LONDON: Bradford City struck a blow for the paupers and restored the faith of those who say Premier League riches have killed the romance of English football by holding off Aston Villa to reach the League Cup final on Tuesday.
Protecting a 3-1 lead from the first leg at Valley Parade, scene of a devastating fire that killed 56 fans in 1985, the League Two side lost 2-1 on the night but won 4-3 on aggregate to become the first fourth tier side to reach a major English domestic cup final for 51 years.
Nine years after falling out of the top flight and into a financial meltdown that brought them to their knees, the Yorkshire club can look forward to a money-spinning Wembley final against European champions Chelsea or Swansea City. Rochdale were the last club from the fourth rung of the English football ladder to reach a major domestic showpiece when they lost to Norwich City in the 1962 League Cup final.
But that was when the competition was in its infancy and many top clubs did not even bother entering, whereas Bradford’s fairytale run accounted for top flight Wigan Athletic in the fourth round and Arsenal in the last eight — both on penalties.
Bradford’s 6,000 traveling fans dared to dream of a triumph to rival the club’s 1911 FA Cup triumph — the pinnacle of a topsy turvy past — but Christian Benteke’s 24th-minute opener for Villa seemed to swing the odds back toward the home side.
However, Bradford weathered a wave of attacks from five-times League Cup winners Villa and struck back through James Hanson’s 55th minute header to make it 1-1 on the night and send the visiting supporters into ecstasy.
Andreas Weimann’s 88th minute goal put the hosts in front again at Villa Park and set up a frantic finale but Bradford survived four nerve-jangling minutes of stoppage time to etch their name into the pantheon of great British sporting upsets.
“This is dreamland, hopefully we will have a great following at Wembley and do the club proud,” goalkeeper Matt Duke, hero of their shootout wins over Wigan and Arsenal, told Sky Sports.
“I am not convinced it will ever sink in. You dream of this as a kid, playing at Wembley, and like I say I just want to do the club proud.”
Shell-shocked Villa manager Paul Lambert congratulated Bradford but had harsh words for his side whose defending from set-plays cost them dear over the two legs.
“We’ve lost four goals from set-pieces over two games which is not good enough,” he said. “I am embarrassed. We will never have a better chance to reach the final.”
Apart from a torrid first half when they barely got over the halfway line, Bradford’s display over the two legs was staggering for a side languishing 10th in League Two and who almost fell out of the Football League two seasons ago.
Once Hanson’s bullet header flew past Villa keeper Shay Given 10 minutes into the second half they were the better side and might have even gone ahead on the night when Garry Thompson rattled Given’s crossbar with a shot from the edge of the area.
Weimann’s late reply, when he rounded Duke to tap in, was not enough to save Premier League strugglers Villa, whose callow side now face a battle to avoid relegation.
“I thought we had a great chance with the two goals from the first leg,” Bradford manager Phil Parkinson said.
“First half Aston Villa were excellent but in the second half we played really well. It is dreamland.
“The lads were absolutely fantastic and what it means for the club and the city is absolutely tremendous.
“I think we could fill Wembley on our own,” he added looking forward to the Feb. 24 final against Swansea or Chelsea who meet in their second leg in Wales on Wednesday with City leading 2-0 after the first leg at Stamford Bridge.
Premier League salaries now regularly top 100,000 pounds ($158,700) per week and transfer fees have run into millions for years in stark contrast to Bradford’s intrepid team of giant killers who were assembled for the meagre sum of 7,500 pounds.
While hard cash can buy Premier League glory, Bradford have proved this season that there is still room for the dreamers and that the heart of domestic cup football, often derided as an inconvenience by the big clubs, is still beating strongly.