As jobs go, Bradford City’s is only half-done. Their win against Aston Villa this evening in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final still has to be followed up with undoubtedly daunting trip to Villa Park for the second leg, and it would be foolish to believe that the Villa players could possibly not be stung to feelings of retribution by what happened at Valley Parade this evening. Tonight, however, is a chance for the club and its supporters to dream. The club from League Two is ninety minutes from achieving what we might have considered to be the unachievable – taking a club from the fourth tier of English football to Wembley for the final of a major trophy – after beating Aston Villa by three goals to one at Valley Parade, continuing what has become one of the most extraordinary stories of this season so far.
This evening, they met a Premier League club as equals, and faced them down. Every step of way, Bradford defied the shortcomings that we might have expected a club from their division to display. There was no nervousness, they took their chances when presented to them, and they didn’t collapse after conceding a goal which halved their scarcely-believable two-nil lead with less than ten minutes of the match to play. At no point did this team allow itself to get sucked closer and closer to the edge of its own penalty area from a fear of getting pegged back. They played aggressive yet controlled football, full of confidence and no little imagination, and they won the game, not because they snatched a goal on the break and defended for their lives over the course of the remaining eighty-nine and a half minutes of the evening, but because, by any standards that you wish to measure, they thoroughly, thoroughly deserved it.
Perhaps surprisingly, were Bradford to make the final of the League Cup, they would not be the first club from the fourth tier of the English game to do so. In 1962, Rochdale were in the Fourth Division of the Football League when they were beaten over two legs by Norwich City in the final. In the nascent days of the League Cup, however, the tournament was a very different beast to that which we know today. The biggest clubs in England refused to enter the competition during its earliest years – a situation which wasn’t resolved until the final of the competition was moved to Wembley in 1967 – so, with all due respect to Rochdale, to compare the League Cup of 1962 to the League Cup of 2013 is not to compare like with like. And even to get to ninety minutes of such an achievement during an era of such enormous financial polarisation in English football what makes what they’ve already achieved all the more remarkable.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, were so poor this evening as – again – to make the viewer feel as if they were rubber-necking a road accident. The cup competitions have provided their increasingly beleaguered manager Paul Lambert with the only crumbs of comfort to have come from a season which has descended from mediocre to pure, plain dismal, and this evening his young team seemed so devoid of any confidence that it’s impossible to see where any turnaround in their fortunes is going to come from. A win against Ipswich Town in the FA Cup might have allowed their supporters the belief that surely even a team that has had its confidence shot to pieces since their eight goal thrashing at Chelsea last month could find a way past a League Two club over two legs to reach the final of this competition. They may – we might well still say “should” – manage this, but Lambert’s team is certainly going about doing it the difficult way, and there was little in tonight’s performance to signpost how they might find the second leg any easier than they found the first. Even when they managed to pull a goal back – and in two-legged ties, there is seldom such a thing as a “consolation goal” in the first leg – this was only fleeting respite.
Where do Aston Villa go from here? Sack Lambert? Panic buy in the transfer window? The problems with their current team is self-evident. Times of difficulty require calm heads, but there are view faces of experience amongst their team at the moment, and this young team seems to be getting more psychologically battered with every passing defeat. There is a clear lack of leadership on the pitch, especially this evening in midfield, where Bradford were allowed to dictate the temp of the match, and whilst Lambert might be able to turn this sort of damage around if he was given few months in order to do so, the middle of the season is the worst time possible for such a collapse in form to come. To watch Aston Villa at the moment feels akin to watching a team directed by Ingmar Bergman, a bleak case study in hopelessness with no escape in sight. How Paul Lambert – or anybody that has to succeed him – can turn this around in time to rescue Premier League football for the club for next season is not a question that is easily answered.
None of this, however, should detract from Bradford City’s achievement this evening, and there is perhaps a cautionary tale those clubs that fetishise league football to the detriment of the cups. Everybody associated with Bradford City Football Club – the players, the officials, the management and, most importantly of all, the supporters – have had an evening that they will surely never forget, regardless of what happens in the second leg of this tie at Villa Park. These are the nights that live with football people for all of their lives, and Bradford City supporters, who have seen their team tumble from the Premier League to League Two in only a little over a decade, unreservedly deserve this moment in the sun after such a dreadful decade. The twenty-two thousand crowd which turned out at Valley Parade tonight was proof that after a lost decade, this is a club that is finally getting itself back on its feet again. As Aston Villa withered under the pressure of the weight expectation that has come to hang like an albatross around the neck of so many of their young players this evening, Bradford City grew in stature with every passing minute this evening. There is still an enormous amount of work for them to do, but the club from League Two is still in with a shout of making a Wembley cup final, and that is an achievement in itself which cannot be overstated.
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