THE talk in the Spanish sunshine had centred on going one better than before.

Poolside predictions were based on not needing the play-offs this time around.

Sadly, that has proved spot on in both cases – neither City, barring some mind-stretching mathematics, nor Salford will be involved in any football come May-time.

The clubs who shared a pre-season training base in Murcia last summer will be locking horns once again in League Two for a sixth consecutive term.

Mark Hughes and Neil Wood, the managers who had taken them to the play-off semi-finals, were both gone within months of those few days abroad.

The season has not panned out how anyone in those balmier climes would have envisaged.

On the weekend of the Grand National, Salford have been the division’s biggest non-runner as they languish just above the relegation scrap.

City have cleared the last few hurdles but it’s a canter to the line that appears too little, too late having given up too much ground to the leading pack.

Ifs, buts, maybes dominate conversations now as we all wait to draw a line through the last eight months.

There was evidence of what might have been among the post-match celebrations as a packed away end enjoyed only City’s third comeback victory of the campaign.

The first of those was in the home opener against Colchester, a time of optimism and belief.

Then Doncaster away three days before Christmas, a sixth win on the bounce at the time when confidence on and off the field was rampant.

This one, while fully justified, was more about pride and enjoying the last few weeks of watching a game before the football-free zone of summer takes over.

True, the play-offs have not disappeared over the hill just yet but it would need three more wins and a cluster of friendly results elsewhere.

More realistically, it’s about finishing an underwhelming year with heads up and players showing Graham Alexander that they are worth sticking with.

The axe is hovering, and not just over those whose contracts are up and relying on the club to exercise options to keep them for next term.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Sam Walker picks the ball out the net after Salford's openerSam Walker picks the ball out the net after Salford's opener (Image: Thomas Gadd)

Pretty much everyone out there in a City shirt right now is on trial ahead of yet another overhaul anticipated once the last ball has been kicked.

In that sense, the performance at the Peninsula Stadium was a strong nudge towards the Valley Parade “jury” – controlling a home team who are just relieved to have avoided being dragged into the late battle for survival.

Salford look a shadow of the team knocked out of the promotion race on spot-kicks by Stockport last year.

A fourth straight defeat was only softened by the knowledge that Sutton had failed to win and their League Two safety was guaranteed.

Hardly the greatest reason to cheer – it was certainly not what the watching Paul Scholes and the Manchester United glitterati had in mind - but boss Karl Robinson can now begin his club reset.

Robinson had spoken about the “unfair” criticism that City had faced ahead of Alexander’s first return to the club that he had led into the EFL.

The Salford chief said it was hard to play for the Bantams at this level because of the “incredibly high” expectation level of the fans given where the club had been.

It is something the team will always face and must conquer while they languish on the bottom rung of the ladder; a challenge that many have struggled to come to terms with since relegation in 2019.

As City cherished an eighth away win, Wrexham and Stockport were launching their promotion parties.

The Bantams did not lose in five meetings with the top two, including that memorable backs-to-the-wall triumph at the Racecourse Ground. But that ultimately counts for nothing when you lose to Forest Green or at Sutton or twice to Crawley and Notts County.

READ MORE: Alexander's praise for City's comeback victory

At least, they demonstrated a refusal to stay down from the first punch after Salford had sneaked into the lead against the run of play.

Early chances came and went – a familiar sign of things to come – before the home side struck with a touch of good fortune and some smart goal-poaching.

Dan Chesters’ shot was half-blocked by Tyreik Wright but turned into the perfect pass for an unmarked Callum Hendry to half-volley home.

Like Grimsby on Easter Monday, City had to fight back again. The ball spent most of the time in the Salford half but that lack of cutting edge continued to hold them back.

Richie Smallwood, on his 100th club appearance, served up a mixed bag of set-pieces which did not help.

One free-kick boomed over everyone, the next was too clever by half and rolled straight out of play.

But the skipper finally got it right third time with a delivery onto Matty Platt’s head.

He nodded it into the mix where Calum Kavanagh knocked in his fourth goal for the club.

The striker could have ended up with a hat-trick with the opportunities he had. But he has shown that goal-scorer’s knack of knowing exactly where to be when the ball drops in a dangerous position.

His equaliser right on half-time was only the second time in City’s six visits to Salford that they had managed to hit the net.

Andy Cook’s winner last season had been the first but the number nine suffered a frustrating afternoon, dragging wide the sort of opening that he would usually put away with his eyes shut.

Salford’s plan of attack focused on feeding off the height of Matt Smith. Once City had shut that down, there was little to trouble Sam Walker.

The real question about the second half was whether they could dig out a second goal as chances continued to come and go.

Salford keeper Alex Cairns did well to poke the ball off Cook’s toes after he latched onto an under-hit back pass and then excellently to turn away Kavanagh’s goal-bound shot.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Salford keeper Alex Cairns stretches to nick the ball off Andy CookSalford keeper Alex Cairns stretches to nick the ball off Andy Cook (Image: Thomas Gadd)

Cairns again came to the Ammies’ rescue to thwart Bobby Pointon’s driving run and effort, Curtis Tilt deflecting Kavanagh’s follow-up off the line before Cook smacked a third attempt just wide.

The late addition of Alex Gilliead, a welcome sight after four games out, and Clarke Oduor gave City more control for the closing stages as they chased that elusive winner.

Oduor was involved when it finally arrived from the trusty boot of a man who is suddenly scoring for fun.

Oduor picked up a loose ball from a labouring Salford defence and although his initial effort was charged down, the rebound landed in the path of Brad Halliday.

The match-winner against Gillingham needed no second invitation to do it again, rattling off a precise cross-shot that flew into the bottom far corner.

Cue the joy behind the goal and another wave of what might have beens.