THE near-deserted Valley Parade reflected the public’s utter disdain for the early stages of the Trophy.

Another record low home crowd of 761 – beating the previous “worst” against Man City’s under-21s in September by more than 100 - reinforced the apathy created by the convoluted group system forced on the participants.

But Jake Reeves won’t be bothered by that dubious piece of club history. For 63 minutes, he was in football heaven – and was only denied a first City goal by the woodwork.

After sitting it out on the sidelines with a serious groin injury through the reign of the last three managers, the midfielder banished 22 months of injury hell with an impressive comeback against Rochdale.

Sadly, it was not a winning return as Rochdale came from behind to claim the victory. Not that it made much difference for them either as Bolton’s superior goal difference ensured Wanderers stayed in second spot to reach the next round.

But the sight of Reeves running round in claret and amber once again was the biggest result City could have hoped for.

All the many setbacks, all that time spent wondering if he would ever kick a ball competitively for the club again were shoved into the background as he played with a tenacity at odds with such low-key surroundings.

Who cares if there were so few there to witness it.

Gary Bowyer’s decision to hand Reeves the captain’s armband was a classy touch; underlining the man-management qualities uniting the squad.

But the midfielder’s selection was no sympathy vote – he was fit and raring and showed that from the off.

A tidy pass to Zeli Ismail with his first touch brought generous applause from the meagre audience; his next intervention proved far more influential.

A foul on Ismail wide of the Rochdale box on 15 minutes gave City the chance to throw bodies forward.

Reeves delivered a well-placed free-kick into the six-yard box – where Tyler French claimed his first goal as a pro with a cheeky backheel past Jay Lynch.

City were immediately hunting more and Omari Patrick’s shot was beaten away before they were given a glorious chance to increase the lead.

Kelvin Mellor burst into the penalty area where he was bundled over by Rochdale’s 40-year-old skipper Aaron Wilbraham.

But City’s momentum was checked as Aramide Oteh’s spot-kick was comfortably pushed away by Lynch.

Reeves, who had never scored in his 27 appearances for the club prior to the injury, smacked the bar with a snapshot from 20 yards before Rochdale suddenly turned the game on its head with two quality goals in the space of five minutes.

Rekeil Pyke levelled matters on the half hour from their first shot on target, leaving George Sykes-Kenworthy well beaten with a screamer into the top corner.

Then Fabio Tavares timed his run perfectly to meet Jimmy Ryan’s flighted pass with a firm prod past the youngster in City’s goal.

That left the Bantams needing to score four to go through – and it could have been five after Sykes-Kenworthy allowed Harrison Hopper’s header to bounce back off his chest. But he just about made amends as two blue shirts descended on the unexpected rebound.

Lynch was in similar discomfort at the other end from a swerving drive from Mellor. But ref Darren Drysdale waved away shouts for another penalty as Oteh went down in the scramble with the keeper for the loose ball.

Qualifying was effectively beyond them but City chased the equaliser after the break and Ismail forced a fine one-handed save from Lynch with a thumping drive.

Reeves still wanted that comeback goal and swapped passes with the winger to burst into the box. But his tame side-foot attempt ran straight through to the keeper.

Callum Cooke, back from his one-game ban, warmed Lynch’s hands from 25 yards out. Omari Patrick was also thwarted as the chances continued to mount up.

Reeves got a richly-deserved ovation when his number was shown as he made way for debutant Chris Taylor.

Danny Devine also came on for Oteh and was straight into the fray as he let fly from distance. But again, Lynch was equal to it with another flying tip-over.

Rochdale’s keeper was beaten by Devine’s second crack – but his low effort brushed the outside of the post.

The verdict was harsh on the Bantams but Reeves had been the night’s real winner.

CITY: Sykes-Kenworthy 5, Mellor 6, P O’Connor 6, French 6, Longridge 5, Reeves 8 (Taylor 63min), Cooke 7, Anderson 6, Patrick 6 (Richards-Everton 75min), Oteh 6 (Devine 63min), Ismail 7. Subs (not used): Akpan, O’Donnell.

ROCHDALE: Lynch 8, Gillam 6, Keohane 7, Dunne 7, Done 6, Ryan 7 (Camps 69min), Hopper 7, Bradley 6 (Clarkson 79min), Tavares 7, Wilbraham 5, Pyke 7 (Baah 61min). Subs (not used): Brierley, Sanchez.


MAN OF THE MATCH: Jake Reeves played like he had never been away and looked full of confidence and conviction.