Bradford City 1
(Millwall win 4-2 on aggregate)
Friday 20 May, 2016
By Jason McKeown
In the end it was proven that the damage had already been done. There was no redemption in South London. No miracle comeback. There will be no visit to Wembley stadium over Bank Holiday weekend. The season ends on a sour note. The heavy sense of disappointment is destined to linger on for weeks to come.
To turn around the considerable two-goal deficit, what was needed on the night was an Bradford City outstanding performance. But instead we only got a decent one. If this had been the first leg, the 1-1 away draw and overall performance would have been credible, fueling optimistic talk of promotion. In reality it was a case of too little, too late. This was a long way short of the extraordinary that was required. And it leaves a heavy sense of emptiness and deflation.
Ultimately, Millwall were too good over the two legs. They surprised with their positive, attacking approach in the first leg. They seized a major advantage at Valley Parade, and were crafty and wise enough to finish off the job back at the Den. They deserve their place at Wembley, and there is no disgrace for Bradford City in losing to them.
There are, alas, a few too many if onlys.
If only City had not frozen on Sunday. Reacted better to the shock of conceding a quick equaliser. Held firm during the final 15 minutes of the first half, when Millwall produced two knock out blows. If only Tony McMahon, Josh Cullen, Lee Evans and Kyel Reid had done themselves justice in the first tie. If only Filipe Morais hadn’t missed that second half sitter. If only James Hanson and Reece Burke had have been fit.
The if onlys continued tonight. They needed to get on the front foot. Disrupt Millwall’s rhythm and really give them something to worry about. Phil Parkinson elected to pick the almost exact same team, and the same City players who lost their individual battles on Sunday were second best again. Millwall are full of street-wise, assured players with the ability to win football games and stick to their manager’s instructions. They are not pretty, but wholly effective.
It might have been different if City could have gotten their noses in front. The first half hour was even, although the home side looked the more threatening. Josh Cullen – in what was surely his final appearance for the Bantams – produced an outstanding block to prevent a Millwall goal. Ben Williams muddled his way through an early defensive mix-up. The back four were shaky early doors, but much improved as a unit from Sunday. Yet still, the absence of Burke – who was on the bench at least – was keenly felt.
Millwall took the lead 10 minutes before half time, thanks to their deadly strike duo of Steve Morison and Lee Gregory. There are obvious similarities between the pair and Nahki Wells and James Hanson, and just like for City in the 2013 play off semi final against Burton, they were the difference over the two games. Morison latched onto a knock down, played a one two with Gregory and ran at the City defence. Four claret and amber shirts were drawn to the ball, leaving Gregory unmarked. Morison played the ball into his partner’s path, and he made no mistake with a cool low finish.
City could easily have imploded and given up the ghost. But to their credit, they fought back from going a goal behind to level before the break. Kyel Reid had a poor evening, but his one moment of quality was to cut inside, beat defenders and play in Jamie Proctor through on goal. The striker’s first shot was blocked, but he fired home the rebound with no little skill. 1-1, and for a few moments Millwall looked shaky.
Indeed if Proctor had made more of another opportunity, a minute later, the outcome could have been so different. He was played through by Billy Clarke’s crafty pass, but from an angle opted to cut the ball to Reid at the back post. It was too ambitious, and the pass across goal lacked the necessary pace. Millwall scrambled the ball clear. City would not come as close to threatening again all night.
The half time whistle sounded at the wrong time for City. For the first time all night they were in the ascendancy, pushing Millwall back and prompting fear. Had the first half featured a few more minutes, City may have scored and home panic would have ensued. Instead Lions manager Neil Harris used the interval to calm down his players. They emerged from the dressing room more composed and retook control of the tempo.
City fought hard but simply didn’t threaten. Tom Thorpe was brought on for the injured Josh Cullen but was more inclined to pass the ball sideways than attack. Just like Sunday, the other substitutes, Paul Anderson and Steve Davies, made no impact. It is truly damning that City did not have a single shot on target in the second 45. Millwall were terrific at the back, but hardly endured their most sternest of tests.
The blame for that may lie partly in midfield – Reid, Cullen/Thorpe, Evans and McMahon/Anderson did not do themselves justice once again – but ultimately City’s lack of a Lee Gregory was telling in the final shake up. Proctor caused problems in the first half but was nullified over the second 45. Billy Clarke was largely anonymous. He just wasn’t able to improve upon his poor form over the course of most of the season.
Time ran out, with any hope of building up a late rally disrupted by premature Millwall supporter pitch invaders. At full time the referee ensured that City players could leave the field quickly, as the pitch was taken over by cheering home supporters. You don’t want to begrudge them their moment, but it left a sour taste that thousands decided to use it as an opportunity to run up to and goad City fans, rather than celebrate their team’s triumph.
It was truly sickening and just so alien to the culture of Bradford City supporters. When we were celebrating reaching Wembley after beating Burton in 2013, it wouldn’t have crossed anyone’s mind to have taunted the opposition fans.
Millwall were terrific on the pitch both tonight and last Sunday, but a large part of their supporters were truly classless and only reaffirmed the negative view that the rest of football holds towards them. I’m sure I won’t be the only City supporter rooting for Barnsley Sunday week.
It was their night, and it was a night to forget for City. But it can’t and mustn’t detract from an excellent Bradford City season. We improved our league finish by two places, reached 80 points for the first time since 1999, set a new club record number of clean sheets, and conceded the fewest goals in a season in 100 years. To get to the play offs is something to be proud of.
We all know that the problems have lied at the other end, and in that respect chasing a two-goal deficit was never going to be Bradford City’s comfort zone. There is a rebuilding job to do in the summer. But come August we must go again stronger and not let this disappointment hinder that. All three of last season’s beaten play off teams had disappointing seasons this time around. Phil Parkinson’s job now is to manage failure.
And he will do just that. When City were thrashed by Swansea City in the 2013 League Cup Final, they used it as motivation to get promoted three months later. When in January 2015 the Bantams came from 2-0 to beat Chelsea 4-2 at Stamford Bridge, the defeated Jose Mourinho came into the dressing room to congratulate the City players, telling them about how the late and wonderful Sir Bobby Robson had taught him how to lose. We must do the same.
We have to learn and grow from this experience. This should not be the peak moment of Bradford City’s rise from the depths of League Two. We have to make it the catalyst for more success. As a driver to aim higher and do better. So tonight is one day looked back upon as a mere bump in the road. A necessary defeat that caused us to grow and progress as a football club.
Phil Parkinson has already spoken about going for automatic promotion next season, and that’s absolutely right. As the dust settles, no one can take away from the fact that he has done another remarkable job this campaign. There is absolutely no one better qualified to get us through this and to make sure we go again.
We have to be stronger as a club for going through this miserable moment. And under Parkinson, I have no doubt that we will be.
City: Williams, Darby, McArdle, N Clarke (Davies 74), Meredith, McMahon (Anderson 67), Cullen (Thorpe 45), Evans, Reid, B Clarke, Proctor
Not used: Cracknell, Burke, Morris, Marshall
Categories: Match Reviews