x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Proof anything can happen in cup football

Bradford City, a fourth-division side, will play Swansea City in the Capital One Cup final and it shows that the romance of cup football is not dead.

Bradford City players converge on Aston Villa's Joe Bennett, centre, during their Capital One Cup semi-final win on Tuesday. The fourth-division side will meet Swansea City in the championship next month in Wembley.
Bradford City players converge on Aston Villa's Joe Bennett, centre, during their Capital One Cup semi-final win on Tuesday. The fourth-division side will meet Swansea City in the championship next month in Wembley.

Bradford City and Swansea City reaching a major cup final reminded me of why I love football so much, why it's such a great game.

A fourth-division club, who were a Premier League side at the start of the millennium, have overcome three Premier League sides to reach Wembley. I played for Manchester United against Bradford City.

Bradford will play Swansea, a Premier League team who were a fourth-division club in 2000. It shows that almost anything can happen in football, that the romance of cup football is not dead.

Premier League teams should not lose to a fourth-division side, but three of them did. All took the competition seriously, they just became frustrated when the game didn't go as expected.

I watched the Aston Villa v Bradford game this week, so did a full house at Villa Park. They expected their side to have enough quality to come from 3-1 down in the first leg and Villa dominated the first half. But as soon as Bradford equalised, their heads went.

They lost positions, they couldn't defend set pieces, they played long balls to Christian Benteke, hoping that he would win the ball and flick it. That's not what a top-flight team should do. They should have played quick passes on the floor. Long balls in the air are meat and drink to a fourth-division side.

Villa took football back 15 years, then they became frustrated and started lashing out with bad tackles. They had only themselves to blame.

Despite having 180 minutes to overcome a side in the bottom league, they failed.

Bradford are not runaway leaders in their league either, they're 10th and have lost three of their last four games against Rochdale, Barnet and Oxford. Yet when it mattered against Wigan, Arsenal and Villa, Bradford's game plan appeared to work perfectly.

Chelsea also got frustrated against Swansea. They couldn't score and get to a cup final which Rafa Benitez was desperate to reach and win. It's a shame the images of Eden Hazard kicking a ball boy in the final minutes overshadowed Swansea's triumph and excellent performance. I hate how silly little things like that grab the headlines.

Swansea have been excellent in recent seasons and I'm a fan of their football. I love it how they keep proving people wrong.

Few thought they would come up to the Premier League and most thought they'd go straight back down under Brendan Rodgers. Building on the good work of Roberto Martinez, Rodgers did well and they finished 11th and before leaving for Liverpool.

Some assumed that Swansea would fall apart and questioned Michel Laudrup as if he was a no-mark and not a former world-class footballer with a good record in management.

He's improved Swansea, though they do over-elaborate sometimes.

They try to play themselves out of trouble too much and have conceded goals because of this. Sometimes it's safer to hit the ball long - but not all the time like Villa against Bradford.

Swansea will be favourites to beat Bradford, yet Bradford have already had three cup finals against Premier League teams and will be unnerved by nothing. They have nothing to lose – and that can get into the psyche of the team who are expected to win.

I saw that when Arsenal played Bradford. They put out a really strong team who didn't trouble the Bradford defence, then got trapped in a set of circumstances they weren't used to and didn't know how to get out of. They lost the plot.

It's good for the cup, too. With respect to fans of the Manchester clubs, Liverpool or Chelsea – the clubs who get to play at Wembley a lot – appearing at Wembley in a major cup final will mean more to 33,000 fans of each club who go for a once-in-a-lifetime cup final.

Their players are not going to win the Premier League or the FA Cup or the Champions League, so this is as good as it will ever get for them. It means so much. And, if I'm honest, it's a competition which means a lot to me, too.

The League cup – the Capital One Cup now – is a great competition. It was the only competition I hadn't won when I left Manchester United and I thought I'd never win it. Yet in 2002, the Blackburn team I played for reached the final and I was fortunate enough to score the winning goal against Tottenham. That was one of the greatest moments of my career.

The players of Bradford and Swansea are about to experience theirs.

Andrew Cole's column is written with the assistance of the European football correspondent Andy Mitten.


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