“Grit. Grit,” he says when asked what qualities he saw in then Under-18 coaches Mark Trueman and Conor Sellars. “Hard work, work ethic and never fazed by things.”
When the 29-year-old sacked club legend Stuart McCall as manager, City had crept out of the League Two relegation zone by virtue of losing less comprehensively than Stevenage.
Now they are at Walsall five points off the play-offs after eight wins in 12 games under Trueman and Sellars, given the job permanently on Monday.
Like them, Sparks has worked his way up the club, and his knowledge of it drew him to them. The night that impressed him most saw their youth team lose 5-0 in January, 2020.
“If you get the right people in the right jobs, your organisation will naturally develop,” he argues.
“The night I realised we were dealing with some serious talent and the right kind of people to make up your DNA we went to Aldershot to play Chelsea’s Under-18s in an FA Youth Cup fifth-round game.
“I decided I would go down and watch, which was probably a strange thing to do but I wanted to see what was going on with this team. I watched us beat Stoke, another cat(egory) one team (the top ranking of English academy). The Chelsea squad was probably worth triple what our current (first-team) squad’s worth so we didn’t have a chance, we lost the game 5-0.
“I arrived a couple of hours before kick-off and walked into the dressing room to say hello. They were putting the kit out, filling the water bottles up. I felt bad we didn’t have a kit man or kit lady helping them but they said: ‘We’ve done this for years, we’re not bothered about that, we want the players to think we’re looking after them.’ That has never left me.
“They’ve been exactly the same since they took the (caretaker-managers’) job. They realise the training pitches need some work and we’re going to do it in the summer – we couldn’t afford it last summer – but they just got on with it.
“To say they got a shot at this job because of that would be unfair but it was one of a number of examples of their ‘We’re not bothered, we’re just going to have a go at it’ approaches. That is what this club is.”
Of the team that night, Reece Staunton, Eliot Goldthorp, Jorge Sikora and Connor Morris had already made first-team debuts, Finn Cousin-Dawson, Kian Scales and Charlie Wood have since, credit to their coaching.
So successful was the pair’s 11 games as joint caretaker/interim managers was Sparks not tempted to leave things be?
“The closest they got to getting the job prior to this was after the Exeter defeat (in early February),” he says. “I thought that was the right time to show them support but they had a very busy week the week after, back-to-back fixtures, and I thought it could derail or distract.
“Of course this could change things because their situations have changed completely but in their eyes they haven’t.
“The biggest concern was I didn’t want to lose these guys. There’s a lot of clubs in bad positions and with deeper pockets than us so you never know but the ink wasn’t in the pen very long on Sunday.
“I told them they can go down in the history books as the guys who saved Bradford City from the National League or you can create a legacy, you pick. I’ll let them do the answering but I’m confident they’ll do well.”
Gareth Evans will be assessed after a knock and Harry Pritchard is a doubt. Billy Clarke is back in full training, but may not be risked.
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