(Bradford City win 3-2 on penalties)
Tuesday 11 December, 2012
By Jason McKeown
Savour this moment. Embrace this feeling of exhilaration. Preserve these emotions.
Bradford City have beaten Arsenal. That’s the Arsenal. A-r-s-e-n-a-l. That giant Premier League club, with the famous French manager, and the famous passing ethos. And we didn’t beat a bunch of unknown kids who will never make the grade at the Emirates. It was a strong Arsenal side, packed full of world class talent that cost a considerable amount to assemble.
Bradford City have beaten Arsenal. That means we are in the semi finals of the League Cup for the first time in our history. We’ve only ever won one major trophy – the FA Cup – and that was over 100 years ago. Back then we were one of the best sides in the country, playing season-after-season in the top flight. We are currently a fourth division club. A fourth division club which has just achieved the club’s second-best cup performance in its entire history. Wow. Wow. Wow.
Bradford City have beaten Arsenal. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Especially for a club where the good times are so often few and far between. And our recent history – brought back into the spotlight with so much pre-match build up focusing on how we were a Premier League club just over a decade ago – has been painfully dismal. Relegations and financial woes, pretty much year-on-year of finishing in a lower league position than the last one. It’s easy to forget that eight months ago we were fearing relegation to non-league and the likelihood of it killing the club.
Yet some 9,000-10,000 of us have stuck with the club through these bad times. Kept the faith, despite some very testing circumstances. Does a cup win against Arsenal make up for those dark days? I don’t know, but it does feel like a huge reward that we should look to make the most of.
When Garry Thompson fired the Bantams into a 16th minute lead against the Gunners this evening, a packed out Valley Parade erupted. There were wild celebrations everywhere you looked, the sheer volume of which must have been heard for miles around Bradford. And it was as if those dark clouds that have stubbornly hung over the club – which were starting to clear over the last few months of this incredible campaign – had finally shifted completely. A release of emotion that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Such moments of football ecstasy work so well as a communal outpouring of joy. But as fantastic as it feels as you take in the scene around you, it’s also a private moment of pleasure that means different things for different people. I’ve no doubt that this goal meant so much to every Bradford City fan present tonight; but the selfish side of you can’t help but note that more than half of tonight’s home crowd were not at the Torquay game on Saturday and will, probably, not be back for Accrington match on Boxing Day.
Those of us who have continued supporting the club through thin and thinner, this goal meant that little bit more to us. Myself, my wife Rachel and friend Steve are three such supporters. And though we enjoyed the company of our three extra guests tonight alongside us tonight, when the goal went in we had a private moment where the three of us hugged.
That City had taken the lead came as a shock at the time. The big, scary Arsenal side had started the match well and wasted two good chances. Thomas Vermaelen headed Santi Carzola’s corner over the bar. Then Lukas Podolski had a free header from Jack Wilshire’s cross, but dismally glanced it into the crowd. The visitors’ build up play and off-the-ball movement initially looked impressive, with Gervinho heavily involved. You suspected it could be a long night.
But the Bantams did not sit back and admire, they took the game to Arsenal with a physical approach that unsettled the Premier League side. Nahki Wells had already seen a low shot blocked by Wojciech Szczesny – it wouldn’t have counted as the erratic Mike Dean blew up for a foul – but when the Bermudian picked up possession out wide and earned a free kick after he was blocked off by Vermaelen, the opportunity was taken.
Gary Jones swung in the free kick, Will Atkinson flicked the ball on, and there at the back post was Thompson to slam it home. An unlikelier hero in claret and amber it would be hard to find, given Garry’s well-documented struggle for form of late and suspicion he has at times been going through the motions at Valley Parade. Yet even the way he took the goal had Thompson’s personality stamped all over it. He almost nonchalantly stroked the ball home, making it look far simpler than it might have proven for other players. A moment of quality, from a player who undoubtedly has quality. Tonight was one of his better nights.
As it was for all this team mates. City seized the initiative that Thompson had provided to enjoy the better of the first half. The transformation in confidence between before and after the goal was best personified by Carl McHugh, who looked nervy in the first 10 minutes but would go on, along with Rory McArdle, to produce one of the best central defensive displays I have seen in years. The pair threw their bodies in front of everything and bullied the frankly dismal Arsenal frontline of Podolski and Gervinho into tame surrender. The former’s performance was a curious one – was he really the same guy who has lit up World Cups and European Championships? Anyone who in future accuses Thompson or any City player of being disinterested should only do so after first measuring them up to how pathetically Podolski hid from the ball tonight.
A second goal might have occurred, with City’s set pieces causing no end of problems all night – particularly with some clever off the ball running exposing the flaws of Arsenal’s zonal marking. From a corner McArdle saw a header hacked off the line by Kieran Gibbs. Thompson had another shot saved by Szczesny and Wells had one effort fizz wide and another fly just over. Arsenal had chances and Gervinho missed a sitter, but their poor response to going a goal down must have caused the animated Arsene Wenger to tear into them at half time.
It was backs to the wall in the second half for City. James Hanson and Wells – both outstanding and both no doubt impressing any would be suitors – led the line superbly and defended well too, and the two banks of four maintained their shape with commendable discipline. What a pair of warriors we have in Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle, who don’t seem to ever drop their energy levels and cover every blade of grass. Atkinson too deserves a mention for an accomplished display that included a couple of brilliant backheels.
Indeed it was only when the clock showed less than 20 to go that Matt Duke was seriously tested by the Premier League side. Wenger made all three substitutions, with the introduction of Thomas Rosicky and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular changing the momentum – the latter and Jack Wiltshire forcing good saves from Duke. City inevitably dropped deeper and deeper as the final whistle drew closer, only to experience the late heartbreak of Vermaelen heading home unmarked at the back post. Heads dropped and City were indebted to Duke for making two fantastic stoppage time saves, but Phil Parkinson used the break before extra time commenced to get everyone going again.
The extra 30 minutes were all about keeping Arsenal at bay. Blair Turgott came on for the injured Will Atkinson and City’s 4-4-2 appeared to change to a Christmas tree, 4-3-2-1. Turgott himself was the most advanced player, with Hanson and another substitute, Alan Connell, seemingly playing midfield just in front of Doyle and the two Joneses (Ritchie coming on for Thompson). Arsenal knocked the ball around with frightening speed and precision, with Oxlade-Chamberlain looking an outstanding player.
But with bodies thrown in front of shots, Duke enjoying the best game of his City career and the passionate home crowd continuing a wall of noise, the minutes ticked by surprisingly fast. Watching the game from the front of the top tier of the Kop, at times when you looked down at the lower tier below it appeared as though City supporters were on top of the players, given how close they were to the pitch. There is no doubt that we supporters made it uncomfortable for Arsenal and kept our own players going. A word for the disappointingly quiet and anti-banter Arsenal fans – stop sulking and get behind your club.
So penalties would settle it. And, well, at some stage in the future I guess we will lose one of these shootouts, but not tonight, please. Doyle and Gary Jones scored for City, and Cazorla and Marouane Chamakh missed for Arsenal (Duke saving Carorla’s). Stephen Darby had the chance to put City three up, but his effort was tame and easily saved. Wilshire scored for 2-1, Connell made it 3-1 and Oxlade-Chamberlain was successful for 3-2. All Ritchie Jones had to do was score City’s fifth spot kick and we were through, he missed. But no matter, Vermaleen fired Arsenal’s fifth onto the post and City were through.
What happened next is difficult to describe. I was lost in my own sea of emotions, jumping up and down frantically, hugging everyone near me and screaming at the top of my head. When I started to come to, there were some supporters on the pitch hugging the players and – after they were cleared back into the stands – Parkinson led his troops on a lap of appreciation around the three home stands. The singing that had been maintained all evening certainly wasn’t going to be stopped now.
There are so many talking points surrounding the outcome. The fact we have a two-legged semi final is estimated to be worth £1 million to the club – Parkinson was very quick after the game to stake a claim that much of this needs to be used for squad strengthening in January. Not only should we see another sell out Valley Parade for one leg, the televising of both games should include one being shown on BBC One – a first live City terrestrial TV showing since…well, maybe ever?
There are so many talking points, but tonight and for the next few days it is all about enjoying this unforgettable night rather than looking too far forwards. In my time supporting City I would rank Wolves, Liverpool and Barnsley ’98 at my top three moments, but now there is a new entry to push out the Gordon Watson spectacular – that’s how big tonight compares. It is one to tell the children and the grandchildren about, to buy the souvenir DVD of (or at least store on your Sky Box forever), and to recall on your death bed.
Thank you to every single player who took part tonight, on behalf of everyone at Width of a Post and on behalf of our valued readers. I cannot possibly single anyone out, because everyone was magnificent and performed their job admirably. And above all else, thank you to Phil Parkinson for bringing the feel-good factor back to our beloved football club.
You have re-written our history and – in the process – secured your own prominent place within it forever.
City: Duke, Darby, McArdle, McHugh, Meredith, Thompson (Ritchie Jones 72), Doyle, Gary Jones, Atkinson (Turgott 92), Hanson, Wells (Connell 74)
Not used: McLaughlin, Ravenhill, Hines, Good
Categories: Match Reviews