The saga continues as Bradford City travel to Carlisle United looking to take another step to promotion

Carlisle United vs Bradford City play off preview

By Jason McKeown

Paul Simpson has already nearly put the brakes on one Bradford City promotion. It was 24 years ago, Simpson was a winger at Wolves, who the Bantams had to beat on the final day of the 1998/99 campaign to earn a place in the Premier League. With nine minutes to go and City 3-1 up, Simpson was played through on goal and converted to put Wolves right back in it. City were clinging on. And Simpson wasn’t done.

What happened next is in Bradford City folklore. Five minutes left on the clock, and Wolves won a free kick centrally. Simpson stepped up, and struck a powerful shot towards goal. It flew over the City defensive wall, it arrowed past Gary Walsh. And then – smack!

The ball whacked against the woodwork, bounced into the path of City defender John Dreyer, who gratefully booted it out of play. Promotion was decided by the smallest of margins. The Width of a Post. I’m sure I’ve heard that phrase somewhere since.

Flash forward to the present, and Simpson once again stands between Bradford City and promotion glory. 


After the tightest of first legs, an afternoon of high nerves and huge emotions lie ahead at Brunton Park. By early evening, one set of supporters will be celebrating going to Wembley, and the other will be on their knees. It’s delight or despair. With no shades of grey in-between.

City have sold out their away allocation and Carlisle are on track for a gate that’s double their average 2022/23 League Two attendance of 6,659. In fact, it could be Brunton Park’s biggest crowd since Everton travelled to Cumbria for an FA Cup fourth round tie in January 2016, where 17,101 were present.

Carlisle fans are clearly up for it, having launched a ‘Let’s turn Brunton blue’ campaign that includes raising money to buy balloons and beachballs to aid to the atmosphere. Their players are up for it, especially knowing that if they can defeat the club who hail from the UK’s capital of curry, and then win at Wembley, their reward will be a, erm, free curry!

It’s going to be a really big occasion for both clubs. The Carlisle players – who immediately at the final whistle on Sunday engaged in a team huddle on the pitch, beginning to plot a comeback in the second leg – have confidently talked up their chances. Especially considering they’re up against a club who don’t fare well at Brunton Park.

City travel North a Jamie Walker goal to the good, but after the way in which Carlisle dominated much of the Valley Parade encounter, they’ll be in a confident frame of mind. As the Carlisle News & Star’s formidable journalist Jon Colman wrote after the first leg, “Be wary of anyone who feels they can confidently call this. After 46, and now 47 games, it’s still so precarious, so hard to pin down.”

He’s not wrong. And for Mark Hughes and City, the skin-tight scoreline represents some tricky dilemmas. Do you go safety first and prioritise not getting beaten, knowing that avoiding defeat will take the Bantams to Wembley? Or do you go all out to win the second leg and try to remove those lingering doubts? How much risk do you want to take, knowing Simpson and Carlisle will at some point deploy the kitchen sink?

And – above all else – is not taking enough risk the biggest risk of all?


We previewed the first leg very extensively last week, so there’s not too much new to say. Other than to reflect that much of what the form guide and statistics told us before the first leg match came to pass.

Sunday was an encounter lacking in goals. The battle to control the midfield was frantic and intense. There was plenty of direct football – from City as much as Carlisle, as it happened.

And so we can expect a similarly close contest this weekend, one where the first goal is vital. We talked last week about how City and Carlisle are both good at preserving leads when they go 1-0 up, and not so great when they go 1-0 behind. Drilling these figures down further – by focusing on how Carlisle get on at home and how City fare away with scoring/conceding first – the importance of the first goal looks even more pivotal this time.

In Carlisle’s 23 regular season league games, they opened the scoring 12 times. They won 11 and drawn one of these occasions, scoring a total of 24 goals and conceding just four times. They’ve not lost once in this situation. When Carlisle go 1-0 up at Brunton Park, victory invariably follows.

City on the road are not great at trailing 1-0. One win (at Stevenage) and six defeats, with just seven goals scored and 14 conceded. But comfort for Hughes can be taken from the fact they don’t go 1-0 down away from home very often. It’s happened just seven times all season – the best record in the division.

And even more heartening, City have scored first in 11 of their 23 away games – also the best record in League Two. They’ve won 10 of those games and drawn one, losing zero. In the process, they’ve scored 21 goals and conceded six. As for Carlisle when conceding first at home? They’ve lost four, drawn three, scored 10 and conceded 17 – but not a single come-from-one-nil-behind-win at home.

So to recap, when Carlisle score first at home, they’ve won 11, drawn one and lost zero. When City score first on the road, they’ve won 10, drawn one and lost zero.

One more time, for those at the back – the first goal is massive.


It’s a given that Hughes will pick the same XI for this one, injuries accepting. Whether he sticks with the 4-3-1-2 that was deployed to such good effect on Sunday, or goes more conservative with a 4-3-3, remains to be seen. But this is clearly a game to use a Richie Smallwood-Alex Gilliead-Adam Clayton midfield. Andy Cook will probably get more space from a Carlisle side needing to be bolder – but might find he is even more isolated by a conservative Bantams approach.

City will play Harry Lewis in goal, with a back four of Brad Halliday, Sam Stubbs, Romoney Crichlow and Liam Ridehalgh. A special mention for Crichlow, who has had an up and down time of late and who faced calls to be left out for Matty Platt. The Huddersfield loanee was superb on Sunday. He is a player with such a bright future.

In front of Smallwood/Gilliead/Clayton in midfield will be Walker, assuming he is okay after getting injured on two separate occasions on Sunday, leading to him being withdrawn midway through the second half. Up top will be Cook and on loan Crystal Palace forward Scott Banks – the latter got the Sky Sports’ player of the match for his first leg display.

Just to dampen the mood slightly, we are now in knock out territory – and Saturday’s encounter may prove to be the final game of City’s season. If that’s the case, this could well be the last we see of the out of contract Ridehalgh, Clayton, Gilliead and Cook – plus the loanees Crichlow and Banks.

Ahead of the first leg, City CEO Ryan Sparks told BBC Radio Leeds that talks have not officially begun over the future of the out of contract players. You have to hope that’s not really the case, as otherwise it could be a frantic end of season period that risks repeating the mistakes that Edin Rahic and Stefan Rupp made in the wake of City’s last play off campaign in 2017. The pair did not plan ahead, and lost important players during the close season.

Six of Hughes’ likely starting XI on Saturday could well be turning out for the last time in a Bradford City shirt. Five of the Bantams starting XI that lost to Millwall in the play off final of 2017 were either on loan or out of contract – and City lost them all that summer. It had a massive impact on the club’s future, with the recruitment efforts failing (not helped, of course, by the fact City were behind others in signing players due to their play off involvement).

We went from James Meredith to Adam Chicksen, Josh Cullen to Jake Reeves, Billy Clarke to Dominic Poleon. And, eventually, League One to League Two. The club will do well to avoid a similar backwards step this time around. New deals for Cook and Gilliead especially are essential.

In these all or nothing stakes, we City fans could soon be dreaming of a trip to Wembley, League One football – and a new contract for Cook. Or we could be licking our wounds over a play off semi final loss, and fearing the summer exit of our much-loved, prolific striker.


The more interesting team news will come from Simpson and Carlisle, especially up front. The Carlisle boss started the first leg with Omari Patrick and Joe Garner, which didn’t exactly work out brilliantly – the pair certainly lost the physical battle with Critchlow and Stubbs. There was a notable improvement when Ryan Edmondson and Kristian Dennis came on in the second half. The question for Simpson is whether to go with them as a starting duo, and build on the 27 goals they’ve netted between them this season.

Carlisle are boosted by having their own on-loan Crystal Palace forward, John-Kymani Gordon, back from suspension. Gordon was given a three-game ban by an independent committee after video evidence suggested he was guilty of violent conduct in their recent win over Barrow. If you’re wondering why a lot of Carlisle fans have spent the last few days calling for Crichlow to be punished for an alleged elbow on Garner during the first leg, it is partly fuelled by the injustice felt over the unusual circumstances of a League Two player receiving a retrospective ban.

Gordon has made only eight starts and seven sub appearances since signing in January, but the 20-year-old has netted a couple of goals. For such a goal-shy side, any extra attacking options will be welcomed by Simpson.

It will also be interesting to see if Jordon Gibson comes in to provide more attacking thrust in what is unquestionably a must-win game for Carlisle. Gibson came on too late to make much of an impression on Sunday, but he’s an impact player who clearly feels he has something to prove against the Bantams. Colman reckons that Simpson “increasingly regards the former Bradford man as a ‘finisher’ rather than a starter” – and he highlighted the fact Gibson has only started two of the last 13 games. Colman added of Gibson, “When he’s in the mood, he can be a dangerous and elusive customer.”

Simpson may also consider a change in midfield, with Callum Guy’s place potentially under threat. The former Bantam loanee went off injured on Sunday. And although he is expected to be fit, the player who replaced him – 21-year-old youth product Taylor Charters, who has been largely injured since December – impressed. “[I] thought Taylor Charters coming on gave us great energy, which was really pleasing,” Simpson told the Carlisle News & Star.

Simpson’s tactical switches for the first leg eventually helped Carlisle to find more attacking balance. It included bringing in Joel Senior at right wing back for his first start since March – which enabled Ben Barclay to move back to a central defensive position. The reshuffle also allowed the effective Jack Armer to return to left wing back, after he filled in as centre half for United’s final regular season game at Sutton. Expect Armer to have a big role again.

As will Owen Moxon. City absolutely have to get closer to the talented midfielder, and try to limit the amount of set pieces they concede, given the quality of Moxon’s first leg deliveries. But equally Hughes will have noted Tom Holy’s less than stellar handling of City’s corners and free kicks. In his pre-match talk with his players, the City boss is likely to highlight the Bantams’ own dead ball moments as an opportunity.


This could be a long afternoon. I mean who’s discounting the possibility of extra time and a penalty shootout? What’s clear is the Bantams need to be watertight defensively, and keep possession much better than they did at Valley Parade (second half especially).

That Walker goal could prove absolutely pivotal. But on an afternoon of heavy tension there is an awfully long way to go before anyone can book a hotel for Wembley with confidence. It really is all to play for.

The hope for the Bantams is that history repeats itself. Namely, that Carlisle keep up their unhappy play off record – they have never won an aggregate Football League play off semi final tie, and in fact have never won a home EFL play off game.

We will also pray that – just like in 1999 – Simpson’s best efforts to thwart Bradford City’s promotion hopes fail again.

Categories: Previews

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10 replies

  1. Simpson is adept at the mind games but his side looked distinctly nervous in the opening stages of the game on Sunday. A loss of form in the final spell of the season and the fact that Carlisle United failed to beat any of the sides in contention for the play-offs during 2023 might suggest that Simpson is concerned about the self-belief of his players. The fact he is resorting to the mind games stuff might betray this.

    Swindon and Crewe aside, BCAFC have been a side that is hard to beat away from home and arguably some of our best performances have come from away fixtures this year. When playing direct sides such as Stockport, Northampton and Stevenage we have done the business in high stakes games.

    As regards the last time that BCAFC won at Brunton Park it was the occasion of our first game after the fire disaster and the victory came thanks to a couple of Campbell goals and a strong team spirit. We have seen an excellent bond between the players and Ireally don’t think we have anything to fear on Saturday.

  2. I can well understand why negotiations with out-of-contract players may not have started. Negotiations can involve a series of opposing offers and demands from both parties before eventually a compromise is reached and a deal struck. The distraction and uncertainty of it, the possible sense of injured merit or over-inflated expectation is not what you want when you are trying to achieve promotion. We risk losing Cook, unfortunately, but the onus is on us to give him a deal he can’t refuse if we want to keep him. All the other players can be upgraded whether we are promoted or not. It would be sad to see some of them go – but that’s lower-league football in the post-Bosman world. They come and they go – mostly in two-year cycles. The trick is always to get better than the ones being replaced.

  3. Another great article, thank you Jason. Your point about the dismantling of the team that lost at Wembley in 2017 is an excellent one. Let’s hope that whatever division we are playing in next season, Cook and Gilliead will be wearing the claret and amber of Bradford City.

  4. Good article again until I got to the bit about Gillead and Cooke? For me the midfield has been a major problem all year and the choice of Gillead , Smallwood, Banks , East ,Clayton , and Chapman just does not have the legs to drive forward in the numbers it takes to get out of this division, also none of them have chipped in with enough goals to support the fantastic achievement by Cooke so for me I would not be rushing to extend the contract of a player who has scored 2 goals in 2 seasons, I noticed that Plymouth paid nothing for T Wright but had to agree to a substantial sell on clause imposed by Aston Villa and wonder why we didn’t try to keep this lad a little harder
    Maybe it was not meant to be but we definitely haven’t been the same side since he left
    Anyway fingers crossed for Saturday

  5. Interesting stats on the first goal issue I thought, and I doubt either side will come back from behind or score 3 or more goals. Penalties? maybe.
    Looking at their threats, Moxon looks like a very good player particularly set pieces; Garner looks a strong bet to tumble and get a penalty; Patrick is pacey but rarely scores; Dennis is dangerous on his day but off the boil; Edmondson is lively but not prolific; same for Mcalmont. Holy looks lost at some set pieces but has very long kicks which suits their style of play.
    So if we can press Moxon and limit his
    deliveries, we can cope with the rest. I fancy a 1-1 and Wembley. Come on City.

  6. That is a very good preview. I feel City may be favourites to win through and truly hope so.
    Regarding Cook and certain other players,I do believe that Hughes and Sparks know what they are doing. City never seem to do transfer business in public but tend to keep their intentios quiet. Their track record cannot be compared with that of Rahic. I am sure they will have worked out what they intend to do in the window and think we must trust them.

  7. Carlisle can hit the long ball all day for me. As long as we have our last line of defenders in position and our midfield players ready and fast and physical enough to pick up the second ball then that will play into our hands. We need to work on accurate passing under pressure and the way to achieve that is for players to make themselves a little space available to receive the ball when in tight areas. I think we can pinch a goal on a counter attack as Carlisle push bodies forward. My main worry is that we leave Carlisle space to attack us in wide positions if our full-backs get caught out after pushing up in attack. Simpson will be aware of how well we have handled the ‘direct’ physical style when away from home this season and I think we will see a lot more falling and rolling around from Carlisle players again. I hope this is pointed out to the officials and they are asked to take this into account during challenges.

  8. Great article Jason, yet again.
    Yes, the tie is still far too close to call for me. We need a game plan for every eventuality really, as the tie could still throw up any given situation, it’s that close. But for me, our starting point has to be on the front foot. The Cumbrians will be really up for this, & silencing that big home crowd will be a massive advantage for us, the first 15 minutes are so important with a tie like this. This tie for me, will actually be the toughest obstacle to us winning promotion. If we can get past Carlisle at Brunton Park on Saturday, then a one-off match at a neutral Wembley, against either Stockport or Salford would suit our lads much better imo, & in that situation, I could only imagine one winner. I just prey that our lads will feel alot less nervous than I do, come 3pm on Saturday. It’s such a huge game for our Club after all.
    Hoping so much that our Sunday is a very, very happy one!
    C’mon City!!!

  9. One thing for sure is that we can t sit back and defend without attacking intent. Ask Darren Fergusson.

  10. I’m going to put a determinedly positive spin on the stats to date- or for those of an anxious disposition, a bit of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy re the apparent “bogey man” shadow of not winning at Brunton Park since 1985.

    – Almost 38 years is a very long time. But per your table, we’ve actually only met 11 times in that period, which is not a big data set over that timeframe. Whole decades where we’ve been in different divisions.
    – Of those 11 matches, 3 were draws. Which would get us to Wembley.
    -If we take a trend analysis approach to our most recent form of the last 3 games since March 2021, it has trended to narrower margins. That trend, would suggest this next one would be a draw. Which will get us to Wembley.
    – You talk a lot about the criticality of the first goal, and both teams form, having taken the lead. But this isn’t one 90 minute match, its a 180 minute match over 2 legs…and we HAVE scored the first goal.

    Am I supremely confident? Err, no…because as you adroitly point out, the drama of football is in the unpredictability of it all…and the fact that it often comes down the fine margins and the Width of a Post.

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