By Katie Whyatt
In a transfer window moulded by the infamous budget cut, retaining the services of Stephen Darby was high on Phil Parkinson’s priority list.
On the back of a campaign in which the defender had played every single one of Bradford City’s games, the elevation to club captain was the reward Darby’s stellar season had merited. For every City fan, this was the news they had been waiting for – the promise of three more years felt like a dream, the captaincy the fitting icing on the hugely satisfying cake. In your mind’s eye, you almost saw Gary Jones look on with a smirk of pride, handing the armband over to his Scouse counterpart: “Go on, Darbs. Polish your crown further.”
For Darby, this marks some sort of watershed moment in his City career. For the first time since his arrival, his role in the team is truly changing. Despite two years of consistent excellence, culminating in him sweeping the board at this year’s awards night, the full back has preferred to remain hidden beneath the radar. Now, however, his quiet composure is about to be superseded by a slightly larger sense of responsibility.
Previous squads were almost shaped by the fickle allegiance of the captain’s armband, characterised by the lack of a real leader and true continuity. For two or three seasons, it seemed the honour belonged to no one; instead, it was banded around with a blasé uncertainty, passed about with a last-minute ‘if the hat fits’ mentality. For most of Peter Taylor’s tenure, the absence of a strikingly genuine leader meant there was a feeling the captain had to do little but turn up.
Then, Gary Jones redefined City’s previously undervalued captain’s role. A leader in every sense of the word, Jones physically raised the performances of those around him, demanding an extra 10% from everyone as he wrestled to push his team over the line – and beyond. In a squad all about character and a winning mentality, Gary Jones personified those traits more than anyone.
Every manager has an avatar on the pitch, and Gary Jones was Phil Parkinson’s younger embodiment, playing with the same impassioned determination and guile the City chief showed as both a player and manager. Jones’ trial last week at Notts County (one of Darby’s former clubs, incidentally), during which the ex-City skipper enthralled with a goal and an assist, only served to reinforce the adoration many felt towards him. One of the best captains of recent history, if not the best, Gary Jones is truly a tough, tough act to follow. Succeeding him will be a challenge, but undoubtedly one Darby will relish.
So, what do City need from captain Darby? As the club prepare to enter the new season, the back line is the only element of the squad not shrouded in mystery and uncertainty: already one of the most commendable defences in the league, the arrival of Sheehan has served to bolster the most impressive section of Parkinson’s side. Unlike the new midfield, alive with competition and still gelling as the diamond is perfected, and the question marks hanging over the injury-plagued forward line, we just about know what to expect from this defence.
The back four is pretty much the only area of continuity between last season and this, packed with not only the majority of the experienced heads, but those familiar with Valley Parade life. Over the next few weeks, the likes of Darby, McArdle and Davies – the newly appointed captain particularly – will shoulder some of the responsibility for ensuring a smooth transition into the new-look Bradford City, sedating some of the unfamiliarity around them.
For a team defined so strikingly by its character, the onus falls on the experienced heads to inspire those around them from the outset, both by their performances on the pitch and the way they conduct themselves off it. It is here we will see Darby truly come into his own as a leader.
For sure, Darby’s quiet demeanour and no-frills style demands a slightly contrasting approach to the all-action, commando verve of Jones, but they both share at least one thing: a drive for nothing but the very best. Like his predecessor, Stephen Darby is representative of the mentality Parkinson has implemented so forcibly – perhaps not in the manic, commanding way Jones was, but silently, constantly, with the defender staunchly refusing to fall below a 6 or 7/10 every week. Never demanding the spotlight, but demanding the best of himself, subtly, every single game. The conversation may focus on how different the relatively young Darby is from Jones, but they the same where it really matters.
The difference is Jones pulled the team to results – sometimes with both parties kicking and screaming – by setting the tone in the middle of the park, and through his movements; Darby is more likely to push steadily, leading by example. Jones would dictate the play, moving the ball with Doyle and determining the way others read the game. As a defender, Darby can’t necessarily match Jones’ hands-on ethic, but that doesn’t mean responsibility can be shirked.
At the end of the 2012/13 season, as Phil Parkinson reflected on his marathon year, he noted the importance one of the campaign’s opening games, Fleetwood at home, in cementing the team’s trademark stoicism and resilience. James Meredith had delivered a crunching tackle to stall an attack, and the Valley Parade faithful had immediately erupted with cheers of admiration and gratitude. At that moment, the tides shifted. His players realised their crowd would get behind anyone who really gave their all, and that this support would not waver as long as they worked for each other. It was then the new recruits grasped what the club was all about. In that moment, every single one decided they had to give everything to the cause.
Darby has to set the tone in the same way. The band on his arm means he is now a constant point of reference, of inspiration. He has become a new role model, tasked with spurring on those around him by serving a captivating performance every single week. Like on that distant summer night in August, he must make his charges want to perform for him. His method will be by establishing an example, a precedent, always raising the bar. The team will have to mimic Darby’s tone-setting performances, and will have do so with the same consistency that earned him those awards last year. Darby may be less loud and overt in his leadership style, but his influence will be the same.
And it has to be. It really does. What Gary Jones’ workmanlike approach proved was that, contrary to whatever City’s chequered recent roll of captains suggested, the importance of the captain can never be underestimated. Think of the times Jones single-handedly hauled Bradford to points they had not necessarily deserved – simply Gary Jones, we’d said at the time; another day at the office for him. On days like those, his presence and influence were vital. Gary Jones was most striking when City needed a man to drag them over the line.
Will Stephen Darby be that guy? Or, more accurately, in what Parkinson bills a “team full of captains”, does Darby need to be that guy? It may come down to what we’ve just explored – that is, players performing simply because they want to do their captain justice – but it’s not too difficult to imagine a scenario at some point this season when a Gary Jones rallying call is urgently needed. Darby’s real test will come not in his performances – they are never an issue – but when the team are rolling through a rough patch, and someone needs to trigger a change, to spark a bang, to command his side the way Jones did.
Whether this is done through quiet composure and tenacity, the kind he is famed and revered for, or via a more direct and demanding route, remains to be seen, but it could potentially characterise a large portion of his season.
But Darby can be the one to give that rallying call, in whatever form it manifests itself. Having previously captained a Liverpool FA Youth Cup winning side, as well as the Reds’ reserve team, this is by no means completely uncharted water for him. Time playing under Steven Gerrard, one of the most prominent Premier League captains of the past decade, plus his personal closeness to Gary Jones, can only work in his favour.
2014/15 will be Stephen Darby’s most important year as a Bradford City player. As well as the new duties that come with that coveted armband, his function changes slightly because of the diamond formation. The lack of real width means the full backs now have to get forward more, potentially acting as wingbacks – note the arrival of Sheehan, and his attacking vigour against both Blackburn and Hartlepool. What’s more, the centrality of the midfield means there’s a new vulnerability about the flanks, too – there is even more defensive responsibility on the shoulders of the full back pairing. It’s not something either Darby or Sheehan should have a problem with, but it will nonetheless be interesting to observe those change in roles.
This year marks the start of a three-year deal that should, all going well, see Stephen Darby step out for another promotion-winning Bantams side. Entering the peak of his career, Darby now has a chance to solidify his position on the pantheon of City greats – a platform he is already well within touching distance of, if not on, for obvious reasons. Comparisons to Gary Jones will be inevitable, as this entire article can attest, but Darby is widely loved by his public – a public that desperately want to see him do well.
A new chapter is beginning. Books one and two are now finished, the curtain falling on the first series of Darby’s time as a Bantam. But on Saturday, the story re-starts, and the focus shifts to a new trilogy: a Bradford City revolution, and one that will be spearheaded by Stephen Darby. Because he can, and will, succeed.