Width of a Post’s retrospective look back on last season’s incredible League Cup run has reached Arsenal in the quarter finals – one year ago t0day. Katie Whyatt recalls the night when the Bantams beat the mighty Gunners.
Bradford City 1 Arsenal 1 (City win 3-2 on penalties)
We’re going to win, I tell myself – and anyone who’ll listen – as I wrap up against the December cold and take the walk down a darkened Manningham Lane littered with the painful memories of the journeys home from too many crushing defeats. We have to win this. ‘Cupsets’ happen every year, and it’s our turn to be the heroes, to take the starring role in a David and Goliath fairytale, to be the plucky underdog the nation coos over. We’ve just got to score first, and then defend everything out of the game. Or keep calm and take it to penalties. Either – or both – will do just fine.
We are joined by my brother’s friend, Alfie, an Arsenal fan (I treat this with quiet enthrallment, admiring him as you might a curious animal at a zoo – ‘one of them is in our territory’), as we weave in and out the throngs of claret and amber. Alfie is confident. And it’s assured, well-founded confidence, rooted in the fact his team is in the Premier League, is bursting to the brim with millions of pounds worth of talent and comprises entirely of seasoned internationals – not that any of them will play. Wenger wouldn’t waste his prize assets on a cup competition, especially one against a League Two club that has spent the best part of the last ten years struggling down the slippery slide from the top flight.
Still, the thought of losing is a sobering one. I don’t want to get knocked out tonight. I don’t want to have to be consoled at the final whistle. I don’t want to be the one rueing missed chances during the post-mortem at school tomorrow. I don’t want to have to ultimately concede that the magic of the cup shrouded me in ignorance and left me prone to delusion, my ill-advised optimism just a means of protecting myself from the inevitable. We’re going to give it everything, I decide. It’s written in the stars.
A crisp layer of frost coats the turf as winter grips the stadium, the Valley Parade night enfolded in a sheet of bitingly cold December air. A harsh chill is afoot, and one that will regress to sub zero by the time the additional half hour rolls in, but it doesn’t matter – we won’t be staying long. Arsenal will brush us aside, and that will be it. We take the short walk to our seats and gasp at how perfect our position is: metres from the press box (a source of quiet fascination for an aspiring writer and avid Bantams Banter listener), metres from the tunnel and just centimetres from the pitch.
Touching distance. Poised for an upset.
Wenger’s side warm up in front of us. The media were wrong; there are some big names on that pitch. Flipping heck! He’s not been conservative, that Arsene Wenger, and his oddly flattering team selection sets the heart racing: Szczesny, Sagna, Mertesacker, Vermaelen, Gibbs, Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla, Coquelin, Podolski, Gervinho. His bench alone could pass for a first-string Champions League side.
We take pictures of all four stands, of the scoreboard, of random Arsenal players, and film the fans as they chant, “Bring on the Arsenal!” This is the best atmosphere I’ve ever witnessed at City. The raucous roars exuded by the Kop, complemented perfectly by the unrelenting crackle of applause from the fans housed in the TL Dallas stand, is magic. As the stadium announcer runs through the teamsheets, it’s clear the shiver down my spine can be attributed to more than the low temperature.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we will be kicking off in just under five minutes.”
Five minutes? That went quick! The air is rife with anticipation now, the suspense building with each foreboding pound of the infamous Valley Parade drum. Bradford City and Arsenal. This is really happening.
Then, that’s it.
Only at the shrill ring of the referee’s whistle do I realise what I’ve let myself in for. The butterflies lurch around violently in my stomach and I pin my eyes to the pitch, too scared to glance away, to blink, to look at anything other than the battle between the megastars and the minnows that’s playing out before me. Thankfully, City are holding their own. Wells looks threatening. Doyle and Jones are controlling the middle, giving Arsenal a tough time of it. The back four look sharp. But, most significantly of all, Hanson is terrifying Mertesacker. He’s winning headers and the defender’s giving him a wide berth. I think Alfie’s quietly impressed.
Suddenly, Wells breaks free down the right. He rages into space. The Arsenal midfielders trail in the slipstream. He’s sent tumbling down. Valley Parade pauses. The stadium waits. The referee points to the floor.
Gary Jones raises his arm to the sky, charges and swings his boot. His perfectly executed cross finds the head of a rising Will Atkinson. Garry Thompson, stood beyond the far post, unmarked, hands in fictional pockets, just chillin’, suddenly springs to life, and fires home with a sweet left-foot volley. 1-0.
This is mad. This is just mad. We are leading. We are leading. WE ARE LEADING! This is our second in the spotlight! This is our glorious underdog moment! This is why we kept faith through every relegation battle, every failed promotion campaign, every defeat to Accrington, every disparaging comment from Leeds supporters.
Garry Thompson, the man who had been panned a month or so ago for looking lacklustre on the wing, has just smashed City in front against Arsenal. A-R-S-E-N-A-L. People will tell their children, their grandchildren, their great grandchildren, about this moment, about that man. Garry Thompson, cemented in our history books: our new cult hero, inaugurated on what’s quickly becoming the greatest night of our history. I imagine this is what the Premier League days must have felt like: powerful, intoxicating, an emotion verging on euphoria. All those tiny teams I’d willed through the cup over the years – Barnsley, Havant and Waterlooville, Histon… We are now among them.
We are giant-killers.
It takes just a minute before the chanting starts. Brash, bold, confident, the product of the ethereality leaking from every pore.
“You’re getting SACKED in the morning! You’re getting SACKED in the morning. SACKED in the morning! YOU’RE GETTING SACKED IN THE MORNING!”
I can’t believe it. We’re singing that to Arsene Wenger. The Arsene Wenger. The one more used to frequenting the Emirates, and trudging up and down the touchlines of Anfield and the Etihad. The one who wears that coat. The one on television every day. The one who’s now scowling morosely at his players, brow furrowed, arms folded, staring at the pitch in subdued embarrassment.
“YOU’RE GETTING SACKED IN THE MORNING!”
The chant is intensifying, growing louder with each word. Before tonight, I didn’t know you could sing that loudly and that passionately about a team, that a goal could mean that much to that many people. But now I do. And I’m joining in with every single song.
City continue to hold out as the volume is cranked up to full. Arsenal are enjoying the lion’s share of the possession, but they’re failing to capitalise on their dominance. The ball goes over, wide, against Matt Duke, anywhere but actually in the net. Promising play from Jack Wilshere undoes the Bantams midfield and the Gunners look set to score, but the ball skirts past a hapless Gervinho in potentially the most comedic miss ever. The Kop heave a collective sigh of relief.
Arsenal throw everything forward, exploring every avenue, simply refusing to lie down. Chamakh to Duke. Wilshere to Duke. Gibbs and Sagna and Oxlade- Chamberlain to Duke. Cazorla strikes the upright. Meredith wins a challenge. Darby follows suit. McArdle belts it forward. City are clinging on by their fingertips and I don’t know how much more I can take.
Cazorla crosses in from the flag and the ball is knocked clear. But it’s not good enough. It’s swung back in, and Vermaelen hops through the cluster of defenders to fire home.
This isn’t happening. No. This isn’t how it’s meant to be. It can’t end like this. Please. Not after everything.
Two minutes from time. Just two minutes. Practically over the finish line. Nearly clasping the upset we’d been craving. And now we have to endure half an hour of Arsenal scoring for fun. This isn’t fair; this is cruel.
And what makes it even crueller is that the Bantams could’ve won this. They genuinely could have. To come this far, to defend as well as they did, and to leave with nothing, is criminal – anyone will tell you that. But the Gunners had been playing with us all along: teasing us, taunting us, tricking us into believing we had a chance. I resign myself to a loss and slump in my seat.
But it starts. The infamous chant that’s been following the team since Burton. The one they’ve been unable to shake off. A slow rumble, at first, coming from the Kop. Then, from the Bradford End. And, before we know it, it’s sweeping across the Main Stand and we’re all united together in a passionate, all-engulfing wall of noise, determined to see this one through.
“IT’S ONLY A CUP! WHO GIVES A F**K? WE’RE SUPER CITY AND WE’RE GOING UP!”
The noise is unrelenting, Arsenal also. It’s all blue shirts. How they’re not finding the net is beyond me.
Slowly, the seconds die away. The clock begins to tick down. 3, 2, 1, 00:00. It’s all over. The referee blows his whistle. Cheers, applause, throaty shouts – the promise of penalties celebrated almost as loudly as the Garry Thompson goal. Because City might be bruised, battle scarred and absolutely shattered, but they’ve made it to the shootout.
Which means there’s only one outcome.
Doyle and Jones slot home to give City a confident start, but the impossible happens for the visitors: Duke and the post deny Cazorla and Chamakh respectively. What’s going on? We’re all alive now, daring to believe. We can really do this.
The party stalls as Stephen Darby’s weak penalty is all too easily parried away by Szczesny, and the tension mounts further when Jack Wilshere flashes in with a clean effort. Alan Connell shows both sides how it’s done with an unstoppable smash into the roof of the net, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain gladly retorts to put Arsenal back in the contest. Ritchie Jones’ feeble effort is then brushed away.
By now, I’ve lost count of what means what, who has to score and who doesn’t. So, when Thomas Vermaelen begins the long walk to the spot, I don’t know what’s happening. I see him step back, run and hit it. Duke dives the wrong way. An open net gapes invitingly before the Belgian.
He hits the post.
The celebrations are delayed for me. It is only when I see the players sprinting over to Matt Duke, the fans invading the pitch, Jack Wilshere flopping to the floor, that I know what’s just happened.
“WE’VE JUST BEATEN ARSENAL!”
The hurt of a thousand fruitless seasons suddenly begins to pale. All the pent-up anger, pain and frustration are exorcised in one big, cathartic release. The elation is mind blowing, incomprehensible. You can’t buy this. You really can’t. I don’t know where I am, what’s just happened, if what I’ve just seen was real. But it is, and I don’t want it to end. I am in a glorious bubble of Bradford City and Arsenal, oblivious to the rest of the world. Tonight, nothing else matters.
Tonight, we have just beaten Arsenal.
Read our look back on the League Cup miracle