LEFT at home and told to train with the club’s youngsters as his Huddersfield Town team-mates jetted out to Portugal ahead of the club’s pre-season tour, Jon Stead could have been forgiven for losing faith last summer.
The one-time England Under-21 international had endured a miserable first year back at the John Smith’s Stadium with opportunities in the Championship proving hard to come by and goals even harder.
So, when told in July by then manager Mark Robins that he would be remaining behind in England as the preparations for the new season stepped up a gear on the Algarve, 2014-15 merely seemed to be promising more of the same.
Not, however, that Stead was willing to accept such a fate and, as he contemplates not only a promotion push in the coming weeks but also a trip to Chelsea, that self-belief has been vindicated.
“I am not one to write myself off,” said the striker, who earlier this month joined Bradford City until the end of the season following an impressive loan spell.
“If one manager doesn’t fancy me, some might have thought that would be it for me. But that is not how I think.
“I am not one to let my head drop, not at all. It is the easiest thing in the world to think, ‘I’ll just see out this contract’. But that is not me. It wouldn’t do me or my family any favours.
“A year ago, I missed all of pre-season (in 2013) and it hampered me. So, last summer, the main thing for me was that I had a full pre-season, even though I got messed about massively by Mark Robins.
“I didn’t go away on tour with them and was training with the kids, week-to-week. But I used that as an incentive to get myself fit. And I am enjoying the benefits of that now
“I have gone from getting very little football in a season and a half to playing every week but it has been fine. Fitness-wise, it has not been an issue.”
Bradford fans will certainly agree with that. After coming off the bench 16 minutes from time to make his second ‘debut’ shortly after moving across West Yorkshire in October, Stead has gone on to start the last 15 games.
His hard-working performances have been a factor in City’s season roaring back into life with Phil Parkinson’s men now occupying a play-off place and also through to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
In tandem with, first, Billy Clarke and, more lately, James Hanson, the 31-year-old has been a model of consistency in the Bantams’ forward line and his return earlier this month after an initial stay on loan was warmly welcomed by supporters.
“It is great to be here for the season and, hopefully, beyond,” said Stead. “I have started every game since I came in, bar one, and that was when I’d just come through the door.
“It means I feel part of the club, part of what is going on. I want to be part of this longer term, too.
“The big thing when I returned to Huddersfield (at the start of this month) was getting back here. I didn’t want to waste much time sitting around at Huddersfield. I had two days back at Canalside (Town’s training ground), but was desperate to get back here on both of those. I didn’t want to miss any football.
“I knew, deep down, I would always get back here. But there are so many factors you have to sort our first. Contracts, finances etc. Discussions have to take place, but I keep out of it.
“Whatever was the quickest way to get back and settled, I wanted that to happen. Huddersfield were great, and Chris Powell fantastic. He is a really top bloke. He wanted to bring people in and I wish the club all the best.
“But it feels right to be at Bradford. Getting the contract until the end of the season was important, as it fits in with any play-off football that might come after the season. I would hate to miss out on that.
“For me, I am still – not so much playing for my future – but I won’t rest on my laurels. I want to keep putting in performances that might get me a longer deal at Bradford City. I want to continue my career here because I absolutely love it.”
Stead’s emergence as a key figure at Valley Parade has been a far cry from last season when, after re-joining his hometown club on a free transfer, he started just six games.
Loan spells at Oldham Athletic and then Bradford followed but it has taken a regular run in the Bantams’ team this time around to really get the striker firing.
Millwall know that only too well after Stead netted one goal in Wednesday’s 4-0 Cup replay win and stood up to the intimidation that, at one stage, saw him punched by goalkeeper David Forde.
“I can’t get enough games at the moment,” he said. “I just want to keep going.
“I have to make sure my standards don’t drop in anyway and I keep doing things the right way.
“The big thing for me is that the group is one of the best I have been in during my whole career. I have probably been in too many dressing rooms, if I am honest.
“But it meant I knew last season what a great set of lads it was here. With two or three more additions, this is now a squad with not only quality, but an honesty and determination to succeed.
“You look through the squad and you know every single one of them is going to work hard. That is a great base to start from, as when you start to add quality – which the manager has done – we become a decent side.”