By Katie Whyatt
Nine days before the fruits of Stuart McCall’s summer labours are unveiled for real at Valley Parade on August 6th, James Meredith is speaking with wholehearted enthusiasm about what McCall is building behind the scenes. A few weeks of upheaval – the sudden departure of Phil Parkinson after new owners Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp took over the club – have since subsided to allow McCall to begin to place his stamp on proceedings. In doing so, Meredith says, “[McCall’s] bringing something new to Bradford, to the camp, that I’ve not seen before.”
Back in 2007, McCall was the club legend turned managerial rookie, whose wholehearted nature would prove part of his undoing. Now, he returns, armed with an apparent steel and grit garnered through a successful spell with Motherwell (he guided them to third and second placed finishes in the SPL, and to the Champions League and Europa League with limited resources) and work with the Scottish national team. Meredith was as shocked as anyone when he learned of Parkinson’s departure, and was in his car when his agent broke the news.
But football moves on quickly. Filipe Morais has already endorsed McCall’s high intensity approach, and Meredith also speaks highly of the new City boss.
“He’s brought an energy to the camp and he’s obviously got good experience,” Meredith begins. “In training, he has a different philosophy to how it was under Parkinson, but it seems like we are playing good technical football, so we will see how it goes. It looks positive.
“He seems like a good gaffer. He seems good at what he does. He seems to have a really good rapport with the fans and everyone respects him. He’s bringing something new to Bradford, to the camp, that I’ve not seen before. You can tell he’s got that international experience in terms of the way he takes training – it’s really well thought out, very technical and gets the best out of all of us. It looks like he’s bringing in players that won player of the year where they were, and it looks like they’ve got the ability to kick on and do well. It seems like a culture where they want people that want to play for the club, work hard and play good football.
“I missed the first day so I’m not sure how he introduced himself to everyone – I think he just had a meeting among the boys in the morning, but he introduced himself to me when I bumped into him in the hallway. It was good to speak with him. He’s obviously a confident bloke. He was an excellent player and he must have had a lot of heart – and he must have been a fantastic professional considering how many games he played, and I think he’s bringing that to management. The mood in the camp is very good and all the players have taken to it well.”
With change of this nature comes anticipation of a slightly different playing style. McCall has spoken already about playing attacking, expansive football and penetrating the box more – something Meredith echoes.
“I don’t believe it’ll be as ‘sit in a space’, in terms of the way we were very solid and pressed last year,” he explains. “I think we’ll have more freedom to get it down and play, and show how good we are technically. But at the same time, we’ll still work hard and try and win. I think [McCall] likes his full backs pushed on so I believe he’ll want me to get involved in the forward play a bit more. Unfortunately, I’ve missed three of the pre-season games, but that’s settled now and I’m hoping to be involved on Saturday.”
“I just don’t give up easily. I came on my own and went away from my family for a long time because I’m doing what I love to do.”
Meredith is no stranger to change and transition. At 16, he made the biggest move of his life: relocating from Australia to England to live in digs with a “lovely couple”, Larry and Sheila. A Derby County scout had spotted the young Meredith playing football in Melbourne. With uncertainty surrounding the then-fledging A-League, he chose to emigrate.
“When I first came to England, I came in January, so it was freezing cold,” he recalls. “I’d never known cold like it. But I really enjoyed the experience. I remember when I first came, everything was new to me. It was exciting. I just loved the passion everyone had for football, the way they loved football and supported it. It was something magical. That’s why I followed through with moving here and living here.”
Opportunities at Derby, however, would prove limited, and loan spells with Cambridge and Chesterfield would again only yield a handful of appearances. Meredith signed for League of Ireland Premier Division side Sligo Rovers and, the following year, Shrewsbury Town, with a loan at AFC Telford completing the latter spell. It was with Conference side York City that he would eventually make his name, becoming part of the side that won the 2012 FA Trophy Final and the Conference play-offs.
“It has been challenging over the years,” Meredith acknowledges. “Especially when you’re young – you can very easily get lonely. I’ve learned how to do everything on my own – that was all new for me. You get homesick, but that’s just the challenge you’ve got to face if you want to achieve what you want to achieve. Everyone makes sacrifices. It was just that the will was in me. I just don’t give up easily. I came on my own and went away from my family for a long time because I’m doing what I love to do.”
Four years on, he is now closing in on his 140th game with the Bantams, and shows few signs of closing down. Even so, it’s not always been plain sailing. 2013 was marred by the bout of glandular fever that robbed Meredith of his chance to play in the latter stages of the League Cup run, and he missed the games against Aston Villa and Swansea; a year on, he broke a metatarsal bone in his right foot and faced another spell on the sidelines. The summer of 2014 would see Meredith handed a shorter-term contract as negotiations floundered; in came Alan Sheehan, but Meredith’s response would cement his place as the undisputed first choice left back in a defence that would go on, the following season, to clock up a record number of clean sheets. Now, he looks back on those setbacks with distance and maturity.
“I think [the contract issue] was a bit of miscommunication,” he explains. “I was having problems with a previous agent where he wouldn’t let me out of my contract with him, so it stalled negotiations with Bradford. They must have taken that as a sign that I was maybe not going to play games for them or that the deal was a bit iffy, so they were well within their rights to sign Sheehan, who was a good left back. At the time, it was a bit frustrating, but you get on with it. You need two left backs anyway.
“[The glandular fever] – that was difficult. That was really difficult. To be a part of it the whole way and then miss the last two games. I really would have liked to have been out there, but, sometimes, that’s just how the cookie crumbles. There’s not a lot you can do. At the time, it was really disappointing, but I’m glad we made up for it when we got to Wembley again. It was a great achievement and everyone should be proud – the fans and the turnout there was amazing. The players often talk about how great that time was – we were all so happy to go again and get promoted. That was a real brilliant thing for us all.”
“I think 31, 32, I’ll look to move home. I’d like to end my career playing for a Melbourne club.”
Amid times of change to the higher echelons, it is reassuring that the back four – injuries apart – consists of familiar faces, and it is perhaps telling that stalwarts Stephen Darby, Rory McArdle and Meredith are, along with James Hanson, the last History Makers standing after four summer rebuilds. Their off-field closeness is obvious and has enhanced Meredith’s time here.
“We’ve played together for a good few years now and we all have a really good attitude,” Meredith says. “We all work hard and we’re not loose at all. We knew what was required last year and we set a standard: ‘Every game, we have to keep a clean sheet.’ We’re all friends off the field and we get on well. We have a lot of laughs and we’re all a bit older – we’re all late twenties and have very similar lives. I love the rest of the back four – they’re good players, good people. I’ve just had a really good experience I’m really happy with. I’ve learned a lot about the different cultures and types of football. I hope it continues for a few more years, before I move back to Australia eventually.”
Does he have a time in mind?
“I think 31, 32, I’ll look to move home. I’d like to end my career playing for a Melbourne club. I’d love that. Because when I first left to come to England, there was no A League, no National League – they’d cancelled it for a year until they built the A League. So it’s been really interesting watching it grow over the years.
“I’ve got a lot of friends that play in it and they’re doing really well, especially one of my best friends, Leigh Broxham, who plays for Melbourne Victory – he’s been there for over ten years now, so it’s great to see how well he’s done. I think it will strengthen every year – they’ve got the commercial side of it right and it’s exciting to watch.”
What about the Socceroos? Last autumn, Meredith made his debut for the Australian national team, featuring in their 3-0 win over Kyrgyzstan in their Asian World Cup qualifier. Meredith relished the experience, but sees success at City as key in opening the door for further international game time.
“I just want to work as hard as I can, hopefully get promoted and play regular Championship. That’s my football goal – that’s what I want to do,” he begins. “I think through doing that, and doing well at club level, I’ll potentially get another opportunity to play for the Socceroos. It’s difficult, because there’s a couple of good young Australian left backs – it makes it a bit more challenging, but anything can happen in terms of injuries and loss of form.
“Playing international is fantastic – it’s the best thing a player can do, for me. It’s good for me to be among similar lads – Massimo Luongo and Bailey Wright have done something similar to me – left when [we] were very young, lived and played in England and become part of the national team, so that’s really enjoyable for me.”