A DETOUR via Wembley remains the most likely route to League One’s Promised Land for City after slugging out a goalless draw with Carlisle.

But having gone toe-to-toe with the team now occupying the third automatic promotion spot, Mark Hughes’ men showed they are well up for the battles ahead.

A fourth draw on the bounce means they are still five points behind the Cumbrians with nine games to go.

A Valley Parade crowd of 17,653, the largest for an evening game since 2017, saw a pulsating tussle that felt like a play-off first leg - high on sweat and effort but lacking that bit of composure to prove the difference.

Andy Cook was denied by the woodwork as he once more fired a blank against the club where he came through the youth ranks.

Considering his liking for scoring against his old teams, it’s a real anomaly that Cook is still to net against the Cumbrians in six attempts.

He was dropped by Hughes after missing a couple of key chances in the Boxing Day loss at Brunton Park - leading to a month on the bench.

But he went into the rematch on the hottest of hot streaks having scored nine in 10 since being recalled to the City spearhead.

Carlisle’s previous nine goals, meanwhile, had all been scored by different players - highlighting the huge reliance that the Bantams have on their number nine to keep coming up with the goods.

Cook had Scott Banks and Harry Chapman either side of him as Hughes switched to a 4-3-3 set-up with his first changes to the starting line-up for seven games. Jamie Walker and Dara Costelloe both missed out through injury.

Some fans had been held up by motorway delays but Valley Parade was still a cauldron of noise at kick-off, the 1,100-strong away support adding to the atmosphere.

City won a couple of early corners but the 6ft 9in Thomas Holy comfortably claimed, while Liam Ridehalgh blocked the night’s first shot from Joel Senior.

Chapman swung an effort high and wide - to the derision of the Carlisle following - and Kristian Dennis, that famous “pizza-gate” City target in 2017, headed wide from a corner at the other end.

The pace remained frantic between two committed sides but it was yet to really settle. Midfield was a key battleground between City’s experience and the youthful enthusiasm of the visitors.

Carlisle were quick to close down and winning the ball back well and Jack Armer’s cross-shot from one break caused momentary discomfort for City as it swung past the far post.

Cook and Carlisle captain Morgan Feeney was another fascinating tussle and the striker was adjudged to have fouled his marker as he latched onto a floated through ball from Adam Clayton, who was making his 500th career appearance.

Owen Moxon was a competitive presence in Carlisle’s midfield but snapped into one tackle too often on the industrious Alex Gilliead to earn the first yellow card.

But Moxon showed his strength to spark a Carlisle attack which ended with one-time Bantam Callum Guy slicing a shot into the Kop.

Lewis claimed Ryan Edmondson’s glancing header and Armer had an optimistic penalty claim waved away as the visitors finished the half on the up.

Cook had his first sniff of goal five minutes after the break, bustling through on the end of Brad Halliday’s ball down the channel.

He initially forced his way past Ben Barclay but the centre half recovered to get back and get in the way as Feeney blocked the shot.

City’s talisman had the bit between his teeth and almost wriggled his way through his double coverage in another raid in the Carlisle box.

Barclay was booked for cynically cutting down Chapman in full flight but the City man slammed the free-kick into the wall.

The game continued to rattle on at 100mph with little time to put a foot on the ball before someone came closing in.

City’s bright start to the half prompted Carlisle into a double switch as they changed both strikers. Omari Patrick’s arrival drew a few boos and a chorus of “City reject”.

But Cook came the closest yet to ending the stalemate as Richie Smallwood drove into the box to set him up for an effort that bounced back off the bar as Feeney got a crucial touch.

Hughes made a treble sub with just over 20 minutes left. Ryan East immediately fouled Guy inside the City D but Moxon blazed the free-kick over the bar.

Vadaine Oliver had also come on - and went in the book after catching Senior as he lunged for the loose ball as City looked to break upfield from a Carlisle corner.

Oliver then laid off to Cook in the box but Holy blocked the angled drive with his legs.

More derision rang out as Jordan Gibson came off the Carlisle bench. Pereira got a far more positive welcome when he saw his first action in over two months.

Oliver glanced wide from Smallwood’s cross - and then Gibson struck the post with the final kick of the game in the sixth minute of added time! These two could well meet again.