By Jason McKeown
It was one of those startling moments which made you groan about the celebrity nature of modern football. A point where the gap between the haves and have-nots looked wider than ever.
It is January 2006 and Huddersfield Town have just battled gallantly against Chelsea in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, losing narrowly. And after the BBC highlights programme had shown the goals, we were suddenly taken to a shot of the losing dressing room. Then-manager Peter Jackson had, for reasons difficult to understand, agreed to let the cameras in to capture his big announcement to his players: Chelsea’s players had invited them into their dressing room, so the Town players could collect a shirt. “Go and get your glory” said Jacko.
And suddenly the fixture seemed less big club vs small club, more a group of school kids meeting their heroes. It was as if the Town players and management had made a statement about their own standing in the football world: that this was the best they could ever aspire to. They may have run Chelsea close, but their groupie-style post-match antics suggested their own supporters had been somewhat short-changed.
As Bradford City prepare to welcome Arsenal to Valley Parade on Tuesday, our players face a simple choice. They can enjoy their moment in the spotlight, pinch themselves when they are lining up next to some famous players, and get an autograph or two. Or they can go into battle and give everything they have, trying to cause an almighty upset.
No one would begrudge the players from savouring this match. Look through the squad and, by my reckoning, only five have played a Premier League match in their careers. Three of which, Andrew Davies, Kyel Reid and Zavon Hines, are injured, leaving just Matt Duke and Will Atkinson available. Others such as Stephen Darby, Blair Turgott and Curtis Good will have been around big name players before as part of matchday squads, but there will be no City player who will be shrugging their shoulders and considering playing Arsenal to be a run-of-the-mill, “no big deal”.
And I’d be surprised if any member of our squad has played in the quarter finals of a major cup competition before, either. Making it this far in the League Cup is a fantastic achievement by the club. One that, perhaps because of so much success elsewhere, the players haven’t quite got the credit they deserve for. The Bantams’ first cup quarter final appearance in almost 25 years. Beating three higher league opposition – League One’s Notts County, The Championship’s Watford and the Premier League’s Wigan – along the way. In their own backyards. Fantastic. Incredible. Unforgettable.
For how much we are often berating the lack of luck when it comes to cup draws, this bonanza of a tie is one that has been achieved on merit and then some. 65 league places separate City and Arsenal, but let us not do ourselves down and believe we are not worthy of being here.
Can we do it? Unlikely is the most optimistic prediction you can make. Yet if Arsenal play very poorly (not impossible to imagine given their recent form) and City play very well (again, a plausible scenario) you just never know.
But only if our players treat the night as a battle and not a tourist outing. If they get stuck in, rather than stand back starry-eyed. If they – to use that tired cliché – play the game and not the occasion. And if the bumper crowd plays their part too; accepting that City will have to play like the away side, containing the visitors and hitting them on the break. Add if we get some luck too. Then the impossible is remotely possible.
Everything you know about the players this season – and the fantastic management of Phil Parkinson – tells us they have not come this far to simply collect a famous shirt. This could be one of the biggest games they will ever play in; they will make the most of it and give everything they have.
Whether that’s good enough to win is another matter. But as a minimum, they will do us proud.