With his hometown club in town today, there is one man Sonny Bradley knows would be here as early as possible, in the Bobbers Club for a pre-match pint, having travelled the 180 miles south in support of his son.
It is coming up to 11 months since Ray Bradley passed away, but every time his lad steps out onto the pitch as captain of Luton Town, there is a bit of him on the pitch. With Covid restrictions lifted, there’s also the next generation in the stands, learning about a game his grandad introduced his dad to at Boothferry Park in the 1990s.
Sonny Jnr will watch his dad play against his first club Hull City today for the first time, and there is no question that it will mean a lot to the 30-year-old Hatters centre-half.
“Because of lockdown and fans and family not being able to come, my little man couldn’t come to games,” says Sonny, relaxing at The Brache after a hard morning’s session out on the grass, and then in the gym. “He’s two in November so he’s starting to get a grasp of what I do and he likes his football. He knows how to celebrate a goal and I’ve not scored for a long while, but hopefully he’ll see me score one at some point.
“My family love coming to the football. My mum and of course my dad did, and my friends as well. They love coming down, whether that’s to Kenilworth Road or anywhere else in the Championship, it doesn’t matter how far it is, they’ll make sure they get to as many games as they can.
“It’s great to have our fans back, but it’s also nice for the families to be back as well, and I’m sure if my dad was still here, he’d be the first to arrive at this game.
“I go into every game thinking about him and I wear my black armband, on the opposite side to the captain’s armband, just as a mark of respect for my dad. In my head it’s to say that he’s always with me, especially when I go out onto the pitch. It’s a small thing, but it means something to me.”
Growing up in Hull, Sonny joined the Tigers’ centre of excellence at seven years old and stayed until he was 21, despite not being offered an apprenticeship initially when he left Kelvin Hall School at 16. He made two starts under former England international Nicky Barmby before being released by Steve Bruce after a series of loan spells in 2013.
“For any player when they are coming up against their hometown club, it’s a good game, and for the families as well,” says Sonny. “I’ve got friends who support Hull, so they are in the stand and in the back of their mind they want me to do well, but at the same time they want Hull to do well.
“I owe a lot to that football club. I was there for 14 years and they gave me that foundation to become a professional football player. I’m sure the majority of the Hull fans travelling today will have been to Boothferry Park, which is where my dad used to take me when I was growing up. And as I’m bringing my little man up and I move back up north, I’ll take him to as many games as possible and I’m sure he’ll enjoy it as much as I did.”
More than 400 career appearances and two promotions, one from League Two with Plymouth and then the League One title-winning campaign with the Hatters, have followed in the eight years since leaving Hull. Nine, including the 2012-13 season he spent on loan at Aldershot Town.
Was leaving the best thing that could have happened for his career?
“At the time, leaving the club that you love, the club that you grew up with, it was difficult. But on reflection, I did leave at the right time. I was out of contract and I got released anyway, but Hull were stepping up into the Premier League with Steve Bruce, so realistically I was never going to play.
“I was never ready to play for Hull at that time, so the best thing I did was going out on loan the season before, when I went to Aldershot. I was 19 the first time I went and I linked up with Hylts, and for me personally, it was the best thing I could do because I got my name out there.
“If I’d stayed at Hull, 21s football was a decent standard but it’s not proper men’s football, and at the time I didn’t think that was enough for me. I wanted more and if I wanted to play in the professional game and make a name for myself, I had to go out on loan. It just turns out that it was 300 miles down south.
“Since then I’ve just followed the clubs, and where I felt was the best, the right path for me, and that led to Portsmouth, Crawley, Plymouth and now I’m at Luton, this is the closest I’ve been to living at home for nine years, and I’m still nearly 200 miles away! But that’s just the way it goes.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to follow the path that you think is right for you, and I have absolutely no regrets in my career. Even at 16, I only signed a schoolboy contract with Hull. I never signed a full apprenticeship initially, so I never felt like I was really backed to do this well in my career.
“So to leave a Championship club, drop down the leagues and then work my way back up is something that I’m proud of. A lot of players start fairly high and they work their way down, whereas I’ve done it the other way. I always believed that I was good enough to play Championship football. I just felt that I needed someone to believe in me.
“I had to drop down to League Two and had to scrap for every bit of success that I’ve got. I’ve done it the hard way, earning promotion from League Two to League One, and then again to the Championship. No-one has given me anything.
“I’m proud of where I’m at now, but I’m still of the mindset where I want to improve, I want to get better and I want to get to the next level. I believe I’m at the club now that is moving in the right direction, and when I came in League One, I was well aware that the club were moving quickly through the leagues, and it was something I wanted to be a part of. Leaving Plymouth and coming to Luton is the best decision I’ve ever made in my career.”
The meeting with Nathan Jones in the summer of 2018, when the Hatters had just gone up to a division in which Bradley had excelled following the Pilgrims’ promotion 12 months earlier, was enough to convince him that a move 230 miles closer to home was only going to benefit his career.
Having played against Jones’ team in Crawley’s 1-0 win at Kenilworth Road in March 2016, and in both games for Argyle in the manager’s first full campaign here, Sonny and Matty Pearson were identified as key to getting Town up to the Championship, and staying there.
“That was one thing the manager did say to me,” said Bradley, who was out of contract in Devon. “He said, ‘I know we are in League One, but I haven’t signed you to play in League One, I’ve signed you to play in the Championship’.
“When someone says that to you, straightaway I knew that he believed in my ability, but then I’ve still got to come through the door and I had to fight for a place. But I said from day one, no disrespect to Sheez, who was our captain at the time and played my position, but from my point of view, once I got that shirt and got that chance, no-one was going to take that shirt away from me. I was going to stay playing, and I backed myself.
“We had a top season in League One which everyone knows about. I was lucky enough to play with a left-back in James Justin, who was actually a right-back at the time, and Pottsy as well, and we got promoted to the Championship.
“It’s about your mentality and I’m still in a position, mentally, where I want to continue to improve. I’m not slowing down. I think physically over the last five years I’ve got better every season. My statistics support that. It’s just about continuing and seeing how far I can go.”
He expresses a hope – when discussing the positive reception Matty received on his recent return with Huddersfield, and the expectation that George Moncur’s contribution to Luton will be acknowledged this afternoon – that “I never leave and I’m here for the rest of my career”.
But he adds: “I’d like to think that if I ever left and came back, I’d get a similar reception because Matty, Moncs and James Collins, who we’re going to come up against, they really did give everything for the club, and not just on match days, in the week as well”.
Mention of Moncur inevitably brings that famous snowy January 2019 night into the discussion, with Sonny declaring it the best game of his career.
“Moncs left us with some real good memories, and the one that sticks out for me, as I think it does for everyone, was the free-kick that against Portsmouth. Moments like that make Moncs a special part of Luton’s recent history, a great character as well as player.”
The man in charge that night, of course, was Mick Harford. Sonny reveals that despite his recent absence for his treatment for prostate cancer, our assistant-manager is still at the forefront of the squad’s thoughts on a matchday.
“Mick’s been a massive part of my time here,” he says. “When I first came I had a conversation with him and he said ‘Look, you’re a good kid, we know you are, get your head down for six months and the manager will turn you into a Championship football player’. They were words from Mick that I listened to and I believed in, and that’s what I went and did.
“Luton is very, very lucky that this man is part of our football club and I’m sure he will be for the rest of his life. He’s an important member of the team, and all the lads are missing him. We still speak to him every day and he’s always got a message for the boys before games.
“When I speak to the boys in our huddle before the game, I always say ‘We stick together’. They are words from Mick that I’m just echoing to them. He always loves to say that before a game, ‘Whatever we do today, we stick together’. They sound simple, but they mean so much and Mick has obviously gone through a bit of a hard time.
“When he says that about going out on the pitch sticking together, we say the same to him when he’s been going through his treatment. We all stick together and we stay as a team. We’ll support him in any which way we can.”
Away from the pitch, Sonny himself is well settled in the area with his partner Amy and little Sonny, having signed a new contract in the summer.
“I’ve just moved house and I feel that this is my home now, this is where I belong,” he says. “I’ve just signed a new deal, I’ve committed my future here and I want to stay here for as long as possible. If I am honest, the direction that this football club is moving in, depending on how fast we move there, will determine how long I stay. I’ve got to be brutally honest about that.
“I’m 30 years old now, I’ve still got a lot in the tank. Mentally I’ve got no signs of slowing up at all, but it’s one of those where in football you never really know how long you’re going to stay at a club, you never know when it’s going to be your time.
“All you can do is season in, season out, give your best for the football club and hope that that’s good enough. At some point, no matter who you are, now matter how old you are, your time will come where you have to move on for whatever reason, but for me, I don’t see that being any time soon.
“Right now, we’ve got a real focus about taking this club to the next level and I don’t just mean the next division, I mean as a football team. We finished 12th in the league last year and we want to improve on that.
“We think the squad is improved. We’ve got more energy and belief this year, we’ve got more Championship experience and I think especially over the past few games, we’ve looked like a different beast from last year.
“I think there is a real excitement about the boys at the minute and it’s just about continuing to improve. If we do that, which we are doing at a good pace at the minute, I think if we hit those gears more often than not this season, then there is no reason why we can’t aim for an improvement on last year.
“We’ve got a group of players who are hungry and desperate for success, and it’s just about putting those performances in and really believing in our ability, because so far we’ve already proved that we are good enough to compete with any team at this level.”
And how about delivering that first goal of the season for Sonny Jr to celebrate in person?
“I’m feeling fit, I’m feeling strong, so I’ll be very disappointed if I don’t get at least one this season,” he says. “I’m just waiting for that chance, waiting for that moment to celebrate like everyone else would.”