ONE of the saddest sights as Bradford City’s League Cup dream ended in a resounding defeat to Swansea City was that of Nahki Wells trudging dejectedly off the Wembley turf.
There was still more than half an hour of the final to play, but Matt Duke’s red card meant manager Phil Parkinson had to get substitute goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin on and the Bermuda international was the unfortunate player to be sacrificed.
Considering the starring role Wells had played during the run to Wembley, it was an unfortunate end to a day when the 22-year-old had been expected to ask as many questions of the Swans’ defence as he had those of Arsenal and Aston Villa in earlier rounds.
Now, after two predatory strikes from Wells helped Bradford overturn a first-leg deficit to book their place in the League Two play-off final, perhaps the striker is going to get his starring role at the national stadium this season after all.
That much will be decided on May 18 when Phil Parkinson’s side take on Northampton Town, but on yesterday’s showing there is surely every chance that his and City’s season can end on the ultimate high of promotion.
Certainly, confidence in the Bantams’ camp will be sky high after the manner of Bradford’s second-leg fightback as they made a mockery of Burton’s boast of having the best home record in the Football League.
Delighted Parkinson said: “When it mattered most, we produced. Coming here (3-2) behind from the first leg was a massive test, but we came through it again.
“Mentally, we got it right. We hadn’t done ourselves justice on Thursday, but in the return we did. The front two, in particular, were practically unplayable.
“That was our 63rd game of the season with a 64th to come. Included in that total is not just Wembley, but also Wigan, Arsenal and two against Aston Villa.
“Games of that magnitude can make it very difficult to reproduce performances against Dagenham and Fleetwood away, but this group of lads have done it.
“To go to Wembley twice in one season is incredible. Some managers, players and supporters –even those who follow their team throughout their lives – don’t get to go even once.”
With a big part of both teams’ attacking game revolving around feeding off the knockdowns of a target man, chances were either James Hanson or Calvin Zola would have a huge say in how the second leg played out.
Brewers manager Gary Rowett’s plan to shackle Hanson was identical to the first leg with Zander Diamond being deployed in front of the back four and instructed to double up on the City striker at every opportunity.
In the opening stages the ploy worked with Hanson kept in check by the combined efforts of Diamond and Ian Sharps.
As can happen in football, however, focusing so much on one individual threat can leave a team vulnerable to another and so it proved on 26 minutes when a long punt forward by Jon McLaughlin led to the opening goal.
With Hanson 20 yards away, Marcus Holness had the simple task of shepherding the ball back to goalkeeper Stuart Tomlinson only to make a total hash of it
Wells, as every good striker should, had gambled on a slip-up and nipped in to steer the ball past Tomlinson and bring the tie level on aggregate.
The goal undoubtedly came against the run of play with Burton having earlier gone close when Andrew Davies blocked a goalbound header from Alex MacDonald and Zola poked a shot wide after muscling his way through.
However, once ahead, Bradford assumed control. The visitors thought they had been awarded a penalty on the half-hour when Wells was unceremoniously dumped to the floor by Holness.
Referee Graham Scott immediately pointed to the spot only for his linesman to rightly signal that Wells had collected the pass from Garry Thompson from an offside position before being clattered.
City, though, would not be denied and they went ahead in the tie for the first time five minutes into the second half when pressure from Wells created an opening for Hanson that the one-time Guiseley striker took with glee courtesy of a stunning drilled finish.
Burton replied instantly when Jacques Maghoma enticed a rash challenge from Thompson that saw the pacey wideman crash to the floor and the referee again pointed to the spot.
City were incensed, but Maghoma remained cool through the inevitable protests before smashing the ball past McLaughlin from 12 yards.
With the tie level once again, the next goal was always going to be crucial and Wells did the honours by latching on to Hanson’s knock down and firing past Tomlinson.
Thirty-three minutes of the tie remained, meaning there was plenty of time for both sides to go close. McLaughlin denied Billy Kee with a point-blank save and then Hanson shot wildly over from six yards out with the goal at his mercy.
It was a shocking miss but, come the final whistle, no one among the 1,600 travelling army of fans minded a jot as they celebrated City joining Yorkshire brethren Sheffield Wednesday, York City and Middlesbrough in booking two Wembley trips in the same season.
Two individual moments of brilliance in 14 first-half minutes earned Northampton a 1-0 win and their place in the League Two play-off final against Bradford.
First goalkeeper and man of the match Lee Nicholls kept their 1-0 lead from Thursday’s first leg intact with a fine save to keep out Marlon Penn’s 14th-minute penalty before a long-range thunderbolt from Luke Guttridge put them in control.
Despite Cheltenham’s best efforts, they never really threatened a comeback until Kaid Mohamed’s header crashed off the crossbar with 14 minutes remaining.
Having survived the momentary scare, the visitors registered a 2-0 aggregate victory and with it moved a step closer to a return to the third tier after four seasons.
The final whistle brought Cheltenham play-off heartache for the second successive season.