Bradford City 3
Wells 19, McArdle 78, McHugh 88
Aston Villa 1
Tuesday 8 January, 2013
By Jason McKeown
What just happened? As someone tasked with writing a match report of tonight, I’m somewhat lost for words. Expectations smashed. Euphoria on a different level to Arsenal, on a different level to pretty much anything I’ve ever experienced before in football. Did the earth just move, or did it just seem that way to me? Somehow, it seems as though things will never be the same again.
This magical, hedonistic evening has left Bradford City – genuinely – within touching distance of a Wembley final for a major cup competition. That simply blows your mind. I mean, let’s be honest, we’ve all allowed ourselves that idle pleasure of day-dreaming that City could overcome Aston Villa and have a day out at Wembley. But that ingrained pessimism/realism that supporting a team like Bradford City repeatedly reinforces; well it teaches you never to expose yourself to believing that such a scenario could actually happen.
But now it could actually happen. That is incredible. That is remarkable. That is like no Bradford City script I have seen with my own eyes. And even if the second leg provides us with that familiar kick in the teeth, we can never go back from this. For a football club – nay, for a city – we have reinvented what is possible by achieving something that looked ludicrously beyond our limitations. This should be a platform for bigger and better, whatever bigger and better is.
For 19 minutes at least tonight, the well-worn script of plucky underdog falling to the sword of higher league opposition looked set to be played out in full. Backed a thunderous away support, Villa strode the ball around with a confidence and purpose that was difficult to live with.
Charles N’Zogbia had a shot from the edge of the area beaten away by Matt Duke, Christian Benteke directed a free header from a corner wide of the post and then had a one-on-one superbly blocked by the City keeper (though surely a £7 million striker should score such chances). Gabriel Agbonlahor ran at defenders with menace. It was an open game, with both teams looking capable of scoring. But City still looked unsure of themselves. Compared to the Arsenal game, the home crowd also seemed subdued – the questionable decision of the club’s safety officer David Dowse to ban the usual supporters’ drums appears undemocratic and could benefit from being explained over the next few days.
But it all changed on a momentary pause by the Villa defence, and a deflected ball running into Nahki Wells’ path. A Gary Jones corner was half-cleared, Zavon Hines drove it back into the mix and it made its way to Wells via Barry Bannan’s toe. The Bermudian looked offside, and in the Kop end we all seemed to share the view that Wells was knocking the ball into the net for show before the inevitable whistle. But the flag stayed down, and as Nahki peeled away to celebrate – he also had a long look at the linesman – everyone in the ground began to realise they could celebrate. In truth, the confusion took some of the edge off the cheering.
TV replays would show Wells was onside, by the way. Nahki has produced sparkling performances against both Wigan and Arsenal, but tonight he tormented Villa and looked every inch a player on his way to playing in the top flight himself within the next few years.
Just like against Arsenal, the goal settled the Bantams down. Gary Jones and Nathan Doyle were masterful in the centre of the park, with Will Atkinson superbly producing his trademark mixture of industriousness and panache. Zavon Hines played on a pre-match suspicion that Villa’s Matthew Lowton was their weak link, to ensure the 21-year-old left back endured a torrid evening. This was by some distance Hines’ best game in claret and amber, and he linked up brilliantly with Stephen Darby. Rumours of Phil Parkinson bringing in another wide player are surely misplaced.
Those Villa fans went from boisterous to bashful, then bristling with rage at their own team’s failings. A team that couldn’t live with the little and large partnership of James Hanson and Wells, as the pair’s excellent link-up dragged the back four all over the place. Hines saw an effort from an angle beaten out by Shay Given. Hanson’s header from a corner was blocked on the line by former City trainee Fabian Delph. Shortly before half time Hanson had another chance but headed the ball too low and it bounced off the ground and over the bar. You wondered whether we might rue these close calls.
No doubt on the receiving end of a half time rocket, Villa came out with greater purpose in the second and pushed City deeper and deeper. Bannan was a constant threat on Villa’s left, producing a number of superb crosses from which Benteke and Agbonlahor tested Duke. The arrival of Darren Bent increased the anxiety; but when Duke had spilled an N’Zogbia effort, the England striker conjured up a miss to rival Gervinho in the last round.
And that was it. 15 minutes of heavy pressure fizzled into nothingness. They might be short of confidence at the moment, but this brittle Villa side looked easily discouraged and at times resembled a group of strangers rather than a functioning Premier League team. Blame the inexperience, I guess, but when senior players like N’Zogbia seemed to be playing so selfishly you wonder whether they just lack the right characters regardless of their age.
City’s backline was asked questions in that opening to the second half but stood firm. Carl McHugh’s return was a huge factor, as he and Rory McArdle defended with great authority. Curtis Good was also impressive at left back, you wouldn’t have known it is far from his natural position. Blair Turgott’s introduction for the tiring Hines gave Lawton a similarly tough time. Now if we only we could increase that one-goal cushion…
13 minutes to go, a City corner. Jones’ cross is cleared only to Wells, who returns the ball to the 35-year-old to try again. McArdle is incredibly left unmarked at the near post and he meets Jones’ ball perfectly to powerfully head home.
Valley Parade erupts, and the celebrations are manic everywhere you look. I’m hugging the wife. I’m hugging my friends. I’m hugging strangers. It is absolute bedlam. Unconfined joy. I was at Wolves in ’99, and here for Liverpool in ’00, but it feels like this moment – this goal – tops the lot of them as the best moment I’ve ever experienced supporting City. It is the realisation – for the first time – that we CAN actually do this. That League Two Bradford City defeating Villa over two legs, and taking our place in the League Cup final at Wembley, CAN happen. It is the point where you dare to believe.
Incredibly it was almost 3-0 a moment later. Turgott’s cross was perfect for Hanson, who did everything right in the execution and aiming of his header, only to see it smash the top of the bar with Given nowhere near it. But then came the sobering moment when Villa scored – Andreas Weimann getting on the end of a long ball that McHugh couldn’t clear and firing low past Duke. Which brings us nicely to what could be looked back upon as the defining moment of the two-legged tie. The moment where everything you think you know about Phil Parkinson turns out to be wrong.
Had we been offered 2-1 before kick off everyone would have bitten the deal-maker’s hand off. Even at this point, with the disappointment of Villa getting back into it, offer us the final whistle now and we’d have taken it. So when with two minutes to go City won a corner there was a dilemma: keep it short in the corner to play out for time, or get men in the box and fire the ball over in an attempt to get a third, but in doing so risk a Villa counter attack.
City – under that pragmatic, cautious-minded Parkinson, who no doubt ordered what to do from the touchline – went for it. Jones’ corner was perfectly placed onto the forehead of McHugh at the backpost, and he had engineered enough space to head it home despite Delph’s attempts to block it on the line. More manic scenes of celebration. The cue for Villa fans to start making for the exits. At the back of the Midland Road Stand they were departing, the formidable Sky Sports commentator, Martin Tyler, excitedly declared “You just can’t write stories like this!”
Indeed you can’t, and you just wonder what sort of ending it’s going to provide us. It is only half time in the contest, and there is little doubt that Villa could blow us away in the second leg and win by the 3-0 advantage (or 2-0 after extra time) they require to make Wembley. League Two sides don’t make the final of major cup competitions. Bradford City don’t make the final of major cup competitions. Convention suggests we will bow out standing proud, but bow out all the same.
Perhaps, or perhaps not. Over the next fortnight, there will be many hours spent debating our prospects, in our own minds and with each other, before we go back into battle at Villa Park. But whatever happens then – and whatever happens for the rest of the season in League Two – we will treasure the memories of tonight for the rest of our lives. That matters above all else – that after years of thin gruel, we’ve been served such an unforgettable feast. The taste of which should make us aspire to – and inspire us in achieving – better things.
This did just happen. And yes, I still can’t believe it either.
City: Duke, Darby, McArdle, McHugh, Good, Hines (Turgott 65), Gary Jones, Doyle, Atkinson, Hanson, Wells
Not used: McLaughlin, Ravenhill, Reid, Ritchie Jones, Hannah, Connell
Categories: Match Reviews