Bradford City captured the hearts of the nation as they upset the likes of Arsenal, Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic during a fairytale run to the Capital One Cup final – but another trip to Wembley is already in their sights as they prepare to face Burton Albion this evening.
The Bantams were eventually beaten 5-0 by Swansea City at the national stadium, but barely two months later, a return trip to the home of football suddenly beckons after they secured an unexpected place in the League Two play-offs.
Just a few short weeks ago, it appeared that their promotion dream had been scuppered by the exertions of that fabulous League Cup campaign as a drab 4-1 defeat at Exeter City left them ten points adrift of the top seven with nine games remaining.
However, Phil Parkinson managed to reinvigorate his troops in the nick of time as a subsequent run of five wins, three draws and a solitary defeat saw them squeeze out the chasing pack and claim seventh place.
Their reward is a two-legged semi-final against Burton and with the home advantage in tonight’s opening match, Bradford are rated as strong 83/100 favourites to build a lead to take to Staffordshire on Sunday.
The draw is priced at 23/10 and the Brewers are available at 3/1, but I have a sneaky suspicion that Parkinson’s charges will do him proud once again in front of an expectant Valley Parade crowd.
Burton are a fine outfit and have exceeded all expectations under promising young boss Gary Rowett by finishing fourth, missing out on automatic promotion by a mere two points.
They come into the game on a high after beating champions Gillingham last week, but that 3-2 triumph was a microcosm of their season: strong at home, full of goals but also liable to concede a fair few too.
The Brewers have been a fearsome proposition at the Pirelli Stadium this term, accruing more points on their own patch than any other team in the division and scoring 49 goals along the way – only Port Vale (50) can boast more.
But that’s just as well, because they also shipped a worrying 65 strikes in the regular season, which is more than 19 of the 24 sides in League Two, including relegated duo Barnet and Aldershot Town.
And perhaps even more crucially in the context of their trip to West Yorkshire, their away record is, to put it mildly, underwhelming.
Albion would find themselves sitting in a lowly 20th place if the table was based purely on results on the road and their goals against column reading of 42 is the second-worst in the division, behind Rochdale.
Bradford have already shown that a big two-legged semi-final holds no fears for them – just ask Villa fans for confirmation – and I’m backing them to secure a crucial first-leg advantage.
We’ve all heard the old cliché about the team that makes a late run to snatch a play-off place being favourites to use their momentum to carry them to promotion – and that could well apply here.
Bradford will be roared on by their passionate and vocal fans and with stalwart Gary Jones dictating play in the middle of the park and the ever-dangerous Nahki Wells looking to unsettle the dodgy Burton rearguard, the hosts look good things here.
But instead of taking the odds-on shout about the Bantams, a slightly more ambitious punt on them leading at both half-time and full-time appears the better option at an inviting 37/20.
Anyone registering with bwin today can claim a free £20 bet and placing this on Bradford/Bradford in the half-time/full-time market would provide winnings of £57 if successful.
After all, no team in League Two has fared worse in the first half of away games than Burton, who have been ahead at the interval in just two of their 23 games on the road this term.
And if that isn’t enough to convince you, consider as well that this bet would have paid out when the two sides met at Valley Parade as recently as April 20th, with James Hanson’s first-half strike giving Bradford a 1-0 win.
I certainly wouldn’t actively discourage punters from taking the 83/100 on a Bantams triumph, but the value call is surely on the superior 37/20 that they convert a half-time lead into a victory – and that’s what I’ll be playing.