As Bradford City head to Millwall with the odds stacked firmly against them in the quest to reach Wembley, the last manager to tame the Lions in a play-off semi-final at The Den insists the key to success will be having characters who relish a scrap.
Fourteen years have passed since Steve Bruce travelled to south London at the helm of Birmingham City, with Millwall overwhelming favourites to progress to the Millennium Stadium final after snatching a late equaliser at St Andrews in the first leg.
Bruce recalls the night of the return vividly, and not just because his Blues side triumphed 1-0 thanks to a 90th-minute winner from Stern John with the ugly scenes at the final whistle also having left a lasting impression.
Birmingham were unable to leave Millwall’s home until well after midnight that night due to rioting in the streets outside the stadium that saw cars set on fire and missiles – including bricks and fireworks – thrown in violent scenes that left 100 police officers injured.
As all this was going on, the Blues players were toasting success with a few beers in the safest place they could find. The pitch.
“The key is standing up to be counted,” said Bruce, looking forward to his second play-off final later this month after guiding Hull City past Derby County in the Championship semi-finals on Tuesday night.
“I had a few dogs and mongrels in that Birmingham squad who enjoyed it. Experienced players who loved nights like that.
“That is what Birmingham became. We had a team that would have trampled over their grandmother to win. That is why I was always comfortable we would win at Millwall and get through to the final.”
Bradford face an uphill task if they are to emulate Bruce’s Birmingham side of 2002 and progress at the expense of the London club.
Last Sunday’s first leg finished 3-1 to Neil Harris’ men, leaving Millwall as overwhelming favourites to reach their third League One final in seven years.
En route to those two previous promotion deciders at Wembley, the Lions saw off Yorkshire opposition in the form of Leeds United in 2009 and Huddersfield Town 12 months later.
The results at The Den were crucial in both two-legged affairs, Leeds being beaten 1-0 in south London and 2-1 on aggregate after being unable to turn things round at Elland Road.
Lee Clark’s Terriers, meanwhile, were held to a goalless draw at home and then beaten 2-0 in the return on a night when a youthful visiting side were effectively bullied out of proceedings amid an intimidating atmosphere.
Tomorrow night provides Bradford with an opportunity to make it third time lucky for the White Rose county in Bermondsey and become the first team since Birmingham to beat Millwall on their own patch in the play-offs.
Looking back to 2002, Bruce said: “Millwall equalised late on at our place in the first leg and were celebrating like they had already won the tie.
“But I was always comfortable. Ideally, we would have wanted an advantage to take down there to Millwall but I was always confident we would get through to the final.
“We went down and won 1-0, scoring the winner in the last minute. All hell let loose after that and we didn’t get away from the ground until gone midnight. All the players and staff were having a few beers on the pitch.”