THE BOYS of ’96 remain Bradford City’s undisputed comeback Kings.
Needing to overcome a two-goal deficit from Sunday’s first leg, the Bantams last night had their promotion hopes ended by a Millwall side who will now face Barnsley in the League One play-off final.
Former FC Halifax Town striker Lee Gregory set the Lions on their way with a typically predatory finish just after the half-hour.
Jamie Proctor did level the tie on the night just before the break but, in truth, City rarely looked like emulating their predecessors in claret and amber of 20 years ago.
Back then, Chris Kamara’s men had also suffered what looked to be a fatal two-goal defeat in the semi-final first leg at Valley Parade.
Blackpool were the side with one foot seemingly in the 1996 final but, incredibly, the Bantams turned things round on a famous night by the seaside that has long since passed into club folklore.
Wembley – and, ultimately, promotion to the second tier thanks to a 2-0 win over Notts County – was the prize for that stunning about-turn.
This year, however, the West Yorkshire club will only be able to watch on television as the Lions do battle with Barnsley on May 29 in the quest to join Wigan Athletic and Burton Albion in next season’s Championship.
City battled hard last night. In terms of endeavour and guts, Phil Parkinson’s men really could not have given any more.
What the Bantams lacked, though, was the polish and attacking verve required to truly unsettle the Lions.
Proctor’s sixth goal for Bradford came via some neat left wing play by Kyel Reid. But there just was not enough of this off-the-cuff play from the predictable visitors to cause sufficient problems for a Millwall side that defended solidly with two banks of four players in front of goalkeeper Jordan Archer.
With The Den sold out, the Bradford players had known even before edging through the Bermondsey streets on the team bus 90 minutes or so before kick-off that an intimidating atmosphere awaited them.
Sure enough, the decibel levels were cranked up high by the time proceedings got under way. ‘Bearpit’ would probably be as good a description as any of the effect that 15,000 or so south London voices created and their players responded.
A lung-busting run and sliding block from Josh Cullen was needed to keep out a Ben Thompson shot after a sweeping counter-attack had opened up the Bantams.
That goal-saving act came a few minutes after referee Tim Robinson had stood strong in the face of the baying home fans by turning down not just one penalty shout but two.
The first appeal came after Stephen Darby had cut out a left-wing cross with his chest and looked ambitious at best.
Second time around, however, Millwall looked to have more of a case as Jimmy Abdou took a tumble under a couple of Bradford challenges.
Robinson waving play on drew applause from the away seats, but those visitors from Bradford were silenced on 34 minutes.
Gregory, as he had done in the first leg, was the man who inflicted the damage. Collecting the ball midway inside the City half, he found Steve Morison and the former Leeds United striker did brilliantly to skip past a couple of challenges, including a lunge from Nathan Clarke.
He then rolled a return pass to Gregory who side-footed a shot beyond Ben Williams and into the net.
Three sides of The Den erupted and ‘Que sera sera’ chants quickly filled the air.
Bradford needed a response and it came in the 44th minute.
Reid created the chance with some clever wing play that left Carlos Edwards trailing before picking out Jamie Proctor.
Jordan Archer managed to save the resulting first-time shot, but Proctor reacted quickly to smash the rebound into the roof of the net.
Had Bradford followed that with a second goal before the break – as they really should – then things could have been very different.
As it was, Proctor, after being played clear of the Lions’ defence, allowed Mark Beevers to recover sufficient ground and force the striker into an attempted pass to Reid that Millwall cleared.
It was a big moment as, instead of being rattled at having their advantage cut to just one goal at the interval, the hosts were relaxed. This much was evident in how well Neil Harris’s men started the second half.
Abdou wasted a glorious opportunity early on that had been created by the clever link-play between Gregory and Morison that has been such a feature of Millwall’s season.
Byron Webster should perhaps also have done better than head narrowly over when picked out by Chris Taylor’s corner.
At the other end, Tom Thorpe did have an appeal for a penalty turned down but, in reality, Millwall’s passage to Wembley was rarely threatened.
The final whistle being blown – after referee Robinson had sensibly ushered the Bantams players towards the tunnel seconds earlier – was the cue for thousands of home fans to pour on to the pitch.
City’s promotion dream was over, at least for another year, and the 1,700 travelling fans rightly saluted their heroes before displaying some White Rose solidarity by chanting their belief that Barnsley would prevail at Wembley.
Millwall: Archer; Edwards, Webster (Craig 90), Beevers, Martin; Taylor, Thompson, Abdou, Ferguson; Gregory (Williams 89), Morison. Unused substitutes: Forde, Upson, Onyedinma, Nelson, O’Brien.
Bradford City: Williams; Darby, McArdle, N Clarke (Davies 74), Meredith; McMahon (Anderson 67_, Evans, Cullen (Thorpe 46), Reid; B Clarke, Proctor. Unused substitutes: Cracknell, Marshall, Morris, Burke.
Referee: T Robinson (West Sussex).