By Jason McKeown
It is a curious anomaly that Bradford City’s biggest crowd of the 2019/20 season is going to be for a pre-season friendly, but Sunday’s attractive encounter with European Champions Liverpool could prove to be a timely and important step in the reconciliation of Bantams supporters with their club.
The last time most of us were inside Valley Parade, AFC Wimbledon fans were wildly celebrating avoiding relegation whilst we all trooped off home relieved that a turgid season was over. We were more than ready for a break from Bradford City. The love and affection we hold for our club was showing signs of exhausting. Anger over such a pathetic relegation remained raw. And the future looked difficult.
No one, it seemed, expected a summer as positive as this. With the reassuring evidence of a considered plan, an influx of new signings and a vibrant mood emanating from Valley Parade, disillusionment has been replaced by optimism. For different reasons, the summers of 2016, 2017 and 2018 were turbulent and stressful. This close season has been remarkably calm in comparison. And there’s actually reasons to be cheerful about the League Two campaign ahead.
Sunday represents a chance to build on that momentum. Normally, home pre-season friendlies are played out in front of a couple of thousand City fans. But a sell out crowd against Liverpool brings a sense of occasion. A ripple of excitement that one of the best clubs in the country will be present, led by their charismatic manager Jurgen Klopp.
And all for such a wonderful, important cause. Last September’s horrendous news about Stephen Darby’s health meant the miserable mood at Bradford City plummeted to even greater depths. In the months before, it had become increasingly clear that the 2017 departures of the likes of Darby, Rory McArdle and James Meredith had left a huge gaping hole in the dressing room, as the squad was stripped of character and bravery.
We were pining for Darby the footballer, only to discover one of our heroes was facing an unwinnable fight for his own future. Absolutely heartbreaking for Darby, his family and for everyone connected with Bradford City.
All proceeds of Sunday’s game go to the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation. Darby and his family will be there, giving the sold out crowd of City fans the chance to loudly demonstrate what he means to us. He is a true Bradford City hero, heavily prevalent in the more recent successful times the club has experienced. A player who gave absolutely everything he had. Who never let the club down.
Stephen Darby’s inspiration is sorely needed right now. It might be a fresh start, but the surprising ongoing presence of so many of last season’s under-performing squad means there remains big, unanswered questions about the stomach for the fight ahead. So many of last season’s squad rolled over too often and too meekly. The last time many of the remaining players were seen in public at Valley Parade, at that Wimbledon game, they were being loudly booed as they took part in a lap of appreciation.
You don’t forget that. This time, there has to be greater bravery, determination and resilience. We will only succeed with a team who will perform like Stephen Darby.
Gary Bowyer knows this and is proactively tapping into that ethos. At the recent Bradford Literature Festival event – where I hosted a panel discussion with Gary Jones, James Mason and John Dewhirst – Jones revealed that Bowyer has invited him and Darby to address the squad before the season begins. Jones and Darby will talk about the pride they had in playing for Bradford City, what they believe it takes to succeed in winning over fans, and how far courage and character can take the club.
The 2019/20 squad must lap up every word the pair has to say. Listen and be inspired. If they can match the commitment of the history makers, they can emulate them in getting promoted out of League Two this season. The ability is there for sure, but they need to show the character. The game on Sunday is an opportunity to demonstrate lessons learned to the Bradford public. To begin to show they are a group of players worthy of our trust.
The club, to its credit, is doing what it can to ramp up the sense of occasion on Sunday. There will be a scarf parade before kick off. A live singer. Going to Valley Parade this Sunday will feel like a big, significant event.
Sure, the game will not be very exciting – pre-season friendlies never are. There will be some sense of disappointment in the team Liverpool put out, because it will be lacking its biggest names and it’s hard to get excited about watching the likes of Adam Lallana. And yes, the crowd will be inflated by people who don’t care as deeply for Bradford City, if at all. Day trippers present because they want to see Liverpool. But it’s not really the point.
Because beyond the number one priority of raising money for such a worthy cause, this is an opportunity for us hardcore supporters to reconnect with Bradford City again. Going to Valley Parade has been a chore for the last 18 months. The atmosphere and life has drained out of a club that we were so proud to support, knowing it was one of the best matchday experiences in the entire country. We need to bring it back.
There will be a great atmosphere on Sunday, and with nothing riding on the game it’s hard to see how it won’t be anything but a high-spirited 90 minutes. A first glimpse of new signings, of a proper Bradford City kit. Seeing familiar faces in fellow supporters we’ve not met up with since May. Going back to regular pre-match pubs. Even the weather forecast is decent.
It will be enjoyable to be back at Valley Parade. To return to watching the club we care about so much. To remember why we love Bradford City deeply. To further move on from the misery and pain that engulfed us last season.
It’s only a friendly. But this is a game that could mean so much more to ardent City fans. It’s time to remember why being a Bradford City supporter is such a special and worthwhile calling.