There was a blizzard getting in the way of Bradford City's road to Wembley. Training was cancelled, the club shop was closed and crossing the Pennines was a challenge, which for a club like this, with players scattered to the four winds, creates more of a problem than at most.
It goes without saying that it will take rather more than snow to halt the side's attempt, at Villa Park tonight, to become the first team from football's fourth tier to reach the final of the League Cup since Rochdale in 1962. Manager Phil Parkinson was cast as Admiral Horatio Nelson in yesterday's local Telegraph & Argus, but it was the accompanying piece in which Valley Parade legend Stuart McCall detailed an inexperienced Aston Villa defence as a weak point which had locals around the school field in Apperley Bridge (which doubles as the training ground) wondering how their team had got here.
Parkinson, who cancelled training yesterday because no indoor pitch could be found, is one of the reasons. Bradford have learned to expect nothing and fear everything in the 12 years since they slipped out of the Premier League, having gambled and lost on that status like so many others. But after three relegations in just six years, and even the fear of falling out of the Football League altogether last season, Parkinson has led them away from danger with a team assembled for the princely sum of £7,500.
Joint-chairman Mark Lawn rattled a few people 18 months ago when, having secured Parkinson's services he described him as the first hard-working and intelligent manager he had worked with. A shouter and screamer the 45-year-old is not – and the local paper's mock-up of him in Royal Navy regalia is an overstatement – but his analytic faculties are combined with an ability to remain grounded, whatever the highs and lows. This is perhaps a product of Parkinson's struggles in management. He felt that his decision to take the manager's job at Hull City, where he lasted six months in 2006, was a mistake. Relegation and a failure to secure promotion also contributed to his dismissal at Charlton Athletic in 2010 but it was the recommendations of people on the football grapevine which led Bradford to seek out his calm demeanour. Perhaps his Open University degree in social sciences also aids his analytical streak.
Parkinson, who was scouting for Arsène Wenger when Lawn came calling, has just turned down the Blackpool job vacated by Michael Appleton's rapid departure to Blackburn and though he is out of contract at the end of the season, a new deal is imminent.Beyond tonight, the pressure on a side two points off the League Two play-offs is unedifyingly strong. Though the lowest ranked of any former Premier League club and languishing in the fourth tier since 2007, average home crowds at Bradford still approach 10,000 – more than some Championship clubs. That creates huge expectation and has tended to see opposition sides raise their game, wanting to puncture the side remembered for promotion to the top flight under Paul Jewell in 1999 and chairman Geoffrey Richmond splashing out on Benito Carbone.
The League Cup run – which has taken Bradford beyond Wigan, Arsenal and into tonight's second leg with a 3-1 lead – has allowed Parkinson's players to escape all that and be themselves, even while they have slipped back in League Two. So many players epitomise the romance of this journey. There is 22-year-old Bermudian Nahki Wells, who gave them the lead in the first leg, who started his career at the wonderfully named Dandy Town Hornets and arrived at Bradford via Bermuda Hogges and Carlisle United. Concerned about the sheer number of games they have played – last week's Johnstone's Paint Trophy defeat at Crewe was their 40th – Parkinson has brought in striker Andy Gray from Leeds, tough centre-half Michael Nelson from Kilmarnock and left-back Ryan Dickson on loan from Southampton. He will need the defensive reinforcements tonight because the size of the Villa Park pitch will make it harder to defend than in the tighter confines of Valley Parade. The challenge is bigger than the first-leg deficit suggests because not conceding two goals will be a tall order.
Leaving nothing to chance, Parkinson's men left eight inches of snow behind and set off by coach last night. "Sometimes as a manager you need time to go away and reflect, during a season and I've not had that, apart from on the motorway!" the manager said. "But you look at this time last year and where we are now. There's so much to play for, no matter what happens against Villa."Reuse content