WILL Atkinson was one of the unsung heroes the last time City clambered out of League Two.

Six years on, he returned to Valley Parade to deliver a sharp smack in the face to promotion ambitions.

Atkinson came off the Port Vale bench to turn the form book on its head with a last-gasp winner.

It stunned the Bantams after four straight home wins – and earned Vale their first success on the road since March.

Gary Bowyer’s team, thin on the ground as injuries hit, had looked good for a point at least after bouncing back from a sluggish first half.

But they finished empty-handed as a former history-maker, clapped generously when he came off the bench, popped up with a stinging retort.

On a cold midweek night, there had been nowhere near the same pomp and ceremony that had surrounded Port Vale’s last visit in August 2016 – Stuart McCall’s first game back in charge as well as the first of the Edin Rahic era.

But as the cracks continue to heal from that ultimately destructive period under the German’s rule, the positive Valley Parade vibe created by McCall before all the former chairman’s meddling has started to shine through again – even when things don’t go City’s way.

Bowyer had spoken about the fans and players enjoying games once more – a unified spirit that he has fostered this season after the nightmare of relegation.

That was in evidence as the Bantams once again had to clamber back from falling behind. But the smattering of frustrated boos at the final whistle summed up a night which reminded everyone that this division offers no gimmes.

There had been a growing sense of expectation ahead of kick-off as City look to hit their stride in the promotion marathon.

But they were dealt a further injury blow on the growing list when Harry Pritchard failed to recover in time from the back spasm that forced him off against Crawley.

Danny Devine, the only survivor in either team from the previous Vale home game, was rewarded for his first senior goal with the chance in his place.

The other change saw Kelvin Mellor return for Adam Henley at right back. Bowyer had hoped to have Dylan Connolly back in the ranks but he still wasn’t quite right after last week’s knock.

It meant that City faced their first league game without either the speedy winger or Pritchard since Forest Green – the only home setback.

Once again, the depth of Bowyer’s squad was being tested to the utmost in a fixture that most observers would have earmarked as a home banker. Vale were yet to win away this season.

But it was the visitors who offered the first threat after five minutes as David Worrall teased Mellor before firing a fierce cross-shot just past the far post.

City did not heed the warning and almost paid the price for switching off from the game’s first corner.

The home side all looked at each other rather than reacting to Worrall’s cross which allowed Leon Legge to get the flick narrowly over the bar.

Two close shaves inside the opening 10 minutes should have been warning enough but Richard O’Donnell was called upon to save from David Amoo as Vale continued brightly.

So, the breakthrough goal for the visitors on 18 minutes came as no surprise. Richie Bennett’s pass found Worrall and this time the winger made City pay with a drive into the bottom corner.

The anxiety in the stands told the story at the early turn of events.

But there were signs after the goal that City were finally stirring as Aramide Oteh’s determined run and shot was blocked and Zeli Ismail began to see more of the ball.

Mellor’s drive was deflected wide and Devine led a promising City counter but put too much on the through ball for Oteh.

The night’s first yellow card was shown to Vale boss John Askey, presumably for saying something out of order. But he would have been delighted with how his side had acquitted themselves.

They weren’t done with the attacking as City were grateful to the long legs of Ben Richards-Everton for blocking Jake Taylor’s effort. Vale top scorer Richie Bennett then headed a James Gibbons cross straight to O’Donnell.

But City were handed a lifeline in the first of two added minutes at the end of the half.

Callum Cooke chipped over the top and referee Graham Salisbury punished Taylor’s nudge on Devine to point to the spot. It looked very soft but only those of a Potteries persuasion were complaining.

Brown dived the right way but James Vaughan’s precise penalty was right in the corner to instantly lift the gloom.

It exorcised the skipper’s ghosts for that miss at Walsall – and, more importantly, got City out of jail after a half when Vale had been much the sharper team.

Backsides no doubt warmed at the break, City came out with more zip and Richards-Everton nodded over from an early Cooke corner. An Ismail cross also bounced on the bar as Brown watched nervously.

The place had been transformed and Hope Akpan was denied his fourth goal in six games by a sharp block from Brown.

With the Kop whipping up the volume, it was City now asking the questions.

Connor Wood’s angled ball for Akpan sparked another threatening move. He fed Oteh on the overlap and his low cross was turned goalwards by Mellor – only for Legge to clear from in front of the line.

The City corner count was building and Richards-Everton saw his volley from one blocked by a mass of bodies.

Wood bent another teasing cross to pick out Vaughan running in behind the defence but he opted to square the ball rather than shoot and Vale were able to smuggle the ball away.

Devine got forward again to set up another chance from the byline but Oteh headed well over when Vaughan was better placed behind him.

Ismail’s thumping long shot warmed Brown, his effort cannoning off the keeper’s body as City kept pressing.

But then came the sucker punch in the five minutes of stoppages. A loose pass from Cooke was intercepted and City failed to deal with the ensuing cross into the box as Atkinson banged the loose ball into the roof of the net.

There was still time for City sub Paudie O’Connor to head inches wide but the damage was done.