QUITE a night for Bradford City as they overcame not only a club bidding to go top of League One but also one of the worst playing surfaces in the Football League.
Second-half goals by Billy Clarke and James Hanson were enough to clinch a first league win of 2015 for the Bantams along with a return to the play-off places.
Victory also means Phil Parkinson’s side will go into Sunday’s FA Cup fifth-round tie at home to Sunderland in fine heart.
With good reason, too, as City got their tactics just right on a truly awful pitch that made completing even the most basic of tasks a lottery.
The Valley Parade mudbath had initially helped Milton Keynes Dons, Delle Alli’s opener nine minutes after the restart owing a huge debt to a scuffed clearance by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
As Alli, recently bought by Tottenham Hotspur for £5m and then loaned back to the Dons, celebrated with the 136 away fans, Karl Robinson’s side seemed on course to replace Bristol City at the summit.
Those hopes were dashed, however, by quickfire strikes from Clarke and Hanson that settled an enjoyable contest.
Not that any Sunderland player tuning in at home last night to Sky’s live footage is likely to agree.
They are highly unlikely to have enjoyed the sight of a pitch that is so far removed from the bowling green surfaces of the Premier League that Sunday is clearly going to be a rude awakening for Gus Poyet’s men.
Not only did the turf start to cut up during the warm-up, but its ability to provide a bobble at the most unexpected of moments turned even the most routine of clearances into a risky business.
None of this will have gone down well with the Black Cats, even if the locals will be able to point out, with justification, that the pitch last night was an improvement on the gluepot of nine days earlier when Colchester United had left Bradford with a point. It is, however, worth bearing in mind that a pitch as bad as Valley Parade hardly suits Bradford’s normal game, either.
Players like Clarke, Filipe Morais and Billy Knott much prefer to get the ball down and play, rather than have to launch it forward in the hope Hanson’s physical presence can make something happen.
For the first half, this tactic was City’s default option and it had limited success.
Hanson, inevitably the focus of the quick ball forward on his 250th appearance for City, found Morais with a cushioned header on 16 minutes, but the winger’s snapshot was blocked before a bout of head tennis in the Dons’ penalty area ended with Rory McArdle’s knockdown being hacked to safety.
Even when Bradford did try to get the ball down and play, the pitch ultimately proved the winner as, first, Jon Stead, after latching on to Clarke’s pass, scuffed his shot from 20 yards and David Martin saved with ease.
Then, in stoppage time, Clarke burst clear only for the ball to be held up in the mud and his eventual shot was weak and wide.
At the other end, Milton Keynes may have started brightly with Darren Potter having an early shot diverted behind and Stephen Darby having to be alert to stop a weaving run from Dele Alli. But, as the first half wore on, the Dons joined City in becoming bogged down by the heavy and uneven surface with their best opening coming via a punted cross from the right that Johnson Clarke-Harris volleyed wide.
After dominating proceedings before the break, it was only right that the pitch should claim an assist after the restart.
It came on 54 minutes, Pickford getting his feet in such a tangle on the unpredictable surface that he fired an attempted clearance straight at Clarke-Harris. The loanee from Rotherham United calmly slipped the ball to Alli, who applied a composed finish.
Bradford’s response was admirably swift, just two further minutes having elapsed before Gary Liddle diverted Morais’s cross into the path of Clarke.
Back in the starting XI for the first time since before Christmas – sidelined due to injury and the good form of others – Clarke expertly rolled the ball past Martin to bring the home side level.
Hanson then put City in front with another assured finish after being released by Stead to set up a frantic finale that saw Pickford save brilliantly from Baker, who also lashed a shot just wide.
As play raged from end to end, Andrew Davies fired over and then Lee Hodson, fresh from missing an open goal, denied Hanson on the line before the vast majority of the 11,948 crowd were able to hail the final whistle and three vital points.
Bradford City: Pickford; Darby, McArdle, Davies, Meredith; Morais, Knott (Halliday 88), Liddle; Clarke (Yeates 80); Hanson, Stead. Unused substitutes: Sheehan, Williams, Zoko, MacKenzie, Routis.
MK Dons: Martin; Hodson, Spence, Kay, Lewington; Potter, Andrews (Cole 73); Green (Powell 56), Alli, Baker; Clarke-Harris (Grigg 73). Unused substitutes: McLoughlin, Baldock, Hitchcock, Carruthers.
Referee: P Tierney (Lancashire).