McArdle goal the difference at Valley Parade
A second half header by Rory McArdle has given Bradford City a slender 1-0 lead going into the second leg of this semi-final tie.
Fleetwood showed many of the battling qualities that have marked their season and remain very much in with a chance of a second Wembley play-off final. The teams meet again at Highbury on Sunday.
Uwe Rosler made three changes from the team who ended the league campaign against Port Vale. Cian Bolger did not recover from the injury sustained in the match and club captain, Nathan Pond, continued in defence. Markus Schwabl and Devante Cole returned. George Glendon and Ashley Hunter dropped to the bench. Bradford were back to strength after Stuart McCall rested players last weekend against Rochdale.
Valley Parade was Fleetwood's first port of call as a Football League team and the atmosphere at kick off was every bit as intense, the Bradford fans whipped to a frenzy by the appearance of former players on the pitch and an exuberant PA announcer.
The sound cascaded down from the thousands of Bradford seats as their team made the early inroads. Bobby Grant and Tony McMahon met in the first minute and sparked a skirmish and words from referee Oliver Langford. In the sixth minute, Billy Clarke nearly exposed hesitant defending before being stopped on the edge of the area.
Fleetwood relieved the pressure with a run from former Bantam, Devante Cole, and had a half chance after eight minutes when a high, hanging cross from Conor McLaughlin found Grant, then David Ball who tried to hook the ball left-footed over keeper Colin Doyle. It ran free and James Meredith cleared. Bradford responded, Nicky Law finding space through the middle. His low shot forced Alex Cairns into conceding a corner. In the 17th minute, Charlie Wyke had a chance in front of goal but could not find a touch good enough to test Cairns.
Ball was presented with a golden opportunity to tip the contest Fleetwood's way when Doyle hit a poor clearance straight at him after twenty minutes. The striker's chip found the roof of the net. It was developing into an absorbing contest on a chilly evening. Fleetwood making forays upfield but, more often, defending the repeated Bradford threat at the opposite end. The defence battled heroically with skipper Pond always at the heart of the action. The roars from the home fans seemed to make every Bradford attack more threatening.
Billy Clarke came closest to scoring after thirty-seven, hitting the post with a left-foot shot. He swung another opportunity wide four minutes later after good work from Meredith down the left. Wyke's amateur dramatics failed to impress the referee as half time approached, 'falling' under pressure from Pond.
The break came with Bradford well ahead on points in boxing parlance but with Fleetwood unyielding and very much in the tie. With George Glendon replacing Schwabl, the second half began in similar vein. Cairns tipped a well-struck Cullen free kick over the bar following a foul by Kyle Dempsey after 48 minutes. Two further chances, from open play, blazed high over the crossbar. Cole moved in threateningly at the opposite end before being denied by Doyle.
As the hour passed and Fleetwood remained resolute, frustration began to creep in around the ground, memories perhaps going back twelve months to the last home defeat in a league game, against Millwall in the play-offs. There was dismay as McMahon's shot on target from the edge of the area ricocheted clear of danger, and again as Meredith fired over from the inside left channel. Ashley Hunter replaced Cole after 65 minutes.
Top scorer, Jordy Hiwula, on as a substitute, and Wyke nearly combined for Bradford on 72 minutes but the away defence held out again. Soon after, it was finally broken and the Bantams fans erupted in the 77th minute as McArdle rose at the near post to head home a corner earned after Bradford had pounced on a stray McLaughlin pass back in their own half.
Wes Burns came on for Ball with ten minutes left, seeing little of the ball as Bradford looked for a potentially decisive second goal.
Fleetwood Town: Alex Cairns, Ashley Eastham, Nathan Pond (c), Ben Davies, Conor McLaughlin, Kyle Dempsey, Markus Schwabl (George Glendon 45), Bobby Grant, Amar'ii Bell, David Ball (Wes Burns 80), Devante Cole (Ashley Hunter, 65)
Bradford City: Colin Doyle, James Meredith, Nicky Law, Romain Vincelot, Mark Marshall, Charlie Wyke, Billy Clarke, Josh Cullen, Nathaniel Knight-Percival, Rory McArdle, Tony McMahon