Leyton Orient 0 Bradford City 1
Aaron Mclean was the last to emerge from the underground car park that doubles as the exit from the Leyton Orient dressing rooms.
He’d been getting patched up by the physio, the stitches in the back of his head medals of honour from City’s winning battle.
Way off the pace, in his manager’s words, on Tuesday but four days later sticking his bonce in where it hurts at the ground where he took his first pro steps as a 16-year-old.
From zero to goal-scoring hero, the striker’s transformation summed up that of City at the end of a chalk and cheese week, which culminated in a precious three points and an audible sigh of relief from all those of a claret and amber persuasion after watching their side move to the brink of League One safety.
With the sun beating down on East London, the players delivered a performance to warm every Bantam heart. A performance full of sheer bloody-mindedness and a determination not to blow up; the type of performance we have come to expect in the Phil Parkinson era.
Successive no-shows against Shrewsbury and Walsall had thrown up uncomfortable questions. We’re not talking the hysterical demands from the foaming mouths of the internet message board but genuine concerns about where the team’s drive had gone.
The training ground had not been a place for the faint hearted these past few days. Steam was still smouldering in the manager’s ears after the home shambles on Tuesday.
So where better to make amends than away to one of the division’s pace-setters, still chasing the prize of automatic promotion?
It probably did City a favour to be so far from home. Valley Parade could have been an intimidating stage so soon following Walsall.
But 200 miles south, a fixture no doubt marked as an Orient gimme on every betting accumulator lifted the spotlight.
And how City’s redemption was so richly deserved.
This was no smash-and-grab one shot, one goal and hang on for dear life affair; for all Leyton Orient’s possession, it was the visiting side who had the bulk of the chances.
Russell Slade’s men have been a breath of fresh air this season. While the multi-millions of Wolves and millions of Brentford bulldoze their way into the Championship, Leyton Orient have been a shining example for the little guys.
Despite a budget a fraction of the top two, the unfashionable O’s have traded blow for blow since a record-breaking start to the season catapulted them in front.
In any other year, their points tally would make promotion a certainty. But this campaign is the exception.
Inevitably the unrelenting pace has started to hit them. They have now won only once in six as the play-offs become a reality – a memorable achievement anyway but somehow an empty one given what has gone on.
For the opposition, it’s a good time to play them. City were not the only team booed off by their own fans on Tuesday as the Leytonstone locals took exception to Oldham snatching a last-gasp draw.
Confidence is on the wane but, as Steve Parkin had said in the build-up, that fragility can only be exposed if you get your own game right.
And City were bang on the button from the moment that Stephen Darby threw his frame in the way of Kevin Lisbie’s early goal-bound effort.
Even the loss of Adam Drury, as the curse of the left back struck once again, failed to weaken away resolve.
Carl McHugh, as we know, is no natural in the role and, up against one of the most fleet-footed wingers at this level, many feared an uncomfortable outcome.
But the lad with the heart the size of a dustbin (copyright Parkinson on many occasions) once again stood tall, stood firm and generally stood in the way.
Orient were shut down so effectively that they were limited to only a couple of shots on target.
That’s a couple more, of course, than City managed last Tuesday. But their first one here delivered the afternoon’s decisive strike.
Gary Jones lofted their first corner deep to the far post, where Mclean caught his marker Gary Sawyer napping to steal in with a close-range finish. Orient had been struck by the curse of the Ex.
No team in the division have recovered more lost causes than the O’s. They had lost only five of the 15 previous occasions when going 1-0 down – coming back to win six of them.
But Mclean’s goal had compounded the sense that their fortunes are on the slide. There was no real conviction about any fightback this time.
“I’d said to the lads before the game that we’re not playing the Orient from the start of the season when they were free-flowing,” said Parkinson. “We’re playing a team that the crowd booed off the pitch on Tuesday.
“I felt comfortable and never really thought they were going to threaten us.”
Parkinson spent the second half keeping director of operations David Baldwin company on the boardroom balcony after a fracas in the tunnel with Orient assistant Kevin Nugent.
City had just got a break when referee David Phillips blew for half-time a fraction of a second before Andrew Davies got his arm in the way of a Dean Cox shot in the box.
Orient were livid as Phillips pointed to the dressing rooms and not the spot. Parkinson had already wound up the home bench by appealing every decision and tempers flipped.
Verbals flew before Parkinson claimed he was shoved in the back by Nugent. Both teams jumped in to the melee, with new boy Jon Stead apparently the first on the scene, before Phillips had his say.
But there was no squirming in his new seat for the manager.
The sight of Slade removing both of his prolific front pair before the end indicated the effectiveness of City’s afternoon.
Apart from one curling shot past the post from sub Shaun Batt, the genuine goal threat came at the other end.
Stead, who had a very effective debut, had a shot blocked in the first half soon after Mclean’s opener.
And there were further opportunities to stretch the lead in the second. McHugh headed just over from a corner, Jones went close and Garry Thompson came off the bench to twice force Jamie Jones into saving well with his legs.
Parkinson still tips Orient to go up via the play-offs but it would be no surprise to see City back here next season. At least their own place in this division looks far more secure.
“We’ve come a long way,” he added. “We’ve had so much disruption this season and it’s been difficult.
“But we’ve worked hard to get into this division and we’ll keep working hard to make sure we stay.”