Bradford City 1
Doyle 81 (pen)
Milner 13+15 (pen), Brewster 41
By Jason McKeown
This was a day to feel immensely proud to be a Bradford City fan. The club legend Stephen Darby was recognised in a wonderfully fitting way. The club, supporters and former team mates coming together to show appreciation for a great man whilst raising thousands of pounds for a worthy cause.
The club deserves great credit for the way they hosted this important occasion. During the Bantams’ 2018 annus horribilis, the strong heritage and identity of Bradford City was discarded, and heroes were mistreated. Today was another step towards the club restoring its values. And it was an important act of symbolism that the distant owner, Stefan Rupp, made a rare visit to West Yorkshire to be a part of it.
When 20 minutes before kick off Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby boomed out over the PA system, and City and Liverpool fans came together to sing “Stephen Darby Baby”, I’m sure I wasn’t the only person who welled up with emotion. Darby, and his friend and fellow MND sufferer, Chris Rimmer, stood together on the pitch, taking it all in. It was an incredibly special moment.
On the video screen, a photo montage of Darby’s career was playing, underlining just what a memorable five years his time at Valley Parade was for both players and fans. He means so much to so many people, and here was an opportunity for us to show him that.
Darby took the microphone and spoke with great dignity. And when Rimmer mustered a few words too, you could have heard a pin drop. In no time at all the players marched onto the pitch to You’ll Never Walk Alone. A scarf parade was encouraged by the club pre match, and it was an idea embraced by thousands of City and Liverpool fans.
The pre-match scenes were a truly uplifting sight. Step by step, we are getting our football club back. And whatever the lingering pain there is from kicking off this season back in League Two, there’s no question now that a line has been drawn.
This is not the imploding, blundering and identity-robbed Bantams of 12 months ago. It is a different football club. And it looks to be a much healthier, and significantly more likeable, Bradford City.
The revamped City squad took the opportunity of a first home outing to display glimpses of their potential to deliver a promotion push. They were never going to out-pass, out-shoot, never mind out-score the European champions. And a reasonably strong first half Liverpool XI quickly ran up a sizeable lead that was only contained by their level of ambition.
James Milner netted the first two within the opening quarter of an hour. His first was a long range piledriver that deflected past Richard O’Donnell. His second came from the spot after Sean Scannell tripped Ryan Kent just as he was about to score. The impressive Rhian Brewster added a third just before half time, thanks to another deflection.
But City, to their credit, never rolled over. O’Donnell made a terrific first half block, and in front of him the back four stuck to the task. Going forward success was sporadic, but Jordan Gibson was the pick of the bunch with an energetic display that included some excellent probing passes. He’s had a year to forget, but offered a reminder to everyone – including, perhaps, himself – of what a talent he can be. It’s there for him if he wants it.
Scannell and James Vaughan also linked up well, whilst Matt Palmer looks a tidy player. Omari Patrick, a surprising starter, toiled hard and ran at people. The jury, as ever, remains out on Hope Akpan.
City were nearly rewarded for their workrate with a way back into the game at 2-0. It appeared that Ben Richards-Everton had applied the finishing touch to a well-worked free kick, but gleeful celebrations were cut short by the assistant referee’s flag. A couple of minutes later, Vaughan hit the post from another well-crafted free kick, but the same flag was raised again.
The second half saw both sides swap their XIs and – as so often happens in pre-season – the pace and tempo dropped. Liverpool’s second half team was almost entirely absent of recognised names and they seemed reluctant to push on. City had a good second half shape and acquitted themselves well, without having much of the ball. Sam Hornby, in goal, was very impressive. On this evidence he could prove an inspired signing. Tyler French is also a player of real potential and stood out.
A game that drifted to nothingness was livened up late on when the powerful Clayton Donaldson was tripped in the area by Adam Lewis. Eoin Doyle converted the penalty – Simon Mingolet suspiciously didn’t try too hard to stop him – and the home fans had something to celebrate. A moment of triumph, to end off a day to savour.
If there are minor grumbles to have about the day, being in the Kop and having people near you cheering opposition goals is not something you’d want to get used to. But the presence of Liverpool fans in home ends was a small price to pay knowing that their attendance had raised more money for the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation. Far better to have Valley Parade sold out than be 80% full, just to make sure only pure City fans were in home areas. From what I saw there was a good level of banter and warmness between City and Liverpool fans, which was absolutely fitting for the occasion.
There are observations to make about the glass ceiling of Bradford City’s support that means – on occasions like this – home ends can be populated by Bradfordians who prefer to pledge their allegiance to a team they have no direct connection with, rather than support the club that resides in their own city. But it’s hardly a shock, is it? When City kick off their League Two season at home to Cambridge in three weeks, there’ll be thousands of empty seats. It is what it is.
But, deep down, you wonder just how superficial today’s experience must have been for Liverpool supporters in the Kop, Main Stand or Bradford End. For many it was probably the first time they’ve ever seen Liverpool live. Most are highly unlikely to watch them live again this season. If not for years. If not, well, ever again. And all they really saw was a pre-season friendly where their biggest stars were missing. It’s not the most fulfilling of experiences.
Some fans of the big teams are more than happy to watch football from their TV set. But the hope has to be that some Bradfordians making a rare foray to Valley Parade today were able to see the true path of enlightenment. That the absolute soul of football supporting is going to watch your football team in the flesh, not through Sky Sports. And maybe, just maybe, a few of them will be tempted to give Bradford City a try again in the near future.
That all said, Liverpool themselves deserve immense credit for today. To devote some of their pre-season schedule for this game, to recognise a player who ultimately made little impact at Anfield, speaks volumes of their class. From the pre-match Darby social media video, the stately words of Jurgen Klopp about the importance of the occasion, through to the way they conducted themselves on and off the field at Valley Parade, I’m sure I’m not the only City fan hoping they win the Premier League this season. Such humbleness seems lacking at the top of English football.
For City, the rest of pre-season obviously lacks the same glamour, and the realities of League Two football will quickly settle in during a busy August that sees trips to Grimsby, Crawley and Crewe. But they move forwards into the greyness with more heart and a rising level of confidence on and off the pitch. Watching the City players engaging with supporters before the game, at half time and during a full time lap of appreciation shows that the closeness is returning.
The dismal chapter in Bradford City that was last season has now ended. A new one is beginning to be written, full of exciting possibilities. This is a football club that is once again doing the right things. And as Stephen Darby will be the first to attest, a Bradford City that lives and breathes its core values is one that can be incredibly successful.