Football: McCall happy to be local hero

Football: Bradford's inspirational captain will miss start of season but still has plenty to look forward to when fit
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The Independent Online
THERE COMES a time in the careers of most footballers, and it is usually sooner rather than later, when it ceases to matter who they play for or against, provided the money is right. Stuart McCall is an exception to the rule.

During the summer, McCall took the early train from Yorkshire to London to see a consultant about a nagging hernia problem. Knowing the Premiership fixtures were due out that day, he gave the Bradford City secretary just enough time to put the kettle on before ringing on his mobile phone.

"It was five past nine but I was like a little boy at Christmas - I couldn't wait," recalls McCall. "I wanted to know who the first games were against; who we played on Boxing Day; when the derbies with Leeds were so I could put my kids down as mascots, and so on."

The answers were exciting, even for an eternal enthusiast like the 35- year-old McCall. On the opening day, Saturday, Bradford were away to Middlesbrough, which meant a possible reunion with his friend and former Rangers colleague, Paul Gascoigne. On 26 December it was Manchester United away, followed two days later by a visit from Everton, for whom McCall played a decade ago and who are now under his old Ibrox manager, Walter Smith.

Bradford would not meet neighbouring Leeds, his home-town team (and the club managed by his own neighbour of three doors away in Harrogate, David O'Leary), until November and March. Which, after hearing he needed surgery on both the hernia and an Achilles tendon, was good news for McCall.

The bad, for Bradford and their captain, is that he must sit out the Middlesbrough match. "It'll hit me when the lads actually run out for Bradford City's first game in the top division in 77 years, and I'm not leading them."

McCall's injuries, which have forced him to target a September return, first surfaced during the promotion run-in. Having first joined Bradford in their Fourth Division days, and been part of the team when the Valley Parade fire claimed 56 lives in 1985, he was not about to let a sore groin or ankle curtail his involvement as history beckoned.

For a week, however, McCall lived with the fear that he may have cost Bradford their chance to go up automatically.

"In our last home game, against Oxford, it was 0-0 two minutes into stoppage time when I got a free header with the goal gaping. I don't usually get that far upfield - Walter [Smith] used to fine me if I left our half - so all the excitement came welling up into my head and I missed.

"I felt despondent because I'd blown the chance to make sure of promotion provided Ipswich lost at Birmingham the next day, which they did. It meant a massive final match at Wolves, who still had a chance of the play-offs."

Bradford went behind before cruising into a 3-1 lead. "Then we got a penalty with 11 minutes left and you're thinking: `If this goes in, it's the best 10 minutes of your footballing life'. As soon as we missed, I knew Wolves would score. Sure enough, they got one two minutes later.

"Steve Bull had just come on and was rampaging round like a man with a mission. Maybe he knew it might be his last game. I was saying: `Come on, Bully, you can take your foot off the gas... Bolton are 5-0 up at Portsmouth', which they weren't.

"With four minutes left, they hit a post. Bull was charging in but luckily it fell to John Dreyer, who cleared. The video is worn out watching that bit."

After the obligatory champagne and calls to loved ones - in the bath at Molineux - it was back to Bradford for a party which produced another bit of footage since worn close to transparency. "I'm high after any win - it's as if I'm filled with alcohol - and I'd got on a car roof outside our ground to have a better vantage point to wave to the crowd," explains McCall.

"Anyway, I was dancing and singing when suddenly I caught my trainers on the windscreen wipers and tumbled off. I got straight back up, but if I had a penny for every time Sky have shown it I'd be a millionaire. People assume that's how I did my Achilles, but it's not."

Bradford's feat of finishing runners-up to Sunderland was all the more remarkable for the fact that they were playing under a young, rookie manager, Paul Jewell, and lay second from bottom after taking just five of the first 21 points. McCall, incapacitated by a wild challenge in the first match, remembers returning to an uneasy atmosphere.

"As we were got off the bus after losing 3-0 at Ipswich, the gaffer said: `See you Thursday, lads... if I'm still here'. A few of the fans were saying to me: `You'll get the job you came back for'. I told them straight away I was here to play football for three years."

The chairman, Geoffrey Richmond, kept faith with Jewell, while McCall and the rest of a "new" team began to gel. Even so, few believed automatic promotion was a realistic proposition until the final month of the campaign.

Because of the emotional scars left by the fire, and City's failure in the play-offs three years later, there was a tendency in Bradford to view reaching the Premiership as an end in itself. McCall's tongue is only slightly in cheek when he says: "When you look at the midfields we'll be up against - Petit and Vieira, Keane and Butt - you wonder whether promotion was such a good idea!"

In fact, he is renowned as a big-game player. He scored twice in the all-Merseyside FA Cup final of 1989, was the only Scotland player to appear in Italia 90, Euro 92 and Euro 96, and always performed better for Rangers against Celtic than against the Falkirks or Kilmarnocks.

Moreover, he has never been involved in a relegation battle, though he admits that fourth from bottom next May would represent success. "Wimbledon won 10 and Southampton 11 last season, and stayed up. We won 26, yet if we win only half as many this time we'll survive. Two of three promoted sides tend to go down, so everyone's looking at Watford, Bradford and one other. But we don't have to be this year's Barnsley or Charlton. We could be like Derby and Leicester."

As skipper, McCall has negotiated the Bradford players' bonuses. "Last season it was so much per win," he says. "This year we're on so much per corner, plus pounds 1,000 a man if we get over the half-way line at Old Trafford."

Joking aside, he is approaching the Premiership with optimism as well as realism. "It will be tough, but we're not here to lie down, and it may help that there's a bond between the club and the fans because of the tragedy. We were 66-1 to go up last August and 125-1 after seven games. Now we're among the favourites for the drop, but it will be brilliant if we can defy the odds again."