Matt Duke: Keeper who beat cancer knows how to defy odds
As if there is not rom- ance enough in a League Two team playing a major domestic cup final at Wembley, Bradford City arrive there today with so many additional emotional accoutrements that a box of tissues should be laid out on every seat.
Their players will walk out in tracksuits bearing the number 56 in memory of those supporters killed when fire coursed through the wooden main stand at Valley Parade in May 1985. Holding the hand of captain Gary Jones will be Jake Turton, a nine-year-old fan who survived a brain tumour and was City's mascot for the first leg of the semi-final against Aston Villa; providing the inspiration for the subsequent epic victory, according to Jones, who picked him out in the crowd at the end of the second match for a special hug.
Then there is the man whose penalty saves from players like Arsenal's Santi Cazorla and Wigan's Jordi Gomez paved the way for success over other Premier League opposition in previous rounds. Matt Duke (below, far left) admits to being a laid-back character who does not suffer from nerves, yet even he was jolted five years ago last month when a phone call confirmed he had testicular cancer. "It was daft things when I was diagnosed, like I have a young boy, and I was thinking about seeing him riding his bike," he recalls while sitting in City's splendidly rebuilt stand last week. "That was my intention. Then you just get on with your normal life. I was quite fortunate. I acted on it straight away as soon as I found the lump, and had the operation. It is weird because lads are out longer with broken legs and stuff. I had a major illness and I was only out for three months."
Duke's main concern up until then had been trying – largely in vain – to depose Boaz Myhill as first-choice keeper for Hull City, who were shooting up the Championship towards promotion.
"I could never thank [manager] Phil Brown and everyone at Hull enough," he said. "They told me to take as much time as I need off and get right." By the end of the season he was able to join the Premier League celebrations and then do so again 12 months later as Hull somehow survived winning only one of their last 22 games to avoid relegation.
By that time Duke had played one spell of 10 matches in a row, saving a penalty at West Ham on his televised Premier League debut and having learnt to treat Kipling's twin imposters much the same: "It is about ensuring the highs are not too high and the lows not too low," he says. "There have been times when you are dropped from the team and you think it could be a lot worse, and you dust yourself off and get on with it. The main thing you need is your health."
Shown the door by Hull's new manager, Nigel Pearson, he therefore left with "no bad feeling whatsoever" and joined Bradford City at the start of last season, part of which was spent on loan at struggling Northampton Town. The campaign finished with Northampton 20th in League Two, City 18th and, at 34 Duke would have logically assumed his best days were long gone. Then came what everyone at Valley Parade is calling "the fairy tale".
"I think Capital One as the sponsor would either want a big game like Chelsea against Man United or one like this, a fairy-tale story," Duke says. "It's great hearing some managers of FA Cup teams mentioning Bradford and looking at us, what we've achieved and thinking they can do the same. So, yeah, it is a nice buzz, it shows it is possible to achieve the big knockouts."
Then there is the restoration of local pride that had slowly drained away after three relegations and two periods in administration. A fortnight ago Duke did a presentation at a local school. "The kids were buzzing about, playing football. I think that is great, if it gives a group of kids an incentive to play football, that is the bigger picture. And they knew who we were. Last year half of them wouldn't have known. And now they are talking about Bradford players, not Premier League stars."
Today's opponents come into the latter category, but Duke does not begrudge them either their fame or their fortune: "I don't think there is jealousy or envy because their club is prepared to pay them [big] wages. It is a short career so you try to earn as much as you can. The money they will earn is astronomical. We can't imagine that money going in our bank accounts every month. That's the way it is, they are at the top of their game and doing it every week. They deserve it."
Having been underdogs in every round of the competition, which began with Notts County, Watford and Burton before the bigger boys came along, City need not step out with any great trepidation. "If Swansea beat us comfortably, that is what everyone will have expected to happen," Duke says.
"We can only turn up and do our best. That's what we have done in the previous rounds. We will have a game plan, and stick to the manager's tactics. The main thing is that we do ourselves proud and the club proud. We can come away having enjoyed the day and the fans can have enjoyed it.
"Something that everyone associated with the club will remember forever."
Swansea: Club that survived the toughest battle of its long life
Ten years ago this weekend, Swansea City lost 4-0 at Hartlepool and looked in danger of dropping into non-League football. Crowds at the outdated Vetch Field had sunk to 5,000.
Today, they are not only in the top half of the Premier League with a new stadium but are debt-free, refusing to spend more than they earn with a wage system geared to performance-related bonuses, and with a playing style that remains constant amid changes of personnel.
The club is owned and run by genuine Swansea enthusiasts, with guarantees against outsiders taking control, and one-fifth of the shares belong to the Supporters' Trust.
Going into this afternoon's Capital One Cup final, they stand 90 minutes away from returning for the first time in two decades to European football, previously accessible only as winners of the Welsh Cup – the very model of a modern football club.
When Huw Jenkins, a local building supplier, became a rather reluctant chairman of Swansea City in 2002, the priority was not so much to reach the Premier League with a pleasing philosophy of passing football, as stop the club from dying. A group of locals had wrested control from the unpopular Australian Tony Petty but inherited serious financial problems and a struggling team.
A year later, in May 2003, the Swans had to win their last two matches, against Rochdale and Hull City, to stay in the Football League. "We could have been the ones who took them out of the League, and who knows what would have happened then?" Jenkins says. "I just remember being scared to death. The pressures were immense, and when people talk about pressures in the Premier League they're nothing compared to lower down, where clubs can go out of business and communities can disappear. We were just looking around for cash to keep going and pay the bills."
Yet he believes that the football philosophy has, in a sense, grown out of that predicament, as a survival mechanism: "Even in League One we were up against clubs paying silly money," he says. "We had to find a way to be different and Roberto [Martinez], Brendan [Rodgers] and now Michael [Laudrup] took that on. We weren't looking for physically strong athletes but gifted footballers. The managers we've appointed have to be nice people to work with, and they have to agree to work within the principles of the club."
The Supporters' Trust
Swansea are unique as a Premier League club in having a supporters' trust that owns 20 per cent of the shares. Launched in August 2001, the Trust worked with the consortium fronted by former centre-half Mel Nurse to buy the club five months later and, as part of the agreement, they have a director on the board.
"People may say it's just a token gesture, but we have Huw Cooze, who is involved in all the major day-to-day decision making," says the Trust's Alan Lewis. "We then get feedback to the Trust. Part of the club ethos is that no individual can have more than 25 per cent of the shares and so we are the third biggest shareholder. There's no way of somebody coming in saying they're going to take over."
All this stemmed from small beginnings, albeit with considerable commitment of time and money. "The original members spoke to Supporters Direct, who sent people down to meetings and played a very important part in getting the Swansea City Trust off the ground," Lewis said. "Initially we raised £50,000 to get things started and then within about 12 months it was over £100,000. There were a couple of large donations but much of it was ordinary fans saying they had to do something, and putting their hand in their pockets. It was a unique set of circumstances at the time, but we did it."
First there was Roberto Martinez as midfielder, captain and later manager of Swansea; now the regular right-back Angel Rangel estimates there have been "about 15" Spaniards in various capacities during his six years at the club. Plucked out of the Spanish lower divisions by Martinez, he remembers his debut at Oldham Athletic: "After five minutes there was a fight in the stands, police horses everywhere. And we lost 2-1." But the League One title was won and since then the graph has remained on an upward curve. British football is more physical, higher tempo, not so tactical as Spanish," he says. "But to see Bradford beat three Premier League teams, that's the beauty of British football, almost impossible in Spain."
After marrying a Cardiff girl and having three children, he has tried for Welsh nationality and a place in the Wales team, only to be told last summer that it was not possible.
When he applied for the job he knew he was asking to take over a squad facing second-season syndrome in the Premier League, with their manager and several leading players having been lured away by bigger clubs. The training ground was a public fitness centre, the wage bill among the three lowest in the top flight and the club insisted on being self-financing. Pundits predicted a losing relegation struggle.
Yet according to a poll in Spain, more than 70 per cent of Real Madrid fans want Michael Laudrup to succeed Jose Mourinho. He claims to have no ambition to reach the heights as a manager that he did as a player: "I have a lot of ambitions with the team I have, but no special dream to go to a top team." He can see a scenario of spending 10 years working towards a dream job, then finishing a close second in three competitions. "[In those circumstances] after nine months, I'm out. Why live for that?"