Bradford City 1 Port Vale 0
It’s been a long, long wait – for City and for goal hero Carl McHugh.
The Bantams had waited 14 games for that victory and nearly five months for one at Valley Parade.
For McHugh, it had been 13 months since he last hit the net. But the young Irishman doesn’t do small goals. His last one was that never-to-be-forgotten header past childhood idol Shay Given against Aston Villa.
Last night’s first of the season wasn’t far behind that in terms of significance.
Eighty seven days on from beating MK Dons 3-2, City have finally added to the wins column. For the first time all season, they won a game after being level at half-time.
And Phil Parkinson, his players, the board, the fans and everyone within the vicinity of Valley Parade can take a deep breath.
The feelings at the final whistle after McHugh’s stoppage-time winner were as much relief as joy.
McHugh wouldn’t have even played if it wasn’t for Matthew Bates being ruled out with a hip problem. That meant a return to the left-back role where he had struggled last time at Sheffield United a month ago.
Nathan Doyle took over from Matty Dolan in central midfield after replacing him at half-time in the Carlisle defeat.
And Kyle Bennett got the nod over Garry Thompson on the right wing, with the brief to take on Vale at every opportunity.
There were no defenders on the City bench, which included Mark Yeates for the first time since Bramall Lane.
While City’s recent home woes were well chronicled, Valley Parade had been a happy hunting ground for Vale, who were unbeaten in their previous five league visits.
Last season’s win had been a smash-and-grab in a game that City dominated and the home side started this one on the front foot. James Hanson almost nipped in ahead of keeper Chris Neal and Bennett and Adam Reach had efforts charged down within the opening two minutes.
Reach then clipped an inviting long ball for Hanson to chase and he fired first time across goal from the corner of the box.
But City survived a huge scare in the tenth minute when McLaughlin shanked his clearance. Suddenly he was marooned out of goal as Chris Lines claimed the ball 35 yards out towards the touchline.
The midfielder took aim at the unguarded net but Rory McArdle saved his keeper’s bacon by heading off the line.
Reach restored home confidence with one of those driving runs that is fast becoming his trademark. He forced the first corner and from it, City were so close to an opener.
McHugh flicked Jones’s low kick across goal, where Hanson was blocked by Neal at the far post. The rebound came out to Reach, who had two stabs at it, the second a curler that the keeper tipped over the bar.
As City looked to build up a head of steam, they were almost caught cold on the break by Ben Williamson. But McArdle made another big defensive play, tracking back 50 yards with him to make the block.
Vale skipper Doug Loft took advantage of a poor back header from Doyle and nipped the bouncing ball away from McHugh to burst into the box but McLaughlin made amends for his earlier lapse to make a strong block.
But Loft blotted his own copybook with a cynical body-check on Reach to follow Anthony Griffith into the book. Once again, the on-loan winger was really looking the part on City’s left flank as the Kop modified the Kyle Reid song in tribute.
Gary Jones was also throwing himself forward and swapped passes with Andrew Davies before firing past the post from 20 yards. As half-time approached, City continued to press and McHugh nodded wide from a Jones free-kick.
It had been a hugely encouraging half from the home side and the crowd appreciated their efforts. But – with shades of last season – the scoreline remained goalless.
Mclean made an immediate nuisance of himself from the resumption, his overhead kick from close range causing panic in the Vale ranks as Loft almost cleared into his own net.
City had restarted in the same vein and Griffith was lucky not to see red when he caught Bennett after the winger had crossed the ball. Davies headed over from the free-kick and Reach drove across goal as the charge continued.
The one-way traffic was briefly interrupted as McLaughlin beat out a snap-shot from Loft but it was a rare excursion up the other end.
Vale were generally content to shut down City at every turn and Mclean seemed a regular victim for some strong-arm treatment. Not that referee Mark Brown seemed over-concerned with their approach.
Garry Thompson replaced Bennett with just under 20 minutes left but all eyes were once again on the other wing as another Reach raid ended with an unanswered shout for hand ball against Adam Yates.
Hanson’s cross to the near post was taken off Reach’s toe by the diving Neal before the Middlesbrough man struck the Vale woodwork, meeting Stephen Darby’s centre with a half-volley against the foot of the post.
Try as they might, it just wouldn’t go in and Vale fired another warning from a sporadic counter-attack through substitute Jordan Hugill.
For all the incessant City pressure, the away team had the bulk of the shots on target – a fact backed up when Jones drove into the Kop.
They huffed and puffed but the elusive breakthrough just would not materialise – until stoppage time.
Then Jones swung over corner number eight and McHugh rose above the pack to steer the ball back in the direction it came from into the top corner.
It felt like a cup winner; it probably meant more in the grand scheme of things.
City can now relax and look forward to the next two home games with renewed vigour.