Three months after their 5-0 defeat by Swansea City in the Capital One Cup final, Bradford City enjoyed a very different Wembley experience. They dominated the League Two play-off final to erase memories of that previous appearance under the arch and could even have won 5-0 themselves.
Players whose names became familiar during Bradford’s autumn and winter cup heroics, when they beat Wigan Athletic, Arsenal and Aston Villa, were the difference-makers again yesterday. James Hanson, Rory McArdle and Nakhi Wells, all of whom scored in the two-legged Capital One Cup semi-final against Villa, put Bradford 3-0 up by half-time and promotion was as good as wrapped up.
Victory represented Bradford’s first upward step since relegation from the Premier League in 2001, after which the only way was down. They have been in the third tier for six seasons, finishing no higher than this season’s seventh place, but average gates approaching 12,000, a squad that cost only £7,500 and the Capital One Cup revenue means that they are in the black and well-placed for further progress, especially if Phil Parkinson, the manager, agrees a new contract, as expected.
“Getting this club back to where it deserves to be is very important,” he said. “We have got a great core of players and we certainly need to add to it. And I’m ready to field phone calls for the players we have.”
Aidy Boothroyd, the Northampton manager, deserves recognition for the way he has transformed his team from relegation contenders last season to play-off finalists, but that achievement was little consolation. “A very good season gone badly wrong at the end,” was his verdict. “I thought Bradford’s game here against Swansea might have worked against them – but it worked for them instead. They dealt with the whole day, the occasion and the game, better than we did.”
Bradford’s delivery from the wide positions caused Northampton problems throughout. After 15 minutes, James Meredith’s high ball from the left was chipped back across goal by Garry Thompson for Hanson to beat Clark Carlisle in the air and loop his header over Lee Nicholls.
After 19 minutes Bradford went 2-0 up with a remarkably similar goal. This time it was Kyel Reid’s cross from the left, returned by Nathan Doyle to the near post, where McArdle headed in. It was three after 28 minutes when Wells volleyed the ball home after Thompson’s header from Reid’s cross – his fourth goal against Northampton this season.
Nicholls was on hand to prevent Bradford reversing the Swansea score, tipping Reid’s close-range header over the bar and then clawing away an improvised effort from Hanson and, although Northampton introduced the heavyweight striker, Ade Akinfenwa, Doyle and Gary Jones, the Bradford captain, were in no mood to allow them back into the game.
“We got a bit of stage fright and a few were unrecognisable,” Boothroyd said. “We have to use it to our advantage, not sulk, bounce back quickly and that’s what we’ll try to do.”
Bradford (4-4-2): McLaughlin; Darby, McArdle, Davies, Meredith; Thompson, Doyle (Ravenhill, 87), Jones, Reid (Atkinson, 78); Hanson, Wells (Connell, 85).
Northampton (4-4-2): Nicholls; Tozer, Carlisle, Cameron, Collins (Widdowson, 53); Hackett, Guttridge, Harding, Demontagnac (Hornby, 70); O’Donovan, Platt (Akinfenwa, 55).
Referee: Keith Stroud.