Bradford City made a less than encouraging start last night to their quest to achieve what proved beyond the only other two clubs in European football to reach a major domestic Cup final from the fourth tier of their domestic game.
Just three days on from the club’s big day out at Wembley in the Capital One Cup, the Bantams failed miserably to stake their claim as likely late challengers for a place in the League Two play-offs.
Instead, Dagenham & Redbridge continued their impressive record at Valley Parade by making it five games unbeaten since coming into the Football League in 2007 with a hard-fought draw.
Luke Howell’s 69th-minute strike did the damage and although James Hanson netted a late equaliser, Bradford will go into March trailing the play-offpositions by 10 points.
And while Phil Parkinson’s men boast two, and in some cases three, games in hand on most of the leading pack, the Bantams look in danger of going the same way as the only two previous fourth tier teams in the history of European football to reach a major Cup final by missing out on promotion later that same season.
Rochdale, for instance, could only finish 12th in the 1961-62 Fourth Division season that also saw the Lancashire minnows lose to Norwich City over two legs in the League Cup final.
Likewise, French club Calais Racing Union FC followed losing 2-1 to Nantes in the 2000 Coupe de France final by missing out on even a play-off place in the Championnat de France Amateur – the country’s fourth tier – due to finishing seventh.
Bradford are determined to buck that trend, but last night hardly suggested they are sufficiently equipped to succeed where both Rochdale and Calais failed.
Ahead of kick-off, the 10,006 crowd had welcomed their team onto the field by waving thousands of the claret and amber flags that had been handed out free at Wembley.
Until Hanson’s 85th-minute leveller, however, City looked more like a side who could soon be waving the white flag of surrender in the promotion race after capping a below par display by giving away a needless penalty and then conceding a sloppy goal.
In terms of the 49th-minute penalty award, Kyel Reid was the guilty party as the winger first allowed Luke Wilkinson to dart in behind him and then compounded the error by bundling the full-back to the floor.
Referee Chris Sarginson had no hesitation in pointing to the spot but, just as Bradford’s hopes of making up lost ground in the play-off race appeared to be about to suffer a serious blow, Williams fired the resulting spot kick wide.
It was an almighty left-off, but one that Bradford failed to heed as, first, Williams was afforded sufficient space on the edge of the area to curl a shot just inches wide of the post.
Then, with 21 minutes remaining, Dagenham took the lead as Ben Strevens, after being gifted possession, rolled a pass to Howell, who finished with panache from 15 yards out.
As the small band of 58 visiting fans celebrated going ahead, the irony that the goal had come immediately after City’s best spell of the game was not lost on the rest of Valley Parade.
Not only had Dagenham defender Scott Doe headed against his own post under pressure from Andrew Davies just moments earlier, but Andy Gray and Rory McArdle had both also gone close.
Once behind, though, City refused to be beaten and duly equalised five minutes from time when Hanson swept in from close range after Nahki Wells had helped Zavon Hines’s cross into the striker’s path.
Wells then almost rescued a win with a shot in stoppage time that Adu Agogo cleared off the line, but Dagenham survived to claim a deserved point in their first outing without long-serving manager John Still, who had quit to take charge of Luton Town 24 hours earlier.
The flurry of chances created at either end during the second half had been in sharp contrast to the opening 45 minutes when there had been only one save of note.
That came early on when neat play by Matthew Saunders created an opening for the nippy Medy Elito.
He then thundered a shot goalwards that Jon McLaughlin, in for the suspended Matt Duke, acrobatically turned onto the crossbar with a stunning one-handed save.
Despite playing at a high tempo throughout the first half, City – sporting six changes from the team that had started at Wembley on Sunday – rarely looked like posing a similar threat at the other end with McArdle firing their best chance over.
Bradford’s attacking play improved markedly after the break and Hanson’s late strike did, at least, prevent the first post-Wembley outing ending in defeat.
But, even so, the Bantams cannot afford too many more slip-ups of a similar ilk to last night if they are not to go the way of Rochdale and Calais.
Bradford City: McLaughlin; McArdle (Connell 78), Davies, Nelson, Darby; Hines, Doyle, Jones, Reid; Gray (Hanson 66), Thompson (Wells 66). Unused substitutes: Bentley, Ravenhill, Atkinson, McHugh.
Dagenham & Redbridge: Lewington; Ilesanmi, Wilkinson, Doe, Hoyte; Elito (Reed 86), Howell, Agogo, Williams, Saunders; Strevens (Bingham 82). Unused substitutes: Seabright, Green, Maher, Dennis, Gracco.
Referee: C Sarginson (Staffordshire).
Results: Page 22.