Bradford's dream close to reality as Aston Villa fold again
Bradford City 3 Aston Villa 1: Not since 1911 have Bradford had a night like this. Not for more than 100 years has this outpost in West Yorkshire experienced such delight.
It explains much; the fervour, the passion, the roar that floated into the night air as Howard Webb's whistle confirmed a truly historic evening had ended. A city felt unified.
One hundred and two years ago, victory in their only other semi-final was enough to take Bradford to the FA Cup final. This time, they must do it all again to head for as unlikely a final appearance as you will find.
Manager Phil Parkinson called it a dream. That felt about right. That feels about right. There were looks of disbelief from Bradford's supporters as they filed and floated out of Valley Parade. They will talk of the season they downed three Premier League teams for a century. Parkinson said it was better than Arsenal. That again felt about right. They beat Aston Villa by two goals, not a penalty.
It is 51 years since a team from the fourth tier of English football reached the final of the League Cup. Rochdale remain the only team to have achieved such a feat in the competition. Bradford are 90 minutes away from repeating such an achievement, with a two-goal advantage as they head to Villa Park in two weeks' time. It feels remarkable. It will be some scrap.
Parkinson had his players sit through the thrilling quarter-final success against Arsenal on Monday, to motivate his men to run through walls and beat the odds that seem to have been stacked against his football club ever since Bradford tumbled out of the Premier League in 2001.
Paul Lambert may do similar to his shellshocked side, to find a reason why they could not break the spirit of a League Two team, or only once find a way past the inspired Matt Duke in the Bradford goal.
Duke walked away with the man of the match award but this was a night for a team of heroes. Nahki Wells, Rory McArdle and Carl McHugh will go down in history for their goals, but victory was about unity, and about spirit.
There had been prophetic words as the teams walked onto the field. "It's time," had come the announcement over the Tannoy.
Some people resent the League Cup. Some people resent domestic cups period. The loss is theirs.
It is 102 years since the people of Bradford had a chance to watch their team in a semi-final. Then, back in 1911, they beat Blackburn and went onto lift the FA Cup. No-one can remember who finished fourth in the First Division that same year.
Football may have changed but that raw fervour, that unifying sense of togetherness which an unexpected cup run creates remains one of the most magical sights and sounds in the English game.
Bradford's run for Wembley is as unexpected as they come.
There were 4,500 from Birmingham. They had a complete side of the ground. It felt like an occasion and both teams rose with the noise that fell from the stands. Parkinson claimed the backing from his team's supporters had added another 15 per cent to the game of his players. Both were relentless. Gary Jones will be remembered for the two crosses for the goals to create history but it was his endless running that was the heartbeat of victory.
Lambert could not quite decide where to pitch his emotions at full-time. Christian Benteke spurned five excellent chances while Charles N'Zogbia and Darren Bent could both have scored twice. There were storms to be weathered by the home side before they could make their surge for the history books, and Jones and the commanding Duke were key to that, as was the assured finishing of Wells.
Nineteen minutes had passed when a corner was twice not cleared by Villa's defenders – "We never defended set-pieces," moaned Lambert. The excellent Zavon Hines shot towards goal, the ball broke to Wells and the angled, assured finish was stroked into the bottom of Shay Given's goal. From then on we had a cup tie. From then on anything felt possible.
It would be 13 minutes before the end of time before a second came. Another Jones corner was not cleared. The ball returned to the corner-taker, he clipped another inswinging cross into the Villa penalty area and McArdle glanced his header past Given. Seconds later James Hanson headed against the crossbar.
True delight lasted five minutes. Lambert's men stirred and found a way past Duke, Bent clipping on and Andreas Weimann bravely bundling a goal that's value will not be known for another two weeks.
Still, there was a final effort from the home side. A fine, passing move won a corner. Jones crossed again, McHugh charged past Benteke and headed in a third. More delight. More disbelief. It has been a season of such emotion for the people of Bradford.
Man of the match Duke.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire).