Bradford City v Millwall - Play-off final heartache never forgotten by Stephen Darby

Bradford City's Stephen Darby, Picture by Tony Johnson
Bradford City's Stephen Darby, Picture by Tony Johnson
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STEPHEN DARBY’S recent memories of Millwall, like those of the club he captains, are overwhelmingly positive.

Last season, he was part of the Bradford City side that knocked the Lions out of the FA Cup courtesy of a 4-0 replay victory at Valley Parade.

City’s reward for defeating the then Championship London club was a never to be forgotten trip to Stamford Bridge in the fourth round where they defeated Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea.

This time around, Bradford have taken four points off Neil Harris’s men and kept two clean sheets. As a defender, Darby really could not have wished for much more.

Now, though, a fresh challenge lays ahead in the play-off semi-final double-header as the 27-year-old looks not only to book his third trip to Wembley in four years but also exorcise the memories of a particularly wretched afternoon against Millwall earlier in his career.

“I was at Swindon Town when we played Millwall in the League One play-off final in 2010,” said Darby. “It was heart-breaking. Days like a final at Wembley are what you work so hard for but we lost 1-0 and it was a really tough day.

“There is no worse feeling on a football pitch than when you lose a final. But, obviously, after that (feeling) settles down – and however long it takes players, whether it is days or weeks – you have got to try to use that to motivate you for the next season. It makes you want to keep pushing on and be even more successful.”

The season that culminated in Swindon’s Wembley defeat represented Darby’s first real taste of senior football.

He had made a couple of appearances in the Cups for Liverpool before joining Swindon on loan that March along with a very brief cameo as a substitute against Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League.

But the Robins being firmly entrenched in the scrap for promotion meant he had to grow up quickly.

Part of that development, in hindsight, was coping with the disappointment of losing in the play-off final and then using it as motivation in the future.

That opportunity came three years later when Bradford battled through to the League Two play-offs and faced Burton Albion.

Earlier in the season, the Brewers had been knocked out of the Capital One Cup by a rare goal from Darby en route to City making history by reaching the final.

But, in the play-offs, Burton proved a much tougher opponent to crack and it took a 3-1 win in the return leg at the Pirelli to take the Bantams to Wembley by the odd goal in nine.

“Those Burton games show what the play-offs can be like,” said Darby. “Anything can happen. There are going to be highs and lows, but it is important we stick together as a group and really focus.

“That is why it is nice to have that experience, not just myself but quite a few of the lads. There are several still here from the 2012-13 season.

“After what happened in 2010, I really enjoyed the final against Northampton. I knew what it was like to lose at Wembley so it was great we could enjoy the other side of it.”