At the start of the season, the odds on the double of Bolton Wanderers qualifying for Europe and an English manager winning a major trophy would have been even longer than the face Sam Allardyce wore when he realised his team would have to negotiate four minutes of stoppage time at Villa Park on Tuesday night.
Bolton, trailing Aston Villa 2-0 on the night but leading 5-4 on aggregate in their Carling Cup semi-final, hung on to reach the final in Cardiff on 29 February. As well as the prospect of a Uefa Cup place for a club to whom Premiership survival has been the height of ambition, the game in the Millennium Stadium will guarantee that an English manager lands one of the three big domestic prizes - provided, of course, Allardyce faces Steve McClaren's Middlesbrough rather than Arsène Wenger's Arsenal.
Eight years have passed since the last "native" managerial triumph, by Brian Little with Villa in the Coca-Cola-sponsored version of the competition. Allardyce, who hails from Dudley, a few miles from the scene of Bolton's advance, has long been sceptical of the media's tendency to fawn over foreign coaches. Only last month he joked about renaming himself Allardicci.
This compounds the irony surrounding the composition of the side that will seek to secure Bolton's first significant silverware since Nat Lofthouse's goals won the FA Cup in 1958. When they last reached the League Cup final, losing to Liverpool nine years ago, two of the starting XI came from beyond the British Isles. The balance is now reversed; the team that squeezed through against Villa contained players from Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Senegal and Spain, plus two Frenchmen, two Yorkshiremen and one bona fide Boltonian, Nicky Hunt.
Their most exotic talent, Jay-Jay Okocha, was absent, playing for Nigeria in the African Nations Cup in Tunisia. His presence in the final will mean that whoever Bolton meet - and they would plainly prefer Middlesbrough to Arsenal - they will have a player capable of turning any contest.
When the overseas contingent began arriving, there was talk of mercenaries who had no understanding of the club or the town. It reflects well on Allardyce as an organiser and motivator that they are a team in the truest sense.
The foreigners, according to one strand of opinion, would neither understand nor contribute to the dressing-room banter and humour. Before the second leg with Villa, however, Bolton's players watched what they were told was an important video. It turned out to feature Okocha mocking his own free-kick technique, which had been instrumental in winning the first leg 5-2.
"It was very funny and lifted the mood," said Youri Djorkaeff, the French-Armenian who has dispelled doubts that he would not settle with an unfashionable club. Djorkaeff, who has played in the Bundesliga and Serie A, will complete two years at Bolton shortly before the final.
"I listened to what Sam had to say about his plans," the former World Cup-winner recalled. "I thought, 'That's not bad'. He wanted the club to develop a winning mentality, which was important to me. I want to win every game.
"Now we show that ambition every day. It is crucial that we take it to Cardiff and win there. I lost in the Uefa Cup with Internazionale and Monaco, and nobody remembers the loser in a final."
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