By Katie Whyatt
Alan Connell vividly remembers his first day at Bradford City. “I flew to Ireland to meet the lads for pre-season. I got to the airport and I was told the wrong exit,” he begins. “I was waiting for ages. Eventually, I think Phil Parkinson came and found me, and I got on the bus where the boys had been waiting for half an hour for me. New kid, first day at school and the boys had been waiting half an hour for me on the bus – I felt a bit awkward there, but they were great with me. That was not the best start but we had a great trip, got to know everyone better.
“We ended it in Dublin on a night out, and as a team it just felt like something special was building, that it was the start of something special for us as a group with regards how well we got on with each other, how much we enjoyed each other’s company. From that moment on, I think the team really gelled off the pitch. There was work to do on the pitch but that Ireland trip was a real big start, moving forward. We had quite a few fans out there – I obviously knew when I signed Bradford was a big club, but I quickly realised how much it meant to people, how big it actually was.”
He is referring, of course, to the pre-season tour of Ireland that Phil Parkinson routinely credited with fostering the resilience that defined his 2012/13 team. Promotion via the League Two play offs? Check. A League Cup Final? Thrown in for good measure. They were unrecognisable from the groups that preceded them, overwriting a decade of tumult with new pride and belief, allowing a jaded fanbase crippled by two administrations and three relegations to dream again. By January, they had defeated Wigan, Arsenal and Aston Villa – all then Premier League sides – en route to the League Cup Final. It was only the second time in the competition’s history that a team from the fourth tier had made the final – you have to go all the back to Rochdale, in 1962, to find the other – and, truthfully, it’s unlikely football will ever find a third.
More glaring was the team’s obvious off-field closeness. Connell speaks entirely fondly of his time at Bradford, of the squad’s “incredible” bond. The League Cup adventure brought unprecedented media attention – “before the League Cup final, we had an actual media day and there were hundreds and hundreds of the media there, from all over the world, and that in itself was pretty eye-opening” – and it became routine to read features on team nicknames, on Rory McArdle’s Ryder Cup sweepstake.
“The feeling on the pitch when it went well, or in the dressing room after – the togetherness genuinely was something really special,” Connell recalls. “And everyone backed everyone. There were no cliques, no divisions – I think that came across with the relationship the squad had with the supporters. The club had had a lot of years where they’d struggled. I think the supporters were desperate for a side they could really identify with. And I think we did that that season, gave everything for the club – which the manager stressed all the time. It was all about giving the fans something: they’d turned up, [so] they’d want to see the pride in the shirt and the effort. There was no doubt that season we delivered that.”
In the 2013 team, Parkinson seamlessly blended talent and tenacity into a perfect cocktail. There was Nahki Wells, now Premier League-bound with Huddersfield Town and realising a potential that was obvious as far back as 2011. As if to emphasise the point, James Hanson and James Meredith will both play Championship football next season, with the second tier’s new boys in Sheffield United and Millwall. At the squad’s heart was the age-defying Gary Jones – 35, yet running the midfield with a bruising intensity and verve, never beaten, never tiring.
“If Jonah said we were going to do something, we were doing it,” Connell explains. “[He was] brilliant. He was just very intense. He was right in amongst the laughs and the jokes, but when it came to wanting to win and to making sure he was right in training, his enthusiasm and leadership rubbed off on everyone else. We were lucky we had a lot of good characters that all seemed to just feed off each other, but Jonah was obviously a big part of that. He was our leader and he had everyone’s respect – not just because of his age, but because of the career he’d had and the way he conducted himself.
“It helps when you’re winning football matches, but credit to Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin – I think they put together not only a good playing squad, but a load of good characters. It was a brilliant time, one of the highlights of my career. We were really good friends – I used to love going in every day, seeing the boys.
“[Parkinson] was organised. First and foremost, he demanded work rate and pride in the shirt. That was his big thing that he instilled. He didn’t do loads of coaching – Steve Parkin did a lot of that. When it came to the preparation for the match, that’s when the gaffer would take over and stamp his mark on the team, what he wanted for Saturday’s game. But he was very good, he was detailed and I really enjoyed working under him.”
It was December 11th, 2012, when Bradford City first began to command national attention in earnest. Arsene Wenger and co. ventured into the frigid Valley Parade night and departed to the sound of Gary Jones declaring Torquay United had given City a harder game. Thomas Vermaelen would overturn City’s slender 1-0 lead two minutes from time, but Parkinson’s men provided grim resistance and ultimately triumphed on penalties. Connell confesses he’s “still got it on my Sky Planner, and I have the occasional look”, but admits the celebrations were more moderate than expected.
“I remember everyone in the changing room after being delighted, and everyone was enjoying each other’s company and looking at their phones. But it wasn’t over-the-top. It wasn’t like sometimes you see with non-league teams, where they’re all in each other’s faces. It wasn’t like that. It was almost like, OK, brilliant, and what an achievement, but the next game. We had that mentality, and the more big games we won, the more it almost just felt normal. It was a weird feeling. Aston Villa was the same. It was unbelievable – it was kind of like we didn’t quite know… You’re kind of in and amongst it, so you don’t realise the magnitude of what’s going on. It’s only now I look back on it and you realise what we achieved. And at the end of the season, when we had the 2013 lounge at the club – little things like that make you think it was something special.
“I don’t want to go over the top but I loved it at Bradford. I loved it. It was – honestly. The boys were amazing. The club – playing for Bradford, I miss that feeling. That feeling of walking out at Valley Parade as a home player – unbelievable. Especially because we had success, I felt almost like a Premier League player, because of the size of the crowd and the passion. I remember, if I was sub, going to jog towards the Kop, and the three subs would get a standing ovation. And I’m like, all we’ve done is just jog to the corner flag! You just felt like a god. You just felt like a Premier League player, the passion and the adulation you got from the fans. It’s spine-tingling, really.”
Is he still in contact with the team? “We’ve still got a WhatsApp group chat. I wouldn’t say it’s all the time, but still, every so often, we have a few conversations, [find out] what people are up to. I was on a coaching course with Garry Thompson last week, I still speak to Nahki [Wells] every now and again, and the game against Millwall at Wembley – I think there was five of us watching, plus the three lads – Darbs [Stephen Darby], Mezza [James Meredith], Rory [McArdle] – that were playing. It was good to see them after, and it was just like old times. People are in all different places now but it was just nice to have that opportunity to be back with everyone. It was like we’d never been away.
“The experiences we had – they don’t happen very often. To go through that together – what we achieved together means we’ll always have that bond, always have that thing in common that will be with us forever.”
“You just never wanted to let Eddie Howe down. He gave us a siege mentality at Bournemouth.”
Connell is now working in Bournemouth’s academy – “it’s a lot of preparation, but I love it and it’s so rewarding when it goes well” – for the club he served over two spells as a player: he was part, in the latter, of the last-gasp Football League survival battle of 2009 and the subsequent promotion to League One, both now ingrained in football folklore. Addled with financial woes, Bournemouth began the 2008/09 season on – 17 points and allegedly came within hours of liquidation three times, bailiffs routinely taking kit from the club shop. It was Eddie Howe, later crowned ‘The English Special One’ and who Connell played alongside in the early 2000s, who would mastermind their survival.
“[As a player, he was] very dedicated, always practicing after training, just very conscientious of his game,” Connell recalls. “He would really analyse his game and want to improve, and he always had that respect from everyone because of that, because of the way he conducted himself. He’s the sort of player you’d pinpoint as a potential manager of the future.
“Eddie took over – I think it was New Year’s Eve, so halfway through the season. We were adrift. We were sort of – we weren’t going anywhere, really. We were struggling. I can’t remember how many points we were off safety [seven], [but] it was a lot, and straight away, he had us organised – he just had that aura and presence about him, and people wanted to play for him.
“It probably helped that he was Bournemouth through and through, and he knew us and we knew him. You just never wanted to let him down. You knew how much work he put into it. It galvanised not just the playing squad, but the whole club rallied round. He really brought the [playing] group together, used the siege mentality of, everything’s against us, all the old clichés. Everything about him – it’s no surprise to me he’s gone on to be the success that he is today.
“Tactically, he’d always solve problems. If ever we were having a problem, he’d come in at half time and he’d sort it out, and nine times out of ten it would work. And his attention to detail and his work ethic – it just rubbed off on everyone. I think that was a big part of our success. And we did have good players. We couldn’t sign anyone, but the players we did have were good quality players.”
Ten wins later and Bournemouth entered their final home game, on April 25th, with a chance to preserve their league status by beating Grimsby. With ten minutes to go and the game locked at 1-1, Cherries legend Steve Fletcher scored arguably the most iconic goal in the club’s history.
“I’d had a knee operation but it wasn’t right, and I needed another knee operation at the end of the season, which I eventually had,” Connell begins. “Some games I was really struggling, like a lot of the boys were. We had the cushion of another game the following week, so it wasn’t quite as last-gasp as people think, but it was just a massive relief. Because it’s like all the seasons, really.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re going for promotion or fighting relegation. You live every day, and every day you’re thinking towards the next game. You’re always looking at permutations of the league table. It’s months and months of build-up and anxiety. Relief is the big emotion, because we knew what it meant to the club to be there in the Football League.”
The following season, Bournemouth won promotion to League One. Connell scored the second of a 2-0 win against Burton, effectively sealing the deal. “From where we’d come from, it was staggering, really. We couldn’t sign any players – we’d probably used around 14 or 15 players that season. That was pretty much our squad. Again, just the unbelievable feeling – promotions are great feelings, because it’s ten months’ hard work.
“Now I’m back working at the club, I’m fortunate people often remind me of it. The one big thing that stands out with that squad is the team spirit – difficult circumstances can bring groups together and that certainly did that for us during that spell.”
Connell still sees Howe “quite regularly”, at the staff 5-a-side games. “They’re always good fun and competitive. I’ve been fortunate enough to watch him coach this season, and he sees things that probably no one else does. He puts so much effort into his work that he demands the same off the whole club and all the players. He wants the best from people. Everyone buys into it because of who he is and the success he’s brought. You can’t help but want to improve, being in the environment he’s created.”
“Paolo Di Canio knew what he wanted – there were no grey areas.”
Connell was part of the Swindon Town team that won promotion to League One in 2012, managed by the maverick Paolo Di Canio. “It was always eventful. There was always something happening and you had to follow his lead, there’s no doubt about that. But he was an excellent coach. He was very organised, knew what he wanted – there were no grey areas. And he got the best out of people because of the demands he set. He was never entirely happy – he always wanted more.
“So as a player, for me, it was always a challenge. Even if I had a good game or scored a goal, it was always never quite enough. You always had to go again the following week, and do even better. But when you got that well done and that praise off of him, you knew that you’d really earned it as he was sort of hard to please – but, overall, I got on well with him. There were times when I didn’t agree with everything that he did – maybe, I don’t know, he might have brought me off in a game – but he’s an excellent coach, and we had success. We had good players, but there’s no doubt he had us playing as a team.”
Almost a decade has elapsed since his Bournemouth exploits and it has been three years since Connell departed Valley Parade, but he speaks of both with sincere pride and genuine warmth. His affection is refreshing, and is in truth heartwarming to hear. But the road has not been easy. His career has encompassed 11 unique clubs over 13 different spells. Summers were darkened by panic, the lower-league player confronted with concerns far removed from the cocktails and glitter of the top flight. There were moments of limbo, transfer windows shrouded in uncertainty.
“It’s not nice,” he begins. “It’s really not nice. I’ve had it all my adult life: ‘Oh, you’re all right – you’re a footballer.’ That sort of mentality. But you’re not on the hundred grand a week that the Premier League players are on, so it’s not always as easy as people think. As you can see from my career, at the drop of the hat you can be moving from one end of the country to the other. Sometimes, that’s been my decision; other times, it’s been made for me by a manager. It’s an unsettling time, and now I’ve stopped playing, it’s not a feeling I miss, I’ve got to be honest.
“It can be unsettling in the summer, and you don’t know what’s going on – but that’s part of living the dream, and the thrill, and the pressure that you’re under. Because the rewards are so great, and those special moments that we’ve spoken about today – I wouldn’t change any of it. I worked hard every single day to try have as many special moments and career highs as possible. There’s plenty of lows on the way, no doubt about that, but the highs are that much sweeter because of the pressure and the demands that are out there from everyone, that I put on myself.
“I had two years playing part time [at the end of my career], and it wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel great, it didn’t work out for me and I was enjoying the coaching that I was doing. The coaching was just taking over more and more. That’s the route I’ve gone down and I’m proud of what I achieved.
“I loved it at City, absolutely loved it. If I lived nearer, I’d be going and watching them a lot more. I go to all the Bournemouth home games. Bournemouth’s been great for me. I loved it there, and Bournemouth’s home for me, really, even though I’m from London. I feel fortunate to be in the position that I’m in and I’ve played for some good clubs.
“There are always things you maybe wish could have gone better here and there, but overall I’m really proud and I can look back on some really special moments.”