12 December 2012

Bradford's Valley Parade is back on

Giant-killers Bradford City can celebrate for the first time in years.

The last decade hasn't been kind to Bradford City supporters, so to see them celebrate the Bantams' progression to the League Cup Semi Finals at Arsenal's expense was heartwarming.

The team currently 4th in League Two pushed a side ranked 65 places above them in the league standings all the way, drawing 1-1 after 90 minutes and extra time, and then winning 3-2 on penalties.

What's more, they weren't playing against the usual Arsenal League Cup side full of youngsters with more acne spots than senior appearances. Almost the Gunners' entire starting XI consisted of international players for the likes of England, France, Germany and Spain. These players were more used to playing in World Cups and European Championships than the League Cup. Even Arsenal's only non-international, Francis Coquelin, had seven caps for France Under-21s.

What international experience did Bradford's players have? Nahki Wells has a few caps for Bermuda and Rory McArdle some for Northern Ireland, and three others in the XI were capped at age-group levels, but that was it. Their team also had very little in the way of Premier League experience.

That's why it was such a shock to see City go 1-0 up after 16 minutes through a volley from Garry Thompson, formerly of Morecambe and Scunthorpe United. Wells then missed a great opportunity to put the home team at Valley Parade 2-0 up.

It took quite a while for Arsenal to even get a shot on target - Bradford keeper Matt Duke didn't have to make a save until the 70th minute. After that, it was backs to the wall stuff for the Bantams, who held on until three minutes from time, when Gunners captain Thomas Vermaelen headed in a cross from two-time European champion Santi Cazorla.

Extra time followed, and after 30 goalless minutes, it came down to the dreaded penalty shoot-out, or in Bradford's case, the hotly-anticipated penalty shoot-out. They were unbeaten in their last eight shoot-outs going into last night's clash. By 10:24pm, that statistic read nine.

It was a dream start for Bradford, who went 2-0 up through Nathan Doyle and Gary Jones after goalkeeper Duke saved shots from Cazorla and Marouane Chamakh. Things then got more tense for the Bantams, but Alan Connell scored to put Arsenal at the point of no return.

Vermaelen stepped up for the Gunners' fifth penalty, knowing that if he scored, he would take the game to sudden death. The Belgian's effort rebounded off the post, and the biggest party of the year in West Yorkshire could begin.

You could say that, of Bradford's 14 heroes from last night, one in particular stood out. Duke fought testicular cancer in 2008 when he was at Hull City, and three years later, he moved to Valley Parade. At the age of 35, he put in a goalkeeping performance of the standard that he has never reached before, and probably never will reach again.

The club's troubles since relegation from the Premier League in 2001 are well documented, but we should emphasise them to put this result in context. They went into administration twice, in 2002 and again in 2004 when they were relegated to League One. Three years later, in 2007, they dropped down to League Two. There were a few times in the six years from 2001 to 2007 that Bradford's very existence was in jeopardy.

In fact, after the club finished 18th in League Two for the last two seasons in a row, there were some people who feared relegation to the Conference Premier would come this season.

Bradford City AFC has seen many highs and lows, ranging from their final-day victory over Liverpool in 2000 which secured their Premier League status for another season, to that horrific day on 11 May 1985. Yesterday will go in the former category, and will be remembered by their fans for many years to come.

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