Relegation for any team leaves little room for optimism the following season, especially with the expectation of an instant return to the higher tier becoming undoubtedly tougher each year as the Football League’s competitiveness continues to expand.
But Crawley Town captain Sonny Bradley believes the Red Devils are better equipped now than they were last year, despite dropping out of League One back in May.
The 23-year-old defender, who started his career at Championship outfit Hull City, believes the signings new manager Mark Yates has drafted into the Checkatrade.com Stadium over the summer means the Sussex club should emerge as one of League Two’s promotion contenders at the end of the season.
Now in his second full season at Crawley, having left bottom tier rivals Portsmouth just over a year ago, Bradley has been rewarded with the captain’s armband and he is determined to lead by example and help the Red Devils finish as high up the league table as possible.
Shoot spoke exclusively to the centre-half about his time at the club, the impact made by new boss Yates, his new captaincy role and his large collection of tattoos.
Crawley Town finished 22nd last season in League One, suffering relegation to League Two. What are you expecting from this year’s competition in League Two?
“Heading down into League Two is a reality check for us, it has shown us where we are. When you start looking at the fixtures, especially our first five fixtures, we had Oxford [United], Wimbledon, Portsmouth and Cambridge. They are all tough games and the further you look down the list, the more you realise that there are no easy games in this league. But expectation wise; I think we are certainly looking to finish in the top half and potentially the play-offs or even straight up. I think the nearer you get towards Christmas, then you can look at the league and look at where you are at and really start thinking about where you are going to finish.”
What is the club’s aim for the season? Are Crawley capable of achieving an instant return to League One?
“Yeah, I don’t see why not. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again; I think that the squad we have got this season is better than the squad that we had last season. There is no disrespect to anyone that was here last season, I think it is just the way it has fell into place. We know we haven’t got the biggest squad. We are going to go through tough patches where we are going to struggle. There is no question about that. But I think if we can get a few more players in on loan, a few new additions, I don’t see any reason why we can’t achieve a good league finish.”
You made 30 appearances in all competitions for the Red Devils last season, scoring once. What is your personal goal for this campaign?
“Obviously to score a few more than that! I came in and I spoke with the manager and Jimmy [Dack], the assistant, as Izale McLeod got a lot of the goals last season. He said to me, “You know everybody has got to chip in more this season”. Obviously one goal for me last season wasn’t enough. I didn’t play every game, but at 30-odd games, I should be looking at five or six goals. It is tough because when you’re the biggest player, you can guarantee that the other team’s best defender will be marking you. Sometimes we even mark each other out of the game, especially from set pieces. But there are no excuses for me. I need to score more goals and if I can play close to 45 to 50 games this season, I will certainly be looking to score at least six or seven.”
Being captain of the Red Devils, is that an added responsibility upon your shoulders?
“Yeah. I think last season and the seasons before; wherever I have been, I have always been looking to be a leader and a captain figure. Whether I have got the armband or not. But now; getting the armband, is a little bit extra. That little bit extra 10 per cent on your shoulders. I think sometimes the lads look up to you more for help now and again. I think when you go off the pitch as well, if you have lost the game, you feel a bit more responsible. Because you are their captain and the leader. But when you win as well, it is the flip side of it.”
Former Cheltenham Town boss Mark Yates took over at Crawley back in May following the departure of Dean Saunders last season. What have you made of his impact at the club so far?
“I have loved the gaffer being here so far. He has been a pleasure to work under and I think that the players he has brought in have complimented himself really. Obviously I didn’t know Mark before I came in and I didn’t know what to expect, didn’t know who he was going to bring with him. But when I saw the likes of Roarie Deacon come in, Lee Barnard coming in and a couple of good centre-halves; all of a sudden I am starting to think he is the real deal. I have loved working under him.”
The club have brought in a number of new signings this summer, including Simon Walton, Freddie Woodman, Luke Rooney and Jon Ashton. How have they settled in at the club? Plus, how much of a boost have these players given to the overall squad?
“I think they are all very good players. No disrespect to the players that were here last year, but I think this season we are looking a lot stronger. We have got solid players in like Simon Walton, very solid central midfield player. Jon Ashton; bags of experience and Joe [McNerney] as well. Joe is a solid player and another decent addition to our squad.”
You joined your hometown club Hull City from the age of seven; before making your first-team debut for the Tigers in March 2012. Can you recall your thoughts from that memorable moment?
“I was on loan at Aldershot [Town] and there was a recall in my contract. James Chester got injured; so I got the call from Nick Barmby on the Monday morning saying, “Look, we are going to have to recall you. We are short on centre-halves. We have got Coventry [City] on Saturday, I need you to come in and do a job”. I didn’t really have a choice! I went back to Hull and I was on the bench to start with, not really knowing what to expect. But at half-time; as I was just warming up, Sean Rush, who was the fitness coach at the time, came running out the tunnel saying, “Sonny! Get warm you’re going on. Jack Hobbs is injured”. I didn’t expect it to be honest! I couldn’t actually believe it. So I got warm and went out for the second-half. The atmosphere weren’t great at the time because we were in bad form but it was a good experience. I had been there 13 years prior to my debut. Coming up through the youth ranks, the youth team, the reserves and then finally making my debut was a memorable moment.”
In April 2011, you joined Swedish third-tier side IK Frej on a one-month loan deal. What was that like playing overseas as a young player?
“It was different! Obviously I was at Hull at the time and the opportunity came up for me and Danny Emerton, who was the same age as me, to go up there for six weeks and play a bit of football during the summer. I jumped on it straight away. It was a completely different experience – I can assure you that! The style of football is completely different. Everything was different. But I enjoyed it. All the lads were brilliant. It was a new time for that club as they were just stepping up into the professional leagues. There was a buzz around the ground at the time and it was nice to get some game time during the summer. I think that definitely benefited me when I went back to Hull.”
Going out on loan to lower league clubs, is that something you would recommend to other young players in the Football League?
“I would definitely say go out on loan. Every game is a fight. You are playing for your livelihood. Playing for money. Playing to survive at the end of the day. You do get that feeling everytime you play in League Two. Young lads need to go out on loan like that and experience what it is all really about. Sometimes with these kids; perhaps when they hit 20 or 21, all of a sudden the club will release them. And if you haven’t been out on loan before and you drop down straight to a League Two club, you may get put in the first-team and you won’t be ready for it. You will get smashed and all of a sudden you don’t fancy it. You are struggling to adapt and the manager goes, “Well, he is no good then!” If you can’t handle it at that level; where do you go from there?”
You scored you first senior goal at Aldershot against Southend United, heading in an 87th minute winner back in October 2012. What do you remember of that moment?
“I think it bobbled up in the box and I just got my head on it and I ran off and celebrated. I didn’t really know what to do to be honest! But obviously it is another memorable moment. It was my first league goal, but since then, I haven’t actually score too many. Hopefully in the future, and this season, I can bag a few more.”
Following your release from Hull, you went onto sign for Portsmouth and Crawley, despite interest from higher league clubs. Do you regret any moves you’ve made?
“No I don’t regret anything. The choices I have made are purely to play football and wanting to add to decent teams. I am happy with where I am at the minute. You know you look at the likes of Jamie Vardy and Rickie Lambert, they have all played lower league and they are now top, top established players. When you look at them; I think there is no reason why I can’t be the next one to do it.”
You came through Hull’s youth ranks with childhood friend Danny East, who you have known now for over 12 years now. Explain the journey you have had alongside Danny throughout your playing career.
“Yeah, it was a funny one actually. I was seven years-old when I joined Hull and I think Danny came in when he was about 12. Yeah we just came up together and for a long time, I played a year above myself. But we both signed our youth team contracts, both signed our professional contracts together at Hull and we were both in and around the squad at that time. Then it came to the end of my contract with Hull and I ended up joining Portsmouth. Danny was also at the end of his contract and also ended up joining Portsmouth. That was just the way it was! We didn’t even have the same agent at the time. I think I signed first and Guy Whittingham, who was the manager, asked me about Danny. He is my mate, but obviously I said, “Yeah, he is great and he is a top player. You need to get him in!” But unfortunately for Danny it didn’t quite work out too. He had a couple of bad injuries. Nothing to do with his ability, because if Danny were fit, he could play League Two with his eyes closed.”
Now you have a large collection of tattoos. Firstly, how many have you got? Plus, what is the meaning behind some of them?
“You know what, people ask me about my tattoos which I do find quite interesting! I couldn’t tell you how many I have got. I have got them all over me. All my tattoos, they are all personal. If a tattoo doesn’t look so good, people will say, “Oh it is personal and it is nothing to do with the way that it looks”. But for me, they are all personal. Some people hate them; I get a bit of stick for them now and then. We played Portsmouth on a Tuesday night and they were saying, “Bradley, you have naff tats”. But I have ended up getting quite a lot of work done in places where it is quite frowned upon really. I would never judge anyone else for getting any work done on their body. If people want to judge me, I don’t have any problems with that. I don’t really care what people think. If you love them, you love them. If you hate them, you hate them.”