James Lawton: Outclassed, but Bradford still have good cause to hold their heads high
At the last hurdle, their hopes weren’t so much denied as confiscated
Not many football wounds sustained at Wembley Stadium will heal as quickly as those of Bradford City – at least not in any grown-up version of the folklore to which they contributed with such brilliant heart and character in their astonishing run to the League Cup final.
Of course, their fate on the big day was always set at extremely prohibitive odds but if they were outclassed by Swansea City, Bradford's immaculately suited and just a little world-weary manager Phil Parkinson had no earthly reason to bend his head when the fifth goal of his gallant team's oppressors was swept home in added time.
It was quite the opposite, indeed, when you considered that clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal had this season been among the victims – and on their own grounds – of the superior football which the former great player Michael Laudrup has coaxed from his fluent, talented charges.
All the Bradford manager needed to do was point to the flag-waving mass of the team's support, which grew even more fervent after the disaster of goalkeeper Matt Duke's red card. What were they celebrating as Swansea unsentimentally opened up a huge fissure of class? It was the understanding of people who have lived through hard times that, in the end, all you can do is your best. If you couldn't go all the way, if you couldn't go on beating vastly more expensive teams like Arsenal and Aston Villa and Wigan Athletic, you could stay honest and decent and remember that, if the price of your remarkable achievement was a final ordeal, a frequently merciless demonstration of a game which might have been bred on a different planet, you had nothing to lose but your own fighting nature.
That was not on offer as such as Michu, Nathan Dyer and Jonathan De Guzman produced passages of play which suggested infinitely better-heeled opposition might also have been left in some serious difficulties.
For Laudrup such perspectives seem to come as naturally as the insights which made him such an outstanding player for Barcelona, with whom he won four straight La Liga titles, and which are currently building his credibility as a front-rank manager so dramatically.
He defined the nature of yesterday's progressively unbalanced duel quite acutely on the night his team outwitted Chelsea in the wake of Bradford's defeat of Aston Villa. He said that Swansea's first cup final triumph in 100 years would represent a small fairy tale and that the progress of League Two Bradford to Wembley was one of massive proportions.
That reality was imposed quickly enough on Wembley's wide acres and when it was over, when he had laughed off the spat between De Guzman and his team-mate Nathan Dyer over the penalty which would have given the latter a historic hat-trick, he coolly assessed the nature of the triumph. Swansea, he said, had many advantages to inflict and he was just pleased that they had been imposed quite so serenely.
His team needed to move the ball quickly and, of course, an early goal would make Bradford's task pretty much hopeless. So it was and so the people of Yorkshire, who for days had marvelled proudly at the long, tough journey through the bleakest of days, through the monstrous tragedy of the burning stadium and a whole series of threats to the club's existence, were obliged to accept another reality.
It was that they just happened to be pitted against a team filled with brilliant certainties about the way they played, and the abilities which they brought to the task.
When Laudrup inherited the team from Brendan Rodgers, some feared that he would fall to second-season syndrome in the Premier League. His response has been impressive enough, not only in a series of remarkable transfers based on his deep knowledge of the Spanish game in which he was already beginning to thrive, but also a sure understanding of what he could reasonably ask of his team.
It is a style of football that carries the classic values of swift movement and an unswerving attention to the need for possession of the ball on which to base a fine range of attacking options. Yesterday that combination of discipline and high levels of individual skill produced, as you had to expect, an almost instant mismatch.
Bradford simply had to endure the debilitating effects of a thousand knife wounds, an unremitting statement about the limits of the game plan with which they overwhelmed opponents less sure than Swansea about what they had to do. At the last hurdle, their hopes of hustling a result, creating a little hard pressure at set pieces, were not so much denied as confiscated.
Laudrup said he was proud of a historic achievement, pleased that his new club had at last made an imprint on the records of the game. It was, he said, a great moment in his career.
The beaten Parkinson might not share such elation – at least for some time. But then he can tell himself that he too achieved something that will not be easily forgotten. He put on the national stage the embattled belief that sometimes you make a very good job of fighting the most impossible odds.
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