By Katie Whyatt
It is difficult to know how to begin processing the news that former Bradford City full back Stephen Darby, 29, has been forced to retire from football after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease. There is nothing anyone can say to soften the news that a young man, three months into his marriage to England and Manchester City defender Steph Houghton, last Wednesday received a diagnosis that will alter his life forever. Just four years after Darby, infinitely likeable and a consummate professional, captained the team to the greatest FA Cup upset of all time, he has reminded us all how cruel and unjust life can be. This is just unspeakably sad news.
Team mates, past and present, led the string of messages that have poured in for a player about which no one has a single bad word to say. It is easy to see, given their words, why Darby was voted Player’s Player of the Year, the award footballers always say means the most, twice in his first two seasons at Valley Parade.
“My mate! I sat next to at @officialbantams and @OfficialBWFC I can’t believe this has happened to him I’m truly devastated. The ultimate pro, improved me as a player and more importantly as a person. A real genuine leader, who always puts others before himself. I’m broken,” tweeted former Bradford midfielder Filipe Morais. Stephen Warnock posted on Instagram: “Life is so cruel, genuinely one of the nicest lads you could ever meet. We are all behind you in your battle”. Billy Knott added: “Darbs skipper leader !!! I’m honestly lost for words one of the nicest blokes you could wish to meet! […] My thoughts are with you and the family my mate !! We made some memories that last a lifetime SKIP!!” [sic].
We will doubtless read many more as those in football, however well they knew him, come to terms with such shattering news. Each one speaks volumes about Stephen Darby as a human being, and are certainly better-placed than I, someone who bumped into him a handful of times each season, am to convey how well-loved the right back remains at Valley Parade. A row of illuminated glass towers in the 2013 Suite are home to the shirts of the League Cup and play-off final XVIII, and Darby’s hang in the first two, glistening behind the glass, the first ones your eyes find. For a player who never commanded the headlines but stood, always dependable, reliably skidding into goal line clearances on the rare occasions his defence found themselves beaten, it is right and fitting that his contribution is honoured so prominently.
Hours before news of Darby’s illness broke, WOAP published a piece called ‘This is who we are’. It was, given all that has been damaged at Valley Parade in the past year, a timely reminder of the means by which Darby and Jones transformed a club that had spent the best part of a decade working through various blueprints for mediocrity. The 2012/13 season blended myriad elements into a perfect cocktail, a campaign that looks like even more of a lightning in a bottle moment with each day passing day.
Even now, the memories of that time glisten with clarity, unburnished by nostalgia, unsullied by time. How often do you dip into your mental scrapbook from that era, feel a grin tugging at the corners of your mouth as you whip through the flurry of images?
Stephen Darby scurrying into the only goal he ever scored for City, legs pumping furiously, a shot that’s probably still bouncing now crawling unsuspectingly over the line from thirty yards, netting the added-time winner at home to Burton Albion in the League Cup to secure City’s passage to the fourth round. In another, he sits in the crook of James Hanson’s elbow at Villa Park, arms raised to the sky as snow swirls and scarves flutter in a rapturous away end. Months later, at a sun-soaked Wembley, he rests the play-off final trophy on his head. Two years later, he dances under a velvet sky at Stamford Bridge and he is the one whirling the scarf, holding it aloft as the magnitude of what he and his team have accomplished begins to sink in.
Amid City’s most Hollywood moments, the squad’s most defining trait was their humanity. As Parkinson’s side lurched up the table and into the international headlines with dizzying momentum, the starring roles fell to a comic book cast of heroes.There was a clutch of former Premier League players in their ranks but others were plucked from obscurity: from the Co-op, from exile at Rochdale, from relative exile at Bradford. There were players who had fallen out of love with the game, former Premier League academy stars who had found their confidence shattered by injuries, future Motherwell captains making their first tentative steps out of Donegal. They were a ragtag bunch, like treasures from a car-boot sale, discarded and overlooked but waiting to be loved. Here, the pieces fitted perfectly. And how they were loved.
Growing up with the precious magic of the Phil Parkinson years, Stephen Darby and Gary Jones were my early football heroes. I was 14 when Darby signed for City, halfway through my GCSEs, and that pair in particular gave me a set of unequivocally happy memories during a time that is inevitably stressful. Posters and pictures of them covered my bedroom walls. Looking back on my teenage years is to look back on a time that is invariably back-dropped by Bradford City, and what they meant. I was either watching them or looking forward to watching them.
Or meeting them. Dave Welbourne wrote this morning of Shelf Bantams’ ‘Darby and Jones’ night, and how it revealed just why Darby has long been a touchstone for everything this football club can be and should be. I was at that night, too, aged 15. I was a shy teenager: I was bullied at school, had braces, was quiet and geeky. Hidden in the bowels of the Internet is the first ever blog I wrote about Bradford City, from a time you might now call the embryonic stages of any journalistic career I’ve had since.
That night, I stuffed a voice recorder and a set of questions into my back pocket and got my mum – this is how shy I was – to ask Gary Jones if I could interview him. He was obliging, and he was perfect, and we still speak to each other occasionally. Jones told Darby to hold the fort while we went outside and shivered on a bench and talked about City. Then Darby came out and did the same.
“Is that what you want to be, then?” he said afterwards, genuinely interested. “A journalist? How often do you do your blog? Is it every week?” He passed me his copy of The City Gent. “Write the address on here if you want – I’ll look at it.”
Looking back, it might seem quite a minor thing – small talk, even. But Darby and Jones both went above and beyond that night. They didn’t have to do any of that. After all, they didn’t know who I was. They’d never seen me before. It would have been easy for them to tell me to check with the club, tell me to come to those press conferences that, back then, always felt so out of reach. Instead, they gave me their time, and I went home beaming, from ear to ear, and sat awake that night happy that I’d topped off the best season of all-time with my first ever football interviews.
Most teenagers, I guess, want to be seen, especially by their heroes – and Darby and Jones kept having time for me. “How’s your blog going?” Darby would ask, without fail, every time I met him. For what it’s worth, that would be a handful of times each season. For an introverted and unconfident 15 year old, those conversations, however fleeting, felt special. They made me feel special. The last time I saw him was the 2017 Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley: you have to pass the press entrance to reach the families’ entrance. I can’t and won’t profess to know Darby well, but perhaps football always makes you feel like you do. Especially in teams like the ones he played in. Who didn’t feel like they knew those players?
It goes without saying that everyone at WOAP sends their thoughts and prayers to Stephen, Steph and their families. Parkinson told BBC Leeds today that Bolton hope to put a “plan in place” to keep Darby involved with the club in some way, and calls for a tribute match between the History Makers and a combined XI from the sides City knocked out of the League Cup in 2013 have already been mooted. Now, as the news remains so raw, and Stephen and those close to him come to terms with this diagnosis and how to manage it, the priority should be with giving the Darby family as much time and space as they need as they adjust to what is now their new reality. But I hope Stephen Darby, who recently spent time with Parkinson reminiscing about those heady Valley Parade nights, knows how loved, well-thought of and highly-regarded he is and always will be at Bradford City.
To find out more about Motor Neurone Disease or if you wish to donate, please visit https://www.mndassociation.org/