The magic of the cup has often been overstated but when a genuine cup shock comes around this in no way seems to dilute that excitement we feel, even as a neutral. The latest installment in the love story that British football has with the underdog? League Cup finalists Bradford City. And for them, the fairy tale continues.
We do love these stories. Every fan of a lower league club has one, every fan of a Premier League club has one which they would rather forget. That one cup match where your team upset the odds against the big boys or suffered defeat to a minnow. Part of the magic of the FA Cup and Capital One Cup is that these upsets can and do happen. They shouldn’t, but they invariably do. However Bradford’s may have been one of the finest.
Even if 1st in the Premier League Manchester United were to come up against League 2’s bottom club Bristol Rovers, as the old adage says “it’s just 11 men vs 11 men”. Meaning that (as we have seen countless times) on one day anyone can beat anyone. Playing a game, like the Capital One Cup semi-final, over two legs is supposed to eliminate this kind of upset.
A lower league team may be able to play out of their skin over 90mins and upset the odds against the big boys. But to do so over two legs, home and away, is truly remarkable. Bradford’s earlier victories in this competition over Wigan Athletic and even the win over Arsenal on penalties are eclipsed by this latest achievement.
Bradford City, 10th in League 2 as of this writing, welcomed Premier League Aston Villa to a sold out Valley Parade two weeks ago. And they beat them. Convincingly, 3-1. Villa managed to score an away goal to keep the tie alive. The upset was done. But in this story the hard work wasn’t finished there. On Tuesday night Bradford City had to travel to the impressive Villa Park, a stadium where it was thought by many they would be turned over 4-0 and that the hard work and heroics of their first leg victory would be forgotten.
But it just never happened. Bradford City rallied, worked hard and in many departments matched Aston Villa. Their 2-1 loss on the night enough to see them through 4-3 on aggregate. The Bradford City team that started the game on Tuesday night cost a whopping £7,500 to assemble, the rest just made up of loans and free transfers. To put this in context further, that’s 1/3200th of a Darren Bent, who started both legs as a substitute for Villa. Now, the team who finished 18th in League 2 last season are potentially just 90 minutes away from European football.
Admittedly no fairy tale, football or otherwise, would be complete without the ‘rags to riches’ element of it. In 2009, striker James Hanson was stacking shelves in Co-Op. Nothing wrong with that of course, but compare it to what Villa’s Shay Given or Charles N’Zogbia were doing at the time and there’s quite a stark contrast.
Three and ½ years later and Hanson is scoring at Villa Park in the Capital One Cup semi-final, sending Bradford to Wembley in the process. Incidentally Hanson is where Bradford spent that £7,500 as he was signed from non-league Guiseley.
The figures are staggering, Bradford are the first 4th tier side to reach a major cup final in 50 years and it’s the first time they’ve done it since 1911. Fairy tale stuff.
A harsh bump back down to reality will see Bradford City line up against Wycombe at Valley Parade on Saturday. Manager Phil Parkinson will no doubt have a tough task to keep his players focus on this important League 2 fixture and not on the Wembley showpiece in February or the trip to Las Vegas that the squad have been promised at the end of the season by their chairman.
But, as with every good fairy tale, it can’t be all plain sailing. Bradford’s quest, while undoubtedly impressive, may not quite have a happy ending. Because, as the Wolf, the Witch and the Wicked Stepmother will tell you, every fairy tale needs a villain.
Swansea City are the team that Bradford will meet in the final on February the 24th at Wembley stadium. It shouldn’t be understated what a massive occasion this is for the Swans and their supporters as well. They must feel as though the stars have aligned for them. Their first trip to a major cup final and only lowly Bradford City stand in their way. Of course Swansea will go on to win, Bradford won’t be good enough to contest this, which is a shame. But then, they shouldn’t have been good enough to contest the semi-final either...