NINETY-SIX days have elapsed since Bradford City’s promotion dreams ended amid the raucous atmosphere of The Den and much has changed.
New owners, new manager and a dozen new faces have brought a fresh feel to the Bantams ahead of today’s first return to Millwall since last May’s semi-final second-leg tie that saw the hosts book their trip to Wembley.
For Tony McMahon, however, the memories of that heart-breaking night remain vivid.
“I moped around the house for a few days after Millwall,” said the 30-year-old to The Yorkshire Post when taking a break from his rehabilitation from a thigh injury that is likely to keep the full-back out for another couple of weeks.
“I ignored my wife and kids. I was devastated for the season to end like that. Totally heart-broken. We had done so well during the season and had gone into the play-offs on a good run, our form was really good.
“Confidence wasn’t a problem, but we just couldn’t finish the job and get to Wembley. It’s a horrible way to go out and I was devastated.
“The trip home that night was silent. Same in the dressing room. It was deathly silent for a long time. I sat there in the corner with my head down for 45 minutes to an hour, I just couldn’t speak.
“I was thinking about what we could have done differently or what more we could have done. You go through everything in your mind and it wasn’t nice.
“It took me a while to calm down over it. But, eventually, I went on holiday with the wife and kids, and that helped.”
The damage, of course, had been done in the first leg at Valley Parade. Despite going ahead through McMahon’s early penalty, Bradford lost 3-1. It meant an already difficult assignment against a well-drilled Millwall side had become nigh on impossible, as underlined by the eventual 4-2 aggregate scoreline.
Michael Proctor scored City’s goal at The Den just before the interval, Kyel Reid the creator.
Both would soon be on the move out of Valley Parade.
Also heading back to their parent clubs in the wake of the season ending were loanees Josh Cullen, Reece Burke and Lee Evans so when Phil Parkinson and all his coaching staff then departed for Bolton Wanderers an unmistakable wind of change was blowing through Valley Parade.
Stuart McCall’s subsequent return to link up with the club’s new German owners meant there was a fresh feel to Bradford when the players returned for pre-season.
“Phil did a fantastic job for four years here,” said McMahon, in his second season at Valley Parade. “I can’t speak highly enough of him.
“But we couldn’t dwell on what happened last year in either the play-offs or with people leaving. We had to get back down to business and I think our start shows we have done that.
“Maybe if the same manager had been in charge and the squad was the same, we might have dwelt on the play-offs and what happened. I don’t honestly know.
“But a new manager and new staff meant a new start for all of us. We had to impress the new manager and also the new players who came in. It was like starting again and there were smiles on faces when we came back in for pre-season.
“As gutted as we were to lose against Millwall, we all knew, as footballers, that once the final whistle blows there is nothing you can do about it. You just have to be ready to go again.”
The fact City head to south London today sitting second in the fledgling table is testimony to how seamless McCall’s return has been.
McMahon, for one, has been very impressed with how the 52-year-old has gone about things in his second stint in charge of the West Yorkshire club.
“It has been new for me and most of the lads,” said the 30-year-old, who finished last season as City’s joint second highest goalscorer with six in all competitions.
“Every manager is different. They have their own ways and the gaffer came in and was very positive. He wants us to train with a smile on our faces. I think we have done that. The gaffer is also very big on togetherness. He made that clear up in Scotland during our first few days of pre-season. He made sure we went and did a few events, all together.
“Rock climbing was one of them. It was brilliant. I had never done it before. Beforehand, I will admit that I was thinking, ‘I could do without this’.
“But, by the end, me and Billy Clarke were having to be dragged out. We were like a pair of big kids. I loved it.”
McMahon’s season may temporarily be on hold after suffering his thigh injury in the 3-1 win over Coventry City a fortnight ago, but City remain in good shape.
The midweek Checkatrade Trophy win over Stoke City means the opening seven games have brought four clean sheets and just one loss.
Even that was on penalties in the EFL Cup at Accrington Stanley.
Today, though, will provide an altogether sterner test against a Lions side who again look capable of mounting a strong promotion push.
“We had a good togetherness last year, but the lads who have come in have integrated straight away,” added McMahon ahead of a fixture that will surely test that bond.
“Everyone looks out for each other. It is why we did so well last year. League One is very competitive. It is relentless with Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday for a lot of weeks. You have to keep going and togetherness helps.
“I think back to (City’s fourth game of the season at) MK Dons. We won 2-1, but conceded in stoppage time. Every single one of the lads was totally gutted to let one in. We wanted that clean sheet so badly. It hurt us all. That is a great mentality to have.”