League Cup miracle one year on: Swansea City

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By Jason McKeown

It is one year ago today since Bradford City took part in only the second – and in all likelihood the last – major cup final in its history. 33,000 Bradfordonians filled one half of the vast Wembley bowl, taking part in an occasion that none of us would ever believe we would be invited to.

Bradford City – our Bradford City. Slumped at the time in 12th position of English football’s fourth division. Taking on the might of Premier League Swansea and looking for another top flight scalp. One game away from qualifying to play in the Europa League. 90 minutes away from lifting a major trophy. It is wonderful to look back and reflect upon how excited and proud we all felt as the teams marched out onto the pitch. That even though we strongly suspected we were going to be defeated, there was nevertheless a glimmer of hope that our name was on that cup.

It wasn’t just about that wintry February afternoon in the capital, but the whole build-up to the big match which was like nothing we had ever experienced before. When City defeated Wigan in the last 16, the October before, the national media mentioned us only in passing, behind Arsenal’s remarkable 7-5 victory over Reading. Come December when the Bantams and Gunners met, the incredible penalty shootout victory over Arsene Wenger’s men sent shockwaves around the football world. Then came Aston Villa and the even bigger achievement of defeating Premier League opposition over two legs. The Villa Park celebrations eventually subsided, but the international spotlight would not be dimmed.

There were four-and-a-half weeks in-between that barmy night in Birmingham and walking down Wembley Way, and being a Bradford City supporter had this centre-of-the-universe feel. The media went to town covering every angle – not only looking at the football club, but the city of Bradford itself. The week before the game was especially memorable, as Sky Sports News featured City heavily each day, BBC Radio 5Live hosted a special supporters forum at Valley Parade and on the Friday evening you could watch back-to-back TV programmes devoted to the Bantams.

When earlier that day the players set off from Bradford’s Cedar Court Hotel down South, the moment was captured live on Sky Sports News. It must have been thrilling for the players, many of whom had never received such media attention. There was a wonderful story to tell about City’s cup final opponents, Swansea, but they were completely overshadowed by the exploits of the fourth tier side.

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My main memories of that period are how hectic it all was. We went to town with our Width of a Post coverage, which required a lot of planning and hard work from many different people. We received numerous emails from supporters pleading for help getting a ticket to the game and tried to help those who we could. We assisted TV and magazine researchers by providing background information on the club which helped them to shape their stories. We helped Bantams Banter get permission to broadcast at Wembley.

And like other City sites and fan groups, we received our own media requests. I spent one afternoon at Valley Parade meeting BBC Yorkshire’s Paul Hudson (a top bloke) for a documentary, appeared on college radio in the USA, wrote an article for the When Saturday Comes website, contributed to a special League Cup magazine and Mahesh Johal was interviewed for New Statesman magazine. Proudest of all, on a personal level, was being interviewed on BBC Two’s Newsnight, with the caption ‘widthofapost.com’ appearing on national TV.

It was hard to take in all of the attention bestowed on Bradford City. Our Bradford City. You tried to read as many newspapers articles as possible, watch all the TV specials and listen to bits on the radio, but it was all very wonderfully overwhelming. I was regularly stopped in the office by people wanting to chat about City (“Are you going to the game Jason?” Stupid question) and it was strangely enjoyable to listen to people who three months ago knew nothing about the club share their opinions on your players.

“You’re going to win” a completely trollied Geordie told us on the train journey from Kings Cross back to our hotel, the night before the match. That expert judgement will do me.

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Game day brought panic and terror. I barely slept a wink the night before, as I had become so nervous about it all. Knowing that the rest of the world was watching our Bradford City made you proud, but also apprehensive. What if we seriously embarrass ourselves? What can we realistically expect from our team today?

The morning saw us share a champagne breakfast with Archie Christie and then spend a few hours in the Hilton Hotel by Wembley stadium, supping drinks in the same room as several Bradford City directors. You tried to enjoy it all, but it was difficult to focus on anything beyond those fears about the game. I loved walking up and down Wembley Way, and we set foot inside the stadium at around 3.20pm. The atmosphere was already incredible. When, with 10 minutes to go, Rudimental’s ‘Feel the Love’ came over the PA system and everyone waved their flags frantically, I unexpectedly burst into tears. The nerves giving way to pure happiness.

It seems needlessly painful to go over the game, but equally it has long haunted me. It’s not that I thought we would win, but I expected far better than for us to wait until the 86th minute to have a shot on goal (and a rubbish shot at that). I’ve reflected back so many times on what Phil Parkinson might have done differently and how we could have given Swansea a better game, but there really was nothing that we could do.

Swansea were simply outstanding.

Nevertheless, I wasn’t one of those supporters who could shrug it off and merely be happy with the non-stop chanting for the last 25 minutes. I joined in of course, and I felt proud of the way we supporters responded to such adversity. But for all the times in the build up that I told myself we had no chance of winning, part of you still clung onto the hope. Even the most pessimistic amongst us wanted to win the game. It was a cup final, something we will probably never experience again in our lifetimes. And so it was devastating to watch that impossible dream be ripped up in front of our eyes in such clinical, brutal fashion.

It hurt. A hell of a lot. Rationale and reason simply go out the window at moments such as Matt Duke’s red card. I stayed at full time and applauded our players – they deserved it no matter what had happened on the pitch. I cheered them up the steps to collect their losers medals and applauded Ashley Williams as he lifted the trophy. Then we walked out of the stadium and into the London night, feeling empty.

The bubble popped so quickly; and to go from all the giddy excitement of the build up, straight to feeling crushed, was difficult to take. I remember thousands of us City fans walking back to the train station in near silence. The party was just getting starting inside the stadium behind us, but we had been locked out.

The national media dropped us like a stone. In the post-game coverage they focused solely on Swansea’s brilliance – good on them, they deserved it – and we went back to life in League Two, with the most unglamorous fixture possible to look forward to in three days time: Dagenham & Redbridge.

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Being honest, it took me weeks to get over the cup final defeat. I shared in the pride of how we supporters stuck with the players and loved the amount of praise that came our way for it; but for a four-month period it seemed that the League Cup miracle had completely dominated our lives. To have all those glorious moments come to end in such miserable fashion was unbefitting. Getting back to reality was hard. The struggles of the players over the subsequent weeks suggested they felt the same way, too.

As we look back a year on, the pain has long since faded and the return to Wembley for the play off final three months later exorcised the demons. It was our turn to dominate the opposition to the point they didn’t have a shot on goal until the final minute; it was our turn to lift a piece of silverware in the royal box and to dance around Wembley. And if, a year ago, we’d have been asked to pick which of the two Wembley games we’d prefer to win, I dare say 99.9% of City fans would have voted with me in choosing the play off final.

I’ve watched the League Cup Final back on my Sky box several times. The heartache dulled, I just enjoy the fact we were part of such a wonderful occasion. Proud of such an incredible cup run, one that we will never experience again. Relieved that the story was to have a happy ending in the shape of League Two promotion.

One year ago today was one of the proudest days of my life. It’s just a shame that the day didn’t end at 4.01pm.

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Read our look back on the League Cup miracle

Aston Villa 2 Bradford City 1

Bradford City 3 Aston Villa 1

Bradford City 1 Arsenal 1 (City win 3-2 on pens)

Wigan Athletic 0 Bradford City 0 (City win 4-2 on pens) 

Bradford City 3 Burton Albion 2

The early rounds

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Categories: Retrospective

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12 replies

  1. Your right Jason, it was a bit of a bugger – but look where we are now to where we were 12 or 18 months ago. The game may not have gone according to our dreams but it was still a great day out – one that my 11 year old son will never forget and the reason he turned from ‘supporting’ the White Sh**te to becoming a Bantam season ticket holder. That is what we need to remember, because I bet he is not the only one.

  2. Yes, memorable, and part of the history of our great club.
    Also part of all of our own lifetime ‘journey’ and a personal experience I will always cherish.
    But the acid test was which one of the two Wembley appearances would you rather win, and which meant the most?
    Well I found the answer to that at the bottom of Wembley Way on the second visit, as nerves overcame me, something that never happened against Swansea,
    The Swansea game was enjoyed, more for the sheer experience of being there, and I also was involved in, and enjoyed the build up.
    But amazing though it might seem to a supporter of a Premiership club, the Northampton game was by far the most important to me, and I guess almost 100 per cent of real City fans.
    It fits alongside promotion games at Darlington in 1969′ several at Valley Parade, the events of 1985 which proved that football was more important than even the Championship we had just won (proving Shankly wrong in his famous quote)’ the 96 Wembley appearance, Wolves and the ascent on the Premiership.
    The Swansea game fits neatly into another compartment.
    Really brilliant experience, not to to be missed for the world, but we never really expected to win the game, so even getting there was a bonus.
    And yes, there have been several times in my life as a City fan when I have been rally proud of of our fans, and that day was one of them

    • Mark. I’m not sure all will agree with you over time. Yes promotions mean everything. I’ll never forget Cambridge in 1985 or the 1988 failure and the wins at old Wembley and new Wembley and Wolves (despite being thrown out after the first goal). I think 77 and 82 were both won at home to Bournemouth but those memories have gone. There has been one other promotion I think in my lifetime before I became a fan – I think that is the Darlington experience, cherished by the really old fans. But that is quite a lot of promotions in one (unfinished) lifetime. They come and go and that’s my point. A League Cup Final win, the first division 4 team to win a major Wembley final. A repeat of 1911? That really is history. Maybe you’re right, but I’m not sure you are necessarily speaking for 100%.

    • I also don’t agree that “almost 100%” of City fans would rather have beaten Northampton than Swansea.

      Winning a major trophy versus scraping into League 1 via the play-offs ? Sure – both are achievements but surely winning the Cup as a League 2 team would have ranked far higher than a promotion. The former will never ever be done again, the latter will happen in May, and then the next May, and then the next…

      The previous 3 winners of the play-off final were Crewe, Stevenage and Dagenham. The previous 3 winners of the League Cup were Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester United. I know which company I’d rather keep…(and yes, I’ve been to Birmingham…)

  3. I will never forget it. Of course I cared that we got hammered, but we got there. No other team from that division ever has, or ever will. I am still proud. I went to London this week-end, and remembered that Sunday one year ago. I enjoyed Northampton more, and know which game was more important, but WATCHING CITY IN A CUP FINAL AT WEMBLEY. It gets no better than that.
    Thanks, City.

  4. Great article, Jason, thanks for putting many of my own feelings of the time so well. I still can’t quite let go and think back to what might have been done differently in terms of team selection and tactics but come round to the idea that things were done right. PP was loyal to the players that got them there and that does console me quite a lot because that’s the kind of team I want to be a fan of. However, I have to confess a grave sin. It’s one I have an excuse for, but I’m slightly ashamed to admit that I would’ve taken the cup win over the play-off win. I know all the logical arguments for the latter over the former and I am certainly much happier at our current struggle to stay mid-table in table in League 1 than I would’ve been had we been mid table in League 2. My excuse, make of it what you will, is that living outside the UK, as I do, means that City are a team that few people have heard of. As you said, once the final was over and right had apparently been restored in the world of football, the media focus on City ended abruptly. It’s a truism that nobody remembers 2nd place and from a purely selfish point of view, I’d love to have been able to tell students, colleagues, and friends that I was a fan of the team that had won the cup against ALL the odds. That you guys would have to suffer the ignominy of watching League 2 games for another season means a little less to me because I don’t have to watch the games. There. I said it. Sorry.

  5. For me it would have hurt more to lose the play off final than it would when we lost the League Cup Final but at the same time which would I have rather won – the League Cup most definitely. Aston Villa away ranks as the greatest day of last season for many City fans and imagine that feeling when Gary Jones lifted a major trophy at Wembley.

    I can’t help but think at some stage we would have experienced promotion from League 2 we will never now experience a major cup final victory and the subsequent trip into some unheard of part of Europe to be knocked out straight away would have been a great experience too.

    Having said that the League Cup final defeat I could cope with – it was the manner of the defeat that hurt and the way our previous achievements were somehow deemed worthless to many outsiders due to way we lost – but I got over it. Had we lost the play off final that wouldn’t have been so easy.

    Summary – I’d have been more elated to win the League Cup and more devastated to lose the play off final.

    • Your summary, er, sums it up perfectly for me and many other City fans I think Luke.

      One of my personal recollections of the day is standing behind Jason McKeown in the queue for the (incredibly expensive) match programme, and not quite summoning up the courage to introduce myself – and it’s not like he’s scary or anything is it?

    • Beautifully put Luke !

  6. Hi Jason.
    I totally agree with your point about our Bradford City. It makes me laugh when people ask if I went to the game (anyone of them). I don’t think many people would claim to be a Bradford City fan if they didn’t go regularly if not now than in their past.

    I must be part of the 1% though as would happily have swapped all of this season for another in that league but another star on the shirts. Won’t ever happen again…..will it?

    • Oh, we’ll that’s me told then!!!
      I really did think the vast majority of City fans would rather get out of that god awful bottom division, and start (hopefully) our climb to a reasonable standard.
      I was obviously wrong!
      But in terms of a lasting legacy much as would have been nice to win a ‘proper’ cup, the promotion is more vital to the progression of the club.
      Imagine us as League Cup winners still fighting it out in that bottom division. I know where I would rather
      I nice remember Terry Dolan saying in a forum at the Midland Hotel when he was manager.
      He said in his opinion It was too early for that City team to get promotion. Whilst on the one hand I knew where he was coming from, my own thoughts are you go up and then worry about staying up.
      It’s ok to say a ” promotion from League 2 would have happened sooner or later”
      Maybe, or maybe not!!!
      I took several seasons to get out of that bottom league and several managers later,we actually got up as some one said ” not through the back door but by the back door cat flap”
      And what if the unthinkable had happened and through whatever set of circumstances we slipped out of League Two into the Conference.
      No I would take League One over winning the League Cup any day, as it was extremely important to the forward progression of the club.

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