By Jason McKeown
Matt Duke’s time at Bradford City has followed a narrative increasingly familiar with many of Phil Parkinson’s signings. After a less than auspicious start, negative judgements are made that seem certain to be cast in stone, only for the player to finally find their feet and form to change minds and win supporters over. For Matt Duke read Will Atkinson and Garry Thompson. Write off Andy Gray and Michael Nelson at your peril.
Indeed the revitalisation of Duke is all the more remarkable for the incredible highs he belatedly experienced playing for the Bantams; and the memories that he leaves us with, having agreed a deal to sign for Northampton Town. Man of the match performances in the League Cup home games against Arsenal and Aston Villa – not to mention his penalty shootout heroics at Wigan – mean that Duke has earned his place in Bradford City folklore.
Duke was in the League Cup Final starting XI, with the Swansea showdown occurring almost a year to the day since Parkinson had loaned him out to the Cobblers, his City career seemingly over. No one then could have foreseen his second coming. His name looked set to only ever be recalled during debates about City’s worst goalkeepers.
Signed days after Parkinson was installed manager at Valley Parade in September 2011, it looked a coup for the Bantams that someone who just over a year earlier had kept a clean sheet against Liverpool in the Premier League was now between our sticks. Outgoing manager Peter Jackson had elected to rely on loanees to keep goal, and though Oscar Jansson was doing an impressive job, the opportunity to bring in a proven goalkeeper on a two-year deal looked a better long-term bet.
Alas, Duke’s start to City life was like Parkinson’s – painfully slow. Released by Hull that summer and having had an unsuccessful trial at Sheffield United, Duke’s lack of match sharpness was evident and a number of soft goals flew into City’s net. In particular there was a worrying trend of long range shots – often not particularly well-struck ones – finding their way past Duke. Not a great situation, as City remained mired in the lower echelons of the division.
When in early November Cheltenham Town’s Kaid Mohamed struck a weak shot that squirmed underneath Duke and over the line, just eight minutes into the match, the public opinion of Duke turned nasty. City lost 1-0, Duke was dropped. Replacement Jon McLaughlin found good form, as did team-mates – some daylight between City and the bottom two was finally established.
Cue Duke’s on-loan departure to Northampton and that was surely the end. It mattered little that Duke was receiving positive reviews at Sixfields – Jonny Mac was doing the business and that was all that mattered.
The Crawley game, at the end of March, changed that and – for a time – it seemed McLaughlin was the biggest victim of the three City players who threw punches at full time and received red cards. Parkinson had to recall Duke for the suspended McLaughlin, and in City’s hour of need they found him to be a much more reliable and confident keeper than before. Duke helped seal another year in League Two.
The competition between the two keepers was fierce throughout 2012/13, with Parkinson unable to decide on his first-choice. Both have had spells in the side which only ended when they made a mistake, prompting a switch over. Duke seemed to be slightly more favoured: after McLaughlin made a late error in an October loss to Burton, he wouldn’t play another league game until late February.
And that only came about because Duke was suspended. His dream of playing in the League Cup Final – which, as was covered extensively, came almost exactly five years since he underwent an operation to remove a testicular tumour – ended on a sour note with a red card for tripping Jonathan de Guzman in the box. By the letter of the law the right decision; but with City 3-0 down and hopelessly out of their depth, it was an extremely cruel one.
Duke earned another run in the side in March, but a poor display at Exeter – the Bantams losing 4-1 to seemingly end play off hopes – saw him dropped again. McLaughlin returned, City went on to pick up 17 points from a possible 24 and make the play offs. For Duke, there was no going back. An appearance in the final regular game of the season at Cheltenham did at least see Duke sign off with a clean sheet.
For his cup heroics against the big boys, evidently great attitude and the popular chant of “DUUUUKKKEEEEE”, the big man has earned a place in our hearts and will prompt an involuntary smile whenever we recall his name. That Duke was far from the club’s greatest goalkeeper is secondary to the fact that he was there for some of our greatest ever moments.
Duke proved a lot of people wrong and, for what he achieved, deserves to go down as a cult hero. Any future City player who struggles at first could do a lot worse than use him as their inspiration.