Weekend Interview: Greg Abbott back in the heart of his Bradford City family

proud return: Greg Abbott, Bradford City's head of recruitment, in the Valley Parade main stand. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
proud return: Greg Abbott, Bradford City's head of recruitment, in the Valley Parade main stand. Picture: Bruce Rollinson
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GREG ABBOTT came home this summer.

Coventry may have been his birthplace and home for the first 19 years of his life. He may also have spent seven years at Carlisle United, five as manager, plus another four at Hull City during a career now well into its fourth decade.

Greg Abbott, left, in action against Aston Villa for the Bantams alongside current manager Stuart McCall.

Greg Abbott, left, in action against Aston Villa for the Bantams alongside current manager Stuart McCall.

But Bradford City is where Abbott’s footballing heart truly lies. So, when the offer came in July to return to Valley Parade as head of recruitment, the 52-year-old jumped at the chance.

“I am almost in heaven to be back,” said Abbott when speaking to The Yorkshire Post earlier this week. “Even though I have probably never worked harder in my life, it is also the most satisfying work I have done. And I am back at what I consider to be ‘my’ club.”

Abbott’s return to Valley Parade was timely. Stuart McCall, a former team-mate and such a good friend that the pair shared a house for two years following Abbott’s move to Yorkshire as a teenager, had been appointed a couple of weeks earlier and there was much to do.

Just nine players were contracted to City, while the club’s entire scouting operation – player files, match reports and so on – had left with Phil Parkinson and his coaching staff following their decision to move, en masse, to Bolton Wanderers.

A dozen new signings later and the unbeaten Bantams are sitting second in League One. Smiles are back on faces at Valley Parade, and probably the widest of all belongs to Abbott.

“I was at Millwall last Saturday and some of the stuff Stuart had the team playing in the first half gave me goosebumps,” said the former midfielder. “We watched it again on Monday at the club and that type of football wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Premier League. It made all the hard work that everyone has put in this summer worthwhile.

“This is a special club. The stadium has changed over the years, so have the faces of the staff. But it is, to me, still the same club I walked into as a teenager all those years ago. A real family affair and somewhere people love to come to work.

“I saw that when I first met Edin (Rahic, City chairman) and James (Mason, chief operating officer). We got on well straight away and, by the end of the interview, the banter was already flying, Edin telling me the only goals I scored in my career were penalties.

“I tried to show him a few on YouTube but there were none I could find, I obviously played too long ago.”

Abbott, of course, suffered tragedy as well as enjoying happy times during his first stint at the club. Along with McCall, he was in the City side that dreadful 1985 day when disaster struck and 56 lives were lost in the fire tragedy. Dealing with not only a city’s grief but also their own formed an unbreakable bond for those players that was brought home to Abbott a couple of weeks before he was sacked by Carlisle.

“We played here and lost 4-0,” he said. “We were terrible and Bradford ripped us apart. There were 15,000 inside Valley Parade but it is the loneliest I have ever felt in my life, totally alone.

“The Carlisle fans gave me some real stick afterwards. That is fine, part of the territory. But my daughter, Lauren, was 19 at the time and really upset.

“I got to the John Hendrie Suite afterwards and my missus looked at me, as if to say, ‘Careful with Lauren, she’s really upset’. As soon as I looked at her, Lauren burst into tears.

“It was awful to see the impact my job was having on my family. Anyway, as Lauren started crying, this Bradford fan lent over and said: ‘Greg, get her over here and she can cry with us because you are with your family now’.

“What a wonderful thing to say, it makes me feel a bit emotional even now. I don’t know who this guy was, other than a fan. But I thought: ‘He’s right, this is my club and I need to come back here one day’.”

Abbott’s wish became reality this summer. His return to Valley Parade continued a post-playing career that began at Leeds United’s Academy under Brian Kidd. Appointed head of recruitment, Abbott was also put in charge of an Under-14s side that featured Aaron Lennon and James Milner. Others to have come under his guidance at Thorp Arch included Danny Rose, Fabian Delph and Jonny Howson. Youth development is something that Abbott is keen to develop at Bradford.

“In the next few windows, we want to develop that side of the club,” he added. “In the past, lads like Seamus Coleman have slipped through my fingers. At Carlisle, we bid £25,000 but Everton came in the next day with £50,000.

“We also had (on loan) the likes of Ben Marshall, Adam Clayton, James Chester, Joe Garner, Gary Madine and Oliver Norwood. But all lads I couldn’t buy because we just didn’t have the money to do so. Adam Clayton, for instance, would have cost £20,000 but the club couldn’t do it, they had to live for the now. Here, though, I will be able to back my judgement by paying money for young players.”

As for the window that has just ended, Abbott added: “It was so busy but, as a club, we did some good work. I enjoyed it. I know most, if not all, the agents and they know me. They got quite used to me saying, ‘We’re Bradford, not Barcelona’ during negotiations.”

Considering his five years in charge at Brunton Park brought two Wembley visits and a series of mid-table finishes despite having one of the lowest budgets in League One, Abbott’s absence from front-line management since that 2013 sacking is a surprise.

There have been offers, he admits. But one unsavoury episode during his time in Cumbria left a deep wound.

“It was a Sunday afternoon and I was watching football at home,” explains Abbott, his face suddenly deadly serious. “We’d lost the day before. I went to check my phone upstairs and saw it was a private number that had rung.

“That was strange in itself. It is either a top, top manager who doesn’t give his number away or someone I don’t know who has got hold of my number. Anyway, I listened to the message. This is how it went: ‘Abbott, you fat Yorkshire b*****. Get out of our club and if you don’t, we will burn your house down with your wife and kids in it’.

“I clicked it off and was white when I came downstairs. (Wife) Sally could see something was wrong so I told her. She listened and then said: ‘You owe them nothing’. But I didn’t want to resign and it was another 12 months before I left. That moment, though, made it dawn on me that no matter what you do and achieve – two cup finals and so on – these people will always be like that.

“I didn’t deserve that, my family didn’t deserve that and I didn’t want management after that.”

The Greg Abbott story...

Released by Coventry City, Greg Abbott joined Bradford City in 1982 and went on to make 343 appearances during a nine-year spell.

Stints at Halifax Town and Hull City followed before a move into coaching with Leeds United’s Academy. He became assistant manager at Carlisle United in 2006, taking the top job two years later.

During five years at the helm, Carlisle twice reached Wembley in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, winning the competition in 2011. Just before that final triumph over Brentford, Abbott was offered the chance to manage Bradford.

“I nearly accepted, almost backed my ability to turn it round,” recalls Abbott. “It should have been a no-brainer, as Carlisle were a division above and Bradford were in a bit of a mess.

“Bradford knew this, which is why I was basically told: ‘The only thing we can pull on is your heart-strings. The finances will be less, the club is in a worse position than yours but we want you to become our manager’. It nearly worked but I’d told the Carlisle chairman, after losing at Wembley (to Southampton in 2010), that I’d take him back and win it. So, I stayed.”

Sacked two years later, Abbott had spells working under Shaun Derry at Notts County and Cambridge United before returning to Valley Parade in the summer.