Clarke plans to pitch in as Bantams go for glory

IT has already been labelled “the worst in the country” by Gus Poyet, who has also joked how he might ask the groundsman at Sunderland’s training ground “to mash one of the pitches” so his players could get used to the boggy conditions.

Bradford Citys Billy Clarke celebrates his equalising goal against MK Dons after returning from injury (Picture: Simon Hulme).

But the Valley Parade pitch will not unsettle the Premier League side too much in Sunday’s eagerly-awaited FA Cup fifth-round tie at Bradford City.

This, at least, is the view of Billy Clarke, who marked his return to the Bantams’ starting line-up after injury on Monday night by netting the equaliser in a thrilling 2-1 home win.

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“It was all right on Monday, but it was still difficult,” said Clarke of a surface that drew plenty of negative comments during Sky’s live commentary of the Dons game.

“When balls are played into you, you need to have a look and concentrate and then have another look.

“Everything has got to be very deliberate, as opposed to being quite natural about it, keeping your head up and seeing what is about. But I thought we dealt with it exceptionally well.

“Sunderland aren’t going to be over the moon to be playing on it. But they are elite athletes, playing in the Premier League.

“I don’t want the whole build-up to be about the pitch and Sunderland not fancying it. They are going to be up for it as much as we are.

“With some of the big teams 
already out, Sunderland are going to see it as a chance to go far in the competition.”

Valley Parade’s pitch has slowly deteriorated over the winter and reached its nadir in last month’s 1-1 draw at home to Colchester United.

Afterwards, both Parkinson and U’s chief Tony Humes raged at the standard of the surface, while it was revealed that referee Kevin Johnson had been close to calling the game off an hour 
before kick-off.

Much work subsequently went into trying to improve matters, but the pitch still started to cut-up during the warm-up on Monday night and proceeded to get more and more difficult.

“I only did a bit of running at half-time and after the Colchester game, but it was pretty poor,” said Clarke when asked if there had been an improvement since the U’s draw.

“We had some better days weather-wise since then, which I am assuming helped it massively.

“The groundsmen have worked around the clock to get it in a good condition. They are obviously doing the best they can.”

Monday’s main talking point may have been the pitch, but there were plenty of positives elsewhere for City fans to bask in.

Not only did Parkinson’s side adapt well to the trying conditions to claim a morale-boosting first league win of 2015, but they also welcomed Clarke back into the fold.

The 27-year-old had damaged his medial ligament in the 1-1 draw with Scunthorpe United that preceded Christmas and his only action since then had been a brief cameo from the bench at Stamford Bridge.

It meant Clarke was able to play his part in that incredible victory, a minor consolation for the frustrating holiday period he had to endure.

Clarke had been in fine form before the injury, his introduction from the bench against FC Halifax Town in the FA Cup first round kick-starting an upturn in results that has since seen Bradford lose just two of 17 games.

“I was fortunate enough to get back for the Chelsea game and to come on was brilliant,” he said. “The boys have done really well in the cups.

“I was out for five or six weeks with my knee, but I am not going to dwell too much on it now. I have kept the confidence I had before the injury.

“Everyone at the club is really looking forward to Sunday, the fans included.

“It is not very often these big games come about and we should take it all in.

“We will prepare for it properly, enjoy the build-up and embrace the occasion.”

Asked if City could spring a major shock for the second consecutive round, Clarke joked: “Well, on paper, it is not going to be harder than the last round.”

City’s spirits will undeniably have been lifted by the impressive manner in which MK Dons were seen off earlier this week.

Karl Robinson’s side, who would have gone top with a victory at Valley Parade, took the lead through Dele Alli early in the second half, but it took less than two minutes for Clarke to equalise with a clinical finish.

Fourteen minutes later, Bradford led thanks to another impressive finish by James Hanson and there can be little doubt that any of the Sunderland players watching at home will have been impressed.

Clarke said: “It was lovely to get a great result against one of the in-form teams in the league. We have turned them over twice now. Our end-goal for the season was always to go up, not to get to the FA Cup final. That hasn’t changed. But it was a massive win that really set us up for a great week.”