EVEN allowing for the bumper crowd that is expected at Valley Parade today, Bradford City and Sheffield United seem a long way from the days when the two clubs had a seat at the top table of English football.
Fifteen years have elapsed since the Bantams last played in the Premier League, while for the Blades it is nine. More pertinently perhaps, it is a considerable time since either last featured in the second tier with Bradford relegated in 2004 and United following suit seven years later.
Despite that, the potential of today’s derby combatants is clear for all to see. Not only are the Yorkshire duo riding high in the table but the support base is such that the average crowds at Valley Parade and Bramall Lane this term dwarf their League One peers and are superior to half of the Championship.
Matthew Kilgallon appreciates this promise more than most. He joined Bradford last summer and admits to being blown away by the atmosphere on the opening day of the season, while Bramall Lane was home for three years after the defender left Leeds United in January, 2007.
“It is a shame to see both clubs down in this division,” the 32-year-old defender told The Yorkshire Post ahead of what promises to be a fascinating encounter at Valley Parade.
“But there are a lot of former Premier League clubs who have ended up in League One. The encouraging thing is the likes of Norwich, Southampton and Leicester show how things can be turned round with hard work.
“People might think after relegation to League One: ‘We are never going to get back up there’. But those teams have shown it can be done. Everyone has to believe that.”
Just one point and two places separate City from United in the League One table. It means a derby encounter that has always been keenly fought has an extra edge today.
Kilgallon, after starting his first league game for the Bantams in midweek, is hoping to be involved against a club where he admits to having enjoyed plenty of happy times.
“Sheffield United was a big move for me,” he said. “It was hard leaving Leeds because I had come through the system and had great times there.
“But going to Sheffield United meant being back in the Premier League. Relegation was a blow at the end of that season and I also had the (2009) play-off final when we lost to Burnley. That was hard to take.
“The big thing I remember, though, from Sheffield United is what a great set of lads we had. I enjoyed it.”
Kilgallon returned to the Premier League after leaving the Lane to join Sunderland early in 2010. Things did not work out at the Stadium of Light with the York-born defender making just 26 appearances in two-and-a-half years, a decent chunk of which was spent on loan at Middlesbrough and Doncaster Rovers.
Two years at Blackburn Rovers followed before his release at the end of last season. “I always lived in Yorkshire regardless of where I was playing but it is still nice to be back playing in the area,” he said about a free transfer move to Bradford that went through on the eve of the new season.
“I did have options in the summer but this was perfect – and I realised on the opening day just how big this club is.
“In terms of fitness, I wasn’t ready at all to play. I had played a lot of tennis in the summer and gone to the gym as often as possible.
“But there is nothing like a pre-season and training with the first team every day in terms of sharpening you up massively.
“Despite that, I was on the bench for the opening day. The squad was really stretched and the gaffer asked me as a favour. He said: ‘I know this isn’t ideal but can you do this for me?’ I was delighted to, anything to help the club.
“Anyway, I came out before kick-off and there were 18,500 there. There was a guy on a drum at the back and all the big flags waving, it was a brilliant sight. I thought: ‘Flipping heck, this is going to be good’.”
Kilgallon’s playing time in front of those home fans has been restricted to Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Southend and two outings in the EFL Trophy. City’s impressive start has been a big factor in his need to be patient, something he fully understands.
“The lads have done brilliantly,” said the defender. “I wasn’t fit enough to start the season and after that I wasn’t able to get in.
“I haven’t enjoyed being out of the team but what I have enjoyed doing is watching the lads play. It has been really impressive stuff, some lovely football being played.”
A couple of weeks ago, Kilgallon had a reminder of the days when he considered the Premier League to be home. It was a behind closed doors friendly against a Liverpool side that featured a host of big names such as James Milner, Danny Ings, Emre Can and Lucas. City lost 5-0 that day but results in the league have been good.
“With the team we have got, I can’t see why we can’t get back up to the Championship,” he said. “The fan-base is certainly there to push on even further. Since joining Bradford, the amount of things I have to get signed has been huge. We have fans everywhere.
“I will go play golf and the guy behind the bar says: ‘Oh, I am a Bradford fan can you get this signed?’
“I have had to nick about 13 pairs of boots and a load of training kit just to keep them all happy! Seriously, though, it has shown me just what a big club this is and how much potential there is.”