Bradford City v Charlton Athletic: Bantams keep shirt out of the reach of Rory McArdle

THIS has been an unusual season for Rory McArdle.

Waiting to step in: Rory McArdle, who was a commanding figure in the heart of the Bradford City defence before shoulder problems left him on the sidelines, is ready to reclaim his place.

Previously a mainstay of the Bradford City defence since returning to his native Yorkshire in the summer of 2012, he has spent most of the campaign watching from the sidelines.

Summer surgery on a shoulder that McArdle dislocated in February meant he was unavailable in the opening few weeks.

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But then, once fully fit, the 29-year-old found his path back into the starting XI blocked by the impressive form of others.

Rory McArdle rises for a corner ball.

To someone whose 205 appearances in a Bradford shirt include just five from the bench, this has been something of a culture shock.

Not that McArdle is one to dwell on matters. For a start, he is the ultimate team player – and then there is son Alexander waiting for him at home every day after training.

“He is growing so quickly,” said the City defender while chatting to The Yorkshire Post at City’s Apperley Bridge training headquarters. “He is nine and a half months old now and getting a bit of a handful.

“As frustrating as it is not to play, it is important you don’t take that home as it can get you down. That is why it is great to get home from training or wherever, as he puts a smile on my face straight away.”

Rory McArdle rises for a corner ball.

McArdle marked the birth of his first child last February with a goal. It helped Bradford to a 2-2 draw at home to Rochdale en route to claiming a play-off place.

Defeat to Millwall over two legs, however, ended any hopes of the Bantams returning to a level at which they last played in 2004.

That semi-final exit also signalled the end of an era at Valley Parade, the sale of the club by Julian Rhodes and Mark Lawn a few days later being followed by manager Phil Parkinson’s subsequent departure for Bolton Wanderers.

Stuart McCall took charge in June and he quickly set about overhauling the squad with a dozen new signings.

McArdle watched most of this from afar as he recovered from that shoulder surgery, but the value of McCall’s recruitment has been underlined since then by not just results but also how difficult the 29-year-old has found reclaiming his place once fit again.

“It has been frustrating from my point of view but not from the team’s point of view,” said the defender, who is today expected to drop back to the bench after making only his sixth start of the season in the midweek Checkatrade Trophy win over Cambridge United.

“It is one of those things that you sometimes get in football. Lads find themselves out of the team for numerous reasons and those with the shirts are playing well enough to keep hold of them. Credit to the lads for that.

“If there is ever a good scenario not to be in a team, this is it. If the team was struggling and I still couldn’t get back in then you might start thinking, ‘What is going on?’ But this is totally different.”

In McArdle’s absence, City have performed well and today host Charlton Athletic sitting fourth in the table, albeit having lost in two of their last three league outings.

Those losses have allowed Scunthorpe United, Bolton and Sheffield United to steal a march on the Bantams, who nevertheless do still enjoy a five-point cushion over fifth-placed Rochdale.

“I do glance at the table,” said McArdle, who helped Bradford win promotion via the play-offs in 2013. “I’d be lying if I said anything else.

“But only a glance, just to see where we are and how a couple of our rivals have done. ‘Oh look, we are above them’, that sort of thing.

“Nothing more than that, though. If you start analysing things a bit too much you might get paranoid.

“Some of the lads are straight on their phones in the dressing room to see if we have gone up a place or two, but then that’s it.

“What has happened a little bit, though, is the top four have broken away. Only a little bit, but there is a gap.

“Sticky patches come along, of course, and we don’t know what difference that will make.

“The festive period is always mentioned as a time when things can change due to there being three games in a week.

“For now, though, we are happy where we are. Ideally, we would be a bit higher, but we are in contention and playing well. We have given ourselves a good foundation and now must push on.”

The one blot on City’s season has been first-round exits in both the FA and League Cups to Accrington Stanley.

To someone who has been involved in so many stirring cup victories, be it en route to Wembley in the League Cup final or a famous triumph at Chelsea, McArdle admits: “It is a bit strange to be into December and out of the two main Cups.

“Obviously, we are still in the Checkatrade and that is great. But it was frustrating not to be involved in the FA Cup second-round ties last weekend.

“We had the baptism for the baby last weekend so that was good. But it was still strange not to be involved.

“Obviously, we have some great memories and I wanted us to be in that draw. You can’t have a cup run every year, I accept that. But we are in the Checkatrade.

“I know a lot of people talk about it not being as glamorous as the other two cups, but it is getting interesting now and the final is at Wembley. You can’t disregard that.

“Plus, the lads who have not been playing as much have had games in the Checkatrade and that has been great for us all. It gives the entire squad that winning mentality.”