Bantams break Arsenal’s hearts as Valley Parade celebrates Cup shock

The crowd goes wild at Valley Parade
The crowd goes wild at Valley Parade
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Bradfordians flocked to Valley Parade for the biggest game since victory over Liverpool in May 2000. Leon Wobschall reports.

BRIGHT DAY was one of the most celebrated works of Bradford’s most famous literary son, JB Priestley – a novel which combines nostalgia and optimism.

Many decades on, that same sense of sentiment laced with well-being was to be found not too far away from where the acclaimed writer was born on an occasion that no-one of a Bradford City persuasion will ever, ever forget.

If ever a club and indeed a city, the sixth most populated in the UK no less, found its sporting voice again on a national stage, it was this inspirational episode which is still resonating across the land.

City, in their sixth successive campaign in League Two and currently the lowest ranked of any ex-Premiership club, have had some truly dire days since the start of the noughties. This represented the cathartic moment.

Wins at Molineux, Goodison Park, Bloomfield Road and yes, Wembley, have gone down in the annals of City folklore and now December 11, 2012 – and yet another story of penalty glory.

A Bradford-born songstress by the name of Pauline Matthews – better known as Kiki Dee – once shared a smash-hit with Elton John entitled Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.

Captain Thomas Vermaelen’s cruel 87th-minute leveller may have done the equivalent of that with City oh so close to an incredible semi-final berth in normal time, but that sense of desolation was brief, with stirring pride soon coming to the fore again.

And it was the Belgian who played the fateful hand when the game was decided by penalties, with his miss the final act on a marvellous evening.

Bradford fans came in their thousands in a gate of 23,971, the club’s biggest since February 1960 and while it was an occasion for many to renew their vows, for those who stayed steadfastly loyal to their footballing love, it was their night most of all.

It was for those who stood in such vast and unfathomable numbers on the terraces at the likes of Accrington’s Crown Ground, where as recently as April of last year, the City travelling hordes were contemplating their heroes dropping out of the Football League following a desperate 3-0 late-season defeat.

You just knew it was no normal match-day. From the sight of the dad telling his lad not to ‘crease the programme’ to the souvenir scarf seller feverishly attempting to flog dozens of his claret-and-amber and red-and-white concoctions behind the Kop.

In party season, thousands of Bradfordians were intoxicated not by alcohol, but the arrival of one of the game’s most decorated names. But Arsenal, judging by their formidable looking line-up, were here for serious business.

The League Cup in its various manifestations may be the fourth footballing delectation of choice for England’s top-table heavyweights.

Yet when your trophy famine stretches back to 2005, needs must, with Arsene Wenger fielding basically his first-choice side. If he ever says the competition doesn’t matter again, do not listen to him.

The pre-match announcer’s somewhat tongue in cheek utterance to City fans that: ‘You will not know many of these names’ during the team check was as droll as you get. Cazorla, Wilshere, Sagna, Ramsey, Mertesacker, Vermaelen. And the list went on. Plenty of footballing silk on show in the Gunners’ ranks in the wool city. But given the unforgiving conditions where both sets of players looked like their pre-match huddles were more an exercise in keeping warm than in showing togetherness, it was also likely to be more an occasion for toil, sweat and character.

Afforded a huge roar at kick-off by the City hordes, the hosts started out attacking the Bradford End, just as they did almost 24 years to the day in their last big League Cup glory night at Valley Parade when they tamed Everton 3-1 – Stuart McCall et al.

The hosts could not help but feed off the pumped-up crowd with the roof almost raised when Nahki Wells outmuscled Vermaelen and fired in a fierce shot before referee Mike Dean blew for an infringement.

And then, well it happened. With Kendal’s Garry Thompson, hero in the last-gasp round-two win at Watford, firing home Gary Jones’s free-kick at the far post in clinical fashion on 16 minutes. In the same goal as THAT strike from David Wetherall.

A true ‘do you remember when’ moment for anyone of a City persuasion to savour for years to come.

Cue the Kop songfest. ‘Premier League, you are having a laugh’ – 65 places separating the teams before the start of play – and the more cutting “You’re getting sacked in the morning” to Monsieur Wenger. The only riposte to the brazen chants from massed visiting contingent being a somewhat lame and unconvincing cry of “There’s only one Arsene Wenger.”

Arsenal’s unerring ability to float like a butterfly and sting like one pervaded the first half and how the City punters had festive mirth, particularly when Gervinho failed to slide in Kieran Gibbs’s cross, with Wells going desperately close to doubling the Gunners’ pain at the other end.

The theme continued on the restart. On the sidelines, while Phil Parkinson was the embodiment of cool, Wenger cut an increasingly agitated figure, throwing on Marouane Chamakh and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to cajole his side and 4,500 bitterly cold supporters, many of whom were clad in Santa hats. Grumpy Santas, each and every one.

On a similarly chilly pre-Christmas evening in Yorkshire just under seven years previously at Doncaster Rovers, Gunners fans suffered even longer into the night, with it taking until the last minute of extra-time for Gilberto Silva to save their skins and take an equally compelling tie to a victorious penalties trail.

Redemption in this case arrived slightly earlier, although the sense of relief was identical when Vermaelen saved Arsenal a heap load of embarrassment.

An extra half-hour for the third successive round for City’s heroes, to a man and how they dug in stoically as Arsenal belatedly scented blood with the hosts seeking to utilise their penalty joker once again.

Cazorla’s shot hit the woodwork, but spot-kicks it was and how City deserved it as they sought their ninth successive shoot-out success, with Arsenal seeking a sixth of their own on the spin.

A toss of a coin, then, with City holding their nerve – just – in an extraordinary, remarkable night of a drama as Cazorla, Marouane Chamakh and Vermaelen missed. Over to you, Leeds...

leon.wobschall@ypn.co.uk