Bradford City played there twice in 2013, and the matches could not have been more contrasting.
In February, the League Two Bantams were demolished 5-0 by Premier League Swansea City in the League Cup final. Days like that can ruin a season, but when they returned for the play-off final, seven years ago today, they beat Northampton Town 3-0.
If the first experience of Wembley had been “huge” according to manager Phil Parkinson, the shock of another heavy defeat, at Exeter City, turned a memorable season into a successful one.
Wembley hangovers are not just for fans, and in the wake of defeat to Michael Laudrup’s Swans, Bradford won one of their next six games, 2-0 at York City. Four were drawn but a 4-1 defeat at St James Park left Parkinson’s side 12th, 10 points behind seventh-placed Rotherham United with a game in hand.
“It was a pivotal moment,” reflects Parkinson. “We got everyone in on the Sunday and watched the video. We looked at what we felt we didn’t do well and what we felt we needed to do to get into the play-offs.
“We were a long way adrift and had a lot to do but when you’re managing a team that’s been to a major cup final you know you have a lot of quality.”
Bradford only lost once more in the remaining nine matches, to Rotherham, picking up 18 points to qualify for the play-offs with a match to spare despite a hectic fixture list. The play-off final was their 64th game of 2012-13.
Bouncing back after Wembley, where goalkeeper Matt Duke’s red card rubbed a salty sense of injustice into their wounds, required mental toughness too.
“The previous summer we worked really, really hard in recruiting the right players with the right mentality,” Parkinson explains. “When I took the job (in August 2011) I knew if we could get it going it had real potential with its fanbase and history.
“It was a tough first season because we inherited a poor squad and it took us a while to secure League Two survival. Julian (Rhodes, the chief executive), Mark (Lawn, the chairman), myself and Steve (Parkin, his assistant) spent so much time doing our homework that summer and we had a clear criteria. We knew people like Stephen Darby and Gary Jones were going to fight right to the end in every game.”
Eliminating Arsenal and 2013 FA Cup winners Wigan Athletic from the League Cup on penalties, then beating Aston Villa in the semi-final, left Bradford perfectly attuned to knockout football. Two-nil down at Burton Albion in the play-off semi-finals, they lost the first leg 3-2, but turned it around at Valley Parade.
They also knew what to expect from Wembley, which Northampton were visiting for the first time since its rebuild.
“I thought that was huge,” says Parkinson. “The first time didn’t go well for us but we had the experience of the build-up, organising the tickets and everything which can take a lot of energy away. Second time around we had it off to a tee.
“We just had a real focus and it helped that we had leaders on the pitch. The experience of the squad in playing in big games and handling the pressure was huge.
“The city of Bradford came together and the supporters showed themselves in a really good light. They stuck with the club during some difficult times and Julian and Mark did a great job maintaining the fanbase.
“Like a lot of northern fans, if you give everything and they can see that they will get behind you.
“We went into the game confident. We knew that we’d done well against them during that season (knocking them out of the FA Cup). I just felt if we could keep the lads calm, we would be fine. We knew what we had to do.”
Bradford’s front two captured the imagination that season. James Hanson and Nahki Wells both scored against Villa and Burton in the two-legged semi-finals.
Before joining his home-town team in 2009, Hanson played for Guiseley whilst stacking shelves at Co-op in Idle. He hit 15 goals that season, Wells 26.
Gary Thompson set up goals for both, crossing for Hanson’s header, then nodding the ball across for Wells to volley. With Rory McArdle having also headed a goal, by the time Wells scored after 28 minutes, the game was effectively over. Aidy Boothroyd’s side’s first shot on target was in the 94th minute, a routine catch for Jon McLaughlin.
“Nahki Wells required very few chances to score,” says Parkinson. “He had an excellent partnership with James Hanson and was just very, very clinical.
“Hanson was an under-rated player, tactically very aware. He would sacrifice himself for the team.
“The final couldn’t have gone much better. I was proud of that performance, not only to be 3-0 up in the first half but to remain focused in the second.
“It wasn’t until the 88th minute that I could feel the supporters really believed.
“It was an amazing season but we can only really class it as a great season because we finished it off in style.”
Bradford knocked Chelsea and Parkinson’s current club Sunderland out of the 2014-15 FA Cup, then reached the 2016 play-off semi-finals, only for him to leave for Bolton Wanderers. They have since slipped back, ninth in this season’s abandoned League Two.
“There’s been ownership change and the club lost its direction for a period,” comments Parkinson.
“The life of a football fan can be tough but they have got a great manager in Stuart (McCall, who returned in February) and Bradford will be back again.”
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