Bradford City 0 Gillingham 1
So Gillingham confirmed what Gary Jones had suspected – City are the team everyone wants to tame.
The skipper had warned before Saturday’s game about the dangerous side effect from their record-breaking cup exploits.
City’s astonishing progress to Wembley has put League Two on the map – and themselves on the dartboard. Success comes at a price.
The club that humbled three top-flight sides step out for every league game with a whopping great target on their backs.
Each opponent wants the reflected glory of beating the team that beat Aston Villa, Arsenal and Wigan. If teams weren’t encouraged enough by the vast surroundings of Valley Parade, that determination to upset their hosts has just cranked up a few more notches.
Gillingham may have the best away record in the division – this was their tenth win on the road. But even Martin Allen’s happy travellers saw the Bantams as a major scalp.
“A lot of teams that come here now feel that they are the underdogs,” said Gills defender Andrew Frampton. “I’ve watched Bradford a lot on TV and well done to them for getting to Wembley.
“It’s fantastic publicity for League Two and of course they can beat Swansea. They’ve done it three or four times already, so why not?
“It wasn’t mentioned in our preparations but the players knew. We’ve all been in that situation – well maybe not as good as theirs because they’re going to Wembley for a cup final...”
Teams tailing off before a final is nothing new.
Yes, Swansea won handsomely but building up to an occasion like a week on Sunday should not be such an out-of-this-world experience for Premier League players.
Phil Parkinson’s problem is how to keep his side’s minds fixed on the here and now on Wycombe and Wimbledon; not Wembley. Far easier said than done.
How can life seem normal when the previous week included suit-fitting by Will Smith’s London tailor and a photo session for the giant images that will be draped around the stadium on final day?
The proliferation of giant foam Wembley hands and half-and-half City and Swansea scarves in the crowd betrayed the mounting excitement among fans.
The whole place feels like a classroom of six-year-olds trying to concentrate on the last school days before Christmas.
Meanwhile, City’s league form and promotion chances continue to nosedive. The Villa home leg remains their only win in 2013 and they have taken only two points from 18 since Boxing Day.
Contrast that with tomorrow night’s opposition. City were fifth – 12 places above Wycombe – when the Adams Park game should have been played three days before Christmas.
Now they have dropped to 12th, their lowest position since being spanked at Rotherham on September 1. Wycombe, on the other hand, have jumped above City following four wins in the last five games.
Parkinson and Steve Parkin had gone down to Gillingham last Monday to see one of those and thought the defeated Kent side could be there for the taking at Valley Parade.
Having seen Wycombe outstrip the “leggy” Gills with pace, he included both Kyel Reid and Zavon Hines to run them on the flanks.
It should have worked in a first half that City bossed. The visitors did look lethargic as the game was played out largely in their territory.
But domination of possession could not spark a breakthrough. James Hanson headed over and Stuart Nelson atoned for an unconvincing parry from Gary Jones by acrobatically tipping over the follow-up by Nahki Wells.
The goal would not come and you feared that Gillingham would not appear so disinterested again after the break.
They did up the tempo marginally but still seemed content with breaking things up and spoiling City’s rhythm – a task made easier by a bobbly, uneven playing surface.
Matt Duke had not saved a shot in anger for an hour. But then his dithering gifted Gillingham the softest of goals.
Deon Burton showed a clever touch to loft the ball over the back four for strike partner Cody McDonald to chase. But Duke should have come straight away and cleaned up everything.
Instead he was caught on his heels, delaying a fraction too long before deciding to make a dash for it and McDonald rounded his half-hearted challenge with nonchalance to slot home the third goal in four games of his loan from Coventry.
The goal changed the mindset at both ends. Gillingham’s protection of yet another triumph on their travels became more intense, while the Bantams became more desperate and rushed.
To Parkinson’s obvious frustration on the touchline, their previous attempts to pass the ball around made way for a more direct approach.
It should still have brought a reward with 13 minutes left as Reid put a cross right on the money for Hanson. But once again the big man failed to hit the target with a header he would normally bury with his eyes shut.
That flew in at Villa Park but league games are a different matter. As City keep on discovering.