THE visit of the Champions League holders to a sold out Valley Parade this weekend will be a reminder of happier times for Bradford City.
Not only will the clash with Liverpool trigger memories of that glorious afternoon in May 2000 when David Wetherall’s header was enough to secure the Bantams’ Premier League status via a 1-0 final day victory.
But the return of Stephen Darby, another City hero from a more recent era whose newly-established charity foundation will benefit from Sunday’s gate receipts, will also be a lift for supporters who have endured a tough 18 months.
Darby, forced to retire at just 29 after being diagnosed last September with motor neurone disease, is a hugely popular figure in Bradford.
A key part of the ‘history makers’ team that followed an appearance in the 2013 League Cup final by clinching promotion via the play-offs a few months later, the former full-back was later appointed captain and wore the armband on that never-to-be-forgotten afternoon when Chelsea were dumped out of the FA Cup at Stamford Bridge by Phil Parkinson’s side.
Sunday’s return is certain to be an emotional occasion, as Darby’s two former clubs pay tribute to the Liverpudlian.
Season ticket sales stand at 13,000, just 800 or so down on last term. The re-opening this summer of dialogue with key fan groups via face-to-face meetings has helped enormously in fostering the sense of a new beginning.Richard Sutcliffe
On a football level, it is also shaping up to be an uplifting afternoon for the hosts. Relegation, together with what felt at times to be a surrendering of the club’s identity under former chairman Edin Rahic, hit supporters hard.
City, thanks to the deeds of Darby and co, were supposed to have left League Two behind. But, come next month’s opening day, Valley Parade will be hosting basement dwellers Cambridge United in league combat for the first time in almost a quarter of a century.
Escaping at the first attempt is a must but it won’t be easy. For a start, Bradford have never bounced straight back following any of their previous 10 relegations.
Add in just how tough a division this is going to be with Mansfield Town, Salford City and Scunthorpe United all having been busy in the transfer market and there can clearly be no guarantees.
City’s wage bill of around £2.5m will, at least, help. It is certainly competitive in a division where clubs are restricted to spending 50 per cent of turnover by Football League rules, down 10 per cent from League One.
This budget has been made possible by supporters sticking with the Bantams. Season ticket sales stand at 13,000, just 800 or so down on last term. The re-opening this summer of dialogue with key fan groups via face-to-face meetings has helped enormously in fostering the sense of a new beginning.
Sponsors, too, have remained loyal, while windfalls from previous transfers have further boosted the budget handed to manager Gary Bowyer.
For instance, next month will see Bradford bank the second half of the fee that took Charlie Wyke to Sunderland a year ago.
The final tranche of around £200,000 is also due from Nahki Wells’s switch to Huddersfield Town way back in January, 2014.
Both payments have already been swallowed up by the recruitment that has seen this summer’s tally of signings reach double figures.
Bowyer, just the sort of positive character the club needed after those recent travails, has been as good as his word in trying to strengthen areas where City were palpably weak last term. Ben Richards-Everton and Paudie O’Connor, the latter a bit-part player on loan last season until the final weeks, will bring more of a physical presence to the centre of defence, while Zeli Ismail’s capture from Walsall means pace to add to that increased power. Goals, too, should not be as hard to come by, providing James Vaughan and Clayton Donaldson can stay fit.
Further additions are understood to be dependent on either Bowyer moving on a couple of players – 16 of last season’s squad were contracted to City for 2019-20, accounting for around £1.7m of the wage bill, and only Josh Wright of those has left – or City benefiting from a sell-on clause in an old transfer.
Ollie McBurnie, very much on the radar of newly-promoted Sheffield United, is the big one thanks to his switch to Swansea City including a clause that means Bradford will receive 15 per cent of any profit made by the Welsh club.
The Scottish international left Valley Parade in 2015 for an initial £250,000 fee that has since more or less doubled thanks to add-ons related to the striker’s progress.
If the Swans do sell for the much touted fee of £10m plus, there will be plenty of smiles at Valley Parade.
None will be wider than that sported by Stefan Rupp, the club’s German owner who will be making a rare visit to Bradford this weekend for the clash with Liverpool.
Rupp, having sensibly handed the day-to-day reins to former owner Julian Rhodes following the ruinous reign of Rahic, is likely to see a very different Valley Parade from his last visit as the city of Bradford welcomes back a true club legend in the shape of Darby.
The challenge then is to make sure the presence of a ‘history maker’ can inspire the current squad to go on and make history themselves by bouncing back at the first attempt from relegation.