NAHKI WELLS may be more than 3,500 miles from his Bermuda home, but there is no danger of the striker forgetting his roots.
This much was clear after the 22-year-old opened the scoring against Aston Villa in last month’s semi-final first leg at Valley Parade.
As 19,000 Bradfordians celebrated and his overjoyed team-mates raced after Wells, he simply lifted up his shirt to display a touching tribute to a childhood friend.
“RIP Tumaini Steede” read the message on Wells’s tee-shirt in honour of his one-time international team-mate, who had died the previous summer from injuries sustained in a motorbike smash on the sunshine island.
The heartfelt gesture went down very well in Bermuda, with Steede’s parents just two of several islanders to get in touch with the Bradford striker since that 3-1 victory over Villa to express their thanks.
“Yes, it was a poignant moment for me,” said Wells when speaking to the Yorkshire Post earlier this week before heading south with the City squad.
“It was something I felt I had to do to pay my respects because there is a very good chance – probably 85-90 per cent – that he would have been at that game.
“He was studying mechanics in Brighton and I am sure he would have come up to Bradford for the match. We actually played against each other – me for Dandy Town and him for another local club called Cougars.
“The two teams are big rivals. But while on the field we hated each other, off it we loved each other. I could probably relate to him the most. A lot of my best friends stopped playing football when we got to 16 or 17. But he continued and had he not passed away, he would probably have had a similar opportunity to me because he was so talented.
“What happened was so, so sad. I was at home in Bradford, just chilling, when I got a ’phone call to say he was in the hospital after a bike accident. He’d been totally by himself, I was told, and slid off the road into a tree.
“Obviously, the doctors try to soften the blow in terms of telling you what the damage is in these situations and the feedback I got was positive.
“So, the news he’d died was a shock to me because, at first, I heard he was all right and would, hopefully, get better. But then, just a few days later, I got a call saying he’d passed on. It was a hard moment for me and I have just totally put my career towards honouring him.”
Wells, who had been preparing for City’s pre-season tour of Ireland when news first came through of the accident, was given compassionate leave by manager Phil Parkinson.
Wells attended the funeral in Bermuda before flying back to Bradford determined to do justice to the memory of his friend.
“What happened has totally inspired me to achieve what I have always wanted to achieve,” says Wells, City’s top scorer this season with 18 goals.
“And whatever I do achieve, I will do so with him in mind because I am sure that is something, as a friend, he would have been so proud of me for doing.
“Football was something he always wanted to do and I think he was destined to do well. I said that to his parents when they rang after the Villa game. They were proud of me and happy that I had given their son a shout-out because he, unfortunately, can’t now get that opportunity.”
Wells’s touching words suggest he has another tribute planned for Wembley? “I do,” admits the striker, “but I will save that for Sunday.”
Just how the striker found his way to Bradford is a lesson in perseverance from Wells.
Initially, he was handed a four-week trial by Ipswich Town only for homesickness and a lack of homework on his own part – “I didn’t even know who the manager was”, he admits with regret today – brought an abrupt end.
A recommendation from former City winger Mark Ellis then brought the offer of a trial match at Valley Parade in 2010 only for a below-par display to herald another rejection.
Next stop was Carlisle United, whose manager, Greg Abbott, a former team-mate of Ellis, offered a six-month contract. Just three appearances from the bench later, however, and Wells was again shown the door.
A return to Bermuda beckoned only for Ellis to again contact Bradford through chief executive David Baldwin and this time Wells impressed sufficiently to earn a one-year deal. Twelve goals in the 2011-12 season were enough to warrant an extension last summer and City were glad of that security last month when Leeds United and Huddersfield Town were among the clubs taking a keen interest in the forward.
Not, however, that they had much chance of prising Wells away with the prospect of a trip to Wembley with City in the offing.
“There was speculation about me, but I just look at it as a compliment,” admits the striker. “I have taken it with a pinch of salt and just kept my head down and worked hard.
“If there are opportunities from above (in the future) then I would be proud to say it was something I couldn’t turn down. But, at the minute, I am a Bradford City player and will be for another two years unless someone comes in and is interested in taking me out.”
Wells is, first and foremost, happy at Valley Parade. City did, after all, give him his chance in English football.
“Growing up,” he says, “this was always my goal. I got the opportunity when I was 16 or 17 to go and have a trial with Ipswich. But I was homesick and, basically, threw away a truly great opportunity.
“I knew as soon as I got on the flight back to Bermuda that it was something I shouldn’t have done. But you learn from your mistakes.”
Wells has played a key role in City’s run to Wembley, a fantasy story that even his namesake HG would have struggled to pen.
Not only did he net the first goal against Villa, but also bagged the two late strikes that took the third -round tie with Burton Albion to penalties after Bradford had trailed 2-0 with just seven minutes to go.
The upshot is “around 70 per cent” of Bermuda are expected to tune in tomorrow as Wells looks to write the final chapter in one of English football’s most unlikely stories.
And if City can, once again, upset the odds to prevail at Wembley tomorrow, the big question has to be, ‘Will you be taking the cup home to Bermuda?’
“I’m not sure about that,” comes the reply, accompanied by a mischievous chuckle. “But we will definitely be taking it to Vegas with us on our end of season trip if we do win.”