By Jason McKeown
In exactly two weeks time, Bradford City could be marching out at Wembley stadium, knowing that victory would take them into the Championship. There is no greater motivational sentence than that. For a group of players, for a manager and for a football club, the future could be transformed over the next fortnight.
The mini-season begins here today in the home comforts of Valley Parade, which will be packed out and bouncing. It is a fantastic opportunity to gain a precious advantage. To strike the first blow. To take a major step forwards in the quest to achieve promotion.
The modern history of this club tells you that nothing will be won or lost today. But still, this is not a moment to pass up. Travelling down to London on Friday with anything short of a lead will make an already tough assignment extremely difficult. This is not an afternoon to pass up. The time is now.
Millwall are as tough of a side as they come. There was very little between the two sides, both in terms of the two league meetings and the final league table. At Valley Parade seven weeks ago, they were a team full of grit and determination. Well versed in doing the ugly things well. Full of physicality, brute force, but also some skill.
All four teams who have finished inside the play offs are in great form, Millwall narrowly have the best record. Seven wins in their last 10 games, only two defeats and just six goals conceded. Just two defeats on the road since January 2.
Millwall are a street-wise, hard-working and committed team, with the wind of momentum behind them. They are a very tough side to beat over two legs.
But so too are Bradford City. They have also won seven of their last 10 games, with just two defeats and three goals conceded. At Valley Parade they have won seven in a row, with only Doncaster’s Nathan Tyson managing to score past Ben Williams since March 1. City have the second-best defensive record in the division – the 40 conceded is the fewest in a season since the 1910s. They’ve lost only once at home since January 26.
Injuries have put a cloud over team selection; but if James Hanson and Reece Burke can be passed fit, Phil Parkinson has a very strong hand. Hanson and Filipe Morais look a potent strike partnership, with Jamie Proctor and Steve Davies more than capable of doing a job. Josh Cullen and Lee Evans are in outstanding form in the middle of the park. Tony McMahon and Kyel Reid have contributed greatly. The back four is full of History Makers experience.
It’s hard to imagine either leg being filled with goals. Both teams are strong in defence, and each backline will relish the physical battle they know is coming. City’s late and successful play off run has been filled with games decided on the thinnest of margins. There will be no panic if they have to be patient to find the breakthrough. The game management has largely proven superb.
The first goal has been massive for City all season and seems even more so today. If the Bantams have to chase a game, their record this season suggests they will struggle. They have to set the tempo, get on the front foot, try and gain an advantage. Get their noses in front, and we know they are very adept at defending it.
Most of all City have a manager in Phil Parkinson who has great experience of these occasions. Not only over the past five years at Valley Parade, but even at Charlton (where he lost a League One play off semi final) and Colchester (where he earned promotion exactly 10 years ago). When it comes to the big occasion we haven’t seen a manager who so often gets it right as Parkinson. When it comes to making sure his team are focused and full of intensity, Parkinson’s track record is staggering.
And last but not least, there is the Valley Parade crowd. The atmosphere inside the ground has got better and better over recent weeks, and Millwall’s large away following will help to bring out the best of City supporters. It is going to be some occasion, and the players can be assured of loud, unrelenting backing from the first whistle to the last. Home advantage could prove massive, and we supporters have to make it count. We can be the difference, and we must strive to be.
Nothing is decided today, but we will move a lot closer to knowing the outcome of a season’s work. Everything is on the line. No one wants to look back on today with regret. No one wants to be sat at home in two weeks time, watching Millwall walk out at Wembley.