League Two Playoff Final
Saturday, May 18th 2013
This is it! After two weeks of build-up, debates, nerves, ticket panics and excitement. After forty six league games and two tense playoff encounters. After facing the very real fear of relegation just over a year ago. It all comes down to an afternoon at Wembley Stadium as Northampton Town and Bradford City go into battle for the final place in League One for the 2013/14 season.
With just one day to go I’m still in somewhat disbelief that twelve months on from both of these sides battling it out at the wrong end of the table we are set to go head to head in the playoff final. Since the final whistle at Cheltenham I’ve been going through different stages of emotion that started with utter jubilation, then excitement and then actually trying to focus on the football match that will take place before us tomorrow afternoon.
The line between what could be one of the great days of Northampton Town history and one of disappointment is so thin that it makes you nervous just thinking about what happens after 1:30pm and the first whistle of the final so we must enjoy every single piece of the day that leads up to kick-off. If there is to be the happiest of endings to this season then every single member of the 22,000 or so claret army that takes their place under the arch, every player that dons the shirt and every member of staff will have to be at the very top of their game. Bradford go into the game as favourites and as a team that has done the league double over us whilst also ending our progress in the FA Cup but the desire shown at Cheltenham shows that there’s much more to this Cobblers side than long balls and hoofing it.
You never know when this may happen again and I’m so lucky to be able to say that it will be my third trip to Wembley with the Cobblers. Treasure it, remember it and do your wonderful football club proud on what could become a date of Northampton Town folklore!
Bradford weren’t supposed to be in League Two for this long. Relegation to the fourth level of English football in 2007 came as quite the shock to a club that, six years earlier, had been playing in the Premier League. It was more of a gradual decline than an instant one with three campaigns spent in the Championship and three in League One since those two seasons in the sun with the elite. In 2007, though, the Bantams slipped to the bottom tier and were looking for an instant return and for a new dawn to begin a climb back up the league pyramid.
Stuart McCall, a Bantams player during two spells – one of which included taking them into the Premier League- was appointed manager. After a tough start to life in League Two he eventually took them to a tenth place finish in the first season in the basement division. A year later and McCall was getting closer to his promotion dreams but City finished two points from the playoff positions and after a poor run of results the following season he left Valley Parade the following February.
Peter Taylor, Peter Jackson and Colin Cooper all tried their hand but the fallen giant was proving harder to awaken than originally thought with Bradford finishing 14th in 2010 and 18th in both subsequent seasons with an exit from the entire Football League the a very real threat at times during the last couple of years.
Phil Parkinson’s appointment in August 2011 looked like being the one to bring back stability to the club, though, and despite last season’s disappointing league finish he has reinvigorated the Bantams this time around and completely changed their fortunes. This season will already be going down in history for them after Parkinson led the club to the League Cup Final – the first fourth tier side to achieve this since Rochdale in 1962 – with the likes of Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa all beaten en route to Wembley.
What is perhaps just as impressive is that, following a 5-0 hammering by Swansea City in the final, City have picked themselves up to mount a playoff challenge. Days after Wembley, they salvaged a late home draw against Dagenham and Redbridge and were still ten points from the playoff places. Three games in hand were still there to be played but it would still take a monumental effort for City to get back into contention.
One defeat in twelve certainly helped in the games after the League Cup final and by the time Bristol Rovers had been swept aside 4-1 in early April, days after the Cobblers had been beaten at Valley Parade, Bradford were back in the top seven and genuine contenders once again. A home defeat to Rotherham briefly threatened to give the chasing pack something to aim at but victory over Burton Albion in their final home league game ensured a playoff place with a final day draw at Cheltenham Town rounding off the league fixtures.
Their seventh place finish meant that Burton would be their opponents in the playoff semi-finals and it was to be yet another dramatic couple of games for the Bantams. Calvin Zola had the Brewers 2-0 up inside half an hour in the first game at Valley Parade before Nahki Wells gave them hope with a spot kick. But before half-time, Robbie Weir had made it 3-1 and there was everything to do once more. Garry Thompson scored arguably the most important goal of the tie in the second half to mean that they would at least go to the Pirelli Stadium with just a one goal deficit, though.
The second leg saw Wells in inspired form again, scoring mid-way through the first half to drag Bradford right back into the game. James Hansen put his side in front for the first time in the tie before Jacques Maghoma levelled the aggregate score from the spot. But two minutes later Wells struck the decisive blow, turning well in the area and slamming the ball home from a Hansen knock down. They survived for the remaining half an hour and had booked their second trip to Wembley in three months for what will be their 64th game of a marathon season.
The time between the two finals has seen Bradford play seventeen times. They’ve won seven, drawn seven and lost just three of those games and head into Wembley as favourites to finish this extraordinary season by making the giant leap back to League One.
The Cobblers will hopefully have something to say about that, though…
City keeper Matt Duke was on loan with the Cobblers last season, playing nine games during our bid to avoid the drop. Despite only staying a short amount of time, Duke was a popular figure with Town fans.
Cobblers striker Louis Moult was on loan with Bradford in 2010, scoring once in ten outings with the Bantams.
The Cobblers report to Wembley with a full bill of health barring long term absentee Alex Nicholls whose season was cruelly ended in October when he suffered a broken leg against Port Vale. Nicholls is one of the reasons why we are at Wembley in the first place, though, after his early season form and hopefully he is able to be with the squad at least. Elsewhere, Aidy Boothroyd has some nice dilemmas to deal with, particularly at the back with the decision to either bring back skipper Kelvin Langmead or stick with Nathan Cameron who was so impressive in the playoff semi-finals.
Bradford have been keeping an eye on winger Kyel Reid who only returned from a groin injury in the second leg of the playoffs. Reid is the only injury concern for the Bantams though who also come into the game with pretty much a clean bill of health despite a mammoth season and they could name the same side that started the playoff semi-final second leg against Burton Albion.
Previous six meetings…
06/04/13: Bradford 1-0 Cobblers (League Two)
Nahki Wells continued his fine form against the Cobblers by scoring the only goal of the game in a crucial contest at the start of April which helped the Bantams towards the playoff places while denting our hopes of automatic promotion.
13/11/12: Bradford 3-3 Cobblers (FA Cup First Round Replay – Bradford win 4-2 on pens)
A youthful Cobblers side took to the field at Valley Parade and did us proud by pushing the hosts all the way before bowing out on penalties. Will Atkinson had put Bradford in front but a penalty from Ishmel Demontagnac levelled before the break. Nahki Wells looked to have won it with a ninetieth minute penalty but Clive Platt took it to extra time seconds later. The drama continued when Kelvin Langmead put us in front in the extra period with Carl McHugh pulling it back for the Bantams. Langmead would miss the crucial spot kick in the shoot-out to send Bradford through but it was a top effort from Town’s young guns.
03/11/12: Cobblers 1-1 Bradford (FA Cup First Round)
Will Atkinson fired the visitors in front in the first cup game between the sides this season but Louis Moult’s second half goal ensured the tie would go to a replay ten days later.
23/10/12: Cobblers 0-1 Bradford (League Two)
Nahki Wells scored the only goal of the game back in October in the first of what will end up being five games between the clubs this season.
14/04/12: Cobblers 1-3 Bradford (League Two)
In April of last year, both sides were fighting to avoid going out of League Two at the other end of the table and it was that man Wells once again who proved to be the difference. He scored a hat-trick to fire Bradford to victory with Clarke Carlisle’s solitary strike not enough for the Cobblers.
22/10/11: Bradford 2-1 Cobblers (League Two)
Michael Jacobs scored a screamer at Valley Parade to put Town into the lead at Valley Parade but the game had completely turned on its head within ten minutes with Craig Fagan’s penalty and James Hansen’s winner nicking it for the home side.
The man in the middle…
Taking charge of the big game is Keith Stroud. Stroud was last in action in the dramatic Championship final day match between Hull City and Cardiff City that saw the Tigers eventually win promotion to the top flight. He last refereed a Cobblers game in April 2012, a 1-1 home draw with Gillingham which was the final home fixture of last season. Throughout this season he has shown 155 yellow cards and 10 reds, including three in the Sheffield United-Brentford game a couple of weeks ago.
No chance! I’m staying away from any sort of prediction for this I’m afraid.
Que Sera Sera…