By Jason McKeown
For any lower league club, reaching a major cup final is an incredible achievement. But fortunately in Bradford City’s case, our season will not be defined by it.
The League Cup miracle will stay with us forever. The stories collected from those winter evenings against Wigan, Arsenal and the two legs against Aston Villa will be retold again and again. The week-long build up to the Wembley final against Swansea felt like being at the centre of the universe. The proudest of walks down Wembley Way, and the loudest of roars when City walked out onto the Wembley pitch for kick off.
Alas, then a football match occurred. A horrible one at that. Swansea were always expected to win, but not in such simple and clinical fashion. On the biggest stage that this club will probably ever appear upon, it is hard to dispute the fact that we were humiliated by an outstanding opposition side. Only one Bantams’ shot on target all game; the magnificent show of support in the closing stages the only positive to take home.
It has been an incredible achievement to get there, and you wouldn’t swap it for anything. But that February afternoon is tainted by how badly we were outplayed by Swansea City. It was not a defeat to take much pride in.
On Saturday we return to the scene of the cup final thrashing, this time looking to at least turn up. Northampton’s direct and physical style could not be much more of a contrast to Swansea’s tika taka. More importantly, this time it is a level playing field. A tough game it is sure to be, but it is a game that can be won. This time, we shouldn’t need to wait until the 87th minute to cheer a shot on goal.
The spotlight will be dimmer this time – no worldwide media interest – but the stakes are surely higher. A win against Swansea would have been special, but the prize of competing in Europe is less important to the club’s future than an elevation to the division above would prove. Win on Saturday, and Bradford City will take their place in next season’s League One. Swapping Southend for Sheffield United, Wycombe for Wolves, Cheltenham for Coventry.
Six seasons in the basement division. Six years desperate to escape it. For a while it seemed like promotion was our entitlement. Bradford City and our wonderful stadium did not belong amongst such scruffy surroundings. Our big crowds should prove too overwhelming for tiny outfits like Dagenham and Accrington. Get a good team together and watch us fly out of this league. If only it were so simple.
Gradually we’ve had to get used to life in the lower reaches of English professional football. Reluctantly, we’ve developed a healthy respect for opposition sides who, unlike ourselves, could make more of the resources they had. The closest we’ve come to exiting the division was by going out the wrong way through the trapdoor to non-league. “Too good for this division” was downgraded to “grateful to be here”. Difficult times.
This season has been different, but then Wembley in February ended with the same old miserable story. Defeat is an all too familiar feeling for us City supporters. And with promotion hopes fading fast in the immediate aftermath of Swansea, causing the usual style supporter grumblings to recommence, it was as though Wigan and Arsenal and Villa at home and Villa away never happened. Another season of under-achievement, in the league at least.
For League Cup miracle, read Play Off miracle. A late surge of form propelling us first back into contention and then over the top seven line. Then, just as it seemed it would all end weakly in the semi final, a remarkable second leg comeback at Burton sparking scenes of joy to rival Villa Park. Back to Wembley, and the chance to right the Swansea wrongs.
There is a fear, of course, that we could end this season nursing the bruises of two Wembley defeats. A loss on Saturday would be much harder to take than Swansea’s triumph, even if the margins will surely be nowhere near as wide. A better performance than on February 24 is a given, but a second walk up to the Wembley balcony to collect losers medals would be utterly devastating.
Yet we shouldn’t be fearful of a second Wembley defeat, instead be motivated by the opportunity to do ourselves justice. To put right the wrongs. Where last time the players were slumped on the floor at full time, this time we hope to see them dancing around the pitch in triumph. It is season-defining. Neigh, on the back of 12 years of struggle for the club, it is decade-defining.
Gary Jones may not have got to lift one of the biggest trophies in English football last February; but on Saturday he and his team mates can take home what, for any lower league club, is surely the bigger prize.