By Katie Whyatt
There is a modesty about the early days of Nathaniel Knight-Percival’s football career that perhaps illuminates why his response to the 3-3 draw at Walsall that saw City surrender a three-goal cushion in a bewildering 33-minute spell was so measured. He recounts his days at Histon, around a decade ago now, where he developed as a youth player before graduating from football’s seventh tier to its fifth over six seasons. Two years at Wrexham followed, back in the days when the Conference was branded the Blue Square Premier, before Darren Ferguson took Knight-Percival to the Championship with Peterborough.
“I used to do car electronics work when I was there,” he begins. “I didn’t think anything of it – it’s just the norm, working nine to five and then training after work. I just enjoyed it. The tempo was a lot quicker [in the Championship] and there’s a lot more quality in up front positions. There are a lot of good players. It was just a big adjustment but I felt I was ready for it.”
Knight-Percival was part of the Histon team who saw off League One Leeds in the second round of the FA Cup in 2008, as driving rain tore through the pockmarked pitch. “It was very different. You’re not used to having so many TV cameras come in. There’s cameras coming to training, things like that, which I’d never had before. I just remember getting absolutely soaked and it was freezing. It was difficult – it was a massive time for us, because we hadn’t really played people who were that high up in the leagues, so to play against them and to beat them was really good for us. Winning was brilliant, a great feeling. [Histon] was a non-league club with loads of fans standing around the edge – it was good to be able to play a big team and to beat them.”
It was at Wrexham where Knight-Percival – who’d spent his entire life as a winger, having grown up idolising John Barnes, “just a standout player” – first moved to the defensive role he now occupies at Bradford. “I think the manager just saw something in pre-season and was, like, ‘Do you want to?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a go.’ It wasn’t a bad changeover. It wasn’t difficult. You have to just concentrate a lot more, keep your focus for a lot longer periods of time.”
Six years on, the same grounded composure – typified in the diving off-the-line that denied Bristol Rovers last week – is in evidence as he assesses the Walsall draw.
“We didn’t really manage the game as well as we should have,” he explains. “With the experience in the team that we have, we should have managed it better, but it’s one of those things that happens in football. It’s happened many times before and it’ll probably happen again to other teams. We’ve learnt from it and we know how to not make those mistakes again.
“After the game, we talked about it and went over a few things, figured out a way of it not happening again. It’s just using your experience as defenders, and – being one of the more experienced players – it’s just about talking to the people around you, and managing the situation. Because you never get two situations the same. I think we played fairly similar [against Bristol Rovers] but we kept our concentration for longer and we managed those difficult points in the game when we were under a lot of pressure. We did the sensible things, went back to basics and that’s what got us through the game.
“[But] you can’t really look too much into every single game. We’ll take bits from it but you can’t dwell on it too long. If you get too down about losing a game and too excited about winning a game, you’re going to be all over the place. You want to keep yourself nice and consistent.”
Yet change was the order of the day over the close season: five of the starting XI from the play off final have since departed, and even pre-season was spent in the environs of Austria, a world away from Valley Parade. It was no David Wagner-style boot camp, but City had their moments. “We had a bike ride into town and some of the lads also went up on some of the ski lifts to the top of the mountains,” Knight-Percival explains. “It was just a pre-season training camp, just the usual kind of training regime but out in a different location so the players and staff can really get to know each other properly. You can get in a bit of a rut training in the same places, especially in pre-season, when it can feel like it’s going on forever, so it’s nice to go somewhere else. It was nice to get a bit of a look at another country.” Pictures circulated on Twitter of Romain Vincelot and Charlie Wyke bathing in a nearby stream. “We all did that, after training. There was a small river behind the training pitch. It was very cold. I wouldn’t do it again but [Vincelot] was loving it.” Inevitably, there were the obligatory initiations. “Alex Gilliead did well. He sang Oasis, I think. I can’t remember the song, but he had a lot of heart. I did Lionel Richie last year. Hello. Classic.”
They rounded the week off at a beer festival in Germany, City fans packing Echterdingen’s town square in the early hours as Colin Doyle and Tony McMahon swayed on stage, beer tankards in hand, to their own rendition of Don’t Take Me Home. Knight-Percival was absent, leaving after the game to attend his godson’s Christening the following day. Has he seen the videos? “I haven’t, actually.” You might argue he’s been spared.
It was wise preparation, and meant pre-season began the move from the shadow that had darkened the summer. The 1-0 loss to Millwall in the play off final that condemned City to a fifth crack in League One had been etched at the forefront of many fans’ minds over the off-season and Sky have a habit of replaying, at seemingly every available opportunity in title sequences and in-play betting ads, the moment Steve Morison delivers the fatal blow, stealing in at the far post after meeting Lee Gregory’s looping flick-on.
“At the time, you still think you’ve got time to get something back,” Knight-Percival recalls. “[Wembley] is a great stadium to play at, such a big arena. Not many people get to play there so it’s a great honour. It does dawn on you and it is gutting, but that’s just football, sometimes. You’re going to be down losing any game of football, but losing in the play off final, you’re going to be even more down. There’s not really too much to say about it after. You can’t, really. There’s not really anything you can do or say that’s going to cheer anyone up. And at the end of the season it’s probably a bit pointless.
“[McCall’s] disappointed. Everyone’s disappointed. You’re going to be. But he’s just got a way about him – he can pick himself up and he gets the rest of the team up as well.”
It took Knight-Percival until the first day of pre-season to push the disappointment out of his system, but the result was never mentioned in the camp – there were no bruising inquests, no lengthy examinations of whatever went wrong. Instead, the remedy took the form of McCall’s trademark gusto. “He’s a really funny guy,” Knight-Percival explains. “Honestly. He comes in with a big smile on his face every day and he just wants us to work hard and enjoy it. Which is brilliant, because you play football because you enjoy it. If you do enjoy it, you’re going to be a better player. It’s brilliant to come in and have such positive manager.”
“I think we’ve tried to keep the playing style as similar to last season as possible. Stuart McCall knows the players can utilise their potential to play in the way he wants us to.”
Knight-Percival will return this weekend to the club that plucked him from non-league in 2012, as City gear up to face Peterborough in their sixth league game. Football is rarely given to standing still: current Posh boss Grant McCann played alongside Knight-Percival back in those days, and Ferguson was in the hot seat.
“Ferguson is a good manager,” Knight-Percival says. “He had all of his own ideas. He’s a good man to man kind of manager. He spoke to all the players well and he demanded a lot of you, but it was expected because we had a good set of players there at the time.” He’s not wrong: there also were Alex Pritchard, Saido Berahino and Dwight Gayle. “He’s a good player. You can see that from how well he’s done in the game now. He’s a great talent.”
But it was not smooth sailing, and Knight-Percival’s first season in the Championship ended in relegation, on the final day of the season. “It was difficult. We had a lot of pressure on us and we had to win games at a crucial point of the season. Sometimes, you get in those situations and you do have to fight for your life.
“It was very gutting for us. It’s not nice going away [for the summer] in a losing position, feeling like you’ve lost. And then you come back, and you’re not going to be… Sometimes, you think you’re going to be a little bit disheartened, but once you get back and you get going again, and you get into the swing of things, you focus on what’s to come after that.”
Two years on, at Shrewsbury, he sustained a cruciate knee ligament injury that ruled him out half the season. “Whenever you get injured as a player, the first thing you want to be doing is back on the pitch,” he says. “The last thing you want to be doing is sitting in a physio room doing little to nothing most Sundays. It is frustrating but when you do have a long term injury, you just sort of have to focus on your main aim, which is getting back to fill fitness, and it’s just a case of putting all your hard work into everything you do so you can come back better, stronger and fitter – better than you were before.
“You see all the lads going out to training and you’re stuck in the gym, having to do rehab. It is a bit disappointing but it is just one of those things in football. Everyone will get injured at some point and you are going to have to spend days like that. You just have to stay focused and stay positive.”
That tone of pragmatism and realism pervades most of Knight-Percival’s utterances, and on the whole he is satisfied with his side’s early progress. “We’ve had a lot of ins and outs from last season so there’s always going to be a bit of an adjusting period, but I think we’ve done well so far,” he says. “I think we’ve tried to keep [the style] as similar to last season as possible. The manager knows what he’s doing and he’s got us playing in a good way. He knows the players can utilise their potential to play the best way we can, in the way that he wants us to.
“We’ve got people who can play in different positions and we can play different formations. It doesn’t really affect me and it doesn’t really affect any of the lads. We’re all experienced players and we all know what we’re meant to be doing in the position when we play there, so it’s not really a big deal. It doesn’t really matter who you play with because everyone’s dependable. I think that’s one of the good things about us, that we are so adaptable.
“We just go out to try and win every game and just see where it takes us. We don’t have a specific target in mind at the moment. Performances have been good so we just need to kick on and kick on again.”