By Jason McKeown
Phil Parkinson spoke for many of us when he declared, ahead of the first leg of Bradford City’s League Cup semi final against Aston Villa, that he would take a draw.
City’s presence in the last four of a major cup competition was something to relish every second of, but there was always a danger than a comfortable Villa win at Valley Parade would render the second leg something of a dead rubber. Get a draw in the first leg at least, and we could go to Villa Park still in the game. Even if we knew it was odds on that we would not get our fairy tale ending.
But instead, in the first leg we got so much more. And now it all feels rather serious.
Dare to dream is the phrase of choice. It is a great sentiment, but in some ways daring to dream is a low risk past time. All my life I have watched major cup finals at Wembley on TV, wishing that one day we’d be actually there to see Bradford City. For many, many years I have dreamed of us approaching an occasion like Tuesday’s semi final second leg, the eyes of a nation upon us and wishing us well. But now, after winning 3-1 on a barmy night at Valley Parade, it’s not about daring to dream. It’s whether we dare to believe.
Can we pull this off? Pretty much every City fan I have spoken to for the past two weeks – from the ultra optimistic to the glass half empty – has said pretty much the same thing: no. Villa will do what a Premier League team should always do when playing a League Two side at home: bulldozer us. Tuesday could prove to be many things, but one guarantee is that it will be a long night. Plenty of time to overturn a two-goal deficit. Plenty of time to watch our dream die.
And yet, I do think we can do it. Because here’s the thing that offers me hope. Imagine if the second leg lives up to our worst fears, and we are 3-0 down at half time? They have overpowered us and look irresistible. A packed out Villa Park is rocking. S**t.
But yet…we would still only need to score once in the second half to force extra time (and penalties!). That doesn’t quite seem so daunting. Get two goals and we’d go through. Even if we went 4-0 down, we’d be 5-3 behind on aggregate and still have an outside chance.
The point I’m getting is that we go into the second leg with a rather large margin for error. We don’t have to win the second leg to go through. We can lose 1-0 and be looking forward to Wembley. A Villa backlash might be something to fear, but they are going to have to play really well to make it to Wembley at our expense. That should give us hope. Because even if things start going wrong on the night, there will be no reason to panic.
How do we approach the match? Park the bus, or have a go? Parkinson spoke immediately after the first leg of taking the latter approach. He will look to play the front two who has served him so well, James Hanson and Nahki Wells, instead of leaving one on the bench. It will not be about flooding midfield in an attempt to stifle the game, or time wasting from the first minute. In a sensible and controlled manner, we are going to give Villa something to worry about too.
And why not? Their defence looks shocking, and will doubtlessly concede opportunities. Whereas their attack, for all the dismal finishing of Christian Benteke and Darren Bent at Valley Parade, is capable of cutting us open at will. Sit back and defend, and Villa will doubtless make the most of the initiative that we would hand to them. And our defence is not good enough to hold out in this way, especially to a side of such comparative quality.
So expect us to go with a gameplan that is more subtle then 10 men behind the ball. Expect to see us create chances, and the key to the second leg may be strikingly similar to the first – whichever team takes, rather than misses, their chances, will probably be celebrating come the end of the evening.
In many ways, enjoyment is going to be harder to experience. I’m really excited about being part of a 6,500 away following – easily the biggest I have ever known – and it will be a special evening no matter what. But, writing this four days before the game, I am already riddled with nerves about the match. I know some City fans who couldn’t sleep before the first leg, and I think there will be many more of us struggling with insomnia over the next few days.
Can we do it? Yes. We have a magnificent opportunity of reaching only the second major cup final in our entire history. We are achingly close to playing at Wembley for only the second time in our entire history. We are making, and right at the centre of, history. An evening we will remember for as long as we live. No matter what.
I can’t wait, and yet I’m dreading it on some levels too. Everything is on the line at Villa Park. The ending of the dream would be incredibly difficult to take, because of coming so close to realising it. The possible explosion of joy that we could be about to experience, should it go our way, sends tingles down your spine even now. It would be a level of joy that would probably top anything we have ever experienced in our lives.
Dare to believe? We do. And that is both utterly, utterly fantastic and utterly, utterly scary.