“If you had 11 Stephen Darby’s wearing claret and amber every week, you wouldn’t go far wrong.”
July 2012. Bradford City is, by the admission of most fans, a pretty bleak place.
Phil Parkinson has helped guide City to Football League survival months earlier, and set on rebuilding the club’s fortunes, oversees a massive overhaul which includes the addition of respectable Football League veterans such as Gary Jones and Garry Thompson.
As we know, every player signed that summer would go on to etch their name in Bradford City’s history – and while the 2012/13 campaign may be instantly remembered for Nahki Wells’ glut of goals, James Hanson’s knack of scoring at exactly the right time or the leadership heroics of Jones, you suspect it would have all been impossible without players like Stephen Darby.
Awarded Heritage Number #1134 following his debut against Notts County on 11 August 2012, Darby would quickly establish himself as not only a mainstay of the side which created history under Parkinson, but one of the most popular full-backs ever to wear claret and amber.
Reliable, comfortable on the ball and never shirking of his responsibilities in defence, Darby quickly became arguably one of the more underrated players of the history makers. It’s hard to imagine any of that great side being replaced by someone else for a fixed period: but a City back-four under Parkinson without Darby? The mind boggles at that particular thought.
Darby’s numbers and stats are hugely impressive. In five seasons with Bradford City, he became part of a group containing fewer than 50 men to make 200 league appearances for our club. That’s a group that greats such as Terry Dolan and John Hendrie couldn’t make it into. Darby’s partners in crime in the back-four, Rory McArdle and James Meredith, also fell short.
That number of appearances is in no small part down to an astonishing run of games in the final three seasons under Parkinson – when between August 2013 and May 2016, Darby missed just ONE league game: a 2-2 draw at Bristol City in October 2014.
There was only one goal – but how it was a special one. City needed something in extra-time against Burton Albion in that legendary League Cup campaign; Darby’s rasping 20-yarder put City on their way to a last 16 tie with Wigan. We all know what happened next.
When Gary Jones left in the summer of 2014, there was only ever one man likely to take the armband. The man who epitomised the characteristics required to lead Bradford City into battle every single weekend.
But for all the heroics on the field, what Stephen Darby truly holds a place in the heart of City fans for is how he helped piece back together the rubble of a relationship between the club, the city and the fans. When Parkinson joined, followed by players like Darby, City were a mess on the field and off it.
Yet every single May, Darby, Parkinson and the squad would be in attendance at the fire memorial to pay their respects to those who were impacted by Bradford City’s darkest day. To them, it wasn’t a chore or something they had to do – it was something they wanted to do. And the fans understood that, and will never forget it.
We all remember the banners and mottos expertly put together by the then PR team during those heady days, and it was players like Darby that represented a core part of the Bantams family. Nothing sums his relationship with City and the supporters up better than when, after beating Chelsea 4-2 – a game he captained City to victory in – he joined a minibus of fans to lead a chorus of ‘Everywhere We Go’.
It was moments like this which, in essence, made fans believe Bradford City was worth investing their emotions in again. Parkinson drove those standards from the top and spoke openly and affectionately about the relationship between club and fan, but the players helped deliver his message emphatically. Darby was at the heart of that.
Sponsor events, media, fan group meetings.. Darby would never shy away from doing his bit off the field. The bond established between Bradford City and the people who adore the club helped City ride a wave through some of the most incredible moments you are ever likely to see. Players like Stephen Darby were identifiable to fans; they weren’t hiding away and simply turning up on a Saturday afternoon – they wanted to feel Bradford City. They wanted to understand what it means to all of us. And it’s that, above the games, the goal (!) and the cup runs which mean more than anything.
Darby’s achievements and accolades on the field, and the unforgettable nights he helped City fans experience, are likely to never be bettered again. Yet it’s what he helped to piece together off it which perhaps symbolises why he deserves his place among the club’s all-time greats.
Stephen, this club will never forget your incredible contribution to Bradford City, and how you and those legendary players went above and beyond to identify with supporters. We will be with you every step of the way. You will always be a Bantam – and a bloody great one, at that.
As our Twitter account said yesterday: 239 games, countless magical memories.. but truly only one Stephen Darby, baby.
#1134 – Stephen Darby
239 apps, 1 goal