Aston Villa 2 – Bradford City 1 (3-4 on aggregate)
It’s easy to forget that we actually lost this match. By letting in a goal with just a few minutes remaining, Bradford City took their fans – scrap that, they took a global audience - through a heart-stopping final five minutes. The fact that we did made the celebrations at the final whistle that little bit more hysterical. It was a beautiful moment for a game that is so often less than beautiful.
When the referee blew the full time whistle, it confirmed what none of us thought would happen in our lifetime. Bradford City heading to Wembley for a major cup final. One of the set piece moments on the football calendar and our names were on the VIP list. A game usually reserved exclusively for the big boys, and Bradford City had gatecrashed the party. Like a snappily-dressed Lewis Hamilton in the Royal Box at Wimbledon, City weren’t supposed to be there – but unlike Lewis, we barged our way in. My word did we deserve it. My word did Villa put us through it in the first half.
Under the cosh?
From the moment the players walked out to a wall of noise from 40,000 noisy Villa fans busily waving flags, right through to the half time whistle, City were on the end of a pummelling. Our 3-1 advantage from the home leg looked flimsy, as the hosts showed their Premiership class by creating chance after chance.
It was a first half that was difficult to watch without wincing. When Benteke finally put one of his many chances away, you could feel our hopes slipping away. With wave after wave of Villa attacks, there was surely no way we could hang on. Matt Duke, for all his brilliance in goal, could not keep out so much attacking threat. It seemed a matter of enjoying our lead while it lasted, before heading home to think about what could have been.
Or was it? Tell that to the 11 who started that night. Tell that to the coaching staff. Tell that to Nahki Wells who flashed a shot inches wide just before half time. Did that effort send the players down the tunnel at half time with perhaps a flicker of belief? After all, this was the same Villa side who had demonstrated total defensive incompetence in the first leg. Wells’ effort seemed to jolt the game onto a different plain. The half time team talks certainly did.
You can (insert expletive here) the cosh!
Phil Parkinson has said that, deep in the bowels of Villa Park at half time, he asked the players if they could go again one more time and do better. Whatever else he said I do not know, but it had some flippin’ impact. People talk about the managerial skills and eloquence of Ferguson, Mourinho, Guardiola et al, but the transformation that Parkinson engineered during that half time team talk has to rank right up there with the best. Something changed in those players.
City came out a different side. From shell shocked onlookers to genuine contenders. More purposeful, more confident and more dangerous, suddenly it was a contest. The one-way traffic stopped as the midfield got to grips with Villa’s movement, pace and guile. Our wide men started to give the Villa defence something to think about. The pattern of play totally changed. Suddenly, we could start believing it was more than ‘only a cup’ – as we sang into the rainy sky.
A corner in front of our own supporters against Villa’s fragile defence. Exactly the chance we have been praying for. Jones whips it in towards the front post and Benteke heads it out for another corner. Despite the clearance Villa look shaky lining up to defend it. City sense it. Villa know it. Everyone watching – a worldwide audience - knows this is David’s chance to poke Goliath right in the eye.
Jones whips in another corner, with more depth this time. A golden shirt arrives from amongst the scrum of bodies, loses its man, and is onto a free header.
I’d love to freeze frame that moment and walk around Villa Park to capture everyone’s reaction. Parkinson heading it home on the touchline. City fans reaching to grab each other. Villa fans and the world’s press blinking in disbelief. James Hanson connecting with the ball, his body slightly ahead of the path of the ball so he has to lean back slightly.
Unfreeze. Bang. The ball crashes into the back of the net. **** the cosh. 1-1. Wow.
Far from doing that with the cosh, we actually take the cosh and proceed to accost Villa with it for a large part of the second half. Emboldened by the goal and the visibly sagging Villa players, Hanson has a great chance and Thompson hits the bar. On those two occasions City are the faintest of whispers from putting the tie to bed. The sheer dread of the first half is replaced by a growing feeling of confidence, albeit one tinged with disbelief.
Of course, City being City it does not go smoothly. It can never go smoothly. Sometimes it feels as though it must never go smoothly. We concede to a classic long ball. Premiership class carving us open? Nope, we let Wiemann score with a goal that you’d see at Bolton Woods or Northcliffe Playing Fields on any given Sunday morning.
Cue those awful last few moments and a siege on the City goal. We collectively wince, shriek and plead. We have all seen plucky heroes crash out in the last few minutes against Premiership opposition before. Not these ones. These heroes are the real deal. No last minute let downs, no ‘cruel game’ headlines for the press to write about. The whistle blows and Bradford City Football Club of League Two are going to Wembley. We are stood on top of the footballing world and for many of us, we don’t know what to do other than shake our heads.
This wasn’t just a great night for Bradford City, this was a great night for football. For all the romantics who still believe in the notion that ‘anything can happen’ this was our football club showing the world that they’re right to harbour such beliefs. In a game dominated by money, icons and global ‘brands’, this was a bottom-tier team from a working-class City in the north sticking a finger up to all of that. That it happened at all is wonderful. That it happened to us is magical.
You can listen to Bantams Banter's podcast of this game below and on iTunes.