By Mahesh Johal
Bradford City are a fourth division club. Bradford City are a fourth division club that on Sunday participated in the League Cup Final at Wembley against Premier League Swansea City.
Yes, we beat three Premier League teams en route to the final, but it is only when you look at the comment above do you realise and appreciate what Phil Parkinson’s men achieved. A Quarter Final maybe. A Semi Final unlikely. But a Wembley Cup Final! This competition has truly been the stuff of dreams for the Bantams. I do not intend to give player ratings out of ten. Every player that has contributed to the cup success has already achieved the maximum score. Instead I intend to briefly review the players performances and bask in their all mighty achievement!
Duke has been the hero of this cup run. His performances in between the sticks have been fantastic with the big man pulling a string of saves to keep us in games. Recalled to the starting eleven for the trip away to Wigan, Duke has etched himself into City folklore after his penalty heroics.
It was bitterly disappointing that his final prematurely finished due to a red card. In the letter of the law, referee Kevin Friend was correct to give Duke his marching orders for a professional foul on Jonathan de Guzman but common sense should have prevailed. Duke’s moment in the sun was ruined by a jobsworth referee.
Stephen Darby is probably City’s forgotten man in this journey. Remember it was his goal in the ‘not so glamour’ tie against Burton that helped City book its place in the fourth round. His name may not be recognised among causal fans like Duke, Hanson or Wells, but Darby’s presence in every cup game demonstrates his importance to this team. He is magnificently consistent.
The wingers he faced on Sunday will be the best two he will ever play. With speed, trickery and skills in abundance, Wayne Routledge and Nathan Dyer both caused no end of problems. As always though, Darby stuck his task. He was solid and not over awed. But when playing against top class talent as the two mentioned, it was always going to be a tough day.
Unfortunately Curtis Good seemed overwhelmed by the Swansea attack. Nathan Dyer caused havoc on the right wing, whilst Angel Rangel played as a second winger rather full back. It is hard to be critical of the young Aussie though. On Sunday he played against opponents that were too good for him and he was substituted at half time.
Not to say he won’t bounce back. Pardon the pun but Good looks a very good player and it must not be forgotten that he is only nineteen years old. He looks more a natural centre back than left back but he has manfully performed when asked. Especially at Villa away he looked very nervous. However as the game progressed, so did his confidence and his performance.
McArdle’s goal against Villa will be my highlight of this cup run. Taking the lead against Arsenal and Villa, there was a sense of disbelief and surprise. However, after McArdle’s bullet header, there was a change in the feeling around Valley Parade. This dream could be a reality. Described as the ‘marathon man’, McArdle has been Mr Consistent in this cup run. Without him in the back four, I doubt we would be talking about Wembley.
Returning to the Wembley starting eleven, McArdle showed no ill effect of the ankle injury that has seen him miss the last three league games. His crunching clearance/tackle on Michu is a great example of this. As per usual, he put in another solid shift. He won the majority of headers and looked calmed and assured as leader of the back four. Whilst the score line does not suggest it, City did not defend too badly. Instead praise should be given to Swansea for the possession type attack and their ability to break team downs.
With the return of Andrew Davies, I was unsure if Carl McHugh had been dropped or rested in the games leading up to Wembley. Thankfully, his place in the starting eleven at Wembley was just reward for his outstanding performances. McHugh has played with far greater assurance and maturity than his twenty years would suggest. Like McArdle, McHugh’s goal against Villa will live long in the memory.
Moved to left back in the second half, McHugh, like so many Premier League defenders struggled with the trickery and pace of the Swansea wingers. His commitment and desire was on show for all to see with the youngster making several lunging blocks. In a sea of claret and amber flag, I could see the green and yellow of Donegal. With Shay Given coming towards the end of his career, the county may have found its new favourite son.
Thompson contribution in this cup run has been understated. Scorer of the winning goal against Watford, and of course the volley against Arsenal, Thompson has won over a lot of fans with his recent performances. Technically gifted and with an eye for goal, Thompson recent performance justified his selection in the starting eleven.
Like so many of the Bradford players, Thommo was unable to make a real impact. He did have a couple of mazy runs but fundamentally Swansea’s ability to keep the ball starved the winger of any really possession and attacking territory.
The man they call Messi, Atkinson has been the comeback player of the season so far. After a disappointing loan spell last year, Atkinson has flourished since signing permanently in the summer. It is not his skill though that comes to mind when thinking of Will Atkinson in this cup journey. Instead it is the gritty and unselfish work he has done for the side. Against Wigan and Villa, Atkinson put in great shifts to protect his full back and defence. Further to this he would always look to attack when given the opportunity. Very calm on the ball, Atkinson has not looked out of place when playing against Premier League opposition.
A reoccurring theme of this report is the lack of opportunity City had to demonstrate their ability. He had the odd run at the Swansea full back but this would occur to deep in City’s own half.
In my opinion, Jones was City’s man of the match. He wanted this so badly. He ran himself into the ground and gave the City faithful their most positive moment. Against the passing quality of Jonathan De Guzman and Leon Britton, Jones had no answer. Many will remember Jones’ Cup Final for the nutmeg that lead up to Michus goal, but I will remember him as the man that lead out Bradford City at Wembley.
City have craved for an heir to Stuart McCall throne. In Jones, we have found it. His crossing ability has contributed to our success in this run. But, the defining image of Jones will be the kiss on Jake Turton’s head. His tears after the Villa game proved how much he wanted this, whilst his interviews with Sky Television reflected the astonishment of our achievement.
Like Jones, Doyle struggled to contain the Swansea midfield. It was not that Doyle played badly, instead Swansea did not give him the opportunity to play well. The Nathan Doyle I love to watch is the one that bullies and pressurises opponents. Unfortunately Doyle could not do that. Instead he was chasing shadows with the Swans intricate passing and movement. Even when he had the ball at his feet, the pressure and lack of time to distribute was frightful. Again credit should be given the Welsh side.
Our lead penalty taker, Doyle confidently slot his penalties against Arsenal and Wigan. Against the latter, he skippered the team in the absence of Gary Jones. On that night, I thought his marshalling of the Wigan midfield was superb. Doyle’s pre match ritual of geeing up the crowd sent the Bradford end into overdrive on Sunday. Whilst not his best game, his contribution to the cup journey has been immense.
Hanson has destroyed Premier League centre backs in this cup run with Mertesacker, Clarke, Vlaar all added to his list. Unfortunately at Wembley he met his match in Ashley Williams. Against the Swans skipper, Hanson struggled to win much in the air. City play best when Hanson wins headers. Against Williams and the impressive (makeshift centre half) Ki Sung-Yeung, City were unable to win and retain the ball. After Dukes sending off and the loss of Nahki Wells, Hanson was on a hiding to nothing.
Hanson’s well documented past epitomises why this cup run is so special. His story, like the Bantams journey to Wembley is unheard of. His winning goals against Notts County and Villa away are just rewards for the man who in the past has received too much unfair criticism. I continue to go back to the Wigan game, but it was the match that signalled to me that this side was different from previous versions. The commitment and desire shown by the players and in particular Hanson that night was remarkable. In Hanson, I believe we have a real footballer. With our management team around him, hopefully we can see ‘Big Jim’ pop up with more goals that he truly deserves.
Wells can feel unlucky after his trip to Wembley. Sacrificed after the sending off of Matt Duke, Nahki spent most of the afternoon chasing down the Swans defence. With a lack of supply from his strike partner, Wells was unable to flourish. Again, credit must be given to the Swansea for their planning and organisation.
Wells’ performances against Arsenal and Villa at home were remarkable. The way he ran rings around Thomas Vermaelen and his finish in the Semi Final, Wells always gave the City faithful something to stand up for. I think it is a matter of when and not if Nahki will leave the club. He is a class act and has the attributes to make it at a higher level than League Two.
It would have been bitter sweet for Jonny Mac to replace Matt Duke in net. Whilst he had the opportunity to play at Wembley, I am sure he would have preferred to have played in different circumstances. His first act in the game was pick the ball out of the net after De Guzman’s penalty, but credit to Jon. His reflex stop from Michu delayed an inevitable fifth goal.
After two solid games back from injury I thought Davis could have crept into the starting eleven. Fair play to the gaffer for sticking with the players that got him to Wembley. Introduced at half time, Davies produced his typical all action style; winning headers; making clearances and tackling anything that moved. However even with him in the defence, City were unable to stop the waves of Swansea attack.
Zavon was unlucky not to get picked for the game. He has been City’s most consistent threat with some scintillating trickery on the right wing. Hines took future England prospects, Kieran Gibbs and Joe Bennett to the cleaners. At Wigan, he single handily took the fight to the Lancastrians and nearly won the game on his own. It was understandable to see why Phil Parkinson favoured Gary Thompson and Will Atkinson. Coming on with fifteen minutes remaining, Hines faired similar to Thompson. He was unable to get the ball in key areas and show off his attacking repertoire.