With the FA Cup fourth round on the horizon, few are anticipating this weekend more than Bradford City midfielder Billy Knott. Famous for their exploits in the Capital One Cup two years ago, the Bantams travel to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea, Knott’s former club.
Originally from Canvey Island in Essex, Knott’s journey to Bradford has been a convoluted one, a journey that has taken in West London, Wearside, the Home Counties and…erm…Madrid.
“Canvey is a very small island.” said Knott who began his career with Concord Rangers at the age of six. “There isn’t much to get excited about but it’s a real close-knit community and everyone is very supportive of each other.”
But his path to Valley Parade was one that most aspiring young footballers could only fulfil through their PlayStation controller.
Knott was snapped up at the age of 10 by West Ham United. A Hammers’ fan, Knott progressed well, but his life was changed when his mother was diagnosed with lupus, a complex condition that can affect the skin, joints and internal organs.
It was this that prompted his family to pack their bags and relocate to the warmer climes of Spain, thus bringing an end to Knott’s dream of playing for the Hammers. And yet, his journey to the continent was about to present him with the chance of a lifetime.
“We originally went out there because my mum’s illness was getting worse so we went out there for the sun. When I got over to Spain, West Ham helped sort me out a trial with Real Madrid. They agreed to let me train over there and it was amazing. There were some fantastic players out there. I don’t remember too many names but there was one player called Álex Fernández (now at Espanyol) who was really nice to me. A few years later I was playing for England Under 17s against Spain’s side and he was playing, so we swapped shirts at the end of the game.”
“Looking back it was an unbelievable experience. Being so young I didn’t take a lot of it in and realise how good an opportunity it was. I remember one night after training my brother Sammy came along. At the end he was allowed to train and he got to play with Zinedine Zidane’s son. He was only about eight and Zidane’s lad was running rings around him and Sammy was just kicking him up in the air.”
But Knott’s time with the club was cut short when his family decided to return home.
“I just didn’t really enjoy it. I was too young to take it all in and too far away from home, so a couple of months later I went home to England. I saw Madrid as a smaller version of London. We weren’t living in the nice part of Madrid, it was a bit hard in that sense. It was a small flat and it just wasn’t very nice to be fair. In the end my dad didn’t enjoy driving on the motorways, Sammy wasn’t enjoying it out there and when I had other clubs in for me we decided to move back.”
After one hard decision came another, the decision to turn down the chance to return to West Ham and instead signing for Premier League big guns Chelsea at the age of 11 in 2003.
“When I came back West Ham were in the Championship and some of the coaches had left from my time there. When you’re a young lad playing football you just want to play for the best team and at the time that was Chelsea. Maybe looking back I should have stuck to my roots and stayed at West Ham but that’s the chance you take when you’re 11 years old and you just want to play with the best players.
“The first few weeks were hard because some of the players there hated me from my time at West Ham. There were some good players there; Billy Clifford, Jeffrey Bruma, Josh McEachran, George Saville and Milan Lalkovic, who were all incredible on the ball and some of the best young players in the world.
“Unfortunately it ended but the important thing was that Chelsea developed me as a player and made me mature after I left. I don’t think I matured quickly enough when I was there but I had learnt that I needed to grow up quickly and I think I’ve done that in the past couple of years.”
His next port of call was Sunderland, who snapped him up following his release from Chelsea. It was there that he was handed his first professional appearance aged 20 by Paulo Di Canio. A few loan spells followed before his move to Bradford at the beginning of this season, where he’s jumped onto a bandwagon at full throttle.
Bradford’s historic Capital One Cup final and promotion season of 2013 was followed by a solid consolidation year in League One last term. They currently sit just one place outside the League One play-offs as their journey back towards the higher echelons of the football pyramid continues.
Yet it has once again been Bradford’s cup exploits that have garnered the most attention, with Knott being the main focal point, scoring in his side’s 2-1 Capital One Cup victory over local rivals Leeds, their first derby win at Valley Parade since 1932. This was followed by victories over local rivals Halifax and then Dartford in the FA Cup which rewarded Bradford with a third round trip to Millwall, the arch-enemies of Knott’s former club West Ham.
Two goals from the midfielder at The New Den earned his side a replay, where Knott experienced the satisfaction of demolishing his rivals 4-0, scoring the final goal in the process. As if that wasn’t enough, the victory earned Bradford a trip to Stamford Bridge, where Knott will go head to head with his former club and manager, José Mourinho.
“It’s a good time to be in and around Bradford City Football Club at the moment. Obviously I’m excited because they’re one of the best teams in Europe but I don’t think I’ll be going back there with anything to prove. I’m going back to enjoy the game and hopefully pull off a shock. Of course they’re going to be the favourites but I don’t see why we can’t go there and get a result.
“I think a lot of people are coming over from Canvey. They come to as many games as they can and hopefully a lot make it to Stamford Bridge on Saturday.”
As for the future, Knott’s obsession for the game remains evident. He’s the type who can’t be dragged off the training ground, and when he is, he’ll be found doing kick-ups with tennis balls. While he’s proud of his achievements so far, he remains determined to add a few more chapters to his story.
“There aren’t many kids who can say they’ve been to Madrid, spent four years at Chelsea and made their debut for Sunderland. I’m only 22 so hopefully there are plenty more good times ahead.”
You can follow Matthew Shaw on Twitter (@M_Shaw1)