x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Bradford's English League Cup run has brought joy back to the Valley

A League Cup semi-final against Aston Villa provides loyal Bradford fans a welcome respite from a decade of demotion, says Richard Jolly

Goalkeeper Matt Duke was the penalty shootout hero for Bradford against Arsenal. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images
Goalkeeper Matt Duke was the penalty shootout hero for Bradford against Arsenal. Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

It is the lower-league version of Newcastle United's St James' Park. Two smallish stands are dwarfed by two others, stretching up into the sky, threatening to give anyone in the upper tiers vertigo.

It is Valley Parade which, for the first time in its 110-year history, will stage an English League Cup semi-final tonight.

It is an apt home for Bradford City. They are half a big club. They have played in the Premier League and they have a loyal fan base the envy of plenty far higher in the footballing pyramid.

Yet no former Premier League club has fallen further and they are in their sixth successive season in the fourth tier.

Until December's defeat of Arsenal, they had endured a dozen years to rank among the most depressing in their existence.

Their fortunes turned on what their then owner Geoffrey Richmond termed "six weeks of madness" in the summer of 2000. Promoted to the Premier League, to widespread surprise, in 1999, Bradford's bunch of journeymen confounded more expectations by staying up, beating Liverpool on a dramatic final day.

It proved a disastrous victory. Richmond entered Bradford into the Intertoto Cup, replaced the manager Paul Jewell with his assistant Chris Hutchings and embarked on a spending spree the club could not afford.

Enter big names on big wages, Benito Carbone, Stan Collymore and Dan Petrescu among the unlikely arrivals at Valley Parade.

With Hutchings floundering and failing, the newcomers an imperfect fit for a working-class club where graft is valued, Bradford sank like a stone. They entered a cycle of administration and relegation, going down three times in seven years and almost going out of business.

This seemed a club - indeed a city - that fell on hard times.

"Bradford's role in life is to make every place else in the world look better in comparison, and it does this very well," said the American travel writer Bill Bryson.

A previous chronicler of British life, JB Priestley, had branded it: "A city without charm." To make the insult more stinging, the author of the travelogue English Journey was Bradford born.

But, like compliments, footballing success seemed to elude Bradford. While the English game grew in the great industrial cities of England's north and the midlands, the Yorkshire city had long been the exception.

This was not a Liverpool or a Manchester, nor a Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham or Nottingham. Bradford went 77 years without top-flight football before the club's 1999 uprising.

It was branded a rugby league town but the Bradford Bulls, too, encountered financial problems and were threatened with oblivion. After the textile industry that made it the world's wool capital fell into decline, Bradford became overshadowed by its neighbour, Leeds. Its sporting sides certainly found that to be the case.

Until, out of nowhere, came a cup run. Bradford beat Notts County, Watford and Burton Albion. They then saw off Wigan Athletic and Arsenal on penalties, taking their remarkable run to nine successive shoot-out successes.

They acquired momentum and energised the support. They drew their highest crowd for more than half a century against Arsenal and were distinctly unfortunate not to beat their illustrious visitors in 90 minutes.

Nakhi Wells, the quicksilver striker who has arrived at Bradford from Bermuda, tormented Thomas Vermaelen.

Garry Thompson, long a stalwart of non-league football, scored their goal. Matt Duke, the experienced goalkeeper and testicular cancer survivor, proved the shoot-out hero.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the wrong sort of reaction followed. Bradford have only taken one point from their last three league games.

On Saturday they lost to a Barnet side threatened with relegation from the Football League. Now they face the five-time League Cup winners Aston Villa.

Despite the 60 league places between them, their manager Phil Parkinson warned: "We have to keep the expectations down. We are going to have to play exceptionally well and they are going to have to be right off their game."

Yet, in the fervent atmosphere of Valley Parade, that was what happened against Arsenal. And so, for the first time in a decade, Bradford can dream again.