s tenure at Bradford City, he will always be remembered as the man that doubled our lead against Aston Villa. Every one of the 18,000+ City fans at Valley Parade that night will have slight variation of events, but the end result is the same. Rory McArdle made it 2-0 to the Bantams.
Signed from Aberdeen in the summer, Phil Parkinson described him as ‘versatile player’. In all honesty I was unsure where he would fit in the team. With on-going contract negotiations with Luke Oliver and Simon Ramsden, it was unknown if he was replacing or playing second fiddle to these two players. The one encouraging aspect from the signing was the positive experiences he was going to bring to the squad.
A Northern Ireland International, McArdle came to Bradford with a successful history in League Two. A former play off finalist and Wembley scorer, he was a part of the Rochdale squad that achieved automatic promotion in 2010. They say success breeds success. After six seasons in the bottom division his signature, together with Andrew Davies, was a statement of intent that City wanted out of League Two. However I could not get too excited. City fans have been burnt from previous high profile defensive signings. Graham Lee and Shane Duff are just two to come to mind. Writing this today, I am thankful that Rory has fared much better.
McArdle played the early-season league games at right back. He was solid, more a natural centre half than a marauding full back. James Meredith’s eye catching displays at left back may have overshadowed the Irishman’s early performances. Together with Davies and Oliver, City’s defence was a tight and a tough unit to break down. Comfortably in the play off zone, disaster struck as City crumbled with injuries in a nightmare game at Burton. Both Davies and Oliver fell to long term injuries, with the latter side lined for year.
They say in adversity lies opportunity. Rory McArdle certainly took his. With 5,000 City fans behind him, McArdle moved to his preferred centre back position and produced one of the finest individual performances this season, at Wigan. Together with youngster Carl McHugh, the Bradford defence withheld 120 minutes of Premier League attack.
We may look back at that result as one of the major turning points in the season. Rory won every header and every tackle. Much has been said about the experience that Davies brings to this team. On that night at the DW Stadium, without Davies, McArdle stood up and led the back four. He even had the opportunity to win it in the last minute of extra time. Matt Duke will get the plaudits, but in my opinion McArdle was MOTM and the reason City won that game.
Since that night neither McArdle nor McHugh have looked back. McHugh’s performances are beyond his years. Again, this will catch the fans’ eyes and he deserves the praise he receives. However, much credit must also be given to Rory for the way he has helped nurture his younger partner. Without McArdle by his side, I doubt we would be talking about McHugh with the same esteem. The two seem at ease with other, and this has been highlighted by some of the excellent performances together.
Described as the ‘busiest man in football’, McArdle has been ever present in Citys team. With 37 appearances to his name, he has gone about his business quietly and efficiently. He won’t be talked about in the same light as Nahki Wells or Kyel Reid, but Rory’s appearance record shows how important he is to the side. It is a credit to his fitness and professionalism that he has been able to play this many games already this season.
The signing of Michael Nelson will hopefully ease his work load. With 19 league games to go, it is imperative that City have a full and healthy squad to maintain our promotion push. If we are to celebrate promotion, we need to keep McArdle fit and at the heart of the City defence. Every City fan will have their own highlight of the season thus far. Whatever happens at the end of April, McArdle’s goal will be a favourite of mine.