Just when he thought that things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they did for Paul Lambert at Villa Park last night. A place in the League Cup final was his one shot at redemption, an opportunity to be able to lift the spirits of his seemingly psychologically shattered team and turn around one of the most alarming collapses in form that the Premier League had seen in recent years. For any Premier League club overturning a two goal deficit from the first leg of a tie such of this should have been eminently achievable, but Bradford City dug deep, scored another set piece goal and, in spite of a tense finish brought about by a second Villa goal, held on without too much difficulty to achieve something quite unprecedented in, perhaps, the entire history of English football.
Much was said last night of the 1962 League Cup, when Rochdale of the Fourth Division reached the final of the competition before being beaten by Norwich City. To compare the League Cup finals of 1962 and 2013, however, is not to compare like with like. In its nascent years, it frequently looked as if the League Cup wouldn’t survive as a competition with the biggest clubs opting not to take part in it. Furthermore, the final of 1962 was not a Wembley occasion but a two legged affair shoehorned into the end of the domestic season. Finally, and it is perhaps this that makes Bradford’s achievement for remarkable than anything else, the financial gap between Norwich City and Rochdale in 1962 was nowhere near as overwhelmingly massive as it will be between Bradford City and the winners of the second semi-final between Chelsea and Swansea City. It has been much reported already that the Bradford team that played last night cost £7,500 to assemble while the Aston Villa side that failed so ingloriously over these two legs cost £45m. Such financial disparity would have been unimaginable half a century ago.
To openly and somewhat forlornly wonder where Aston Villa go from here is a question that has been asked repeatedly over the last few weeks or. It seems that Lambert’s team has suffered almost every conceivable form of defeat in rapid succession, from their eight goal hammering at Chelsea last month to last night’s abject display. If there was a question mark over whether this team is ‘good enough’ (an indistinct statement that can only reasonably be followed by asking ‘…for what?’), then losing over two legs to a side three divisions below them in a cup semi-final is an answer, of sorts. With the team’s confidence apparently shot to pieces and with tens of millions of pounds having been spent in recent years for practically no return, at this stage in the season Aston Villa only seem fit for relegation and its grim consequences. Whether Lambert will even be at Villa Park to witness this, however, is a question that can be answered with any certainty. Prior to kick-off last night, clawing back that two goal deficit against Bradford City felt like Lambert’s stop-off at the last chance saloon. His position as the manager of the club surely hangs by the thinnest of threads this afternoon.
For manager Phil Parkinson and his team today, however, there can only be joy and perhaps some feeling of disbelief. The main task at hands remains promotion from League Two, a division in which Bradford City have languished for several years whilst seldom looking likely to turn any significant corners. This season, however, form has finally improved – although there remains work to do in this respect. It is for the supporters of the club, however, that we should reserve our most sincere congratulations. From the tragic and unnecessary deaths of fifty-four of their number at Valley Parade in May 1985 to the years of decline which followed the club’s two years in the Premier League at the end of the last century, only the stoniest of hearts could fail to warmed by this club having its day in the sun. Bradford City will play in the final of the League Cup this season. It’s unbelievable, but it is the truth nevertheless.
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