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Doing the Rounds

3 December 2012

Russell Kempson travels to the DW Stadium for Bradford's tie with Wigan

It had gone to the wire and still there was nothing to separate Wigan Athletic and Bradford City in their engrossing Capital One Cup Fourth Round tie.

A spot-kick shoot-out loomed, at the empty South Stand end of the DW Stadium - far away from the 5,000 visiting fans whose emotions were becoming increasingly frazzled.

"I just can't see what's going on," complains a women behind me. Indeed, the penalty takers in the distance look like matchstick men. 

"I just can't watch it," says the guy next to me, burying his head in his hands. It's what cup football does to you, especially when the deadlock has to be decided from 12 yards.

It was the third match in which Bradford had needed extra time on their epic run to a first appearance in the last 16 of the competition for 24 years. Whereas Notts County, Watford and Burton Albion had been eventually beaten in normal time or after an additional period, Wigan, the Premier League club, were still standing.

Not for long, though.

Matt Duke, the City goalkeeper, hurls himself to save Jordi Gomez's penalty and send Bradford, from League 2, through to the quarter-finals. Cue bedlam in the North Stand, the 5,000 in claret and amber going bonkers. I'm almost knocked off my feet as manager Phil Parkinson, his staff and victorious players trot over to salute the fans.

Parkinson - 'Parky' to his friends - is an undemonstrative sort and keeps his celebrations muted. Just polite applause to the masses, a tribute to their vociferous backing throughout the evening. 
Yet suddenly he can't help himself, punching the air twice with his left fist. In that moment, it showed what it meant to him, the club, the team, the supporters.

"I thought it was a night of great discipline by the team," Parky reflects later. "There were a lot of big hearts out there. If you play with commitment, desire and discipline, like we did tonight, you do get rewarded. I'm really pleased with the way we played. In terms of finance, first of all, it is huge for the club. There just isn't a great deal of money at Bradford."

Money, funds: it's what makes the football world go around. And it's what Parkinson went searching for when he arrived at the club in August last year. Joint chairmen Mark Lawn and Julian Rhodes were receptive to his requests and, gradually, Parky's squad has taken shape. First, surviving possible relegation from League 2; now, pushing hard for promotion into League 1.

The previous day, I had spoken with Phil at the club's training complex, situated in a delightful rural setting in the grounds of Woodhouse Grove School in Apperley Bridge, on the outskirts of Bradford. 
'Bone et Fidelis' - 'Good and Faithful' - is the school's motto, which appropriately sums up the devotion of the Bantams followers through thick and thin. Over the past decade, mostly thin.

"When I got the opportunity to speak to Mark and Julian, they knew that the squad was very poor," Parkinson said. "They were quite open with me. And I knew straight away that it was going to be a tough challenge. We had a massive squad of 35 players but not enough of them were good enough.

"I sat down with Steve Parkin [his assistant], looked at the squad and drew a line through a lot of the players. We said that we had to move them on and get a squad competitive enough to stay in the division. Simple as that. For Bradford to have gone out of the League would have been devastating for the city because of the size of the club.

"I felt a big weight on my shoulders, I really did, and we had some traumatic nights along the way. But we got there. We managed to claw in enough points and, when we got over that finishing line, it was great. That was it, it was a massive relief for everyone.

"As I said to the chairmen, they were the ones who put their money into the club and they stood to lose a hell of a lot of it if we'd gone into the Conference. It was a terrific feeling to stay up and be able to sit down with the board and say: 'Right, this is what we need to do now and the only way we can alleviate the pressure is by getting better players and a better team'.

"Last summer was a major rebuilding job and we've had a good first third to the season. If you take a step back and look at where we are, we've got to be pleased. But we've got to keep improving, that's the key. The proof will be in May next year, when we see where we end up in the League. We've still got a lot of work to do to be the finished article."

How big was that rebuilding job? How radical was the pruning of the original pool of 35? Phil glances at a board on the wall of his office. "One, two, three, four...14 players out of the current squad, of 20, are ones who I have brought in," he says. He counts again. "Yep, 14 out of 20. It's been a big change around."

And not helped, most recently, by injuries to the regular centre-backs Luke Oliver and Andrew Davies, and the dismissal of Ricky Ravenhill, the Bradford captain, in the 1-0 defeat at Burton. "It was the day from bloody hell," Parkinson sighs. Worse still, none would make the trip across the misty Pennines to play at the DW Stadium the next day.

Parkinson, the former Colchester United, Hull City and Charlton Athletic manager, talks quietly, concisely, rarely wasting a word. He took six months off, after leaving The Valley, and spent the time scouting for Arsenal in the Yorkshire area. Watching and making notes for the North London giants yet keeping tabs on possible recruits for when he returned to management.

"I was quite happy to take a break," he said. "I took in Premier League games, academy games, youth games - all levels. It kept me busy and it was a great insight into the recruitment process of Arsenal, who are renowned for that. They are so thorough and I really enjoyed it.

"But I always wanted to be a manager again and looked at the scouting as a) it kept me involved, and b) if I was fortunate to get another managerial job, my knowledge of players was what would make or break me. I wasn't in a mad rush to get back and I wanted to wait for something that was exciting and had potential.

"I just felt at Bradford, if I and the rest of the staff could get it all going, it is a massive club. I always said that it was going to take some getting going but if we could do it between us, then it will be a great club to work at. It has had many years of demise, it needs turning around and we're just starting to do that again. But it takes time.

"The fans have been excellent. After my first game, when I saw the response from the fans after a 100 per cent committed performance, I said: 'Lads, roll your sleeves up, run around, compete for every ball and the supporters will identify with that'. And that's what we've found. If we give them everything - win, lose or draw - they'll back us. I do feel that they're a really knowledgeable crowd.

"Look at the 5,000 people who are going across the M62 tomorrow night. That shows you what this club is capable of. It also shows you that the momentum is building here and that there is a positivity in the city towards the team, which is probably the first time for a long while."

Assistant Parkin shares that optimism. The 'Parky and Parky' nicknames could be a tad confusing - "Not really," Steve says. "I'm Parky, he's the gaffer, so it's fine" - but everyone is clear about the targets, the goals ahead. "I didn't know Phil when he came here but I must have been recommended by someone," Steve, the 46-year-old former Scunthorpe United assistant manager, adds. "They must have said some nice things about me, though I'm not sure why.

"I met Phil in a pub, we had a pint, we talked over the squad and we hit it off straight away. It was only going to be for half an hour but we were there for a couple of hours. He offered me the job, I took it and I've enjoyed it ever since. Phil's a very professional, dedicated person who throws everything into it. I can see why he's been successful in the past.

"We did a really good job of staying in the League and the manager, with a little help from me, worked tirelessly over the summer to strengthen the squad and it's now decent for this level. Phil includes me in everything and we have a really good relationship. We're both very honest with each other."

As are boss Parkinson and Nick Allamby, Bradford's head of sports science and fitness coach. Nick also chats in the cluttered staff office in a rented wing of the school, which overlooks the many sports pitches, tennis courts and the construction of a new 3G synthetic surface. City also have use of Woodhouse Grove's gymnasium, swimming pool and indoor hall, facilities that many a League 2 club would covet.

"For me, to do my job correctly, you've got to be working with people who let you do it," Allamby, who previously held the same post at Middlesbrough, explains. "If they're not interested in that, well...we needed to change the ethos of this place and make it a bit more professional. Phil was keen to do that.

"I make sure that the training we do is the right intensity at the right times. We put into place different systems to monitor the players' health, hydration and body composition. We look at their recovery on different scales and we've tried to make them a bit more robust because they play so many games nowadays.

"We've had nine matches in a four-week period. It's all about managing their energy levels and you have got to reduce the amount of training; the volume has just got to come down to take into account all those games. We train very little, really. Our whole aim is making sure that each match we play, the players are as fresh as they possibly can be."

Motivational sayings adorn a wall; 'some people dream of success, others stay awake. Achieve it' and 'don't talk about yourself. It will be done when you leave' - all geared towards moving onwards and upwards. Parkin and Allamby - with Matt Barrass, the physiotherapist - form the the triumvirate that Parkinson relies on.

"Steve's terrific," Parkinson says. "He's a great football person, he loves the game and has got great knowledge. He's been a key appointment. I'm also big into sports science and if you want to improve as a club, you've got to do things right. I'm so pleased we've got Nick on board. And Matt, who we got from Preston [North End] and who's been excellent for us. I'm really happy with the structure we've got in place."

Kitman Graham Duckworth is an integral part of the structure, too. The life-long Bradford fan is in his second full-time season in charge of the strip, as well as his numerous other duties, and is in his element after a colourful career, which included 13 years in the army, serving on the front line in Northern Ireland, and stints on a milk round - "I delivered to Lee Westwood's mum and dad in Worksop," he reveals - in insurance, as a car valeter and at B&Q.

"I love it," Graham says. "People talk about dream jobs, I've got it. You'd look at the team photo and think: 'I'd like to be in that'. And for the last three seasons, I have been. It's absolutely brilliant. Bradford are in my blood, I started supporting them at the age of six and it's now my 50th year. Mind you, I bet I don't get a clock or owt.

"Footballers are footballers and there's a lot of banter. And I'll never change. I'll take the Mickey out of them as they do out of me. If you do get down, they tend to think: 'What's going on here?' I'm very bubbly, the gaffer will tell you that. They're a great group of lads here. No egotists, no big people, no prima donnas. They're all together.

"As a kitman, you know what each player is like. Every one is individual. One, when he walks into the dressing room, takes his playing shirt off the coat hanger and just throws it on the floor and leaves it there until he goes out; some put on the left sock first or the other way around; and three players always change shirts at half time. If that's not superstition, I don't know what it is.

"After games, it can be a bit of a nightmare. Depending on the result, it depends on how messy they are. If they've lost, things just get dumped. If they've won, everything can go everywhere. They start chucking things at me and if you get hit by a sweaty sock, you know it."

Graham, 56, is not just a kitman. He ferries the pre-prepared meals from Valley Parade to the training ground canteen, back and forth four times a day. "It's only four miles but, in the rush hour, it can be a long four miles," he says. "If you get stuck in the traffic, it can be horrendous." He prints the names and numbers on the jerseys, too. He blows up the footballs, he washes them. "I'm a busy person," he says. "It never ends."

Not forgetting - on rare time off - his regular charity walks, raising funds for the burns unit at Bradford Royal Infirmary, a legacy of his torrid experience in the Valley Parade fire disaster of 1985, in which 56 people died. "I was in the Kop that day," Graham recalls, momentarily subdued. "Some people still can't talk about it. It's one of those days you'll never forget."

Matchday arrives. Rain falls on the DW Stadium as Dean Windass, the Bradford goalscoring legend, is greeted warmly at an entrance in the Springfield Stand. Fans of both clubs queue at Sharpy's fish and chips restaurant and takeaway. It is a huge place - should that be plaice? - and does brisk business. I prefer the meat and potato pie, with brown sauce, for £2.30 in the concourse inside the North Stand. Tasty pre-match fare.

The excitement among the City followers - a bustling mix of men, women and children, the young and the old - is palpable. Not least among brothers James and David Hand. "I've supported Bradford since I came out of nappies," James, 33, says. "Dad [Peter] was a Leeds fan and tried to take us to Elland Road.

"But he couldn't afford to get us in, found out that Bradford were playing on the same day and so took us to Valley Parade instead. I was sat behind a pillar, I couldn't see a thing, but that was it. I fell in love with them. I can't remember the last time we took 5,000 away. It's going to be a special atmosphere tonight. The stand will be bouncing."

It is. And rarely stops reverberating over the 120 minutes. Even the drummer boy keeps banging away throughout. How does he manage that? With the tie remaining at 0-0, the City fans grow fretful, anxious, praying for their best chance of victory - the shoot-out. And when Matt Duke makes that final save, the explosion of joy is ear-splitting.

As chants of "Wem-ber-lee, Wem-ber-lee" echo around the stand, I catch up with the Hand brothers. They are ecstatic. "I reckon we should have an open-top bus ride around the city for that," David, 29, says. "It's worthy of it. What a feeling. I said that if we got through, I'm going to bring along my little girl [four-year-old Isobel]. I'll have to bring her and I'll get her a little Bradford top, too."

A hoarse James concurs. "I kept looking at the clock," he says. "Ten minutes left, five minutes left, then extra time. Then 10 minutes left, five minutes, 'Come on, boys. We can do this'. In the end, we defended like animals. It's amazing, just unbelievable. It's one of those moments you can only dream about. I can hardly speak. My voice has gone."

Soon, most of the Bradford fans had gone. Triumphantly into the night, back across the Pennines. 

A comment from Parkinson the previous day sprung to my mind. "Who knows?" he had said. "We could beat Wigan and get Arsenal in the quarters." 

And, lo and behold, at Valley Parade on December 11th, Bradford City will take on Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the Capital One Cup.

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