|Date: 24 January Coverage: Chelsea v Luton (12:00 GMT) and Manchester United v Liverpool (17:00) live on BBC One and iPlayer|
“After games it hits me the hardest. Everyone has someone they turn to, to discuss the game with and get things off their chest. Now I’m missing that.”
Luton Town captain Sonny Bradley is set to face Premier League Chelsea in the FA Cup fourth round on Sunday, a little over a month on from suffering the loss of his father.
Bradley’s “number one fan”, Ray, a popular figure among Town supporters, died aged 57 in December after contracting Covid-19.
“My dad was a great man, if I could have picked anyone on the planet to be my dad I would have chosen him,” Bradley, 29, told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“He was my biggest fan and I got a lot from him, especially when it came to football. I have a one-year-old and the best thing he left for me was a blueprint of how to be the perfect dad.”
Originally from Hull, Bradley has played for the likes of Portsmouth, Crawley Town, Plymouth Argyle and even had a spell in Sweden - yet regardless of the distance he needed to travel, his father followed him everywhere.
One memory he holds especially dearly was in the FA Cup when League Two Plymouth held Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool to a goalless draw at Anfield in January 2017. In an inspired defensive display, Argyle centre-back Bradley was named man of the match.
“He never lied to me after a match. After that game, before it was announced I was man of the match, he said ‘I thought you were the best player on the pitch’. Coming from my number one fan it meant a lot and it’s a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” he said.
“Going into Sunday against Chelsea, I know nobody can be there but, if he had the opportunity, he would have been the first one there.
“Everywhere I’ve been he was probably one of the first to arrive [at the ground], mixing with the fans and getting involved with the spirit of the club. I respect that massively.”
Bradley was keen to quickly return to action after his father died and missed just two matches for Nathan Jones’ side, who are 13th in the Championship - 25 places below Frank Lampard’s Chelsea in the football pyramid.
His only request was for everyone to treat him as normal. The support of the club during this period of his life, he says, has been “first class”.
“I was straight back in training. I spoke to everyone at the club and I just said I wanted people to be the same with me,” added Bradley.
“Deep down, behind the mask, I’m hurting but when I’m at football I’m busy and my mind is occupied.
“The lads have been brilliant, they all signed a big poster of me and my dad and they’ve let me know they’re there if I need them. The manager has been outstanding as well. I’ve asked for things to be normal and that is benefiting me.
“I have a role as captain and I will continue being the leader everyone needs and right now we’re doing fairly well. I have an unbelievable support network around me and at my football club. I see the positives in that respect because not everyone is this lucky.
“Now we go to Stamford Bridge and it will be tough. Chelsea don’t have weak players but I truly believe that if we stick to our game plan there’s no reason we can’t cause an upset.
“There will be times in the game we have to concede possession and make it ugly, but if that’s the way of getting a result that’s what we have to do.”