BRADFORD CITY must revive the spirit of 1996 and 2013 to keep their fading promotion hopes alive.
Just as had been the case on the Bantams’ last two appearances in the play-offs, yesterday’s first leg at Valley Parade ended in a crushing sense of disappointment.
First-half goals from Lee Gregory, Steve Morison and Joe Martin meant Millwall returned south with a precious two-goal advantage despite falling behind to an early penalty by Tony McMahon.
For City, a huge task now lays ahead if the club is to reach the May 29 final and supporters have to hope that the current side can be inspired by their predecessors in claret and amber.
Twenty years ago, Chris Kamara’s Bradford lost 2-0 at home to Blackpool in the first leg only to hit back in stunning fashion at the seaside to book a trip to Wembley.
More recently, Burton Albion left Valley Parade with a precious one-goal lead but, again, the Bantams were the side to go through following a tenacious fightback in the return leg.
Phil Parkinson was in charge that 2013 afternoon when City turned a 3-2 deficit into a 5-4 aggregate triumph so he knows that nothing is impossible.
That said, Bradford’s task will not be easy.
Going to Bloomfield Road or the Pirelli Stadium and overcoming a first-leg deficit is one thing.
Doing it at Millwall in front of arguably the most hostile crowd in English football, is quite another.
Even the name of the club’s home seems designed to intimidate, the Lions’ Den being, since biblical times, a place where visitors have feared to tread.
Whether City can prosper in south London will only be known come Friday night but captain Stephen Darby is adamant that the tie is far from over.
“We have done it before against Burton,” said the full-back, one of five members of the current squad who played in that 2013 semi-final double-header.
“So, we know it can be done. This dressing room is full of characters and experience, which is what it is going to take.”
The two league encounters between these teams this season had yielded just one goal, Steven Davies settling a hard-fought game at Valley Parade in the home side’s favour by converting one of very few chances.
As the teams emerged to a cacophony of noise and a riot of colour on all four sides of this famous old ground, the suspicion was that the bumper crowd of 19,241 was in for more of the same.
Instead, two goals followed inside the opening 15 minutes en route to the tie swinging hugely in the favour of Millwall by half-time.
Goals from Lee Gregory, Steve Morison and Joe Martin had seen to that, wiping out the feelgood factor that had swept the home fans in the 13th minute when McMahon had successfully converted a penalty.
Martin literally handed City the chance to go ahead, the Lions defender needlessly handling as Jamie Proctor headed McMahon’s deep free-kick back across goal.
A quick attempt at gamesmanship by Martin then almost had the desired effect, his delaying of the penalty eliciting a senseless push in the face by McMahon.
The City midfielder was fortunate that referee Dean Whitestone only deemed the offence worthy of a yellow card. It meant he was still on the field to send Jordan Archer the wrong way from 12 yards.
Joy abounded at Valley Parade but these celebrations were soon cut short by the sort of deadly finish that characterised Gregory’s three or so years at FC Halifax Town.
Collecting a knockdown from Morison, the Sheffield-born striker expertly spun his marker before firing past Ben Williams.
It was the perfect riposte to falling behind and Millwall, visibly buoyed by the equaliser, went ahead on 34 minutes when Morison stole a march on James Meredith to meet Shane Ferguson’s corner with a bullet header that crashed into the net off the underside of the crossbar.
The Lions’ third goal came on the stroke of half-time, Martin curling an exquisite free-kick over the wall and beyond Williams’ despairing dive.
Parkinson’s Bradford needed a lift and it really should have come nine minutes after the restart.
Tenacious work by Proctor saw Carlos Edwards dispossessed on his own goal-line while trying to shepherd the ball out of play for a goal-kick.
Proctor then looked up and rolled an inch-perfect pass for Filipe Morais, who seemed to have the simplest of tasks to score.
Instead, the Portuguese screwed his shot wide and the groans that swept through the locals in the 19,241 crowd told their own story.
Morais had another sight of goal as the game moved into the final quarter but Mark Beevers – the former Sheffield Wednesday defender – did brilliantly to avert the danger with a timely block.
Nathan Clarke was similarly thwarted by a mass of yellow shirts during a goalmouth scramble that followed a McMahon corner before it was the turn of goalkeeper Archer to keep the hosts at bay, the former Huddersfield Town defender again the unfortunate party as his header was tipped over.
Lee Evans also went close with a curled free-kick but City, for all their territorial dominance in the second half, just couldn’t find a way through.
The result means it is very much advantage Millwall ahead of Friday’s return in south London.