UNLIKE a lot of footballers, Billy Clarke can enjoy watching matches when out injured.
A love of the game is behind that unusual trait, most players finding it far too frustrating to be in the stand due to being so desperate to be out there on the pitch themselves.
It is why the 27-year-old has been able to be a near constant presence at Bradford City’s matches during his recent 10- week spell on the sidelines after tearing his medial ligament in mid-August.
For much of that time, results were indifferent as the Bantams struggled to contend with not only a need to bed in so many summer signings but also a debilitating run of injuries that kept Clarke, Josh Morris, Filipe Morais, Paul Anderson and Steven Davies out for an extended period.
Now, though, the Yorkshire club is very much on an upwards trajectory with a routine victory over bottom club Crewe Alexandra having pushed Phil Parkinson’s men up to a season’s high standing of seventh in the League One table.
Clarke, thanks to that watching brief during his spell out injured, believes Bradford have nothing to fear from a division that is shaping up to be the most open for years.
“I had to miss a lot of football with the injury,” said Clarke after marking his first league start since the opening week of the season with a goal.
“It was frustrating but I’d had worse injuries and overcome them so it wasn’t anything seriously on my mind or anything like that.
“I do enjoy watching football. Obviously, I would have preferred to be on the pitch but I do enjoy watching games so that wasn’t a problem for me.
“Results weren’t happening at first. Now, though, we are getting there as a team. We have played really well for the last seven games and there is no reason why we can’t keep going.
“The league is wide open. Everyone is beating each other and no-one is running away with it.
“We have played nearly everyone now in League One and, at the moment, I can’t see why we can’t be right up there.”
In four seasons under Parkinson, City’s league position has improved each year. If that trend continues then the Bantams, who finished seventh last term, will be guaranteed at least a play-off position.
On current evidence, that goal seems very much attainable. Against a spirited Crewe side that caused a few problems of their own for the Bantams, the three points were a richly deserved reward for an all-round professional performance that suggests grinding out the wins – an ability all teams with serious aspirations of challenging require – will not be a problem this term.
Clarke’s return to the forward line brought a sense of creativity that Crewe found difficult to handle.
The Irishman was also responsible for Bradford’s first goal in open play for six weeks, an incredible statistic considering Parkinson’s men made it seven games unbeaten with Saturday’s win.
Collecting the ball deep in Crewe territory just before the hour mark, Clarke showed tremendous tenacity and no little skill to retain possession amid a cluster of white shirts.
Then, from the tightest of angles, the Bantams frontman drilled a low shot beyond goalkeeper Ben Garratt to put the hosts two goals ahead and well on their way to all three points.
City’s six previous goals, a run dating back to the 3-1 win at Rochdale on October 3, had come via set-pieces – be it a long throw in the 1-0 win at Doncaster, four corners or the first half free-kick against Crewe that had led to Gary Liddle opening the scoring in first-half stoppage time.
Tony McMahon, as reliable a set-piece taker as can surely be found in the third tier, was the creator for Liddle with a sublime delivery that allowed the midfielder to meet the ball sweetly eight yards out.
Goalkeeper Garratt was then caught out by the greasy surface, as by rights he was in a decent position to keep out Liddle’s header.
Nevertheless, there could be no denying on the balance of play that the home side deserved to be ahead.
City had been unfortunate not to go in front seven minutes earlier, when James Hanson fired agonisingly wide from close range after being set up by Billy Knott.
Crewe had also enjoyed earlier let-offs in the half, Hanson heading over when well placed and then Kyel Reid’s deflected shot being clawed to safety at full stretch by Garratt.
Once ahead, Bradford rarely looked like allowing the visitors a way back into the contest. Clarke’s 58th-minute strike then strengthened City’s grip, though things may have been a little more troublesome had Brad Inman’s long-distance shot gone in rather than crashed against the crossbar.
As it was, the Bantams ended the afternoon on top and there was no mistaking the sense of satisfaction among the home ranks at the final whistle. And it was goal-scorer Clarke who had as much reason as anyone to be in a happy mood.
“It was nice to score on my first league game back,” said the Cork-born striker. “It was a tough few weeks and I worked really hard to get fit again.
“The medical team helped me a lot, they were with me throughout. That was why I ran to the physios (Matt Barrass and Chris Royston) after the goal to thank them.
“It is never nice being injured. My wife was getting the backlash. Not literally! But I have been moaning. Same to the physios.
“So, it was nice to get the win on my first league start back. I felt we dominated the game, bar a 10-minute spell in the second half. We created loads of chances and it could have been more than 2-0 to us by the final whistle.”