AS a rugged, no-nonsense 6ft 6ins central defender, Luke Oliver is not one for usually showing his emotions on the field.
But, as he made his way off the Valley Parade pitch five weeks ago to a standing ovation from the appreciative crowd, the Bradford City defender admits to feeling overwhelmed.
There was just a minute remaining and the Bantams were 4-0 up against 10-man Brentford.
For City, beating last season’s play-off finalists in such a convincing manner was a big thing.
For Oliver, however, the afternoon had even more significance with his first appearance in almost 11 months finally having brought the curtain down on the darkest period of his career while recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
“As I came off, all the fans stood up and started applauding,” recalls the 29-year-old when asked by the Yorkshire Post about his first appearance in a City shirt since October last year.
“They seemed to know what I had been through and what it meant to me to finally be back playing at Valley Parade. They were so appreciative and I’ll admit to feeling a bit emotional at their response. Finally, I was able to draw a line under it all.”
Oliver’s nightmare had begun on a dismal final Saturday at Burton Albion’s Pirelli Stadium that saw both he and Andrew Davies suffer serious injury in a 1-0 defeat.
However, whereas Davies was able to return from a knee problem in mid-February, Oliver was set for an altogether more frustrating time due to suffering an injury that, not so long ago, was often enough to end a player’s career.
Ironically, as Oliver prepares for his third start of the season tomorrow, Davies has been ruled out for four months after knee surgery.
The 28-year-old former Middlesbrough defender had an operation on Thursday after the old injury flared again during last Saturday’s win over Walsall.
With fellow centre-halves Rory McArdle and Carl McHugh away on international duty and Matt Taylor on loan at Colchester United – the Bantams have just Oliver available as a specialist in that position.
Looking back to his own injury, City’s third longest-serving player, who joined from Wycombe, initially on loan, in the Spring of 2010, says: “It was awful.
“For the first two to three months, I couldn’t do anything as my Achilles had to be given time to heal. I also had been troubled by a hip injury before doing my Achilles so that was sorted out at the same time and, obviously, that extended any recovery time.
“Matt Barrass, our physio, really looked after me. He knew I would be in a plaster cast for sometime and didn’t want me to have to hang around at the club, knowing I wouldn’t be able to do anything.
“So, he let me go back down south to spend time with family and friends for two to three months.
“I’m from west London and getting back there was a big help, even though I probably got on everyone’s nerves as I wasn’t able to do a lot.
“It was still hard, as obviously everyone has to carry on as normal with their lives while I wasn’t able to do a lot. I read quite a lot and just tried to keep myself busy.
“Once I was finally able to do anything, most of my time was spent in the pool and gym.
“Basically, I’d lost my calf so I had to start building that up again. That took a while so when I could finally get back outside and running straight lines then that was a big thing.
“Pre-season was always going to be a big thing and the first couple of days were basically spent assessing where I was at. I did a bit of work and then we had to checking everything was okay.
“I then had a bit of a setback (on City’s pre-season tour of Ireland) but, after that, I was ready to go and making that first appearance against Brentford was huge for me.
“In many ways, it was a great game to come back into. Not only did we win but they had a man sent off midway through the first half.
“Usually, I feel sympathy for any player sent off but, this time, I felt quite happy. All I could think was, ‘Great, we are only going to have one man to mark for the rest of the afternoon now’.
“To win 4-0 and then hear the noise the fans made as I made my way off was incredible. It was a really nice touch of the manager to bring me off with just a minute to go like that. I’ll never forget it.”
Before suffering such a cruel blow in the October 27 defeat to Burton, Oliver had been an ever-present in the first 15 league games of City’s season. Chances are, therefore, that had the big defender been fit then he would have played a big role in a truly astonishing year.
“It was frustrating to sit out most of the season,” he admits when asked about Bradford’s two appearances at Wembley.
“But we all know what football can be like. These things are part of the game. That’s why I couldn’t have been happier for the lads for how well they did.
“I’ve been at Bradford for some time now so to see the success we had last season was brilliant.
“From a personal point of view, it was really nice that I was made to feel very much involved.
“I went to Wembley with the lads and was even kitted out in a new club suit.
“Obviously, I would have loved to play but I was made to feel part of everything and I really appreciated that.”
Asked about his memories of the Capital One Cup final defeat to Swansea and the subsequent play-off final triumph at Wembley against Northampton Town three months later, Oliver replied: “The Swansea final was a bit surreal, especially during the build-up when the lads were being interviewed by camera crews from all over the world. It was an incredible time.
“Of course, losing like we did was disappointing but the experience helped us massively in the play-offs. Having gone through all that in February, the lads started like a house on fire against Northampton and the game was as good as over by half-time. Our win meant the dressing room was jumping afterwards. It was a great night.”
After a summer of rehabilitation that was only broken by his wedding to Sophia and subsequent honeymoon in Mexico, Oliver returned in determined mood.
He says: “I am coming up to my fourth full year at Bradford and it is great to see how the club has progressed. We have gone from struggling at the wrong end of League two to winning promotion and then making our mark in League One.
“The whole club feels different. Before, it was maybe a bit disjointed but that isn’t the case any more. And it has been great to see the enjoyment all the fans have been getting.
“We have all had some hard times together but now we are really going places again. You can sense the positive vibe around the place and our challenge now is to keep that going.”