The headlines tomorrow morning, of course, will all be about Arsene Wenger. This was not only a chance to give a strong team a run out against apparently weaker opposition, but it was also in a competition which, whilst it might not be capable of equalling the delirium of winning the Champions League in the excitement stakes, offered a great chance of lifting a piece of silverware and dissipating the smell of mustiness that has been starting emanate from Arsenal’s trophy cabinet of late. That Arsenal lost was one source of woe for those that travelled from London to West Yorkshire, but layered upon this was the nature and timbre of that defeat. This was a team performance that Arsenal were fortunate get to as much as extra-time from. It was, in one performance, a series of manifestations of every shortcoming of which they have been accused of suffering from in recent years.
Every excuse sounds inadequate. The League Cup is a trophy at the end of the season. It cannot be argued that it doesn’t matter. Wenger didn’t play a significantly weakened team – it was a full first team. They created little of note for the first sixty minutes of the match and required an inelegant goal three minutes from the end of the ninety to force so much as extra-time. As late as the penalty shoot-out they went two kicks down before scrambling back to parity before contriving to lose at the death. Arsenal remain in the Champions League, the FA Cup hasn’t started yet and the Premier League table is far from as depressing as you might think if you studied the club’s form on the basis of press reports of their matches, yet this was football as a case study in neurosis. Where Wenger goes from here is difficult to say – to the January transfer window with the panic-stricken face of a shopper at five o’clock on Christmas Eve, seems the most likely answer.
To the victors, however, go the spoils. The supporters of Bradford City have seen defeat over the thirteen years since their promotion into the Premier League in 1999 like no others. They’ve been relegated three times, have won more league matches in a season than they’ve lost only three times, and had two periods in administration since then, yet still the supporters turn out. This evening, a crowd of 23,971 people, the club’s highest for more than fifty years, packed Valley Parade, and providence shone upon them and their players this evening. They deserved their sixteenth minute goal, a quite superb reflex volley from Garry Thompson after a body-check on Nakhi Mills brought them a free-kick on the right-hand side. There was no massive incursion into their territory, and seldom was there any feeling of siege that so often inhabits cup matches like this. They kept their cool after coming so heart-breakingly close to finishing off the match. And when push came to crunch in the penalty shoot-out, they held their nerve while Arsenal lost theirs.
Perhaps the one thing that Bradford City supporters can take away from this match is that they deserved to win this match, and this is, for all the invective that will be fired at Arsene Wenger over the next few days, a magnificent achievement on the part of his counterpart, the Bradford City manager Phil Parkinson. His team was well-organised and superbly disciplined. He has taken them to fourth place in League Two this season, and while the pleasure of a run in a cup competition is pleasant in the extreme, the bread and butter of the league is where Parkinson’s reputation will eventually stand or fall. He has made progress this season which gives the team of chance of breaking with its destructive cycles of the last few years.
It may be all the sweeter for the club’s expulsion from the FA Cup after fielding an ineligible player, on-loan Newcastle defender Curtis Good, in their Second Round draw against Brentford a couple of weeks ago. The club is appealing the expulsion, but it is not often that such sanctions are overturned upon appeal. Clubs have certainly been expelled from the competition for similar transgressions in the past, and the effects of breaking registration rules are well known. Competitions have a zero tolerance policy for several different reasons, from the point of view of drawing a clear line in the sand on the matter to potential complications for mundane-sounding reasons such as insurance. Perhaps this evening’s heroics will soften that particular blow.
The players that represented Arsenal on the pitch this evening should have some explaining to do in the morning. Their lifeless displays were an insult to those who travelled to Bradford this evening and froze behind the goal at Valley Parade for more than two hours in order to support their team, but this shouldn’t detract from Bradford City’s magnificent performance this evening. They were full value for their win and now the proud holders of a place in the semi-finals of the League Cup, just two legs from a Wembley final. They are to be congratulated for an extraordinary run to he latter stages of a national cup competition, and for a performance that lit up this year’s Football League Cup.
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