By Jason McKeown
Stephen Darby will be remembered at Valley Parade not just as the best right back since the Premier League days but as a leader who pioneered change. Signed from Liverpool in the summer of 2012, the then-23-year-old joined Gary Jones, Rory McArdle, James Meredith, Nathan Doyle and Garry Thompson in transforming the dressing room culture and, with it, the club. They helped Phil Parkinson to eliminate the losing mentality that had weighed down Bradford City for more than a decade. They raised the standards not only in terms of ability but in the effort and dedication required. These values live on at the club and remain a crucial part of the ongoing progression.
Darby, and others, redefined just what it is to be a Bradford City player.
He began life at Valley Parade slowly, sitting on the bench for the first few weeks as Rory McArdle nabbed the right back slot. A long-term injury to Luke Oliver in October 2012 forced a reshuffle that Darby especially profited from. It seems strange now to think that, when City stunned Premier League Wigan by defeating them on penalties in the League Cup, Darby was considered an understudy.
The Liverpudlian played and impressed that night, becoming a permanent, fully reliable fixture for the next four years. Every single major Bradford City triumph since Wigan has featured Darby’s calm and assured presence at the back. He was there against Arsenal, Villa, Swansea, Burton, Northampton, Leeds, Chelsea, Sunderland and more. When Gary Jones was moved on in the summer, Darby assumed the captain’s armband. Not only did that mean leading a group of solid senior pros, but making sure all new arrivals bought into the Bradford City culture and way of doing things.
In total he made 239 appearances for City and remained one of the first names on Parkinson’s team sheets. Player of the season in 2013/14 and amongst the best of the best in almost every season. In 20 years supporting Bradford City, he is the only right back I can recall who had his own chant. Half the fun in singing it was in knowing it was a pretty cringeworthy effort at that.
The change of manager last summer, and the shift of attacking emphasis, has ultimately done for Darby. He played well over the first half of the season, with Tony McMahon injured, but the emphasis Stuart McCall placed on his full backs getting forwards meant the balance of the team was lacking. McMahon’s return to fitness was quickly followed by regaining his place in the side ahead of Darby. McMahon gets forward better for sure although can’t defend as well as Darby. If only we had a hybrid player who had both players’ strengths. Tony Darby or Stephen McMahon.
Losing his place must have hurt Darby, but he remained the ultimate professional throughout. His rare start at Spotland on the final day of the season was clearly his send off, and thank goodness he didn’t try to bow out like John Terry. Darby is massively respected by City supporters for all that he has done for the club. He will have absolutely no problems finding a club this summer – whoever he chooses will be incredibly lucky to have him.
We’ll miss you Stephen, but we’ll never forget what you did for Bradford City. Whenever we hear the Human League’s ‘Don’t you want me’, we’ll sing your name to the chorus. Your character, mentality and vision lives on in the Valley Parade dressing room. Your legacy is as strong as any footballer can leave behind.