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Mission not impossible for Bantams
Seventeen years ago today, Bradford City were in tenth place after losing 2-0 at Oxford.
It was the third defeat in five games and Chris Kamara’s team had tumbled from the top six of the third tier toward mid-table.
Striker Mark Stallard summed up the gloom that filled the dressing room.
“Everyone was thinking ‘that’s it, the play-offs have gone’. Nobody thought we could do it.”
They were eight points off the last play-off spot. Even with a game in hand, the prospects did not look encouraging.
But Rotherham were seen off at Valley Parade the following week and a fresh momentum began to build. It quickly gathered pace as Stallard scored in three successive games.
By the dramatic final day at Hull’s old Boothferry Park, City were clinching their ninth win out of 13 – and taking a first stride towards an historic Wembley bow.
This time last year, tenth spot in League Two was occupied by Crewe. They were six points from the play-offs but had played a game more.
Again, few scrapping at the top were paying much attention to a team on the periphery. But they were just embarking on an unbeaten run that would last the run-in – 16 matches in all, even though nine of them were drawn.
Crewe timed their run, as the 1996 Bantams had done, and carried it right through to victory in the play-off final and promotion.
City face Aldershot this afternoon also sitting in tenth. The gap to seventh – currently the Holy Grail – may be nine points but they have played two games less than target club Northampton.
Fans are scrutinising the fixture-list like a University student cramming for their final exams. But instead of quoting Shakes-peare, they will be able to recite the remaining games of Burton and Cheltenham by heart.
All kinds of weird and wonderful calculations are being devised to come up with the right play-off formula. Who beats who and by how many; anything to nail down the exact points tally required.
Phil Parkinson insists that his focus does not stretch further than the next 90 minutes but for many supporters where their club will find themselves on the evening of April 27 is the sole topic of interest.
The general consensus, for now at least, seems to be that City have left themselves too much to do.
It will need a great run to come through on the rails – probably at least eight wins from the remaining dozen matches. But, in the words of play-off hero Stallard, it is definitely “doable”.
“It’s a no-lose situation for Bradford at the moment as it was with us. You’re in a position where nobody is expecting it so there isn’t the pressure.
“For a few weeks, you are just going out there playing for that one result each time. You don’t bother about what’s happening around you.
“Bradford can’t be concerned with what Exeter, Northampton, Fleetwood or Southend are up to. That’s immaterial for now.
“Unless they get on a winning run, it won’t matter anyway because Bradford won’t be up there.
“We really thought we’d blown it and the pressure came right off. Then suddenly we found we started putting wins together and it went from there.
“We were under the radar for a bit and that helped because nobody was talking about us. The pressure only changed at the end.
“Pressure does funny things – look at someone like Port Vale. For the first 30 odd games you are flying along and then, come the sharp end of the season, things change.
“It’s how you handle it mentally as much as physically and some can’t.”
When it comes to coping with the high-intensity moments, nobody in that top bracket should be able to hold a candle to City. Given their mind-blowing exploits in the Capital One Cup, mental toughness should not be an issue.
Stallard added: “Obviously the games are very different to what Bradford faced in the cup and nobody’s going to play keep ball like Swansea did in the final. But from the way they’ve played at times, there is nothing in League Two to frighten them.
“They must have taken an unbelievable amount of confidence from what they achieved.
“As players, they’ve tasted that ‘nearly’ success by reaching the final. It was a great day-out and that must be a great incentive to wanting to get back there in the play-offs.
“Bradford have got to win the majority of games to give themselves a chance. It was the same with us in ’96.
“It’s not going to be easy but it can be done. There’s always a team that will come on to the scene in the last ten or 12 games – it happens year in, year out in every division.”