THE young ball boy leaving Valley Parade with an inflatable lilo under his arm is back almost two decades on.

Niall Canavan’s return to City is a real homecoming tale. You don’t get much more local than someone who lives just five minutes from the training ground.

Canavan’s hopes were dashed in the club’s academy on his 13th birthday. Now 16 years on, he has finally got that chance he craved growing up.

“We used to do the ball-boying so I watched Bradford games more than anyone else,” he said.

“That’s what inspired me. I’d watch these lads running out to play Championship football at the time and be thinking, ‘one day, I want to do that’.

“I always got put in front of the away end. I’m not sure why but it meant I ended up getting heckled.

“Away fans were generally quite good because they knew we were only young kids but we used to get involved in a bit of the banter.

“But we were told not to celebrate if Bradford scored or do anything to draw attention to ourselves. You had to be a bit coy with how you dealt with questions fans asked you.”

One particular occasion at the end of the 2002 still stands out for Canavan.

“I remember the West Brom game when they were on the verge of promotion.

“There were loads of their fans and they brought hundreds of inflatables. The police were obviously confiscating stuff but they let us all take one home.

“We thought it was the best thing ever walking home with inflatable footballs and lilos and stuff! They were good times.”

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Niall Canavan has joined City for an undisclosed fee from PlymouthNiall Canavan has joined City for an undisclosed fee from Plymouth

Canavan has since built a solid career with Scunthorpe, Shrewsbury on loan, Rochdale and Plymouth where he won promotion from League Two last season.

But having gone to school at St Mary’s in Menston, the connection with City has always remained strong.

He added: “I know loads of people who have played for Bradford and been to my school.

“Dave Syers is a little bit older than me but he’s a good friend. I’ve played with him elsewhere as well.

“Farsley was my Sunday League team so there are loads of connections. Growing up, it was the team I was probably most connected with.

“With coming home, it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s a no-brainer.”

The call finally came just over a week ago. With Canavan’s heart set, the negotiation for an 18-month deal was a straightforward one.

“We had everything crossed as soon as it came up. This is the club we all wanted.

“We didn’t want to tell anyone in the family in case we jinxed it. It sounded almost too good to be true so we didn’t want to get our hopes up too much.

“I’ve had offers from other places but it’s not been suitable for what we want.

“This was literally the one thing that would get me away from Plymouth, because I was having a good time there.”

Argyle boss Ryan Lowe was happy to grant the defender’s wishes to get back home having been in a similar situation himself.

Canavan said: “He understands the whole situation and his view is always that family comes first.

“He told me that when he was still playing, he moved to MK Dons and ended up walking away from a contract there.

“There was that understanding on a personal level, which is good, and that’s all come through the relationship I had with the club there.

“I’ve got my wife and little boy up here and we had a baby girl in July. That made it extra hard this year but I tried to get home when I could.

“But it’s been limited time, not just with my wife and kids but my parents and friends – nobody has really seen me properly for almost three years.”

Even going out to do the family shop on his day off provided a reminder of what Canavan has missed during his time in the south-west.

“It’s good to hear some local dialect after being away from home for so long!

“I was walking around doing the shopping and it was just nice to hear people with a similar accent.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Former City midfielder Dave Syers went to the same school as Canavan and remains a close friendFormer City midfielder Dave Syers went to the same school as Canavan and remains a close friend

“We had a couple of Yorkshire lads at Plymouth but it’s only been me for the last 18 months.

“Even at Rochdale I was the only Yorkshireman. You’re on the wrong side of the Pennines so you get the mickey taken out of you something wicked.

“Now I live just up the road from the training ground and it’s brilliant.

“I was only five minutes away down in Plymouth as well but also five hours from home. It will be a nice commute.”

Canavan has had some memorable games against City in recent years. He was sent off for Rochdale in 2016 and scored an own goal at Plymouth last season.

“It’s always eventful, to be honest. Mixed bag is probably a good way to describe it.

“I’ve got a red card for myself, there were two last time for our team when Plymouth lost at Valley Parade, I’ve hit the post and the bar and scored an own goal at Home Park.

“But I’ve always enjoyed playing against Bradford because of that connection. Now I can’t wait to finally get to play for them.

“It’s not been the ideal start to the season but things seem to be on the up now. Speaking to the managers, it’s a very positive mindset focused on moving forward.

“The club seem to be starting on an upward curve now and hopefully I can help that to continue.”