STUART McCall will have an extra two and a half hours and 150 miles each way to mull over backing the wrong horse at Wembley.

The City boss had hoped that Exeter would emerge triumphant from League Two’s first play-off final behind closed doors.

Instead, the first Wembley showpiece to be played before such an eery backdrop will be remembered just as much for its one-sided nature.

Northampton’s 4-0 romp on Monday night was every bit as convincing as the hit job that Phil Parkinson’s Bantams had done on them in the final seven years previously.

So much for McCall’s pre-match hope that it would be Exeter’s name scratched from next season’s fixture list, whenever that might be published.

A five-hour round trip of 280 miles up and down the M1 replaced by one touching 600 in double the time.

The Bantams didn’t have the “pleasure” of an Exeter away day once COVID-19 forced the season into an early shutdown. There will be no escaping the lure of deepest Devon next time around.

The City boss won’t now get the chance to maintain his winning streak at Northampton and add to those memories he had talked about of Tony McMahon’s free-kick and Mark Marshall’s second-half intervention on New Year’s Day.

Ironically, “little Marsh” played as big a role as anyone in Cobblers colours after being summoned off the bench early in the contest.

He relished the extra space on Wembley’s wide acres afforded by the reckless red card for Exeter skipper Dean Moxey on the hour.

Marshall delivered three or four teasing crosses – squeeze your eyes tight and you could almost picture Charlie Wyke licking his lips with anticipation at the far post for one of those hanging deliveries.

Three years on from Wembley heartbreak under McCall, the winger emphatically exorcised his play-off demons.

On the other side, Nicky Law was a final fall-guy once more.

There were no gloating Millwall fans leering in his face at the final whistle on this occasion; no feral free-for-all spilling on to the hallowed turf.

But that will have felt scant consolation as a member of the side now assured of a place in the play-off record books after equalling the heaviest beating suffered by Swindon at Preston’s hands in the 2015 League One final.

A smattering of famous faces were in the stands to “see it”; comedian Alan Carr, son of former Northampton boss Graham, and Shaquille O’Neal faring far better than the Queen who was “sat” among the Exeter supporters.

The cardboard cut-outs dotted among the empty seats were a sign of things to come as Wembley prepares to host two more play-offs and the FA Cup final without crowds.

Rightly or wrongly, the final promotion spot from League Two was confirmed three months after the final league fixtures were played.

There was nothing artificial about Northampton’s post-match celebrations as they ignored the emptiness around them to cavort and spray champagne as eagerly as any previous Wembley winner.

Their mission for the season was completed with a return to the third tier after a two-year absence.

And they had done it from seventh place – the same as City in 2013.

Succeeding from the lowest play-off spot will further grate for Bantam fans after their team “finished” just four points behind.

Even more so, when you think back to City’s come-from-behind win over the Cobblers at Valley Parade in early September, Paudie O’Connor ramming home a loose ball from close range beneath the Kop two minutes from time.

Fast forward two months and Gary Bowyer’s team also saw off Exeter – a 2-0 victory, watched by McCall alongside Julian Rhodes, that would lift the hosts into second.

The recurring theme, at that time, was that there was still so much more to come.

Forget the play-offs, City were marked as an automatic promotion contender without really playing like one. Performances had not matched their lofty position.

But they never found that next gear; instead, the results dipped in tune with displays and not vice-versa.

The half-hearted effort in defeat at Salford on March 7, in what turned out to be City's final outing of their campaign, provided the feeblest of full stops.

That seems a lifetime away now.

A wasted season of promotion opportunities frittered away compounded by the sight of two Valley Parade victims slogging it out at a deserted Wembley.

That empty feeling echoed 200 miles north with those City fans brave enough to switch on their telly and think about what might have been.