By Katie Whyatt
It’s a wonder Rory McArdle doesn’t pinch himself every time he reflects on his three years at Bradford City. Even today, when we meet at the Bantams’ final press conference before the season’s opener against Swindon Town, there’s a sense of disbelief as we talk of all he’s helped deliver in a City shirt.
There was that header, against Aston Villa, when the ball soared beyond Given; Rory’s celebrations as he wheeled away, arms outstretched, tongue lolloping from side to side, hurtling towards infinity as he skidded to a halt in front of the Kop. There was, of course, that time he came in like a wrecking ball with the stupefying seismic toss against Sheffield United that turned him into a viral sensation; a cup final, a promotion, then victories over Chelsea and Sunderland for good measure.
It’s clear City fans aren’t short of magical Rory moments, and few players can claim to have played as key a part in the rise and rise of the Bantams than McArdle. Ahead of the big kick-off tomorrow, I met up with the defender to talk about his time in the claret and amber.
How are the team feeling ahead of the new season?
I think everyone’s in full confidence. If you look at the players that have come in, everyone’s played at a really good level. Last season, we were a little bit disappointed not to finish in the play-offs – so if we can push on and reach the play offs, or even the top two, I think it will be a nice positive season.
With over 18,000 season tickets sold, how much are you looking forwards to sampling the new atmosphere?
It’s going to be great. I know I’ve been quite fortunate, especially in the cup runs, that we’ve managed to have a few sell-out crowds, and the atmosphere is absolutely incredible. You only have to look at the Sunderland game last year at home when the crowd got right behind us – everyone can see the sort of performances that it creates, so to have the 18,000 season ticket holders is quite incredible, I think. On the day, you might get a few more punters coming down, and the more the merrier. As long as we give them something to shout about on the pitch, everybody will go home happy.
There’s been a bit of disruption to the back four this season, with Davies leaving and Nathan Clarke coming in. How are you gelling as a four now?
Yeah, it’s been fine. I think that’s football, but everyone knows how well Dava did in his time here. But he’s moved on, as football clubs and players do, so Clarkey’s come in and he’s settled in great. He’s a good lad, and I think it helps, especially for the back four, that everyone gets on off the pitch as well. We’ve made it quite important that we make Clarkey feel welcome.
You’ve got two years left on your contract – what are your aims for yourself and the club during this time?
Just to keep progressing. I think every year I’ve been here, the club’s taken a step forwards, so, if we can maintain that in any way, that will be an achievement. The ultimate aim is to get into the Championship – if that’s in the next two years, so be it. Hopefully, it will be, and I think when you look at the players that the gaffer has managed to recruit, especially over the time I have been here, the quality’s really high. As you said about the season tickets, teams coming to our ground are going to find it tough and we know if we start playing well, hopefully we can get into that Championship.
We’re going to go back to the FA Cup run now. How do you prepare for games like Chelsea? Is there a difference in the mood and the preparation, as opposed to a normal league game?
I’d probably say no, but then you could almost say the Chelsea game was a little bit more relaxed because at the end of the day, there was no pressure on us to go there and win. If we’re at home in a league game, we’re kind of expected to win. Maybe a few guys might have been a bit more relaxed – if you can’t enjoy playing away at Chelsea, then I don’t think you can enjoy anything – so there was that side of it, but, preparation-wise, everything was still the same. Nothing was different just because it was Chelsea. It was the same sort of food, same sort of training, same sort of meetings. Nothing changed majorly and I think that was probably one of the keys to our success. Regardless of who it is or where we’re going, everyone knows what the plan is and how to approach the game.
What were you thinking when they got their second goal and you were 2-0 down, away, at Stamford Bridge?
(Sighs) “Here we go again!” to be honest! I think, at 2-0, with how they were playing – it was quite open, we’d not seen much of the ball – you kind of got the sense from their fans that they thought the game was over and that it was going to be a cricket score. But we always knew that if we got another goal, there is always something to play for and Steady got his goal bang on half time, which couldn’t have come at a better time. The gaffer got us in and just told everyone to relax a little bit, calm down and realise that the next goal was going to be massive. Even though it was against Chelsea, it was still the same team talk as a league game. As it was, he was proved right and I think it showed how relaxed the lads were in how we went out and just played our normal game. Going 2-0 down, a lot of other teams might have crumbled and had a fair few more put past them.
So when Morais makes it 2-2… What’s in your head at this point?
[Laughs] “Let’s hang on for a replay!” Yeah, it was. Fil scored, 2-2, you’re thinking, right, we’re in it, let’s just see this out. At worst, hopefully we can get a replay. Then it was probably still the same at 3-2. When that went in and Hazard and Willian and Fabregas came on, you’re thinking, at the end of the day, these can cut you open and before you know it, they’re back in the game. At 3-2, you kind of knew that if they got one, you still had the chance of a replay as well, and then the fourth one goes in and you can see everyone’s reaction. I think that’s just when it started to sink in a little bit.
What was it like in the dressing room? I’ve heard Mourinho came in and shook every player’s hand…
He did. It was strange, really – like, everybody was obviously going slightly mental, and Mourinho came in, and it was almost like the headteacher had walked in at school and everybody just stopped what they were doing. The respect that the lads had for him and the aura that he had amongst everyone – I’ve never seen anything like it. He went around, shook everyone’s hand and complimented everyone on how good the performance was – fair play to him for doing that. Upon him leaving, the celebrations just quietly resumed.
Has it sunk in yet, just what you achieved that day?
I don’t think so. On that day, Middlesbrough beat Man City at the Etihad and nothing was really spoken about that, so I think that puts into perspective how big it was. I’ve had a few friends text me and a few of my older friends who’ve said that’s probably one of the biggest FA Cup upsets of all time. From that point of view, it doesn’t really feel like that. I think maybe until we see the FA Cup this year and they start re-living it and we see it all again – and Chelsea might go on to win it this year – we can say, “Yeah – actually, it was us who put them out.” It might start sinking in in a few years’ time.
How did you prepare for the Sunderland game? Was there a different mood? Did you feel more confident having beaten Chelsea or was there more pressure on you?
I think maybe a little bit more pressure. We’d beaten Chelsea and a few people might have been expecting us to turn Sunderland over. The gulf was still huge – they were a Premiership club – but being at home, when the pitch at the time wasn’t great and knowing that the fans were going to turn out in force: from our point of view, everything was in our favour. We played a fast start and we got stuck in, and they felt the force of it. They were struggling a little bit at the time in the Premiership and the game plan worked perfectly. We had a good start, we got our noses in front and throughout the 90 minutes, I thought we were the well-deserved winners.
How surreal was it that night, and after the Chelsea game, to go home and watch yourself on Match of the Day – did you watch it?
No, I didn’t watch it! I was out after the Chelsea game celebrating and then the Sunderland game… That was the whole famous ‘Rory McRory’ thing. I was out having a meal and all of a sudden, I started getting a few texts off my mates, saying, “Alright, McRory?” I was thinking, what’s going on here? I watched it when I got home and I still get a little bit of stick for it now, but it is what it is, and it was quite funny at the time. But for Bradford to be dominating the headlines in the FA Cup on Match of the Day… It’s something that we’re all really proud of.
And on a similar note… Your wrestling move against Sheffield United – what was all that about?!
I don’t know, to be honest! At the time, it didn’t really feel like he’d been flung; I just thought I’d kind of moved him out the way. But it had to be on Sky, didn’t it, that game, and it was all over the Internet. That night as well, I was getting texts off a few of my mates saying, “What were you doing?” It’s split loyalties in my group of friends: a few Sheffield Wednesday fans and a few Sheffield United fans. Some were quite happy and a few weren’t too happy.
It made good Internet, though.
[Laughs] Yeah, it did!
What were your thoughts and feelings going into the Reading replay, having drawn at home?
Yeah, I think we were disappointed. To get a replay wasn’t the end of the world but we probably felt during the 90 minutes we were worthy of winning that game. We knew going down to Reading was always going to be a tough game, with us having to play Saturday-Monday as well when they rested the majority of their team. With the squad that we’ve got, we know that the league is our main aim. We had to play a strong team on the Saturday, and then to travel down on the Sunday to play again on the Monday was a big ask and we never really got going. The early goals kind of took the sting out the game and I don’t think we quite recovered from that. Although everyone was disappointed after the game, I think it was important that we didn’t forget how well we’d done and that we finished off the league in a good position, and I think we did.
How hard is it to pick yourself up from things like after Swansea, and after Reading, when you’ve been on this big cup adventure and then it all ends like that?
To lose any game is always difficult, and to go from a high extreme to a low extreme – winning at Stamford Bridge to getting beaten, in a replay, at Reading – it is hard to take, but it has to come to an end at some point. It’s all part and parcel of the cups – that’s why everybody loves them. The Swansea game was disappointing, to have gotten so far to not really turning up on the day, but if you look at the whole picture from that season, going to Wembley probably settled everyone down for the play off final. At the end of the day, it was all about getting promoted. To finish it off with promotion made it even better…
Speaking of that first cup run, you scored against Aston Villa – what was going through your mind when you saw Gary Jones swing in that second cross?
Erm… I just… I don’t know. I’ve played with Gaz for quite a while and his delivery’s always spot on. I just thought, I’ll have a little gamble here, and it paid off. He couldn’t have put it on a better plate for me. The delivery was there and all the pace was on it – I just had to guide it in. The atmosphere when it went in was incredible and the Kop absolutely erupted – to score it in front of there was something I’ll never forget.
What did it feel like to score against Villa?
Oh! Do you know what? It’s probably a bit of a blank now. You just run off and celebrate and to be 2-0 up in that tie, all the lads going absolutely ballistic like that… It’s hard to take in.
What about to go to Villa Park? They’d set it up to try and create that big-game atmosphere – they had the flags going, and then we had a bit of a nervy first half. What happened at half-time, to change how you approached the second half?
I think it was quite similar to the Chelsea game. We knew that we were still in the game and we felt that if we got a set-piece or hit one on the counter attack, we could always nick a goal, and that’s exactly what happened, second half. Aston Villa probably didn’t want half-time; it took the sting out of the game, let us re-group and big Hans popped up with another header, as he always does, and on the night, it just gave us that bit of a cushion. I think the lads built on that and the confidence spread throughout the team. To see the game out in front of a full house and all the fans travelling, knowing we’d got ourselves in a League Cup final was special.
It must have been the longest last ten minutes of your life, though!
Yeah, it was! Especially when they scored one towards the end, as well! It was kind of filtering out a little bit, then they popped up and you thought, surely, we can’t let this go. We hung on and I think we had a counter attack in the second half when Thommo hit the bar, which could have put it to bed even more. We had our chances, and fortunately we managed to hold on.
What’s your initial reaction when you get the team sheets before games and you see names like Wilshere, Ramires and others?
It is a bit surreal. You’re used to just seeing them on Match of the Day or dominating the newspapers. Players like Wilshere are leading the line for England, as well. It is a bit strange, especially when the gaffer starts doing the team talk and he’s mentioning those kind of names, and you get pulled and he’s saying, “I want you to mark so-and-so,” and things like that. It’s like, “Yeah, I know what he does – I’ve seen enough of him.” But I think it’s important that you enjoy it, as well. They’re possibly once in a lifetime opportunities so it’s important that you grasp them, enjoy them and try and put in a performance because as we’ve shown, you never know what might happen.
You crashed out of the League Cup against Swansea and then had a gap to make up in the play-offs – did you as a squad ever think that they were beyond reach, or did you always think that you’d get there?
No, I think we always believed it. I think a lot of people thought that the League Cup was having an effect on the league form – whether it did or not, it’s hard to say, but we knew that once the League Cup was put to bed, it was all about the league and it was almost another ten cup finals. We knew that we had the goals there, and it was important to do things right, making things hard for teams and picking wins up – I don’t think it was about performances. The games were running out, but we got points on the board and I think that took us right into the play offs. We were the form team going in, and we took that into the semis and then into the final.
But it was a big last game before you got into that final: you were going away to a team with the best home record in the division in Burton Albion, with a goal to make up. What was the mentality of the squad like at this time?
The first leg was quite disappointing but we knew that it was only a goal. It wasn’t major. Hans and Nahki were the two in-form strikers in our league that year so we knew we had goals in us. It was important kept the back door shut and the game plan worked great on the day. Nahki and Hanson both got on the scoresheet and credit to those two, they probably got us over the line that day. Burton’s defensive record was good but we always knew that we could cause teams problems, and as we showed on the day, we were worthy of that win.
What do you think is so special about this squad and Phil Parkinson? Why do you think supporters have taken you to their hearts so forcibly?
I just think it’s an honest group – from the players, right through to the staff and right through to the gaffer. I don’t think there’s any lies or any false actions, and that’s all football fans want, generally. I know that when I used to go watch football, all you wanted to see from your team was eleven players giving it a go. If you know they’ve given it a go and they’ve not got the points, then so be it, but I don’t think there’s anything worse than going out and not making the effort, not making tackles, not running around and things like that. As you see from the home fans, if someone is running around, making tackles, winning headers and putting their body where it wants to be, the reaction you get from the crowd is immense and they acknowledge and appreciate that. They’ll probably get behind you even more.
There’s a good core to the squad, as well – the characters that you’ve got, like yourself, and there have been players like Davies and Jones in the past.
Yeah, I think so. It’s important that you have a strong spine running through the team; that you have a right blend of players and that everyone gets along on and off the pitch, as I was saying earlier. It’s a long haul of a season and you’re going to spend a lot of time with each other, especially on away trips if we’re travelling down on Friday or Monday. Everyone’s got their part to play, and I know it’s disappointing when players don’t find themselves playing, but ultimately they’re going to get a chance. When that chance comes, it’s important that everybody steps up and contributes throughout this season.
How do you feel you’ve grown as a player during your time at Bradford?
I think playing with the players I’ve played with has helped me a lot. Obviously Dava’s played at a good level and anything that I could take away from Dava was always a big help. He was very good for that – he was always saying, “Look – maybe you should try this. Maybe you should try that.” And the faith the gaffer and Steve Parkin have shown in me helps loads. I think getting the amount of games I’ve played helps with consistency and having the success that we’ve had helps as well. The fact I’ve played near enough week-in, week-out, keeping the performance high – it’s important that I keep my standards there, and hopefully that will help us push on through the leagues.
And finally: you’ve had some great moments at City – Wigan, Arsenal, Villa, Wembley twice, Leeds, Chelsea, Sunderland. Which is your ultimate highlight in a City shirt, and why?
It’s a tough one, that! Very tough. Erm… I think the obvious answer is the Chelsea one, but I think I’ll probably go for the play-off final – it helps with the goal, but I think our main aim that season was to get promoted. The club had been stuck in League Two for years and the fans probably thought they were never going to get out. That year… The cup run helped, but to finish it off at the play off final, at Wembley, to be 3-0 up at half-time, to play as well as we did, to cap off an unbelievable season… I think that game probably just typified that season and from then I don’t think the club’s looked back. It’s carried on going forward and hopefully it’s a sign of the good times still to come.
WOAP would like to say a huge thank you to Rory McArdle for all his time and patience during the interview, and a big thanks to Mark Harrison at Bradford City for arranging the meeting between Rory and Katie.