Aston Villa 2
Benteke 24, Weimann 89
Bradford City 1
Bradford City win 4-3 on aggregate
Tuesday 22 January, 2013
By Jason McKeown
The secret behind ageing – or maturing if you will – is the level of weariness you build up in your head. You’ve seen it all before, you know how life works – its ups and its downs – and it feels as though nothing can truly surprise you again. And yet last night at Villa Park, I experienced emotions that I did not know existed, and was part of events that three decades on this planet has taught me can never happen. Is this a life-changing moment, or a coming of age? Far from being 31-years-old this morning, I feel like a child filled with wonderment.
Bradford City, our Bradford City, has beaten Aston Villa to reach the League Cup Final, and will be playing at Wembley. Take a moment to enjoy that sentence, please. This match report can almost end now; there is nothing else I can write to equal that shock value or level of pleasure. This type of scenario – a fourth tier club knocking out three Premier League sides to reach a major final – doesn’t happen. Failure was surely our destiny. Glorious failure, maybe, but failure nonetheless.
Instead we have been treated to a series of moments, and a certain February 24 date, that I never thought was possible. Growing up watching football for the best part of two decades, that feeling of jealousy when I watch teams walk out for League Cup or FA Cup finals never dims. Ever since I first stumbled across the Bantams, I had dreamed of us making a cup final. But I had long, long since accepted that such occasions would never occur. They are not for the likes of us. And certainly not when we are a League Two side, who in recent times has struggled even to hold onto that lowly status.
When the final whistle went at Villa Park, it was difficult to take in the realisation of what the players and management had just achieved. But we certainly did our best to, revelling in celebrations that in a flash took you back to Wolves in 1999. Was this better, or not quite at that level? I find it impossible to compare, not yet anyway. All I know was this felt different. This time I cried.
The whole evening was set to be special, no matter what. A build up featuring days and days of being riddled with nerves, failing hopelessly to sleep at night, finally gave way to match day and the beginning of celebrating whatever fate had in store. As soon as we set foot inside a raucous Witton Arms pub two minutes from the away end – jam-packed full of City fans inside and outside, loudly going through our back catalogue of chants – the nerves melted away. You simply have to live and breathe in every second of this, while at the back of your head you continue building your defence mechanisms to cope with the inevitably of City bowing out.
Inside Villa Park, the eeriness of thousands of light blue seats half an hour before kick off gradually transformed into a crescendo of noise from a packed out stadium. And at around 7.30pm, the home fans unleashed their secret weapon upon us – every one of them had been given a flag to wave. It looked impressive for sure, but somewhat Premier League plastic fantastic. The fact the club had to fork out a significant sum of brass buying these flags, in order to aid their fans in backing them on the field, helped to smash all illusions that 35,000 Brummies were going to intimidate our players. We can do this.
It was a tough one for Phil Parkinson and Steve Parkin. Taking a two-goal lead to a second leg was not an easy scenario to prepare the team for. Go for it in the attack, or keep 10 men behind the ball and deny them space? City seemed caught between two minds. They got the ball up to James Hanson quickly enough, but left only Nahki Wells as an option to flick the ball onto. Zavon Hines continued to relish his personal battle with Joe Bennett; but it was as though the other seven outfield players daren’t cross the half way line. First move to Villa.
The home side started off doing everything right, from their point of view. They began to apply strong pressure that encouraged their crowd, with Charles N’Zogbia and Christian Benteke looking every inch those scary blokes who can rip apart our dreams whilst barely breaking into a sweat. The true secret to a strong first half was Paul Lambert’s decision to play Steven Ireland in a free role behind his front three players. The Irishman popped up all over the park, leaving the excellent Curtis Good – who would probably have expected to be marking him – in an awkward position regarding who he should pick up. At times Good had to play as a third centre back and Will Atkinson left back to cover, inviting more Villa players to get forward.
But yet, 24 minutes of pressure seemed to be fizzling out. The home crowd’s flags had long since stopped waving. It was all getting quiet. We seemed to have sorted out the initial issues and were looking stronger. Alas, Bennett was allowed space to cross the ball from deep, and the otherwise magnificent Rory McArdle lost Benteke for a split second. Bang, the Belgian volleyed the ball past Matt Duke. Stephen Darby and Hines argued over who should have stopped the cross.
The encouragement that reducing the arrears offered Villa saw them continue to pour forward. Duke made a string of outstanding saves – the best a tip over from N’Zogbia’s long-range piledriver. Ireland was pulling the strings. Benteke blew a glorious chance to make it 2-0. It was a horrible half of football to watch. Tortuous in the extreme. Just get to the interval only 1-0 down, please. Yet the clock was ticking by painfully slowly. Finally a good City chance saw Wells fire a shot narrowly past the post with Shay Given scrambling. But it was a relief to finally hear the half time whistle soon after.
Parkinson used the interval well. Oh to be a fly on the wall to hear his words of motivation. City became more organised and disciplined in their shape, but crucially more confident and finally starting to do something they failed badly at during the first 45 – keep possession. Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle – anonymous up to then – finally started to play like the men we know they are. Yet the tide had not fully turned, and Villa came out strongly again. When Good sliced a clearance that fortuitously fell into Duke’s hands, you wondered if we were about to collapse.
But that panicky mistake by Good ultimately was THE turning point. The moment the players seemed to collectively shake themselves up and down and say to each other, “right, no more of this”. And they duly went down the other end and scored.
Just like the opening goal in the first leg, Hines’ trickery and pace forced Bennett into the concession of a corner. Just like the second goal in the first leg, the first corner attempt by Gary Jones ended with the ball coming off a Villa player and allowing Jones another opportunity. From the second corner, he delivered the ball invitingly to the back post. Hanson pulled away from Ron Vlaar, Benteke could not react in time, and City’s number nine was free to plant a bullet header into the net. I was so pleased for him.
The celebrations. Wow. We’ve had some incredible goal moments over the last few weeks, but like the evening as a whole this one felt different to any other that I have celebrated before. It was like an out of body experience. As though I had floated up and was looking down on myself going absolutely crazy. I had no control over what my body was doing. There was no way I could stop myself from jumping up and down, even if I had wanted to. Yet ultimately I had not conceded control of my arms and legs, but my mind. I was completely lost in the sea of delirium. I’ve no idea how long it lasted, but it was some time before I came to.
I’m sure it was like that for everyone else there tonight. No offence to the extra 10,000 or so City supporters who came to the Arsenal and Villa home games – and, equally, I know full well that some of our most committed fans could not be here tonight, my wife for example – but this felt like a night where the faith of City’s hardcore supporters was rewarded. As I finally calmed down, I looked over at my friend – and fellow Width of a Post writer – Gareth Walker stood next to me, and realised he’d had to sit down for a few moments because he was so overcome with emotion. Around me there was a sea of happy, happy faces.
Wow. Wow. Wow.
Just like the first leg, City scoring completely altered Villa’s performance. Now 4-2 down on aggregate, their brittle confidence was back on show. The introduction of Darren Bent did nothing to change the pattern of the game that was now seeing direct long balls launched aimlessly by the Premier League side, and passing football from the League Two outfit. The defence were looking strong, with Carl McHugh probably man of the match for City. (How old? unbelievable composure from the lad.) Hanson had another great opportunity when presented with a free header. He should have scored, in truth. Soon after the superb Darby charged down the wing and crossed the ball for substitute Garry Thompson, who with his first touch fired a half volley that rattled the crossbar.
However it was Villa who would find the net again, when another substitute, Andreas Weimann, was played through on goal by Bent, rounded Duke and slotted the ball home. The tie had looked all over, Villa fans were even flooding for the exits. But now there was another minute and four additional for stoppage time to get through. 3-4 on aggregate. One more Villa goal would force extra time. Cue those nerves again.
I could barely watch, especially when Villa won a corner during the first of those four injury time minutes. Everyone but Given was in our box, and although we got it away eventually the ball kept coming back. Some superb play by Thompson in getting the ball to the corner flag alleviated the tension, but for the final minute all I could do was stare at Phil Dowd, longing for him to put us out of our misery. Tears of joy had started to fall down my face. I can’t believe what we are about to achieve.
In hindsight – and I do stress, in hindsight (it was bloody awful at the time) – Villa’s winner on the night was a good thing because it allowed the celebrations at the final whistle to carry that extra edge. Five minutes between Weimann’s goal and Dowd’s ending of the game had built up an unbearable level of tension, but now we had our release. For the second time in the evening, I was no longer in control of my thoughts, emotions and legs. When self-awareness eventually returned, I and almost everyone around me was stood on our chairs cheering the players, who looked equally happy, in front of us. Not even an idiotic Villa fan who invaded the pitch to make a half-hearted attempt at attacking our players could spoil the moment.
We’re going to Wembley!
The lights were turned out on the stand before we realised it was finally time to leave. But fair play to the Villa fans who were still around outside, for congratulating us and saying nice things. And where have all these ‘City Wembley 2013’ flags come from, which several fans were purchasing? A very opportunistic sales vendor had taken an almighty risk getting those produced before the match.
I think that any great football supporting moment gives rise to spouting clichés and going through a thesaurus to fire off superlatives. Like all clichés, they exist because they are riddled in truth, of course. But to me this evening was different to anything I have ever experienced before and probably will again.
Because this wasn’t the greatest feeling I could possibly ever experience following a football club – it was better than that. This wasn’t just about winning a two-legged game of football, it was realising that the boundaries City have just smashed prove that the limitations we think exist within our own lives can be smashed as well.
City have completely redefined what is possible within football, and at the same time should provide us with inspiration that we can apply away from football – inspiration that can serve us well for years. Bradford as a city is a great example. It is so bogged down with failure and tripping over itself – no more can we accept this state of affairs. “The sixth biggest city in the country” was uttered on the radio several times on the journey home; well now it’s time the sixth biggest city in the country followed its football club’s lead and built a better place befitting that status. Don’t tell me that’s not possible. League Two Bradford City getting to the League Cup Final, that’s not possible.
Whatever happens at Wembley, nothing can – or should – ever be the same again. Financially, the club is surely set up for years now. That will give us the momentum to rise up the divisions over the next few years, regardless of whether we can do it this time around. The future is unexpectedly, and quite stunning, brighter than it has ever looked.
City: Duke, Darby, McArdle, McHugh, Good, Hines (Thompson 71), Gary Jones, Doyle, Atkinson, Hanson, Wells (Turgott 87)
Not used: McLaughlin, Nelson, Ravenhill, Reid, Connell
Width of a Post writers Mark Scully, Rob Craven, Gareth Walker and Jason McKeown before the match.