In the age of the billionaire owner, with a Premier League rich beyond the wildest dreams of English football, where even lowly squad players are internationals, what Bradford City of League Two achieved tonight was truly stupendous.
The club that are placed 10th in football's fourth tier, 61 places below Aston Villa in the league hierarchy, prevailed tonight to reach the final of Capital One Cup at Wembley with a team that cost just £7,500. To put that in perspective, they are the first team from English football's fourth division to reach a major cup final since Rochdale did in the League Cup in 1962, and strictly speaking that was a two-legged game rather than a final.
Bradford did so courtesy of a goal from the striker James Hanson, a man who, as the club's supporters like to sing, was working in a Co-op supermarket in his previous employment but tonight got the better of Ron Vlaar, Villa's captain and a Netherlands international. It was a great night for cup football and for a club that has its heyday before the First World War, it was simply unforgettable.
Born in industrial West Yorkshire, 110 years ago, Bradford City won the FA Cup in 1911, but their modern era has been short of good news. The fire at Valley Parade that killed 56 supporters in 1985 dominates the history of the club and while all else is trivial in comparison, their two years in the Premier League between 1999 and 2001 were a brief prelude to more financial woes.
Tonight, in the words of their manager Phil Parkinson, Bradford made history. It was Hanson's goal that set them on this cup run against Notts County in August and on past Watford, Burton, Wigan, Arsenal and now Villa. Tomorrow night they will discover whether it is Swansea or Chelsea they will face on 24 February. This was, quite simply, one of the greatest achievements in cup history.
You could argue that Bradford's feat this season has never been bettered in the history of English cup football. Rochdale made it to the final in the years when the League Cup was in its infancy and some of the top teams did not enter. Tonight, this was cup football at its best, raw and unpredictable, with that great power to coax extraordinary performances from ordinary footballers.
It was there in the performance of Parkinson's two centre-halves Rory McArdle and Carl McHugh, just 19, who held Bradford together in a first-half storm of attacks from Aston Villa during which Christian Benteke gave them the lead. It was there from Matt Duke, the goalkeeper and a cancer survivor, who made a great first-half save from Charles N'Zogbia. And it was there in the captain Gary Jones, at 35, an indomitable force in midfield.
And like all great cup ties, while there was joy on one side, there was utter despair among the defeated. For fragile Villa, perched one point above the Premier League relegation zone in 17th place, this was about as bad as it gets.
They played the last few minutes in desperation with substitute Andreas Weimann having given them hope with a second goal that meant they needed just one more to take the game into extra-time. With four strikers on the pitch, and little coherence from the moment Hanson scored on 55 minutes, they pumped long balls into Bradford's box to the despair of the home crowd.
Afterwards, Paul Lambert declared that his team was not about to give up just because they had been eliminated with a Wembley final within their grasp. On Friday, they play Millwall at the Den in the fourth round of the FA Cup but it is their league game against Newcastle on Tuesday – a key relegation game – that will preoccupy them more.
In the first half, it looked like it might just be a matter of time before Villa scored but when Hanson headed the equaliser, their confidence was shot to bits and Bradford might even have taken the lead when substitute Garry Thompson hit the bar with a shot on 73 minutes.
It had started well for Villa in a stadium full to capacity and in a free-flag-on-your-seat frenzy. N'Zogbia was dangerous. McArdle blocked a cut-back by Benteke that was destined for Gabriel Agbonlahor in the ninth minute. Against the quality of some of Villa's players it was simply the commitment of the Bradford team that kept them on the game.
When the goal came for Villa on 23 minutes it was relatively simple. A cross from Joe Bennett, on the left side, who took his time to pick his spot, found Benteke drifting free of his marker and able to toe the ball past Duke at the near post.
It was to Bradford's credit that they prevented the floodgates from opening at that point and Villa missed chances, in particular Benteke when, just before half-time, Stephen Ireland chipped the ball to the Belgium international at the back post but he could not guide the ball in.
Even at 1-0 at half-time, the home side sense victory. But just as they did three times at Valley Parade in the first leg, Villa gave away a goal from a set-piece. Jones' corner was met by Hanson who, without too much effort, managed to elude Vlaar and headed the ball powerfully past Shay Given.
Hanson, rejected as teenager by Huddersfield Town and playing with fire in his belly, was given a painkilling injection in a broken toe five minutes before kick-off. Lambert immediately brought on striker Darren Bent for Barry Bannan and later pushed on Weimann too. His late goal gave them hope, but they could not deny Parkinson's men their day – a little piece of history, and a precious night for cup football.
Man of the match Howard.
Match rating 7/10.
Referee N Swarbrick (Lancashire).
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