FOR Phil Parkinson, the abiding memory of Stephen Darby in a Bradford City shirt is his ability to pop up and pull off a goal-line clearance just at the moment when all seemed lost.
Stuart McCall, meanwhile, most recalls the selfless attitude displayed by someone he is quick to describe as “the best professional I managed”.
Tomorrow, those inside a sold-out Valley Parade will get to pay their own tributes to Darby as Liverpool take on the Bantams in what seems certain to be an emotional occasion.
The 30-year-old was forced to retire last September after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Gate receipts from tomorrow will go to the Darby-Rimmer MND Foundation, set up by the former footballer and close friend Chris Rimmer to raise funds and awareness about a condition that progressively damages the nervous system and for which there is not yet a cure.
Even then, though, he wanted to see how he could help other people with the same illness. That is typical of the man.Phil Parkinson
Parkinson, the manager who brought Darby to Bradford in 2012 and then signed him again at Bolton five years later, is unable to be there due to Wanderers being in friendly action at York City. But the former Bradford chief is delighted so many fans will be present for Darby’s return.
“I remember sitting down with Stephen in one of the executive boxes overlooking the stadium when we were trying to sign him,” said Parkinson, who earlier this summer helped raise £25,000 for the newly launched foundation via a charity bike ride.
“I was telling him what characteristics we needed at Bradford along with the mentality needed to turn the club around.
“I needed players ready to come on a journey with us who were willing to roll their sleeves up. Throughout all this, I could see in Stephen’s eyes that he was thinking, ‘You are talking about me’. It turned out he was right.
“I had watched loads and loads of games, and I wanted that ability to pull off goal-line clearances that no-one else could.
“What can often be overlooked when talking about what a good man he is, is just how good he was as a player.
“The thing I always think about with Stephen is just how well he played in all the big games we had at Bradford. He was usually our best player and never looked out of place.
“No matter who we played – Chelsea, Villa, Arsenal, Sunderland – Stephen was always up there.”
Darby, married to England World Cup captain Steph Houghton, made 239 appearances for City. He was part of the ‘history makers’ side that reached the 2013 League Cup final and then clinched promotion via the play-offs just a few months later.
He made another five appearances under Parkinson at Bolton before receiving the shattering news that ended his career.
Parkinson added: “I knew he was struggling. There was something just not right. But never in a million years did we think it would be this.
“He called me on a Wednesday night and explained about the diagnosis. I was devastated for him, obviously. I started to read up on it, as you do when something like this happens to someone close to you. Very, very sad for everyone.
“Even then, though, he wanted to see how he could help other people with the same illness. That is typical of the man.”
McCall succeeded Parkinson as Bradford manager in 2016 at a time when Darby was out with a long-term injury.
“A couple of memories really stand out from my year working with Stephen,” recalled the former Scotland international.
“The first was his return from that injury at Millwall. Tony McMahon, who had come in and done really well in Stephen’s absence, was injured and we were really short.
“Stephen was not really ready, fitness wise, after so long out. I thought we might get 45 minutes or maybe an hour out of him.
“But, instead, he played the full game, was named man of the match and cleared two shots off the line. That was him all over.
“The other memory that really stands out surrounds a game against Sheffield United. Stephen must have expected to come back in because Tony was unavailable but I went for a back three with Rory McArdle on the right side. It was mainly because Sheffield United played with a three.
“Most players – probably including myself, if I am honest –would have reacted to this news by sulking a bit. Getting off the pitch after training on the Friday as quick as possible, that sort of thing.
“Stephen, though, was not like that. He stayed behind after training, helping the very person, Rory, who had taken his place with heading practice.
“That summed Stephen Darby up to a tee. Someone who put the team before himself every single time.”