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Doing the Rounds

26 February 2013

Russell Kempson meets Bradford's Luke Oliver as the Bantams took on Swansea City in the Final

Sun glistens in the clear-blue sky above Apperley Bridge, gradually melting the frost after another sub-zero evening in West Yorkshire. It is five days before Bradford City take on Swansea City in the Capital One Cup Final at Wembley; five days before the fairytale to end all football fairytales might possibly be realised.

At Woodhouse Grove School, which Bradford use as their training ground, the mood is remarkably relaxed. In the staff office, assistant manager Steve Parkin may be swamped by the logistical problems that only Wembley can pose - "it's full on, it's a nightmare," he says - yet his manner is one of calm efficiency. As is everyone's.

It is media day and Mark Harrison, the club's genial football administrator, marvels at the global interest from, among many other countries, Australia, Bermuda, Italy, France, Denmark, Norway and Holland. "And Japan and China as well," Harrison says. "They want to do documentaries, they all think it's a great story."

And it is. Bradford City, of npower League 2, in the final of a major cup competition. You couldn't make it up.

For defender Luke Oliver, though, it is a bitter-sweet experience. As his team-mates collect their heart-rate monitors from the office and set off to train in the sunshine, before hurrying off to their various media appointments at Valley Parade, four miles away, he is treading the hard yards - if a shade gingerly - in the school's swimming pool.

Oliver, last season's Player of the Year, ruptured his left achilles tendon in the 1-0 defeat away to Burton Albion in late October. He has not played since, he will not play again this season. He will not be playing at Wembley. Yet it is still a big day for the 6ft 7in central defender, his first in the pool since surgery and another significant step on the road to recovery.

He can recall that grim moment at the Pirelli Stadium with, for a squeamish soul like me, cringe-making clarity. It was just as well that Matt Barrass, Bradford's head physiotherapist, and Dr Vince Cavaliere, the club doctor, were on hand to offer instant assistance and advice.

"I had the ankle strapped and had taken a couple of painkillers because the achilles had been causing me a few problems," Luke says. "I started the game fine and then a ball came in to the far post. I've challenged to head it but, as I've landed [he claps his hands], it felt as though someone had kicked me. I've jumped up, my foot has gone to sleep, but there was no pain.

"I came off and told Matt that my foot was asleep. I thought that maybe the strapping was too tight. But as I've gone back on, the ball got played over the top. And I just couldn't move. I walked straight back off again. The doc and Matt both sensed that it had gone. When we watched it back later, there was no one near me as I landed. I thought I'd been kicked but I hadn't been. It was weird, very strange to watch it back.

"A lot of the boys said there is a lot of pain when it happens. I just didn't feel any. It was only when I spoke to Matt the next day that I found out what had happened. He said that there are certain ruptures where the nerve-endings get snapped as well and there's no message being sent to the brain to tell you that you're in pain. So, I was quite fortunate there. On the way home, though, I honestly believed that I was going to be OK."

He wasn't.

The rupture was swiftly confirmed and, three days later, Oliver underwent surgery. That evening, his team-mates took on Wigan Athletic - and defeated them on penalties - in the fourth round of the cup. The epic journey to Wembley had just taken a giant leap forward. And Luke would not be playing a pivotal part; all he could do was go along for the ride.

Yet there is no remorse, no self-pity, no envy of the others who were making history. Oliver, 28, retains an admirable stoicism in not only dealing with the cruel setback but also the further complication of needing another operation, to repair an unrelated problem in his right hip, in January. Ironically, the achilles rupture allowed the long-standing hip ailment to be dealt with in a sort of 'two-for-one' solution, even though it has complicated and extended his rehabilitation period.

"I've never had a bad injury before," Luke says. "Apart from when I was 18, when I broke a metatarsal. So I've been quite lucky in that respect and, with this injury, I didn't really know what to expect. When I was in a cast, Matt was good enough to let me go down south - I have family based in London - for a month because I was so restricted and there was no point in me coming in. I think I've coped quite well with the injury and rehab. It's watching games that I've found really frustrating. You think, “I'd rather be playing. I don't like this'. So I've not gone to many matches.

"I did go to the Arsenal game [in the quarter-finals]. I suppose that's when it all dawned on me, what we were achieving. I thought, 'wow, I want to be out there'. But whether we were on a cup run or not, I would have been injured. I'd rather the boys went on the run. It's been brilliant and actually, it has been a good distraction from my injury. It's something else to concentrate on. If anything, it's helped me.

"I've not really found it that lonely because there have been other injured players around me. Mind you, over the last couple of days, it's been just me because everyone else has been getting fit for the Final. You can see, though, how some players might fall into depression. But I haven't found that yet. Fingers crossed, I can stay positive."

Occasionally, staying positive can involve chatting with John Muranka, a 'life coach'. Sports psychology is an area than many players scorn yet Oliver remains open to all ideas. "When I saw John, it not only brought my game on but also gave me a different perspective on things," he says. "Instead of being drawn to the fact that it would take six to nine months for me to get fit again, you build up little steps.

"Today, it's jogging in the pool, for the first time. So instead of thinking, 'I'm miles away from where I want to be', actually I'm one step closer. And that's a bonus. In football, in such a male-dominated environment, psychology is seen as a bit of a taboo subject. Often, the reaction is, 'I don't need that'. But the way I looked at it was, 'I want to do it. If you don't, that's fine'. If there's any small percentage that can make you a better player, then you should use it as a tool."

In the generous-sized Jubilee Pool, there is not a pupil in sight. It is half-term. Oliver is gently jogging back and forth in the water at a depth of 1.35m. "It takes the pressure off the hip," Chris Royston, the club physio, explains. "Luke's doing well. In perhaps two weeks time, we'll have him running in straight lines. We're aiming to get him back for pre-season so he'll have to work all summer."

Oliver swims with Kyle Harrison, a youth team player on the way back from a knee injury. Later, they are joined by James Meredith, the first-team full-back who is recovering from glandular fever. Royston - with Maria Lawton, a student physio - offers guidance and Oliver puts on an acquajogger vest. "It works the muscles against the resistance of the water," Chris says. And the foam floats? "They keep him from drowning," he adds.

Luke completes the hour-long session. It appears grindingly boring, repetitive exercises - albeit in the warmth of the water - that would blunt the enthusiasm of the most prolific of Olympic swimmers. "He's a very good patient," Royston says. "He puts a lot of effort into the rehab. Some players don't. He is always on time, he's a very good professional."  

Barrass, the head physio, is busy elsewhere. The drug-testers have arrived unannounced and he has to supervise the producing of random samples from four players. In the canteen, the first-team squad have had their fill and left for their moments in the media spotlight, and the Bradford youngsters are allowed in to eat. Oliver is with them.

A notice reminds him of the big day that, in a playing capacity, he will miss. 'Bought tickets ready for collection from stadium,' it reads, 'pay on collection'. Numerous letters, from fans, sit on the window sill ready to be collected by the likes of James Hanson and Nahki Wells - the new cult heroes at Valley Parade.

Yet Oliver is still involved, courtesy of Phil Parkinson, the Bradford manager. "I'm getting my Cup Final suit," Luke says. "I know I'm not going to be playing, the gaffer knows I'm not going to be playing, but he still wants me to be part of the experience. I really appreciate that.

"He pulled me to one side the other day and said, 'you don't need a ticket, you'll be coming in with the players and you'll be sitting just behind our dugout'. Again, it makes you feel part of it. It's not like 'we'll see you on Monday, hope you enjoy the game'. It's more like 'this is what we're all doing'. And that's really nice.

"The sad truth is that, when you're injured, in a footballing context, you're no good to anyone. The manager can't pick you, the chairman's paying you not to do anything and the fans don't see you. You're getting all the benefits because you're still in a job and yet all you're doing is trying to get fit. You can see how people can be put to one side. But I haven't felt like that, I've been included. That's helped me as well.

"I'll meet the lads at the hotel before we travel to Wembley. I'll be on the team coach. I thought that being injured, I'd just be expected to get on with it myself. I'd half accepted that. But I'll be in the dressing room with all the boys before the game, just enjoying it. In those 10 minutes before kick-off, all the usual butterflies will be going. I've still got to enjoy the occasion and not let it pass me by."

At least Oliver has tasted the wonder of Wembley, when he played for Stevenage in their 3-2 victory over Kidderminster Harriers in the 2007 FA Trophy Final, the first competitive match at the revamped stadium. "It all starts when you're driving down the M1 and you get your first glimpse of the Wembley arch," he says. "And you think, 'I'm going to be in there in a minute'. It was brilliant.

"That is probably the highlight of my career," he says. "In front of a crowd of 53,000 and we were 2-0 down at half time, too. The best thing for me was picking up the trophy and, knowing where your family is, you point over to them with the cup. That's really nice.

"I'm not sure that the boys who are involved in this Final can quite understand what they have achieved yet. For me, on the outside looking in, I think I can. When you're in it, you just treat it professionally. But their achievement is phenomenal, it's unheard of. After we had beaten Aston Villa [in the semi-finals], there was even a little article in the New York Times. The lads are not on a great deal of money here but there were people reading about them in New York. It was fantastic.

"Yes, of course I'll have a pang of 'I could have been out there' on Sunday. It's human nature. But I haven't played in the other big games in the competition and, if I'd been playing, maybe we wouldn't have got to Wembley. Really, there is just no point in going over the ifs and buts."

Barrass has to deal with ifs and buts on a daily basis. As he nurses the players through the wear and tear, the niggles and the strains; ready to perform for Parkinson again. As a former professional - an ex-Manchester United youth player and Bury right-back, who was forced to retire at 24 after enduring 12 knee operations - Matt can empathise with the casualties who regularly appear on his treatment table.

"At first, I like to give a player a bit of time with his family," Barrass, 32, says. "To let him get his head around what has just happened to him. Because it's going to be a long haul and there are stages further down the line when I'm going to need him to give me his all.

"Every now and then, you do get players who, for want of a better phrase, will just have a 'head loss'. Things get on top of them, when they've been in the gym for weeks on end. They can get frustrated, stir crazy almost. You can see that they're gone. They don't want to do the next session.

"With Luke, we had to get him up walking from the achilles operation and then we stuck him straight in to get his hip done. Now, we've got to rehab them side-by-side, which is a bit of a challenge to say the least. You've got two major injuries on opposite legs at the same time. It's as complex as it gets.

"But Luke is very level-headed, very matter-of-fact about it all. He's been great. This is his job, this could happen; that's the way he has approached it, he just gets on with it. He's an intelligent lad and tough mentally, which also helps. He understands the process."

A process that Steven Taylor, the Newcastle United defender, had to go through when rupturing an achilles in December 2011. I show Oliver a cutting, in which Taylor reveals in gruesome detail, "I had two weeks of having to inject myself in my stomach every morning to thin my blood. It wasn't a very nice feeling. I got a bit twitchy about it, sometimes it didn't go in right the first time. It gave me the shakes every time I did it."

Oliver reads it and smiles. "Yeah, yeah; I had to do that," he says. "You have to inject yourself in the belly so you don't get any blood clots. I was down south, Matt was not around, so it was a sort of DIY. I wasn't too bothered about it. Once you get used to it, you're away."

As easy - or perhaps not - as learning Spanish, one of Luke's hobbies. "I'm hoping for a move to Barcelona," he jokes. "Actually, I like going on holiday in Spain." Or playing the piano, another pastime. "My mum made me do it as a kid and I hated it. I've sort of come back to it, albeit on a basic level. I don't have any lessons, I just play myself. I've got a keyboard in my flat and I put on my headphones so the neighbours don't have to listen to it."

Music blares in the school gym - the 'Fitness Suite' - and Oliver sits aboard an exercise bike for a 25-minute session. "This is where it can get lonely," Barrass says. "All on your own, all afternoon." Dr Cavaliere chats with Luke, keeping him company, as Steve Parkin receives a massage in the medical room nearby. "I need this," Parkin says. "It's the pressure and strain of going to Wembley."

Wembley. The big day arrives. Rival fans mingle amiably in the bitter cold outside the stadium, for what has been billed the 'Friendly Final', coaches and stretch limos inch into the crowded car parks, a helicopter hovers overhead. Oliver has passed up the opportunity of travelling in on the team bus after accepting an offer to do some live TV punditry.

"It was good," Luke says, having briefly inspected the pitch. "I was only on the show for about a minute but I enjoyed it. The build-up has started now and it's getting exciting. The mood among the players is good. They look ready for it. There's a little glint of hope, even though there shouldn't be. There's a little sense that there could be an upset here. I've seen all the boys, I'm here and that's just where I want to be.

"When I was here with Stevenage, because I was playing, I was probably a bit more nervous than today. Now, it's more a case of expectation that I could be watching something special happen. No, I don't feel any regrets. That time is over. If I'd snapped my achilles after the last Villa game, that would have been soul destroying. But the other boys have got us here, they deserve it and I'm delighted for them."

Shortly before kick-off, a huge banner proclaiming 'Always Remember' is passed above the heads of the Bantams fans. It is a poignant moment, a mark of respect for the 56 people who died in the Bradford fire disaster in 1985. It is followed by a foaming sea of flag-waving, at both ends of the stadium. "It feels like cup finals used to be," a colleague notes.

Oliver has found space in the dugout, with the Bradford substitutes and staff. His parents, Jackie and Martin, are also at Wembley but not Sophia, his fiancee, a make-up artist who specialises in weddings. "She's got a wedding fayre to go to," Luke had told me earlier in the week. "She's trying to start up a business so it's a big opportunity for her. If I was playing, though, she'd definitely be here."

The Final passes in a blur, mostly of goals as Swansea impose their Premier League class and ease to a 5-0 victory. And yet the Bradford masses, in recognition of a magnificent journey almost over, keep chanting until the closing blast of Kevin Friend's whistle. "Everything's been perfect today," John Hendrie, the former Bradford winger, reflects. "Apart from the 90 minutes. Such a shame."

Oliver goes on to the pitch to embrace his team-mates and commiserate with them. "We're still hurting a lot," he says later. "But you had to admire and appreciate how well Swansea pass and move. It was good to watch. Well, almost. Still, it wasn't really about the result, it was about the achievement in getting here."

Reality will swiftly kick in for Bradford - a League 2 fixture against Dagenham and Redbridge on the Wednesday as they continue their pursuit of an end-of-term Play-Off place. 

And for Luke, too. Helping to organise his wedding on June 1st will occupy much of his spare time - "I might even have do some running when I'm on honeymoon," he chuckles - but it is the long hours, those hard yards, in the pool and gym that will determine how soon he returns to full fitness.

The personal journey, for Oliver, is nowhere near over yet.

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