Walking from Wembley to Bradford

by Jim Coulson

“For somebody who was so combative on the pitch, it took my breath away,” admits Craig, “it really hit me that someone so young and so athletic could be devastated by this horrible disease.”

Normally when a footballer leaves a club, fans take down their posters, chuck the shirt with their former idol’s name emblazoned on the back into the depths of the wardrobe and prepare to roundly boo them when they return to their old ground with their new team. For Bradford City fans, though, it was never like that with Stephen Darby.

Craig with his wife

The former Liverpool youth prospect joined the Valley Parade side in 2012, going on to make 194 appearances. That included one particularly notable match at Wembley in the League Cup in 2013 as the Bantams became the first fourth-tier team to reach the final of the competition since 1962.

“He epitomised everything a fan wanted as a Bradford City player,” says lifelong supporter Craig Andrew. “He was one of these rare footballers that, when they move on, you wish them well.”

However, in September 2018, just over a year after leaving West Yorkshire for Bolton, Darby announced his retirement from the game. He had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, a condition that weakens the brain and nerves, causing the sufferer to become weaker over time.

“For somebody who was so combative on the pitch, it took my breath away,” admits Craig, “it really hit me that someone so young and so athletic could be devastated by this horrible disease.”

Stephen Darby

The news about Darby, as well as Leeds Rhinos rugby league star Rob Burrow revealing his diagnosis with MND a year later, sparked Craig into action. “I wanted to do anything I could to help the cause,” he says. Already a keen runner and cyclist, he felt that any fundraising challenge should be something on a grander scale, which is when he came up with the idea of a long distance charity walk.

But it won’t just be any charity walk. He intends to set off from the centre spot of Wembley Stadium in London and walk to Bradford finishing his challenge at the centre spot of Valley Parade in time for the Bantams’ home game with Tranmere on Good Friday, the 15th April. And all the money he raises will go to the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation, set up by the footballer and his friend, war veteran and fellow MND sufferer Chris Rimmer. The foundation aims to create awareness of MND, to fund and assist research into the illness with the quest of finding a cure, to raise funds and offer grants to those with MND, as well as creating a network to help provide information and emotional support for those diagnosed with the disease.

Chris Rimmer

Having initially wanted to set off from his home in Hastings on the south coast, he was advised by experts, as well as his geography teacher father-in-law, to start in London. “You’ve got the Grand Union Canal that takes you up to Leicestershire, then there’s another little canal, you go over the Pennines a bit and then you’re there. The route’s quite straightforward,” he says. The added bonus being that it allowed Craig to honour one Stephen Darby’s most memorable moments at the club. “One of his best performances in a Bradford shirt was at Wembley in 2013, so I thought let’s get from centre spot to centre spot,” recalls Craig.

The Yorkshire lad’s plan is to walk around 20 to 25 miles every day between planned overnight stops, and it should take nine days in total.

“The club have been very good and they will support me any which way they can. I’m hoping to get some former players on board for some of the walk. It may be the last leg, but any support is good for me. Any supporters who want to join the walk at any point can too.”

On the penultimate night he aims to make it to his family’s home in the village of Thornton, before heading off the next day for the game. “The idea is to get a proper night’s kip and a fresh lot of clothes and walk from Thornton into Bradford with a bit of an entourage, and then onto the pitch. Hopefully by then there will be a nice amount of money raised for the foundation.”

Craig was born and bred in Bradford, living in the city until he was 23, when he met his former partner on holiday and transferred his work to move and be close to her in Brighton. Despite the distance, he does know of some fellow Bantams in the area and gets to see his beloved team whenever they play in London and the south east. He also studiously picks the dates on which he returns to Yorkshire to see family so that they coincide with City playing at home. However, this will be a visit home that he will never forget and one which will hopefully raise a large amount of money for a cause close to the hearts of City fans.

If you would like to track Craig’s progress or contact him to take part in a stretch of the walk, you can follow him on https://twitter.com/CraigAndrew3 and his JustGiving address to sponsor his walk is www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Craig-Andrew1.