FROM an extremely Good Friday to a black Monday, such were the swingeing fortunes of Bradford City over Easter.
After breathing fresh life into their play-off challenge with a comprehensive derby victory at Doncaster Rovers, the Bantams suffered an afternoon to forget in the sunshine at Valley Parade.
Phil Parkinson’s men lost both Christopher Routis to a red card inside 14 minutes and then all three points as Preston moved a step closer to the Championship.
And to compound home disappointment Fleetwood Town, Rochdale and, more importantly, Chesterfield all won to deal a potentially huge blow to City’s own promotion hopes.
Six points separate Bradford in ninth place from the Spireites in the final play-off berth and even allowing for the game in hand Parkinson’s men have over most of their rivals, there is now very little margin for error if the club’s season is to be extended beyond May 3.
“We were the masters of our own downfall,” admitted City’s manager. “Up against a good side and in front of such a big crowd, everything was set up for us.
“I felt before the game that we were right on it. I sensed the players were really relishing the challenge.
“Preston are a good side and their (13-game unbeaten) run has shown that. But I felt we matched them at the start and if it had been 11 versus 11, it would have been a different game.
“The performance was not a 3-0 losing performance. We had some decent moments, but now we dust ourselves down and get ready to go again.”
Just 14 minutes had been played when Bradford’s afternoon took what proved to be a decisive turn for the worse. A clearing header by Bailey Wright in the Preston half caught Routis – in for the injured Gary MacKenzie – out of position and the wrong side of Joe Garner as the ball flew over his head.
Garner bore down on goal only to be unceremoniously dragged to the floor by Routis to leave referee Mark Heywood with no alternative but to brandish a red card.
After that, City’s priority was simply to try to stay in the game by frustrating one of League One’s most potent teams.
It probably helped that the notorious Valley Parade pitch, despite displaying more greenery than for several months, was as unpredictable as ever.
The ball bobbled at random moments and the upshot was both teams were reduced to a much more direct style.
That suited City more, and it was little surprise that Preston took until the 41st minute to fashion a genuine chance.
Billy Knott was caught in possession on halfway, allowing Daniel Johnson to race away from the prone Bantams midfielder and deep into home territory.
Rory McArdle did pull off a magnificent tackle, but the ball ran to Garner who, after exchanging passes with Johnson, fired an inch wide of Ben Williams’s left-hand post.
It was a major let-off for Bradford, who responded by squandering a chance of their own.
A poor back pass by former Huddersfield Town defender Nathan Clarke left Jon Stead with just Sam Johnstone to beat, but his shot was poor and easily saved.
In terms of the contest, Stead’s profligacy proved pivotal. Had he scored, City’s 10 men would have had something to defend after the restart. Instead, the hosts spent most of the second half trailing after conceding a penalty inside 18 seconds.
Jermaine Beckford was felled by a clumsy challenge by Gary Liddle, drafted into the backline following Routis’s early dismissal, and led Heywood to point to the spot.
Although Williams blocked Paul Gallagher’s subsequent effort from 12 yards, the ball rebounded kindly to the Preston man and he tapped into the net.
City’s already difficult task was then made all but impossible on 54 minutes, when Johnson fired an unstoppable shot into the top corner after being found by Chris Humphrey.
Williams did deny Beckford with a fine reflex save just after the hour mark, but it could not inspire the Bantams into a comeback, even if it did take a wonderful save from Johnstone to deny Billy Clarke’s 20-yard effort.
James Hanson also had a header cleared off the line, and Mark Yeates had a couple of free-kicks during the second half that were much more comfortably dealt with by the visitors.
But, considering how clinical the visitors had been at key stages in the afternoon, it was entirely fitting that the final word should go to North End courtesy of a finish from Humphrey.
Bradford City: Williams; Darby, McArdle, Routis, Meredith; Morais (Mottley-Henry 79), Liddle (Dolan 79), Knott; Clarke, Stead (Yeates 66), Hanson. Unused substitutes: Urwin, Zoko, McMahon, Webb-Foster.
Preston North End: Johnstone; Wright, Clarke, Huntington (King 46); Humphrey (Little 88), Gallagher, Welsh (Kilkenny 46), Johnson, Laird; Beckford, Garner. Unused substitutes: Stuckmann, Davies, Woods, King, Robinson.
Referee: M Heywood (Cheshire).